I generally don’t talk about politics on this blog, as that’s my day job. But rules are made to be broken. Whatever your politics, I think you should read David Brooks. You may agree with him, or you may not. But I think he is one of the most thoughtful social or political commentators writing today. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I think my own position is better for having to wrestle with his.
In today’s column, Brooks dings social entrepreneurs for lacking “moral realism” à la Hammett and Chandler. Brooks is often criticized for making broad generalizations—and in some instances, they are simply incorrect. Still, I would be interested to know if there many examples (or any examples) of social entrepreneurs with such moral realism.
Regardless of his point vis-à-vis social entrepreneurs, I think Brooks is brilliant in his analysis of the hardboiled hero.
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them.
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.
He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.
He is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. The world often rewards the wrong things, but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected. He knows he’s not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs he’ll have to risk coarsening himself, but he doggedly plows ahead.
This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism. I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.