David Brooks’ column “The Thing Itself” is just begging for a Straussian reading of some kind. It’s a very distinctive phrase, derived from Kant, and Kant’s point about the ding an sich is that it’s unknowable and inexpressable. The precise concept is a bit difficult (though I think well captured by Wallace Stevens’ view that “things as they are / are changed upon the blue guitar”) but the basic idea is that there’s no way to see things except through the veil of perception. Anyways, Brooks:
It would be nice if there were more leaders like Ward inclined to disenchant problems and stare directly at specific contexts. Sometimes circumstances compel you to raise taxes, sometimes circumstances allow you to cut them. Sometimes government can promote innovation; in most cases it can’t.
Walker Percy once wrote, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Translated into policy terms, that means it takes a lot of little zigs and zags over the terrain to get where you want to go. Mayors, governors and local officials do this all the time as they respond practically to circumstances. At the national level anybody who tries to zig and zag gets regarded as weak and traitorous by the economic values groups. There are rewards for those who fight over symbols, few for those who see the thing itself.
The basic topic of the column is perfectly plausible here. A call for people to be more practical. But why link that idea specifically to Kant’s phrase, and then use it to call for us to do something that Kant says is impossible? I get a distinct air of Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago around this. Brooks is winking at those of us in the know to signal to us that there’s a deeper meaning afoot. The esoteric argument, I think, is that people necessarily engage with mass politics on a symbolic and expressive level rather than a practical way (voting isn’t very practical) so our endeavors are doomed to failure.