March 12, 2005

Column 2005-3-12 Commentary

As always, Brooks follows up a highly partisan and extremely wrong column with a non-partisan column taking on some trivial aspect of society (these appeasement columns are also generally meant to be funny, with an emphasis on meant). This time, he discusses the "pusillanimous age" we live in, though the column reveals far more about Brooks than it does about American society. In case you missed it, or have forgotten the story with which Brooks begins, and which, like most proofs by anecdote, reveals more about Brooks than the statement he is attempting to illustrate, I excerpt the first few paragraphs here:

"Let me tell you a story to illustrate that we are living in a pusillanimous age. I was in New Orleans last Saturday night, dining with a wonderful group of people at a culinary landmark called Antoine's. Our host had arranged for a remorseless avalanche of delicious food, served in prodigious 19th-century style. There were about six appetizers, including oysters, foie gras and various lobster confabulations. There were main courses aplenty - fish, then crab, then steak.

Then dessert floated onto the table: a meringue pie roughly the size of a football helmet. And with it came coffee, but not just any coffee. It was called "devil's brew." A copper bowl was put in the middle of the table with some roiling mixture of brandy-ish spirits inside. Coffee was poured in and the concoction set aflame.

The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:

'Is it decaf?'"

This story is important for two reasons: it is one of the few times that Brooks has actually succeeded in being funny in his columns (though readers are laughing at Brooks, rather than with him, so it doesn't really count), and it really tells you a lot about Brooks. Brooks is attempting to prove that American society is overly fixated on health and worries too much about danger, so he takes a story applicable only to the upper middle class and generalizes wildly. That, in a nutshell, is every piece of social commentary David Brooks has ever written.

You can see this tendency in the entire column. "Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo," Brooks opines, and apparently this means that the American people as a whole are fit and working hard to stay that way. Where the 64.5% of Americans who are overweight and 30.5% who are obese fit into this picture in unclear. He talks of kids who "go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships." Well, they do if they're from middle- or upper-middle-class families. Otherwise, they probably don't have the benefits of these programs, not to mention "foam corner protectors" or being "drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals" (Brooks also mentions flame-retardant construction paper as sapping the children's vitality, presumably because he was late for his deadline). Or consider the fact that "the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form". Since these people represent a tiny fraction of the American population, it seems unlikely that this is particularly relevant to any argument about society. But as Brooks continually conflates the upper-middle-class Eastern establishment, especially in Washington D.C., with the United States as a whole, to him this is a sweeping indictment of our modern age. If he wasn't a conservative, I would call this elitist, but of course only liberals are elitist and out of touch with the people.

Brooks also manages to throw in a bit of nostalgia for the moral values of the 19th century as he blames "the arbiters of virtue" for making the unsafe more objectionable than the immoral, i.e. that which is not consistent with Christianity. "Smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments," Brooks says. Well, I looked up the Ten Commandments, and he may be right. On the other hand, four of the ten are specifically Christian and can be ignored, and the one about not coveting your neighbor's stuff is also relatively minor: in fact, one might even argue that it is actually the basis of our economy. It gets a little tricky at this point, as adultery and honoring parents, which would probably be the next to go, are a little more important. But let's not quibble over one measly commandment: the point is simply that, for those of us who are not evangelical Christians, a good half of the commandments just aren't that important (the Jewish version has not worshipping graven idols instead of not coveting, but that's also purely religious and can be thrown out). And Brooks also gets in a dig at those for whom "the word "sinful" is most commonly associated with chocolate." Zing! Take that, moral relativism!

But the most important thing to take away from this column is just how out of touch Brooks is. He examines the foibles of the other members of America's upper middle and upper classes and self-satisfiedly proclaims that they apply to society as a whole. If he ever, at any point, implied that he was doing an analysis only of the upper socioeconomic strata of society, that would be fine, but nowhere is that suggested. We can only conclude that he is clueless, or that he just doesn't care about the lives of most Americans, who would love to live in the world that Brooks describes.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that my prediction is wrong: it appears that Brooks is not going to write about Larry Summers. How was I to know know that he was about to abandon topicality completely? Reading David Brooks's mind, such as it is, is something that is difficult even for the professional (kids, don't try this at home). We can only hope that the Times gives up trying and decides to cut the Gordian knot by firing him.