Since 9/11, the U.S. has had little success in influencing distant groups. Americans blew the postwar administration of Iraq because they assumed they were liberating a nation sort of like their own. And yet I can’t seem to renounce my own group, which is America. It would feel like cultural suicide to repress the central truths of my society, that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights and democracy is the most just and effective form of government.

The hard lesson of the last five years — that we live in a jagged world filled with starkly different and contesting groups — makes democracy promotion more difficult but more necessary. Only democratic habits will prevent the inevitable clash of the tribes from turning into a war of nuclear annihilation. ~David Brooks, The New York Times

I don’t know which is more dispiriting: that the recognition of deep and possibly irreconcilable cultural differences has no effect on the neocon zeal for democratisation, that Brooks thinks that “inalienable rights” and “democracy is best” are the central truths of our society or that Brooks might possibly be right about these things being the central truths of our society. 

On the first point, it seems incredible to me that you can look at the “jagged world” he describes (for pessimists and conservatives, there has never been anything but a jagged and rugged world since the Fall) and conclude that the democracy project should go forward or that, if it goes forward, it will prevent massive, devastating conflict.  The lessons of European history on this are fairly clear: for roughly 100 years all of Europe became increasingly democratic, and then entered upon the most horrific bloodbath the world had yet seen in no small part because of the popular, nationalist enthusiasms of the newly enfranchised masses.  Did the man not read his own article?

On the second point, I would be terribly depressed if “inalienable rights” and “democracy is best” were the central truths of my society, not least because I don’t believe the former exist and I don’t agree with the second claim.  I find it hard to believe that these are the “central truths” of being American.  It seems all together lacking and unsatisfactory.  In what sense are these truths truths about America, in what sense are they ours and not just so much universalist chatter?  Surely being American must have more meaning and more interesting truths to which we dedicate ourselves than those.  If someone does not accept these ”central truths,” what does that say for his American identity?  No, I find it impossible that these are the “central truths” of our society.  But here Brooks has made a curious maneuver, wrapping up the effort to spread universalist propositions in supposed loyalty to his “group,” his tribe, which he has defined in the most non-specific and un-tribal way possible.  It is as if he has declared a blood debt against Iraq on behalf of the proposition nation: “Hello, my name is David Brooks.  You killed my proposition, prepare to die.”