Doug John Miller
Doug John Miller
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Brokenism

The real debate today isn’t between the left and right. It’s between those invested in our current institutions, and those who want to build anew.

by
Alana Newhouse
November 21, 2022
Doug John Miller
Doug John Miller

Two years ago, I wrote an essay in which I tried to explore the growing sense, made more glaring during the first year of the pandemic, that whole parts of American society were breaking down before our eyes. The central idea was that we must accept what is broken beyond repair in order to build our communities and institutions anew.

Among the many people who wrote to me in the aftermath was a man around my age named Ryan, who introduced himself as a West Point graduate and combat veteran, biracial and from a multi-generational Black military family. “I’ve lived and traveled all over the world, but I cherish my family’s deep roots in a small town in rural Ohio,” he wrote. “It seems very dark some days, but your closing nails it: ‘It can almost feel easier to believe it can’t be done. But it can.’”

As I did with many others who wrote me heartfelt notes, I reached out to Ryan and asked to meet over Zoom. It turned out we had more in common than either of us had guessed, and we began a correspondence that’s endured since then.

At one point last year, Ryan said something that struck a nerve. “I don’t know what I identify as these days, because everything has gotten so scrambled,” he noted. “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, I don’t even think I could define myself narrowly as either a liberal or a conservative anymore. The one thing I know that I fundamentally do believe is the premise of your piece, that the dominant institutions of American life—in education, in the arts, in politics—are either totally broken or so weak or corrupt that they’re becoming irrelevant. In a way, the only thing I know that I believe in is … brokenness.”

Ryan went on to explain that, when he gets into political debates with friends and acquaintances these days, those on the “other side” aren’t all liberals or all conservatives or in fact all from any other previously recognizable camp. Instead, they are the people in his life who, regardless of how they vote or otherwise affiliate, remain invested in the institutions and political ideologies that now leave Ryan cold. Many of them acknowledge that there are problems, even serious ones, with universities, newspapers, nonprofits, both political parties, what have you, but they see these as normal, fixable challenges, not signs of fundamental brokenness. To them, the impulse to consign weighty institutions to the dustbin of history feels impulsive and irresponsible—like arson. To Ryan, staying committed to decrepit structures, and insisting to others that they are fundamentally safe when they’re clearly not, is what feels reckless.

Most Americans don’t fall squarely into one of these two camps. Around 40% don’t even vote. But among the people who do engage in debates about this country’s future, the ones doing it most compellingly are not those still stuck in the battle between “Democrats” and “Republicans,” or “liberalism” and “conservatism.” The most vital debate in America today is between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency, and those who do not.

Which is why this is the debate that has, over the past few years, been given center stage at Tablet. On the one hand, we publish stories showcasing what is good about the status quo in American and in Jewish life: what institutions are working, what fears are overblown, which elites are doing good work, and what is decent and right about popular ideas. Half of our readers find these pieces at best silly and at worst naive, even dangerously so.

On the other hand, we also publish stories about institutions and ideologies that may appear to be functioning but are in fact failing in perilous ways, and how to think about developing new institutions, communities, and ideas to replace them. These articles are often marked by a desire to challenge, sometimes aggressively, what was previously considered settled wisdom, and even more so by a deep skepticism about the actions and motives of established institutions and public figures—the federal government, blue chip corporations, the admissions office at Harvard, and so on. The other half of our readership finds these stories crackpot or paranoid, or worse.

To those who wonder why such different kinds of stories are being published by the same magazine, let me explain: We aren’t confused; we are having a fight—and it’s one you might benefit from joining.

Over the past few years, even as Tablet’s audience has grown, some readers have questioned why a Jewish magazine has taken so much interest in topics that, at first glance, appear to have no Jewish connection at all: Russiagate, school closures, content moderation by tech companies, government surveillance, masks, U.S. investment in China, and more. Part of the explanation is that Tablet’s mission was never just to make the world smarter about Jews; it was also to make Jews smarter about the world.

But a related reason has to do with an increasingly dominant sensibility in our pages that, inspired by Ryan, might be called brokenism. At its base, brokenism revolves around the idea that institutions and even whole societies can and do decay—sometimes in ways that are obvious, often in ways that are not.

Now, to observe that a critical mass of American society is broken does not mean that America is falling like Rome or descending hopelessly into chaos like Weimar Germany. This country survived a civil war, the failures of Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution and its destruction of previous ways of life, plus the political violence of the 1960s and the economic shocks of the 1970s—and arguably came out stronger after these crises.

Which is why many people understandably see our current moment as a wave of change that can be ridden successfully—without overblown diagnoses or radical solutions. These are status-quoists, people who are invested in the established institutions of American life, even as they acknowledge that this or that problem around the margins should of course be tackled. Status-quoists believe that any decline in quality one might observe at Yale or The Washington Post or the Food and Drug Administration or the American Federation of Teachers are simply problems of personnel, circumstance, incompetence, or lack of information. Times change, people come and go, status-quoists believe—this outfit screwed up COVID policy, yes, and that place has an antisemitism problem, agreed. But they will learn, reform, and recover, and they need our help to do so. What isn’t needed, and is in fact anathema, is any effort to inject more perceived radicalism into an already toxic and polarized American society. The people, ideas, and institutions that led America after the end of the Cold War must continue to guide us through the turbulence ahead. What can broadly be called the “establishment” is not only familiar, status-quoists believe; it is safe, stable, and ultimately enduring.

On the other side are brokenists, people who believe that our current institutions, elites, intellectual and cultural life, and the quality of services that many of us depend on have been hollowed out. To them, the American establishment, rather than being a force of stability, is an obese and corrupted tangle of federal and corporate power threatening to suffocate the entire country. Proof of this decay, they argue, can be seen in the unconventional moves that many people, regardless of how they would describe themselves politically, are making: home-schooling their children to avoid the failures and politicization of many public and private schools; consuming more information from YouTube, Twitter, Substack, and podcasts than from legacy media outlets; and abandoning the restrictions, high costs, and pathologies of the coasts for freer and more affordable pastures in the Southeast and Southwest.

Brokenists come from all points on the political spectrum. They disagree with each other about what kinds of programs, institutions, and culture they want to see prevail in America. What they agree on—what is in fact a more important point of agreement than anything else—is that what used to work is not working for enough people anymore.

In fact, both brokenists and status-quoists are attracting people from what was formerly known as the left and the right. That’s how you get left-wing guests on Tucker Carlson, and lifelong members of right-wing royalty making frictionless transitions into mainstream darlings. Marxist thinker Adolph Reed is a brokenist; Cass Sunstein is a status-quoist. Resistance Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Never Trumpers like Liz Cheney—these people are status-quoists. Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk are brokenists, as are the famously leftist Glenn Greenwald and the famously capitalist Marc Andreessen. When I was in elementary school, our gym teacher used to split us into two teams and then, midway through class, divide each side and swap the halves to make two new teams. That’s kind of like what is happening in America today.

And it’s not simply that people are switching affiliations while the political parties largely remain the same. Instead, the parties themselves are changing—and in some cases swapping—what they stand for, a reality that observers from what used to be the right and the left are both starting to grapple with.

One popular explanation for this dynamic is that it’s an example of horseshoe theory—the idea, first posited by French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, that extremists from both left and right have more in common with each other than they do with supposedly level-headed centrists from their own parties. But, to be fair, that’s fundamentally a status-quoist argument. Many of today’s brokenists, especially since the spring and summer of 2020, are not fringe fanatics lustily drawn to authoritarianism. They are parents and teachers enraged by COVID school closures and the learning loss their children suffered, especially the most vulnerable among them. They are writers and artists creeped out by increasingly flagrant government surveillance and demands for creative conformity. They are feminists whose life’s work has been grounded in the idea of biological differences between men and women. They are working-class people and families whose livelihoods have been taken from them by a new and rapacious form of turbo-capitalism. They are free speech advocates who can’t figure out why the left no longer feels like home. Brokenists feel certain they were considered ordinary people just a few years ago, but are now routinely accused of being reactionaries or “extremists,” often with real social and professional consequences. Former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, economist Jeffrey Sachs, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—these people aren’t kooks; they have serious and well-argued concerns about how American society and its political and economic landscape are developing.

For their part, status-quoists believe their side is the one coming together under the banner of righteousness and sanity. The fringes, they say, are fertile soil for radicalism, and radicalism leads to danger. It’s not a surprise, these people argue, that antisemitism is rising in popularity and intensity—and that it’s coming from the extremes of both sides of the political aisle.

And the argument of the status-quoists isn’t simply defensive. They admit that many ideas and institutions are in bad shape, but they believe that change comes best from within—not because they are satisfied with the world as it exists, but because the status quo is the least bad option. Most new endeavors fail, they point out, and the ones that already exist have survived for a reason. Foundings are rare, difficult, and highly contingent—both Jewish tradition and the American constitutional system are based on the idea that what’s old is wise, that the past has a legitimate claim on the present, that change should be incremental and toilsome, and that it’s easier to destroy or run away than it is to remain and reform.

What’s more, they see in history plenty of examples of institutions that have been in advanced stages of decay, only to be transformed in useful and innovative ways. For status-quoists, universities today don’t prove brokenists right, but are instead a prime example of why they’re wrong: In 1900, Harvard and Yale were just finishing schools. Partly because of Jewish assimilation, then the Cold War and government-backed scientific research, they became world-class research institutions during the second half of the 20th century. They retained the superficial traditions of the old finishing schools, but in fact transformed into something approximating meritocracies. They did so because of market pressures, because of geopolitical events, and because the more parochial university presidents were eventually replaced by more broad-minded ones. If you had said in 1930 that the Ivy League was broken, you would have been right: They were hothouses of racism, antisemitism, and anti-intellectualism. But it turned out that there was a way to put their money, real estate, and prestige to productive use. They became impressive institutions—not perfect, but special enough that brokenists now look back at them with longing and nostalgia.

And then there were this month’s elections, which the status-quoists rightly see as a win for their side. Brokenists like to think that their own worldview is edgier, braver, sexier, and that they’re making more converts than enemies. Perhaps they’ll eventually be proven right, but as far as the midterms were concerned, it’s not happening yet.

There is no better platform for a conversation about which parts of society are functioning well, which really are broken, and what can be done to fix them, than a Jewish one. It has long been a basic premise of nearly all Jewish thought, from the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud to the kabbalists of Safed, that the world is broken. The idea that, on one hand, God should have never created the world, and that, on the other, we are nevertheless commanded to embrace life, is the one point on which the legendary Jewish sages Hillel and Shammai are said to have agreed. The world is cracked, but we still have to live in it—which means that it is important to situate ourselves, mentally and physically, in places where we can have good and safe lives.

But it also means that we must be sensitive to the tremors that warn of impending earthquakes that could make our current homes dangerous. At different points in our history, that place was Spain, England, France, Turkey, Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Safed, Vilna, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and too many others to count. In all of those places, things got bad at some point; in some of them, so bad that they became irrevocably broken to us. In others, Jewish life went on, and continues to flourish in different ways to this day.

For the last 200 years, American society has been central to global Jewish survival and success. And central to the Jews’ successful integration into American society were many of the institutions currently undergoing radical change. The great public schools, private universities, media companies, publishing houses, law firms, and national corporations—these were the stepping stones to acceptance and success for Jews. What Jewish mother isn’t proud of her daughter or son, the lawyer or doctor, with a degree from Harvard or Yale or Princeton? It’s no wonder that if you walk around Ivy League campuses these days, you see Jewish names like Milstein, Schwarzman, and Bloomberg on so many newer buildings standing proudly alongside older buildings with names like Witherspoon, Harkness, and Eliot. Who cares about the student flyers advertising Israel apartheid week or a few mezuzahs knocked off doorposts? We made it, and we are grateful. Many of us are invested in the credentialing institutions of American life not only because we benefited from them ourselves, but also because we want others—not just our own kids, but kids of other races and religions and from other countries—to have that same privilege.

Perhaps more than many of us want to accept, however, Jewish success in America came not from some big-hearted, multicultural tolerance (which didn’t exist) nor from our ability to “pass” through prejudices and censors (we couldn’t), but from a commodious idea of what an American can be.

Jewish achievement, Jewish survival, and Jewish identity all depend not on radical acceptance—the idea that we have to be celebrated, not just tolerated—but on the specifically Jewish insistence on radical difference. Jews are called upon to eat, dress, pray, work, grieve, marry, and learn in distinct ways that, throughout history, have often made us objects of distrust and hatred. Yet we are required, as Jews, to be willing and able to sit by ourselves—even, if need be, to endure tremendous discomfort. The freedom to be different, while also being accepted as Americans just like anyone else, has for us been the great miracle of this country—and the reason it has been one of the brightest spots in our four millennia of existence.

The value of this American idea has been thrown into question of late, and its future viability is being hotly debated right now. Which is precisely why we should follow the cracks in the foundations of American society not in the way a pundit follows “politics” or “partisanship” or the “culture wars,” but more like a seismologist tracks sudden slips in tectonic plates. Throughout Jewish history, the ability to notice whether and how and when the ground is shifting has been a salient feature of life—or else a lesson purchased at the highest possible cost.

We must follow the cracks in the foundations of America not in the way a pundit follows the ‘culture wars,’ but like a seismologist tracks sudden slips in tectonic plates.

When it comes to American institutions, though not America itself, I am a brokenist—both because of my sense of the problems (which I explored here and here) as well as the possible solutions. The ferment in American life and culture is now on the fringes—among the creative types who are too far gone for the establishment institutions to control, and the outsiders who oppose those institutions, and the builders who are too busy obsessing over their own life project to notice or care much about what the status-quoists think. That’s where the cultural energy is: in innovative new prep schools for young Black men in rural Georgia; in young families quitting the cities for rural areas; in science and biotech landscapes run by swashbuckling pioneers who bob and weave around bureaucratic obstacles, expanding the possibilities for how life is and can be lived, and performing medical and technological feats we’d once have easily described as miracles.

At the same time, as someone who is deeply engaged in Jewish life, who admires and loves many people who work in Jewish institutions, I also embrace the status quo. I know that the dentists and lawyers and bakers and butchers who form the backbone of every living Jewish community don’t currently live on the blockchain, or in self-made communes. They live in an imperfect world that has always been imperfect, and from which people have often been able to generate safety and even beauty by committing to stakes already in the ground.

There is, though, one thing that is nonnegotiable to me. We are in a historic moment of flux. Regardless of your political or religious or cultural allegiances, you must not be surprised by the fact that the world is changing, or that change often spans a spectrum of feeling from uncomfortable to very, very bad. Whether you see yourself as a brokenist or a status-quoist (or neither), you must not be surprised by a world that looks different from what you had grown used to. You must not be surprised when we are considered “the enemy” on an increasing number of college campuses or in the pages of storied newspapers; you must not be surprised when famous athletes or beloved musical artists or crafty politicians want to turn their fans against us; you must not be surprised by election results, or Supreme Court decisions.

This idea is central to our mission now. No Tablet reader in 2022 should scan the news in the morning and find herself shocked. When you wake up and look at your phone and the headlines at least make sense, however bad the news may be—that is when you know you are inside an authentically Jewish conversation. To see the cracks in the building before it collapses—that is a Jewish experience. To argue about whether the building can be saved or has to be evacuated—that is a Jewish debate. To find a way to somehow invent an entirely new kind of building—that is a Jewish act. To dismiss the cracks as unimportant and suppress questions, so that the next day’s news shocks you all over again—I wish you luck in your efforts, but don’t confuse your approach with the values of Jewish engagement.

Once you stop spending your time being outraged, you’ll realize how much energy you have for whatever work you want to do. Leave. Stay. Build something new; invest in current institutions to see if they can be made better. Think bravely and creatively about what America needs for a stable and rich future. Be deliberate about what you’re doing, and try to understand those who do and see things differently. What you encounter might seem or actually be misguided or outright wrong, foreign, scary—even dangerous. Engage anyway.

A handful of readers misread my original essay as a downer. As my friend Ryan understood, my goal is not to discourage people, but precisely the opposite: to give hope. The ground is moving again. Everything bad comes from change, but so does everything good.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.

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