Alexandria, VA On Monday night of this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke at Georgetown University at the invitation of the program that I founded and direct, “The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.” A large audience of students and members of the D.C. community turned out to hear him speak, and were unquestionably rewarded for their attendance (we expect to have a recording of the lecture available at the Tocqueville Forum website soon). His lecture was entitled “The Era of Self-Expansion.”

His lecture was at once funny, riveting, and bracing. He spoke of the transformation of the American understanding of “self,” from one of humility and self-restraint, to a contemporary “expansive” notion of self-assertion, self-realization, and self-esteem. In a short and pointed set of remarks, he provided a wealth of examples and evidence for the rise of this “expansive” self, including comparisons of popular culture of today and a half-century ago; contemporary measures of “self-esteem” that show striking disparity in people’s estimation of their ability and their actual ability; the transformation of the language found in textbooks and educational publications that show a remarkable rise in the language of self-assertion and therapeutic boosterism; even the change in lyrics of popular music, from songs stressing “togetherness” to most contemporary hits that stress our individual uniqueness.

Brooks eloquently suggested that this transformation was more than merely cosmetic, but represented a fundamental rejection, among other things, of a distinct theological tradition that he traced ultimately to Augustine, but also had received powerful expression in mid-century America from Reinhold Niebuhr. He spoke of a story of a rabbi in his own tradition who kept a note in each of his pockets – one which said, “You have been created by God in his image and likeness,” and the other which said “You are dust and nothing, to dust you shall return” – and stressed that both were true and needed constant reinforcement. As a culture, our second pocket was metaphorically empty.

He argued that there were “real-world” implications attending this transformation, and regarded the current economic crisis and our deeply polarized politics as two primary examples. In all facets of life – business, education, politics, entertainment, culture – the cult of “self-expansion” was a destructive force in our shared community life, our sense of responsibility, obligation, debt and gratitude to those who came before us and those who would come after us. Several times he invoked the name of Edmund Burke, as well as Michael Oakeshott, as thinkers who urged a chastening of our temptation toward the self-congratulatory idea of “self-expansion” and the corresponding narrowing of our temporal horizon.

The question-and-answer period that followed was as good as the lecture, and (to brag a bit), the first set of questions posed by Student Fellows of the Tocqueville Forum were penetrating, insightful, and challenging. Toward the end of the evening, Brooks received a question from a Student Fellow about whether too many people today were attending college. His answer, while touching on many issues, concluded by expressing his devotion to widespread university-education in the service of the Hamiltonian ideal of social mobility. In that one passing moment, Brooks invoked the arguments he has made especially in his previous books – Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive – as well as countless columns praising the aim of “national greatness.” In that passing moment, he seemed to contradict, or at least throw into question, everything that he had been arguing in the course of the whole evening.

I was holding the microphone as he offered this reply, and wish I’d asked the question that I’ll ask here now. But, I had already announced that the previous question would be the last question, and not wishing to play the bad host (as well as be overly self-assertive), I demurred and brought the evening to a close (Brooks then spent at least a half hour greeting and talking with everyone who formed a long line to talk with him. He was truly gracious and generous with his time, for which I’m deeply grateful).

When I greeted Brooks before his lecture, he asked me “How is Front Porch Republic doing?” Apparently to someone else he expressed hurt (faux, I hope) at having taken a few hits on FPR in recent weeks. So, David, I know (and am flattered that) you are reading this, and I hope that you’ll find the opportunity to answer this question (feel free to use the comment boxes, though please don’t post anonymously, or better yet, pen a column and we’ll provoke a great interweb dialogue).

The question(s) I should have asked:


Can you reconcile your call to Hamiltonian national greatness and your call to Augustinian humility of self? Can you reconcile your defense of social mobility with your defense of familial, cultural and social institutions that cultivate a strong sense of obligation and gratitude? Will not the project of national greatness, and the gigantism in our politics and economics that it encourages, eventually and inevitably undermine the stability and authority of those local institutions that you laud as formative in the cultivation of a more humble self? Doesn’t the ideal of “national greatness” in fact directly contradict the theology of Augustine (and even Niebuhr, though he’s a bit uneven on this point), who urged a self-understanding in which we were to be pilgrims upon this earth, not wholly understanding ourselves to be citizens of this world, and that our humility was derived from the primacy of our devotion to God and not to our investment in the nation? Nations, to Augustine, were essentially large “robber bands”; if he could find anything to praise in political life, it was the classical ideal of the republic – small, limited, modest, devoted to the inculcation of virtue, but certainly not the modern (Machiavellian, and Hamiltonian) project that redefined “republicanism” effectively as indistinguishable from the project of empire.

At the heart of your argument I find a contradiction that seems evident in the heart of America itself. We harbor the ideal of the classical republic – populated by some version of Winthrop’s model of Christian (and Augustinian) charity, the virtuous yeoman farmer of Jefferson and the self-governing ideal urged by the Anti-federalists, among others – and, at the same time, the world-conquering, Hamiltonian expansionist, American exceptionalist, Wilsonian and Bush II ambition to rid the world of evil as a political project. While in your lecture you suggested that we can trace the rise of the “era of self expansion” to the baleful influence of the psychologist Carl Rogers, might not a deeper and more pervasive source be the modern rejection of the Augustinian theology more broadly, a rejection that was substantially realized in the political realm by the work and arguments of (among others) Alexander Hamilton and his vision of making us at home in the world?

So, your mission David, should you decide to accept it, is to explain how you reconcile your call to humility with your recommendation of national greatness. As always, the New York Times will disavow any knowledge of what you are talking about.

I, for one, think that this is a mission impossible. But, you are welcome to try to pull it off.  Good luck.

Sincerely, and with deep gratitude,

Patrick Deneen

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  1. Great question, Professor Deneen. I wished you’d asked it, as it is a variation of what I would have liked to ask him:

    You identify humility as the core virtue and pride as the great sin, and point to Augustine, Niebuhr and the rabbi as exemplars of this orientation of the soul. Yet humility is a profoundly religious virtue; I take it that you don’t see a renewal/revival of religion, and more particularly, a revival of that Augustinian strand of American religion that prizes humility, as likely, thus you argue that we can recapture humility through a proper appreciation of the increasing scientific evidence of our epistemological limitation. But is there any historical basis for this faith in the scientific project as a way to buttress humility? Historically speaking, there’s pretty consistent evidence that scientific knowledge has generally accompanied an increase in man’s faith in his own capacity (or um, pride). On what ground can we expect that the new neuroscientific discoveries regarding human rationality/irrationality will belie this trend?

  2. …at the same time, the world-conquering, Hamiltonian expansionist, American exceptionalist, Wilsonian and Bush II ambition to rid the world of evil as a political project.

    This is a misrepresentation, I think. Leaving Wilson aside, the neo-conservative proposition is that all men yearn to breathe free, and that free societies make saner choices than other kinds. [Tyrannies, theocracies, ideologies like communism.]

    This fundamental assumption about the End of History is not yet self-evident. The world waits with bated breath as the Arab Spring turns to winter.

    I would note here that the charge of American imperialism, although sometimes true in our history, is not our ideal.

    We can call Colin Powell a liar or a fool here, but this is how we see ourselves:

    “There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests we want to use hard power. But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power — and here I think you’re referring to military power — then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can’t deal with.
    I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.

    So our record of living our values and letting our values be an inspiration to others I think is clear. And I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for with respect to what America has done for the world. [Applause.]

    We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.”

  3. Couldn’t you reconcile it by saying that a country that has high degrees of humility, responsibility, obligation, and gratitude will become a great nation?

  4. Since my first FPR essay (in the first week of its existence) was an attack on Brooks’ understanding of Burke, let me also note — in a spirit of admiration more than humility — that I teach “The Organization Kid” to my students every year, and that it changes their lives. It does not inspire in my students the charge to greatness, but encourages them to discover the heroism of going home (as they find it in Berry’s “Hannah Coulter”) and the heroism of the little way (as they find it in St. Therese).

  5. This is an excellent challenge to Mr. Brooks. I wonder which side of the contradiction will ultimately triumph in his thinking. We should continue pressing him as Dr. Deneen does here.

  6. In the unlikely event I can find the time maybe I’ll enter the lists on Brooks’ behalf, though I’m not sure he’d relish the assistance. I know little about the man or his views, but based on this essay, in an ironic way I’m not sure I wouldn’t be at least a little sympathetic to the position for which he is being criticized.

    For the record, I’m *not* against empire as such; I’m just against *this* empire.

    That is, obviously I take, like others who write for this site, a dim view of Republican babble about America’s greatness. But in my case the rejection of such rhetoric is certainly not because I oppose the idea of national greatness; I don’t. Quite the contrary, in fact, if I understand correctly what is being meant by the expression.

    My point is that the individualistic, bluejeans & bubblegum identity embodied in modern America is … not all that great, and hardly something to brag about. (And I don’t believe that in my lifetime that identity can be substantially improved/corrected so as to be more appropriate to an imperial order.)

    My views would be more in line with the following quotation.

    “We are being told that for this nation to stay on top, it must have the newest knowledge, the best science, et cetera, and that this would make it respected and even loved. Maybe so, although I always thought that he who declared he wanted to be loved was unlovely, and he who wanted to dominate was mediocre.

    Rome did not scream that it had to be No. 1: it was.”

    — Erwin Chargaff

  7. An excellent question. I’d be delighted to see David’s answer. It goes to the heart of my frustration with him. I nearly always agree with him when he’s in his Burkean mode, but I always wonder how that links up with what he wrote about national greatness in the late 90s, and with his support for the Iraq war. He’s publicly admitted the latter was a mistake, but he’s never (as far as I know) worked through how he got from point A to point B, and how radical a change he thinks he’s undergone.

    Put somewhat differently, David usually sounds like a Burkean in domestic policy, but he sometimes sounds like a Hamiltonian imperialist in foreign policy. This is just a moderate version of the same contradiction that runs through he positions of many libertarian Republicans: skepticism about what government can and should do at home combined with imperial ambitions about what it can and should do abroad.

  8. Can/should we really load all that America has become on Hamilton’s shoulders? (That isn’t entirely a rhetorical question. If we should, please let me know.)

    My sense is that Hamilton wanted us to keep close ties to England, and to let them rule the waves, keep the peace out there, while we traded, expanded across the continent, and accepted their investment capital.

    And while there were a couple bumps in the road, that we did, until roughly 1947 (when England could no longer support Greece) to 1956 (the Suez crisis, when it became clear even England and France together couldn’t get their way in the Middle East).

    Since then, the US has settled into the role once played by Britain. We don’t do it particularly well (did anyone?) But all the guff about “national greatness” and “spreading democracy” is difficult to take seriously: it’s straight out of Madison Avenue, although now and then the marketers become so enamored of their sales-pitch, they sell themselves on it.

    The essence of the thing is very simple: make the world safe for commerce, and grow rich at home. While the brave band of Porchers might be willing to live with the alternative, Americans won’t. They want their MTV, and they don’t care about how many UAVs we use doing whatever it takes to get it.

    Brooks should just say, “Look, this global peace-making thing is very expensive, it demands a certain sacrifice on our part–especially from the 0.5% of Americans who fight our wars–and it’s good for everyone world-wide, and therein lies whatever greatness attaches to the effort.”

  9. As one of Mr. Brook’s regular slammers, this gets to the heart of the rub on him. His seeming lack of a sense of irony leads him up dead-end alleys of thought. Thus is the fate of a person characterized by the New Yawk Times as a “Conservative Liberals can like”.

    He is obviously intelligent, a wonderful essayist on the odd behavior of the Baby Boomer Generation and he does not infrequently produce some undeniably interesting insight just as he did at your forum. He is gracious as you note and obviously works hard at his chosen craft.

    However, in the end, just as he did at your forum, Mr. Brooks reverts to writing copy for the Hearst Mindset, helping to produce wars for people whose allegiance to conservative America is of the mercenary sort. Does he do this intentionally? I doubt it but this does not excuse the outcome.

    I doubt you’ll get your answer but if you do, it will come with an addendum of further questions of the ironic sort which, one supposes, is not altogether a bad thing. Irony would seem to be our current default status. None of us are safe from the self inflicted pin prick at the balloon of our contradictions.

    National Greatness as a mantra ebbs and flows with circumstances but the increased trafficking in it, from some quarters now seems shrouded in the cloying scent of fear, resentment and paranoia. We’ve seen this yeasty brew produce some sick versions of the National Greatness Ethos in the past.

    As I’ve said before, one of the more illustrative examples of a more properly chaste version of American Greatness was demonstrated by the end of World War II. The nation’s war machine had ramped up in an industrial output explosion that makes the remarkable Chinese industrial juggernaut of the last 20 years seem a little slow. The Federal District’s Mall, by war’s end was lined with temporary buildings which were determinedly temporary and immediately abandoned and removed, returning the nation’s emphasis to civilian aims. Now, we have forgotten this aspect of National Greatness and are pursuing the more totalitarian path of every empire that felt a need to talk increasingly of greatness because the rot of decline was becoming pervasive.

  10. Dr. Deneen, I’m no fan of Hamilton, and I am certainly more sympathetic with the anti-Federalist strain of American history, but I don’t think Hamilton is guilty of all the things people what to either blame on him or credit him with. The American Greatness folks who want to claim Hamilton to justify their current position are, IMO, hindsight imposing their own modern views on Hamilton illegitimately. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution America had about 3 million people. It is inconceivable that Hamilton imagined the sort of monstrosity empire we have now. He simply wanted a strong America that took its place in the world alongside the traditional states of Europe.

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