American Fragility and the Latest Political Hijinks

  • David Brooks on a kind of American decline, echoing some points of a 2018 book I happen to be half-way through reading;
  • Quick links about slitting throats, Republican credulity, and firing Democrats;
  • John Scalzi on that Ohio ballot measure.

Here’s another coincidence about reading a book that turns out to so closely reflecting current events. (Recall this 4 Aug post.)

Today’s major item is an opinion essay by David Brooks in NYT. The coincidence is that I’m part-way through reading one of those books I’ve been meaning to get around to for the not-quite-five-years since it was published, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, published in 2018. And Brooks cites the book in this essay, though his points aren’t precisely those of the book.

David Brooks, NY Times, 10 Aug 2023 (in today’s paper, 11 Aug 2023): Hey, America, Grow Up!

As other writers have done, Brooks extols the generation following World War II, but dwells on the decline in America since 1980 or so.

If I were asked to trace the decline of the American psyche, I suppose I would go to a set of cultural changes that started directly after World War II and built over the next few decades, when writers as diverse as Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe noticed the emergence of what came to be known as the therapeutic culture.

In earlier cultural epochs, many people derived their self-worth from their relationship with God, or from their ability to be a winner in the commercial marketplace. But in a therapeutic culture people’s sense of self-worth depends on their subjective feelings about themselves. Do I feel good about myself? Do I like me?

From the start, many writers noticed that this ethos often turned people into fragile narcissists. It cut them off from moral traditions and the normal sources of meaning and identity. It pushed them in on themselves, made them self-absorbed, craving public affirmation so they could feel good about themselves. As Lasch wrote in his 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” such people are plagued by an insecurity that can be “overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others.”


By, say, 2010, it began to be clear that we were in the middle of a mental health crisis, with rising depression and suicide rates, an epidemic of hopelessness and despair among the young. Social media became a place where people went begging for attention, validation and affirmation — even if they often found rejection instead.

Before long, safetyism was on the march. This is the assumption that people are so fragile they need to be protected from social harm. Slate magazine proclaimed 2013 “the year of the trigger warning.” Concepts like “microaggression” and “safe spaces” couldn’t have lagged far behind.

This was accompanied by what you might call the elephantiasis of trauma. Once, the word “trauma” referred to brutal physical wounding one might endure in war or through abuse. But usage of the word spread so that it was applied across a range of upsetting experiences.

And then this:

Apparently, every national phenomenon has to turn into a culture war, and that’s what happened to the psychological crisis. In one camp, there were the coddlers. These were the people who squarely faced how much abuse, mistreatment and pain there was in society. They sought to alter behavior and reform institutions so that no one would feel emotionally unsafe.

The problem is, the coddling approach turned out to be counterproductive. It was based on a series of false ideas that ended up hurting the people it was trying to help.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt described the first bad idea in “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It was the notion that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” inducing people to look at the wounds in their past and feel debilitated, not stronger.

The second false idea was, “I am a thing to whom things happen.” The traumatized person is cast as a passive victim unable to control his own life. He is defined by suffering and lack of agency.

The third bad idea is, “If I keep you safe, you will be strong.” But overprotective parenting and overprotective school administration don’t produce more resilient children; they produce less resilient ones.

Now, the problem with this is…. Lukianoff and Haidt, in their book, which I’m about half-way through reading, identify three bad ideas, or Untruths, and Brooks’ three bad ideas only match their first. The book’s three Untruths are these:

  • What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
  • Always Trust Your Feelings
  • Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People

So does Brooks not agree that their second and third items are untruths? Anyway, Brooks goes on to discuss the “anti-fragile coalition,” led by Jordan Peterson and lesser imitators from Sen. Josh Hawley on down. So his angle is different than Lukianoff & Haidt’s. But he does make some points I find valuable:

If we’re going to build a culture in which it is easier to be mature, we’re going to have to throw off some of the tenets of the therapeutic culture. Maturity, now as ever, is understanding that you’re not the center of the universe. The world isn’t a giant story about me.

In a nontherapeutic ethos, people don’t build secure identities on their own. They weave their stable selves out of their commitments to and attachments with others. Their identities are forged as they fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens. The process is social and other-absorbed; not therapeutic.

Maturity in this alternative ethos is achieved by getting out of your own selfish point of view and developing the ability to absorb, understand and inhabit the views of others.

Mature people are calm amid the storm because their perception lets them see the present challenges from a long-term vantage. They know that feeling crappy about yourself sometimes is a normal part of life. They are considerate to and gracious toward others because they can see situations from multiple perspectives. They can withstand the setbacks because they have pointed their life toward some concrete moral goal.

Brooks seems to me to be a wise person, but to my taste he too often falls back on conventional wisdom, even when conventional wisdom has not caught up with the modern understanding of the world.


A few quick links.

Washington Post, George F. Will (a long-time, respected conservative commentator), 11 Aug 2023: Opinion | DeSantis’s ‘slitting throats’ rhetoric repels moderates he might need

Of course, isn’t it odd that the headline here worries only about the political consequences, and not the grotesque immorality of calling for slitting throats?


LGBTQNation, Jamie Valentino, 10 Aug 2023: Republicans find LGBTQ+ rights “unthinkable” yet can easily believe in aliens, subtitled “They can contemplate an outer galaxy species based on conjecture and movies but can’t validate the queer folks breathing and pleading in front of them.”

Republican leaders claim they condemn queerness because they don’t believe LGBTQ+ people have the right to exist. After all, it’s not sanctioned by the Bible. But in the absence of evidence aside from the words of three straight cis men, they embraced the conversation of aliens with complete legitimacy. No ridicule. No hesitation.

We know how credulous conservatives are.


NY Times, 9 Aug 2023: DeSantis Suspends Second Elected Prosecutor in Florida, subtitled “The Republican governor accused Monique H. Worrell, the state attorney in Orlando and a Democrat, of leniency toward violent criminals, a charge her office has denied.”

So now DeSantis just dismisses (Democratic) elected officials he doesn’t like. Apparently he has that power.


John Scalzi, Whatever, 9 Aug 2023: Post-Mortem on Ohio Issue 1

Scalzi lives in Ohio, and this is a long piece about the ballot measure earlier this week in which Republicans tried to make it harder to amend the Ohio constitution, specifically in anticipation of another vote later this year about installing abortion rights into that constitution.

Scalzi is a brilliant writer in that he can clarify things without seeming particularly mean about it. Even being funny about it.

That Issue 1 is mostly about abortion rights isn’t just speculation; Frank LaRose, Ohio’s current Secretary of State, said the quiet part out loud, saying it’s “100%” about that, because the GOP these days can’t actually stop monologuing about their evil plans. That it would also toss out the possible marijuana legalization initiative for November, and possible future initiatives on things like raising the minimum wage or redoing the frankly ridiculous gerrymandering in the state, or anything else, was just the cherry on top. At the end of the day, the Ohio GOP wanted to make sure their broadly unpopular laws telling people with uteruses they had no control over their own bodies were never challenged.

Long piece. One more excerpt:

The blatant dishonesty of the GOP and conservative messaging on Issue 1 is par for the course with their political messaging elsewhere, and it reminds me of two things: The absolute contempt the GOP has for their voters, in that they don’t feel like their voters need or deserve anything close to the truth; and how extremely well-trained GOP voters have become to reject the truth when it is inconvenient for their personal political preferences. As noted before, this particular time, the GOP disinformation regime didn’t work as well as it usually does, and some portion of the usual GOP voters didn’t swallow the bullshit. This will not teach the GOP to back off on the bullshit. It will teach them to shove the bullshit even harder the next time.

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