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.

Trafalgar, 1805, and the USA, 2022

Trafalgar Day was marked last week, and I remembered again the essay written in 1797 by a Spanish naval official, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, on the question:  “Why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?”

An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.

Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…

Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

Imagine Don Grandallana’s feelings when, eight years later, he read the reports of the Spanish naval catastrophe at Trafalgar.  He had accurately diagnosed the key problems of his side, but had been unable to bring about the sweeping changes necessary to address them.

There are uncomfortable parallel in America today to the polities and mindset that Grandallana observed in his headed-for-defeat Spain.

Over at Ricochet, the physician who posts as Dr Craniotomy describes the extent to which his time is devoted to satisfying the bureaucracy and its systems.

It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday and I’m waiting for my hospital’s slow, clunky electronic health record (EHR) to load. I’m logging in from home because the administration emails became threatening.,,,The patients were already seen by me, and the notes written by either a resident or nurse practitioner.  The hospital just can’t bill until I click the “cosign” button. 

Meanwhile, there’s this JAMA article outlining how the National Academy of Medicine is going to tackle physician burnout.  The plan revolves around installing a “culture of well-being” into the healthcare workplace.  They want to develop training protocols to address discrimination, bullying, and harassment while increasing leadership roles such as Chief Wellness Officers.  This sounds like more bureaucratic busywork to complete and administrators to answer to.  I would be shocked to find out that there was a single aliquot of improved wellness from a wellness module.

I have governmentally mandated appropriate use criteria that questions every imaging order I place on a patient, forcing me to click box after box, justifying an MRI that I know is clinically indicated because I spent 12 years training in neurological surgery to know exactly when an MRI is indicated.

I have the joint commission telling me I’m not prescribing enough pain medication one day and the next day, I’m being threatened with manslaughter charges if I don’t check a slow, cumbersome, often nonfunctional online database every time I write a prescription.

As I noted in comments to the post:  The “culture of compliance” and the micromanagement of employees by bureaucracies and by rigid automated systems, as practiced in America today, bear a disturbing resemblance to the cultural practices that Don de Grandallana identified as the main cause of his country’s repeated defeats.

There is a great deal of this kind of thing in many parts of America today, and trends have been running that way for a long time.  See this Washington Post article from 2005, back when the WP was not yet totally politicized:  Over-Ruled.  Discussing hurricane response and some of the bureaucratic obstacles that appeared, the author says:  “We’ve become a society of rule-followers and permission-seekers.”

Causes of this situation are multiple; certainly one factor is the prevalence of litigation.  Another is the proliferation of top-down automated systems.  And one factor, I think is the excessive emphasis on formal education and the associated credentials.   In his post The Most Precious Resource is Agency, Simon Sarris observes that when looking at people who became highly successful in earlier times, “the individuals were all doing from a young age, as opposed to merely schooling.”

He goes on to say:

It seems that the more you ask of people, and the more you have them do, the more they are able to later do on their own. It is important to note that while we shouldn’t allow children to be bobbin boys, no one would describe Steve Job’s summer job at 13 as his exploitation. We should be thinking much harder about making sure children can make meaningful contributions to the world.


And I suspect the downplaying of agency in childhood not only creates fewer opportunities for great people, it must also create more marginal people. Ushering everyone into an endless default script is disastrous when underlying conditions or assumptions change. Even when they don’t, some people exit academia almost terrified to leave (to interact with the “real world”), a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

Does an assumption that people will spend 16 or 20 consecutive years in formal education…and the related assumption that this formal education will be the most important factor in their future success or lack of same…reduce the sense of individual agency? I think it probably does.

Also, this brings us to another factor that Grandallana did not mention, either because he didn’t see it as a problem or because he didn’t dare talk about it: the dominance of a hereditary aristocracy.  I think it’s pretty clear to historians now that one major reason for Spain’s naval failures was that people tended to be placed in command positions because of their titles and bloodlines, rather than their demonstrated competence.

We don’t have a formal aristocracy in the US, of course; indeed, the Constitution explicitly prohibits any such thing.  But while educational credentialism was initially sold as a form of meritocracy, and indeed did initially lead to some progress in that direction, it has devolved in too many cases to a form of aristocracy light, where obtaining the most ‘elite’ credential is largely a matter of conducting your early life in a manner of which admissions officers approve–including demonstrating the ‘right’ social attitudes–and, often, of having the right family and connections, rather than a matter of true performance-related merit.

More than 50 years ago, Peter Drucker wrote that a major advantage America had over Europe is that access to key roles in society was not controlled by a admission to a small number of ‘elite’ universities.

The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

American society today is much closer to accepting that and similar claims than it was when Drucker wrote the above in 1969, and I think this has something to do with the dysfunctionality of many of our institutions.

For discussion: How far are we down the road to the kind of environment that Grandallana described? What are the causes, and what are the potential paths for reversal?