David Brooks, the aggressively moderate swell who writes aggressively moderate columns for The New York Times, is seldom so entertaining as when he gets haughty. It affronts him when people of any other political persuasion but his own make mock of his helpful suggestions on how to put the world right–well, center right, anyway–so he gets on his high horse and pens columns like this one:
The people pushing for gun restrictions have basically done the exact opposite of what I thought was wise. Instead of depolarizing the issue they have massively polarized it. The students from Parkland are being assisted by all the usual hyper-polarizing left-wing groups: Planned Parenthood, Move On and the Women’s March. The rhetoric has been extreme. Marco Rubio has been likened to a mass murderer while the N.R.A. has been called a terrorist organization.
My, my, my. No matter how many cucumber sandwiches we offer, our national Lady Bracknell won’t be assuaged this time. WE HAVE IGNORED HIM, AND HE WILL NOT BE IGNORED!
To dig into this a bit, I’m not aware of too many people likening Marco Rubio to a mass murderer. Few would give him credit for so much guts. People are likening him to various invertebrates and saying he’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, which commits the political sin, in BrooksWorld, of accuracy. As for the N.R.A., I don’t think of them as a terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations murder people in the name of their ideology. The N.R.A. is perfectly content to see people murdered in the name of their ideology. The moral difference isn’t great, but I’m happy to acknowledge it, for whatever it’s worth to them. As for hyper-polarizing left wing groups, none of the ones Brooks listed includes me. (Though they, much like the N.R.A., are composed of lots of ordinary people.) I’m just one of those unaffiliated folks who’d like to go see Black Panther without wondering if some frustrated, entitled prick with more ammo than brain cells is going to come into the theater and blow my head off as his last gesture against a world he hates. There are a lot of us. A lot more than the N.R.A.’s membership lists can boast, I’ll warrant.
Yet I have to admit that something bigger is going on. 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.
Is Brooks about to admit that another human being knows something about the human condition that he doesn’t? Should I get my hopes up, or is this like when Trump holds one of those televised bipartisan meetings where he tries to sound reasonable, only to turn around and fuck everything up a few hours or days later? My money’s on the latter.
Two things have fundamentally changed the landscape. First, over the past two years conservatives have self-marginalized. In supporting Donald Trump they have tied themselves to a man whose racial prejudices, sexual behavior and personal morality put him beyond the pale of decent society.
Decent society does not include CPAC or the Republican Party, but that was true long before Trump showed up. Trump’s awful, David, but he didn’t make your party awful.
Second, progressives are getting better and more aggressive at silencing dissenting behavior. All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses.
Ah, excellent. Brooks must find a way to say both sides are equally problematic, so he goes to the right’s standby issue. In one case, we have a rancid, racist, backward movement that controls one of the country’s two major political parties, which means that it’s hard to avoid putting them in charge of the vast powers of the government at least some of the time. In the other case, we have students who try, and usually fail, to get Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro banned from campus. Sometimes they show up to their events and say rude things to them. A little tip, here, David. Few of us have ever set foot on elite campuses, and even fewer are affected by what’s happening on them now. A lot more of us have to live and work every day in the United States.
Oh, by the way, what formerly legitimate opinions are now deemed beyond the pale?
There are a number of formerly popular ideas that can now end your career: the belief that men and women have inherent psychological differences, the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, opposition to affirmative action.
I guess in the first instance, Brooks is talking about James Damore, the Google guy who misused and misunderstood the science of gender differences, and then kept doubling down and being a colossal dick about it until he was, quite legitimately, fired for being an ill-informed, misogynist dick. (I guess it shocked Damore to discover that colossal dicks aren’t in a protected class.) The second belief, though certainly bound to make you unpopular in a lot of places, is practically a job requirement to teach at many religiously-affiliated schools. As for the third, that belief probably won’t end your career on campus, and even if it did, you could always join Charles Murray in the right-wing think tank world, where billionaires will pay you to write bitter screeds about how intolerant the academic world is. If that’s how a career ends, it’s a pretty soft death.
But semi-seriously, David, ideas come and go, waxing and waning in popularity. The thing about the university world is ideas have to keep passing tests to stay popular. Some ideas–life forms evolve through natural selection, gravity bends spacetime–keep beating their competition and stay. Others rise in popularity only to be supplanted or debunked. And some ideas go away because the people they hurt finally gain just enough power in the world to say, “Stop that. It hurts” and have someone listen. To expect ideas to retain stable, enduring popularity forever, just because, is foolish. The world, David, is allowed to move on and leave your pet notions behind. It’s called life.
What’s happening today is that certain ideas about gun rights, and maybe gun ownership itself, are being cast in the realm of the morally illegitimate and socially unacceptable.
It must be disappointing for gun nuts, after forty years of stacking the courts with right wingers who believe that the only unlimited constitutional right lies in the second clause of the Second Amendment’s single sentence, to discover that the fruits of their labor got a lot of people killed and pissed everybody else off, but again, that’s life. Maybe if they’d been less absolutist about asserting their right to carry military hardware around so they can dream dreams of one day fightin’ big gummint, we could’ve come to an understanding. Ah, well.
Continued school shootings could be just the thing that persuades the mainstream that conservatism is vulgar and socially illegitimate, somewhere between smoking and segregationism. If that kind of total victory is on offer for progressives, why should they take my advice and tone things down for the sake of a few small gun laws? The big prize here is not gun laws. It’s winning the culture war, with the gunfight as the final battle.
You’re quite right. Why should we? When we fought smoking, it wasn’t just because we didn’t like smoke. It was because people were dying horrible, preventable deaths while the cigarette manufacturers juiced their product to make sure there’d be more addicts to replace them and keep them hooked. When we fought segregation, we did so because it was one of our nation’s great crimes, and the people backing it were criminals, thieves, rapists, and murderers.
Though a direct comparison is hazardous, the Klan and the N.R.A. do have some things in common. Once upon time, the Klan, like the N.R.A. now, was a mainstream organization in American life. 6 million people belonged to the Klan at the height of its power in the mid 1920s. Politicians were members, many because they wanted to be, others because they felt they had to be. They had governors, legislators, members of Congress, and a Supreme Court justice among their number. Why did those numbers shrink? In part it was the Klan’s own behavior. The D.C. Stephenson case exposed the Klan’s corruption and its hypocritical claims of defending white womanhood. But it part it was because the drift of the 20th century was away from the Klan. Its formerly popular ideas of white supremacy backed up with violence became more abhorrent with each passing generation. People saw the simple, moral legitimacy of the Civil Rights struggle set against the bigoted moral bankruptcy of segregation and turned away from the Klan. Klansmen are no longer socially acceptable, except among Trumpists. They should never be socially acceptable again.
If the N.R.A. chooses to go down the path of the Klan, threatening those who question them while spreading paranoia and hatred, they’ll lose. Over time, they’ll bleed members who either age out and die off or just tire of the extreme rhetoric and lies, like millions of ex-Klansmen did. Movements against them will grow and gain confidence. Politicians will walk away, or lose their seats, and in the end, the N.R.A. will be as the Klan is, a small collection of bigoted, angry malcontents, watching old vids of Charleton Heston saying “From my cold dead hand” the way Klansmen watch their DVDs of Birth of a Nation (not the new one) and yearn for a return to the glorious past.
If that’s their fate, it doesn’t bother me a bit.
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.
Uh-huh. You know, something, David, last month was Black History Month. I’m not sure you keep track of that, but during that month, one of the things that people like to do is read Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. In it, Martin Luther King addressed the David Brookses of his era who thought his protests were upsetting the delicate sensibilities of white southerners. I’ve never read their remarks to him, but I’m guessing they said something like what you’re saying here, or what you said in your column two weeks ago about how “It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.”
David, the world’s a better, more just place, Martin Luther King ignored them. And so, even though I know it twists your shorts, I think it’s best if Parkland’s students, and the movement they’ve started, ignore the living fuck out of you.