David Brooks gets a lot right in his New York Times essay, “A Return to National Greatness“, explaining how the United States is losing its way in the world. However, he does so by picking and choosing myths, saying some dominate others and this depends on where you stand in the first place. This creates problems for his argument.
For example, he says the American identity “has been bruised by an educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism.” I’m not so sure this hits it. First, tell me what “shapeless multiculturalism” is supposed to be. Is it Globalization or serving hummus at your kids’ schools? How would you put a “shape” on multiculturalism, anyway? And why?
The first part of Brooks’s comment is more true. We either don’t teach history, civics, and the rest to our students anymore or they are not learning it. There are some of us who think this matters. Today we have a president who some suspect doesn’t know who Frederick Douglass was. I would say that is a failure of both history and multiculturalism and it is significant.
Brooks then coddles some myths of his own — that the left eschews patriotism and intellectuals cannot “imagine providence” — which I think sort of puts David Brooks in camp with some of the people he criticizes. I’ll concede this, however, it is hard to be otherwise and so perhaps Brooks should not be blamed.
Still, putting aside his personal nostrums, I think David Brooks is largely correct about the power of national myths. I would take another approach to it, however. I think the problem is as much about our current fickleness with these myths as it is their power. Not so long ago Americans were fighting to embrace multiculturalism, for example, whereas today it is presented as evidence of our decline by some, including Brooks in his essay.
Instead, it is that lost “basic solidarity” that Brooks laments that is the real problem. It might be time to think more about what made us a stronger nation — dare I say albeit an imperfect one without being condemned as an intellectual who cannot imagine providence? — than focus on what is making us weaker. Both go hand in hand, but as Brooks points out, the myths with credence today are stories of fear and threat. To go jumping from myth to myth hardly seems smart when those are some of your choices.