I have become interested in the spiritual and emotional crisis being experienced by a certain strain of moderate conservative “public intellectual.”
The crisis is articulated by Andrew Sullivan in a New York Magazine essay on “coping with Trump.”
Sullivan declares, “There are moments when everything I have come to believe in -- reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation -- seem as if they are in eclipse.”
Along with Sullivan, I would add Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens, and of course David Brooks to the list of public intellectuals in the midst of this public crisis. The commonalities among this group are obvious: their prominent platforms, their lives starting from the pole position, a “moderate” conservatism rooted in Enlightenment (rational) values infused with religious faith, and of course they’re all strongly opposed to Donald Trump and “Trumpism.”
“Civility” is paramount, a concept which perhaps found its ne plus ultra in a recent David Brooks column on debating gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shootings, in which he cautioned the country must “defer” to “red states.” “Respect first, then gun control.”
A day after Brooks’ column, Qunnipiac University released a national poll in which record high numbers of voters supported “stricter gun laws,” including a majority of gun owners, and also including 62-35% support among white voters with no college degree.
Universal background checks are supported by 97-2% among respondents. Sixty-seven percent support a nationwide ban on assault weapons. Eighty-three percent support mandatory waiting periods for all guns.
Who is left to defer to on these particular proposals? In this light, Brooks’s faith in civility looks more like a fetish.
What’s the saying? A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality?
What’s happening as these neoconservatives are themselves mugged by Trumpism? Why do they seem so unmoored, so out of touch and ineffectual?
What these gentlemen are experiencing is the limits of their world view. This is particularly distressing to them as this world view has afforded them status and influence, but it is clear they are now largely irrelevant.
That which could not prevent the rise of Trumpism, surely cannot defeat it. They know this better than anyone.
I am not sure why these men have maintained their faith in their world view for so long. Trumpism is merely an unmasking of omnipresent forces. In 1987, William F. Buckley Jr., a man who these men would likely consider an intellectual forbearer, proposed in the New York Times to tattoo all HIV+ individuals on “the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”
Buckley arrived at this conclusion through a very sober, rational discussion of the issue, which studiously argues for a stripping of humanity from his fellow citizens.
He sure was polite about it, though.
These men who see themselves as guardians of a grand intellectual tradition are like Geraldo opening Capone’s vault and finding nothing inside.
They are, in short, afraid. They are afraid of disorder, and they are afraid of losing their status. Trump has exposed their limits. These men claim to want to put the Humpty Dumpty of our culture back together, but the only tool they’re prepared to wield is a hammer, and because Trump and Trumpism are utterly immune to their influence, they instead smash at the less powerful.
Even though a single “fake news” tweet from President Trump does far more damage to the First Amendment than anything else, they take on college students and decry creeping “illiberalism” in order to once again feel their influence.
As the #metoo movement becomes genuinely threatening of an established order which it turns out has never been too orderly, they rally to stuff the genie back in the bottle.
They write columns about how easily “illiberal” readers are “triggered” by opinions they don’t like, and then declare that getting criticized on Twitter is beyond the pale.
And they must accept increasingly strange bedfellows like Jordan Peterson, who has turned a twisted version of Enlightenment rationality into a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-intellectual quasi-cult divorced from recognizable, observable truth. David Brooks somehow identifies Peterson as offering an “idealistic way,” managing to confuse an obvious grift with idealism. Brooks even says Peterson reminds him of a “young” Buckley. David Brooks cannot be Trumpist because he is civil and sober, and yet, he is willing to create an alternate reality elevating Peterson to protect his belief system.
Who does this remind us of?
These men are mostly advocating against their own irrelevance. These are figures who still pull the most powerful levers of institutional power and yet are finding themselves not only ineffectual but now subject to “rudeness” and scorn. In their minds, surely something has gone wrong.
Unfortunately, these public intellectuals are, by their own admission, ill-equipped to understand what ails us, or even what ails themselves.
They fear “radicalization” as the response to Trump, and spend more time guarding against this strawman than facing up to the man and movement they believe to be an existential threat.
But radicalization is neither a necessary, nor I believe likely, antidote to Trump.
Like Sullivan, I believe in “reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation,” but I don’t think these things need to be in eclipse. We merely need a different way of living these values than what these men propose with their emphasis on civility, and their relentless belief in their own probity.
In turbulent times, as these surely are, we must lead with our “witnessing,” rather than our “thinking.”
Paul Thomas of Furman University illustrates this beautifully in an essay on Steven Pinker, who believes his status as an accomplished thinker in one realm trumps deep consideration and knowledge when tackling subjects outside of his expertise. Pinker, like the moderate conservative men in crisis, see themselves as an elect, except increasingly, their constituency is confined to each other.
Thomas captures the essence of a different with his title, “Well, It’s Complicated: How to Stop Living by What You Think and Start Living by What You Know.” Thomas models a process he himself undergoes in thinking about gun violence that is essentially, “check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
Thomas asks: What do I know? How do I know it? And most importantly: What don’t I know? as a process for uncovering truths. It is a process scholars should be comfortable and familiar with.
In contrast to Sullivan, Brooks, Douthat, Stephens, I am thinking about writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on race, Rebecca Traister, writing on feminism and #metoo, and Roxane Gay, writing on all of the above. These are writers whose work is first grounded in witnessing before moving on to the thinking. They are making arguments for sure, but there is a difference between writers who seek to win an argument, as the men above invariably do, often resorting to tendentious reasoning and logical fallacy, and those who seek to increase audience comprehension through their witnessing.
It is not coincidental that the most common criticism of Coates, Traister, Gay – a criticism often leveled by these moderate conservative men – is that they are too “pessimistic.” Brooks, in an open letter to Coates, criticizes Coates for his “excessive realism.” I’m not sure we could conjure clearer evidence of David Brooks’s affirmative choice to live inside a fantasy. Given our present events, who is seeing the world more clearly, and who is living in a prison of their own construction?
There are figures in academia, or who are academic adjacent who embody these same values. I’m thinking of people whose work I admire and seek to emulate: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Audrey Watters, and Kelly Baker.
Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of the For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, is rooted in having been a participant in the affected communities, including as a recruiter for for-profit colleges. She took her witnessing and combined it with deep scholarship to arrive at, dare I say it, truths, often uncomfortable ones.
Watters is a chronicler of education technology, starting with its history and its philosophies, but also including closely observing the corporations and venture capitalists who fuel today’s movements, noting patterns, providing perspective. This allows her to be a conscience which the inside of the industry seems to lack.
And Kelly Baker, in Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces serves as a witness to her own life as she transitioned out of academia, and in so doing reveals many, deeply complicated truths. I've returned to it recently as I re-wrestle with some of my own troubles with transitioning out of teaching.
Is it accidental that these writers come from traditionally marginalized groups while the gentlemen who seek to hold on to their places of preeminence do not? I don’t think so.
We have many writers and thinkers who are capable of revealing how we may not only cope with Trump, but find a way to move past him. They just aren’t the usual suspects.
The question is whether or not these men and those like them maintain the capacity to listen.