Full Recording — David Brooks: “Trump and Afterwards: The Next American Culture.”

Full Recording — David Brooks: “Trump and Afterwards: The Next American Culture.”


– Well, good evening. – [Audience] Good evening. – It’s really great to see so many of you here, and I want to thank you
really from my heart for braving the the weather to join us for what I know will be a really special evening. My name is Carol Quillen, and it’s my privilege to serve as president of Davidson College and for those of you
whom I haven’t seen yet, after the break, welcome back. We’re really glad, especially to our students, we’re really glad you guys are back. It is too quiet when you’re gone and I’m even enjoying the loud music late on Friday nights (audience laughs) wafting into my window. So thank you very much for coming back and reminding me that we do live on a college campus. It’s a special privilege for me to be able to introduce the person you’re all here to hear and learn from, David Brooks. I don’t need to rehearse his biography for you. You know him. He’s a Buckley protege, he’s been a crime reporter, international correspondent, op-ed writer, pretty
good writer generally, and probably what’s most
important right now, he’s one of the very
few public intellectuals whose words are heard and respected across much of the political spectrum. And for that, I personally
am deeply grateful. David is also my friend. We share the bond that I know our students feel here at Davidson, and that we went to the same undergraduate institution. We like to say we were college classmates, though we didn’t actually know each other while we were in college. Something, I might add, that would not happen here at Davidson. But we share, I think, a certain bond that comes from that common experience and what I think doesn’t
necessarily always come through in David’s public persona, is his genuine warmth, his willingness to be vulnerable, and the ways in which he expansively seeks to understand the full range of the human experience in an effort to help all of us lead a fully human, meaningful life. As by way of introduction, I’d just like to read a few words that David himself wrote just a few days ago in the New York Times. “The liberal democratic moral order stands for the idea that souls are formed in freedom and not in servility, in expansiveness, not in stagnation. It stands for the idea that our covenantal institutions like family, faith,
tradition, and community orient us towards higher loves and common dreams, that we then pursue in the great gymnasium of liberty.” Please help me in welcoming David Brooks. (audience clapping) – Thank you, I wasn’t actually
gonna tell this story, but Carol and I met, I don’t know 10, 15 years ago now. I was going down to Rice
where she was then working and we were seated next to each other at a baseball game and we sort of sensed, at least I sensed, “I have something in
common with this person.” Couldn’t quite figure out what it was. “Where are you from?” She’s from Delaware, and I don’t really know
anybody in Delaware. Finally I said, “Well, what
college did you go to?” “Oh, you know, Chicago.” “So did I, what year?” “I graduated in ’83.” “So did I.” “What was your major?” “American history.” “Oh, so was I. (audience laughing) “Who was your senior advisor?” “A guy named Neil Harris.” “So was I.”
(audience chuckling) And so we were in the same Senior Seminar, but we didn’t know each other for a year, which there were a lot of five-foot-six Jewish-looking guys there, there weren’t a lot of Carols, so I think it’s more on me than on her. (audience laughing) It’s a great pleasure
to be back at Davidson. I think this is my third
or fourth visit now and it’s always a pleasure to be here and especially to meet with the students. I am, as you can tell from
the Chicago background, a rather bookish person. When I was eight, I read a book called Paddington the Bear and decided at that moment I wanted to become a writer. I remember in high school, I wanted to date a woman named Bernice. She didn’t want to date me. She wanted to date some other guy, and I remember thinking, “What is she thinking? I write way better than that guy.” (audience chuckling) And so writing and books have always been on my mind. When I was 18, the admissions officers at Columbia, Brown, and Wesleyan decided I should go to
the University of Chicago, (audience laughing) And so, some people know, the
phrase about where we went as the school where fun goes to die. But my favorite phrase about it is it’s a Baptist school
where atheist professors teach Jewish students
Saint Thomas Aquinas, which captures it.
(audience chuckling) And it is a bookish school. The kids wear T-shirts that say, “Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” (audience chuckling) I myself, as I mentioned, I majored in history and celibacy while I was there. (audience laughing) I’m not like those students you meet here at Davidson who are so accomplished in the world. You know, you ask them what
they’re doing spring break, it’s, you know, “I’m
uni-cycling across Thailand while reading to lepers,” that sort of thing. (audience laughing) But I learned some intellectual skills, how to dominate classroom discussion while doing none of the reading. (audience chuckling) It’s stood me in great stead in my current profession. It’s is true I manage something called… A friend of mine decided
to go into boxing, we called him the Kosher Killer, but we did at the Chicago way where he didn’t actually practice boxing, we read books about boxing. And then we entered the
Chicago Golden Gloves, and he got a series of byes, so he made it to the semi-finals, where his boxing career lasted 92 seconds. (audience chuckling) So it was bookish, and then I went off into my current role which involves a lot of writing and speaking on TV. I was hired in the early days of cable. They thought the best way to build a cable audience
around political talk was to hire really good-looking people and that’s when I got my job. I do something on the NewsHour called Shields and
Brooks with Mark Shields. (audience clapping) Thank you. We want to call it Brooks Shields, that would have been better. But my joke, I was just
telling some folks at dinner is that Marcus, a little older, has been doing it for a little while, so now the segment is
called Shields and Brooks. Before that it was Shields and Chego. And before that Shields and Gergan. Before that was Shields and Coolidge. (audience laughing) Before that Shields and Maimonides. I think he started back on… But working on the NewsHour, I do know that we have
a certain demographic that’s in our audience, so when a 93 year old lady
comes up to me at the airport, I know what she’s gonna say. It’s like, “I don’t watch your show, but my mother loves it.” (audience laughing) So, it’s really big in
the hospice community. And then I got hired to be
a conservative columnist at the New York Times, which is a job I liken to
being chief rabbi at Mecca, which is, not a lot of company there. (audience laughing) And so it’s a job that involves a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a fair bit of solitude, and a lot where you’ve got to develop a reputation for being smart. I actually ran across
something the other week. A woman named Sarah
Cooper wrote something, How to Appear Smart at Meetings, which I found very useful. “If somebody mentions the
percentage”, she wrote “turned into a fraction.” So if they say “Oh, that’s 25 percent,” you pause and say, “Oh, one in four,” that seems really smart. (audience laughing) Draw meaningless Venn diagrams, the present, the past, the future, and then you say, “We want to be right in the sweet spot, in the middle, in the present.” (audience laughing) Halfway through any
PowerPoint presentation, just pause and say, “Can you go back a slide?” and then write something
down mysteriously, seem like you’re thinking more deeply. And so appearing smart is part of the job that a lot of us are involved in. As I get older, I think I like to think I’m not just a brain. I try to get a little more spiritual, a little more feminine. I’m the only man in America who finished that book Eat Pray Love. (audience laughing) I was actually lactating
on page 123 by then. (audience laughing) And then I wrote a book about emotion called The Social Animal, and my friends joked,
when I wrote that book, it was like Gandhi writing
a book about gluttony because, not my natural thing. And then more recently I
wrote a book on character called The Road to Character. And on the course of that book I learned that writing a book on character doesn’t give you good character, and even reading a book on character doesn’t give you good character, but buying a book on character does (audience laughing) actually give you good character. So, I’ve tried to emphasize so far the headiness, the brainy
aspect of what I do, but one of the things I want to argue, as a precursor where I really want to say is in my view the rational brain is the third most important part of our consciousness, and that the first is the desiring heart. We’re not primarily thinking creatures, we’re primarily desiring creatures, and I read about a guy recently who bought a house
which had a bamboo stand by the driveway in the front yard. He hated bamboo, so he chopped down all the bamboo trees, he dug out all the roots, he chopped up all the ground, he put plant poison in the hole, he covered the poison over with gravel, and he covered the
gravel over with cement. And two years later, a little bamboo shoot shoots
up through the cement, and I think we sort of all
have that in ourselves. We all have this desire, this yearning, that keeps us moving. And primarily, it’s a desire
for love and for connection, that it’s the connection with other people that actually wires the brain together when we’re young. In 1945, a woman studied
orphanages, in Nevada, I think, where they wanted to keep the kids free from germs and disease, so they fed them and they gave them outstanding medical care, but they didn’t touch the babies, because they wanted to keep
them clean and germ-free, and by the age of two, 37
percent of the babies had died. They stopped naming the kids, because they were dying
at such great rates. It’s actual affectionate
touch and the emotional touch that wires the fibers
of the brain together. We survive by that kind of NFC. The Grant study is the
greatest longitudinal study ever done in America, about a bunch of guys who went to Harvard in 1940, so they studied them all through life. and the men who had no
deep love in their homes were three times more likely to suffer from mental illness, 2.5 times more likely
to suffer from dementia. They made 50 percent less money over the course of their careers. The number one predictor of success in that study was not IQ, it was emotion in the home. Similarly, I saw a study of men who rose to success as Army soldiers in World War II, and the thing that correlated
success in the army again was not IQ, was not physical courage, was not socioeconomic status, it was relationship with mother, and those who’d received the love and flood of love from their mom could give it to their men, and they were good officers. So we’re propelled by our lives, by this desire to unity, to escape the prison of the self, and be joined with other people. It’s a kind of feeling that was well captured in a book called Captain Corelli’s Mandolin written by Louis de Bernieres. Early in the book, he’s got an old guy who’s talking to his daughter about his relationship with his late wife, and he says this, “Love itself is what is left over when being in love is burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots, roots that grew
toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we discovered that we were one tree and not two.” And that’s sort of the dream, that we are desiring creatures, we desire other people, we desire relationships, and that we’re defined by our desires. Sometimes we in the
university business think “Oh, the kids are just brains on sticks.” But Augustine, someone
Carol and I both admire, he thought we were fundamentally desiring. Our hearts were more
important than our brains. The second most important faculty is the yearning soul. I’m not gonna ask you to believe in God, that’s not really my department, but I would ask you to believe
there’s some piece of you that has no shape, size, or color, but is of infinite value and dignity, that rich and successful people don’t have more of it than the rest of us, and what this thing does is
it yearns for righteousness. We all want to lead good lives. We all delight in seeing a moral person. About once a month, I run into somebody who just glows with an incandescent light and those people are always leading lives of selfless service. We delight in act of pure charity, Even criminals and
psychopaths try to explain why what they’re doing is either good, or at least excusable. We all have this yearning,
not only to be good, but to surround ourselves with goodness. I’ve noticed this about people I observe, especially people over 70. I mentioned this to the students today, that often their lives have this shape of a two-mountain shape. In the first half of their life, they thought “Oh, that’s
my mountain to climb. It’s to have a good career, to build up your identity, build up your ego, make some difference in the world.” And then they they achieve
their career success or maybe they have a failure and get knocked off the mountain, or something bad happens in their life and they go down to the valley, and then they realize, “Oh actually, that mountain
wasn’t my mountain. There’s this second mountain which is actually my mountain, and whereas the first mountain
is about building the ego, the second mountain tends to be about giving forth, pouring forth the ego, tends to be more spiritual, more service-oriented.” And they want to give forth. It’s less about building up and more about emptying and serving. And sometimes it’s a
business and then to charity. Sometimes they stay in place, but just transform the
way they do their lives. In my view, it’s sort of like a metaphor that there’s some peace, the soul is sort of this reclusive peace. It doesn’t care about Facebook Likes, or money, or status, and for large parts of your life, it’s sort of off in the woods or up in the hills somewhere. You don’t really think about it. You’re busy raising your kids and all that kind of stuff. And then sometimes you
vaguely, or urgently, feel its presence. There are some nights you wake up in the middle of the night. You’re having one of those bad nights, where, as one poet put it, your thoughts come to you like a drawer full of knives, having those bad anxious thoughts and then the leopard’s sort of there and you’re wondering about the meaning and purpose of your life. There are moments of real joy, where you feel sort of spiritual uplift, and yet, the leopard is there. There are moments of suffering and grief, but I think there are
moments in everybody’s life where the leopard comes out of the hills, and he sits there in front of you, and he asks you for your justification. What do you do while you’re here? What’s your purpose? What good you did you serve? And the people who haven’t given those questions a lot of thought, they feel the absence and they have to live with that knowledge. So I’ve emphasized this emphasis on heart and soul because I think primarily we’re culture builders. We create these shared cultures to bond with each other, but also to serve some good together. And some people are
technological determinists. They think technology drives history. Some people are economic determinists. They think economics drives history. I’m a cultural determinist. I think culture matters most. And so I’m gonna try to describe to you three different cultures that I think America’s gone through and is about to go through. And the first culture is sort of the era from the early 20th century
up until about 1968, and this was the generation and the time when people had to face a Depression. They had to face world wars, and they were very group-oriented. And they built a moral
ecology, a moral culture, based on the idea, we’re
all in this together. They were very group-oriented. They served in big organizations, the army, labor unions, IBM, and they were really good at building tight communities. If you lived on Chicago’s South Side where Carol and I went school, you probably, if you were
living in South West Chicago, you probably followed your grandfather or father into the Nabisco plant, the big company, that you could work for for your life. You joined the Union. If you lived in the community, you were really part of a dense community. Most people in the neighborhood, in your neighborhood, were one ethnic identity. You were Polish, you were Italian, you’re Irish, you were black. There was no TV or air conditioning really in those days, and so on summer nights, all the doors were open. People were out in one community. The kids were running through all the different houses. There was a constant round of barbecues, coffee klatches, babysitting cooperatives, constant trading of household goods. If somebody asked you where you were from, you didn’t say ‘Oh, I’m from Chicago,” you said, “I’m from 59th and Pulaski,” a distinct intersection, because your neighborhood
was so tightly defined. If you went into politics or any business, you served the organization. If you went into politics, you served the machine, and you worked your way up. There was a guy named Jim Ferry, who served as the democratic in the Illinois State Legislature as part of Boss Daley’s machine, and toward the end of his career he was rewarded. He’d served in the legislature for a time. They said, “We’ll give you a seat in Congress for a term, so you can say you were a congressman.” And they asked him, when he was about to go to Washington, how he would vote, and he replied, “I will go to Washington to help represent Mayor Daley. For 20 years, I represented the mayor in the legislature, and he was always right.” (audience laughing) So that’s deference to authority. And there was a lot of
good about that culture. There was a lot of tightness. There was a lot of modesty. There was a culture of self-effacement. I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than me. It was a culture of deep humility. My favorite definition of humility is radical self-awareness from a position of other centeredness. You really see yourself accurately. You don’t get too big for your britches. It had some weaknesses, that culture. Tolerance of racism,
sexism, anti-semitism, emotional coldness. Fathers had a tough time talking to their kids about how much they loved them. The food was really boring. Life was not as creative,
but it was tight. So there was a transition. That culture had to go. And when I think about the transition, I wrote about this in
The Road to Character, I think of one football game, Super Bowl III, which happened in 1969. On one side of the field was Johnny Unitas, quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. 1950s kind of guy, boring, crew-cut, high-top shoes, who wore white buttoned
shirts off the field. He earned $150 a week at a job in a container company while he was playing in the NFL. On the other side of the field was a guy named Joe Namath. Long hair, hippie lifestyle, posed in pantyhose ads. He was a swinger. He wrote a book called, I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow Because I Get Better-looking Every Day. (audience chuckling) And that’s a shift. Those are two different cultures. They both came from western Pennsylvania, but they were born ten years apart, and the culture had shifted, that favored the young, not the old, the expressive, not the reticent, the casual, not the formal, the rebel, not the conformist, the individual, not the institutional. And it was brought about by people who wanted to do good in the world. The old system wasn’t working for them. And so, for example, in 1962, a group of college students got together at Port Huron, Michigan, and created the Students
for Democratic Society, the document called the
Port Huron Statement. And their ethos was not, “We’re all in this together.” Their ethos was, “I’m free to be myself.” They wanted to be independent, they wanted creativity, they wanted to chart their own course. “The goal of man in society,” they wrote, “should be human independence to leading a life that
is personally authentic, to do what with one’s life as one wants.” They wanted to break free
from all the conformity. And this idea got expressed
in a lot of different ways, in the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, the peace movement, rock and roll. It had right-wing versions in the 1980’s. Reagan inherited the Goldwater emphasis on individual liberation
in the economic sphere. In the ’60s and ’70s, from Janis Joplin to
movies like The Graduate, it was about individual liberation in the social sphere. But on both sides, from right and left, it was about individual liberation. And this was a new culture. It solved the problems of the day. My instinct is that cultures generally move forward
but not in a steady line. They have what one historian called a ratchet-hatchet-pivot-ratchet pattern. People ratchet up as they
discover a new culture. It solves the problem of their time, and it lasts for a little while, but then it sort of gets outdated and so they have to tear it apart. They have to hatchet
it up, to cut it apart. Then they pivot and they
create a new ratchet. And that’s sort of how
culture moves forward. And that, I’m free to be myself, create a lot of good things. Civil rights movement, feminism, we became a much looser
and creative nation. I don’t think we could
have had Silicon Valley and the information age economy without an individualist ethos. It created the age of
what I called in one book, called the Bobos, people with ’60s values and ’90s money. These are people, who, they shop in progressive grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, where all the cashiers look like they’re on loan from
Amnesty International. You’ve been to those stores.
(audience laughing) I just said that in that book. My favorite part is the snack food section in those stores, because they couldn’t have pretzels and potato chips, that’s not morally enlightened enough, and so they have these
seaweed based snacks with like what we bought,
veggie booty with kale, which is like for kids
who come home and say, “Mom, Mom, I want a snack that’ll help prevent colorectal cancer. Do you have one of those?” (audience laughing) So the Bobos like the sort of textured nubby fabrics that looked like they were
on some Peruvian donkey. In that culture, you
could spend a lot of money on any room formerly used by the servants, so like a $350 coffeemaker
seemed absolutely normal, and it was a shift in the culture. And we’re living at the
tail end of that culture. The downsides of this
individualistic culture are evident today. A friend of mine is an
NYU social psychologist named Jonathan Hite. He says, “Imagine a bunch
of kids holding a pole. One kid holding the pole, the rest holding each other by the arm, and they’re running around the pole swirling around it. The faster they run the more the pressure on
their hands and their grips, and finally it all just blows apart, and the chain blows apart ’cause they can’t hold on
to each other anymore.” And he says that’s what’s
happened in America. That you have 50 or 60 years of excessive individualism, you’re gonna break apart. And to me, the primary
challenge we face as a country and the primary challenge that students at Davidson will face in the course of their lives is a crisis of social solidarity, a crisis of loneliness, society that is no longer cohesive enough. In 1980, 20 percent of Americans
reported feeling lonely. Now, twice as many do. 35 percent of people over
45 are chronically lonely. A generation ago, only eight percent of
Americans lived alone. Now nearly 30 percent do. In 1970, married couples
entertained friends in their home on average 15 times a year. Now they do it about eight times a year. Only eight percent of
Americans report having an important conversation
with their neighbors. Fertility rates are down. More American households now have dogs than have children. The fastest growing religious
party is unaffiliated. The fastest growing religious
movement is unaffiliated. We’ve seen a rise in
suicide rates since 1999. So 25 percent more people die from suicide than car crashes. And suicide is just a
proxy for loneliness. We’ve seen rises in depression rates, rises in mental health problems, rises in drug addiction
and opiate addiction, which are just slow
motion forms of suicide. There’s been a spread of distrust. If you asked people a generation ago, “Do you trust most of
the people around you?” 60 percent of people would say, “Yeah I trust people around me.” Now 32 percent say that, and among millennials,
it’s only 19 percent. There’s been a loss of
national confidence. If you asked people a generation ago, “Do you think America is the
greatest nation on earth?” 50 percent said yes. Now that’s down to 32
percent among millennials. And so we’ve just seen this fragmentation, and with this fragmentation
breeds alienation. People feel the institutions of society are remote, cut off. The most important statistic in polling for politics is, “Do you trust government
do the right thing, most of the time?” In that earlier culture, the we’re-in-this-together culture, 80 percent of Americans,
decade after decade, said, “Yes, I trust government
to do the right thing most of the time.” Now it’s about 20 percent who say that. Widening inequality, I don’t have to tell you about that. Rising polarization. And then, finally, I think the crisis is as much a crisis of meaning as a crisis of anything else. The ethos of individualism asks all of us to come up with our own purpose and our own meaning in life. Justice Anthony Kennedy put it famously, “At the heart of liberty
is the right to define one’s own concept of
existence, of meaning, one’s own answer to the mystery of life.” How’s that for a homework assignment? To find your own concept of existence, your own concept of meaning, your own answer to the mystery of life? If your name is Nietzsche,
maybe you can do that. The rest of us have trouble. Moreover, we’re in a system, the meritocratic system, which is its own system and in this, The Road To Character book, might complain against the meritocracy, good though it is in many ways, is that it encouraged us to think about the resume virtues, the thing that make us good at our job, and causes us to be so busy that we tend to be inarticulate about the eulogy virtues, the things they say about
us after we’re dead. Whether we’re honest, courageous, capable of great love. You begin to think about
yourself differently in a meritocracy. You’re not a soul to be elevated, you’re a set of skills to be maximized. And it’s like Marxism, but we are our own exploiters, our own labor is what we’re exploiting. And so what happens, and I see this with my students, is they graduate from college, they drift and have a failure, and then they really go through a tough time in their 20s. And I’ve come to expective calls, and I call it the telos crisis. Telos is a sense of purpose. And Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live
for can endure anyhow. He who has a why to live
for can endure any how.” If you know why you’re doing it, when you get setbacks, you can soldier through them. But if you don’t know why you’re doing it, you get a setback, you really fall apart. And so we haven’t… For a lot of the students
and a lot of young people who are drifting in their 20s of all different social classes, they don’t yet know what their purpose is, and they’ve been asked to come up with it on their own, and it’s not their fault. It’s because we have given
them no moral ecology on how to answer those big questions. I go to a lot of commencement speeches and have been known to give a few and they’re sort of things
to look at and study because they are sort of the epitome of the moral culture of the day. Colleges and universities
hire successful people to come give graduates talks on how career success
really doesn’t matter. And if you actually look at them, I always say, when I
give a commencement talk, I hope this happens at Davidson, I always say, “When you
come up and get your degree, go up to the college president and tip him or her 10 or 20 bucks, (audience laughing) just to show she did a good job.” And they never do that. But when you look at the addresses, you see how useless
they are to the students that are actually graduating
into the world by and large. The students are graduating from the most supervised
childhoods in human history, and they’re about to be spit out into the most unsupervised
phase in human history. Modern 23, 24 year olds, they’re looking for a
place to plant themselves. What vocation do I do? What do I commit my life to? What do I dedicate my self to? They’re looking for grounds
to plant themselves in, and we give them the whole freedom gospel of the last 50 years. “Your purpose is to be free. Freedom is happiness. Keep your options open, explore.” That doesn’t help them solve the essential problem they’re faced with. They’re drowning in freedom. They don’t know what to
do their freedom for. What path is their path? So we give them the next empty box, the empty box of possibilities. “The future is unlimited. You can do anything you want, or you set your mind to. The journeys is to the destination. Take risks.” This too is entirely useless to them. When someone is trapped in uncertainty, it doesn’t help to be told
your options are limitless. So then they ask, “Well, what’s the sources of authority? Where can I find wisdom?” And so we hand them another empty box, the empty box of authenticity. “Look inside yourself. Find your true inner self, Try and find your own deep passion. You’re so amazing.” Well, 80 percent of college students graduate without no deep passion. They don’t know what their deep passion is because passion only comes after you’ve been doing the work. And the self hasn’t yet been formed. The answers are not yet in the self. They’re looking for guidance and we just hand them a sense of “It’s all in you and
there’s no form here.” And so that I think is not on them, that’s on a culture that doesn’t know how to explain a moral ecology and a hierarchy of values, and I think it’s had severe costs that David Foster Wallace
spent his lifetime describing. In his famous address
at Kenyon, he said that, “There’s something that
doesn’t have much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or the stuff that gets
talked about on the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my
friends in different ways. It manifests itself in a kind of lostness. This is a generation
that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing, as far as moral values is concerned.” And so to me, we have
these three great crises that are all coming at the end
of this age of individualism. Crisis of social solidarity, of social capital, social cohesion, a crisis of institutional trust, and then a crisis of meaning. And it’s like one of
those moments in history where cultures all around the world are facing the same sort of problems like in 1848, 1905, 1932, 1968, and a certain group has arisen and say, “You’ve got this crisis,
we’ve got the answers.” They say the answers to the
excesses of individualism are tribalism and populism, and in their theory, we should move from “We’re
all in this together” to “I’m free to be myself” to “Return to tribe”. And the populous understood
that the normal debates, and I’m talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about people around the world, and as well as some of
the identity tribalists in the multicultural community, that were no longer having debates about the size of government. They understood that quickly, were having debates about what is our fundamental identity? What binds us as a people? What’s our vision of a just society? The populists understand very
well, and the tribalists, how to tear down a decaying old system. In the 1960s, there was a
guy named Abbie Hoffman, who wasn’t great at genius, but he was great at political theater, and he exposed the rifts and the failures of the old culture that
he wanted to destroy. Now in my view, Donald Trump is the
Abbie Hoffman of our day. He’s really good at
exploiting the weaknesses, exposing the rifts, and making them worse. And so the populists also understood that when society fragments and people feel a crisis of meaning, they revert to their
primal sense of meaning, which is their tribe. I was covering Europe
in the 1980s and 1990s and for five years I covered nothing but good news. I covered that the decline
of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Mandela coming out of
prison in South Africa, the Oslo peace process in the Middle East. It was all good news. It seemed like liberal
democracy was triumphant, and then just at my end of my time there as a foreign correspondent, the Yugoslav war started. The genocide of Serbia, Bosnia, and nationalism was starting. And ever since then it’s been on the march and democracy has been on retreat. Tribalism says, what I think
is the right philosophy. The crooked timber of humanity says or philosophy says, “The line between good and evil runs through each individual, each of us.” But tribalism says, “The line between good and
evil runs between groups.” Tribalism now dominates our politics, that negative polarization where people don’t really like their own party very much, but they sure hate the other thing and the other guys. And this tribalism dominates
our identity movements. History is often taught as a series of oppressor versus oppressed, tribal conflicts, and tribalism has a distinct mentality, especially all around the world. It’s always making, when Trump does this
friend enemy distinctions. It’s always us versus them. The core of life is
always conflict in combat. It’s always a warrior mentality. Politics is war, society is tribal, everything is zero-sum. And they encourage a
sort of siege mentality. Our group is under attack, our very existence is at stake, so we need an authoritarian
strong man to defend us, and the ends of our
survival justify any means. They have an instinct,
which is to build walls, to erect barriers, a conspiratorial mindset. Mistrust is their worldview. And it has to be said that
their movement is on the march. As I said, the authoritarian
strongmen are doing well. Politics has now taken over by tribalism. Some universities, it’s
being taken over there too. And it’s where we are heading today. I spent the afternoon, a few,
a couple months or two ago, with Steve Bannon and it was fascinating. it was like being with Trotsky in 1905. (audience laughing) It was like he has this 50-year plan. Trump was a piece of the plan. He has the thinker’s he goes back to. He has all the global alliance
of people who he thinks were part of his army, Viktor Orban in Austria Putin. And it’s like a big world
historical domination idea. He may be crazy, I don’t know. I thought he was more crazy, but a lot of the plan seems to be working. And then there are us, or at least me, and I think a lot of us, is we we don’t want to have a culture that’s returned to tribe. We don’t want to live in that world. We’re not tribalists. And there are a couple
problems with people like us. The first is we know what we’re against, but we don’t really know what were for. We have some vague words,
diversity, openness, cultural pluralism,
common civic conversation, respect for facts. But these are vague words. We’ve forgotten, we’ve taken our system, what we believed, for granted for so long, that we’ve forgotten
the arguments for them. Second, were dispersed and disorganized. The populists and the tribalists have their structures, they
have our organizations. We just complain, dispersed. Third, we’re defensive. We’re surprised by events. We’re depressed backed on our heels. We’ve lost touch with large parts of the country. Trump steamrolled the Republican
establishment so easily and I think the same thing is gonna happen to the Democratic establishment, and a lot of us feel politically homeless, because we’re disorganized. And yet over the past, especially over the last
two or three months, I’ve begun to feel, and everywhere I go, a sense of stirring. A lot of people who were
shocked by the Trump victory, shocked by the rise of
populism around the world, Brexit, begun to notice a stirring. “Okay, we’ve spent a
year or so being angry, surprised, and appalled. What actually affirmatively can we do?” And everywhere I go,
every organization I call, Freedom House, National
Endowment For Democracy, universities, you begin to see people mobilizing, just trying to ask, “what
affirmatively can I be for? What can I do?” And to me, I’m a writer, and
I mentioned the bookish side, and but at moments like this, you feel the futility of writing. it’s all of us, frankly, at the New York Times,
The Washington Post, and most people the Wall Street Journal, you can hurl your
columns against the wall. It doesn’t seem to do much good. And so you do sort of learn the lesson of the folks in the ’60s who
made that cultural shift, whether it was support
your own or feminism, that what changes history is not so much individuals that does, but social movements. You gotta create a an
organization of people, that community that people want to join and they’ll bend their energies toward you and mobilize their energies toward you. And so, I’d say the first job is to bring the dispersed people together. The second job is to
figure out collectively what we’re for, the way the Port Huron Statement did, the way the Earth Charter did. When the founders of this country wrote the Declaration of Independence, one people has to separate from another, they weren’t actually a people, they were thirteen dispersed colonies, but it was the act of
writing the Declaration and then fighting in defense of it, that we became a people. And the third task is to
hold up a better way to live. The movements that really work
don’t just offer statements and policy agendas. They hold up role models and
give people a possibility to transform their lives. And so I’ve been thinking,
“Well, who are the people that have credibility in society today?” It’s frankly, it’s not
intellectuals particularly. It’s not politicians. I think it’s social healers. It’s people who are doing the crisis, the suicide prevention hotlines, the after-school programs,
the poverty programs, who are there in the streets, they have credibility. And somehow, maybe it’s
possible that those people, all those community workers
all around the country, they can unite and can
be united into a movement that will heal the national fabric. The other thing about moments like this is their wide generation gaps. I used to, think with my students, that we basically have
the same categories. We think the same way. I don’t feel that about
college students anymore, people under 30. I think, “Oh, they have
different categories than me. they think things differently than me.” And surely, whatever social movement is gonna instill instill the next era, it’s not going to be run
by 60 year old white guys. It’s gonna be run by the young. And to me what the final
thing that’s needed, is a vision of a different moral ethos to replace “I’m free to be myself,” and that’s not returned to tribe. And to me, the ethos of
commitment, is the ethos. I commit to you. It builds on the fact that
on the core of our lives, most of us make four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. And the fulfillment of our lives depends on how well we choose and execute those commitments. Make the kind of commitment that in the bible, Ruth made to Naomi. “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die
and there I will be buried.” A commitment starts with
falling in love with something, falling in love with
vocation, with a school, with an idea, with a person. And sometimes it happens super fast. I heard a story about a hairdresser
in Houston named Daveed, and there was a woman who was a pianist in Houston and she was about
to move to San Francisco to be with her fiance and she decided before she’d go, she’d get her hair done. So, she went to Daveed’s salon, she walked in, she saw Daveed
cutting somebody else’s hair, she went into the dressing
room to put on her gown, and she called her mom and said, “I’ve just seen the man
I’m actually gonna marry.” So she gets out in the chair,
she gets her hair washed, sits down. Daveed is cutting her hair. He says, “What’s your story?” And the woman says, “Well, I’m a pianist but I’m about to move to San Francisco to be with my fiancee, but I won’t do it if you’ll marry me.” And as Daveed described it, he said, “I looked down at my
scissors at that moment and I’ve never felt more free than I did that that second,
and I said, it’s a deal.” And they’ve been married 17 years. So, sometimes the love happens quickly. (audience laughing) Other times, it happens
a little more slowly, but you fall in love with something. A scientist named E.O.
Wilson was on the beach when he was 8 years old. He saw ants. He’s been studying ants
for the last 80 years. He found his vocation and once you fall in love with something, you want to make promises to it. You want to be faithful to it. You’re just curious about it. You find that it becomes
part of your identity. You get to that moment
of a double negative. I can’t not do this. And it becomes life-defining. A commitment is not like a contract. The contract is something you do for your own self-interest
that doesn’t change you. A commitment changes who you are. You’re not just a man and a woman, you’re husband and wife. You’re not just an adult,
you’re a teacher or a nurse. Jonathan Sacks, a rabbi, said, “The contract is a transaction, a covenant is a relationship, a contract is about interests, a covenant is about identity, it’s about personal transformation.” So, you make this promise to a person or to your vocation or to your faith and it transforms who you are and then you live it out. My favorite definition,
the fullest definition of a commitment is falling
in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those
moments when love falters. Jews love their God, but they keep kosher just in case. (audience laughing) Just to give them a structured behavior. Football players like football, but they have a rigorous
practice schedule just in case. Our commitments give us our identity. You’re a writer, you’re a teacher, you’re an executive, you’re a Jew, you’re a Christian, you’re
a liberal, conservative. Our commitments give
us a sense of purpose, the things we really have
thrown ourselves into. In 2007, the Gallup
Organization asked people all around the world, “Do you
feel your life has purpose?” And the country, of all
the countries in the world, the country where most people said, “Yes, my life has purpose,” was Liberia. And it wasn’t because
life is so easy in Liberia in those days. Quite the contrary. But survival required extreme commitment to the people around them, an existential urgency, and out of that came a sense of purpose. Most important commitments
give us our moral character. You fall in love with
something and then you want to rise to the occasion. When my oldest kid was born, he, it was a difficult birth, and he had a low Apgar score, of the three or four, he comes out blue, and the doctors take him right away and they rush him off
to the intensive care and of course it’s a harrowing moment, but I remember having this
weird thought at that moment, which is that, if he
only lives for 30 minutes and we have to suffer a lifetime of grief, somehow it will still be worth it. And that doesn’t make any
sense by non-commitment logic, but any parent will understand it. It makes sense somehow that the dignity of a
life you’ve helped create is so infinite that somehow, yeah, that would be worth it. When you make a commitment to something, your love impels you to make vows, you make promises to those things, to always be there for the kid. And those promises are things
you want to live up to. They involve self sacrificial practices. You’d rather play golf, but you’re pushing the baby carriage. Then you do that enough and habits get engraved
into a disposition. You get in the habit of serving your kid and eventually putting
the child’s needs first becomes second nature. And so you can’t even tell the difference between giving and receiving. Giving to something you’re committed to is giving to a piece of yourself. So altruism feels just like selfishness. And it reminds you that moral
formation is not individual, it’s relational. It’s out of our commitments. And commitments seem like tribalism, like aren’t Nazis
committed to their Nazism? But it’s different. The mentality is completely different. People who are tribalists
always need another. They need an enemy and they’re motivated by
mistrust, suspicion, and hatred, but a commitment really
does flow out of love. And the thing about love is, it doesn’t need another. It doesn’t need an opposing. It actually resists that. It wants to climb the ladder and connect everything in a chain of love. Plato noticed this years ago, when he described his theory of education, and it was called The
Ladder of the Beauties. He said, “If you want to educate a child, present him with a beautiful face and when the child sees a beautiful face, he realized, well,
physical beauty is nice, but there’s a higher beauty, which is a beautiful personality. And they’ll fall in love with that. And when they see a beautiful personality, they’ll realize there’s a higher beauty, which is a beautiful
society, a just order. And when they see that, they’ll realize there’s a
higher beauty, which is truth and intellectual pursuits. And when they see truth, they’ll think, Well, there’s even a higher beauty, which is the one transcendent beauty, the beauty of all creation, from which nothing can be taken and to which nothing can be added.” Edmund Burke sort of built on that, but in the physical realm. He had these little platoons and we all live in this chain of loves. You and your spouse rest in your family. Your family rests in the neighborhood. The neighborhood rests in your city. Your city rests in your region. Your region rests in your nation. Your nation rests in the world. And you all rest in some eternal ideal. And so when I look at the
people whose commitments I admire the most, are the, they are the ones that
bridge these chains. They connect one neighbor
to another neighbor. I have a friend named Rod Dreher who lives in who lives
in northern Louisiana, really small town up
in northern Louisiana, and he had a sister named Ruthie, and Ruthie was one of these
incandescent personalities, and unfortunately she died. She was a teacher. She died really young, like 42, 43, and the town has like 800 people, but 1,600 people came to the funeral. She was that kind of person. And she loved to go barefoot. So the firemen, her husband was a fireman, they, the firemen carried her casket barefoot into the gravesite. And one of the things she
did to create this community out of her teaching job, but just in community service, was on Christmas Eve, she always thought the dead of the town should be remembered, so she would go around to the cemetery, the one cemetery in town, and she’d put a candle on
each grave and light it, just to remember the dead. And she died just before Christmas Eve and Rod went to his mom and said, “You know, it’s Christmas Eve. Should we do what Ruthie
did and put a candle on the gravestones?” And his mom said, “You know, in normal years I’d love to do that. I’d love to. This year, she just died,
it would just be too tough.” And so they decide not to. They drove to another
family member’s house. And they’d happened to
drive past the cemetery and somebody else had put a lit candle on every gravestone. And that’s how a statement
of one community member gets carried along by other community members
and a community is formed. I’m part of a community
on Thursday nights. I have two friends named Cathy and David and they had a kid in DC Public Schools and that kid had a friend whose mom sort of had some
drugs and health issues, the dad was split. He didn’t have a place to eat
or a place to sleep, really. So, they said, “Well, have James come over and he can stay with us some of the time.” And then James had a friend
and James had a friend and now when you go into their basement, there’s mattresses all over. And when you go to
table on Thursday night, where we have dinner every week, there are 25, 30 kids around the table. And the one woman came, she was new, she was 21. She said, “I haven’t
been in a dinner table since I was 10.” And they all call Cathy “mom and dad”. We go around the table and every week we say
what we’re grateful for, “What’s something you
don’t know about us?” I remember the first time I went in there, 3 or 4 years ago now, I went up to one of the kids and I reached out to shake his hand and he said, “We don’t
really shake hands here. We hug here.” And I’m like not the
most emotionally like, physically you know kind of kind, but we all just hug each other and my daughter, I brought her one night, and she left that dinner and she said, “That’s the warmest place I’ve ever been.” And I brought a friend of
mine named Bill Milliken, who does youth counseling,
he’s probably about 75. And he says, “I’m always
asked what programs turn around lives, and I’ve never seen a
program turn around a life. The only thing that turns around
a life is a relationship.” And this is the sort of
healing across boundaries that true commitment people have done. Commitments have created
these loves across boundaries. And we have a lot of
that at the local level, but somehow it hasn’t risen
to the national level. We’re not good spouses to our country. And somehow expanding
those community-healers up to the national level is somehow a part of the healing. And it’s not a great mystery. We’ve seen how it’s done. I spoke to the students
today about Abraham Lincoln and a second inaugural that
could have been a moment of great chest-thumping. Instead he said, “It was
a moment of just binding and redemption and reconciliation.” He didn’t say the slavery
was a southern institution. He said it was an American institution. In the speech, the key
words are “Us, We, All.” “We all didn’t expect this conflict. We all thought it would go easier. We’re all being punished. We must act with malice toward none, charity to all, firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” And so what you see is the possibility of national rehealing, and national rehealing around
the theme of redemption. And, to me, that is the thing that’s not only good for a country. It’s good for a people. It’s good for each of us. Because the beauty of commitment and the thing we were missing in a culture of individualism, is moral joy, those incandescent people. I don’t know how many of you, I’m sure everybody in
this room has had moments where they just felt overawed by joy. I had a moment I was coming
home from the NewsHour about 10 years ago, and I’ve
described this many times, I was pulling into my driveway. It was like 7:30 at night
on a summer afternoon or summer evening. It was light still out. Pulling in the driveway
and it sort of wrapped around the house so I
could see into the backyard and I saw light coming
of the sunlight coming through the trees and for some
reason my lawn looked great (audience laughing) and my kids were out
there the three of them, like 12, nine, and four, at that point, and they were taking one of
these supermarket plastic balls and they were kicking it up in the air and they were running across the yard and then tumbling all over each other and just laughing and joyous and giggling and I just pulled into the driveway and I get confronted by this tableau of perfect family happiness. And again I’m sure parents
have all experienced this. It’s one of those moments
where you’re just looking at it and time seems to stop and
reality sort of spills outside its boundaries. And you just want to be
worthy of that happiness, but it happens at the
far side of a commitment and enmeshed in a commitment. It’s when the boundary between
self and something else seem to wash away. We had a professor at Chicago, guy named William McNeil
and he described this well. He was a soldier in World War II. He said it was, “I felt
the greatest joy ever felt while marching with my troops.” He wrote, “Words are inadequate
to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive
well-being is what I recall, a strange sense of personal enlargement, a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life.” Rabbi Wolff Coleman
marched with King on Selma and he recalled, “We felt connected in song
to the transcendental, the ineffable. We felt triumphant celebration. We felt that things change for the good and nothing is congealed forever. That was the warmest, most transcendental, spiritual experience. Meaning and purpose and mission
were beyond exact words. Meaning was the feeling,
the song, the moment, the overwhelming sense
of spiritual fulfillment. David White is a poet, who wrote that, “Joy is a meeting place of deep intentionality
and of self forgetting. The bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion of what
formerly seemed outside us, but is now neither. Dance, laughter, affection, skin touching skin, singing in the car, music in the kitchen, the quiet irreplaceable
and companionable presence of a daughter, the sheer intoxicating
beauty of the world inhabited as the edge between what we
previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us.” So we’re not going to
go back to the age of “We’re all in this together.” We’re not going to turn into conformists or deferential to authority, but we can’t continue in the
world of hyper individualism. And I hope we don’t return to tribalism. And so I hope we choose another path, which is a path of making choices to give up choice, to leave an ethos of
commitment toward each other. And, as I say, history moves in ratchets and it sometimes seems depressing. It’s awful sometimes to
cover politics all the time, but never lose faith in human ingenuity that we will make a cultural
leap if we choose to. Thank you. (audience applauding) – Thank you. So, we have this beautiful set here, so we’re gonna sit here. (audience laughing) We can’t see you, so
hopefully you can see us. David’s agreed to answer some questions. We’d like to give
priority to our students, so for students who have questions, if you would come forward
to the microphones that are at the front, that would be great and if there are other questions, I’m sure David would be happy
to answer those as well. I thought that I would start, in part, to try to talk a little
bit more about the notion of commitment and covenant that you are pointing us towards. I would say, as an evolution or a next
step from individualism, that doesn’t revert to
“We-they” tribalism. The direction of some of your columns has pointed to the
difficulty in doing that, perhaps because of a lack
of faith in the institutions that enable those kind of commitments, whether that’s family or church or synagogue or a faith community or other institutions that channel or invite that kind of commitment. And, of course, one of the reasons why,
over the past 50 years, faith and those things has declined is that those things weren’t empowering, didn’t offer the same kind of meaningful life or even moral possibility to all people. So is there a way to… The families the most obvious example, but certainly, you know, the deep legacies of racism
that we still live with here. Is there a way to talk about that that acknowledges that
that the institutions that we’ve inherited didn’t work for some and that those institutions,
however valuable, need to somehow be
reinterpreted or reimagined by the next generation, so that they can perform this function. Or are there other institutions, covenantal institutions,
that might play that role? If that makes any sense. – Well, first of all, we
hopefully will harvest the last, the benefits the last 50 years, the civil rights movement, feminism, all the gay rights movement, we’ll harvest that and build on that. I think one of the things that that, again nationally, that has to cohere is a national narrative that
takes all that into account. And one of the things I’ve noticed, I grew up, and a lot of us grew up, I was talking to students
about this today, with an an exodus narrative. The American narrative
is an exodus narrative. We left oppression, we cross the ocean, we came to the promised land. And that was what the Puritans, that was their story. For a lot of us who have came
from immigrant backgrounds, that was our story. We could buy into that story. For the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King
talked more about Exodus than just about anything else. The founding fathers,
Benjamin Franklin and Madison, wanted to have the Great Seal
of the United States be Moses, but what I’ve noticed for my students and for a lot of people under 40, they no longer buy the
Promised Land story. There’s just been too much
history of oppression, racism, slavery, all this stuff. So that narrative just doesn’t
seem to make sense to them. And so that’s why I emphasize Lincoln, because he does tell a story of redemption and it’s a story of,
“Yes there’s been sin, but we can be unified around
promises of reconciliation. It involves all the
processes that get you there. And so a process of of confession, a process of penitence, a process of forgiveness, a process of reconciliation, they’re all the steps along the way.” And that’s maybe, for this generation, that’s just a more compelling
national narrative, because right now we don’t
have a national narrative. We have about four or five. We’ve got the, sort of the Republican, more individualistic narrative, we’re all lone Cowboys
out there on the range. We’ve got the Silicon
Valley where global citizens in the world technology
and transformation, which is great if you went to Stanford. (audience laughing) We’ve got the narrative
of of multiculturalism, we’re all different groups, locked in oppressed or
oppressor relations. And we’ve got, frankly,
the populist narrative, which is the good solid
peasants are being oppressed by outsiders and the elites, which is traditionally
the Russian narrative, not our narrative, but they took it. And so finding a new
narrative, seems to me, that reconciles all the wrongs, seems to me, that’s job one. And I’d love to gather historians from around the country and say, “Let’s figure out a narrative voice.” Because we without a national story, it’s really hard to rally people
across difference together. – Let’s, we’ll talk… I want to make sure, so are there, I can’t see, so are there questions? Does someone have a question here? Like at this, okay. If you could just say your name, so we know who you are. – [Daniel] Hi, my name is Daniel. You talked about the… (knocking) You talked about the decrease in trust amongst groups of people who are familiar and society at large. Do you think that that decrease in trust was caused by the increase in information
that is available to people, whether it be on the
people who are around them or on the public figures and do you think that if this amount of information was available in the time of community, of like the 60s that
you were talking about, where people grouped together, that they would still
have the same philosophy? – That’s a good question. I would say the loss of trust, in part, is just because, you know, we’ve lived through Iraq
and a financial crisis, not to mention Vietnam. But there were certainly major failures that everybody knew about
throughout American history, in the Robber Baron Era, World War I didn’t end well, the depression, there were
just major systemic failures and I have the perverse belief that sometimes we have
too much transparency and as we’ve had more transparency, the amount of trust declines. A friend of mine says, “Government should be partially hidden for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothing.” (audience laughing) You don’t necessarily
want to see everything. And, you know, I think there comes, there actually comes a point where it’s possible to take certain sorts of information and misinterpret
what’s actually happening. When I first got my current job, I was told to interview
three politicians every day. So I spent a lot of
time around politicians. I don’t do it anymore, because they’re not as interesting to me, but I know a lot of them and I will say they’re
way better in private than they are in public and the quality of the
individuals in the system is pretty good. And if you met the people
who are federal workers in most agencies, at HUD or HHS, I think you’d be really impressed by them. They are working, they’re very smart, very accomplished people, working for very little money because they believe in public service. All these good people are
caught in a rotten system, but it’s not like learning more about them gives you less faith in democracy. I would say learning more
it gives you more faith, as you meet the people. And so I have this perverse
view that sometimes you can have too much transparency
and not enough discretion to the people we’ve
charged to run the country and then we review their
jobs every few years. – Did you, was someone… – [Ellie] Hi, I’m Ellie. So, my question has to do with the process of identity formation
that you’re talking about as we’re trying to transition away from these different
phases that we’ve seen and what I’m concerned
about is entering into like almost a French Revolution type narrative, where we feel really strongly
that we’re seeing a lot of injustice and that
we need to address it and then we do our best
and then we look back and realize that we’ve demonized people that didn’t deserve it and
there are definitely people who do deserve it, but not everybody. (laughing) And not like the reign of terror, but like, I don’t know, no
social commentary or something. So, I’m curious about your suggestion and how we stay away
from that demonization and this concept of like
the scarcity of identity and correctness. – So, when we were freshmen
at the University of Chicago, I was assigned a book called The Reflections and the
Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke, and I hated that book and I wrote five or six papers
on what a complete moron Edmund Burke was. And so, of course, now it’s the big book in my life and it set off something in me, but I think he points us to the way. And he what it is, a
tradition of, first of all, epistemological modesty, epistemology is the
study of what we can know and modesty is modesty. You’re just modest about
what you think you can know and the revolutionaries
who are fighting injustice were not modest. Second, a sense of moderation and moderation is not
being mushy in the middle. Moderation is thinking
that most big public issues are competitions between partial truths, that the right has, the
individualist have one side, the collectivist have another and terror policy, its
security versus freedom. It’s often achievement versus equality. There’s these trade-offs. The world doesn’t fit together neatly. You’ve gotta balance. And that balanced attitude prevents you from becoming a zealot. A third attitude is that politics is a limited activity. Samuel Johnson said, “Of all the things that human hearts endure how few are those that Kings can cause and cure?” The things that really matter in life are our relationships, our character, our philosophy, the
things that are precious in everyday life. Politics matters. I spent a lot of time in politics, but it’s not the most
important thing in life and if you hang your hopes
on transformational lift-up of your soul on politics, you’re hanging on on a
realm that wasn’t meant to bear that burden and you’ll turn it into a sort of fanaticism. Another belief of a
moderate is that creativity is synchronistic, that when you want to have
something really creative, take something from this side
and something from that side and jam it together, not all from one side and
not all from the other. And so if you have those humble breaks in those attitudes, then your you can fight injustice and Burke believed you
do change constantly, but incrementally. Like he said, “You’re
operating on your own father. Be careful.” But do it, but don’t go in
for the kind of zealotry. And, to me, I’m sure
we’ve all noticed this, how you believe something
is often more important than what you believe. Do you believe the fanaticism or do you say, “Well, I’m gonna, I only, I need the person on the other side because they’re gonna correct
me from my own weaknesses and I know that I need
those who disagree with me or else I’m worse off.” And if you have that sense of moderation, then you can fight injustice without turning into a fanatic yourself. – Is there a question over here? – [Michael] Hi, my name is Michael. In your talk, you mentioned
this sort of burden and existentialism that,
you know, we’re weighted with determining our own meeting and that might be all right
for someone like Nietzsche. And I think what that
speaks to is this sort of, you know, desire to throw
away this, you know, gift we’ve been given
and sort of, you know, just push it all into these,
you know, intellectually, these, you know, great
leader sort of types. I think maybe you could see
that in her current state of politics, that, you
know, Congress was designed to be the more powerful
state of government and wasn’t supposed to be, you know, the president pushing legislation through, but we should be excited
about our senators, but I think really the mass culture will get much more excited
about a presidential election than a senatorial election
for the very reason of it’s just, you know,
more exciting nationally. It appeals to a more base desire to fight for this great leader, so if we do move along that
path where we, you know, we transform back into this, we let these great people lead
us and we throw away this, you know, gift or a burden
of self-determination, do you think that’s a good solution? Do you think that would lead
to a productive society, or do you think that’s likely at all? – Oh, my instinct, it’s
an infantilizing solution that, you know, there is
the hunger around the world for a strong man and they ask these polls,
I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, should
the president have to worry about parliamentary niceties? And large numbers of people say, “No, he shouldn’t. We should just get things done.” And one of the beauties of democracy, and this is this column I
wrote on John Stuart Mill, the beauty of democracy,
it invests infinite dignity in each individual and believes
in their individual dignity and their individual dignity
to screw up or whatever, but it believes that the
strenuous life is is one you’ve taken control of yourself. And so the, it is
interesting to me that the, and this is, this many people
have made this point before, that an error of extreme individualism, at its extreme ends,
always leads to tribalism and complete crushing of the individual, because when people are naked and alone, they eventually just grab on to whatever. And so what you lose is any
sense of actual lived life, because you just blindly
defer to authority. One of the things that colleges can do, we were blessed to go to when we did and where we did. We went to a place where
there were still some of the old German
refugees and Carol had one of the great teachers, and
they, as Carol has said, they believed they had
the keys to the kingdom. These great books that we studied contained the wisdom
of how to live a life. And I don’t remember a
lot of what they told us, but I remember the fervor
with which they believed this, that serious study and serious thinking, you could really elevate your life. It was, I have a natural
tendency toward shallowness. It was hard to be as shallow
after they’d preached this into you. The second thing they did was, they said, “You’re part of a great procession. You’re just a little unworthy
peon in this great procession, but you’re in the procession.” And so they allowed us entry into that. The third thing they did is they, they taught us how to see. I have a favorite quote from John Ruskin, which I’m gonna mangle,
which is something like, “The longer I live, the
harder, the more I realize that the great talent is to see something and to describe what
you saw in a plain way. A thousand can talk for one who can think, but a million can think
for one who can see.” And one of the purposes of going to school is to encounter people
who can really see well and describe it clearly. You read a George Elliot
novel, Jane Austen novel, Tolstoy, George Orwell. They just were so good at seeing. And so these skills, these
intellectual virtues, have to be cultivated and
that’s what schools like this are for, but they can easily be forgotten. And I will say, I told the students today, that one of the tragedies is, I’m going to offend the
older people in the audience, I said 60 or 70 percent
of you will be more boring at age 32, than you are right now. (audience laughing) Because you could fall into a rut. People fall into ruts. And the second thing I’ve noticed is I was teaching undergrads and I would assign them
an essay by Isaiah Berlin, and then as a hobby some friends and I were leading seminars in New
York among young professionals at 35. And the students, I
could assign them things, and they could breeze right through ’em. They really got the essays, they liked them, they
could talk intelligently. And then with the 35, 40 year olds, they’d say, “This was really hard. I couldn’t really understand it.” It’s like, what happened? You went to these same schools and you could do it when you were 21. Why can’t you do it when you’re 40? And there’s like an atrophying that we’ve worried about somehow. That was rambling. I apologize.
(audience laughing) – [Michael] Thank you. – Is there a question over here? – [Brian] My name is Brian and I’m a member of a dying breed, which is mainline Protestants. So, as you talked in your speech today about Ruth and Naomi and I
instantly had these thoughts of the stories I’d grown up with, I thought about my three roommates, who are Buddhist, atheist,
and agnostic respectively and so I realized in today’s
society the civic religion that we kind of grew up with is kind of fading away, especially as we have the people who are these unaffiliated
religious individuals. And so then I see on the left, there’s kind of this these
two different approaches, where you have William barber
here in North Carolina, who’s really pushing for a
return to a religious fervor on the left and then other people who are moving away from that and I just wanted to see
what you thought about how those two interact? – I do think, well, we’re
here at a Presbyterian school, so I should be careful what I say, (audience laughing) but I do think that the decline
of mainline Protestantism was a great tragedy and
that mainline Protestantism held the country together,
not in a religious sense, but their, many of the people
who were mainline Protestants had a civic creed. And I grew up, I went to a
school, an Episcopal school called Grace Church school in New York. When I was a kid I was in the choir and because it’s New York, 40 percent of us were Jewish in the choir and so we would sing the hymns, but to square it with our religion, we wouldn’t sing the word Jesus and so the volume would just drop down and then we’d come up and… (audience laughing) But people like Reinhold Niebuhr and even Catholic, Fulton Sheen, these, the great theologians
of the ’40s and ’50s, took a lot of religious wisdom and they presented it to the wider culture and it unified the whole country. And in my view, a lot of
mainline Protestant sects lost faith in their own religion and they became declining
parts of the country and you had the rise of evangelism, the rise of everything else. And that’s, and maybe that had to happen as we became a more diverse society, but we’re still trying
to fill in the gaps. There were these, sort
of the secular sermons of Niebuhr, on the Jewish side, Abraham Joshua Heschel. They were there and
they were in the culture and now we don’t have anybody talking about these moral issues. I do think, I don’t know you, in my experience, while there’s
a rise of non-affiliated, there’s a great spiritual
hunger in the country. And I will say this in two ways, the first is, I did this book on character and I would talk about Saint Agustin and I would get hired to
speak as part of my book tour to a convention of 4,000
CFOs of major corporations and they were there at these conferences to talk about finance
and quarterly reports and health care costs
and return on dividends and return on investment. And then suddenly I would appear to talk to them about
Augustine’s concept of grace and George Eliot’s love life. And I would walk into this
room of 4,000 boring white guys in boring suits and I would think, “This
is not gonna go well.” (audience laughing) And when I was talking
about that stuff to them, I heard a quality of intense silence, an intense focus that
I’d never heard before in my career as a writer. And that book sold way more than anything else I’ve ever written, not because it was better. I just happened to hit the moment that the country is hungry for. And then the second thing I noticed is that every form of Orthodox faith seems to be exploding, expanding. And so if you go to New York City, if you go to Manhattan, the north side of something called the
Great Lawn in Central Park, on a summer Sunday afternoon, there’ll be three or four
thousand modern orthodox people in their 20s, just milling
about on the grass. And they can’t go on dates individually, so they get together on the grass and they try to find each other. And the spread of Modern
Orthodoxy is expanding. If you go to churches
all around New York City, I’m familiar with New York, there are these plant
churches, small churches, there’s one network called Trinity Grace, another called Redeemer, another called Q3. You go to these churches and
like everybody in the church, which are packed, they’re like
six months out of the womb, like everybody is super young and they look like the hippest
of hipster from Brooklyn and Williamsburg. And somehow I look around at New York, I think this is all happening in New York. And so while the numbers
may not show it yet, somehow it has the feel to me of some sort of new religious revival that rejecting a lot of the old forms, but something new was happening and I can’t tell you what
shape it’s gonna take, but you just see it in town after town. And a lot of the people are disgusted with the way religion was manipulated by the older generation and they’re just creating something new. – Is there a question here? – [Wilson] My name is Wilson
and you discussed a lot about the access of freedom for
people coming out of college and deciding what their passions would be, what the covenants are gonna be. You also mention a lot
of great philosophers and great thinkers. Which one of the thinkers that you’ve read would you recommend first, you know, somebody coming into that to really kind of guide
their decision-making? – Yeah, well some are, you know, I’d read Victor
Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. And his main point was that he was a psychologist in the ’30s and he was sent to a concentration camp. He was in Austria and he said, “You know, I
got to the concentration camp and I realized the question
what do I want from life is the wrong question. The right question is
what is life asking of me? What are my circumstances
asking me to do?” And so it’s just a more useful way to think about how to organize your life. It’s not, “What do I want? What’s my passion?” It’s, “What is the big
problem of the world today?” So, Elon Musk graduated,
I think, from Penn. He decided, “Well, there
are three big problems or big opportunities today. There’s space travel,
there’s clean energy, and there’s the internet.” So, he created PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla. Not bad, not bad. (audience laughing) So, we’re not all gonna do that, but it’s, you know, one
of the great phrases of finding a vocation, is where does your deep
gladness meet the world’s, meet this need. And so locating, finding what’s
the big problem of my day is just a good question to ask and Frankl really focuses you on that. The one bit of advice, I
can’t help but offer it, because when you reach a certain
age you like giving advice, which is that your first
year out of college, your life is probably gonna suck, (audience laughing) so just live with that,
because like when you’re here, you’re this great community, everybody likes you, your social life is right in front of you, these great people are
afraid to give you As, but then you get out, no one cares and everybody on the other
side of the job interview, they have that Kanye West attitude, “There’s a million of you,
there’s only one of me.” And so you have to face that. So what you should do, and
this is not my thought, but a friend of mine had this thought, what you should do, your
only job your first year out, is to widen your horizon of risk. You do something completely crazy and forever after you’ll say, “I could do something crazy.” And your horizon of risk
forever after will be here. And the person who gave me this advice, she got out of college, tried to get into Teach
for America, didn’t get it, so she googled teach abroad. Some guy from Korea wrote to her and said, “Yeah, I’ve got a job. Do you wanna be a teacher
here in Korea, teach English?” So, she told her parents there was some big official program, but it was just a guy in Korea. (audience laughing) So, they get her a plane ticket, she lands at Seoul or wherever. They find a little regional airport and she gets to the airport, she lands at 10 at night, and there’s nobody there to greet her. She doesn’t speak any Korean. She has no Korean money. She’s nothing. And so she’s sitting
there out on the bench and they airport closes. There’s one of the persons
sitting on the bench with her, a monk. He gets up and leaves. They turn out the lights. At 3 or 4 AM, a van pulls
up with five Korean guys and they say, “Are you our teacher?” And she says, “Yeah.” And they say, “Get in the van.” (audience laughing) If my daughter did this, I’d kill her. (audience laughing) But she got in the van. She spent the next nine,
eight months teaching English in Korean, she had a great time. And after you’ve done that, you figure, “Eh, I can handle anything,” So, parents forgive me, that’s my advice for their first year. (audience laughing) – [Wilson] Thank you. – We have time for one more question. Is there a question over here? – [Abby] Hi, my name is Abby and I’m coming away from
this speech inspired and, but I know that this is only the beginning of the semester and a lot of times inspiration and then a drive to do
something often comes in waves. So, do you have any insight or advice for how we can maintain this passion or this inspiration that we get from this? – Well, you know, the
only thing I’d say is history offers plenty of examples of people who did gather
together and change history. The SDS, I’ve come,
believe me, I’m politically as far away from the SDS
as is possible to be, but I’m sort of inspired by what they did. First thing, they focused
on a discrete issue. They, it was 1962, they said, “You know what problem isn’t
being addressed enough? Racism in the North.” Everybody assumed racism
was a southern issue, that Chicago was free of it. And that of course was the
furthest thing from the truth. So they picked a discrete issue and then they picked a phrase that they thought
was the way society should be organized. And that phrase was
deliberative democracy. That was the anchor they
hung everything around. And then they realized the key thing is that a movement, really, it’s wrong to separate the
personal from the political. Start with the values and
say what’s the best life and then out of your vision
of your best individual life, then your best social
vision will come out. And so they just got together
and they had this meeting at Port Huron, which they described as life transforming for all of them. And so it was a group of young people, finding their moment and finding a vision for the future. And so, you know, one of the things that markedly improves your
life is forming a community that meets together once
a week or once a month. One of the surefire ways to be happier is to form a group of friends and meet once a month. Studies show it increases
the level of happiness more than if you had earned an extra $150,000 a year. It’s just meeting with a group regularly is just a super big happiness booster because you’re aiming towards
some purpose collectively, that’s what the heart and
the soul thing is all about. So, the the one thing that Port Huron didn’t do, well, they did a little, but what Occupy didn’t do, is they didn’t believe in
institutions in hierarchy and if you want to start something, you can do that as an individual, but if you want to keep something going, it takes an institution. And so creating those organizations is the key thing to keep something going. And then if you find
your interest flagging in the middle of the semester, just cut a few classes, skip a few. (audience laughing) – I, uh, I don’t know. I have often given that advice, although students look at me skeptically and the faculty aren’t
crazy about that advice. I want to share with you,
before I ask you to join me in thanking David, just a sense that, there’s a lot of examples around us of individuals and groups
whose outward motivation seems to be dislike or criticism or hatred and what you hear, I think, coming from David, and certainly this is something
that I would take away from Agustin, is that there’s much more power in acting out of love, out of love for the world, with all its flaws, out of love and concern for people whose lives could be better, out of a love and desire
for the kind of connection that hate completely blocks off. So, maybe we could all
leave tonight with gratitude to David for inspiring
us to think of the world in that open an expansive
way, with an eye towards the love we have to give, rather than the hate we need
to seek retribution for. Please join me in thanking David Brooks. (audience applauding)

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