David Brooks is giving advice to radicals today on how to be radical. It's a strange spot for the left's favorite conservative to be in, although it is a role he's taken up in now a few of his columns. And he's only partly wrong.
The occasion for Brooks' advice to radicals is the latest viral YouTube sensation, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” a video by Jefferson Bethke. The genre is not new. Mr. Jefferson's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a famous and wonderful little book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he separates out the purely ethical sprouts of Jesus' teachings from the religious chaff. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that religion in a democratic time would increasingly take the form of moral aphorisms without the strict commandments that democratic citizens would rebel against. And modern evangelicalism as practiced in mega churches like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church shuns discussion of sin and burdensome religious rituals or commands. The attraction of Jefferson Bethke's video poem is, precisely, how well it fits in with the anti-authoritarian spirit of our age that craves meaning and justice yet disdains the authority and tradition that give life meaning and embody the ideals of justice.
Brooks' column is less about Bethke's rebellion than about his re-conversion. For Bethke has, since his video, publicly admitted the error of his ways and returned to the bosom of the church. All of which leads Brooks to wonder: Why is rebellion so ineffective today?
This is a question many rebels ask today as well. One common complaint, on the left, is that the rise of humanitarianism has replaced political movements like Marxism, utopianism, and social democracy with the idea that it is simply enough to send food and clothes to those who are suffering. Today's radicals don't want to change the system, they simply perpetuate it by preventing the extreme suffering that might nurture real radicals. The dreamers of a better future seem to be busy with other pursuits. As Brooks rightly notes:
This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.
Brooks has a theory for why this is so, one he has offered before.
My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.
Aside from the silliness about Nietzsche—who certainly thought with and against a tradition—Brooks makes a valid point. Rebellion cannot be simply a negation of what is, an overturning.
Indeed, that was Nietzsche's point. Nihilism, which Nietzsche diagnosed, is the saying no to what is, an overturning of all values. Thus, a rejection of any value that is not simply a subjective value. This nihilism is precisely what Nietzsche saw and feared, which is why he struggled to think about how new higher values, new idols, new laws, new myths, might emerge.
Brooks wants young rebels to seek out the classics and find their mentors in rebellion. He is right that "Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions." He is also right that "Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change."
But the point isn't simply to rediscover Marx so that we can, once again, fight for the proletarian revolution. That movie has run. The point of education is not to provide us with failed dreams of the past so that we can try again. As Arendt wrote in The Crisis of Education, the effort of education is to teach students about the world as it is. Only when they confront the world as it is, honestly, can they begin to resist it.
Instead of blaming our children, we need to look at ourselves. For Arendt, education requires teachers who "love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices." We must teach them about our world, as it is. And that means, we must teach them about what it means to live in a world in which there are no higher values that can sustain meaningful protests and rebellions. This is the world of nihilism Nietzsche saw emerging 130 years ago. And it is the world David Brooks is, in some ways, trying to articulate, even as he also refuses it and condemn it in his columns.
I don't disagree with Brooks' judgment of nihilism. But it is time for us, finally, to confront the reality of the world we live in. It is our world. If our leaders and public intellectuals won't be honest, how can we expect such courage from our youth?
We need to reconcile ourselves to the corrupting and debilitating nihilism of our world if we have any hope of educating young people who might be able to resist it. Arendt writes:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same tame token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.
It is the job of education to “teach children what the world is like” so that they can begin the task of reconciling themselves with it; only then can they have a chance of truly resisting it. First come to see the ruin. Then learn to rebel against it. That is the promise of revolution, a circular process that offers the promise of a future that mere rebellion does not.
You'd do well to read Brooks' column.
Better yet, for your weekend read, pull out your edition of Between Past and Future and re-read The Crisis in Education.