Yesterday, David Brooks assembled sounds into phonemes that after hours of cogitation settled into sentence structures. Let’s look at them together.
It turns out that John McCain’s most important service to American democracy was not rendered in a P.O.W. camp in Vietnam. It’s being rendered right now in the U.S. Senate.
The experience as a POW was a horrifying one for McCain; I’m not sure how participation in the Vietnam War and his subsequent captivity contributed to American democracy. The second sentence is usual Brooksian filler, of the kind my students specialize, another way of consuming word count (“John McCain is a senator from Arizona.”).
In the first place, McCain seems to be the only member of Congress who insists on holding hearings and working toward compromise before passing major legislation. This would seem to be the very elemental prerequisite of good government — like a doctor seeking a diagnosis before performing surgery — but McCain appears to be the only member, or at least the only Republican, willing to risk unpopularity to insist upon a basic respect for our sacred institutions.
Democrats can’t hold hearings until they control the House and Senate; until then the ranking members of committees can request them. Also, I’m sure his colleagues Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray may disagree with him.
Second, McCain is one of very few Republicans willing to stand up for the American story. Human beings can be rallied around one of three things: religion, tribe or ideals.
“I’m alluding to Bobos in Paradise, available for a few bucks used on Amazon.”
Donald Trump and the campus multiculturalists want to organize people by ethnic tribe, which has always been the menacing temptation throughout our history. But McCain seeks to preserve our traditional rallying point — our ideals.
The Brooks column engages in the classic Smart Conservative bait and switch, also known as the Smart Con: although the headline and lead suggest an frontal assault on conservatism, the body establishes an equivalency between it and a liberal straw man. Conservatism may suck, but liberals suck too! “Multiculturalism” is sure doing a lot of work as portmanteau. How the Jewish Brooks can deny that black, indigenous, and Latino activists form no less a part of Our Ideals shows the extent to which the Smart Conservative will value order over even the faintest ripple.
Third and most important, McCain still believes that paideia is essential for democracy. Paideia is the process by which we educate one another for citizenship. Paideia is based on the idea that a healthy democracy requires a certain sort of honorable citizen — that if we’re not willing to tell one another the truth, devote our lives to common purposes or defer to a shared moral order, then we’ll succumb to the shallowness of a purely commercial civilization, we’ll be torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of extreme individualism, we’ll rip one another to shreds in the naked struggle for power.
Ah — Greek, hijacked for the purpose of replacing one daddy figure (Trump) with another (McCain).
As the brilliant Spanish philosopher Javier Gomá Lanzón reminds us, most moral education happens by power of example.
The George “F.” Will Tag of Erudition.
McCain’s career has had its low moments, as all of ours do — a banking scandal, Sarah Palin — but he exemplifies a practical standard of excellence to an extraordinary degree: enduring in Vietnam, seeking compromise legislation on everything from immigration reform to campaign spending, condemning torture after 9/11.
The column’s weasel moment, an example of odious compression. The “ideals” for which this member of the Keating Five stood for he undercut if not destroyed by picking an ambitious imbecile as a running mate: a clear antecedent for the conservative enthusiasm for Roy Moore. And notice McCain’s “condemning” torture. Brooks knows McCain blasted the Bush administration for the use of torture as an instrument of anti-terrorism in the early post-9/11 period but yielded to a significant congressional dilution.
That is an essential bulwark in the age of Trump. That is what needs rebuilding. Books will someday be written on how Trump, this wounded and twisted man, became morally acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But it must have something to do with the way over the past decades we have divorced private and public morality, as if private narcissism would have no effect on public conduct.
It must have something to do with the great tide of moral libertarianism from Herbert Marcuse on down. This tide taught that progress meant emancipating the individual from shared moral orders. It taught transgression was always delightful and that morality was individual and optional.
“Both sides do it,” Diamond Dave mumbles again, thinking about the Twitter response from Russiabots.
The moral fabric of society is invisible but essential. Some use their public position to dissolve it so they can have an open space for their selfishness. McCain is one of the strongest reweavers we have, and one of our best and most stubborn teachers.
Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran. Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father. I’ll repeat: Sarah Palin.