Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith but on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.
So says David Brooks in his latest New York Times opinion piece, “The Next Culture War.” Yet, sentences 2, 3, 4, and 5, of the above paragraph, if they were more honest, would start with, “They, and only they.” The implication seems obvious: social liberals cannot weave the sinews of society, or if they have been, then it is their fault that we’re in the mess we’re in now. Indeed, the point that must not be missed here is Brooks’ stress that these sinews be reweaved. This is simple “take our country back” 2.0.
If Brooks thought that the sinews of society were being weaved in an acceptable manner now, then he would only need to call for a continued weaving, or a partnered weaving. But then he’d had to drop the war language that has become so necessary to conversations like this. He’d had to drop the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that pervades our society. He’d have to lose his fixation on winning.
To be sure, the picture that Brooks paints for what social conservatives could be known for would be much more appetizing to the general public than current pictures.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life. . . . It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private.
There are three problem with this vision of a new face of social conservatism, though. First, this looks an awful lot like current social liberalism. In that case, this would not be a new face of social conservatism at all, but rather a rebranding for social conservatives. Concern for justice, poverty, strong communities, and even a transcendent spirituality have long been markers of social liberals in this country. Brooks understands this, no doubt, and this is why he is calling for social conservatives to drop their obsession with sex, particularly the sex lives of others. But to act as if there are not already groups — conservative and liberal — doing this sort of work belittles those who have been working tirelessly on these fronts for decades and who did not decide to do such work because they needed a PR reboot.
And that’s the second problem with Brooks’ vision. As he frames the “next culture war” it is nothing more than a push for conservatives to create better PR for themselves, to be seen doing things that are more compassionate than their recent insistence that whole swaths of our country don’t deserve equal rights. I seem to remember a saying attributed to Jesus about doing things just so you can be seen that might not square so well with Brooks’ idea. But I digress.
Brooks’ recipe may be the “more practical” way to win a culture war, but that’s only meaningful if your chief aim is to win such a war.
Third, and most importantly I think, Brooks is still beholden to the language of “culture wars.” As long as this is the case, conservatives and liberals will necessarily be pitted against each other. This is seen, for instance, in the first point above. Brooks is not asking that conservatives and liberals join together to continue to make our society more fair, more equal, and more just. He seems to simply want conservatives to look better. The increased polarization in this country has been well documented, and while what Brooks is calling for in broad strokes is laudable, the insistence on culture war language only serves to further this divide. And it does so on issues that conservatives and liberals would seem to be able to agree.
Brooks closes by saying that he does not expect social conservatives to change their views on sex but that he is calling on them to give up that fight, for the time being at least, for a more practical one.
The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.
If Brooks’ concern is really with lifting up those whom society has forgotten, and not with simply marketing the “Compassionate Conservative,” then he is undermining his own goals with combative language that sets social conservatives on a pedestal as the sole possessors of compassion, spirituality, and selflessness. Brooks, though, is more concerned with winning an arbitrary, abstract “war.” And his recipe seems straightforward: use people as props to show how compassionate and caring you are, unlike those bad social liberals who only want to make you dependent on the government. Brooks’ recipe may be the “more practical” way to win a culture war, but that’s only meaningful if your chief aim is to win such a war.
You may win, but what good is it if you have failed to recognize your shared humanity with those not like you? What good is it if you must trample and defame others in the process? Or, to ask it another way, what will it profit social conservatives to win the culture war and lose their soul?
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