“Decent Society” Really Isn’t


David Brooks’s New York Times column, posted online March 1, has gotten a lot of attention on the Right side of America.  With an unsettling objectivity, he observes:

It could be that progressives understood something I didn’t.  It could be that you can win more important victories through an aggressive cultural crusade than you can through legislation.  Progressives could be on the verge of delegitimizing their foes, on guns but also much else, rendering them untouchable for anybody who wants to stay in polite society.  That would produce social changes far vaster than limiting assault rifles.

It’s all about being “aggressive,” “silencing dissenting behavior,” casting people as “not morally worthy,” and “the idea is to stigmatize.”  Amazingly… stunningly… condemnably, Brooks never states the obvious:  This is wrong!  Yeah, maybe you really can win a chess tournament by beating up your most competent opponent in the parking lot, but it’s wrong.  The best Brooks can do is warn that the bully’s victim might go out and make some friends who have a whole different category of toughness:

The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories.  It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation.  Illiberalism breeds illiberalism.  Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.

Conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power.  Even today, voters trust Republicans on the gun issue more than Democrats.  If you exile 40 percent of the country from respectable society they will mount a political backlash that will make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson.

One cannot emphasize enough how unsettling is this purely pragmatic tone, because it shows how euphemistic are terms like “polite society.”  How polite could the society be if it lacks the refinement to be persuaded by the plain assertion that exiling 40% of the country is wrong.  It’s snobby, totalitarian thuggishness.  The “respectability” of such a class is fake, as if we’ve come out the other end of post-modernism at last.  Elite art has spent decades tearing apart the “phonies” of the bourgeoisie, and now that their ideological movement feels itself in power, the plot’s twist turns out to be that they actually believe that everybody is phony, and if that’s the case, well, they might as well enjoy their power without apology.

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For his part, Rod Dreher (whose American Conservative blog has become something of a meeting ground for the dispossessed) implicitly accepts Brooks’s premise about “decent society” — that loss of access to it is something terrible.  He takes that attitude despite evidence of what “decent society” is like, such as this anecdote:

The black NYU undergraduate who got two cafeteria workers fired because she took the menu as an act of racist aggression hardly qualifies as a commissar sending dissenters to the gulag. But that incident is certainly on the spectrum. Imagine that: two people are out of a job now, and have their careers tainted by accusations of racism, simply because they were trying to show sensitivity to black students, but one black student was offended, and the gutless university administration preferred to sack those workers than to be accused by anybody of complicity in their horrible racist act of serving ribs and collard greens. All it takes is an accusation from one of the privileged — like Nia Harris, the NYU undergrad — to destroy a man’s career, even over something as stupid as cafeteria food.

Note well: the people running the cafeteria had consulted black co-workers about what they should serve to honor black history. But they hadn’t asked the right kind of black people, apparently. Working-class black people don’t count. You have to ask a bourgeois black person, because they are the kind that have the power and the desire to get you fired. And they have that power because spineless apparatchiks like NYU president Andrew Hamilton kowtow to these privileged children.

For my money, Andrew Klavan’s attitude is better.  In a recent podcast, he rejected the notion that the elite get to decide who wins the culture war.  Sure, the Left will cause all kinds of harm as it strives for dominance, but in the end, he asks, who will win — the dour censors of the Left, or the boisterous Right, with its fun and humor and rebelliousness and, above all, sense of meaning?  My money is on the latter.

But if the measure is who will accept whom, the more important question is with whom you’d rather hang out even before the war is over.  Given my broad experience skipping from the office to the construction site, I find the decision not difficult at all.  Give me the unrefined.

As Brooks emphasizes (and seems to admire) the Left is winning by being more deliberate and determined and more willing to exclude.  Most folks just want to get along in their lives, so they won’t want to pick a side if they can avoid it, leaving the side that insists on a side with an advantage.

The Right should not lose sight of the fact that the merciless intolerance of the progressives is wrong, and we shouldn’t emulate it.  So as an alternative, let’s carry on being who we are, even if it means making the decision not to care what “polite society” thinks of us.  They’re frauds, anyway.  Let’s enjoy our freedom without apology, because that’s where power ultimately lies.  If they seek to take your job, go where they are not.  If they refuse to give audience to your voice, direct it to others.  Determine what you believe to be right and good and never bow to petty tyrants.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    Brooks, the faux conservative NYT housepet.
    Didn’t we have a prequel to all this in Weimar Germany?
    Wonder how that all turned out…

  • Christopher C. Reed

    ” never bow to petty tyrants”
    Easy to say when it’s not your job at stake.
    Not everyone is William Tell.