I will start this off with full disclosure by saying that David Brooks is not one of my favorite writers. For a number of reasons that aren’t really worth getting into right now (and which many others have already covered). That being said, every now and then, he has something thought-provoking to say.
Last week’s edition was an opinion piece titled How to Fight the Man. The basic premise of Brooks’ argument is that “the paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.”
I actually agree somewhat with Brooks’ contention that knowing your history is extremely beneficial to figuring out the present. I think he does a disservice by implying that only the reformers are lacking historical foundations of thought, when in fact I’ve found more defenders of the status quo to be less exploratory and knowledge seeking. But, that being said, I actually don’t think that our real problem is people thinking entirely for themselves without a foundation of understanding. In fact it’s the exact opposite. It is a lack of vision that something better, an alternative, is possible and that the flawed systems and institutions that have been in place for years do not have to be the foundation for the future. This is largely a prerequisite to even getting to the point where exploration of past schools of thought is even necessary. Otherwise we get stuck with arguments such as…
- “It just is.”
- “That’s how it’s always been done”
- “That’s impossible”
And that’s not how new ideas occur, whether for institutions, companies, new products, political or economic systems. As with developing anything new and innovative, it requires a lot of balance to know your history and when you are shutting yourself off from what is actually possible just because it hasn’t been done successfully previously. Therefore, I tend to think that while foundations of thought are great, sometimes just throwing things against a wall and seeing what might stick is necessary to spark debate and spur deeper analysis, especially since what was said centuries ago may not even be applicable to today given that times have changed, institutions have changed, technology has changed…in essence, what is possible has indeed changed.
More problematic is that Brooks goes on to say that if you seek change, but don’t come up with an alternative vision then you are essentially just expressing your personal feelings in a “feeble” manner and that “effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions.” And here, a similar misunderstanding occurs.
Because, here, Brooks seems to be lacking some understanding of how reform movements actually occur. Which is not all that surprising given that there is a real irony to Brooks, being an embodiment of “The Man,” lecturing others (and really this seems like a not so subtle jab at Occupy) on “how to fight the man.” While I may be wrong, I doubt that he followed his own advice to look back at others who had already tackled this issue in writing (from the perspective of those that actually were going beyond theory to actually confront the man in reality no less), whether that be Fanon, Sartre, Freire, or King, as he could probably learn a few things.
As many of these thought leaders write, the first step to revolution isn’t actually articulating what comes next. Instead, the first step is articulating and expressing what is wrong with the current, coalescing a larger group to demand that it change, and then ultimately deciding that the status quo is entirely unacceptable, inadequate and NEEDS to change. Now. And that actually doesn’t require much, if any, historical knowledge. The next step of coming up with solutions or what’s next requires examination of history and best practices. Basically Brooks wants to jump over the first step to the second, when in fact the first is essential and quite likely a necessary condition to get to the second.
Another history lesson perhaps is needed to illustrate this point more clearly…the founders took off for the United States because they felt they were being treated unfairly in England.
- 1775: They revolted to rid themselves of the monarchy with no form of alternative authority institution formally in place
- 1777 – 1787: They established a Confederacy
- 1787: They created the Democratic Republic we currently have today
All that is to say that it took the founders of this country 12 years to come up with the ultimate alternative form of governance AFTER they decided the status quo of the British monarchy was unacceptable. And this is not surprising at all given that what they created was a brand new experiment that was undertaken with no historical precedent (other than possibly the Iroquois…).
Brooks would have advocated they start at 1787 and work backwards…which is, in fact, backwards.