Is David Brooks Worth Listening To?

It took me a little while to notice it, but back on October 27th, the Columbia Journalism Review published a profile of David Brooks written by Danny Funt. First, I’d like to compliment Mr. Funt on being a good craftsman. He knows how to put together a big piece like this, and that’s to his credit as a reporter. I also understand that we probably shouldn’t expect that Funt would return the favor of getting some special access to David Brooks by savaging him in the resulting article.

On the other hand, in taking David Brooks so seriously and treating him so respectfully, something was definitely lost. If you haven’t been following the Saga of David Brooks over the years, you’d never learn much about it from reading this profile. As a result, the article is really distorted, and not in a good way.

The lede is clever in that it uses some repetitive italics to show just the barest hint of skepticism about the worthiness of David Brooks’ moral voyage without coming out as openly disparaging or dismissive.

DAVID BROOKS WAS STRUGGLING WITH SIN. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting.

That’s good. David Brooks calls it reporting. The author doesn’t necessarily agree.

Of course, having temporarily set a promising tone for the profile, Funt can’t help but to immediately follow with some validation of Brooks’ worth as a distiller of dense concepts for the mainstream.

“He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”

There’s nothing quite like having a tenured Princeton professor vouch for your brilliance, but it might have been mentioned that Prof. George is an off-the-charts anti-choice extremist. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems relevant.

From here, Mr. Funt has to pivot to the plainly thankless infinite regress of providing what is basically a theological exegesis of David Brooks’ idiosyncratic theological interpretations of some prominent theologians’ theology. It’s like watching someone masturbate in a room full of mirrors, where every mirror has a different face.

Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.

He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.

Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle. David Brooks got a lecture on the sin of gossip.

And, so, you can see how this piece is starting to veer off. We’re invited to take this a little too seriously, and also to care. And that’s a bit much.

Soon we are in a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, where Brooks and Funt are chatting “in between [Brooks’] regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour.” As we’re reminded that Brooks has held down these two gigs for nearly twenty consecutive years, we hear Brooks say, “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness.”

And that would stand to reason. Brooks is recently divorced (not that there is anything wrong with that) and if he has an ounce of intellectual consistency, he must feel like a giant failure. He knows that he deserves sympathy, but sympathy is not enough. By his own standards, he knows he has to be held responsible for the failure of his marriage. And what could be more lonely than that?

In fact, when I contemplate David Brooks home alone with his failure and his self-recrimination, I want to have mercy on him. I remember that if mockery could defeat him he would have already have died a million deaths, and I think that maybe he’s endured enough mockery.

But he won’t stop.

In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.”

This is the key thing here. Brooks has taken it upon himself to inject “moral thought” into our public discourse, which is presumptuous because it implies that no one else has a compass with which to judge others’ behavior, and arrogant because he thinks he’s got it all figured out. And this takes an odd form, too, because he isn’t just saying that folks should lead solid bourgeois lives for the good of the kids and our greater society; he’s imploring us over and over again to be more judgmental of each other.

Whether you take him up on it or not, one can’t really help but take this as an invitation to judge his family and his moral decisions.

But there’s another thing, and it’s kind of crucial to understanding the hostility so many people have for Brooks’ form of moralizing. He’s a really sloppy thinker and not even an adequate amateur philosopher. As I put it not too long ago, “the stone cold unavoidable conclusion [is] that all our learning and training, all the tools we have acquired to understand and explain the human condition, are like chainmail against the Mongol horde of pretentious foolishness that Brooks brings to the battle.” Letting this man contemplate the great moral questions in public is exactly like handing a three year old a running chainsaw.

I could use many examples, but probably nothing will do better than Brooks’ reaction to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University. I wrote about this comprehensively (here and here). The topic was an assistant football coach named Mike McQueary who had witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a ten year old kid in the locker room showers. McQueary didn’t put a stop to the rape and instead went home to discuss it with his father before later informing head coach Joe Paterno and eventually school officials. Many people were understandably outraged that McQueary didn’t step in immediately to stop the assault. But Brooks had an explanation for McQueary’s lapse in judgment or courage.

MR. BROOKS: I don’t think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, “If it feels all right for you, it’s probably OK.” And so that waters everything down.

He went on to elaborate:

MR. BROOKS: If you’re alert to the sense of what evil is, what the evil is within yourself and what evil is in society, you have a script to follow. It’s not a vague sense. You have a script to follow. And this is necessary because people do not intervene. If–there’s been a ton of research on this. They say people, they ask people, “If you saw something cruel, if you saw racism and sexism, will you intervene?” Then they hire actors, and they put it right in front of them. People do not intervene. It’s called the bystander effect. It happens again and again, people don’t intervene. That’s why we need these scripts to remind people how, how evil can be all around.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll excerpt some of the response I made to this gibberish at the time.

Now, let’s review. Absolutely no one intervenes to stop statutory rape and forcible sodomy of young boys anymore because we’ve lost any sense that such activities are evil. We knew they were evil 30 or 40 years ago, before people muddied the waters with all this out-of-wedlock sexytime behavior. But now pretty much everyone thinks child rape can’t be all bad if the rapist derives some pleasure from it. We could fix this though, if we would just memorize some scripts about what is good and what is evil.

Is it me, or is this some powerfully stupid shit to be saying on national television?

And, more substantively:

It’s actually difficult for me to follow this logic. Let’s start with something that ought to be uncontroversial. In centuries past we had the Holocaust, and war between states was almost routine. In centuries past we had no human rights infrastructure or international norms for protecting the innocent. In centuries past we bought and sold human beings like livestock. In centuries past, we put children in the mines and on the assembly lines. In centuries past, women were treated as property and had no right to divorce or even to vote. In short, it’s pretty close to impossible to argue that people were more moral in the past than they are today. Many of the things we find abhorrent today were not even against the law in the recent past. For one topical example of how we’ve made some moral improvement, note how people basically shrugged when Roman Polanski drugged and sodomized a 13 year-old girl in 1977, and compare that to how people have reacted to Jerry Sandusky’s similar actions against boys. It’s pretty clear that people are less forgiving of child rape today than they were thirty-four years ago. Is that moral progress or are we just pretending to be simon-pure?

This may seem like an extreme example–an outlier, if you will–but it’s really just the natural consequence of giving David Brooks enough respect to discuss deep issues with him and then letting him have a platform to regurgitate what he hasn’t learned.

We shouldn’t expect better of him. The list of ways that he’s been catastrophically wrong is long enough to get to Asia and back. And he’s never been a fast learner. As late as 2007 he wrote “Nonetheless I still think the foray into Iraq was one of the noblest endeavors the United States, or any great power, has ever undertaken.”

There are some of us who think a record like that should get your pundit card revoked and maybe bring an end to your decades-old gigs on PBS and NPR.

Of course we know that it is possible to be consistently wrong enough to lose your column at the New York Times, but William Kristol is the exception that proves the rule that this never happens. Instead, Mr. Brooks walks free of consequence–free to shift blame and revise history. Or, as Brooks’s perennial gadfly, the pseudonymous blogger driftglass, puts it:

From the safety of his impregnable Neoconservative fastness high atop the New York Times, tireless Iraq War cheerleader and professional revisionist, David Brooks, has written a column blaming the collapse of Iraq on Barack Obama’s unwillingness to shovel even more of the sons and daughters of Americans-who-are-not-David-Brooks into the bottomless well of misery and sectarian horror created by George W. Bush.

There are some of us who find this behavior deeply morally objectionable and are willing to be judgmental about it.

Above all, David Brooks doesn’t get to include us in his Club of Submental Iraq War Enthusiasts.

Now, Mr. Funt is more concerned with what we might call David Brooks 2.0. This is less the Iraq War cheerleader than the moral scold:

Because of his conservatism on issues from drug use to casual sex, Brooks can be perceived as a fuddy-duddy.

But calling him a “fuddy-duddy” is really a whitewash. He’s actually the worst kind of hypocrite, especially on the drug issue. I mean, just look at this, from January 2014:

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

After taking a hard look at the stiff New York drug sentences of Brooks’s youth (a minimum of 15 years to life in prison for selling two ounces of weed), I asked at the time:

What about the moral ecology of arresting black kids for smoking weed and letting nice Jewish kids like David Brooks off with a warning? Is that the kind of moral ecology we want?

…When David Brooks was a pimply-faced teen, he and his friends smoked pot which resulted in, as Brooks put it, “moments of uninhibited frolic” that deepened their friendships.

We can all relate.

But if Brooks had seen the inside of the walls at Sing Sing back then, he’d be singing a different tune today.

It’s not unusual for people to grow up, mature, and decide they made some pretty bad decisions in their youth that others probably shouldn’t emulate. It’s another thing to think folks should be thrown in prison for their own moments of uninhibited frolic just so that the government can create your preferred type of moral ecology.

We need a stronger term for that than “fuddy-duddy.”

I probably don’t need to delve into David Brooks’ foray into the racial politics of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, although I am still amazed how breezily he manages to define himself as “white.” I find that quite embarrassing (for him) and just one more manifestation of how out of his depth he is when he tries to talk about anything whatsoever serious. As I put it, “He’s denying the second class citizenship Jewish-Americans experienced when they got here and making himself out to be the complete flip-side to black American descendants of slaves. He’s not.”

This could introduce Bill Fristian remote psychological diagnoses of Brooks’ inner torment. Where does his Judaism stand today in his personal spiritual journey? Why has he made it his mission to “translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms” on the opinion page of the New York Times. How exactly did he become the white counterpart to black America?

But I am not much interested in that, and I don’t have any of the answers in any case.

He’s on some kind of quest, of that, I am pretty clear. I don’t think it’s any deeper than the kind of tingle for the truth your average undergrad gets when discussing Plato’s Ethics around the dorm room bong, but it’s a legitimate quest.

I just can’t follow Danny Funt in taking it seriously.

How much authority does Brooks have to tell happy, successful people that they are morally ignorant? And yet, doubting moral truth should not delegitimize moral learning.

People who believe Brooks beats up on the poor often point to ethical spinelessness of politicians or corruption on Wall Street as evidence that immorality is multicultural, maybe even skewed toward the elite. Yet, this underscores why a popular journalist with conservative dispositions but liberal open-mindedness might be valuable to morally stimulate the “upper-middle class” and “upscale establishment.” In today’s America, a middle-aged, privileged, urban white man is needed at the table of moral dialogue. He represents a morally beleaguered constituency, which is why, to borrow from one forceful column, the proper course is not to banish people like Brooks from making such commitments to moral reflection. It is to expect that they make such commitments.

I get the point…you know, the spirit of the argument here.

But, no, David Brooks really ought to be banished.

No one should listen to what he has to say.

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