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Apr 9, 2005 1:18 pm

David Brooks Is Right

David Brooks is right. In a column in the NYT the other day he observed that liberals generally are indifferent to debates about public philosophy. He recalled that a year ago he had phoned "the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did."

How would I have answered if Brooks had asked me? I have found myself wondering about this since reading his column. The first and only name that keeps coming to mind is Walter Lippmann. In high school and college I read all his books, devouring The Public Philosophy, Drift and Mastery, and Shield of the Republic, among others.

But I realized after thinking about this for awhile that it was a conservative who introduced me to Lippmann. In high school I had three history teachers: Mr. Ahearn, Mr. Asher and Mr. Okkema.

Mr. Ahearn was the department liberal, a good Irish-American New Dealer who celebrated decency and treated his students with decency. He had a distinct liberal approach to life but never talked about philosophy.

Mr. Asher was rumored to be a communist. A conservative member of the school board had even tried to get him fired. He taught Afro-American history and sociology. He too had a distinct approach to life but didn't talk about philosophy, perhaps because he didn't want to admit his affinity for Marxism.

Then there was Milo Okkema. Mr. Okkema was a somewhat intimidating person. He was formal. He was a hard grader. He demanded a lot from his students. And he never kidded around. In his classroom nothing less than the fate of civilization always seemed to be at stake. Many students behind his back badmouthed him. He wasn't a pal like so many other teachers. And he didn't want to be your pal.

He was very conservative. He defended the Vietnam War (this was in the late 60s early 70s). He ran a Great Books club because he believed in a traditional 19th century education rooted in the study of the ancients. And he was very religious.

He had a great impact on students who liked him and let him into their world. For several years I considered myself a conservative because of him. I even attended a summer school run by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In my spare time I read Russell Kirk and other conservatives.

While I long ago abandoned the conservative positions I took in high school under the influence of Milo Okkema, I never stopped thinking about the world in the terms he laid out. Fundamentally, they were conservative terms. Liberals, he argued take a mechanistic approach to life, conservatives an organic approach. Conservatives believe that society changes little, human nature tends toward evil, realism is vital. When George W. Bush began talking about remaking Iraqi society I cringed. His was a hopelessly liberal scheme that would probably come to no good as it was based on a mechanistic assumption that if you gave people the vote they instantly would become good citizens.

A great deal of Mr. Okkema's philosophy came from Lippmann, whose quotes he hung on the walls of the classroom. They spoke of history, tradition, memory. Like Lippmann, I have gone through my own evolution. He started out as a liberal backer of Woodrow Wilson with faith in the people and ended up a conservative who had little faith in the people. I started out as a conservative who didn't doubt the wisdom of the people (probably because as a high school student I simply imbibed the American rah-rah myth that the people are the fountain of wisdom) and ended up as a liberal who now shares his doubts about the people.

Liberals I encountered in college and afterward seldom seemed interested in philosophy, as Brooks astutely observed. But the conservatives always were. I am not sure why this is so. But unlike Brooks, I don't think this is a reason for liberalism's failures today. Liberals lacked a philosophical approach to life even when they were in the saddle. Philosophical questions just don't preoccupy liberals anymore than they do Americans generally.

I for one am grateful however that I was exposed to a conservative like Milo Okkema when I was in school. If David Brooks calls me up and asks who my favorite philosopher is I won't have to put him on hold. I'll answer, thanks to Milo Okkema: Walter Lippmann.


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More Comments:

mark safranski - 4/12/2005


Perhaps the lack of gravitation among liberals to a well-defined philosophy is due to the success of pragmatism being instilled in the popular culture ?

You find adherence to strong philosophies among people who see themselves on the periphery of society in America - intellectuals, dissenters, advocates of lost causes - rather than in the comfortable mainstream.