David Brooks and the Great Divide
Or … Downton Abbey Meets Hitler’s Jugend?
Jay B Gaskill
Ø Many thanks for all the email input. See my response at the end of this piece.
THE GREAT DIVORCE –
BROOKS IN TODAY’S NEW YORK TIMES
“…we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.
“If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.”
Ordinary working people are bit of a mystery to the mysterious 1%, to many in academia and –apparently – to David Brooks. To Mr. Brooks’ credit, he is a sufficiently deep and careful thinker to be aware of the problem and to have dedicated a good portion of his thought and writing to the task of bridging that social gap.
Early life experiences are critical. I was a fortunate lad because I grew up in a middle-class family during an age and in a part of the country where college bound-kids worked summers to save tuition money. Every summer from high school through the last summer before I entered law school, I worked in construction (highway building and in one case sewer pipe fabrication), using shovel, chainsaw and jackhammer, driving dump trucks and road rollers, belonging to the laborers union and the heavy equipment operators union at various times.
I learned every swearword in my coworkers vocabulary (not nearly as offensive as the curses that littered the language of the thousands of criminals I would later represent) I took the measure of coworkers as they took mine – without preconceived notions or expectations. These men were and are much more intelligent than the conventional wisdom within the elites would have it, and their lives were not by any means culturally impoverished, just (dare I say it?) less effete. We were voluntarily jammed together in a natural way that allowed mutual respect to be acquired and tacitly acknowledged.
Once upon a time, someone first combined the best of intentions (let’s improve humanity) with the power of government (let’s pass a law) and “voila!” there were consequences, often malign. Two rules govern what tends to happen when we attempt to make a better social order via coercion–
(1) The Law of Unintended Consequences;
(2) The Perversity Rule.
Software engineers and 21st century social scientists (at least the subset of the latter whose work habits are sufficiently free of ideology and political interference) are keenly aware of the unintended consequences rule. The Perversity Rule warns us that every improvement project, every non-profit exercise that involves large sums of money, every large undertaking that pursues broad, loosely defined purposes is an opportunity for less high minded types to exploit or pervert. These types, like warm weather termites, inhabit every political project. Both rules operate in every military conflict, revolution and grand social experiment.
There is no reasonable prospect that a large scale “national service” program, forcing the mixture of tribes –as the Brooks’ Op Ed puts it, will end well…if it does end.
The goal is a worthy one at least in the abstract. But – if you subtract the racist perversity of German National Socialism – the social class integrative goal of the Hitler’s Youth initiative was strikingly similar. And if that goal was to achieve – through coercion – a degree of social cohesion, it was strikingly “successful.”
“HJ membership was made compulsory for youths over 17 in 193, and for all over the age of 10 in 1941. By 1939, Hitler Youth membership comprised 90 percent of the country’s youth. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/hitleryouth.html”
My wife and I are fans of the NPR series Downton Abbey, the gripping story of a decent upper class British family during World War I. Millions of viewers can readily see the role in that bloody struggle in accelerating the erosion of British class privilege and social disconnectedness…and the staggering social cost in maimed bodies, broken relationships and piled corpses. Woodrow Wilson and others cheered us on. Classes and tribes were mingled, but at what cost?
Beware what you wish for.
Addendum / Response
Volunteer service, like the Peace Corps is different and laudable. Compulsory military service in time of peril is the least objectionable form of compulsory service. The Swiss example is not what David Brooks describes, a social engineering class-mix experiment, but the continuation of a long tradition that has enabled a tiny nation to cling to its independence.
There is no such compelling rationale for civilian national service, especially for the purposes that David Brooks espouses.
War and national peril can justify extreme measures and sometimes these deadly episodes have a few good side effects, class mixing, new technologies, new medicines, etc. but war, as such, also exacts terrible costs. It seems to me that WWI’s costs exceeded the benefits.
WWII is another matter.
But for the exigencies of war and national peril, where in the constitution is involuntary servitude sanctioned?
Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
First published on the Policy Think Site and the Dot 2 dot Blog
Forwards and links are welcome and encouraged. For everything else, contact the author – firstname.lastname@example.org