Yesterday I posted a link to David Brooks’ most recent magnum vomitus in which he referenced an article by Dudley Clendinen called “The Good Short Life”. Clendinen’s article is a beautiful, brutal, prickly and funny thing, which you should read immediately, if you have not yet had the pleasure. It will be the best thing you read all day.
Then, if you will, come back and I’ll dare to append some of my own poor scribblings. And a bit of ranting about David Brooks. There will be swearing and David Brooks’s writing may even be compared in a very insulting fashion to baked goods.
Off you go.
See what I mean? That’s the sort of extraordinary writing that David Brooks will never succeed in producing – because the Clendinen article is written by a fine, honorable and self-aware human being and David Brooks’ articles are written by … well, by David Brooks.
I have never met Mister Clendinen, and it saddens me that I almost certainly won’t have the chance to know him. I wish him much joy of the time he has left, much dancing and much walking of dogs, and a quiet and happy death.
On the other hand, David Brooks is a person I would move continents to avoid. While I wish him a long life and little pain – because that is the decent thing to wish for anyone, no matter how morally bankrupt and intellectually turnip-like they may be – I don’t say I wouldn’t be happy if he was to suffer a little accident which removed his ability to write, such as it is. To be frank, I’d probably open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but it’s generally not something I actively wish for. Actually, if I’m brutally honest, I will admit that rereading both articles made me angry, and that there were moments where I allowed myself to imagine graphic acts of violence against Mr Brooks, but that’s as far as it went, I promise. It was something lingering involving two kilos of anchovies in his pants and an hungry petrel, I seem to recall.
Most satisfying. Very Tippi Hedren.
There are a lot of things wrong with Brooks’ article.
However, I can ignore his willful blindness about the root causes of America’s related healthcare and budget crises (Hint: It’s not the fault of the sick people who would just like to not die in a gutter).
I don’t mind his blithe acceptance that the way to fix the system is to keep the broken system we have and reduce costs by encouraging people to die, rather than reforming (or even socializing) that system (Hint: In most countries with a form of socialized medicine, the political debates are about the details of the socialized system, not its existence, because every politician knows that to mention abolishing socialized medicine will lose you every election in a landslide. People like socialized medicine).
I can make my way through the most repellent Brooks prose without having my palms itch or my temperature rise.
Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.
I love how he veers from those authoritative pronouncements of what “we” are going to allow, and what it will be hard to see “us” doing, straight into the declaration that “people and their families” (but presumably not “we” and “us” anymore) will have to stand eye to eye with rabid death and pay their dues to their nation.
I can forgive his mangled metaphors, his twee primness (or is it prim tweeness?):
But in large measure it’s about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon.
and his complete failure to engage with his subject or educate, inform and/or entertain with his prose. I can even forgive this:
There are many ways to think about the finitude of life.
Can’t you just imagine Davey typing “finitude”? Mouthing the word to himself under his breath, his lips pursed into a little moue of satisfaction, perhaps a wry smile at his own cleverness.
I can accept that, although in this article Brooks has veered dangerously close to inserting a valid point, lurking there beneath the layer of smugness that coats his every pronouncement like the royal icing on a particularly loathsome wedding cake, that point rises no higher than:
People might want to raise my taxes to pay for the poor and the dying. As I am fit, healthy and rich, someone else should do something to prevent their problems impacting on me. I like both free enterprise and cheese.
However, none of these egregious sins against good taste, intellectual rigor and human decency made me angry.
What made me mad, what sent me scuttling for my phone to order a batch of muffins for Mr Brooks*, is that, as the lovely Mr Levenson pointed out in the comments, Brooks appropriates Clendinen’s words and twists them:
Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.
But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
Brooks takes Clendinen’s words about friendship and family and joy and struggle and his right to die with dignity, about his choice (as Mr Levenson puts it):
to live the life he thinks worth and worthy of living, and not one moment that is not,
about his decision to say no to the operations and the pain and the blood and shit and piss and the loss of self that disease can bring, about planning his own death as honestly and lovingly as he can, and about how one’s right to die is necessarily also the right to choose to fight on …
David Fucking Brooks takes those wonderful, painful words and uses them in a prim little sermon on how the aged and the infirm and the poor should grit their teeth, think of the Stars and Stripes and just die already.
That is simply unforgivable.
* If you make very good friends with a New York baker, like I did, you can get laxative-laced muffins couriered to people you hate in the most gorgeous baskets you have ever seen, and at very reasonable rates. Nobody can resist a nice, fresh-baked muffin.
[Image – An Arab and his Dogs – Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)]
[Cross posted at Sarah, Proud and Tall.]