Once again, David Brooks is my muse. His columns and public utterings tell me he has come to understand that the US is suffering from a lack of connections and, consequently, from the absence of love. Love, that is, of my variety, which is caring and accepting of the legitimacy of the other to exist, just as the actor does. But he has yet to get to the bottom of the situation and understand why the present condition has come to be and persists.
In today’s column, Brooks writes, “What is the core problem facing America today? It is division: The growing gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and less educated, black and white, left and right.” Right on. Division is the way the left-brain works. It takes in the [interconnected] world and separates it into all of its distinct parts. It sees other people simply as things, not as real, unique, living human beings.
So far so good. But then Brooks loses his way. This column is a plea for moderation in politics. His solution follows, “What big idea counteracts division, fragmentation, alienation? It is found in Leviticus and Matthew: Love your neighbor.” Then he offers four situations that bind us together: love of children, society through work, affection for place, and shared humanity. He offers these as the core for a moderate’s agenda. Perhaps he is right in theory, but not in today’s modern culture.
As long as the left-brain is dominant, there is little or nothing to bind us together in any of the four settings. Family is an outlier because is it constituted by caring relationships and empathetic actions, the province of the right-brain. But even here, divisive forces are fraying family ties. Sherry Turkle writes about the negative impact that personal devices and social media are having on close ties. Just think of the ubiquitous scenes of families and groups sitting together, but all enrapt by their screens. Helicopter parenting is not evidence of such love. Workers at all level complain of alienation in the workplace.
That so many workers can be replaced by robots belies Brooks’s point about any connection between work and the real world. The alienation of workers and related inequality of income has been invoked and a major factor behind the election Donal Trump. As for place, we have made a mess of our planetary home. Homelesness is a problem in the central city. Suburbs continue to be segregated. And finally, the rise of racism and populism point to the opposite of connections, a denial of our shared humanity. The ideology of populism rests fundamentally on some idea of racial, ethnic or some other form of humanistic superiority.
Focusing on a political agenda without facing up to the cultural roots of the divisions of our societies cannot work .The left-brain is too deeply embedded in other institutions, particularly education. Certainly, I support moderation in the way Brooks is describing it. Love is central to human flourishing. The biblical version requires empathy and a willingness to drop all presuppositions about the Other. That is very hard without first acknowledging those beliefs/prejudices/presuppositions/myths that have become buried in the left-brain, individually and collectively. It is those stored up beliefs that ultimately run the show in our culture of individualism and materialism – real and symbolic.
They will continue to be in charge unless they are surfaced and acknowledged in a process that begs for forgiveness from those that have been dehumanized in the past. Without bringing them present, they will lie forever in the shadows, but still empowered to command. Without acknowledgment, they lack a public admission and commitment not to be run by them. And without forgiveness from the Other, the old story will keep coming up and prevent a new one from being written and told. The debate that has followed the award of the Oscar’s best picture award to The Green Wave exemplifies the power of the stories that persist under the surface and to which we remain captive.
So thanks again, David Brooks, for recognizing that much of America is broken and for beginning to be honest about how and where. But not about why. Until we stop trying to fix us and our society (the left-brain at work) and getting to the core, we will not find success. I am reminded of the negative outburst that arose when Elena Sotomayor spoke about empathy (right-brain) in her Supreme Court hearings. This isolated incident should serve notice about how difficult it is going to be even to talk about a shift in consciousness, much less change the rules to flip from divided to connected.
Image: Filling the left-brain with love, etc.