It has been my conviction for a while now that social media and the daily phony outrages they help spur are rewiring our brains as we speak and make us more stupid. (Ever been on Twitter? Yeah.) Moreover, reading the drivel passing for political insight on our feeds makes us desperate to avoid the latest spat involving President Trump when we talk to these Facebook philosophers at an uncle’s birthday party. Better to change the topic to, say, the Patriots’ ‘Deflate Gate’. It’s bound to get some voices raised, but at the end of the day that feels better than having to battle accusations of secretly cherishing Nazi sympathies.
If you, like me, are more than fed up with the sad reality pictured above, Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, must have received a warm welcome in your mailbox. The outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute and a devout Catholic, Brooks should have a thing or two to say about our present culture of contempt, its roots, and its consequences.
The author makes the case that yours truly wasn’t imagining things when nervously resorting to Deflate Gate. In fact, “Political differences are ripping our country apart,” he writes. “Political scientists find that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War.” Just one unfortunate result of this is that “one in six Americans … stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election.” In addition, we are now collectively sorting our “social life along ideological lines”, by avoiding places and media where we might find people who disagree with us and “seeking out the spaces … where [we] find the most ideological compatriots.”
At the heart of our problem, Brooks argues, lies not hatred or anger, but contempt (defined as “anger mixed with disgust”): “Across the political spectrum, people in positions of power and influence are setting us against one another. They tell us our neighbors who disagree with us politically are ruining our country. That ideological differences aren’t a matter of differing opinions but reflect moral turpitude. That our side must utterly vanquish the other, even if it leaves our neighbors without a voice.” In fact, humans show literal signs of addiction to this sort of contempt, Brooks writes, like we would to alcohol or cigarettes, and the outrage industry in our media and broader culture takes advantage of this.
Psychological research demonstrates that contempt makes us unhappy as well as unhealthy. Those subjected to it “have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well,” while those practicing it produce “two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline”, which have been linked to increased odds of premature death. Sounds lovely, if not exactly a recipe for individual, let alone societal, health.
As a diagnosis of our present perils Love Your Enemies is solid enough. Where it is lacking, however, is in 1) establishing the causes of our collective contempt and political bifurcation, and; 2) realistic steps to make a meaningful change: What to do about all this? To start off with the latter, Brooks found his inspiration in chatting with his friend the Dalai Lama: “‘Your Holiness,’ I asked him, ‘what do I do when I feel contempt?'” Responded His Holiness: “Practice warm-heartedness.” After pondering this little dose of Gelug wisdom, Brooks concluded: “He was not advocating surrender to the views of those with whom we disagree. If I believe I am right, I have a duty to stick to my views. But my duty is also to be kind, fair, and friendly to all, even those with whom I have great differences.”
He sets forth some basic rules for our conduct with the other side that should be common sense to anyone with a decent bone in their body. Be kind in the face of contempt: “Treat others with love and respect.” “Don’t attack or insult. Don’t even try to win.” Never field an argumentum ad hominem in your political discussions. “Stand up to people on your own side who trash people on the other side.” “Escape the bubble.” You get the picture. The one buzzword dominating this book is “love”. Brooks quotes Christ in the Gospel of Luke: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. … But love your enemies. … Then your reward will be great.” If these tactics won’t win over your hostile interlocutor, they will at least make you feel better.
What is needed in America today at the political level, Brooks proceeds to explain, is a new style of “authoritative” leadership: “What we truly require is a new vision from authoritative leaders for the purpose of our economy and public policy. By articulating a clear aim of restoring human dignity and expanding opportunity, authoritative leaders can create space for Americans to think about old problems in new ways.”
If the above sounds noble and sympathetic, it’s also vague and, given the present state of our society, utter pie in the sky. What we have on our hand here is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Kindness in the face of contempt can be perceived as weakness. Why should your side be the first to change its behavior? This is a serious problem, and it makes one pessimistic about the odds of this project of loving your enemies ever succeeding. Our national moral consensus has eroded, and the philosophical differences resulting from this are real. Liberals wish to reinterpret the Constitution to suit their political agenda and altogether banish religion to behind our front doors. And conservatives wish to stem this liberal tide by any legal means possible — which post-2016 means “Donald Trump”.
This brings us to the other reason Love Your Enemies falls short: It has surprisingly little to say about the causes of the bifurcation of our society it details. And the few things it does say leave the reader wanting for more.
Brooks is an economist, and this background transpires when he takes a shot at explaining the trigger event which seems to have all but sealed our national divorce: the ascendancy to the presidency of Donald Trump. “For decades,” the author relates,
“conventional conservatives had emphasized issues such as entitlement reform, which is important for the solvency of the country but feels cold and remote to voters worried about losing their job and benefits. Meanwhile, the conventional political left focused on the “income gap” separating rich and poor. They contended that income inequality would ignite a new class struggle, causing unprecedented political turmoil. This was half right. There was indeed a gap in this country, but the relevant gap wasn’t income. It was dignity. … As the future fills with whiz-bang technologies, from artificial intelligence to driverless cars, one part of the population sees ingenuity, mobility, and progress. Another part hears, “We don’t need you anymore.” This is the dignity gap. … Even with strong economic growth, the United States has bifurcated into a nation of socioeconomic winners and losers, and this stratification is poisoning American culture.”
Who are these losers? You guessed it: “Lots of people of all races and classes, but to an especially large extent, it is working-class men.” Echoing J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Brooks relays how the mortality rate among members of this group has been on the rise since 1999. “The main reasons? Cirrhosis of the liver (up 50 percent since 1999 among this group), suicide (up 78 percent), and drug overdoses, primarily of opiates (up 323 percent).” It’s the by now familiar heart-wrenching tune lamenting the sad plight of our nation’s working classes, and it needs no further explanation that these are the people who voted for Trump.
That said, while I wouldn’t ignore the economic pains our working classes endure, I’d like to make the case that the battle is waged primarily over our culture, not economics. The problem is not just that these people feel like they’re no longer needed in our advanced economy, but that the cultural and political elites in our country disparage them as a sweaty bunch of gap-toothed, god-fearing and gun-toting yokels who are too dim-witted to acknowledge that, in order to save humanity from a climate change catastrophe, they’ll need to say bye-bye to their job on the oil rig in Texas or the coal mine in West Virginia. Another familiar theme is that politicians from Left to Right are consciously hurting the economic plight of the people they’re purporting to help by allowing hundreds of thousands of workers to enter the United States every year to work here, legally or not so legally.
In post-truth America, the media can get away with actively undermining a democratically-elected president in a concerted effort to undo an election the outcome of which wasn’t to their liking. Colin Kaepernick could, without much criticism from those same media, bring his political fight over an otherwise legitimate cause to a supposedly non-political arena — the NFL — which collects the majority of its revenues from the very working classes Kaepernick would disparage as a gang of racists exercising their ‘white privilege’. And when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to fill Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court seat, the Left unleashed a barrage of dirty tricks and hysteria that was unprecedented even by its own abominable standards. Did the Right pull similar stunts with Sotomayor and Kagan?
Brooks is correct that contempt begets contempt, of course. It’s a vicious cycle, which explains why The Donald is our president today. The reason why the nastiness reached new lows during and after the 2016 campaign is because, unlike John McCain, Mitt Romney and all the others, Trump fought back and offered his base a sense of self-value; the prospect that, no, you are not obsolete, because we’re going to turn this thing around for you. And no, despite the well-nigh Orwellian claims to the contrary, Mexicans do not have a moral right to stampede our borders without consequences, and it’s not self-evident that ICE should be “abolished”.
Looking at it from a different angle, these establishment attitudes on our culture didn’t emerge grass-roots in a cultural vacuum. They are the end result of ideas that originated on college campuses a long time ago. America isn’t torn apart by contempt. It’s torn apart by identity politics, which has pitted a thousand and one identity groups against white men as well as each other and so has unleashed a cold civil war that could usher in the end of the United States as we know it. But, since identity politics is the love child of Marxism and postmodernism (in other words, a product of the Left), Brooks is hesitant to broach this subject for fear of alienating half of his audience. So he resorts to boring generalities and offers up negative examples from both sides of the political spectrum in order to stay ‘balanced’.
Consequently, as an exercise in establishing the root causes of our societal stratification, Love Your Enemies falls remarkably flat. Brooks is so busy tiptoeing around the easily offended to both his left and his right, so obsessed with his on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand illustrations supporting the argument he’s attempting to make, that it leaves the reader scratching his head in wonder if anything was deliberately left out beyond the author’s platitudes about Luke 6:32-35. It is obvious to any neutral observer, however, that the present cultural conflict is not symmetrical, but the result of an intellectual assault by the academic Left on institutions and ideas it deemed inhibitive of our individualism and rationality. We’re seeing liberalism coming to full fruition.
In conclusion, Love Your Enemies is as inane as it is disappointing. It’s disappointing because the problem the book purports to deal with is real and deserving of our attention. But the problem is real not because of social media and our collective contempt (though these don’t help), but because of other intellectual and political forces upon which Brooks barely even touches. It turns out that, for all his personal faults, The Donald is a keener observer of our beloved America than Arthur Brooks. Imagine that.