A sallow-eyed look at the slow descent of David Brooks

A sallow-eyed look at the slow descent of David Brooks May 9, 2015

I Don’t Think David Brooks Is OK, You Guys,” Albert Burneko writes for Deadspin.

Burneko’s deliciously harsh assessment of the New York Times columnist and professional scold is all the more brutal for its precision and voluminous support from Brooks’ own words and columns. He identifies a trajectory in Brooks’ recent works — a downward spiral into a kind of existential despair. But this isn’t merely a comic conceit (although it’s also that, and a very funny one) — Burneko actually makes a real case that, well, David Brooks is Not OK.

But at the same time that Brooks is turning out this string of angsty columns about Meaning and Purpose and the evasive pursuit of “fulfillment and deep joy,” he continues to write with arrogant certainty about the supposed immorality and prodigality of the poor. He doesn’t think they should be allowed to indulge in the kind of navel-gazing that he now increasingly prescribes for himself and his (presumably non-poor) readers. For himself and for people like him (wealthy, white, privileged) Brooks writes columns that read like a knock-off of Ecclesiastes. For other people (poor, not white, not privileged) he offers only a glib, ignorant knock-off of Proverbs — or of Aesop.

Brooks expects poor people to learn moral lessons from people like him. It has never occurred to him that people like him might need to learn moral lessons from the poor and the disenfranchised.

Nancy LeTourneau highlights the arrogance of Brooks’ shtick in “A Moral Conversation for Our Times” — a response to his most recent column which, she says, “is peak Brooks.”

LeTourneau starts with a taste of Brooks’ column, “What Is Your Purpose?” (that link is to the NYT site, so use your own discretion as to whether you want a David Brooks column to be one of your free reads there this month).

Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?

As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions…

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against.

All of that went away over the past generation or two.

It’s the Narrative of Decline, but with an extra helping of pretension.*

LeTourneau responds:

Back in the “good old days” as defined by Brooks, all of the authority figures he points to as guiding our moral discussions were white, and — with one exception — men. It’s interesting to me that the end of those days started about the same time figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came on the scene to start a whole new conversation about morality — and a movement to grant civil rights to African Americans. So it’s no wonder that he doesn’t see today’s conversations (and movements) related to #BlackLivesMatter as part of a moral question.

Yep. But Brooks’ problem is not only that his vision is stunted by his opaque bubble of wealth and whiteness. He also misses what has been happening during “the past generation or two” because he fundamentally misunderstands the conversation about purpose, morality, meaning, etc., that was going on before this supposed great decline.

“As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions,” Brooks says, but the “lofty authority figures” he cites as examples did not see themselves or present themselves in that way. They saw their role as a continuation of a long conversation — a conversation that began with the dawn of human civilization and that would continue long after their contribution to it had ended. They were not “lofty authority figures” handing down Answers for the perplexed hoi polloi. They were simply responding to previous generations of participants in that ongoing conversation.

It’s both sad and ignorant for Brooks to imagine that this conversation ended a “generation or two” ago. Two of the “lofty authority figures” he names were Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Joshua Heschel. “It is hard to think of any theologian with the same public influence that Niebuhr and Heschel had,” he writes.

That’s Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the left. On the right is a theologian whose public influence is apparently “hard to think of” for David Brooks.

Brooks’ claim is weirdly wrong for at least two reasons. First, he speaks of the influence that Niebuhr and Heschel had in the past tense — as something that was true in the past, but no longer applies.** And secondly, Brooks ignores what is probably the greatest public influence those two thinkers had — the way their teaching shaped and influenced the thought and action of Martin Luther King Jr.

King didn’t treat them as “lofty authority figures” who could provide all the answers. He joined the conversation with them, carrying it on and moving it forward. And that conversation is still happening.

David Brooks doesn’t realize this because he stopped listening. He stopped listening, coincidentally, at just the point when people who look like him stopped dominating and monopolizing that conversation.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

P.S. The term “sallow-eyed” appears in the title here because that is how David Brooks described me and my fellow patrons of The Gryphon cafe, in Wayne, Pa. — one of several local places he badly, and perhaps deliberately, misrepresented in his book Bobos in Paradise, his 2000 plea for a return to a purer bourgeoisie.

If you’re ever in Wayne, stop by the Gryphon. It’s owned by my former flatmate, Rich, who previously ran the seminary bookstore where I bought all of my Niebuhr, and Heschel, and King.

* Whenever I see the Narrative of Decline stated with such clumsy bluntness, I hear in my head the voice of the anti-rock fundie “evangelist” Sketch Erickson, who spoke at least once a year at my Christian school: “All of that went away over the past generation or two. … All because of one man: Elvis. Aron. Presley.”

** Nancy LeTourneau gets major style points for a very subtle twisting of the knife in her response to David Brooks. That post went up today at 1:05 p.m. Her previous post, “What It Means to Be a Pragmatic Progressive,” went up at 10:44 a.m. — and it’s all about Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian David Brooks always loves to cite and always struggles to understand.

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