I hope you missed David Brooks’ New York Times column recently extolling the virtues of excruciating pain. The op-ed, entitled, “A Case for Mental Courage,” is Brooks at his depressing, neocon worst. He starts out by describing in way too much detail the agony Fanny Burney, a early 19th century novelist, experienced when she had a mastectomy without anesthesia. “I then felt the Knife rackling against the breastbone…” and so on. Thanks for sharing, David, but, really, why? Well, because it turns out that heroism is to be found “in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.” Hmmm. The underlying major problem that afflicts our nation, says Brooks, is that capitalism has undermined the idea that people are “inherently sinful.” Our culture “places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness.”
It also turns out that America is too “geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character building regime.” In the good old days, Brooks intones, “this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self-approval by staring straight at what was painful.” Sign me up, David, you neocons look like a fun bunch. How is it that Mencken defined a Puritan? Someone who lives in constant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time?
And therein lies the disconnect between most neoconservatives and America. Thomas Jefferson (someone who always liked to have a good time, if you get my drift) put it right there in the Declaration: We are going to be a nation that recognizes the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Mastectomies sans anesthesia would not seem to fall into the category of the pursuit of happiness.
We should celebrate the fact that the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit – something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism. Some years back, Brooks wrote, “ultimately American purpose can find its voice only in Washington…individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.” That philosophy, of course, was tried a couple of times in the 20th century and found a bit wanting. Especially if you count the tens of millions of human beings who died because of it. On the other hand, they did suffer.