David Brooks and "The Siege Mentality"
David Brooks wrote today in the New York Times that he attributes "the dysfunctional group behavior these days, on left and right" to what he terms "the siege mentality." Brooks argues:
The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood. It’s not just that our group has opponents. The whole “culture” or the whole world is irredeemably hostile.
From this flows a deep sense of pessimism. Things are bad now. Our enemies are growing stronger. And things are about to get worse. The world our children inherit will be horrific. The siege mentality floats on apocalyptic fear.
This is perceptive. It's this sense of being cornered and of everything being at stake that leads people to abandon all sense of measure and principle for political ends. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic often writes about what he calls a cult of "victimhood" on the right. Today he wrote of the reversal that Brooks speaks of, wherein values and culture become subservient to a political ends.
But Brooks seems unable to reckon with the total imbalance of this sense of victimhood. The left certainly exemplifies a siege mentality in the more extreme corners of the campus left that Brooks cites, but that's a different sense. Built on a zealous over-adherence to values that perhaps holds public servants too accountable to progressive values. Brooks equates this to a similar sense on the right, but one with a totally incomparable manifestation wherein those "under siege" will forgive any transgression, lie, or violence. His error is laid bear in his conclusion:
How should one respond to the siege mentality, to the Alabamians now rallying around Roy Moore? Well, it’s right to be disgusted, and it feels good to be contemptuous. But contempt only breeds contempt. Contempt for the conservatives in Alabama will just justify their siege mentality and make the social disorder that flows from it worse.
The fact is, the siege mentality arises from overgeneralization: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-overgeneralization: Those people are all sick.
It should be met with confident pluralism. We have a shared moral culture, and some things are beyond the boundaries, like tolerating sexual harassment. But within the boundaries of our liberal polity, we’re going to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
At some point the compromises people make in service of their cause can no longer be forgiven by virtue of their ambivalent motives for making them. That point lies far far far before an avowed bigot and credibly alleged sexual molester stands days away from a seat in the United States Senate.
He seems intent if not on forgiving, at least on rationalizing, this abhorrent accommodation. He continues:
Suppose America’s leaders had gone to conservative evangelicals a decade ago and said: Look, we understand that changing attitudes about gay marriage put you in a tough position. We’re not going to stop doing what we think is right, but we’re going to try to work out some accommodation with you on religious liberty so you can feel at home here and practice your faith.
That might have felt more like a conversation than a siege. That might have spared us the populist revolts that brought us Roy Moore, and Donald Trump, and the repugnant habits of mind that now excuse them.
And it's here that he exposes his equivocation. What actually happened in the fight for marriage equality and gay rights? Are religious people any less free to practice their religious beliefs and worship as they choose? Are they forced to attend same sex weddings? Are clergy forced to perform marriages? What exactly does Brooks think should have happened here?
Perhaps instead of bending over backwards to legitimize the tenuous claim that Moore voters make to any serious victimization, he can look to those on the other side of that cultural issue for an example. LGBTQ people have been actually victimized both individually and by the institutions of state for decades upon decades. They were actually under siege. But the left is not rife with predators, rank bigots, and authoritarians who rake in thousands of votes and stand steps from a United States Senate seat (nevermind the Oval Office). When predators and bigots are discovered in their ranks, they are marginalized posthaste.
Brooks should stop trying to sympathize with those who would put Roy Moore into the United States Senate, and instead ask why exactly it's his voters who consistently make the dangerous and abhorrent compromises that allow them to do so in the first place. I'm sorry they feel like they're under siege, but they're response is to lay siege to others. That is unforgivable.
There are people who really have been under siege and who really have been marginalized by institutions of government and culture. I would no more forgive them for surrendering the rule of law, the dignity of their neighbors, and the values on which this country was founded than I would forgive those who vote for Roy Moore. David Brooks should be asking why we so rarely need to in the case of the former, and so frequently in the case of the latter.