My plans yesterday did not include watching and hour and a half Youtube talk! But when a friend forwarded a talk by David Brooks about “The Next American Culture,” the title intrigued me enough to take a peek. I had never heard David Brooks speak and indeed, didn’t know who he was.
But he was clearly a good speaker, as he immediately brought the audience in with some charming humor that opened the heart and mind to receive the complex and fascinating and eloquently-articulated ideas that followed. I just meant to listen a short while and 90 minutes later, got up with all-systems firing as he articulated the things I have cared about and talked about and written about and tried to live, all in his own style and well-spoken words. My friend had labelled him as a “thoughtful conservative,” a term these days that feels like the very definition of oxymoron, but if indeed his politics are far to the right of my own, you would never know it from our shared agreement about the narratives that drive our culture and our desperate need for a new one.
The short summary of his ideas is as follows:
• From 1900 to 1968 or so, there was a needed sense of “we’re all in this together,” a logical response to World War I, the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. From war bonds to women factory-workers/ baseball teams/ jazz bands, from Government’s helping hand in the New Deal, the values of modesty, hard work, community building rose to the top. The weaknesses included the continued exclusion in some realms— for example, black folks joined the team work in the factories, the armed forces, the entertainment industry keeping our spirits up, but still could not live in this neighborhood or eat in that restaurant when they came back from the wars. In other realms, men were emotionally cold, food was boring, the comfortable suburban ideal overshadowed the creative impulse, women after the wars were returned to the limits of homemakers (though some positive results in child raising). It wasn’t the “good ole days” and yet, the “we’re all in this together” mentality is something we would do well to re-consider in the face of its absence in the next phase of American culture.
• From 1968 to the present, the energy shifted from “us” to “me,” from collective collaboration to individual liberation. In 1969, the Super-Bowl pitted two quarterbacks against each other— Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts and “Broadway Joe” Namath of the New York Jets. Unitas was the humble old-school crew-cut citizen who worked off season in a low-paying factory job. Broadway Joe was the party guy in the spotlight, showing off for the cameras, doing TV ads, appearances on TV shows and even acting on Broadway. It was symbolic that the unfavored Jets won that Super Bowl, announcing the shift in culture.
In 1972, Marlow Thomas released her album and book Free to Be You and Me, saluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity. A major thematic message is that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—can achieve anything. Black pride, feminism, gay rights, the interest in Eastern religions, the back-to-the-land movements— all of this was seeking liberation from the repression of the earlier culture (and rightly so, I would add), claiming one’s worth and particular genius. And this manifested in its shadow form in the right-wing, with Reagan’s espousing getting government restraints off one’s back and encouraging the freedom to make money and live your life anyway you want, regardless of who would eventually drink the water the chemicals were thrown into.
The price of this excessive individualism was loss of both collective meaning and individual meaning and moral purpose. Statistics revealed the rise in depression, loneliness, drug addiction, mental illness, as well as loss of confidence in government (decades ago, 80% trusted government would do the right thing most of the time, now 20%). People devoid of a moral compass or common vision are vulnerable to fanaticism, alienation, identifying with a small tribe at odds with the enemy tribes.
• And so a new ethos is needed and it’s not “I’m free to believe whatever I want” nor “return to tribe and believe whatever the despots brainwash us with.” The more difficult and more essential ethos is to live at the meeting point of the individual and the commons, join the liberation of self with the collective good of the community, connect the gladness of your deep self with the essential needs of the other. The new definition of freedom is (Fran Leibowitz’s quote here) “my freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face” and in a more positive realm, “my freedom to extend my arm allows me to shake your hand.”
As a kid at the height of the Cold War, there was some prophetic moment when I had three flags on my desk. At one end, the American flag, at the other, the Russian one and in-between, the U.N. flag. I had some intuition back then that these apparent opposites had to find their common ground. Instead of a career as a diplomat, I fell into teaching music and early on, articulated the deeper hope of my classes— to teach children the importance of both “standing out” and “blending in.” The first had to do with expressing one’s unique genius, as in the jazz solo, and the second with releasing to the group sound, as in blending your voice in the choir or fitting your rhythm to the collective groove. Music demands both and so does life. Without being aware of it, I was trying—and still am— to build a culture that honors both the dignity and unique soul of each individual and the need to offer it all to the common good. I believe that’s the third culture David Brooks is aiming for.
We are so close to it and yet so far. Again, as a kid growing up with “us versus them” as the spoken and unspoken center of cultural life, I often felt like a Space invasion would unite the world against a common enemy. We would stop fighting with each other and join forces against the greater threat and in so doing, finally see the humanity in each other.
And lo and behold, that common enemy has arrived!! Two, in fact. The Covid 19 virus and the unmistakable threats of climate change. Neither care which political party we serve, neither is the least bit interested in whether we’re gay or straight or black or white or Christian or Buddhist or rich or poor or vegan or carnivorous etc. etc. and again, etc. Here is our moment for “we’re all in this together!”
And yet. We’re still clinging to our tribe, the Republicans in Congress blocking anything that serves all of us simply because the Democrats propose it, the anti-vaxers dismissing the virus and endangering the rest of us, the nations banding together against others like high school cliques. People, people, people! Wake up! Let’s get going here! We know everything we need to know to build a kinder, more just, more sustainable culture. Why do we cling so desperately to the old half-cultures that didn’t wholly serve us then and certainly don’t serve us now?
So one final image. Remember as a kid how fun it was to build something with others? A snow fort, a sand castle, a Lincoln Logs or Lego construction? Building culture can be just as fun! David Brooks talked about “moral joy,” putting two words together that are often separate, but belong together. Why keep making ourselves miserable? Unwrap the present that these words offer and let’s get building.
PS For those interested in the talk itself, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URSERvgLDGY