Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Individualistic cosmopolitans vs. rooted nationalists

That, according to (individualistic cosmopolitan?) David Brooks, is the new fault line in the culture war. Education, he argues, turns us into individualistic cosmopolitans (except, I guess, for when it doesn’t). Here’s the core of his argument:

Liberal members of the educated class celebrated the cultural individualism of the 1960s. Conservative members celebrated the economic individualism of the 1980s. But they all celebrated individualism. They all valued diversity and embraced a sense of national identity that rested on openness and global integration.


This cultural offensive created a silent backlash among people who were not so enamored of rampant individualism, and who were worried that all this diversity would destroy the ancient ties of community and social solidarity. Members of this class came to feel that America’s identity and culture were under threat from people who didn’t understand what made America united and distinct.

He implies that "people...not so enamored of rampant individualism" are, on the whole, not as well educated as their cosmopolitan opponents, who define "the cultural mainstream" (except, of course, where they don’t). As a sheer descriptive matter, he may be right about the differences in level of education, but one can obviously worry about the excesses of individualism and have a concern for national identity and solidarity without being marginalized by one’s lack of educashun. And one can reasonably wonder whether an education that simply "liberates" from moral, communal, and national concerns (and, it goes without saying, the ways in which religion ties into these) is serving the nation’s good or, indeed, really deserves to be called an education. To the degree that the late Richard Rorty is the spokesman for the educated cosmopolitans (as Brooks anoints him), we see the end, not only of community and nation (replaced by ironic quasi-participation in contingent solidarity), but also of serious engagement with our traditions or with the great questions to which they provided answers. This isn’t education, but rather its death.

Of course, Brooks isn’t just reflecting on this new front in the cultural conflict in an abstract way, he’s framing our consideration of the immigration debate, telling those who disagree with him that the current deal is "the best compromise they will get." So says the representative of "the cultural mainstream" about a bill that, he concedes, is supported by roughly 1/3 of the country.

Discussions - 17 Comments

Is being educated really the problem or is it what one was educated about the true issue?

Good post, well said, Joe. Does Brooks allude to Sam Huntington's recent book? Brooks thesis reminds very much of Huntington's. On cosmopolitian individualism one must read, of course, Pierre Manent: its greatest philosophical critic today.

I think Brooks is very much correct in his analysis though that doesn't mean it's a good thing. There are also exceptions. With more degrees I get, I am moving to smaller and smaller towns to get away from big cities. It's not so much as the traffic, noise, and stink of urine in the streets (though it is that), it's the values of all those cosmopolitans which drive me back as soon as possible to the family-oriented enclave in which people care about each other and know each other.

Is anyone besides me just a little weary of David Brooks? He reminds me of a phrenologist, forever groping the nation's skull and divining its deep-down motives. His brand of untestable social "science" is just a few rungs up the ladder from global warming, which is at the very bottom.

Only in America could Brooks be considered the "conservative" columnist of a major national newspaper. The argument he makes here is really no different than the argument I heard ad nauseum from my former liberal/Rawlsian/cosmopolitan colleagues at Princeton. They would regularly refer to "flyover country" without the slightest twinge of hesitation or reflection, and argue that all that was needed to reform those backward Red Staters and Bibler thumpers was a good dose of education - by which they meant, of course, liberation from all particularly loyalties and traditions. I once heard a colleague say, "Now that Rawls has shown us what justice is, why can't we simply enforce it?"

Here's a question for my conservative friends, however: if we are so conscious of and sympathetic toward the existence of blowback from our Red State compatriots against the encroachments of liberal elites, can we hold ourselves to be free of implication within a broader American assault on the world's cultures? Are we really so free of the stain of liberal imperialism, hard and soft? Discuss among yourselves.

Paul,

You're right. Brooks needs to read, and I need to finish, Manent.

Good question, Pat, at the end of a good - if sad - post. For those who read Pierre Manent's A World beyond Politics?, especially (but not solely) his forword to the American translation, one would see a nuanced appreciation and critique of America's distinctive imperial role in the world today. Jim Ceaser will highlight that important aspect of Pierre's book in the upcoming Claremont Review of Books. By why read Manent? One can also read Dan Mahoney's measured critique of Bush administration foreign policy. But you, no doubt, refer not only to that but to our commercial imperium/emporium status. No one I know, denies our soft and hard hegemony, its ambiguous consequences, and the need for minimizing-evils, prudent management of same. Nor that the current administration hasn't mismanaged many things and thus eroded lots of good will toward America. Perhaps we could agree that one of the political parties needs to harness the populus and help make them more aware of and responsible about America's distinctive status and influence in/on the world. Do you think the Dems are more likely than the Reps to do so? (I would note that I find all this congenial because it attaches the populus and parties to the salient fact of America's nation-state/new form of imperium status. It's not just about face-to-face communities.)

Along similar lines as Patrick Deneen, the argument reminds me of my faculty colleagues who put articles on their departmental bulletin boards explaining the dearth of conservative academics by the fact that conservatives are not simply UNeducated but DISinterested in education--that is, religious! And patriotic of course. Paul's right, it is much like Huntington's argument in WHO ARE WE?, except he leaves out the business cosmoplites. Plus, David seems more the transnationalist, as Joe suggests. Dale's point reminds us of home schooling, and the different sort of education to citizenship that often occurs there. The whole article is snotty, ignoring, well, folks like many of us. Question for Patrick: Aren't the people in flyover country really fundamentally less imperial than the cosmopolites, both intellectual and corporate? Less likely to support humanitarian wars and uncomfortable with the super-Wilsonianism with which Bush defends what is purportedly a defensive war? Though unwilling to go over to the Dems because they don't give reason to believe they value the nation or the constitutional form enough to defend it. Or do you think the "national interest" is framed at bottom too imperially? I think Dan Mahoney's article that has been discussed below is much help here.

It comes down to this. "Education" is not necessarily good education. If it's not, it will tend to draw people away from common sense and the essentials of civilization, which are more apparent to people who lead average lives than to most of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

In other words, education is a form of indoctrination and it is sad that our educational tracts for our national leaders (something, by the way, that we have informally and, in my opinion, extremely anti-American resembling a training industry for an American aristrocry of sorts) teaches that America as it is today should be more like Europe or Cuba or Russia or the old USSR. Now, may be I am mistaken in this regards, but when you have a large amount of people graduating from these places not only voicing these views, but working on making them reality, then you have to wonder what the heck is being taught.

Patrick,

Good set of questions. I'm not convinced that an America or a West that presented a more authentically Christian or Catholic face to that part of the world more inclined violently to resent the military or economic versions of our secular universalism would be regarded with any greater forebearance.

Say what?

Paul - Well said, and I don't see either party articulating even the awareness of the the domestic version of this problem, much less the international. Most of the candidates of both parties more or less agree with Brooks, I suspect (let's face it, they come from the very elite he is talking about). Inasmuch as the Presidency is now the caretaker of the imperium/emporium, this is not surprising, but as Mr. Jeffrey rightly points out, a gap has long existed and is widening between the elite view of American mission (military might and economic growth, everywhere) and the hick desire to look homeward. Can the homespun wisdom of ordinary folk correct the hubris of our elites, as Christopher Lasch thought? Probably wishful thinking: at this point, ordinary folk are just as implicated in the imperium/emporium, equally addicted to their SUVs and plastic gimcracks as the elites are to the stock market returns that come from selling all that garbage. Are any of the candidates willing or even capable of saying that self-governance will require governance of our appetites? I'm doubting it.


Joe asks if extending a Christian or Catholic face abroad will assauge the hatred that much of the world directs toward us. I think it's more a matter of actually living like Christians, which includes governance of libido dominandi, rather than hoping a national display of piety will impress.

Patrick,

Fair enough, but what about trying to make disciples of the nations (by means other than the Navy SEALS)?

Back to Patrick Deneen's Comment 13, your doubts about Lasch's "wishful thinking" made me think of one of Pierre Manent's most brilliant insights in A WORLD BEYOND POLITICS? (discussed at length I think by Paul in an article I haven't yet read), working out the implications of modern representation, and the gap between society and its representatives, both partisan and elite. It's almost as if liberal democracy reserves "citizenship" to the representatives, or in the end and more deeply to the experts and emporium providers. I think many if not a majority of Americans would embrace a Deneen-like approach to post-modernity if there were representatives not in thrall to the imperium/emporium (a lovely compound noun, by the way--I've got to remember it). They want a home, though homeless. They'd be happier with less choice (pace George Will). And they'd pay the price of less affluence. I'm struck in thinking about FDR recently that people I knew when I was young treasured memories of him when he insipred them in the grip of deprivation, and later in the sacrifice of war. But no such feelings for the internationalism he bequeathed us as a FP paradigm.

With respect to Paul's trifecta message, I have a provocation: The particular for Catholicism is the papacy. The particular for Protestantism is the individual, each one. The "Church" is not a particular since it is universal. Churches are not ultimately particular because they exist by consent not by command. Also, does Manent's nation contain the universal church? In what sense?

Apologies for the multi-postings (I'm technologically challenged to begin with, I was at another terminal, ... .)

A quickie to RJ's "provocation": I was trying to be ecumenical (pun intended). I.e., I wanted to span Catholic-Protestant divides; I think most orthodox Christians can acknowledged that the Founder of Christianity wanted his disciples "to be one ..." (you can fill in the quotation), but the Acts of the Apostles, and the New Testament as a whole, clearly shows that individual churches are real, and essential to the reality of the Church as the body of Christ. We Christians disagree, of course, on the nature of that unity-in-diversity, but we have to acknowledge Christian particularity-cum-universality.

But my main point was to cast our discussions and debates over "various local connections and (or: versus) various 'universals' - including imperia" in a complex, but I think implied by us all and appropriate theoretical framework. And to suggest it's a matter of thoughtful combination (or "conjugation") and plausible emphasis (e.g., if localities are under assault or erosion, talk them up!).

Perhaps more later.

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