February 18, 2007

Writing From the Scaffold: In Defense of Terror and Authoritarianism

If you read David Brooks even only periodically, you will note one theme that is the foundation of his approach to almost every subject: the belief that man's nature requires that he obediently submit to authority. More particularly, Brooks believes that authority is properly embodied in those traditional structures that have withstood the test of time. We must revere the past because it is the past. We must obey our parents, our elders in general, and the State above all. The centrality and necessity of obedience is a long-running theme for Brooks, one I wrote about as long as three years ago; see The Demand for Obedience, in my series of essays based on Alice Miller's work.

In himself, there is nothing about Brooks worthy of note. He is both a mediocre intellect and a mediocre writer. His arguments can be refuted after only a moment of reflection, and he often leaves massive holes where facts and evidence ought to appear. But Brooks is typical of a certain strain in conservatism today. Because this brand of conservative thought has led, among other things, to our notably destructive and criminal foreign policy, and to the destruction of the basis for liberty here at home, appreciating the flaws in Brooks' approach has a certain value. (I must emphasize once again that, with regard to its broadest outlines, the Bush administration is only continuing what has been U.S. foreign policy for a century and longer. See my Dominion Over the World series for much more on this. Nonetheless, this particular current iteration of U.S. foreign policy does possess certain unique characteristics, and Brooks' writing fairly represents these distinguishing traits.)

In his latest column, Brooks returns to this favorite theme. Because some of you may not have access to it, I will summarize his key points. Titled "Human Nature Redux," the column speaks of the "fading" from public consciousness of "the belief in natural human goodness." This belief assumed that "[h]uman beings are virtuous and free in their natural state. It is only corrupt institutions that make them venal."

A marked tendentiousness distorts Brooks' listing of the "gigantic ramifications" of this belief, in accordance with his personal values: for example, he speaks of "romantic revolts against tradition and etiquette" (and a more trivial view of the roots and significance of the Romantic movement is hard to imagine, and it is an idiotic oversimplification, even given the limitations of a newspaper column) -- and almost immediately, Brooks proceeds to, "It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves." It would appear safe to assume that Brooks does not approve of such behaviors. This is intellectual history written by and for dummies.

Just as Charles Murray unforgivably appropriates "science" to justify unapologetic racism, Brooks maintains that it is "science" that delivered the "big blow" to the idea of human goodness. According to Brooks, "science" now tells us that humans are, by nature, viciously competitive, always striving for dominance, and "deadly warriors." Brooks tells us that "there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don't understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other's throats are valuable and are altered at great peril."

Brooks then describes how "order" and "obedience" will save us individually, and society in general, from our own depravity. He also says:
Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.
If the horrors of what we have done in Iraq were not so overwhelming, the ironies in that single sentence would be delicious. In one sense, I suppose this represents an improvement: it's no longer simply that the "ungrateful" Iraqis are awful, and unable to appreciate the marvelous "gifts" we've bestowed on them. No, now it's that all human beings are rotten. And I must admit I derive no small amount of enjoyment from seeing those who championed this criminal catastrophe -- and who vilified everyone who opposed it as being "pro-Saddam" and "on the other side" -- finally reduced to impliedly saying themselves that Iraq was better off with Saddam. (Many Iraqis have been saying this for some time.)

At the end of his column, Brooks lists some thinkers who, Brooks maintains, share this "Tragic Vision" of humankind. To Brooks' shame, he includes Burke, Madison and Hayek, contending, in effect, that these individuals also share Brooks' own "moral codes" and "political assumptions." I repeat: for shame, David Brooks.

I want to comment on another thinker Brooks includes in his criminally misleading list: Isaiah Berlin. This is an especially noteworthy case, for a very particular reason. Brooks' views have many roots, and one of them is a thinker whose importance to contemporary conservatism (and its critical authoritarian element) has been noted by others: Joseph de Maistre. (As but one example, John Dean briefly mentions Maistre in his book, Conservatives Without Conscience.)

Berlin wrote one of the best essays I've read about Maistre, his views, and their significance in intellectual and political history. You will find it in a collection of Berlin's essays, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. The title alone tells you that Berlin comes down on the opposite side of this debate from Brooks, which in turn tells you all you need to know about Brooks' honesty (and his basic intelligence, as well).

Brooks' views, as stated in this latest column and in much of his previous work, flow directly from Maistre; in many ways, Brooks offers the moth-eaten, tawdrily imitative, disreputable version of ideas which, while dangerously wrong, had a certain integrity and stature when first offered, and represented a serious attempt to grapple with what Maistre saw as a crucial and overwhelming problem. As Berlin explains, "Maistre's task, in his own eyes, was to destroy everything which the eighteenth century had built up." One reason above all led to Maistre's work:
The spectacle of the Jacobin Terror was something which [Maistre] never forgot for the rest of his life, and this is what turned him into an implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, democratic, high-minded, everything connected with intellectuals, critics, scientists, everything which was to do with the kind of forces which created the French Revolution. When he talks about Voltaire he talks about him almost as if he were a personal enemy.
Berlin notes that "the thought of the eighteenth century" was not "a seamless garment," but that, even though "eighteenth-century thinkers were divided by deep differences":
"[T]here are certain things which are common to them all ... What they had in common was the belief that men were by nature, if not good, at any rate not bad, potentially benevolent, and that each man was the best expert on his own interests and his own values, when he was not being bamboozled by knaves or fools; that on the whole men were prone to follow the rules of conduct which their own understanding provided. Most thinkers of the eighteenth century believed that progress was desirable -- that is to say, for example, that freedom was better than slavery; that legislation founded on what was called 'the precepts of nature' could right almost every wrong; that nature was only reason in action, and its workings, therefore, could in principle be deduced from a set of axioms like those of a theory in geometry, or like those of physics and chemistry, if only you knew them. ... The more empirically-minded among them were sure that the science of human nature could be developed no less than that of inanimate things, that ethical and political questions, provided they were genuine -- and how could they not be so? -- could be answered no less certainly than those of mathematics and astronomy, and that a life founded upon these answers would be free, secure, happy and wise.
And, Berlin states: "All this Maistre set himself to destroy completely." Maistre's "fundamental doctrine" is that "nature is red in tooth and claw, it is a vast scene of carnage and destruction." Maistre dismissed the eighteenth-century approach of looking "to metaphysics, to logic, even to geometry, in order to find out what nature is like." Forget all that, Maistre said, and "be serious." Maistre said, as Berlin describes it, "let us look at nature, at ourselves, let us study history, yes, and zoology."

And this is what Maistre found, in his own words, and this is the view ultimately shared by Brooks and many other contemporary conservatives:
In the vast domain of living nature there reigns an open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all the creatures to their common doom. As soon as you leave the inanimate kingdom, you find the decree of violent death inscribed on the very frontiers of life. You feel it already in the vegetable kingdom: from the vast catalpa to the humblest herb, how many plants die, and how many are killed? But from the moment you enter the animal kingdom, this law is suddenly in the most dreadful evidence. A violent power, at once hidden and palpable ... has in each major subdivision of the animals appointed a certain number of species to devour the others. Thus there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fishes of prey, quadrupeds of prey. There is no instant of time when one creature is not being devoured by another. Over all these numerous races of animals man is placed, and his destructive hand spares nothing that lives.

Man kills to obtain food and kills to clothe himself. He kills to adorn himself and he kills in order to attack. He kills in order to defend himself and he kills in order to kill. Proud and terrible king, he wants everything and nothing can resist him ... But who [in the general carnage] will exterminate the one who exterminates all the others? He will kill himself. It is man who is charged with the slaughter of men ... Thus is accomplished ... the great law of the violent destruction of living creatures. The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar, upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.
Be sure to appreciate Maistre's exact meaning here. You may think limited aspects of this description are not at all inaccurate. But Maistre is not simply saying that this is what life is like in a descriptive sense. He is contending that this is how life must be, given its inherent nature. That difference is of the greatest significance.

Because, as Berlin summarizes Maistre's argument, "[m]an is by nature vicious, wicked, cowardly and bad," human nature is seen as "needing to be curbed and controlled." As Berlin later expresses the same point:
But my quotation from Maistre is not merely cruel. It is the expression of a genuine conviction, coherent with all the rest of Maistre's passionate but very lucid thought, that men can be saved only by being hemmed in by the terror of authority. They must be reminded at every instant of their lives of the frightening mystery that lies at the heart of creation; must be purged by perpetual suffering, must be humbled by being made conscious of their stupidity, malice, helplessness at every turn. War, torture, suffering are the inescapable human lot.
Of course, writers like Brooks, William Kristol and the rest will shy away from such explicit statements of these ideas and their implications. In this respect, as in most others, they are abject cowards. But given what they have written on many occasions, there is nothing here they could disagree with. Maistre began with foundational premises that were gravely mistaken, which he then coupled with a profoundly flawed methodology -- but at least he was serious in the effort, and he followed the logic of his ideas wherever it took him.

The excerpt from Berlin immediately above comes after perhaps the most famous excerpt from Maistre's work, and this passage should also be included here:
Who is this inexplicable being? ... He is like a world in himself ... Hardly has he been assigned to his proper dwelling-place ... when others remove their homes elsewhere ... In the midst of this desolation ... he lives alone with his mate and his young, who acquaint him with the sound of the human voice. But for them he would hear nothing but shrieks of agony ... One of the lowest menials of justice knocks at his door and tells him that his services are wanted. He goes. He arrives in a public square where people are crowded together with faces of expectancy. A prisoner, a parricide, a man who committed a sacrilege is flung to his feet. He seizes the man, stretches him, ties him to a cross which is lying on the ground, raises his arms, and there is a terrible silence. It is broken only by the sound of the crushing of bones under the blows of the iron mace, and the screams of the victim. He unbinds the man, he carries him to the wheel; the broken limbs are twined round the spokes and the head hangs down; the hair stands on end and from the mouth -- open like the door of a glowing furnace -- there come at intervals only a few broken syllables of entreaty for death. The executioner has finished his task; his heart is beating, but it is with pleasure; he is satisfied with his work. He says in his heart, 'No man breaks on the wheel better than I.' He comes down from the scaffold and holds out his bloody hand, into which, from a distance, an official flings a few gold pieces. The executioner carries them off between two rows of human beings who shrink from him with horror. He sits down to table and eats, he goes to bed and sleeps, but when he awakes the next morning his thoughts run on everything but his occupation of the day before. Is he a man? Yes, God allows him to enter his shrines and accepts his prayers. He is no criminal, and yet no human language dares to call him, for instance, virtuous, honorable or estimable ... Nevertheless all greatness, all power, all social order depends upon the executioner; he is the terror of human society and the tie that holds it together. Take away this incomprehensible force from the world, and at that very moment order is superseded by chaos, thrones fall, society disappears. God, who is the source of the power of the ruler, is also the source of punishment. He has suspended our world upon these two poles, 'for the Lord is the lord of the twin poles, and round them he sets the world revolving'.
It was because of passages like this, and because of the worldview out of which they arise, that Lamennais said of Maistre: "It is as if all his works were written from the scaffold." This is the school of writing to which Brooks and those who think as he does belong, the school that believes it is only "the terror of authority" that holds society together, and that makes society possible.

Returning to a point in my opening paragraph, concerning Brooks' reverence for tradition and the institutions of the past, there is one further connection to note. Berlin writes:
Maistre stresses tradition, the past, the unconscious, dark forces, not the amiable imaginary attributes of the folk soul, as did its enthusiastic champions -- the German romantics -- or the champions of the simple life (which he too always praised). On the contrary, he stresses the stability, the permanence and the impregnability of the authority that belongs to the dark mass of half-conscious memories and traditions and loyalties, and the power of institutions in exacting obedience, especially in regard to the supernatural. He lays great emphasis on the fact that absolute rule succeeds only when it is terrifying, and he fears and detests science, precisely because it pours too much light, and so dissolves the mystery, the darkness, which alone resists sceptical inquiry.

In a sense, then, Maistre is a kind of precursor and early preacher of Fascism, and that is what makes him so interesting.


Men may be divided into those who are in favour of life and those who are against it. Among those who are against it there are sensitive and wise and penetrating people who are too offended and discouraged by the shapelessness of spontaneity, by the lack of order among human beings who wish to live their own lives, not in obedience to any common pattern. Among such was Maistre. On the whole he has no positive doctrine, and if he has to choose between liberty and death he rejects liberty.
As we know, and as the last six years have proved with endless and horrifying repetition, the same is true of the current administration and those who have been its most vocal supporters. They may disagree now about Iraq, but only because it has turned into a catastrophe beyond imagining. Yet they have no principled objection to our war of conquest, except that perhaps we tried to give Iraqis "too much" freedom. For now Brooks dares to write: "Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state." As I said, the ironies are endless, and endlessly awful.

Like Maistre, when the Bush administration and writers like Brooks have to choose between liberty and death, they reject liberty. They are, as Berlin writes, against life.

We would do well to remember it.