Thank you, Aimai and Crank, for filling in at the last minute. I really appreciate it.
This morning I see that David Brooks is speaking in parables. His text for the day is the story of the prodigal son:
... As I hope you know, the story is about a father with two sons. The younger son took his share of the inheritance early and blew it on prostitutes and riotous living. When the money was gone, he returned home.Brooks recognizes that some people might think this is a bad message in modern society:
His father ran out and embraced him. The delighted father offered the boy his finest robe and threw a feast in his honor. The older son, the responsible one, was appalled. He stood outside the feast, crying in effect, "Look! All these years I've been working hard and obeying you faithfully, and you never gave me special treatment such as this!"
The father responded, "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours." But he had to celebrate the younger one's return. The boy was lost and now is found.
Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?
The father's example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue....It's nice to know that when Brooks weighs the question of scolding, he's willing to consider it for financial plunderers as well as the usual easy underclass targets. But as it turns out, Brooks isn't sure that scolding is appropriate at all, for anyone. Why? Because, while he's not the kind of conservative who blames everything on shiftless types from the lower classes, he seems to want to spare everyone from being scolded by society's real villains, the group he sees as running everything: the upper middle class.
We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay -- with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father's example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.
We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: "You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder."If you read this the way Brooks wants you to read it, it seems humane -- he's saying that moral scolds shouldn't ignore their own moral flaws, and that poor people who fail need to be scolded less.
But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn't really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn't run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.
But notice who's escaped Brooks's attention: those other prodigal sons, the "financiers plundering companies." In the real world, as opposed to Brooks's fantasy world, these prodigals actually are the authorities -- or at least they own the authorities. As a result, Brooks's entire metaphor breaks down. They bankroll the politicians who make sure the prisons are teeming and who want to drug-test all recipients of public assistance. (Their coke binges go undetected.) They're the ones who say they work harder than people with three thirty-hour-a-week, benefit-free minimum-wage jobs.
Brooks, like all conservatives, wants us to see the world as run by Ivy League grinds who've grown up to be liberal totebaggers. Those may be the people who staff the bureaucracies, but they're marionettes, their strings pulled by zillionaires.
Which is why what Brooks proposes is utterly unrealistic:
The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project....And who's preventing that? Not liberal totebaggers with high SAT scores -- a lot of us would be more than happy if there were a new New Deal.
The father's lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.
No, the people preventing this are the other prodigals, the wolves of Wall Street who don't want to sacrifice even one of their toys so a bridge can be built or a pothole filled. Oh, and "strengthening a company"? They're sitting on billions and won't hire.
So lose the parable, David. It doesn't apply to our society - not when the prodigal overdogs won't let us help the prodigal underdogs.