A Remarkable Exercise In Inanity. Review of Arthur C. Brooks’ “Love Your Enemies”

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.

Psychological research demonstrates that contempt makes us unhappy and literally unhealthy.

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.


  1. Hi April,

    I hadn’t forgotten about you. 🙂

    Thanks again for a very thoughtful response and tips for further reading! Interesting point you make on the difference between the U.S. and the parliamentary democracies in Europe. From what I read I gather (though I’m not sure) that your assumption is that workers have been excluded from political power, and that this paved the way for the rise of postmodernism/identity politics. This is certainly a valid point, I think, and it’s problematic regardless. But it should also be said that, looking at it from a more fundamental psychological perspective, postmodernism feeds on one of our basest passions: resentment. In a democracy, this human emotion finds an outlet at the ballot box and in the public domain in ways that would be impossible in other political systems. This is why I fear that democracy will naturally decay into ochlocracy and ultimately into tyranny. The temptations are just to great to avoid it. Old Plato had it right.

    What I find so fascinating about Deneen is that he takes this problem a step further by arguing that our present economic and cultural anxieties are the direct product of our liberal democracy and free market. This includes the “decline of organized labor as a political force” to which you refer, with all its consequences. Enlightenment philosophers specifically sought to shape a future in which we are all atomized individuals ruled by an omnipresent, “rational” state and moving around in a free market, without any horizontal relationships other than the voluntary commercial contracts we make. This is way beyond the mere democratic regime about which Plato fulminated: We have, in Deneen’s view, been reduced to a flock of utilitarian sheep who feed nothing but their immediate desires. And now these aims of liberalism have been 75% achieved, it turns out that, oops, this setup caused a whole slew of unintended consequences which we don’t like.

    So one of my eternal questions — I have more of them than I have answers — is whether this outcome was inevitable because it’s, per Deneen, baked into our socio-cultural DNA; or incidental, because it just happened that some guys in France cooked up postmodernism in an effort to salvage their faith in Communism (Stephen Hicks’ thesis). In the latter explanation, all kinds of random historical causes related to the rise of Communism come into play as well. Which sort of plays into my one beef with Deneen: His book tends to blame everything that’s wrong in the modern world on liberalism, including climate change, smartphone addiction, economic stratification, and you name it. But in my world, events are rarely monocausal, and Utopia exists only in heaven anyway. It’s almost Marxist to ignore these truths.

    Can you clarify your remarks on the difference between the U.S. and the European parliamentary democracies? Is the end goal to accommodate postmodernism, or to find a better political outlet for disenfranchised workers in order to take the wind out of PoMo’s sails? And how or why does the U.S. do worse than Europe?

    Thanks again!

  2. Hi Finn,

    Thank you kindly for your nice compliment! I wish I had written a book or two. but unfortunately a project like that is not in my immediate future.

    Your ultimate goal with reading philosophy should, in my mind, be to dip your toes into the classics: Plato, Aristotle, Burke, Tocqueville, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, etc. But you’re probably going to be overwhelmed at first. Some contemporary books I’d recommend as a start are:
    – Allan Bloom – ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (a very dense, but phenomenal book);
    – Most works by Roger Scruton;
    – C.S. Lewis – ‘The Abolition of Man;
    – Patrick Deneen – ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ (I read this book very recently and reviewed it here; it definitely challenged my worldview).

    If you do decide to dive into the classics, I can heartily recommend doing so with others. This will prompt some good discussion and also keep you on track with your reading, which is not always that easy.

    I hope this helps. Happy reading!

  3. Mark, I found your review enlightening on the topics of American culture. Despite how much I enjoyed Conservative Heart, you convinced me reading this book would be a waste of my time. Have you ever written your own book? I’m interesting in these topics but don’t have the necessary background knowledge to keep up. If you have not written a book, do you have any book recommendations? I’m a recent graduate of engineering school so I severely lack an education on philosophy or the classics. I’d like to start chipping away at that deficiency.

  4. [cross-posted on goodreads]
    Agree. Understanding the sociopolitical conditions that enabled the rise and spread of the social-justice/ postmodern ideology is important. Whatever those conditions were, it appears they existed across most if not all liberal democratic societies in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries, since similar ideologies grew in influence and fomented similar shifts in politics across so many countries incl US, UK, & much of W Europe. I have been trying to figure this out for the past year or so. I think the ideology’s growth in influence was tied to other changes related to center-left political parties, especially the decline of organized labor as a political force.

    I think the even more pressing question is – what are the ingredients of a more functional response on the part of a political system? I have been tracking, superficially, how different countries’ political systems are responding in Europe – in hopes of detecting the more vs less adaptive responses. I suppose I monitor the US response too, though not too closely, lest I go insane ;-). One emerging pattern appears to be that parliamentary political systems seem to be a bit more flexible; in some, political parties are integrating the preferences of the previously-excluded-from-power groups into their platforms. The recent UK Conservative Party platform shows some signs of this, for example. I have grave worries about the US political system on this front.

    Thanks for reminding me about Deneen’s book. I have read about half of it, and I have watched a few book talks and related discussions. I found what I have read thus far stimulating. I shall go read your full review of course :-). The reason I lost interest, I think, is that I tend to like some empirical content to go with my political theorizing/critiquing. I have been scanning the work of other conservative thinkers to see if I can find some who bring to the discussion more nitty gritty information about actually-operating political institutions. On this front, I just started reading Oren Cass’ book The Once and Future Worker. Another interesting writer is Andy Smarick – who just wrote a thought-provoking piece “Toward Real Decentralization” in The National Interest. I thought his ideas on the kind of national governing that enables (& occasionally prods) local actors to take on more issues and devise/deploy more productive responses were quite sound.

    Truly, it is wonderful to discuss these ideas/ issues. Thank you.

  5. Ok, I just had to get back to you before I leave on a 2-day trip this morning.

    Your comments on the “incremental exclusion from political power of the values and preferences of blue collar workers and social conservatives” reminded me very strongly of Deneen’s excellent book. I’ve reviewed it and even though I was somewhat critical, it’s one of those works that keep you thinking.

    Deneen argues that it’s the very system of liberal democracy itself and the free market it supports that’s at the root of our political stratification. From my review: “If we face an existential crisis in the West today in which millions have thrown in the towel in the face of unstoppable globalization and anemic recovery from the Great Recession, with cultural and moral decline being the cherry on the cake, it’s not because liberalism has failed, but because it has succeeded, he says. Liberalism left us stripped of the comforts of the age-old and trusted institutions of civil society that it deemed inhibitive of our personal freedom and autonomy, such as churches, family, workplace and neighborhoods. These vestiges of authority out of the way, we have each morphed into individuals alone on an island, left to the whims of an impersonal free market yet more or less content with the consumerist choices it offers. ‘Gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification.’ The only recourse left to address our many grievances is the all-encompassing power of the state.”

    The question can be posed whether the changes in the “realm of ideas,” as you describe it, would have been possible outside of a liberal democratic breeding ground. Plato would have argued that that different regimes produce different kinds of people. I’m not sure postmodernism and its consequences would have developed and taken root inside an old-fashioned monarchy, though I don’t necessarily have the answer either…

    I love Dave Rubin and have read some work on Quillette. I know the other names, but they haven’t been on my radar much. Thank you for the tips!

  6. Wow! I need to give some thought to your excellent reply as well as your recommendations. I won’t have much time the next few days, but I will get back to you sometime soon!

Just one quick thing: Have you read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed? He makes some excellent points about the economic stratification and blue collar workers’ exclusion from political power. Your comments on this are spot on.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful reply 🙂
    I am delighted to have someone to discuss these topics with.
    “It’s hard to write a book about loving your enemies and ending contempt while at the same time blaming half of your readership of instigating it all. But unfortunately that’s what needs to be done, because it’s the truth.”
    –I agree that getting more people to understand the nature of the problem is extremely important. And, I agree that family cohesion, communities and intergroup relations have deteriorated greatly in the past 30+ years. I think this has been driven by changes in the realm of ideas (e.g. rise of postmodernism, or perhaps left-modernism – the term Eric Kaufmann uses) but also by changes in the political system. The changes in the political system relate to the incremental exclusion from political power of the values and preferences of blue collar workers and social conservatives – David Goodhart calls this the triumph of the ‘double liberalisms’ or something to that effect. This exclusion has occurred in many countries besides the US – you probably have seen it unfold in Europe yourself. Now that citizens are rejecting this settlement – and switching their votes to so-called populist leaders, I think the elites on the left are intensifying their efforts to regain votes and power through their control of the media and other institutions of high culture (e.g. universities, movies) and, sadly, some companies. So, I do agree that the rhetoric of condemnation and demonization and the like come more from commentators on the left than the right. To get more people to see this and to take an interest in containing it – it seems to me we have to reach many people in the center, including center left. Given how partisan the environment is, I doubt many on the left will take much note of what Arthur Brooks writes, or any other right-wing commentator. I have concluded that commentators from the left have the most to contribute – and I see the work of folks like David Goodhart and Frank Furedi as particularly important. I also think platforms like the Rubin Report, Quillette, the Institute of Ideas contribute.

    “I’ve made a deliberate effort to stay away from Facebook and my television in order to focus on my reading, which provides a whole lot more meaning to the world around me than the 24/7 CNN yak fest. And I would advise anybody to do the same – for their own sanity.”
    –I could not agree with you more. I have been trying to persuade some of my friends to emulate what I call my ‘news diet’, alas, so far with little success.
    [Cross-posted on goodreads]

  8. Hi April,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this thoughtful comment! It’s much appreciated!

    I actually agree with most of what you say, and I’d like to think that I abide, for the most part, by the rules Arthur Brooks lays down for us. At the same time, yes, I do refrain from broaching certain subjects with a friend or two who I see hyperventilating on Facebook about the latest disgrace involving President Trump. This book definitely got me thinking: Perhaps I should invite these people over for a beer one of these days and ask them questions, without preconceptions or the intention to “destroy” their arguments. It would certainly be helpful if I did, and if a hundred million others did the same. And yes, in the process, let’s call out thought leaders on both sides of the political spectrum for their behavior, not just the Left. If anything, this wouldn’t hurt our cause.

    That said, we cannot heal as a nation if we are unwilling to identify what’s causing our collective anxiety and anger. We are so marinated in postmodernism at this point that we don’t even realize its influence. But it has led to moral and cultural relativism, and to identity politics. For all the progress we’ve made on racial issues, these forces have been utterly destructive to our family cohesion, communities, inter-group relations, and you name it. It has also eroded any moral consensus we had as a nation, so we are now effectively two cultures living side by side. Brooks is clearly tiptoeing around this problem for fear of offending his audience, and I get it: It’s hard to write a book about loving your enemies and ending contempt while at the same time blaming half of your readership of instigating it all. But unfortunately that’s what needs to be done, because it’s the truth.

    One very bad consequence of social media and mass media that I admit I ignored in my review is that they literally distract us from seeing the bigger picture. How many of the keyboard warriors on Facebook take the time to read an actual book anymore? Or those CNN and Fox commentators yapping away in front of the camera all day? I’ve re-read Plato and Homer in the past few years, and dipped my toes into Aristotle, Boethius, Dante, C.S. Lewis and a bunch of others. I’ve made a deliberate effort to stay away from Facebook and my television in order to focus on my reading, which provides a whole lot more meaning to the world around me than the 24/7 CNN yak fest. And I would advise anybody to do the same – for their own sanity.

  9. [Note: I am reposting here the comment I made on the goodreads platform, in case you prefer to engage in discussion on this platform]
    Mark – this is a fantastic review. Thanks for taking the time to write and share it. I have not yet read the book – I hope you don’t mind me responding to a couple of your comments.
    ..”the present cultural conflict is not symmetrical, but the result of an intellectual assault by the academic Left”: I agree that much of the destructive rhetoric emerges from the left; still, it strikes me that elites on the right are also contributing to our contempt-in-discourse problems. For example, right-wing commenters who support the US-led international order (and the attendant hypermilitarization of US foreign policy) and those who support open-borders use condemnatory rhetoric to criticize those who hold opposing views – in particular people who prioritize cohesion of the national community and/or a focus on domestic over fixing-the-world issues; that is, they condemn people who hold such views with the term populist, or xenophobe or Islamophobe or even racist; they also participate in the efforts to convert the term populist into a pejorative.
    …”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.” I agree that there are other forces generating the harmful symptoms and I agree re: the forces you have identified. Even so, it seems to me that American society might benefit from working to alleviate some of the symptoms, irrespective of whether they derive from left-wing or right-wing commenters. If a bunch of people started working to reduce the contempt in their own discourse, I think this would be a productive change. If people started scrutinizing elected leaders’ or public intellectuals’ commentary with an eye to identifying (and rejecting) comments and commenters that magnify feelings of hatred for Americans on the other side of the debate, I think this would be a productive change. If some people, spurred by Brooks, perhaps, reflected on whether their comments might not be contributing to the deterioration of our discourse, I think this would be a productive change. Do you think such changes would not be helpful? Or do you think that Brooks’ writing is too vague or ill-informed to foment such change?

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