Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Road to Character: Prelude (On David Brooks)

Before we put the next set of sections under the microscope, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the Very Serious Person.

That's a term that was devised during the Bush II years to describe a specific type of careerist pundit, one defined primarily by opportunism and political cowardice. Most VSPs have a similar background - born into well-connected families, educated at elite schools, ultimately using the connections they made at those schools to bypass those slippery first few steps in the ever-shrinking world of journalism to find work at elite publication, think tanks or on television. Many of them are ostensibly liberal or conservative but will not have any strongly held opinions either way. If pressed, most VSPs hew to what they consider the safest opinions for their careers - liberal on social issues, conservative on pretty much everything else. In the world of the VSP, having opinions is the Original Sin, the kind of thing that puts them at risk of alienating the political elites who sign their paychecks and must be regularly purged through acts of contrition.

Megan McArdle, our previous subject, is a Very Serious Person. She wasn't always like that, though. When she started her wholly unwarranted ascent, she was a hardline conservative libertarian known for...let's say incendiary comments about people with whom she disagreed. That was the right thing to do to get attention, but the crazy person market is pretty saturated - not as easy to make money there as you might think. When it came time to get paid, it benefitted McArdle to shed those beliefs a little bit at a time. A decade of erosion later and we get The Upside of Down, a book thoroughly conservative in its feting of the powerful but lacking anything resembling an ideology and heavy with the "Both Sides Do It" of the VSP.

But McArdle was far from the first person to take this approach. In fact, few of the opinions on display in The Upside of Down are truly original. She borrows very heavily from someone else, someone who is the undisputed king of the VSPs, a man so influential that he basically defines the stupid center.

David Brooks is my second most despised pundit. But really, he only finished out of the money because Thomas Friedman has caused much more tangible harm. Brooks is more clownish than Friedman, but I have more of a visceral reaction to Brooks and I feel justified in that.

There's no way to overstate how influential Brooks is within his sphere. Really, nearly everything I said about McArdle can apply to Brooks too, because a good 80-90% of McArdle's ideas are from Brooks. This runs the gamut from specific points (like both of them misusing the economic term "moral hazard" in a way that suggests that neither knows what it means) to the overall tenor of their work. That unstated thesis about the rich being innately superior to the poor that I dug in The Upside of Down? That comes straight from Brooks via his BFF Charles Murray, who has decided to pin all the problems of the poor on their own bad character.

But Brooks has changed this last few years, and to figure out how we should take a moment to probe around in his own professional history.

Brooks started his career as a doctrinaire conservative, albeit one slightly more genial than you might be accustomed to seeing. Driftglass has done the heavy lifting in chronicling this now-forgotten parts of Brooks' career; this post is a good primer. You can watch him change from a raging prick fond of mocking liberals and centrists in the 90's to a somewhat softer "pragmatic" pro-Bush form of rhetoric in the first part of the 2000's to a mealy non-partisan mush during the latter half of the decade and ultimately to the angst-ridden self-flagellating mess that is on display in The Road to Character, his latest opus.

You see, Brooks hasn't been doing so well lately. Oh, financially he's fine - still sitting pretty in his $4 million home with its vast spaces of entertaining. But on the personal front, things have been better. Having achieved the pinnacle of his success, Brooks has begun to question whether his life has been truly meaningful. The result is that his NYT column, which used to be packed with moralizing and finger-wagging, now features...well, moralizing and finger-wagging, but of a much more abstract, philosophical sort. Gone are the sermons on sexual mores, replaced by sermons on absence of meaning and the loss of the sublime, much of it culled from recent books of which Brooks read the first twenty or thirty pages and sometimes cribbed very, very heavily.

Here's a stirring example of Brooks' recent columns, addressing a failure in education to teach the Brooksian values:

Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn’t you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings? Wouldn’t you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn’t you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them toward those desires? Wouldn’t you be all about providing students with new subjects to love?

And I get to read a whole book of this nonsense, folks, and you get to come along for the ride.

I imagine this is going to be a much more trim analysis than The Upside of Down, though I've said that before. There aren't going to be as many precise claims as in McArdle's book that need addressing, though there are a few and I'll deal with those as they come up. This being a more philosophical tome, I plan on instead highlighting passages that feature especially self-righteous arguments and/or awful prose (and his writing's been getting really bad this last few years - read the above paragraph a few times, you'll get the idea) and analyzing Brooks's overall argument in light of everything that's come before. As I'm devoted to the concept of good faith, I will assume that contradictions are due to changes of heart rather than cynicism or self-aggrandizement, though this grace has limits and probably will not last until the final page.

With that in mind, let's crack this bastard open.

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