David Brooks sees the future through the past by American Litterateur

I’m just reading Mr. Brooks column of March 1, 2012 titled The Machiavellian Temptation. For those who are not old enough to recall, this is a pastiche on the windy and now utterly forgotten book by Jean-François Revel titled The Totalitarian Temptation, first published in English in 1977. I still have my, now yellowed, Penguin paperback edition from 1978. I can say that I thought, at the time, that this could have been a more effective short essay, rather than a three hundred thirty page index-less polemic. In my youth I adjudged popular works of propaganda as worthy of my time, especially after Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, Mr. Revel’s book had the character of a moral imperative. He had also produced his bestseller Without Marx or Jesus earlier in the decade.

Mr. Brooks’ title expresses a habit of using this kind of puffed up metaphor to lend his collection of capacious platonic abstractions some intellectual weight, although it rarely succeeds. His short historical sketch of American moral practice utterly cut off from it’s Christian roots simply serves to prop up the notion of ‘secularism’ as an American mainstay. This serves the purposes of propaganda, of the power of rhetoric to shape the apprehension of the zeitgeist, rather that a reflection of the American actuality. Mr. Brooks starting point is a book by his colleague at the Times Mr. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. Mr. Duhigg’s book is the genesis of this episode of moralizing from Mr. Brooks. Let me selectively quote from the essay, in the interest of brevity and clarification:

“This research implies a different character model. If the 19th-century model implied a moralistic captain steering the ship of the soul, the new character model implies a crafty Machiavellian, deftly manipulating the neural networks inside.”

Here Mr. Brooks compares the rhetorically argued ‘captain’, the 19th-century un-moored but moral protagonist, with the ‘crafty Machiavellian’, the imbricated in evil villain of his essay, and in the history of ‘Western’ ethical/political thought , as what is actual rather than a complete caricature of our moral/ethical stance toward ourselves, as sometimes self-defeatingly perverse, as divided beings capable of destructive and self-destructive behavior. Do we ,now, in our stance towards ourselves, use the methodology of rewards and punishments to manipulate our desired behaviors? The question needs to be asked, without the weighty baggage of this self-serving moralist.

“To be an effective person, you are supposed to coolly appraise your own unconscious habits, and the habits of those under your care. You are supposed to devise oblique strategies to alter the triggers and routines. Every relationship becomes slightly manipulative, including your relationship with yourself. You’re marketing to yourself, trying to arouse certain responses by implanting certain cues.”

The next stage of the argument as presented is we must, in sum, take Capital as our model i.e. ‘marketing’ toward our self and its habits, although this is rejected as unacceptable in the next paragraph.

“This is sort of disturbing. I’d just emphasize something that peeps in and out of Duhigg’s book but that is often lost in the larger advice culture. The important habitual neural networks are not formed by mere routine, nor can they be reversed by clever triggers. They are burned in by emotion and fortified by strong yearnings, like the yearnings for admiration and righteousness.”

Are all of us ‘yearning’ for ‘admiration’ and ‘righteousness’ ? This is such highly charged language. Are some of our human aspirations less grandiose, and more attuned to our daily pragmatically oriented selves? Or are we eternally mired in this melodrama of sin and salvation as hastily constructed by the author. For a startling, yet vivid, comparison of this set of assertions by Mr. Brooks, that I have foreshortened but I don’t think essentially changed, see pages six and seven of the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel by Alexander Kojève, of the opening chapter titled In Place of an Introduction.

“As the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.”


Here Mr. Brooks tips his hand: What ‘Victorians understood’ is quite opaque, but evokes the hidebound moralizing of only a small portion of what a very particular set of Victorians might have understood, as foundational in ethical terms. Alcoholics Anonymous simply insist on a belief in a higher power not the male, jealous,murderous monster of the Abrahamic Tradition. Conservatism is defined by its apologetics and rationalizations of the abuses of male power: the exercise of male power is unequivocally right, a priori. And the intellectual gloss of science adds an indefinable frisson.

American Litterateur


About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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