I read a column this morning by David Brooks who argues America’s problems (what we used to call “social ills”) are a consequence of a shift from governance by aristocracy (think F.D.R.) to what he calls “meritocracy” which means a slavish devotion to individual advancement—read diversity, women’s rights, inclusion, etc. For Brooks the biggest culprit is higher education which has pushed the acquisition of skills and talents per the individual—so thoroughly we can’t govern ourselves. I had to stop reading and rub my scalp. I caught a head cold on the “red eye” from L.A. to Atlanta and I’m souped up on sinus relief tablets which make me hyper-vigilant and paranoid (yes, more than usual) and I thought, “is this sensible?”
Cold pills can’t disguise the silliness of Brooks’ scree. In general I like sentimental conservatism and prefer it to fascism but this is like saying I favor a horse to a camel—the former has beauty even if you don’t like stables; the latter as its name suggests is about deprivation—from camelus, the Greek word kamēlos, and from the Hebrew word gāmāl, which means ‘going without’. I know. I’ve digressed. Its the phenyl-alanine. (BTW the best quote I know about camels comes from Jackie Kennedy who famously said: “a camel makes an elephant feel like a jet plane.”)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Brooks says a concatenation of selfish me-first baby boomers and their spawn live minus the putative virtues of the old time ruling class (think F.D.R.) which means everyone is addled, self-absorbed, and inclined to vote only for short term gain. Jesus! This sounds so good! Such gratifications are a bit like divining—dowsing with a stick you find water and voila you’ve discovered the earth’s soul. All is clear.
If you think America is packed to the rafters with brummagem you’ll likely soon be strolling the back forty with a stick.
Disclosure: I favor ditch witches over Hallmark conservatism. Neo-liberalism has not been driven by open admissions at colleges and universities. Fantasizing about the good old days when noblesse oblige was ubiquitous (F.D.R.) and blaming its collapse on diversity in college admissions is, if not the most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard, pretty damned close to it. (OK. The most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard is that some people are better than others because of how they look.) (The second most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard is that giving the wealthy more money leads to investment in jobs.)
Brooks argues that elites brought us the Viet Nam War but conveniently leaves out elites fought against it and rather successfully (Daniel Ellsberg, Robert Lowell, et. al.)
He maintains selfishness is the singular order of contemporary America but leaves out the role of the GOP as it fostered racial divisiveness and fear from Nixon onward—a dynamic that has ore to do with Trump’s ascendancy than the culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch famously called it.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger