On The Unbearable Lightness Of David Brooks

I know I’ve been mostly absent, and will continue to be so.  (At least until this makes it through copy editing.)*

I know as well that there’s too much to be talked about to waste much time on the utterly predictable.

And I also know that what I’m about to point out is far less an indictment than, say, today’s column should earn.  I do plan to take a whack at that one sometime soon, unless, as I hope, Charles Pierce eviscerates, and I can just crib.

So this is just a bit of nastiness on my part, some pissed-off snark, on confronting the “look inside” excerpt now available for the divine’ BoBo’s new hacktacular, The Road to Character.  As a matter of substance, I’ll just say that I agree with Driftglass, (via the above-referenced Mr. Pierce), that for David Brooks, such an avenue remains the road not taken.

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But as a matter of pure spite, let me just say that nothing I’ve read of Mr. Brooks’ new minimum opus changes my core opinion.  He’s got a gift for glib writing, the prose analogue to your easy-listening adult classics.  But in any attempt to sustain prose over the long haul…the cracks show.

Exhibit A.  The first two sentences of work:

“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.”

I’m sorry, but what tin ear, what grudge against English prosody, allowed these clunkers to pass? That’s the barker at the door, the first words one encounters while deciding whether to commit precious hours of one’s life into David Brooks’ care!  Such blunt repetition, the rhythmic fail of the second sentence, the parody of explanation — “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé” — forsooth!  I never would have guessed!  Even if Brooks didn’t mind such clumsiness, where in the name of all that’s pasta was his editor?

Trivial, I know, and I’m hardly a without prose sins of my own to regret.  But as I read reviews that praise Brooks depth or countercultural mastery, it’s worth remembering passages like this one.  Brooks is not a great writer, and the reason isn’t that he can’t manipulate words well when he pays attention.  He clearly can.  Rather, it’s that such hack writing hints at the hack thinker putting cursor to phosphor.  Expressing bad thoughts clearly exposes their flaws…which can and hence must be elided in a fog of mediocre prose.  As here you see.

Bonus reading, which has the added benefit of showing what happens when villagers (even genuinely capable ones) review fellow villagers.  See, for example, Pico Iyer in last Sunday’s New York Times book review:

For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).

Umm. Iyer sees in that “Philosophy is likely to be…” a stunning epiphany, a sentence that puts mere piety to shame.  I see a nearly content-free assertion that undercuts itself by word three.  Seasoned Brooks’ readers will recognize the gambit:  in order to justify one of his famous and very often risible claimed dichotomies (resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues) he must impose his judgment on possible contradicting authorities.  Here, philosphy is drained of potency as it fights on the dubious ground of half-truths.  And just in case anyone calls him on it — this magisteral dictum is only “likely” — thus granting Brooks his ex cathdra authority while insulating him, just a bit, from any instance of reality failing to acknowledge his infallibility.

In other words:  this is pure Brooks, a seemingly epigrammatic heap of nonsense, structured to give him both the appearance of gnomic wisdom and plausible deniability.  And this his exceptionally friendly critic sees as masterful.

We need a new culture.

*I can make one prediction with a fair degree of confidence.  Shameless self-promotion to come much closer to the day.

Image:   John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1820-1821.



Can You Put A Guillotine Inside A Tumbrel?

I mean, it would have to be a pretty large tumbrel to fit the guillotine inside, and you would need a lot of pulling power to drag the thing through the streets and still retain the cutting force necessary, but I’m sure we could be motivated to get to at least the proof-of-concept build phase based on Bobo’s latest crime against reality over body cameras on police.

Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional. Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care.

Putting a camera on the police officer means that authority resides less in the wisdom and integrity of the officer and more in the videotape. During a trial, if a crime isn’t captured on the tape, it will be presumed to never have happened.

Cop-cams will insult families. It’s worth pointing out that less than 20 percent of police calls involve felonies, and less than 1 percent of police-citizen contacts involve police use of force. Most of the time cops are mediating disputes, helping those in distress, dealing with the mentally ill or going into some home where someone is having a meltdown. When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.

Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.

So, yes, on balance, cop-cams are a good idea. But, as a journalist, I can tell you that when I put a notebook or a camera between me and my subjects, I am creating distance between me and them. Cop-cams strike a blow for truth, but they strike a blow against relationships. Society will be more open and transparent, but less humane and trusting.

The obvious response is “there’s nothing humane and trusting about shooting a guy 8 times in the back, then planting a taser on the ground next to his dead, handcuffed body” but this bulging sack of tepid mammoth crap in glasses here probably wouldn’t get it anyway.  It’s difficult to argue that your right to not feel embarrassed by a body camera recording your drunken rendition of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” somehow trumps your right not to be shot and killed, but our sacky protagonist, well he goes there, boldly leaving a trail of Santorum behind him.

Anyhoo it’ll be a challenge for the build team, I know.  Let’s get to work.

 



Dr. King Was Seeking Creative Accommodation, You Know

So what have you got for me today, NY Times, from our nation’s best pundits on the situation in Indiana?

David Brooks, you say?

Like a purty girl dancin’ to Both Sides music, and a mess of Mom’s Bobo, mess of Mom’s Bobo, mess of Mom’s Bobo-cue.

If the opponents of that law were arguing that the Indiana statute tightens the federal standards a notch too far, that would be compelling. But that’s not the argument the opponents are making.

Instead, the argument seems to be that the federal act’s concrete case-by-case approach is wrong. The opponents seem to be saying there is no valid tension between religious pluralism and equality. Claims of religious liberty are covers for anti-gay bigotry.

This deviation seems unwise both as a matter of pragmatics and as a matter of principle. In the first place, if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation. Some people have lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. There are too many stories like the Oregon bakery that may have to pay a $150,000 fine because it preferred not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. A movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side of a government that compels a photographer who is an evangelical Christian to shoot a same-sex wedding that he would rather avoid.

Furthermore, the evangelical movement is evolving. Many young evangelicals understand that their faith should not be defined by this issue. If orthodox Christians are suddenly written out of polite society as modern-day Bull Connors, this would only halt progress, polarize the debate and lead to a bloody war of all against all.

As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.

Morality is a politeness of the soul. Deep politeness means we make accommodations. Certain basic truths are inalienable. Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down. But as neighbors in a pluralistic society we try to turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems in which different people are given space to have different lanes to lead lives. In cases where people with different values disagree, we seek a creative accommodation.

Because of course the history of various civil rights movements in America is filled with “neighborly problems” solved with “creative accommodations” like fire hoses, billy clubs, dogs, armed National Guardsmen firing into crowds of students, firebombings, lynchings, and assassinations.

At no point is anyone trying to “write Orthodox Christians out of history” here, but it’s a nice little fantasy necessary for justification of “Hey you know what, gay people?  You should probably be nicer to Republicans making laws to be used against you, and they would probably stop it, just like Malcolm X played a friendly game of Parcheesi with the Dixiecrats to end Jim Crow in the South.”

I mean come on, history is replete, if not goddamn gravid with examples of the ruling class happily giving rights to oppressed minorities when asked really nicely. You guys, people have lost their jobs being mean to gay people. When will the madness end?

Puppies and rainbows can live in harmony and crap before it turns into a bloody war or something. Suck it up and accept some structural discrimination for a while and eventually it’ll stop, because it’s hard being a white Christian guy in a state like Indiana, you know.

Just get you some of that there respectability politics and a mess of Mom’s Bobo-cue.



David Brooks Auditions For Graham Greene

 The Quiet American  is a marvelous book, or rather, it is one in which Greene’s utter disdain for the reckless incompetence of power gets a near perfect expression.  Take this snippet from near the end of the work:

Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?” “Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?” He said, “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

“You see what a drum of Diolacton can do,” I said, “in the wrong hands.” I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around. I said, “This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children-it’s the shopping hour. Why choose that of all hours?” He said weakly, “There was to have been a parade.” “And you hoped to catch a few colonels. But the parade was cancelled yesterday, Pyle.” “I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know!” I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain. “You ought to be better informed.”

“I was out of town,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “They should have called it off.”

“And missed the fun?” I asked him. “Do you expect General The to lose his demonstration? This is better than a parade. Women and children are news, and soldiers aren’t, in a war. This will hit the world’s press. You’ve put General The on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe. Go home to Phuong and tell her about your heroic deed-there are a few dozen less of her country people to worry about.”

A small fat priest scampered by, carrying something on a dish under a napkin. Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? he’ll always he innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. Ail you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

He said, “The wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists…”

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance…

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“Impregnable armoured by good intentions and ignorance.”  That is what will — or at least should be — engraved on David Brooks’ tombstone.  And I’m only giving him the props for his intent there out of whatever residual nil nisi bonum remains to me.

Why the vitriol, and memory of stupid wars, with the overwhelming weight of the violence reserved for far away others who don’t look like “us”?

Today’s column.

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Saturday Morning Open Thread: “Intensity Retreats”

Normally I don’t bother with David Brooks, because life is too short to waste on poisoned pablum. But Jessica Roy at NYMag had a brief post:

David Brooks made a stunning discovery in this week’s op-ed: Friends. People should have them. Wow, big if true.

After making the sociopath’s case for having friends, such as the way one stands to benefit politically and socially from friendships, Brooks says that if he had $500 million he would create a happy fun time summer camp for adults to make friends.

I have a better idea, David Brooks: Give me $500 million and I will happily be your friend (though I’ll probably still talk about you behind your back).

The amazing thing — and this, no doubt, is why the NYTimes gives him the big bucks & the premium op-ed space — is that Brooks’ piece is even worse than Roy described, starting with its oxymoronic title:

Somebody recently asked me what I would do if I had $500 million to give away. My first thought was that I’d become a moderate version of the Koch brothers. I’d pay for independent candidates to run against Democratic or Republican members of Congress who veered too far into their party’s fever swamps.

But then I realized that if I really had that money, I’d want to affect a smaller number of people in a more personal and profound way. The big, established charities are already fighting disease and poverty as best they can, so in search of new directions I thought, oddly, of friendship…

Shorter BoBo: “Current politics have convinced me that $500 million is not nearly enough money to force people to vote for the Thought Leaders I would prefer to see in charge. It might, however, be enough for me to finally buy some syncophants.”

… In the first place, friendship helps people make better judgments. So much of deep friendship is thinking through problems together: what job to take; whom to marry. Friendship allows you to see your own life but with a second sympathetic self….

How many times has this man been divorced?

Second, friends usually bring out better versions of each other. People feel unguarded and fluid with their close friends. If you’re hanging around with a friend, smarter and funnier thoughts tend to come burbling out…

Somebody needs to break it to him: Gail Collins only laughs at his “jokes” because she feels sorry for him. (Actually, I suspect those squirm-inducing ‘conversations’ are written into her contract, but it’s clear even from the published results that she feels sorry for him. Gail Collins is a nicer person than I am.) Read more



Open Thread – When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra…

I love words, despite the indignities I enforce upon them, so I relish a little bit of grammar geekery.

Geoffrey K. Pullum has a wonderfully nasty post up at Lingua Franca and a wonderfully wonky post up at Language Log, both discussing an article by Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri.

Petri piles on poor old Bill Keller (isn’t being married to Emma punishment enough for you jackals?), not only for being a concern troll and a horrible human being but, worse still, a blatant and premeditated user of “passive constructions” in his writing. As Petri puts it:

Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses.

Pullum wonders whether Petri might be getting her “passive” confused with her “obscured agency”, and details his analysis in the Language Log post. There are tables and numbered lists. It’s great fun.

Pullum also links to his tutorial essay which provides a “clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is” in English, and his forthcoming article Fear and Loathing of the English Passive (pdf):

No folk rhetorical property could yoke together this diverse array of constructions. What is going on is that people are simply tossing the term ‘passive’ around when they want to cast aspersions on pieces of writing that, for some ineffable reason, they don’t care for. They see a turn of phrase that strikes them as weak in some way, or lacks some sort of crispness or brightness that they cannot pin down, and they call it ‘passive’ without further thought. And such is the state of knowledge about grammar among the reading public that they get away with it.

If concealed passives dipped in a little bit of scorn are your thing, then that will keep you entertained for a while.

Meanwhile, in segues, music. Sunday is Australia Day, and one of Australia’s proudest traditions – besides pretending to have invented pavlova*; meat pies; footballers in tiny shorts; dispossessing indigenous peoples; and shipping coloured people back where they came from – is the Triple J Hottest 100. Voting on the best music releases for 2013 has ended, but if you feel like an Aussie weekend, tune in online at 12 noon Sunday Sydney time (Saturday evening for most of you).

You may have to crank up the thermostat and buy some Australian beer to get you in the mood. Think James Boag or Little Creatures. Please don’t buy Fosters, because it is watered-down mule piss.

Cheers, buckeroos. I’m off to bed, for there is to be much drinking today, so that we’ve got a headstart on Sunday. I’ll post a post at Hottest 100 kickoff time for anyone who wants to listen along.

ETA: * Edited for accuracy

EATA: Jesus, you’re going to turn me into Greenwald.

Petri probably was using the term “passive construction” in some rhetorical sense to mean “hiding behind the alleged views of others”, but that means she was being unclear, and exposing herself to the argument that she didn’t know what the term meant. I’m a writer who agonises over every word (and I still manage to fuck up half my posts). I try to use words in a way that avoids confusion, and Petri wasn’t doing that.

I agree, however, that that doesn’t mean she deserves to be called a nincompoop.

EOATA: It is, of course, entirely possible that Ms Petri is, in fact, a nincompoop.

At this stage, I’m just enjoying typing “nincompoop”.



David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

I know John already hit this story, .  (ETA this, in response to a complaint that there’s a lot more wrong with Brooks et al. than my fixation on journalistic malpractice admits: The deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.But there’s another angle here on Brooks’ column that the generally great internet response didn’t hit, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

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I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

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