Nihilism — Really?

A piece at Quillette notes that it has been 22 years since David Brooks published Bobos in Paradise, the book that put him on the map.  The article reviews the predictions that Brooks made in the book and how they have actually played out in practice.

My focus in this post, though, is on something Brooks wrote very recently:

Performative populism has begun to ebb. Twitter doesn’t have the hold on the media class it had two years ago. Peak wokeness has passed. There seem to be fewer cancellations recently, and less intellectual intimidation. I was a skeptic of the Jan. 6 committee at first, but I now recognize it’s played an important cultural role. That committee forced America to look into the abyss, to see the nihilistic violence that lay at the heart of Trumpian populism.

(excerpted by Tyler Cowen from the NYT column)

If I were looking for Nihilism, I’d look for it among those people who view human beings as nothing more than a plague on the planet…for example, those who circulate this meme:

…I doubt seriously if many of them have MAGA bumper stickers on their cars.  I might also search for nihilists among those ‘activists’ who enter museums for the purpose of damaging our civilization’s greatest works of art.  I might search for them among those who desire to reduce all aspects of human experience…knowledge, art, music, love, sex, families…to nothing more than tokens in an endless power struggle of group against group.

Trump supporters are motivated by many different things, some admirable, some not so admirable…but I don’t think ‘nihilism’ is a significant factor.

Brooks also refers to ‘populist authoritarianism’….there is apparently a style guide somewhere telling media people that the two words need to always be coupled.  But seems to me that authoritarianism might be found about those who demand that social media work with government to suppress disfavored views, and those who use their former offices in the Intelligence field to imply a malevolent foreign origin for a story which has now been clearly shown to be true…and, especially, among those like Charles Schumer who warned that “if you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you”…but apparently felt no need at all to do something about reeling in this authoritarian abuse of authority.  I’d also look for authoritarianism among those who are upset about Twitter Blue Checks being made so widely available that people can’t tell who is a real journalist who deserves to be believed unquestioningly.

Brooks also says that “Democrats restrained their more extreme tendencies while Republicans didn’t.”  His definition of “extreme” must be quite different from my own.

I was surprised to see that Tyler Cowen, who is a pretty smart and thoughtful guy, titled his link “the wisdom of David Brooks.”  While Brooks does occasionally write insightful things, I don’t think this column falls in that category.  It reads to me like a recital of a catechism by someone seeking to provide reassurance of his orthodoxy.

23 thoughts on “Nihilism — Really?”

  1. That term has been applied to Trump and his supporters for some time now. If nothing else it represents the exhaustion of the racist-sexist-homophobic veins–or maybe their commingling into something vaguer but more comprehensively threatening.

  2. Brooks, as usual, sees only what he wants to see and disregards the rest. Why anyone should call that “wisdom” is beyond me.

  3. Nihilism might be the belief of those who would sterilize our adolescents – slashing and destroying the budding life (and lives) within them. Nihilism might be encouraging countries about to face winter from inexpensive heating. Nihilism ran through all the comments near the election, meant to engender fear and loathing rather than to inspire..

  4. I stopped taking our Miss Brooksie seriously when he fell in love with the crease in Obama’s trousers. I think I pitched the copy that I had of Bobos in Paradise, too. Mostly because of his idiocy, but also because one of the cats pissed on it.
    Smart cat. Smarter than Brooksie.

  5. I’d also look for authoritarians among NBC contributors who say things like “people are innocent until alleged to be involved in some type of criminal activity.”

    Or among those in the Executive Branch who try to make legislation without the Legislative Branch.

  6. Lyons’ post touches on C.S. Lewis’ musings on the “Green Book” and how Lewis felt it was as dangerous to British civilization as the Nazis. By Lewis time, there was already a suffusion throughout the culture of the works of Freud, Marx, and some of the lesser lights of Progressivism, Each posited a dismantling of the past and tradition as a way of moving society forward and also through claiming the mantle of rationalism and “Science” portrayed their way, and only their way, as the inevitable path forward. You see the shadows of this today in our political discourse by progressives from statements such as “we’re the ones we have been waiting for” to the wearing of Science as a skin suit to justify beating down political opponents as “deplorables.:”

    The long and short of it is that as we have discovered through the French Revolution and much of the 20th Century that when you remove the cultural brakes on modernity, bad things happen. You could write books about this stuff so I’ll cut it short

    Where books should be written is about FTX and Bankman-Fried (I refuse to call him SBF) through the prism of nihlism. Leave aside the element of political corruption and influence peddling involved, the hysteria surrounding this man and his companies was both astounding and deeply disturbing coming so relatively soon after the tech bubble. People and institutions that we saw as leaders of the business community slobbered over a 20-something with both zero life experience and a sketchy persona. I know a lot of brilliant engineers who are like that, I know people who were involved in successful start-ups like that. I don’t know of any successful people who actually manage multi-billion dollar companies like that.

    So why the hoopla? I think it’s because people saw this Bankman-Fried character as an avatar for the type of future that they desired but could not rationally explain, He hit all the right notes; a technology in crypto that few understood but that everyone knew was the future, to his radical personal life of a 10-person polyamourous relationship, to the fact that he had to be a wunderkid because he was wearing shorts and sneakers while being on stage with a former prime minister and president, to the fact he was ESG and just wanted to make billions so he could give away.

    He was a con you could see a million miles away and raiding client accounts was just the icing on the cake. You cannot blame him, once you understand he has no moral anchoring, because people wanted to believe in him as the “future” because they believed in nothing else. The man sold himself not as a leader of a business so much as a leader of a cult.

    Note, what happened to FTX and Alameda should not necessarily be a slam against all of crypto, but at least a warning of what happens when irrational exuberance gets out of hand

    Also I heard Michael Lewis will be writing a book on all of this

  7. ah lewis, used to be someone who had wit (liars poker) and heart (the blind side) then he went all in for obama, missed the core of the subprime collapse, et al, practically declared trump a criminal conspiracy

    brooks is a sad little man, who should be pitied, except he called palin and then trump ‘cancers on the gop’ which living in the madhouse that is Gotham is almost humorous

  8. David, no surprise at Tyler Cowen’s link heading. You have to read Cowen very carefully, in between the lines. He presents this with his “wisdom of David Brooks” tag he has used when linking to something Brooks wrote in the past. Using the tag in this instance he may be prodding the reader to think for him/herself and look for the wisdom if it is present, or notice that wisdom is lacking as the reader easily pokes holes in Brooks arguments. Straussian readings most of the time, he expects his readers to not be literal in interpretation in all cases.

  9. Someone needs to tell the artist that giraffes, zebras, and lions are creatures of the veldt, not the jungle.

  10. If I might leave two comments, I would first note that a world without humans would simply be an empty frame, insofar as no humans means noone to serve as a sentient observer. Along the lines of the old saw, “If a tree falls in the forest and noone is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Of course, all these idiot “Greenies” seem to think that they will be present to observe the utopian world of their imagination, whereas the truth is that they would more likely be dead of disease or privation, or perhaps, never have even been born. The stupidity of the people who swallow this nonsense beggars description. On the second item, a much shorter observation, paraphrased as follows, “David Brooks is asshoe.”

  11. The lower panel of the ‘without bees vs without humans’ meme seems inspired, consciously or otherwise, by Edward Hicks’ 1834 painting ‘Peaceable Kingdom’…which is, of course, a religious image. I doubt if many of the circulators of the meme would agree with the Biblical theology behind the painting.

  12. Christian Lassen is another modern artist in the style of Edward Hicks. The difference is that Hicks’s image is obviously Biblical while the modern artists sacralize nature. Similar idea, different deities.

  13. Of course, all these idiot “Greenies” seem to think that they will be present to observe the utopian world of their imagination, whereas the truth is that they would more likely be dead of disease or privation, or perhaps, never have even been born.

    I don’t know how many here are Tom Clancy readers. His last novel, “Rainbow Six” predicted much of this. His predictions were much better than George Freidman’s Clancy even thought of the use of a 747 as a weapon against a building. I wonder if Osama read his book, “Debt of Honor.”

  14. thats an interesting notion, according to lawrence wright, who contracted a virulent strain of tds in his andromeda type roman a clef, in the looming tower, he puts this strategy to an egyptian born army colonel seif al adel, who is the presumed successor to zawahiri and that notion was born out in the mid 80s, the air france hijacking aimed at the eiffel tower in 94, was an early test,

  15. By the way, and I’m not saying the sins of the father, etc., but the fact that this wunderkid who eschews bourgeois values by his shorts (meanwhile, we have some who certainly seems an innovator and paradigm shifter, eschews the values wearing a suit often represented would make me a bit less willing to take him seriously, let alone put my savings in his account. Didn’t Brady have more sense than that? Still that his father wrote Warren’s tax bill gives us insight. I can’t get out of my head, much like Buttigieg’s father’s place as the great spreader of Gramscian communism. These guys aren’t rebels, they intend to use others as a means to their own enrichment, power. As did their fathers.

    Musk is eccentric but he works hard: acts a bit like that but in the end has many children and seems to see preparing them for a future as one of his many tasks and who rises up at the censoring of the Babylon Bee – a rising up that signals more than a passing understanding of comedy and of true free speech, one of our bourgeois values. In America the Bill of Rights is the middle class’s greatest shield. The fact he worries about his children’s future and the 10-person polyandry cult or whatever doesn’t seem to have any might be a hint of where nihlism really is.

  16. when they were designing the character of tony stark, they decided that musk’s personality, was as much an ingredient, as robert downey jr,s and howard hughes, all three were bon vivants excentrics the middle two were geniuses, downey is certainly talented,* he has some judgement issues, but which one of these moguls does not,

    sbf really didn’t contribute much, and in fact is probably a net negative,

    * i really couldn’t stand him in the early 90s, in his young punk phase

  17. and crazy jamie’s father, was the front man for the leading soviet leaning think tank, institute for policy studies, until it was eclipsed by soros outfit center for American progress in the 00s,
    technically sbf was the 6th largest donor, ken griffin of citadel gave more, as well some other outfit I can’t recognize,

  18. Tom Watson Jr, the longtime head of IBM, had a friend who had risen to high executive position despite coming from a rough background in a coal-mining town. When Tom asked him how he did it, the man specified the three points of his self-improvement and success plan:

    –Read the classics
    –Listen to classical music
    –Buy suits at Brooks Brothers

    I asked in 2020 what a modern equivalent plan would look like:

    Bankman-Fried’s plan seems to have included the points:

    –Don’t read at all, show pride in this
    –Do not focus when involved in important conversations
    –Wear shorts to business meetings

  19. Nihilism and Bankman-Fried….

    In my reading of Matthew Yglesias’ recent posts ( I came across his depiction (mea culpa?) of the collapse of FTX, of Bankman-Fried, and its larger implications. Leave aside his indulgence in vegan snacks and mocktails that would leave a hard-bitten journalist of yore spinning in his grave, I do him credit for at least taking some personal responsibility for his prior fan-boying of Bankman-Fried which is more than what I can say for the Washington Post or New York Times.

    Bankman-Fried got a lot of street cred among the intelligentsia for his adoption of Effective Altruism (EA) and stated desire to make boat-loads of money, even if it was done in a mercenary fashion, so that he could give it away. Now Yglesias touches on Bankman-Fried’s theft of client accounts to fund Alameda and its implications for the latter’s causes, but it doesn’t take the next logical step of addressing whether the whole EA schtick was merely one more con of a 21st Century Jay Gatsby or just one more pretentious vanity of a bunch of drug-addled 20-somethings that no more should have been give the responsibility of a billion-dollar corporation than a child of a machine gun.

    So I mentioned before that part of the story’s nihilism was the willingness of people to be conned by Bankman-Fried and FTX. However Yglesias inadvertently touches on another, more troubling, element of Bankman-Fried’s nihilism through the latter’s embrace of EA. On a basic level EA is portrayed as a means of effective charitable giving, if you are willing to ruin an expensive shirt to jump into a pond and save a drowning child why not forego buying the shirt in the first place and give the money to help the child? Why give more money to a place that doesn’t need it like Harvard rather than helping feed the hungry in Somalia?

    There is, however, a more troubling intellectual history to EA. One of the main philosophical pillars to the movement is Mr. Utilitarianism himself Peter Singer who you may remember as the developer of the term “speciesism” that is the crime of putting humans as something special in relation to say, squirrels. Due to this utilitarianism, EA has a certain fascination with those who feel you should be more concerned with a starving child in Somalia than supporting the local school bake sale, stop being so parochial! As Yglesias would say, results matter not intentions.

    Now Bankman-Fried for someone of his tender age has a long history in utilitarianism and its close cousin consequentialism through his mother who is an expert on the topic, to his previous writing, and through contacts with various pioneers in the movement. The problem with this, and one that Yglesias, skates over, is utilitarianism’s focusing on “results” and not “intentions” only makes sense within the context of not only a particular moral order but an order that has at its root a conception of man as a moral creature within a particular culture. Without such boundaries, focusing on results starts to get you into breaking some eggs to make an omelet territory (both on moral and practical grounds.)

    So EA, FTX, and Bankman-Fried not only opens doors into a frightening world of nihilism (think climate change and population reduction policies) , but raises some particular questions about the last few, desperate weeks of FTX and the raiding of client accounts and the immiseration of their holders. Was it done to shore up reckless long positions and solve a liquidity problem that are not unknown in the industry? Or was it something else, perhaps a belief that they were on a mission from God and that the survival of FTX and its EA good deeds was the worth the risk of client assets? Either way descends into the nihilistic abyss.

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