Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Essay: What David Brooks Means When He Says "Modesty"

This post is a deviation from the usual content of this blog, but it's still somewhat on point because it involves David Brooks. As one of the few people who has read The Road to Character in full (as opposed to mining the first chapter for arguments to use against the Kids These Days and then skimming every fifth page thereafter, as most reviewers clearly did), I feel I have some small insight to add to the ever-growing field of Brooksology. I will explain something that is inexplicable to those not versed in the creole tongue of Both Siderism and will proceed to make a prediction as to what Brooks will do next.

Many of you have seen Brooks' latest discharge, a sad little attempt to rescue "Both Sides Do It" from the infant-like hands of the Cheeto Emperor. For those of you who have little tolerance for undiluted political cowardice, I recommend the analysis of fellow Brooksologists Driftglass and Yastreblyansky, who make their own efforts to dissect thoughts such as:
Over the next few months I’m hoping to write several columns on why modesty and moderation are superior to the spiraling purity movements we see today.
Apparently, the statement "Nazis Are Bad" is a hyperpartisan purity creed that is fundamentally no different than the statement "Nazis Are Great," and a President should never be expected to utter either aloud. This is even true after one of said deranged racists tries to kill a large group of people - indeed, is there any better time to reflect on how the killer and victims are fundamentally united in their irrationality and how both bear responsibility for the murder?

There's another statement I'd like to draw into focus, as it's caused a bit of confusion and I can probe deeper. It is thus:
In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set.
This column is rich in modesty, or at least calls for it. That's perplexing enough as is - what fool looks at the aftermath of that violent racist hootenanny and concludes that neo-Nazis and Klansmen are best dealt with by keeping our heads low and speaking softly? Brooks being Brooks, he then compounds it with "epistemology," a word that has traditionally signaled that the user is a serious conservative thinker, but what the hell does it mean?

The phrase "epistemological modesty" is straight out of The Road to Character, specifically the "Humility Code" at the end. The words didn't make any more sense then, but with the benefit of context it was at least possible to discern what Brooks was saying - no one can really know anything, so don't be rash. It's a curiously po-mo line of thought for a paleocon, but it makes a sort of sense in light of Brooks' call for a return to a vague form of tradition. He doesn't want anyone making big changes.

There's another entry in that "Code" that's also on point. This one was so odd that, after copying part of it for the post, I ended up running back to the library to read the rest in hopes that I could make sense of it. For those of who you didn't read the comments, here it is:
The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it...he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests. The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be a trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understand that in politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.
A couple things:
  1. David Brooks is considered by many to be a brilliant writer;
  2. This book was professionally edited;
  3. Neither 1 nor 2 are jokes;
  4. The TL;DR takeaway is: Don't be bold, it's not worth the risk.
The core of this argument was in Chapter 3, in which Brooks argued for Dwight Eisenhower as an icon of "moderation" and concluded that his own brand of squishy centrist equivocation was the best way to lead. Given the figures he claimed to have studied for this book, this is a bizarre conclusion: I don't see how you can read about people like Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin and conclude from their lives and work that bold action is a mistake. To quote my own joke: "Look Frances, we know things are bad for the workers, but there are competing interests at play, and the lows will be very low if we change things too quickly. How about we get the factory owners to promise to think about safety issues, and then we can revisit this whole 'weekend' thing in another decade or two. Fair?"

This seems like proof that, as suggested in one of the book's very few negative professional reviews, Brooks is mistaking his own fundamentally conservative beliefs for objective values. He never tried to learn anything himself so much as he was looking for object lessons - parables, if you will - to explain why his paleoconservative brethren were right all along.

Gather 'round and be enlightened. (Image shamelessly lifted from Driftglass)

Opposition to dramatic change and skepticism of utopian thought are classically conservative traits, but they're also a key part of Brooks' (still fairly conservative) cowardly centrist philosophy. The main difference is that this used to be tied up in unease around liberals and lefty types whereas now, naturally, Both Sides Do It. It's not a fundamentally bad idea - utopianism generally leads to heartbreak whenever it's tried because the true believers are just so damn sure that they don't question themselves. But Brooks has taken it to an odd extreme, arguing that any policy change entailing risk is unacceptable no matter how big or immanent the problem to be addressed. The economy may be on the verge of collapse, the weather may be growing catastrophically hazardous, we may be facing a surge in nakedly violent racism, but doing anything more than a few tweaks in the status quo is too dangerous.

I do have to love the analogy in the above piece of the mushy centrist leader as a "trimmer" who keeps an "even keel." I know fuck-all about sailing on the high seas, but I'm fairly certain if a storm or a pirate flotilla was bearing down on me, I'd want the captain to do something other than stay the course and hope the problem resolved itself.

Even given that this is so central to the Brooks persona, I have a hard time believing that this was Brooks' first thought after hearing about the events in Charlottesville, especially given that he boldly announced a mere week ago that he wasn't going to write about politics for an indefinite period. He probably meant it initially, and I'm sure that the thought of bailing on that promise must have been a tough call. But then...then those sacred words of the High Holy Church of Both Siderism emerged from the lips of that Error of the Electoral College, and those words were praised by the likes of Robert Spencer and David Duke.

The cognitive dissonance must have been agonizing. I can picture Brooks sitting on the floor of his office, digging through those piles of notes he allegedly uses to compose his columns, stopping from time to time to rock back and forth and mutter the words "both sides...both sides..." through sobs. Once upon a time he could have talked his way out of this, tossed in a joke about the suburbs or a mangled factoid from some ev-psych text or name dropped a historical figure, and moved on to the next topic...but he'd done it so many times that it was losing its zing, and with more and more people on One Side echoing those sacred words, it simply wouldn't fly. Failing at last to come up with some brilliant maneuver, he hauled himself to the laptop, took a few slugs straight out of a bottle of Absolut, set his fingers on the keys...and doubled the fuck down.

That's just my headcanon, though.

So what should we expect in this coming flurry of commentaries on sacred modesty? That depends on just how lazy Brooks has become. My bet is that he'd already planned a series of posts on the subject, and we'll be seeing what he'd planned to publish all along with just a few tweaks here and there - staying the course, per his own advice. You're certainly not going to see anything specifically on point, as that hasn't been Brooks' bailiwick in quite a few years. If he's feeling really lazy, he might just revive some material from The Road to Character and remix it. That would be hilarious, as Chapters 2-9 of that wretched book were merely recycled content from his own columns and borderline plagiarized material from popular biographies. In effect, he would be making a hash out of several casseroles that were themselves cobbled together from a series of culinary mistakes.

Either way, the content is easily predicted: All big ideas are bad, quit trying to fix problems, trust authorities, let's all just fold our hands and quietly wait for the centrist messiah to come. The key points will be trying to find ways to suggest that whatever fresh hell may come, it will be no one's fault because it is everyone's fault, that the Nazis Are Bad crowd and the Nazis Are Great crowd are exactly equidistant from the true and proper center, that both are equally misguided in that they no longer trust their betters to advise them on the proper way to live.

In short: It'll be the same goddamn thing as always, only much more defensive. It should be interesting (for certain definitions of "interesting").


  1. You know "trimmers" is the English word always used to describe the "sad souls" in Inferno Canto III inside the gates of Hell but this side of the Acheron who "lived without infamy and without praise", alongside those angels who refused to pick sides between God and Lucifer. Their torture is being constantly whipped around by the wind. Speaking of "interesting" I've never heard of anybody trying to use it with a positive connotation before, and how appropriate DFB should be the one to do it.

  2. One wonders when Churchill was appointed Prime Minister and told the British people that he could promise them nothing but "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" would Brooks think he being modest?
    There is a lot not to like about Churchill but a Trimmer he never was. And I can't really fault him about Nazis either.

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