David Brooks gets U.S. history and the cultural effect of the pandemic wrong

Here is how David Brooks begins his May 21 column for the New York Times:

I was an American history major in college, back in the 1980s.

I’ll be honest with you. I thrilled to the way the American story was told back then. To immigrate to America was to join the luckiest and greatest nation in history. . . .

To be born American was to be born to a glorious destiny. We were the nation of the future, the vanguard of justice, the last best hope of mankind. . .To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, “Self-Reliance.”

To be born American was to bow down to no one, to say: I’m no better than anyone else, but nobody’s better than me. Tocqueville wrote about the equality of condition he found in America; no one putting on airs over anyone else. In 1981, Samuel Huntington wrote that American creed was built around a suspicion of authority and a fervent rejection of hierarchy: “The essence of egalitarianism is rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another.”. . .

Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide.

Is Brooks really being honest with us? Did he really not understand as a history student in the 1980s that African-Americans weren’t treated as equals during most of American history? I doubt it. More likely, he thought it would sound good to write this way in the newspaper that is peddling the 1619 Project.

The premise of Brooks’s column is that the American character depicted in his opening paragraphs was a product of our “existential security.”

Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.

We could be individualistic, anti-authority, daring and self-sufficient because on an elemental level we felt so damn safe.

Nonsense. The American character was forged to a significant degree during a period in which the continent was twice attacked by the strongest or second strongest army in the world. During the same period, American colonists, and later citizens, were frequently attacked up and down the frontier by Indians.

The subsequent westward expansion wasn’t a picnic, either. There was little existential security for American pioneers. There probably was even less during the Civil War, when both the North and the South were attacked by large, powerful invading armies.

The U.S. may have experienced relative existential security during the first two decades of Brooks’s adult life. But I would argue that during this period Americans became less individualistic and self-sufficient.

From his false premise, Brooks argues to his conclusion — that with any sense of existential security shattered by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, we will not only “suspend the old individualistic American creed,” but “will undergo[] a more permanent shift in national consciousness, a reconstruction of meanings, symbols, values and narratives.” (Brooks sets a new world record for stale buzzwords in this passage.)

He predicts:

We’ll spend more time minimizing downside risks than maximizing upside gains. The local and the rooted will be valued more than the distantly networked. We’ll value community over individualism, embeddedness over autonomy. . . .

[T]he American identity that grows up in the shadow of the plague can have the humanity of shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with an understanding of the precariousness of life and a fierce solidarity that emerges during a long struggle against an invading force.

I doubt it. Already, the suspension of our “old individualistic American creed” is getting old for plenty of Americans (though not yet a majority, I think). Brooks claims that fatigue with adhering to the diktats of authorities is largely confined to “a few protesters and a depraved president.” (Emphasis added) He cites no evidence for this view, and it’s not my sense of things.

As for the future, the notion that Americans will unite with “fierce solidarity” behind a communitarian vision strikes me as fanciful. Victor David Hanson seems much closer to the mark when he argues that this pandemic has widened our political/cultural divide, or at least exposed more acutely the fault line between two conflicting visions of America.

There’s a good chance that, as the dust settles from the pandemic, the U.S. will find itself in a depression, or at least a significant economic downturn, that lasts a few years. That’s not an ideal setting for the formation of a gentle all-for-one, one-for-all spirit, even if such an ethos were possible in a nation as diverse as this one is and as divided as it has become.

My sense is that robust individualism and self-reliance, and the “torrent of energy” that Brooks admits is associated with these characteristics, are a key to fighting our way out of the parlous situation the U.S. will face due to the pandemic. I may be wrong to think so, but a great many Americans share this view, and this reality probably precludes the country from uniting around a vision that rejects or significantly downplays individualism and self-reliance.

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