David Brooks and Bad Ontology

A wise man once told me: don’t get baited by the NYT op-ed staff, because it is easier than shooting fish than a barrel.

But I have failed consistently to follow the wise man’s advice: witness David Brook’s op-ed today:

“The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.”

Wow, where to begin?

How about this: David Brooks practices the very thing which he says Chinese or Asian people do not–put things in neat little discrete categories. On the one side, there is the “individualistic societies,” and on the other hand, there is the “collectivistic societies.” In an op-ed that is supposed to be about the social, political, and economic viability of collectivistic societies as an alternative to individualistic societies, David Brooks does the very thing which he stereotypes individualistic societies do.

Continuing along, Brooks claims:

“The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.

Either way, individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.”

The only thing wrong about this claim is that the actual intellectual history of Western liberal societies flatly contradict Brook’s take on our Western historiography. If we were to trace our liberal individualistic traditions back to its intellectual fountainheads–Hobbes, Locke, Rosseau–we find that none of these thinkers makes the ontological claim that people ARE in fact atomistic individuals. Rather, the notion of the free individual with rights is a normative fiction used in a purely logical device: the social contract. Rousseau was explicit about this, and even John Rawls, the liberal philosopher par excellence of the 20th century, acknowledged that the abstract nature of the purely atomistic individual.

And this is not to mention the Western philosophers who do not hold the individual in much importance, going all the way back to Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx. Conveninently, David Brooks ignores all of them to fit his neat little narrative.

Then, to act the contrarian, David Brooks points out this:

“Scientists have delighted to show that so-called rational choice is shaped by a whole range of subconscious influences, like emotional contagions and priming effects (people who think of a professor before taking a test do better than people who think of a criminal). Meanwhile, human brains turn out to be extremely permeable (they naturally mimic the neural firings of people around them). Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.”

Well, no shit: it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the idea of the purely atomistic individual is bad ontology. And neither is this idea some newfangled thing: Heidegger even wrote a whole book about why the whole of Western ontology is wrong. Maybe David Brooks should check that one out.

But wait! This isn’t even the worst part of the op-ed! How could it possibly get worse, you might find yourself asking? And the answer:

“The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.

It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

Aha! So it turns out that what David Brooks really wants to say, after he has spewed a couple of hundred word’s worth of dog shit, is that at bottom, the Western individualistic liberal society is really better than Asian collectivistic society because the former is less vulnerable to autocracy. Did you see what he did there? It’s so clever–here, let me explain: he made it sound like the Asian way of doing things might be a viable alternative, only to knock it right down again as a straw man with the very last sentence.

Never mind the abundant social science literature that disproves the so-called “cultural thesis” of democratization, and never mind the fact that there are plenty of thriving Asian democractic regimes, like, oh I don’t know, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.

But what is more puzzling than David Brook’s shitty op-ed piece is my reaction: after reading the NYT op-ed section for three years, shouldn’t I know better by now?


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