The Moderate Aesthetic

 Posted by on October 26, 2012
Oct 262012

He was trying to be helpful. There is, David Brooks writes, “a lot of ignorance about what it means to be moderate.” So what does moderation mean?

“It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there.” No, it starts with a “political vision” grounded not in philosophical abstraction, but in the solidity of history, and that solidity is rooted in an abstract “animating principle” that stands “behind” the American “way of life.” It is, indeed, the moderate’s dedication to the historically solid over the philosophically abstract that instills in him a “deep reverence” for this abstract vital spirit.

This animating principle is the spark that gives America its peculiar living spirit. And this living spirit is, Mr. Brooks asserts, “the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.” He assures us that moderates, in particular, “revere” this “fact.”

This “fact” is, however, not a source of united animation, but a source of mutual animus. There is, he writes, a “centuries” long conflict over “how to promote the American dream,” and this conflict, it turns out, is not actually a conflict of a historical nature, but rather a conflict over abstract oppositions “that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.” Concrete history, it would appear, is but a vehicle for the mundane realization of philosophical abstraction.

The moderate, Mr. Brooks continues, does not wish to “solve” these abstract arguments, indeed he knows there are “no ultimate solutions.” For Minerva’s moderate owl, dusk will never come. Rather, the moderate seeks “to preserve the tradition of conflict,” because he believes the conflict is actually between “two partially true points of view, which sit in tension,” and that the abstract “trajectory” of concrete history can only be maintained if the conflicting sides can be kept in “rough proportion” to each other. History, in other words, will not maintain its proper philosophical velocity unless the philosophical conflicts that propel it forward are proportioned in just the right way. And so the moderate wishes to keep “the opposing sides balanced.”

Americans have done this in the past. They have, Mr. Brooks avers, kept the country on the proper historical “trajectory” because they have maintained that “rough balance,” found “equilibrium,” and cultivated “proportion.” That is why they have “prospered.”

With that Mr. Brooks unwittingly cuts through what is actually a jumbled train of boggling confusion, and finally begins to evince something genuine about his brand of moderation. Contra some, Mr. Brooks is correct about himself when he insists that his moderation is not pragmatism. But he is entirely incorrect when he claims that his moderation is a “political vision” grounded in history. This is not because his vision of history is actually a vision of philosophical history.

It is because, in the end, the true animating principle behind his “political vision” is aesthetic. For Mr. Brooks, moderation is a peculiar taste for “balance,” “equilibrium” and “proportion.” It is an aversion to disproportion and extremity, and an appetite for the “harmonious” and for “equipoise.” And more than a mere sense of aesthetic tastefulness, Mr. Brooks’s moderation also apparently involves the contrivance of a fantastical, but aesthetically tasteful, vision of history.

Dazzled by this pretty historical mirage, Mr. Brooks does not see the old regional and racial conflicts that have driven American history from the start. Divides of sex and class, contentions over religion, strife between business and labor: he is blind to them all. The genuine animating spark of American history and American life, the real energy of American vitality, is that unceasing conflict over the breadth and meaning of the “fact” that Mr. Brooks claims to revere.

This real conflict of word and war, of bullet and ballot, has never merely been about “how to promote the American dream.” This conflict has also been about what it means to call that dream “American.” And as well it has been about who counts enough in America to be permitted to dream this dream, and about who in America should be permitted to transform that dream into reality. Those conflicts, which are not and never were tasteful, entail a real concern for the truly evil and the actually just. In those conflicts it was not true, as others have observed as well, that everyone was “partially right” in their own partial way. But none of this has any place in Mr. Brooks’s beautiful fantasy.

Look again at what Mr. Brooks wrote. He blithely declares as a truism that “we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream.” As if there is not and never was any conflict between the men of the oddly nativistic “Anglo-Saxon diaspora,” and those would-be Americans who were neither men nor Anglo-Saxons. He merrily chirps that all Americans are “committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.” As if there is not and never was any conflict over who in America should be allowed both opportunity and status. In an assertion either of wishful innocence or appalling ignorance, Mr. Brooks washes away the great bulk of America’s proud and profound, but often quite unpretty history.

Mr. Brooks imagines a history that is so much more beautiful and tasteful (and so much less monumentally significant) than America’s actual history. Then he finds the harmonious proportion between this fanciful history’s opposing poles, and aesthetically plants himself there. This naive and happy hallucination is what Mr. Brooks calls moderation.