Here's how you write a David Brooks column:
- Take a common conservative meme: some easy complaint or claim that has been beaten to death -- in its usual form -- in political opinion pieces far and wide.
- Dress it up and soften it significantly -- avuncular-ize it -- by replacing the usual objects of axe-grinding with less direct symbols taken from your vaguely-remembered undergraduate liberal arts education; in fact, if you can (infuriatingly) appropriate academic leftism for right-leaning ends, even better!
So for instance, instead of saying "government interferes too much in our lives," say as (Brooks does in his recent column The New Humanism. Here's an alternate link if you don't have a NYTimes login set up.) that you prefer the English Enlightenment (Edmund Burke and Adam Smith -- but don't mention names or you run the risk of making it too obvious what's behind the curtain) to the French Enlightenment.
By talking vaguely about history, you can throw some red meat to your base without even saying "liberal" or referring to the current century: "French" and "liberal" are equally contemptible in some circles, but the historically French -- well, with that you have outdone yourself, successfully reminding us of the connection between liber(ali)te and the horrors of the French Revolution (or the Wisconsin union protests -- take your pick).
Once you've stated the preference, back it up: by backing us through that ever-useful back door of popular social science. Brooks's insight, he says, is "brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics." And worse:
When Sigmund Freud came up with his view of the unconscious, it had a huge effect on society and literature. Now hundreds of thousands of researchers are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are. Their work is scientific, but it directs our attention toward a new humanism. It’s beginning to show how the emotional and the rational are intertwined.
Never mind that the idea that the emotional and rational are intertwined is as old as Plato and has seen many enthusiastic revivals (19th century Romanticism, anyone?), or the confusion about whether these fields are coming up with a "more accurate view of who we are" by virtue of being "scientific" (they aren't, but that's a topic for another time). Brooks has painfully mixed his memes, beginning with the kind of anti-Enlightenment argument that reads like postmodern relativistic boilerplate and ending with ... the sciences.
I know, I ought (especially given my interest in psychoanalysis) to be sympathetic to just this type of piece: Brooks is reminding us that human beings are not primarily rational actors, that the unconscious dominates our behavior more than Reason, and that we "are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships." Agreed. But trite. What I dislike here is the textbook caricature of intellectual history, as if somehow thinkers were completely unaware of these ideas before year x, after which humanity was ... well, I suppose "enlightened" is the wrong word. They are convenient straw men, such caricatures, for helping us believe that we're looking down on intellectual history from a privileged watchtower simply by virtue of living now. (I find it equally as annoying as intellectual nostalgia and a call for a return to this or that). Brooks is making use of the caricature because it serves his meticulously evasive way of arguing that liberal policies are flawed because they are based in Enlightenment conceptions of human beings as reasonable and ignore the importance of community and communal values (something that may be clear only if you're a regular reader of his columns and are aware of that commonplace among conservative intellectuals). But the same idea can be put to completely different ends.
The Enlightenment is also a favorite bogeyman of leftist university postmodernists. And not-so-oddly, they seem to associate the Enlightenment with the sciences, and do not see the latter as somehow having emancipated us from the former. For them, overcoming this bogeyman requires a much more radical project that includes an epistemological (and sometimes ethical) relativism that swallows up even the hard sciences. Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida (not to mention numerous classical sociologists and critical theorists) are their great post-Enlightenment and post-modern thinkers ... not Malcolm Gladwell. For them, the irrational and communal do not lead us back to ... family values. (Not that I mean to conflate the views of the thinkers mentioned above those who make use of them).
The fact that the anti-Enlightenment caricature can be used for such incompatible ends ought to be an indication of its emptiness.
-- Wes Alwan
Great points, and a thoroughly entertaining read!
I do not think of Hegel or Marx as “anti-Enlightenment thinkers” at all, but you’re right they’re often championed towards that end (ala “Dialectic of Enlightenment”). However, I’m of the opinion that it’s precisely Hegelian Marxist philosophers (like Badiou) that show a way out of the tired modernist/post-modernist “deadlock.”
Anyway, thanks again for sharing – great writing, as always!
Wes Alwan says
Thanks Adam — I agree. I’ve added a parenthetical to make that clearer.
YES YES YES YES YES
Ethan Gach says
I was about to write something along the lines of “YES YES YES” too, but Alexis beat me to it.
Brooks has always been one of my old favorites, but I cant read his op-eds anymore, or most people’s for that matter. Krugman I can take once in a while, because agree with him or not, he at least seems to stick to one small point (often centered on a specific policy question) and uses the small area of a column to deal with it.
Brooks on the other hand tries to cast old ideas in new lights as if he is saying something fundametnally different or interesting.
And of course there is that great post by Ezra Klein pitting two of Brooks’ columns that make the completely opposite argument against one another.
In his defense, Brooks does admit to hating op-ed columns and being horrible at them. I just wish he’d stick to politics and not make forays into simplifying complex moral, social, and political frameworks.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks Ethan — yeah, Brooks is better when he doesn’t try to go so big; can I get the link to that Ezra Klein post?
Ethan Gach says
The Ezra link:
And another one from TNR’s Jonathan Chait discussing the “platonic ideal” of a David Brooks Column:
Wes Alwan says
Wes Alwan says
I like this from the TNR piece, which is getting at the same idea as the one I expressed here: “So there you have it: a fun little sociological discussion followed by a reluctant, utterly incorrect defense of the current Republican position. If I ever get to glimpse Plato’s world of ideal forms, this column will be there, preserved under glass.”