I’ve decided to liven things up a bit here at the old homestead, and to that end, will be republishing some of my favorite old posts by moving them to the top of the page.
This is a really good article, and has been referenced by lots of folks on the web:
Among the Bourgeoisophobes
In it, David Brooks pulls together strains of thought which look at what I’ll loosely call “Western Civilization” and violently reject much of it. Why? Damn good question. But ask yourself: Why is it that when I was in college in the 70’s, the leaders of the most violent radical groups were the children of upper- and upper-middle-class families? Why are the leaders of the Islamicist movement the prosperous, the well-educated, in short, those most likely to prosper and succeed in the context of the Western market economy?
There are a lot of reasons.
And by coincidence, I happened to pick up a book that lays out the philosophical underpinnings that support this issue. It’s a damn good book, and one that anyone who grew up in the shadow of the 60’s – that would be anyone born after 1950 – ought to read.
The Roots of Romanticism by Isiah Berlin.
Isiah Berlin is not considered by many to have been a “serious” philosopher. He never wrote the ‘Big Book’ that was expected of him. But he was hella smart, and in a world where there was required reading for college freshmen, his lectures and smaller publications would be on the list.
To brutally truncate his argument into one quote, let me offer this:
Suppose you went – and spoke with [long list of European Romantic intellectual figures, including Hugo, de Staël, Schlegel, Goethe, Coleridge, Byron]
Suppose you had spoken to these persons. You would have found that their ideal of life was approximately of the following kind. The values to which they attached the highest importance were such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to an ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying. You would have found that they were not primarily interested in knowledge, or in the advancement of science, not interested in political power, not interested in happiness, not interested, above all, in adjustment to life, in finding your place in society, in living at peace with your government, even loyalty to your king, or your republic. You would have found common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts. You would have found that they believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body, and you would have found that they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was for. You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and vulgar about it. The very notion of idealism, not in its philosophical sense, but in the ordinary sense in which we use it, that is to say the state of mind of a man who is willing to sacrifice a great deal for principles or some conviction, who is not prepared to sell out, who is prepared to go to the stake for something which he believes, because he believes in it – this attitude was relatively new. What people admired was wholeheartedness, sincerity, purity of soul, the ability and readiness to dedicate yourself to your ideal, no matter what it was.
No matter what it was: that is the important thing.
(pp 8 – 9)
What began to matter wasn’t the endless small adjustments to “objective” reality or to work with others – what mattered was your wholehearted willingness to pull down the temple rather than submit, and your ability to project your dreams and ideals – objectively, your fantasies – into the world and to try and make the world conform to them, rather than the other way round.
Shortly after I read this book, I was having a late-night dinner at a terrible Italian restaurant in Long Beach, CA (wow, too awful to even allow me to remember the name), and the only other party was a group of ‘modern-Okie’ aerospace workers – badly dressed, overweight, uncultured (they were talking excitedly about ‘The Bachelor’). The dads (two couples w/multiple kids) were apparently in the aerospace industry, and I had a jolt of realization – these were the families that built the airplanes that I fly around in, and millions of families like them build our houses, buildings, sewers, provide water and electricity, etc. etc.
And I began to look at my own attitudes and wonder just why the hell I felt permission to look amusedly at them, and to wonder for a moment which team I was on, and which one I wanted to be on.
Just a thought.
Originally posted May 8, 2002