Tuesday, September 29, 2009

David Brooks Ends the Culture Wars, or Does He? New Neocon Meme about Self Restraint

As neoconservative political and religious commentators cast about these days for some new theoretical center to ground a badly faltering conservative movement in the U.S., they seem to be floating a rhetorical trial balloon. And what they're suggesting has me worried.

David Brooks pushes the emerging new center of neocon political analysis in an article at New York Times today entitled “The Next Culture War.” Brooks’s article is an obvious move on the part of a leading neocon spokesman to shift the emphasis of American neocon political analysis and strategy from hot-button culture-war issues like same-sex marriage to economic issues.

On the face of it, that would be a welcome move, if the economic presuppositions being promoted by this move had anything to do with recognizing and decrying the deleterious (and immoral) consequences of an economic system in which the vast majority of wealth is owned by a tiny minority of people. Where the new neocon analysis appears to be headed, instead, is in the direction of blaming the large number of us who don’t share in that wealth for our lack of self-restraint and ability to defer gratification.

We’re the reason for the economic and cultural mess the U.S. is in, it seems. Not the lords of Wall Street and their enablers in the federal government.

Brooks’s piece is interesting to read as an attempt to re-ground key neocon narratives about moral decay in economic analysis. Brooks takes terms that neoconservatives have enjoyed using in recent decades to discuss sexual morality and applies them to the economic sphere—something neoconservatives have been hesitant to do, because talking about morality in the economic sector will inevitably lead to questions about the immorality of systems that leave the market free to do whatever it wants even when it tramples on have nots to enrich haves.

Brooks announces that we need a “values shift” now, a “moral and cultural movement,” even a “moral revival” to get us back on the right track economically and culturally. And where should that revival look for its core values? It should, Brooks proposes, remember the “Calvinist restraint” that built this nation and its wealth—the ethic of hard work and self-denial that urged sober laboring people to defer gratification as they struggled to make life better for their children. The new “moral revival” Brooks urges will “champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who can argue with hard work, self-denial, and delayed gratification, especially when we apply those standards not only to the “small” but to the “large”?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s where this analysis is really headed—that is, I seriously doubt that this is a call for a moral revival in American culture that will hold the grossly wealthy accountable for their actions in any effective sense. I suspect that this analysis is really a way of allowing the grossly wealthy to celebrate their wealth (earned through self-restraint and hard work, it goes without saying), while shifting the blame for our current economic malaise to the millions of Americans who are stung by the economic downturn. This analysis is implicitly telling all the rest of us, the non-rich, that we wouldn’t find ourselves in embarrassing circumstances now, if we had practiced good old Calvinist restraint and had delayed gratification as consumers when the bubble was developing.

The problem is, you see, government. It was government that let us get into this mess by, well, being government. And by doing what government does, trying to mitigate the consequences of economic disparity and to form safety nets for those at the bottom. Brooks argues that Calvinist restraint worked as a key cultural force in the golden ages of pre-government intervention, when people knew that they’d better scrimp and work hard, by golly, because no one was going to bail them out: “Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.”

And so this new meme is, in the final analysis, a nasty little political-religious text about the dangers of government intervention and econonmic restraint (on the rich and powerful), and the blessings of personal restraint and delayed gratification (for the middle classes and the poor). It is an old trope that has run through our nation’s rhetoric from its foundations, one with Puritan roots, which imagines the wealthy as favored by God and everyone else as under God’s curse.

This is not, as I say, a call to moral analysis of our economic life that will in any way touch on the real issues that any sound moral analysis of economic life has to touch on, if it is to be either accurate or grounded in core moral values of most communities of faith. Sound moral analysis would refrain from blaming the vast majority of Americans who are the victims of the current economic downturn for an economic situation that originates in the greed and lack of self-restraint of our economic movers and shakers—and in the malfeasance of political leaders who enable that immoral behavior.

Sound moral analysis would note that, as the middle and lower classes bear the brunt of the current recession, the wealthy elites that have brought us to this point are still making off like bandits (and see John Aravosis at Americablog on this point). Even as Brooks writes about the need for a renewal of Calvinist self-restraint in our culture, the greed of those at the top of the economic pyramid continues without any boundaries at all, defiantly proud of its lack of restraints or curbs.

The meme Brooks is promoting does not in any significant way move beyond the neoconservative moral analysis that got us into this economic mess in the first place, with its narrow, blinkered focus on pelvic issues as the center of moral analysis and its refusal to apply moral analysis of any sort to the economic realm, and especially to the growing economic disparity created by the free market neoconservative political and religious thinkers champion. As Sarah Posner reminded us recently, though the tea-party focus on big government as the enemy and the waning interest of the culture at large in same-sex marriage as the defining moral problem of our time might appear to portend a shift to a post-culture war politics centered solely on economic issues, we may be seeing, instead, the convergence of traditional culture-war politics and tea-party attacks on government restraints on the market. Rather than eclipse culture-war politics, the analysis Brooks is promoting simply enfolds the presuppositions of religious-right culture warriors into a bogus post-culture war analysis of the political and economic sphere.

In fact, the rhetoric Brooks is promoting—back to self-restraint and delayed gratification—has been floating around for some time now on many blogs discussing same-sex marriage and the prop 8 battle in California. A significant meme that has emerged in these discussions is that prop 8 passed because affluent white gays do not know how to delay gratification and wait for rights like marriage, whereas people of color, gay and straight, understand that rights don’t fall from trees. One has to work and wait for rights, something affluent gay folks don’t understand—or so this meme goes. Because affluent white gays do not understand this, they have failed to understand the cultural disaffection between their community and communities of color, and have failed to build bridges with communities of color.

This meme is being actively promoted by the religious right as yet another way to drive a wedge between the gay community and communities of color. And it is precisely the same meme—a meme about delayed gratification and hard work and Calvinist restraint—that Brooks and other neocon spokespersons who want to declare the end of the culture war are pushing, as they call for a shift in emphasis from traditional culture-war moral analysis to a new moral analysis of the economic sphere, centered on questions of self restraint.

Far from portending the end of the culture wars and the influence of the religious right in our political and economic life, this new trope fuses traditional culture-war presuppositions with a new, bogus post-culture war economic analysis. In doing so, it continues the very culture wars it claims to eclipse. This is a dangerous—and fundamentally dishonest—new rhetorical game for neoconservatives to be playing, one that deserves the attention and critique of anyone interested in real moral analysis of our economic life, as well as in fair-minded and ethically enlightened analysis of same-sex marriage.