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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Changing ethos: my last word (for now)

In my last three columns I’ve called on us to focus as much on becoming a good people as becoming good persons. That shift toward collective moral responsibility would moderate our culture’s emphasis on the individual and on competition — at its worst, aggression — which we’ve bundled with it and which erodes human solidarity at every level of relationship, from the personal to the international.

Last week I wrote about a convert to this call for a cultural shift — the political commentator David Brooks. His was a personal conversion. In 2013, a life motivated mainly by pursuit of worldly success was disrupted by divorce. The trauma of it forced Brooks to re-evaluate the basis of personal fulfillment. He has become a mensch, extolling sympathy with, and service to others. He shares and generalizes this story in “The Second Mountain.” As an appeal to individuals, the book is an uplifting read. As a guide for collective action, it’s unhelpful.

Brooks has little understanding of what shapes a culture’s ethos. He titles his first chapter “Moral Ecologies,” and says they are “collective responses to the big problems of a specific moment.” Then he gives a brief cultural survey of the fifties, sixties and beyond to the present. He argues that the first was characterized by tight bonds and conformity to institutions (“We’re all in this together”), the second by rebellion to achieve personal liberation and authentic individuality, and the beyond by individuality driven (presumably, by an inherent impulse) to an extreme individualism. He believes the agents of change are “moral activists and cultural pioneers.” Thus, the shift from the fifties to the sixties was initiated by “small groups of young people on communes and hippie communities.” This is not impressive analysis.

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago from 1979 to 1983, Brooks came under the influence of free market ideologue Milton Friedman. He seems unable to grasp that capitalism creates the ethos of individual striving for worldly success he now deplores; that such an ethos has been a constant in American life for 150 years (witness the perennial popularity of Horatio Alger stories); that it was in fact rampant in the fifties; that in the sixties large numbers of middle-class youth and women rejected the form the American Dream had then assumed — the affluent nuclear family living in the suburbs; and that by the eighties a newly unleashed and globalized capitalism, plus the de-funding of public goods, had begun to spread economic anxiety and re-discipline the workforce.

Brooks regards the quest for self-actualization — “climb(ing) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” — as an expression of individualism in tension with community life and service. But the effort to actualize the authentic self, as distinguished from the ego-self Brooks regards as the self that climbs the hierarchy/first mountain, isn’t isolating. A realized self is relational as well as self-delighting. It relates to others through love and to a trans-personal reality through wonder. We needn’t choose between self-actualization and solidarity.

Brooks doesn’t think politics has a role in cultural change (which will surely create a disconnect between his vocation and his new avocation). But if he understood that capitalism distorts relationships and, in its most developed form, presses us toward total isolation — each person consuming in private his/her own flow of images, the simulacra of self-fulfillment — then he would know that we must act politically to re-tame the beast even as we build alternative social and economic structures.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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