We traditionalists observe that when policies fail, it’s usually because they are based on inaccurate assumptions about human nature. So we don’t base our thinking on the abstract arguments of theology. Nor do we base it on economics, with its image of profit-maximizing individuals. We begin our thinking with a study of what human beings in particular places are actually like. ~David Brooks, The New York Times
Leave aside for a moment the glaring problem that conservative assumptions about human nature–its fallibility, its fallenness, its tendency towards passionate excess–are at least partly rooted in theological teachings about human nature. Set aside, if you can, that speaking of a common human nature must be at some level a philosophical abstraction from the variety of experience, which does not mean that it isn’t true. It simply means that flinging the term “abstract” and hiding behind empiricism do not a coherent moral philosophy make. But there is something even more galling about the statement quoted above.
As some more credible traditionalists might say after reading this, ”What do you mean by we?” Consider what Brooks says: “We begin our thinking with a study of what human beings in particular places are actually like.” Sure, Dave, whatever you say. That has certainly been the hallmark of your writing for the last ten years. Realistic appraisals of distinct cultures have been synonymous with your name. I am always saying to Michael, “David Brooks sure does talk a lot about the particular character of distinct human societies; he never stops talking about the profound differences created by historical contingencies. Yes, I can remember back in his Weekly Standard days when he just couldn’t stop denouncing the universalist fantasies of the philosophes. Who can forget when he wrote that masterpiece on the genius of Joseph de Maistre?”
This would be the same David Brooks, friend of progressive globalism and recent initiate into the awareness that the world is a big, scary place where cultures significantly differ and some people really don’t like each other. This is the same David Brooks who said of Americans and Iraq:
Americans blew the postwar administration of Iraq because they assumed they were liberating a nation sort of like their own.
David Brooks was among the Americans who believed that Iraq was a nation “sort of like” our own. Not only did the man not pay attention to what the human beings “in particular places” were “actually” like, but he and many of his cohort of pro-war pundits did their very best to stress the universal applicability of liberal democracy in the most blinkered of one-size-fits-all ideological certainty to the exclusion of the mountain of evidence that Iraq was nothing like our nation and was beset with a host of actual problems particular to the Iraqi situation that Brooks in all his “social traditionalism” and remarkably empirically-informed moral philosophy overlooked along with the rest of democratists. He didn’t learn his lesson earlier, saying:
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.
Should anyone now take his claims of profound concern for the particular circumstances of how different human beings “actually” live seriously? I don’t see why “we” should.