Bringing America Together
AEI President calls for warm-heartedness
In a nation divided, how can we unite to serve the common good? Torn by party, ideology, and increasingly even by basic issues of fact, this presents a significant, yet critical challenge for our country, one that we must strive to overcome.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, delivered a lecture entitled “Bringing America Together” on September 25. His presentation sought new solutions to these perennial problems that plague American society.
Brooks has announced he will step down from his position as president of the conservative think tank next summer to teach Public Leadership at Harvard University. He serves as a columnist for the New York Times, and has published 14 books, including best sellers The Road to Freedom and The Conservative Heart.
He began his talk by asserting the solution to old and tired problems is to consider them in new ways. “And to do that,” Brooks said, “you need to find your big moral epiphany.” Brooks then explained his moral epiphany for what he considers to be the most significant problem facing America: the way people at the margins of society are treated.
His epiphany regarding this problem is that America has changed from needing the poor to helping the poor. Brooks said, “If we want to serve our brothers and sisters at the margins of society better, we must move from ‘help’ to ‘need.’”
Proposing a thought experiment in which those under the poverty level in a particular community suddenly disappeared, Brooks asked, “How long would it take you to notice?” His answer to this question: it would take far too long. Brooks reasoned that no one would notice if the poor disappeared because “America has come apart and no longer needs one another.” This is a problem, according to Brooks, because “the center of your dignity is not being helped. Your dignity comes because you are needed by somebody else.”
Brooks delivered an anecdote to illustrate the importance of need to those at the margins of society. A man named Rick was recently released from prison with a new job as an exterminator. He showed Brooks a text message he received from his boss, which read: “Hey Rick, I have an emergency bed-bug job on East 65th Street. I need you now.”
Rick explained to Brooks the joy this message brought to him because it was the first time in his life he felt needed. Brooks argued that this is how all people at the margins of society should be treated. “Any public policy that makes people less necessary for society,” he argued, “is a bad public policy.”
The lecture then shifted to discuss what Brooks considers to be the most pertinent issue in American politics: “how we talk to each other.” Brooks argued that the way Americans talk to one another about politics is “morally problematic and is worsening our culture.”
He told the story of how during a conservative activist conference, he said to his lecture audience: “I want you to remember that [political progressives] are not stupid and they’re not evil.” A woman in the audience raised her hand in response and said, “I think they’re stupid and evil.” This anecdote illustrated that Americans are so divided that even common decency cannot exist between those of differing political opinions.
Brooks asked the audience at Notre Dame to raise their hands if they love someone who holds political opinions that differ from their own. When everyone raised their hands, he called on the audience to “stand up to the people you agree with on behalf of people you disagree with. That’s what we do as Catholics.”
Brooks also explained how lessons he learned from a friend who runs a marriage counseling service helped him to understand the problem of American political discourse. Here he learned anger is not actually associated with divorce because it demonstrates investment in a relationship. Divorce actually occurs when the couple feels contempt, “the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another person.”
“So here we are in America,” Brooks said. “That’s how everybody expresses themselves.” The reason that Americans express contempt, Brooks argued, is because “it is a habitual form of communication.” He said, “You have to break that habit if you want to be the solution.”
Brooks found his solution to the habit of contempt through a conversation he had with his good friend, the Dalai Lama. Brooks asked him, “Your holiness, what should I do at the moment I feel contempt for another person?” He said the Dalai Lama responded to him: “Practice warm-heartedness.”
Warm-heartedness and compassion enabled the Dalai Lama to become one of the most respected religious figures in the world, Brooks explained. Exiled from his homeland, he accomplished this while leading six million pacifistic Tibetans in the face of military aggression.
“Contempt is what you do when you’re not in control of yourself. You’re sort of reacting like a snail when stimulated with an electrical prod. Warm-heartedness is to be strong like the Dalai Lama,” Brooks said.
Brooks concluded by calling on the audience to think outside the box, reminding the audience that “big problems have solutions when you think about them in new ways.”
Ellie Gardey is a sophomore political science and philosophy major living in Lewis Hall. She dreams of northern Michigan where she can canoe through wild rivers and hike in uncharted woods. Contact Ellie at firstname.lastname@example.org.