Arthur Brooks on NPR’s #TEDTalks Radio Hour on Tolerance: Supremacy Rehashed | Blog#42
Fresh Air ended and I was about to turn the radio off when the Ted Talks Radio Hour began. Since the hour was going to be on tolerance, I decided to give it a listen.
The disappointment came swiftly. The hour on tolerance began with Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and his TED Talk from last summer during the height of the 2016 election. I had started to move my finger toward the off switch as I decided to hang in a bit longer to study Brooks’ technique. Why?
In the lead up to the interview with Brooks, Guy Raz played representative clips about intolerance from the season’s news. Then:
“The world seems like a pretty intolerant place today. But how about this idea, that the solution to all this is not more tolerance. Tolerance, in fact, doesn’t come close to what we need.” Then, Brooks starts talking: “Yeah, I know, when you talk about a couple that’s been together for forty years and they really hate each other. They barely tolerate each other. I don’t know why they don’t get divorced, they barely tolerate each other. Hey, they’re practicing tolerance. Isn’t that a great virtue? No. It’s not a great virtue. Tolerance…”
Raz then presents Brooks and Brooks presents himself as an independent and not a right of center conservative. My finger starts inching its way back to the off switch, but then, Brooks says:
“We talk about tolerance because we have low standards, basically. It’s not enough to tolerate people. It’s not even enough to help people. We need to need people who are not like us, and only when we do that, can we have a kind of a unity that we really crave.”
So, I began to listen to the portion of Brook’s segment, excerpted from his TED Talk. It began with polarization and “political motivation asymmetry” and, soon enough, Brooks first proposes that we really should need people who are not like us because we are really benevolent at the core. Second, Brooks points back to a period of great immigration and the sign on the statue of Liberty, “give me your poor…” actually meant something. As an example, Brooks talks about his and Raz’ grandparents coming here in the twenties because there was something they wanted to do, and how those immigrants built the country.
It is at that point that I stopped listening to the broadcast, looked up the page for it on NPR’s website, and turned on Brooks’ TED Talk in its entirety. Sure enough, the segment on the show came from the middle of the Brooks’ talk. It begins with Brooks telling his audience about his beginnings in Washington state, in a liberal family. He regales the audience with the formative events of his youth, with the iconic image of the African child with an emaciated body and swollen belly. Soon after, Brooks does what his institute is for. He begins to rattle off statistics on poverty worldwide and immediately dives into a pitch for fixing the world’s problems by bringing benevolent entrepreneurship to the world as a means of eradicating billions more of poverty cases.
I realize that Arthur Brooks is only a product of a white American culture that is enamored with its benevolence all the while it is completely comatose when it comes to the misery it continues to wreak. Brooks is so typical of the white intelligentsia of this nation, I cannot ascribe his state of coma to his political bent. One finds this type of rank ignorance, to various degrees of unconsciousness and ignorance, all along the political spectrum. It isn’t Brooks’ fault. It is our collective failing for not insisting on better education standards. But… isn’t Brooks a professor? Yes, he is (or was). But that doesn’t mean that with all of his education, his knowledge is well-rounded enough to give him the kind of consciousness that is missing from white American society about its roots and what is missing from its collective sense of social responsibility.
The jarring image Brooks conjured from his childhood memories came from a foreign place. But, had Brooks been just a tad more conscious, he might have remembered scenes from the Deep South. After all, Alabama and Mississippi still have tenant farmers, sharecroppers, schools with no textbooks or textbooks so outdated, they might as well be in some forsaken place in Africa or Asia. We have 30 million hungry children in this nation every day. We have millions of Americans without health insurance, mostly in red southern states and in the midwest. We have, in Baltimore, an entire section of the city in which poverty rivals that of any third world nation’s. These are statistical economic facts we learned about in the aftermath of the police killing of Freddy Gray. We learned about the third world in America after we learned about what was really going on in Ferguson, Missouri. Why reach all the way back to 1980’s Africa when we can reach out to 2015 America? Why, does a white public intellectual use an African child to evoke unity among political opposites in this country?
In his talk, Brooks presents the intolerance in the current political and economic divide as the outgrowth of wage stagnation and political opportunism. But every story has a beginning, and that beginning isn’t ten years old, as Brooks claims. He then goes on to say that we need a new day and less predictability in ideological bubbles. We need to come together using the best tools at our disposal to… blurs lines and switch roles to become warriors for the poor and beauty of free markets.
Great idea, right? But the free markets, in this country, they got their start with slavery. The very notion of American capitalism began with the brutal exploitation of a people to realize enormous profits. It is that exploitation that, as it became politically impracticable, begat the class system we know today, with one class exploiting the other in more benign, but nevertheless exploitative ways, to the point we have reached in our politics, with a de-facto oligarchy that is in the process of taking our society through a reverse engineering of the American social contract of the FDR years.
Without slavery as the starting point, we wouldn’t have America as it is today, with its inhabitants inculcated in the notion that no society can be without its rich or its abjectly poor; that American society cannot exist without its inequities and the false promise that if you work hard enough, you will pull yourself out of the most abject of poverty by the power of your own sheer determination.
Without slavery as a starting point, we can’t have an America in which an acceptable compromise is going from healthcare for none, to healthcare for some for a few years and, suddenly, perhaps healthcare for none, all over again. Without slavery as a starting point, we cannot have an America in which those in power are entitled to America’s riches, to profit without limit, and the absolute right to strip civil protections from those who aren’t in the top tier. Capitalism needs recalibration going forward. If it is out of whack now, it was really never right. As we are poised to enter a new era of automation, mankind needs to reevaluate the basis on which we coexist and thrive together.
There is no morality in arriving at compromises that normalize unequal rights. Healthcare for some is an immoral compromise. Voting rights for some is an immoral compromise. Civil rights for some is an immoral compromise. All of these compromises normalize the biggest compromise of them all: the continued refusal of this nation to confront its past and build its future on truth, reconciliation, and reparation of its past and present sins.
As we hurtle towards a world without work, starting with a gig economy that isn’t sustaining the third of our nation that participates in it, Brooks’ kind of philosophy deepens our divisions and the miseries that cause them.
There is no morality in conjuring a starving African child as a guise for the promotion of colonial enterprise masquerading as a unifying force against misplaced tolerance. There is no morality in sweeping decades of inequality under the rug and centuries of oppression in order to excuse away the anger that is now boiling over in our nation.
Arthur Brooks is correct that tolerance isn’t good enough. Neither is glossing over the underlying reasons why we still are a largely racist, classist, misogynist, and exploitative society. Brooks’ seemingly benevolent approach, in the end, is nothing more than a repackaging of standard supremacist, classist doctrine.
“Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
~ James Baldwin
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