Category Archives: David Brooks

The old ball and chain

Fig. 1: Marriage

A playground loser may save his ego with the following: I didn’t want to win anyway.  Here’s Yale Professor David Brooks’ latest version.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.

This is correct only in the most restrictive sense–the sense in which every choice to do some activity x involves doing x (and maybe for a time not y).  But in every other meaningful sense it’s appalling dumb: having the right to marry recognized involves adding choices to one’s life.

Anomalous regularity

There are a couple of people I now consider it completely safe to ignore: George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, and of course, David Brooks.  These are the guys who inspired this whole project.  Every now and then, however, it's fun to go back and see what's up with them.  Via Alex Parene at Salon, here's a gem from David Brooks:

Jeremy Lin is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He’s a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn’t neglect the biggest anomaly. He’s a religious person in professional sports.

We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

We have grown accustomed to this anamoly.  You'd think an editor would have gotten that. 

Made me think of this headline from the Onion: NFL Star Thanks Jesus after Successful Double Homicide.

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

The simple reason there is no simple reason

David Brooks illustrates today that there's a simple, singular reason people employ the oversimplified cause argument scheme:

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

That simple reason is that we believe some kind of Brooksian dichotomy: people are either x or y, etc.  My question: so we've been making dichotomies (I don't think we have–Brooks has), and this is too simple, and this is the simple reason why there is no simple reason.  This refutes itself.

Double standards

Double standards are fun.  We need them in order to get by in life.  All you Irish people, eager for the liberation of Northern Ireland from the hated British (sorry British), might stop to consider that the IRA is a terrorist organization.  And just this week, Spike Lee was in Naperville (a Chicago suburb) to give a speech for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, amid protests (about Lee's racist portrayal of Italian-Americans) from Italian-Americans.  He quipped: "this really burns my canoli, perhaps yous should be protesting 'Jersey Shore.'"  Well maybe that was a paraphrase. 

I mention this because I ran across some rather quality content on the internet on this very topic.  It turns out that when it comes to crazed right wing white people, some people can be very understanding; however, when it comes to crazed non-whites it's a different story.  The following seems right to me:

That said, conservative columnist David Brooks, in an astonishingly superficial argument, wrote in the New York Times that those who drag politics into public debate over the killing of political figures and government officials are leveling “vicious charges” and lack empathy for the mentally ill. Brooks gravely wagged his finger at those — he singled out MSNBC commentator Keith Olberman, former Senator Gary Hart, and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas — who have argued that violent rhetoric from the Tea Party and Sarah Palin set the table for the Tucson shootings. (Of course Congresswoman Giffords herself chastised Palin for putting her district in the now-infamous gun-sight crosshairs. Does Brooks include her, too, in excoriating “vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness”?)

How sugary is Brooks’ argument? Compare it to what he wrote following the shooting rampage that took place at Fort Hood in November 2009. In that murderous incident, Major Nidal Malik Hasan was ultimately charged with killing 13 and wounding over 30. Hasan, a Muslim psychiatrist, was clearly disturbed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (he was about to be deployed to the latter) and his deteriorating mental state had been a concern to officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

That was before Hasan snapped. Despite documented psychiatric worries, the issue of terrorism quickly dominated public discussion of Hasan’s act.

At the time, Brooks derided talk of Hasan’s mental state and characterized those who brought it up as casting “a shroud of political correctness” over the Hasan “narrative.”

“The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality,” Brooks intoned. “It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.”

The war narrative.  I can be embraced by anyone.

Read the rest.  It's worth it.

The weekender

In a lot ways the pseudo-reasonable ramblings of David Brooks inspired our work here.  It's a pleasure, then, to see our analysis echoed by others:

There is no pleasure for the pundit quite like the neat, clear-edged dichotomy. I have felt these pleasures myself. But few columnists fall for it quite as regularly as The New York Times' David Brooks, for which it seems to provide a sense of order and clarity in a messy world always hurtling toward chaos. Today Brooks tackles a fascinating theme in economics: the notion of mechanical policies or solutions to what ails us. The irony here is that Brooks' dichotomy, which the Times headlines "Two Cultures" in a glib reference to C.P. Snow's now ancient (and glib) dichotomy between science and the humanities, is as clankingly mechanical as the mechanistic tendencies he claims as the province of dreaded liberal technocrats.

Here's David Brooks from 2004 (see here):

There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don’t shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.

New York Times–the breadth of reporting, the insight.  I think I might order up the Weekender (click this link–hilarious).  Now in case one is inclined to object that it's hard to write a 750 word op-ed twice a week, I'll agree with you.  It probably is hard to come up with something engaging, refreshing, and enlightening.  But if this is what you come up with, then, maybe, paraphrasing Kant here, "metaphysics punditry isn't for you." 

 

 

You can fool some of the people all of the time

Here's David Brooks in 2009:

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.

Now again Sunday:

There are liberals who call conservatives racist as a matter of tactics, too. That happens, as well. Listen, I was out jogging, you wouldn't know it to look at me. I was out jogging (LAUGH) you wouldn’t know it to look at me, I was out jogging on the mall. I was at a Tea Party rally, Tea Party rally. Also there was a group called the Back– Black Family Reunion, celebration of African American culture. I watched these two groups intermingle. Sitting at the same table, eating– watching concerts together. Among most of those people, there was a fantastic atmosphere of just getting along on– on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Thought that was funny–the line about running.  I guess it's funny because Brooks looks like every guy his age who engages in some kind of light sporting activity–so it's not surprising that he's a jogger.  Anyway.  The first passage continues:

Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.

Because sociology is more important than fitness, I stopped to watch the interaction. These two groups were from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum. They’d both been energized by eloquent speakers. Yet I couldn’t discern any tension between them. It was just different groups of people milling about like at any park or sports arena.

And yet we live in a nation in which some people see every conflict through the prism of race. So over the past few days, many people, from Jimmy Carter on down, have argued that the hostility to President Obama is driven by racism. Some have argued that tea party slogans like “I Want My Country Back” are code words for white supremacy. Others say incivility on Capitol Hill is magnified by Obama’s dark skin.

First, let me make one quick point about race.  There's no reason to believe that celebrating African-American culture puts you at the opposite side of the political and cultural spectrum from the tea party types.  Many African-Americans are culturally conservative Christians, some even fiscally conservative Republicans. 

Second, watch that next paragraph closely.  Let me rephrase: at least one person sees every conflict through the prism of race, and, many have argued that all the hostility toward Obama is driven by race.  That little slip there of the quantifier–many argue that all is your hollow man.

As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with these arguments can tell you–some that some of the animosity toward Obama is driven by race.  The rest of the animosity, of course, is driven by his being a foreign-born muslim.

In all seriousness, no one maintains that the only reason many conservatives oppose Obama is race.  There is, of course, the matter of disagreement over the policies–a fact which everyone recognizes. 

Now back to the tea-partiers.  Accusations of racism have rightly been leveled against some of them.  That some of them do not engage in open race war when they encounter African-Americans does not negate that claim.  That only negates the claim that all tea partiers are itching for perpetual race war.  And no says that.   

Tribunals of the moribund

I'd call this column by David Brooks a complete waste of space.  He signals as much from the get-go:

When historians look back on the period between 2001 and 2011, they will be amazed that a nation that professed to hate bureaucracy produced so much of it.

Will they now.  I think he means historians will be unsurprised that a party that professed to hate government produced so much of it. That question, however, has already been answered–see Reagan, Ronald. 

It just gets dumber:

When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era — when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute it to the have-nots. It’s not a conservative era, when the governing class concedes that the world is too complicated to be managed from the center. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems.

This progressive era is being promulgated without much popular support. It’s being led by a large class of educated professionals, who have been trained to do technocratic analysis, who believe that more analysis and rule-writing is the solution to social breakdowns, and who have constructed ever-expanding networks of offices, schools and contracts.

I think that claim there–the central conceit of this piece–ought at least to gesture in the direction of evidence.  Sure, he's predicting the future, but his prediction would have some teeth if for instance he at least faked some kind of Rasmussen poll.  Besides, from where I sit, financial and health reform measures had significant popular support–if anything, people wanted even more from the reforms than politicians were willing to offer.

The real mystifying thing here is Brooks's straw-man alternative to popular support–a group of technocratic know-it-alls setting panels for the moribund and such.  It's just trivially the case that implementing anything will involve some degree of assessment and measurement.  And that will always involve nerds.  Historians will not be surprised by that.  Even the Egyptians had a class of nerds.