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Human Nature

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David Brooks, columnist in the New York Times, had an essay in the "Select" edition Sunday (no link therefore) decrying the passing ("fading") of the idea that there is a natural human goodness.  He writes
Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded. It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists. As Steven Pinker has put it, Hobbes was more right than Rousseau.

Notice how the verb in the first paragraph is "discarded" and at the crux of the second paragraph his sources, (Pinker, et al) describe an uneasy balance between "tooth & claw" v. "goodness."

Brooks cannot have it both ways, and he cannot have it without giving some reference to the source of all this negativism about humanity in America. The underlying credo of modern Conservatism, particularly that brand that extends outward into society from fundamentalist Christianity posits that human beings are by the very nature evil and corrupt. In fact the basis of Conservative civilization is the "civilizing" of their off-spring, who are infested with original sin and endless ego-centrism.  (Read George Lakoff's don't think of an elephant on this, particularly his contrast between the "strict father" view of Conservatives and the "nurturing parent" model of Liberals.)

The key to Brooks' confusion or lack of acumen on this is buried in his time-line.  He declares the abandonment to have begun 30 years ago!  Guess what happen back in 1977?  The Republicans sabotaged Jimmy Carter's attempt to extricate American troops from Iran and got Ronald Reagan elected, based on a direct and quite cynical appeal to the racist lower-middle classes particularly (but not limited to those) in the southern states—the fabled Dixiecrat/George Corley Wallace-ites—and began a considered trek into the bowels of fundamentalist Christian mythology as authority for their assault on our liberal republic.

Ever since, Republicans have been promoting the idea that people are basically bad, basically not to be trusted, basically to divide and to conquer.  It is a terrible philosophy and Liberals across the nation have been dumbstruck as waves of this insidious anti-democratic misanthropic doctrine seeped across the land, pooling in the low places, swept along by the likes of Tom DeLay and the foulmouthed latter day prophets Limbaugh, Robertson, and their henchfolk at Fox.  Only recently has the noxious cloud of hate and despair been partly dispelled, yet Brooks pressed onward with it.

Brooks should be ashamed of himself.  He finally notes that the purveyors of misanthopy are the traditional conservative thinkers.  Somehow, though, he misses that a virulent brand of hatemongering conservative American politics is the carrier of this sickness.

And, oh by the way, the liberal program has not failed.  It was not perfect, but clearly you could not have expected Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes to have administered any of these programs honestly and competently.  Sabotage and ineptitude are the reasons, not the nature of human beings. 

We are neither angels nor devil's spawn.  We are grown wiser than these simple childish mythologies.  Our civilization lives along the spectrum from good to bad with the vast majority at the bulge of the bell-shaped curve.  It is more than just important that our civilization retain its confidence in this essential truth, for our democracy completely depends upon it.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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