Dumb quote of the day--think inside the box edition

>> Thursday, February 09, 2012

We can all theorize why the intense desire for change has so far produced relatively few coherent recipes for change. Maybe people today are simply too deferential. Raised to get college recommendations, maybe they lack the oppositional mentality necessary for revolt. Maybe people are too distracted.

My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition.
-David Brooks,
"How To Fight The Man",
The New York Times, February 2nd, 2012

So, Brooks goes on to say that leftists ought to crib from Marx (I'm pretty sure he means Karl, but Groucho would suit me fine), libertarians from the Austrian School (he specifies Hayek and von Mises, but I think they'd do better citing Gibson and Miller... oh, wait, that's the Australian school, my bad), and various spiritual movements riff from... various spiritual movements. Well, okay, then. I mean, none of that is per se stupid. Yeah, leftists ought to have some kind of appreciation of Marx and everybody should know and respect who runs Bartertown.

What's stupid about it is that Brooks seems to completely miscomprehend what "Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview" actually means and has always meant: it's never meant, "be an ignorant asshat and make it up as you go along," it's always been assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the independent thinker would actually assemble and correlate data, including what other people have thought about the subject.

I think I need to backtrack a little: Brooks actually starts his column talking about some kid named Jefferson Bethke who apparently made what is described as a silly, heartfelt, and wholly inaccurate YouTube video titled, "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus". I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on it. But Brooks recounts how Bethke posted this video, how he found himself bearing the brunt of forceful and thorough critiques from various parties, and how, as a result, he changed his mind.

Now, Brooks takes this story--and this is a big part of what makes his whole column one big dumb quotathon--and runs with the idea that if this kid had just rummaged through the past and regurgitated whatever he gobbled down, he would have never had to eat his words in public. Expanding on this, Brooks then... enh... well, uh... okay, here's another reason his whole column is a BDQ: he doesn't so much extrapolate from this one kid's theological evolution to a larger point so much as he hops from the kid getting schooled to some kind of point about how contemporary protest movements need to present some kind of alternative, not just griping (a point it's hard to disagree with and I think is so self-evident and obvious it hardly merits a Twitter comment anymore, much less a whole NYT op-ed).

Let's go back to the part before Brooks gets on his rocket-powered hog and ramps the Grand Canyon. Where were we? Ah, yes: Brooks "runs with the idea that if this kid had just rummaged through the past and regurgitated whatever he gobbled down, he would have never had to eat his words in public," is what I just wrote. Yes, well: I guess that's one way you can take in the whole affair. An alternative, of course, is that the kid did exactly what open-minded, independent thinkers ought to do; he presented an argument (granted, one he apparently hadn't put a lot of thought into), listened to new evidence submitted in rebuttal, and changed his mind.

What Brooks is saying might really be summed up as: "If the kid had been better indoctrinated in some kind of dogma to begin with, he wouldn't have had to think as much about what he was saying and wouldn't have had to retract his prior brain fartings." You would have to be a constipated thinker--perhaps that should be in quotes, "thinker", so-called--to conceive of this as a good thing. You'd have to be particularly and peculiarly twisted, as well, to go even further than that and extrapolate "what's wrong with kids these days" from an example of what sounds like somebody demonstrating that he possesses a receptive and flexible mind in a manner that is charming, gracious and humble. (To be fair, Brooks even describes him similarly--"Bethke responded in a way that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character"--before adding, "He also basically folded," as if admitting you were wrong is ever a bad thing.)

You know, even when Brooks says something smart, he can't help saying something stupid. This penultimate paragraph would have been an excellent short blog or Facebook post:

If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain--then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.

Isn't that nice? And true? If only he'd stopped there; instead, his ultimate paragraph reads:

Effective rebellion isn't just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.

Wait, what? If Brooks meant to say, "Effective rebellion isn't just ranting about stuff that bugs you, it also means offering solutions," okay, we agree; but it's clear from the context that Brooks is saying rebels need their own substitute dogma, which is a ridiculously conservative thing to say in the most intellectually pejorative sense of the word. I.e., not "conservative" as in "ideologically right-wing", whatever that entails, or "conservative" in the sense of "traditional", but "conservative" in the sense of stubbornly rejecting innovation and refusing to consider novelty on the grounds that innovation and novelty are bad per se. As for authorities and institutions: Brooks is potentially right that they aren't inherently bad things; what authorities and institutions are, actually, are tools, to be evaluated, used and disposed of by craftsmen according to fitness and purpose. A good authority or institution is to be embraced, while one that is no longer good for a purpose is rejected, and the tool is never to be picked up at all merely for the sake of having it in one's hand so one can say, "Yes, but I have a tool."


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