David Brooks on the Crisis of Western Civ


Before the weekend’s over, I want to call your attention to David Brooks’ excellent piece from Friday, headlined “The Crisis of Western Civ.”

It’s good not because it says anything particularly original, but because it says things I knew (and most of us should know), but which it wouldn’t have occurred to me to come out and explain.

Anyone steeped in the ideas that have shaped our civilization over the centuries knows:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…

But then two things happened.

First, the people who should be the guardians and propagators of these liberal values — academics — ceased to believe in them.

Then, when the barbarians attacked, there was no one ready to stand up and defend the foundations of our civilization:

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, 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. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el­Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong­un and Donald Trump….

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party­-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous….

He saves his last shot for the feckless guardians of our intellectual traditions, who have abandoned the citadel walls:

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.

Probably his best insight is that bit about how formerly liberal states “begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans.” Because they’re run by people for whom the main purpose of power is to do something as staggeringly trivial as, for instance, promote one’s clothing line.

Speaking of mafias, did you ever read The Godfather? The book, I mean. Have you read anything else by Mario Puzo, something not as directly related to the Mafia, such as The Fourth K? If you have, you may have noticed that the theme that obsessed the writer was the conflict between the personal and the core principles of Western civilization, such as the choice of whether to look out for oneself and one’s family at the expense of larger things, such as the rule of law.

That’s what we’re seeing now. And the personal, the petty, the selfish approach is winning. The larger ideas we’ve been developing over the past centuries are being swept away…

28 thoughts on “David Brooks on the Crisis of Western Civ

  1. kp

    Sounds like Brooks has a longing for a kind of intellectual childhood – for a time when we were told that Western civilization is and has always been moving toward ever better things (“confidently progressive,” in his words). There’s much to be said for that part of the narrative. But it’s only part of the story. And no amount of “faith” (it’s revealing that he chose that word, setting conviction above understanding) can make it stand in for the whole. Intellectual maturity means being able to take the good with the bad – in this case, seeing history whole and not just the parts that make us feel good about ourselves. Do only the latter and you end up with travesties like Dinesh D’Souza’s “American: Imagine the World without Her,” which substitutes selective (and highly partisan) polemic for a fuller and more satisfying appreciation of the past.

    A mature view of history, one that sees both the good with the bad, understands that Rousseau, for example (one of the “great figures” Brooks cites), may have done a lot to promote the cause of human emancipation. But his thoughts – in particular his view of the “general will” and the notion that man must be “forced to be free” — also sowed the seeds of state communism and other forms of totalitarianism. The truth is, the West, including America, has been both a beacon of freedom AND a predatory colonizer – along with a lot of other good and bad things, just like other civilizations. So while it may stand apart from the rest, it doesn’t necessarily stand above them. I sure hope Brooks doesn’t believe most people need to be treated children and spoon fed a pablum of whitewashed hope and glory. We’ve outgrown that sort of thing.

    And as for his belief that there’s nobody left to defend Western civilization against its enemies – well, that sounds like some pretty faithless hand-wringing on his part. Because there’s really no shortage of folks ready to defend democratic ideals — including folks at those very same universities he thinks have gone all weak in the knees.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      On the contrary, Brooks’ view IS the mature one. It’s where you get after you’ve seen history whole, with all its good, bad and indifferent parts.

      It’s what you see when you’ve taken it all in and absorbed it, when you’re no longer distracted by details that fascinate a person with less understanding — “Ooh, look at this glorious moment,” or “Look! The West did a terrible thing right here!” — and you know enough to reach the point where you see the overall thrust of what’s happening…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I was also saddened by this sentence: “We’ve outgrown that sort of thing.”

        You said it right after mentioning hope and glory. Perhaps in some future Brave New World, calmed by soma and artificially stimulated by VPS treatments, we’ll have “outgrown” glory. But I hope we never are without hope….

      2. David L Carlton

        No, Brad, it’s not “mature.” It’s just more tiresome bashing of us academics for failing our fundamental task of indoctrinating our students with Brooks’s preferred values. Take “the importance of property rights”–you don’t have to be a commie to realize that “property rights” is in many ways a problematic construct, and that it might actually be the responsibility of a professor to get students to think through the full implications of what “property rights” entail. Note, too, that he leaves a lot of “western values” out of his screed (Where’s “equality”? Where are any rights besides property rights?). Plus, those of us who actually go into classrooms these days are facing students from places like China and India and Pakistan, where labeling a value “western” may well be seen either as making it insulting or irrelevant.

        Yes, we should be teaching civic values in our classrooms–and in fact we are (How long has it been since you’ve been in a classroom? Have you any idea what we actually *do*? Neither does Brooks.) In my teaching of US history and history of the South I talk a lot about oppression–intellectual honesty is also a virtue, after all–but I also talk a lot about the values that have stirred Americans–and southerners–to battle that oppression and extend the true promise of our common life to everyone. And the major problems I’ve had in inculcating those values have come from the kind of people who imagine that “western civilization” is the exclusive property of themselves–specifically the sort of people who think that “southern heritage” is about toeing a white southern party line. It’s those sorts of people who have given us the Trumps, Putins, and Erdogans–people that people like me have been fighting all our lives. So please–don’t blame us.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, I haven’t been in a classroom in awhile, more’s the pity. (I haven’t even been a guest speaker in several years, now that I think about it.) I wish I could be, either as a student or a teacher. But my student days are far behind me, and academia isn’t about to let me, with my mere bachelor’s degree, teach.

          But I don’t get the idea that Brooks is talking about the content of lectures to undergraduates. I think he’s speaking as a public intellectual who isn’t seeing enough from academia sticking up for Western traditions out in the “publish” sphere.

          And unfortunately, it seems that most of the news being made on our college campuses tends to be about gross incivility extended toward people with conservative ideas. And in these stories it looks, from the outside, like the administrations and faculties have played a passive role while the kids run about congratulating themselves for being “woke.”

          Of course, there’s also the occasional story of gross misbehavior by right-wing students, and when you put it all together, we who are uninitiated get a vague impression of a sort of Lord of the Flies environment, lacking assertive adult supervision.

          Which is probably entirely unfair, but that impression is there…

        2. Doug Ross

          Are you open to having visitors to your classroom? I’d love to observe what goes on in there these days.

          How much of your teaching involves arguing alternative perspectives with students? Is there a lot of back-and-forth or is it just a dump-the-info, take the test model?

        3. Brad Warthen Post author

          As for this:

          Plus, those of us who actually go into classrooms these days are facing students from places like China and India and Pakistan, where labeling a value “western” may well be seen either as making it insulting or irrelevant….

          As you say, “intellectual honesty is also a virtue,” so if it is Western concept, why not teach it as such? Presumably, these students came here wanting to receive a Western education. Let them know when they’re getting one, just as a matter of fact — no need to make a big thing of it.

          During my brief visit to Thailand a couple of years back, I was struck by the strong chauvinism exhibited in that culture. People made no bones about it: If it’s Thai, it’s the best. (And we were expected to act like we agreed. I was repeatedly told that the quickest way to insult Thai people was to act like we weren’t enjoying a meal or a tour or whatever. Thais smiled all the time, and we were expected to do the same — which was a bit of a strain on me, given my nature, but I managed.)

          To make us feel better, they’d make excuses for us, wretched foreigners that we were. At one point, a host remarked that we were quite good-looking — we didn’t have a bunch of freckles the way so many farangs do.

          The freckles thing aside, rather than being insulted by this, I found it rather charming. I was glad they thought so much of their culture, and even their inherent pulchritude, because I thought it was all pretty great myself.

          And my experience wouldn’t have been improved or enhanced by Thais pretending that their values and opinions were universal, rather than evidence of their culture…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, there’s a lot of people out there who HATE David Brooks. And I read the overwrought things they say about him, and it’s easy to see who is the rational one.

      Whether he’s writing his column or appearing on PBS or NPR, he’s always the calm, thoughtful adult in the room. Or one of them, since E.J. Dionne and Mark Shields wear that label rather well, too.

      And among the things I like about him is the respect he displays, something lacking in his critics. He doesn’t disdain other people the way writers such as Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Paul Krugman do.

      At different times in my life, I’ve had different favorite columnists. For quite a few years, it was Tom Friedman. But for some time now, it’s been Brooks. It’s not all of his columns necessarily, but the good ones are really good.

      Of course, when I want a break from seriousness, I’m also fond these days of Alexandra Petri

  2. bud

    I don’t usually read Brooks, or George Will or some of the others because they tend to expend a whole lot of words without saying much of anything useful. Paul Krugman on the other hand makes it clear what are the issues, what’s at stake and how to fix the problem. Rachael Maddow is my favorite and you don’t even have to read her stuff. She’s on the air every night.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      See, that’s inconvenient for me. I’ve acknowledged before that I’ve enjoyed her takes on things (while disagreeing entirely with conclusions). But it’s extremely unusual for me to see or hear her (or Bill O’Reilly or any of them). I don’t get cable, and if I did I’d use it to watch AMC. If she wants to say it to me, she needs to write it.

      Krugman does indeed “make it clear” precisely whom he despises. As do Krauthammer and Will, as I mentioned.

      Krugman gives me the impression he only associates with people who agree with him entirely, and pat him on the back a good deal…

  3. Harry Harris

    I’m liking the newer Brooks better than the former – less ideological, and more willing to confess the values-driven components of his positions. Not as stark as Glen Beck with his newly-found conscience, but more emotionally sensitive than before. He may have seen the present horror of the exploitative Trump phenomenon demanding a more critical examining of Republican politics and a more empathetic understanding of folks outside his own educational, intellectual, and financial back yard.
    Though he often finds himself a reluctant apologist for conservative and right-wing thinking, he certainly wants a “kinder and gentler” version of conservative governance, he somewhat openly struggles with the mean-spirited elements that drive much conservative thought as well as its a priori denial of evidence and self-deluding fact-bending. Compared to other commentators from the right who I read like George Will (a brain without a heart) or Charles Krauthammer ( a paragon of calm viciousness) I’d take Brooks in a heartbeat now that he’s more attuned to his own.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Glad to hear it. But what do you mean by “his own?”

      Are you suggesting there’s some group he belongs to and bears some responsibility for?

      I don’t see him that way at all. I see him as more like me, or more like I’d like to be, when I grow up. I don’t see him as having membership in either the left or the right. If I did see him that way, I’d like him less.

      Yes, the people out there who really, really hate him seem to be on the left, or would probably describe themselves that way, and no doubt see him as totally on the other side. But I think the reason those people don’t get him is that the notion that there are modes of being other than left and right is beyond their ken…

      1. bud

        I don’t hate Brooks so your painting of those who disagree with him is with an overly broad brush. It’s just that his columns are not particularly useful. They tend to come across as a forced attempt to occupy this sort of fantasy “middle” ground which really doesn’t make any sense in today’s politics except perhaps for some of the more right wing democrats. Brook’s frustration with the Republican Party is really just a reality check that the GOP is nothing but a soulless amalgam of weasel word using sycophants whose only reason for existence is to promote the general welfare of the very well off. To his credit Brooks appears to sort of recognize this but fails to fully grasp the reality of today’s political environment. That is to say the Republican Party is now almost entirely the party of Trump. Perhaps there is a tiny handful of Republicans who would be comfortable in the GOP of old. But that shrinking cadre of individuals is, at best, a rump fringe of the party. So what we now have is Trump vs Rump. Given the near complete takeover of the party by the orange billionaire and his alt-right minions I would suggest that the booty portion of the party is shrinking faster than the backside of Kim Kardashian on liposuction. Brooks sort of gets it. But he’s a day late and a dollar short.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          I don’t hate Brooks so your painting of those who disagree with him is with an overly broad brush.”

          And as we all know, birds of a feather are often tarred with the same brush.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          Brooks sort of gets it. But he’s a day late and a dollar short.”

          Well, there’s much to be said for effort, nonetheless. And it’s always important to make hay while the iron is hot.

      2. bud

        It’s a fair point that there are “modes of being other than left and right”. But where you 100% lose me is when you strain to a ridiculous extreme to brand Republicans and Democrats as equally culpable in the decline of civility in political discourse. Lumping Charles Krauthammer together with Paul Krugman is just plain ridiculous. Krauthammer is a pure ideolougue whereas Krugman is very much a pragmatist.

        1. Harry Harris

          Bud, you might consider asserting equivalence between Krauthammer and Krugman false. So do I, but it may well seem not so ridiculous to one, perhaps Brad, who clings to the “moderate” label and sees Krugman’s sometimes harsh or even petty tone. One shouldn’t completely ignore Krauthammer’s rare but real crossing over the center line on issues he seldom writes about. Where I see the big non-equivalency is the depth of Krugman’s expertise in economics from which he writes and the largely theoretical basis (as you point out) of Krauthammer and Will and others. I much prefer biases based on knowledge and expertise. Krauthammer is a paid red meat thrower. Will is an expert – on baseball, a game he loves and has studied much, but likely never played. Outside or that, he’s a glib thinker who loves big words.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’m not sure that I know what you mean by “One shouldn’t completely ignore Krauthammer’s rare but real crossing over the center line on issues he seldom writes about.”

            But I feel I should point out the differences here. Will is a conservative.

            Krauthammer is a neoconservative. And neoconservatives are liberals who felt abandoned by fellow liberals after Vietnam — and other Democratic Party excesses of the 1970s.

            So liberals are bound to agree with Krauthammer occasionally, but not because he’s crossing over or anything; that’s just what he believes.

            Krauthammer agrees with me a lot more than he agrees with y’all, and sometimes I enjoy it, but because of his tone, I consider it a guilty pleasure.

            As for Krugman — if he’d stick to economics I probably wouldn’t mind him. But his attitudes on other topics, and the dismissive way he expresses them, seem sophomoric to me. The analogy I frequently use is, he can sometimes sound like a college sophomore working as an intern at Democratic Party headquarters.

            And fellows, if you’re looking for academic credentials, you’re generally not going to find them among pundits because most are journalists, and journalists by definition are generalists. If we’re any good, we know something about almost everything. And if we’re really good, we see how the bits and pieces we know fit together.

            Pursuing a single discipline to the doctorate, and in Krugman’s case Nobel, level can cause you to have half-baked, shallow perception with regard to almost everything else. Not if you’re a true Renaissance Man, of course, but few of us rise to that level.

            As for academic credentials: Don’t forget that Krauthammer, who earned undergraduate honors in both economics and political science, went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School (despite his crippling accident during that time). He was a rather brilliant psychiatrist before he drifted into becoming an ink-stained wretch…

            1. bud

              Krauthammer is a neoconservative. …who felt abandoned by fellow liberals after Vietnam — and other Democratic Party excesses of the 1970s.

              This is where we talk past each other. What you consider EXCESSES are what I would regard as PRAGMATISM. I’m sure you find the liberal EXCESSES ideologically based, but you are just flat wrong. Hence the reason I find Krauthammer utterly wrong and totally unreasonable when it comes to issues of war. And this is a perfect illustration of why your continued rants about how we must consider issues beyond the left/right dichotomy so off putting. Because to people like Doug and me you are are an extremist when it comes to foreign intervention. Sometimes it’s just not possible to see yourself the way others see you.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Bud, you can call my views on national security extreme all you want. But the fact is that my views on our role in the world is consistent with where most folks in the security sphere, whether Democrats or Republicans, have been since 1945.

                I’m sure that some specifics of my views might be more in line with folks on the left end of that consensus, and at other times I’ll be toward the right. But its a centrist consensus I’m talking about here, so I’m never straying far, and certainly not to anywhere that would be “extreme.”

                The people I’m going to disagree with are a mix of isolationists, pacifists and noninterventionists on both the left and the right. Some of those folks tend to be very, VERY sure of the rightness of their beliefs, and I suppose to them a centrist looks extreme…

                1. bud

                  I clearly remember you stating unequivocally that you would have supported invading Iraq EVEN if we knew there were no WMD. That is just an extreme position that very, very few would agree with. Heck, a higher proportion of Americans probably support a Muslim ban or other alt-right policies. It is simply outlandish to claim your positions on foreign wars are centrist.

            2. Harry Harris

              What I mean is that Dr K’s opinions on several matters are more in line with moderate and liberal opinion than the right-wingers whom he is paid to feed. Contrasted with the Trump, Hannity, and Fox and Friends crowd, he’s no ignoramous.
              As far as Krugman, he can seem as petulant as learned and as personally vain as most any (short of Trump). I take his pronouncements outside economics with my usual, handy grain of salt, His economic analysis and commentary carries weight, but does not inspire discipleship.

      3. Harry Harris

        I used the “his own” phrase twice The backyard usage refers to his attempts to consider and understand people who make much less money doing much less interesting work, have less exposure to theoretical thinking, and aren’t very broadly educated.
        The second refers to his own heartbeat, a reference to a seemingly increased emotional and empathetic component influencing his thinking, not his political leaning.
        While I think Brooks pushes hard against the polarization that has ruined (in my opinion) most of our political, public, and personal discourse, I certainly see him as commenting from a center-right perspective. He’s much like the former “moderate Republican” members of congress who have disappeared from the cover of that party’s shrinking tent or have been intimidated into signing onto its manifestos.


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