Monday, April 28, 2003

Joey Tabula-Rasa

David Brooks has an interesting essay in today’s Weekly Standard where he examines the huge disconnect between rhetoric and reality in the Arab world. That’s really not news by itself; we are all quite familiar with Baghdad Bob’s rather tenuous dance with reality and the wake up he and the rest of the anti-American world received after America’s victory in Iraq.

Where the article gets interesting is when Brook examines a fictional 20 year old American college student he calls “Joey Tabula-Rasa.” Brook writes:

Joey doesn't know much about history; he was born in 1983 and was only 6 when the Berlin Wall fell. He really has no firm idea of what labels like liberal and conservative mean. But now he is in college, and he's been glued to the cable coverage of the war and is ready to form some opinions. Over the past months, certain facts and characters have entered his consciousness, like characters in a play he is seeing for the first time.

The first character is America itself. He sees that his country is an incredibly effective colossus that can drop bombs onto pinpoints, destroy enemies that aren't even aware they are under attack. He sees a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill. He sees a federal government that can perform its primary task--protecting the American people--magnificently. . .

. . .The American system of government, moreover, is clearly the best system. In Joey's eyes, the United Nations is a fractious debating society. The European Union is split. The French are insufferable, the Germans both hostile and pacifist. The Arab ruling class is treacherous. Billions of people around the world seem to hate us, and while Joey is aware that there are some reasons to be suspicious of the United States, he resents the way so many people are over the top in their resentment, fury, and dislike. In short, Joey does not look around and assume that the world is moving toward some world government or global unity. When the chips are down, there are very few nations you can trust. Joey is both more trusting of America, and more suspicious of the world, than he would have been if he had formed his worldview in the 1990s.

The second great character on Joey's mind is the American soldier. When Joey thinks of youthful idealism, he doesn't think of college students protesting in the streets, he thinks of young soldiers risking their lives to liberate a people. These are the men and women Joey saw interviewed by the dozen on TV. They seemed to enjoy being in the military. They seemed to believe in their mission. They seemed to be involved in something large and noble even at a young age.

In Joey's eyes, the people who get to do the most exciting things are not members of the meritocratic elite--Harvard and Stanford alums who start software companies. They are the regular men and women of the armed forces, or, as he remembers from the days after 9/11, they are firemen and cops. They are people without prestigious degrees and high income prospects.

Joey naturally feels that while those soldiers are liberating a country and talking about duty and honor, all he is doing is preparing for business school. That doesn't mean he necessarily wants to enlist, but he is aware that there is something lacking in his pampered private life. He also sees, in the example the soldiers set, that discipline, neatness, professionalism, and openly expressed patriotism are kind of cool.

The third character Joey sees is the terrorist. He sees the people who blew up the World Trade Center. In Iraq, people like that piled into pickups and suicidally attacked tanks. They wore those black fedayeen gowns. In Israel, they strap bombs to their waists and blow up buses. Joey is aware that there are a lot of people, especially in the Arab world, who are just batshit crazy. There is no reasoning with these people. They understand only force, and they must be crushed.

Joey sees that some regimes around the world are sadistic and evil. They torture and mutilate their own people. They ignore the basic rules of warfare and civilization. Conflict with these people is inevitable. They lurk in the dark corners of the globe, and for some reason they think they should take out their problems on us. You always have to be on guard, because there really is evil about. . .

. . .[N]ew categories are crystallizing in his mind. These categories--who is progressive, who is conservative, who is reactionary--do not comport with the categories in the minds of people who came of age during the civil rights era, or even the Cold War.

Joey isn't one of a kind. There are millions of Joeys, and variations on Joey. Inevitably, then, in ways subtle and profound, the events of the past month will shape our politics for the rest of our lives.
That’s a very interesting neocon view of the youth of America, but here’s my take on Joey: Joey is a kid who is adrift in a sea of contradictions. He has no reliable compass to guide him—he does not understand explicitly how the mind works, and exactly what the requirements for his personal survival and prosperity are. It doesn't mean a lick what Joey thinks about Iraq or the world at large because he’s utterly clueless on fundamentals.

Joey hears lofty statements said about freedom. He also hears lofty statements about sacrifice. He can’t navigate between them because he was never taught how to think in principle. Joey instead operates in a range of the moment expediency.

He sees an America of wealth and abundance, wants it for himself, but is conflicted by what he hears when he goes to church and when he listens to his professors. Now that he’s in college, he sees that it’s the pro-sacrifice, anti-wealth mentality that seemingly makes the consistent argument. But he also sees that these arguments only lead to horror or absurdity. Instead of realizing that ought to reject bad ideas out of hand, he turns off to ideas as such. He has been taught how to be a pragmatist. And it is precisely when the chips are down and the answers are far form academic that a pragmatist like Joey is no ally. Joey will float with the strongest tide, whatever tide that may be.

Where I do see eye to eye with Brooks is that there are millions of Joeys, and variations on Joey. And frankly, that’s what really worries me.

No comments: