Institutional Hypocrisy

A.Brooks

The lead article in the 7/20/2014 NYTimes Review section is by Arthur, not David, Brooks. Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. The headline, “Love People, Not Pleasure” pretty much tells the whole story. What is most interesting to me is the source. The AEI is a well-known as a wellspring of neoconservative thinking, and was very influential in George Bush’s Presidency.

Brooks begins with a quote from Abd Al-Rahman III, caliph of 10th-century Córdoba.

“I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.”

And then adds the kicker:

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

Brooks follows with what I find a strange conclusion. He suggests that Rahman did have a problem with happiness, but that he should have been talking about unhappiness. I think Rahman did exactly that, expecting any reader to do the arithmetic: happy 14 days; unhappy days 18262.

Brooks argues that, based on recent findings from cognitive science, unhappiness and happiness light up different parts of the brain; they are not mutually exclusive. One can experience both feelings, but as I read the article, not at the same time. When tested to determine how happy or unhappy one is (two different tests), the results show, unsurprisingly to me, that people can have high marks in both. Then he writes, “If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance.” Duh, if you ask someone what made her happy, the answer will always be some “circumstances.” Assessments like these are always made after the fact; any causes have to be pulled out of memory and will be accompanied, if queried, by some memory of the circumstances which are attributed to the feelings.

After ruling out money, fame, and sex as sources of happiness, Brooks waxes philosophical, writing:

More philosophically, the problem [of unhappiness] stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and stranger…We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life…Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

He boils the problem of happiness down to a simple formula that people are following in everyday life: “Love things, use people.” And then he argues that to find happiness, one needs to invert the formula to read: “Love people, use things.” Here’s where I began to wonder what had gotten into Brooks (Arthur, not David)? Remember this is the American Enterprise Institute speaking. He realizes how radical this statement is by noting that to invert the formula “requires a condemnation of materialism…This is manifestly not an argument for any specific economic system. Anyone who has spent time in a socialist country must concede that materialism and selfishness are as bad under collectivism, or worse, as when markets are free. No political ideology is immune to materialism.” Strange statement from a group whose political ideology is fundamentally materialistic.

He should read one of my favorite books, To Have or To Be, by Erich Fromm. He would learn that human beings have a choice between these two contradictory mode of life. We are not as Brooks says “unambiguously driven to accumulate material goods, to seek fame, to look for pleasure.” How we live is always a choice, but a difficult choice when surrounded by a culture that is fundamentally materialistic, and demands we shift into the having mode.

As I have written on many occasions, Humberto Maturana argues that the most fundamental human emotion is love, but that it has become reified and delegitimated in our materialistic world. Love means acknowledging the existence of the other without any prejudgments, and, then, taking care of the other’s existential needs. Loving is always an individual act, but is supported by many institutions, for example, family, church, and government. Business, that is, enterprise, is clearly not one of them, and I expect, would find it impossible to condemn materialism. Attacking the ACA, cutting all sorts of safety net programs, saber waving-all actions consistent with the AEI ideology are hardly loving acts. I cannot imagine a meeting at the AEI opening with any kind of loving act.

(Photo: Arthur Brooks)

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