It is not clear to me whether the self-satisfied pretentiousness of David Brooks bothers me more than his confident assertion of the moronic, but the combination is beyond irritating. Consider his ruminations yesterday concerning when you should defer to the views of others. One of the questions he asks is whether you should hide or change political or religious views that make you unpopular.
I agree with his general view that you should not sacrifice your convictions for immediate popularity, but his method of getting to this conclusion seems quite bizarre. Brooks argues that “most of our core beliefs originated from some great political figure from the distant past.” They are part of a “transcendent tradition,” he suggests. And then after this Burkean chamber music, he walks off into outer darkness. He asserts that “No sensible person would ever be happy betraying the approval of the admired dead just to win some passing approval in the here and now.”
I pass over the assumption that the approval of the present would be “passing.” What could it mean to betray the approval of the admired dead? Are the dead looking down at us from heaven approving or disapproving of our conduct? Do we “betray” Aristotle if we depart from his views?
What is going on here is more than the gaffe of a regular columnist. Brooks wants us to assume that the customs, habits, and traditions of the past are to be revered because they are the product of accumulated wisdom. It is the rhetorical perspective that was invoked to defend slavery, racism, and sexism. It fails to recognize that the traditions of a society are often the product of indefensible power rather than disinterested deliberation. It is a view that honors Edmund Burke and ignores the wisdom of John Stuart Mill, let alone Michel Foucault. It is the perspective promoted by those in power cynically framed in a hypothetical which asks a person to hold on to unpopular views.