Dept of Convention:
The Wages of Sin
17 April 2015

Whenever I see David Brooks’s byline in the Times, I fold the last page back behind the rest of the section, because I know that I’m going to read every word. Why? It seems to me that Brooks and I want the same good things to happen, but that we disagree somewhat about how to get there. What we disagree most about is religion.

Brooks is very subtle about religion. Sometimes he mentions the concepts of faith and sin explicitly. Usually, he doesn’t. I don’t want to accuse him of being sneaky, but he quite often garbs his judgment in code. From today’s column, for example:

But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.

So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it.

I couldn’t agree more with the gravamen of this passage, but the presence of “broken” and “crooked timber” makes me uncomfortable. They are bywords for good old sin, sin of the original kind, the kind that we’re born to because we are the children of Adam and Eve. Jews and Christians alike, we have been condemned by their transgression to taste the sweat of our brows. Only religion can cleanse us of sin. Once upon a time, Brooks’s column suggests, we ordered our society in accordance with this understanding; we were all good Protestants. Then, after World War II, we lost our taste for self-denial — and now look what we’ve done.

My trouble with religion has nothing to do with my agnosticism. I celebrate the religion of my wife, and that of the many other good church-goers whom I know. I often wish that I shared their faith, for the comfort that it brings, certainly; but sometimes just for the pleasure of taking part in a liturgical service, and not observing it from outside. If I thought that the religious revival that Brooks is calling for would culminate in the moderation and respect that distinguish my religious friends, I’d be the first to join in his appeal.

History, however, tells me that revival is unlikely to be moderate and respectful. We have already had four Great Awakenings in the United States, and it is not entirely idle that Upper New York State, the birthplace of one of them, was long known as “the burnt-over district.” I don’t want to live in a burnt-over district. If I grew up with the naive American understanding of “enthusiasm” as a blandly good thing, I have learned better. Sometimes these awakenings can be deadly without being enthusiastic, as happened in Prussia in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, where religious revival stunted intellectual vigor and prepared the ground for Hitler.

The older I get, the less prepared I am to accept the reality of sin. There is something horribly presumptuous about the very idea of it. It suggests that we can look into the minds of others and ascertain wicked, as distinct from merely weak, motives for their actions. That is sin as the failure of others. Sin as one’s own failure, as the conviction that, whether or not anybody else knows about it, we have done something wrong, is much more interesting. Only very good people, unfortunately, are able to treat the sins of others as no worse than their own; or, more to the point, their own sins as equally indefensible as others’. One kind of sin is problematic enough, but in effect we have two kinds. I think that we ought to give more thought to resolving them into one sort of failure: the failure to observe a convention.

I have a lot to say about convention, and I’m obviously having a problem working it out in a series of thousand-word blog entries. I keep going back to beginnings; I never get round to working out the consequences. When I read Brooks’s column this morning, I was thinking, What he means to say is that postwar American culture threw off the the respect for conventions that governed social cooperation because they were stifling growth and change. As Brooks writes, in the paragraph preceding the ones that I’ve quoted,

This more positive view of human nature produced some very good social benefits. For centuries people in certain groups in society had been taught to think too poorly of themselves. Many feminists and civil rights activists seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.

We needed to dump a lot of conventions that stood in the way of civil equality for blacks and for women. For homosexuals. For the homeless and the disturbed. For those formerly known as “the handicapped.” The prewar social arrangement still rested on the convention that white men talk to God, while everybody else talks to white men. There are still pockets of respect (some of them, I’m afraid, much too large to be called “pockets”) for this repudiated convention.

Somehow, however, the idea took hold that the very idea of conventions was reprehensible. Conventions thwart spontaneity, individuality, creativity! I don’t think that I can capture the vehemence with which, throughout the Sixties, “convention” was associated with stultification, suppression, even totalitarian conformism. Perhaps because the mass of prewar conventions was so grossly monolithic, it was hard to believe that conventions could be arrived at imaginatively, that they could leave room for plenty of individuality, and that they might even create occasions for spontaneity.

In fact, as I think Brooks suggests without meaning to, when you jettison conventions that no longer work, you must replace them with conventions that do a better job of negotiating our everyday transactions. We cannot function without pre-set understandings of the consequences of behavior. And, here in Manhattan, we don’t try to. Come visit sometime, and, instead of gawking at the buildings and the prices, pay close attention to the way New Yorkers pay close attention to one another in every public moment. (The young omadhauns who don’t pay attention stand out like the jerks they are.) These conventions are not trivial; they are backed up by a community spirit that every now and then bursts out into the open. (“Is this a line?” Glare.) For the most part, it doesn’t have to. Thousands of people walk by Tiffany & Co everyday without anyone’s trying to rob it. Considering the size and exhausting exuberance of New York life, violent disruptions of the conventional fabric are vanishingly rare.

The very idea that human beings are constituted of “crooked timber” is an Industrial Revolution insult — and how like Kant, who probably didn’t know how to operate a pencil, to make it. We are not straight, we are not regular, we are maddeningly varied. And that, that is what’s great about us: we are all human resources. With the help of a few wise and fair conventions, we can accommodate just about anybody.