I'm passing on three clips I found most striking from David Brooks, recent NYTimes Sydney awards column:
I generally don’t agree with the arguments of those on the populist right, but I have to admit there’s a lot of intellectual energy there these days. (The Sidneys go to essays that challenge readers, as well as to those that affirm.) With that, the first Sidney goes to Christopher Caldwell for his essay “The Fateful Nineties” in First Things. Most people see the 1990s as a golden moment for America — we’d won the Cold War, we enjoyed solid economic growth, the federal government sometimes ran surpluses, crime rates fell, tech took off.
Caldwell, on the other hand, describes the decade as one in which sensible people fell for a series of self-destructive illusions: Globalization means nation-states don’t matter. Cyberspace means the material world is less important. Capitalism can run on its own without a countervailing system of moral values. Elite technocrats can manage the world better than regular people. The world will be a better place if we cancel people for their linguistic infractions.
As Caldwell sums it up: “America’s discovery of world dominance might turn out in the 21st century to be what Spain’s discovery of gold had been in the 16th — a source of destabilization and decline disguised as a windfall.”
In “The Great Malformation,” Talbot Brewer observes that parenthood comes with “an ironclad obligation to raise one’s children as best one can.” But these days parents have surrendered child rearing to the corporations that dominate the attention industry, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and so on: “The work of cultural transmission is increasingly being conducted in such a way as to maximize the earnings of those who oversee it.”
He continues: “We would be astonished to discover a human community that did not attempt to pass along to its children a form of life that had won the affirmation of its elders. We would be utterly flabbergasted to discover a community that went to great lengths to pass along a form of life that its elders regarded as seriously deficient or mistaken. Yet we have slipped unawares into precisely this bizarre arrangement.” In most societies, the economy takes place in a historically rooted cultural setting. But in our world, he argues, the corporations own and determine the culture, shaping our preferences and forming, or not forming, our conception of the good.
It’s rare that an essay jolts my convictions on some major topic. But that happened with one by Subrena E. Smith and David Livingstone Smith, called “The Trouble With Race and Its Many Shades of Deceit,” in New Lines Magazine. The Smiths are, as they put it, a so-called mixed-race couple — she has brown skin, his is beige. They support the aims of diversity, equity and inclusion programs but argue that there is a fatal contradiction in many antiracism programs: “Although the purpose of anti-racist training is to vanquish racism, most of these initiatives are simultaneously committed to upholding and celebrating race.” They continue: “In the real world, can we have race without racism coming along for the ride? Trying to extinguish racism while shoring up race is like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.”
I’ve heard this argument — that we should seek to get rid of the whole concept of race — before and dismissed it. I did so because too many people I know have formed their identity around racial solidarity — it’s a source of meaning and strength in their lives. The Smiths argue that this is a mistake because race is a myth: “The scientific study of human variation shows that race is not meaningfully understood as a biological grouping, and there are no such things as racial essences. There is now near consensus among scholars that race is an ideological construction rather than a biological fact. Race was fashioned for nothing that was good. History has shown us how groups of people ‘racialize’ other groups of people to justify their exploitation, oppression and annihilation.”