Sunday, June 6, 2010

I Like Douthat, Usually

I have tended to like NYTimes conservative Ross Douthat, not just because he isn't Bill Kristol, but because he strikes me as a tragic figure -- a lone intellectual, trying in vain to justify the philosophies and the ideologies of a GOP that frankly hates intellectuals like Ross Douthat.

However, Douthat has an post up in response to a study stating that Generation Y-ers have less empathy than previous generations, just gets my gall up:
On the face of it, these seem like contradictory portraits — how can the same generation be more solipsistic and more interested in human betterment and ambitious social activism? But maybe they actually go hand in hand. There’s a kind of humanitarianism that’s more interested in an abstract “humanity” than in actual people, and a kind of idealism that’s hard to distinguish from moral vanity. Perhaps this is the spirit that’s at work among the empathy-deficient world-changers of Generation Y — visible, for instance, in the way that community service has become a self-interested resume-padding exercise for ambitious young climbers, or in the way that Barack Obama’s rhetoric (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” etc.) managed to appeal to younger voters’ idealism and flatter their egos all at once.
There are, of course, a multiplicity of explanations that could be reached to untangle this "contradictory portrait." For instance, looking at the actual survey, it is simply possible that Generation Y has a different way of responding to questions about empathy? After all, we're in an environment where appeals to our pity and good-meaning-ness are increasingly frantic -- call it the GiveWell hypothesis; we're aware that our emotions are not the best vehicle for doing good.

Anyways, Ross Douthat's contention that we are in love with "the people" but not particular people is completely backwards given the actual nature of the survey. The survey asks about "the less fortunate" and "someone" and "them" but it doesn't actually provide empathetic scenarios and ask for action.

In a way, it would be nice for Douthat to imagine a world where the youth lack empathy. Because that means later on, when they lose their concern for the strawman of "the people," they'll become Conservatives. Because isn't that what economic and social conservatism is -- a lack of empathy for people outside of the norm?

After all, we know what the rest of conservatives think of empathy these days:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

At the end of the day, why would you privilege a questionnaire over an analysis of actions and impact?


isaac butler said...

I would love to read an explanation by you for how Ross Douthat's writings about sex, sexuality, women's rights and reproductive freedoms fall under the heading of intellectual. They seem entirely like someone trying to justify his fears around his own suppressed sexual longings.

Or for more on this:

CultureFuture said...

Well, I've always had the feeling that Douthat is a Super-ego trying to swallow an Id -- the GOP is this gigantic Id that is spewing out "philosophies" and talking points as though it was a full brain, and Douthat is trying to come along and translate parts of it into the heady, philosophical-sounding language of the super-ego. If that makes sense. In other words, he's trying to take the language of truthiness and rewrite it in the language of the New York Times opinion editorial.

To specifically address the sex, the process seems pretty clear to me. Awkward Ross Douthat has a poor sexual encounter. Why? Because he's in his super-ego trying to figure out what he's supposed to do: "I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted." By the phrase "what I wanted" he really means "what I expected" or "what I was looking for." This is something not going according to plan, and thus he is scared.

That all part is something I can sympathize with. The part I don't sympathize with is the next part of the Douthat method.

Afterwards the encounter, he's trying to figure out why things didn't go the way he planned. The part that sticks out to him is the part that was most unplanned: the birth control thing. After all, you rarely see it in the movies/pornography - when Bruce Willis (or whatever right-wing sex icon you choose) is about to lay a woman down onto the bed for some sweet love, she doesn't stop and say, "You know, I'm on the pill."

So, for Douthat, there's an emotional situation here. But Douthat isn't an emotional dude who fumbles around with condoms and can't talk to girls -- he's not going to co-star with Michael Sera in Superbad. No, there must be something larger going on here, something that gets his male confusion off the hook: it must be the pill's fault.

And thus it becomes a philosophical standing, incorporated into the world-view, so that Douthat doesn't have to admit it's a personal emotional thing.

In other words, I should have put "intellectual" into quotation marks. Really, he's just someone who wants to make the Id wear a suit and be polite at cocktail parties.