David Brooks on deference for incompetent authority in the wake of Ebola fear
October 21, 2014
Mark D. White
David Brooks' New York Times column this morning, titled "The Quality of Fear," makes a number of claims regarding the source of the panic surrounding the Ebola virus. As usual, he makes useful and insightful points, but he falls a bit flat when he tries to tie this episode into his persistent theme of deference for authority, especially when this episode—as he describes it—reinforces the very skepticism he laments.
His opening point about Ebola points out this dilemma:
In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.
That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”
So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.
His point about isolation within social classes is a familiar one (although somewhat redundant, given what social class means), but more troubling is his transition to leadership and authority. Maybe I'm too young, but at what point in our nation's history have people known or felt "one with" those in authority? Aside from the elites in government, business, and the media, I doubt many Americans have ever considered an elected leader or appointed bureaucrat to be "one of us." After all, it is very difficult for people who have no power to connect with people who have power.
(When he writes of the changing perception of authority, perhaps Mr. Brooks is thinking of the increase in distrust in government following Watergate, but this is a separate issue from feeling connected with authority. I would also add that, given what we know how about government operated before Nixon, we would have been wise to be more distrustful back then as well. Trust based on ignorance is hardly a virtue.)
I would have preferred Mr. Brooks to end the piece with his last sentence above: "You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway." In my opinion, that's the core issue: incompetence. I'm sure the American people would love to be able to trust their elected leaders to have a handle on crises and a plan to deal with them—and to tell us when a crisis is not in fact a crisis. But we have seen little such competence from government leaders in a long time. Of course, the people behind the scenes, the (mostly) apolitical researchers and scientists and analysts who toil in anonymity for presidents and Congress, are not incompetent. But when their message is filtered through political interests (especially so nakedly and shamelessly) before they get to the people, they become suspect and unreliable. As a result, many people turn to television and the internet to listen to speakers who seem to talk directly to them, with no apparent agenda, even if what they say is hyperbole or simply utter nonsense.
(Brooks touches on the role of the media later in his piece, stressing how they intensify news and cause disproportionate panic. This is true, of course—but this would not have such an impact if people could rely on the true authorities to give them the information they need without having to doubt their motivations almost by reflex.)
Mr. Brooks makes his best point near the end of the article, but again I read it as giving more reason to be skeptical of authority, not less:
The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.
In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”
Of course people are frightened, and Mr. Brooks is correct to point out that it is an amorphous, "existential" fear. We often make a distinction between risk and uncertainty, in which risk deals with known probabilities (such as the roll of a fair die) while uncertainty deals with unknown probabilities (such as keeping your job). But our current fears reflect another level of uncertainty altogether: not only uncertainty about what is likely to happen, but what can possibly happen at all.
Just think of the things people worry about these days (reasonably or not). Ebola. ISIS. Climate change. Economic inequality. Human trafficking. Civil war. Terrorism. Not as exhaustive list, and obviously skewed by my perspective, but I hope it gets the idea across, which is that these are not risks that can be insured against or "mere" uncertainities that can be planned for. These are perceived threats that, many of them, could not have been imagined before they occurred, have unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences, and have no clear solution. As a result, they all speak to the fragility at the core of human existence—they merit a certain level of fear that is not easily assuaged by political statements from authorities who do not seem to appreciate their gravity or the trepidation they reasonably cause.
As Mr. Brooks wrote, "It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand." In such conditions, I think skepticism about authority is entirely justified, and should not be reversed until authority shows the people it deserves to be trusted. When Mr. Brooks writes that Ebola "exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture," I think he is spreading the blame too widely. When authority tries to respond to such existential threats but cannot do so outside an explicitly political lens, the message, as valuable as it might be, becomes soiled, and people turn elsewhere for information (and misinformation). But can we blame them?
I fear I will never understand David Brooks' blind appeals to authority and his unshakeable trust in people with power to use that power responsibly. Then again, I was raised to be distrustful of authority (an attitude he would likely attribute to my class upbringing). I have not yet had reason to change my mind, though, and the incompetence he himself identifies this recent episode is hardly going to give me one.