Monday, April 24, 2017
The Crisis before us
You've got to hand it to New York Times columnist David Brooks. He seems to be on a one-man quest to refurbish the American soul. Himself Jewish, he can occasionally sound almost evangelical. That he reads widely is obvious by frequent references to "Christian" thinkers, who don't regularly find a welcome place in his political forum. His Times column Friday, "The Crisis of Western Civilization," sets out to create a revival of faith in what some call the great "liberal experiment," democracy itself.
That demise, he claims, has been advanced primarily by those who reference its shortcomings--and there are many shortcomings. On Saturday, I sat through a horrifying 90-minute presentation of an horrible place once upon a time just down the road, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, Canton, South Dakota, where Native American people from reservations all over the country were sent, essentially to die.
No one cared. That's the story of Hiawatha. No one really cared about and therefore for its inmates, and those few who did blew whistles and were shamelessly dismissed because no one cared. What happened during Hiawatha's forty-some years of operation is not just scandalous, it's evil.
Here in our corner of the world, people allowed it to happen, even condoned its inhumanity. Good Christian people looked the other way as hundreds of Native people, many of them not "insane" at all, were treated were far less favor than the hogs and cattle in fields just outside the hospital.
David Brooks says we've been taught a steady diet of the evil machinations of American democracy, so much so, in fact, that we've lost faith in "the liberal experiment," the incredible belief--really almost unheard of before the American constitution--that people can actually rule themselves. That's "the liberal experiment," and people have begun not to believe it anymore, says David Brooks.
Brooks goes so far as to claim that dream has died, an assertion he grounds in a sharp appraisal of the times: "The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, he says, "authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did."
Brooks is a conservative, but he fears what he calls "the age of the strong men," leaders like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump,"
Yesterday's election in France bears witness to what he sees happening all around: the two winners could not be farther apart politically, one from the far right, the other from the far left. The middle is gone, Brooks says. When center-right and center-left political parties collapse, whatever power they once wielded is simply moves to the fringe parties, who really don't believe in democracy.
Finally, he says there is "the collapse of liberal values" at home. I'm no fan of Ann Coulter, but when she can't speak at Berkeley, the home of the "Free Speech Movement," fifty years ago, some major doctrine of American life is simply gone.
As someone who spent his life in a classroom, I'm not ready to buy the notion that somehow education is to blame, that we haven't taught western civilization in Western Civilization, touted democracy's atrocities instead.
If he's right, there's more to blame than education. Believe me, he doesn't mean the word "liberalism" as an indictment but in its broadest sense when he says, "liberalism has been docile in defense of itself."
He sounds like an OT testament prophet, like Jeremiah himself, without the theological imperative: "These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it."
Seems to me that, to kids around here, you don't not tell the story of the innocent victims of the racism that perpetuated the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, but you make sure to tell the story of the whistle blowers too, the men and women, those few who tried to change things, whose voices may not have been heard, but who tried, who spoke truth to power.
Brooks may be after the American soul in ways few are. He's always worth reading.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:01 AM