jimsleeper.com » ‘Status’ vs. Self-Esteem in Washington

‘Status’ vs. Self-Esteem in Washington

Status/Self-Esteem Disequilibrium Strikes Again

By Jim Sleeper – February 3, 2009, TPMCafe

Bill Kristol’s New York Times column was doomed the day it began on January 7, 2008. And, yes, I told you so right here. But when it comes to warning about David Brooks’ brew of intellectual usury and Resentment Lite, I feel a bit like Harry Markopoulos, who tried in vain to alert the SEC to Bernard Madoff’s seductive but dangerous fraudulence, only to find the feds lacking lenses or coordinates to recognize the danger.

At least I have a name for Brooks’ condition: Status/Self-Esteem Disequilibrium Syndrome (SSEDS). It designates a compulsion to cheapen one’s recognized talents and prerogatives with subtle, unnecessary ingratiations and resentments toward people with higher status and/or higher self-esteem. The syndrome runs deepest in those who live well off of it: High status-seeking, driven by low self-regard. Unfortunately, many of Brooks’ editors and fans suffer from this affliction. No wonder he’s syndicated for millions of newspaper readers and on NPR and PBS.

Some symptoms: In his Feb. 3 column Brooks does what he did last week and has done often since Obama’s election. It’s what I warned here in October that he’d do as his candidate John McCain’s instability and incompetence began to swamp his decency with the tragic inevitability of Katrina swamping New Orleans.

Brooks, I explained, would retreat to the high hills of punditry for the rest of the campaign, reverting to comic sociology and lofty recyclings of Malcolm Gladwellesque wisdom about social cognition. After the defeat, I explained, Brooks would “lampoon the inevitable follies in the Democratic recovery plan, playing the traditional role of conservatives in the wilderness who cry ‘Stop!’ without showing any credible way forward. Sometimes he’ll play the friendly conservative uncle and scold, and, when he does it well, he’ll be useful.”

Well, so what? Isn’t that what he’s there to do? But he hasn’t been proving useful in this time of systemic national reconfiguration. He’s still behaving as Nicholas Confessore described unforgettably in the Washington Monthly in 2004: Brooks has a maddening compulsion to see-saw from serious commentary to partisan Republican hackery and back, offering semi-credible analysis in one column but gryrating in the next for Bush operatives such as Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.

Over the next four years, Brooks pirouetted precisely as Confessore had described, trying to maintain his intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, but to shore up his marketable niche as a conservative Republican, on the other. He did it, with forced but often entertaining geniality, through the Republicans’ Iraq War lies, torture and warrantless surveillance, their borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, their bottomless corruption, and even George Bush’s and Hank Paulson’s lurch toward what almost every conservative considers socialism.

Surely the Republican wipe-out and the tanking economy called for Brooks to put his intelligence and patriotism ahead of partisanship. Surely it was time to re-think what’s best for “patio man,” the working- and lower-middle-class American he’d found in all those fast-growing counties he told us were seeding a permanent Republican majority.

Yet last week Brooks rejoined the Republican congressional caucus and noise machine to charge that the new stimulus package is larded with pork and social-welfare spending that promises little recovery. Usually you can’t go far wrong with charges like that in Washington, but a Times editorial soon drew on independent observers to argue persuasively that the package is better than good enough and that it deserves strong, if watchful, support.

Yet Brooks lathered progressive, good-government rhetoric onto his partisan mudslinging against the package, accusing its backers of betraying what he said should have been “a very strong case… for long-term government reform.” He opined piously that “America could fundamentally rethink its infrastructure policies — create a new model adapted to new modes of community-building. It could fundamentally rethink human capital policies — create a lifelong menu of learning options, from pre-K programs to service opportunities for the elderly.”

Can anyone recall Brooks making such a “very strong case… for long-term government reform” and for a fundamental rethinking of our infrastructure and human capital policies to the Congress of Denny Hastert and Bill Frist and to George W. Bush, for whom he’d campaigned so sinuously in 2004?

The more often you notice these unrelenting, unexplained juxtapositions of high-minded thinking with grubby right-wing propagandizing, the more you begin to sense something more weird and dangerous in it than just wily debating. What does Brooks think he’s entitled and obligated to accomplish with the high position and broad audience he’s been given? What, if anything, does the Times expect of him (and of itself), beyond keeping readers’ eyeballs on the page?

Brooks’ answer is clear enough in the Feb. 3 column, which exhibits Status/Self-Esteem Disequilibrium Syndrome perfectly. He opens with a little spoofing of rich people who haven’t yet realized that their arrogant ways are déclassé, if not verboten, in Obama’s America.

This much of the column is good fun, but soon it’s clear that Brooks wants the rich (and the rest of us) to know that they’re about to be ruled by residents of Washington’s Ward Three, a section “where many Democratic staffers, regulators, journalists, lawyers, Obama aides and senior civil servants live. Thanks to recent and coming bailouts and interventions, the people in Ward Three run the banks and many major industries. Through this power, they get to insert themselves into the intricacies of upscale life, influencing when private jets can be flown, when friends can lend each other their limousines and at what golf resorts corporate learning retreats can be held.”

It is Ward Three denizens, not the arrogant rich, for whom Brooks harbors his coldest rage, which he sublimates into acid humor: “The good news for rich people is that people in this neighborhood are very nice and cerebral. On any given Saturday, half the people in Ward Three are arranging panel discussions for the other half to participate in.”

This is Brooks’ trademark comic sociology, but with a dark tinge: The new rulers of the rich suffer from “Sublimated Liquidity Rage,” he tells us, explaining that “As lawyers, TV producers and senior civil servants, they make decent salaries, but 60 percent of their disposable income goes to private school tuition and study abroad trips. They have little left over to spend on themselves, which generates deep and unacknowledged self-pity.

“Second, they suffer from what has been called Status-Income Disequilibrium. At work they are flattered and feared. But they still have to go home and clean out the gutters because they can’t afford full-time household help…. As policy wonks, they resent people with good bone structure…. and dumb people who are richer than they are.”

Brooks catalogs their resentments without acknowledging that he shares them. And he advises his rich readers that there’ll be “times when Masters of the Universe must be Masters of the Grovel. If you are a hedge fund manager and you find yourself in conversation with a person from Ward Three, apologize for ruining the Hamptons, and subsequently, the entire global economy. What you must realize, above all, is the rich no longer control the economy and its mores. Ward Three people do, and their rule has just begun.”

This is how Brooks writes. It’s really quite perverse. Feint a bit in a progressive direction, and flatter those you’re about to skewer. Set them up by poking fun at the rich; but come down on the side of the latter in the end, dismissing with a subtle downbeat the others, whose number you’ve gotten by bowing piously toward far-reaching reforms you’ve never promoted but can use against today’s Democrats, anyway, because they haven’t promoted them, either.

All this distracts attention from the fact that, like most American conservatives, Brooks can’t reconcile his yearnings for an ordered, almost sacred liberty and national greatness with his knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of global capital and consumption that are subverting and destroying everything he claims to cherish. Blame the Democrats! Blame Ward Three!

And don’t mention or even imply that tens of millions of Americans, including the patio men you used to celebrate in the fast-growing, Sunbelt counties you told us were seeding a permanent Republican majority, are suffering materially and emotionally from having been duped, gypped, and demagogued by everything you championed so sinuously.

When the mortgage meltdown hit last summer, I noted here that Brooks really stuck it not to predatory lenders and their enablers but to hapless, desperate homeowners who’d sat in their own living rooms listening respectfully to smooth talkers they’d invited in because they offered them fistfuls of “cash back” in exchange for their signing away their paltry savings and hopes.

Brooks explained that these hapless fools had abandoned the “culture of thrift” for a “culture of debt,” and never mind that a 40-year, multi-billion-dollar campaign of easy credit and other come-ons had shown them the way and given them the incentives.

Having blamed the victims, Brooks now crafts today’s column to fan everyone else’s resentment of pointy-headed Democratic bureaucrats, lawyers, and goo-goos  who are their only hope.

That’s part of his stock in trade: Resentment Lite. But now that national-greatness conservatism has collapsed under him, something darker and heavier has crept in: Ressentiment, the sublimated, fine-spun rage borne of a gnawing, seemingly ineradicable sense of one’s own inferiority to rich people and, more tellingly, to the decent, competent people of Ward Three whose sense of justice — quite unlike Brooks’– runs stronger and deeper than their resentments.

They aren’t as deftly entertaining as he is. They can’t spin faux-folksy idioms and high-cultural references with anything like his panache. But they are now the only hope of the millions of Americans whom Brooks and his “national-greatness conservatism” beguiled and betrayed and abandoned.

Hurricane Katrina gave Brooks a glimpse into the abyss of the inadequacy and hypocrisy in his and Kristol’s national greatness conservatism. It should have been the beginning of the end of his pirouetting as liberals’ conservative poison pill. As pillar after pillar of the conservative ownership society has fallen, he’s had time to rethink and retool.

What has kept him from learning and growing? Why would someone with the brains of an honorable conservative thinker like Michael Oakeshott and the literary talents of an Edmund Burke remain stuck with the cloying instincts and habits of a neo-con wheedler and war-monger? Why would he grub around among old resentments, gyrating to score dip-slitty little points against the keepers of patio man’s and the poor’s only hope?

Did some primal ressentiment, some unshakeable feeling of smallness and vulnerability, drive Brooks maniacally up the greasy pole in the first place to the perch he occupies? Why, for all his talents and arts of ingratiation, couldn’t he dig deep enough into his doubts to face the challenges before him and the republic?

My diagnosis is that Status/Self-Esteem Disequilibrium Syndrome has kept David Brooks tied to the petty haggling, obsequious huckstering, and intellectual usury in his past. I don’t know the proper prescription. But perhaps he should pause and get to know that past better.

Perhaps he and all acute sufferers from SSEDS should begin with a slow, careful reading of Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933. It contains more than a few devastatingly sharp vignettes of the David Brookses of its time and place. (See especially Chapter 9, “War Fever,” about celebrants of German national greatness in 1914. But many of the preceding chapters are equally telling.)

There will be no escaping this reckoning in the long run. It’s going to be more tortuous than anything dreamt of in Bill Kristol’s philosophy. Better now than later.

Note: The Wall Street Journal’s “house liberal,” Tom Frank, also knocked Brooks the day after I sent him the above post. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123371071061546079.html