David Brooks’ Journey, Guerilla Ontology, and His Recent Column on Description as Prescription

There was a period where David Brooks had just 2 approaches to an op-ed column, at least so far as the Liberal Ironist could tell.  After George W. Bush became President, there was the “I know you (dear New York Times reader) think that this thing President Bush wants to do is crazy…but isn’t it in fact the best idea ever?” and the less-frequent but much more-probing “What has become of our culture?”  The former was wishy-washy at best; Brooks has been far more interesting to read since he jumped off the W. Bush Bandwagon.

This Black Friday, November 26, he made a case for rich description of a living and inexhaustible World–as a tool for changing the World.  The column was about Leo Tolstoy, specifically about the author’s transformation from a rigorous novelist who could transform his readers’ perceptions through richness of detail to his old age as a self-professed Christian saint who essentially abandoned his family.  I heartily recommend that those who have access take the time to read Brooks’ op-ed, because the simple distinction he makes between the descriptive novelist with great powers of descriptive evocation and the (apparently self-indulgent) elderly mystic makes for the best Brooks column I have read.  That novel and surprising descriptions of supposedly mundane or foreign elements and persons can gradually transform a person’s beliefs is a core premise of Liberal Ironism; so is Brooks’ Burkean warning in this column against seeking to “improve the world” at the expense of its human cost.  That might seem like it should be an obvious caution in this day and age, but Brooks himself had succumbed to such a temptation through years of watching the past Bush Administration through rose-colored glass.  I won’t condemn Brooks’ naivete opportunistically: By spring 2005 I couldn’t see the instability of our supposedly “transformative” declarative pro-democracy, anti-diplomacy foreign policy any more-clearly than he could.

Brooks’ abandonment of movement Conservatism is well-paralleled in this column that refers to political activism as “admirable, necessary and self-undermining–the more passionate, the more self-blinding.”  Brooks is renewing the distinction between the “thinker” and the “doer,” probably in the front of his mind after his own flirtation with Neoconservatism left him increasingly humbled and alarmed.  Though there would seem to be a gulf between a statesman and a holy man, both share something of the megalomania of trying to grasp the World entire and keep it above-water, or to fix it.  Brooks is probably right to speak of these manifestations of ambition together as “activism,” in the sense that both temporal and spiritual forms of universalist activism are necessary to grapple with many of the border-transcending troubles of Modernity, or to breathe new life into the habitual activities of a complacent political system.  (The Liberal Ironist still holds out hope that, their very-Conservative politics notwithstanding, the Tea Partiers actually represent this underscoring of the terms and stakes of political debate.)

The alternative strategy of change to one of loud declaratives, grand narratives, and lines not crossed (so help me) is guerilla ontology.  Apparently the author Robert Anton Wilson (about whom I frankly know nothing) employed the term to refer to a deliberate mixing of fact and fiction in his writings, deliberately aiming to leave his own readers unsure about what is true.  (Of all places, I actually first encountered this term in the pop philosophy essay collection Lost and Philosophy.)  In practical philosophical or political argument, guerilla ontology is far less-mischievious: It is a means of breaking down an inflexible worldview by presenting compelling but discordant information in a non-threatening way.  Of course, no method of philosophical persuasion is sure to change a person’s mind, as we do not (and should not) have the capacity to dominate another person’s mind, but dogmatism and conceit are often best-confronted not with loud opposition but through a long series of benign but firm challenges.

The most-important thing to give up on is the coveted but pointless imagery of “winning the war” in the philosophical debate in question.  A campaign of guerilla ontology isn’t so much like a match in any sporting event as it is an unsettling conversation of indefinite length.  Novelists and playwrights–and today big-budget TV series and even video games much moreso than is usually possible for movies–are well-equipped to change the World as long as they remember that their most-important messages are not aimed at those who would be most-excited to shake their hand or those primarily in search of a new banner to fly, but to those looking to be equipped with a new way of understanding people:

“In middle age, it was as a novelist that Tostoy achieved his most lasting influence.  After all, description is prescription.  If you can get people to see the world as you do, you have unwittingly framed every subsequent choice.”

You can also do so quite wittingly, in the form of guerilla ontology.  Brooks understands this approach well, but he was undermined for years by a partisan attachment that seemed to unduly shape his political theory.  This subversive tactic should be used responsibly; fortunately, it is most-easily applied to situations where ideology does violence to the innocent–or the guilty, when it fails to offer an analysis or solutions to the problems they face.

This then, would have been the Liberal Ironist’s answer to Tolstoy at the time he felt he had exhausted his creative potential through his novels: One can work to oppose the violence our ideas do to others every day and still always have a mission left to do.  Then we would need only occasionally ask ourselves whether the reforms most-needed are political or personal.


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