Saturday, April 14, 2012

I Don't Mind a Reasonable Amount of Trouble

 -- Dashiell Hammett, author of "The Maltese Falcon".

While reading dorm-room-contact-high verbal wandering like this in Mr. Brooks' April 13th column:
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them.

The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
I was reminded that the advice the old give the young is always instructive.  Because whether it's good advice or bad, it almost always reflects of the interior emotional state of the speaker.  Because in the act of wising up the younger generation about where the world's tiger traps and deadfalls are, the elder reveals much about their own, state of mind.

For example, in my youth my old man gave me lots of very bad advice, all most all of which came from his own wishful thinking about how the world ought to be: people ought to be reasonable; authority ought to be fair; if you accommodate someone enough they ought to eventually figure out what a sport you are; once you stand up to a bully, they should instantly begin to respect you and you will be surprised to find how much you have in common.

And so forth.

This advice was usually proffered late at night from deep within a nimbus of Salem cigarette smoke and modulated through his 3rd or 4th vodka and whatever.  Whether his advice was soundly based on the world he grew up in and which no longer existed, I do not know. Whether the folly of his advice was amplified by the nature of where we had come to live -- by the fact that our meek, bookish family had been immediately and irrevocably marked as outsiders by the hard-charging, dog-eat-dog, football-obsessed burghers of our community (and their kids) -- I do not know either.

I do know that teaching kids how the world should be is important, but teaching kids how to navigate the world as it actually exists is even more important (of course drivers should always be careful, but acting on that belief by running out in traffic will get you killed.)

I also know that, years later, the corrupt, affable superintendent for whom my old man worked summarily yanked him out of his job as a school principal (a job which, whatever his other defects might have been, he did extraordinarily well) and tossed him back in the classroom just in time to seriously cripple his pension.  I know that dad asked for and received a hearing at which I am told he mounted a very creditable case (after he died, I found the 3x5 index cards on which he made his notes.)

It is a hard thing to imagine my father at that "table before me in the presence of mine enemies", gone gray and bent in the service of his students and his school at time when he should have been planning his retirement in peace, being forced to beg for his job from men who despised him, armed only with the awful "bullies will respect you" kind of advice he had been handing out to me for years.

He lost, utterly, and it busted him up inside; his hard work had not paid off; the bully did not respect him; authority was not only not fair, it was openly rigged against him and laughed in his face about it.

And, finally, I know that his advice to me during his declining years became much more terse and defeated.

"There are a lot of bastards out there," he used to say, which is undoubtedly true, but it was delivered with fatalistic, verbal shrug that I now hear in own voice more often that I like.

All of which may seem a pretty dark and Raymond Carvereque place from which to jump into a David Brooks column, but the muse goes where she will and I just hang on for dear life, and this time the muse asks me to use my most humane imagination so that when I read this --
 If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good. Typically, they’ve spent a year studying abroad. They’ve traveled in the poorer regions of the world. Now they have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self.

Often they are bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.

These people are refreshingly uncynical. Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age. Idealistic and uplifting, their worldview is spread by enlightened advertising campaigns, from Bennetton years ago to everything Apple has ever done.
-- I would not see a debased, middle-aged New York Times neoconservative grifter delivering hollow nonsense to today's eager young world-beaters in 2012...

...but instead strive to see a young David Brooks -- right about the same age as the do-gooding students to whom he is now offering his sage advice -- plugging away deep inside the library carrels at the University of Chicago just as the Reagan Era is kicking into gear, trying to figure out what the fuck he is ever going to do with a Bachelors in history.

To see young "liberal" David Brooks suddenly "coming to [his] senses" and swapping his ideals around 180 degrees after being offered short-cut to the good life by William Buckley.

To see Our Mr. Brooks settling into a long and prosperous career bashing Liberals at the National Review (that mudhole of snotty Conservative delusion, denialism and weekly racist-employee-going-away-parties currently presided over by the oleaginous Rich Lowry.)

To watch the now-middle aged Mr. Brooks parlaying his vitriolic attacks on the loyalty and sanity of the opponents of the George W. Bush's Operation Clusterfuck into a permanent position at the New York Times.  Then parlaying that into a very lucrative, establishmentarian cottage industry for himself as servant of power and the chief evangelist of the Gospel of mindless Centrism and Hippie Punching on which the entire Beltway Media depends for its daily bread.

Of course there is no point taking this little stroll down the gently downsloping road to depravity that is the arc of Mr. Brooks' life  -- from eager, young Buckley acolyte to aging, neoconservative warpimp, professional liar, toady to power and staunch defender of the traitorous Scooter Libby -- unless it throws a little contextual on the  flapdoodle that Mr. Brooks is handing out like candy to der kinder:
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them. 
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it. 
A noir hero is a moral realist. 
And there it is, hanging like a turd off a dog's hairy ass: the contextual key to the understanding the interior state behind Mr. Brooks' dime store twaddle:
A noir hero is a moral realist. 
This is how he sees himself: a flawed crusader in a broken world.

And notice how conveniently and seamlessly Mr. Brooks' reflexive, self-absolving "Both sides are always equally wrong" Centrism fits into the "noir" equation as he has defined it:
He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. 
In the world of the "moral realist" (as Mr. Brooks defines him), no one can be accused of treachery or cowardice or fraud, because in such a world there are no heroes or villains.  There is no moral high ground.  There are only gray men, "dappled with virtue and vice".

But of course this is not quite true, in literature or in life.

Often set in the dirty corners of an America smashed flat by the Great Depression or drained of able men by WWII, the individual literary universe's of Hammett and Chandler may be stocked with is colorful casts of "dappled" people -- bent cops, gold diggers, adulterers (Sam Spade is having an affair with his partner's wife) and honorable grifters (Little Jonesy in "The Big Sleep" comes to mind) -- but there are also genuinely terrible men who do genuinely terrible things and all the shades of gray in the world cannot "dappling" away the moral acreage that separates, say, Harry Jones and Eddie Mars:
MARLOWE Well, a little man named Harry Jones told me. A funny little guy, harmless. I liked him. Came to sell me the information because he found out I was working for General Sternwood. How he found out is a long story. Anyway, Canino, your husband's hired man got to him first while I stood around like a sap. I was in the next room. Now the little man is dead. Eddie Mars didn't do that.

MONA You're lying.

MARLOWE Oh, no. Eddie Mars never kills anybody. He just hires it done.

MONA I don't believe you.

MARLOWE You think he's just a gambler, don't you? I think he's a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control. Anything that looks good to him, anything with money pinned to it...
And as disillusioned as Sam Spade may be, he makes it clear that however slippery the ground gets, there is still an Enemy and that he stands against it --
Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy, but a lot more money would have been one more item on your side of the scale.
That his sliver of high ground is, in the end, enough to turn the woman he loves (maybe) over to the cops.

Back over in Raymond Chandler's world, the distinctions between good guys and bad can get ever brighter. Philip Marlowe is clearly a head smarter than everyone around him and given his connections and know-how there is no doubt he could easily bring himself up in the world by running some relatively low-risk criminal enterprise. Instead, he runs his tiny detective operation out of shabby offices because he is honest:
MARLOWE Good morning.

VIVIAN So you do get up. I was beginning to think perhaps you work in bed like Marcel Proust.

MARLOWE Who's he?

VIVIAN You wouldn't know him. A French writer.

MARLOWE Come into my boudoir.

VIVIAN You don't put on much of a front, do you?

MARLOWE There isn't much money in this business if you're honest.

VIVIAN Are you honest?

MARLOWE Are we gonna start that again?
Yes, he takes risks because "he gets paid to", but the risks he takes are almost always on the side of the angels and even as the risks to his personal safety mount and various characters try to beat or bribe him into stopping --
VIVIAN No. He asked me to give you a check.

MARLOWE I don't need any money yet.

VIVIAN He considers the case closed.


VIVIAN It is, isn't it?

MARLOWE As far as Geiger's concerned, yes.

VIVIAN Then it's completely closed. I hope this is satisfactory.

MARLOWE Five hundred! Woo, that's a lot more than I expected but welcome just the same.

VIVIAN I'm very grateful to you, Mr. Marlowe. I'm very glad it's all over. Tell me, uh, what do you usually do when you're not working?

MARLOWE Mm. Play the horses, fool around.

VIVIAN No women?

MARLOWE Well, I'm generally working on something most of the time.

VIVIAN Would that be stressed to include me?

MARLOWE I like you. I told you that before.
-- he will not be deterred.

Chandler was famously outspoken about what a Chandler hero looked like:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. 
Raymond Chandler, November 1945 
Yes, in the murky, fallen literary universe of the hard-boiled detective, shady, contingent bargains are often quickly struck (and just as often quickly violated) all the time between shady, contingent people.

God knows, there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking for life-lessons between the covers of books, or even finding a few by tagging along behind Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, but however much Mr. Brooks may delude himself, building a career out of siding with monsters, stooging for the powerful and defending the indefensible, as Mr. Brooks has done, does not a "noir hero" make.

And no matter how dappled the lighting, the is no mistaking the clear lines between the "right guys" who (often reluctantly) end up taking the side of the underdog and fighting for something resembling justice against the deadfalls, stacked decks and moral chaos of the world they live in

and the scuttlefish, gunsels, greed-heads and cold-eyed killers whose first love is power

and who will chase that Black Bird so far down into darkness that they become the creators of the of the deadfalls, stacked decks and moral chaos

of the world they live in.

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Stephen A said...

Dead on. I was reaching for my copy of "The Simple Art of Murder" even before you brought out the money quote. But I did manage to track down an even more damning quote from the introduction to "Trouble is my Business":

"As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done--unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard dangerous work: It was work they could always get. There was plenty of it lying around. There still is."

This post does leave me with the pleasant image of just what would happen to Brooks in a hard-boiled novel.

Suzan said...

Hope you get plenty (of money, that is). Reading your last essays has definitely improved my outlook on life right now.

Would that it continues.



Ebon Krieg said...

Mr. drift,
There are idealists like me still alive that recall the likes of "Sam Spade" et al. I was never enamored so much of his morality, but his strict adherence to a moral code (whether right or wrong it does nor matter.) Times change and so do we. I have yet to meet a person who will stand by "their" code as "Sam Spade" had.
My favorite "old" movies inevitably involve Humphrey Bogart and his renditions of the style of that period. Comparing DB's with art is giving them to much credit. We live in the world in which "Sam Spade" could never exist.
This is a judgment pure and simple. I am sorry.
DBs have always taken what they don't deserve and we will always reap their whirlwind.
Your dad was right.

blackdaug said...

Actually, it's pretty easy to see Brooks as a Chandler character...just not the one he thinks he is.
The dead-eyed droopy face, and closed mouthed muttering speech look a lot like some stooge sent out to do dirty work...only to be de-gunned and slapped around by somebody with a real conscience. Brooks rationalizes his war whoring like any high functioning sociopath should....just doing a dirty job....

Montag said...

"This post does leave me with the pleasant image of just what would happen to Brooks in a hard-boiled novel."

I expect that Brooks imagines himself Sam Spade, but, in reality, he's a Joel Cairo, aspiring to be Caspar Gutman, and writing like Wilmer talks: "The gaudier the patter, the cheaper the hood."

Anonymous said...

Heartbreaking post about your father (segueing into a wonderful contemptuous slapdown of the fish-faced Brooks).

If your dad had raised you to play and win the game, you'd have ended up as one of Them. So it's just as well.

StonyPillow said...

I never liked Lent as a kid, because it turned out I always gave up the wrong things.

Habitat Vic said...

I usually avoid DB's columns the last year or so. Occasionally I'll skim, then peruse the Reader Picks and enjoy the (fruitless) skewering. That said, I read the Friday the 13th column and wondered whether it could be a shift in his raison d'etre. Still a Centrism-shill, of course, but perhaps a shift toward the apologista phase of his career.

Real world mixes good with the bad, gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, etc, etc. Sure Wall Street destroyed our economy and political system, but that's just the way it has to be - go easy on those guys. You know, Hitler really turned around the German economy, had some talent with watercolors, treated his dog well. Yet people dwell on the negatives.

Back when I may have actually been in those same study carrels as Brooks, I sorta believed some of that apologist claptrap. My manager Bob was a lying, backstabbing flaming asshole at work, but on a personal level he's a great guy! No, it turned out Bob was an asshole away from work, just as alcoholic and trying to screw my girlfriend. I digress.

Whether this Brooks column indicates a change, or was just a little weirder than usual, my takeaway is the same: fuck David Brooks Oh, and fuck the fucking Yankees as well.

Fiddlin' Bill said...

Outstanding piece of work, Drift. One could recall other instances when right wing shills have tried to co-opt people who are much more on the side of light--they've tried to steal Martin Luther King, Jr. more than once, and JFK (an extremely flawed "hero" in any case, but not a figure to be Randified).

Dan Hagen said...

Great column. When Our Miss Brooks is slapped, she'll take it and like it.

Anonymous said...


I think you already did an article on what DFB would be like in one of these novels. Did you do one of him giving the police report?

I think his detective work would be exactly the same...

"So, the victim was shot... from that building... that window. Therefore... We have to find the hippie that was in *that* building, I'd say *that* window, on the other side of the alley. The hippie was obviously send by Pelosi, and is equally culpable, so we should chase him first."


knowdoubt said...

My wife has taught school for 38 yrs., the last 24 yrs in (city near Atlanta), Georgia. She is a Sp.Ed. teacher 3,4,5 yr olds. She had one more year to go before hitting that retirement milestone of 25 yrs and our paying off the house. She was recently called into the principals office, held against her will, i.e. told she could not leave the room unless she signed a resignation or she would be arrested. They had been covertly filming her for over approx. a month until they thought they had something that looked bad, never mind that they were filming a location where children were disrobed, cleaned and dressed. Anyway, they showed her a clip of about one minute and a half that showed her picking up a child who was pouring her drink out on the table and dumping her food and moving her away from the table. She panicked and signed. I haven't even been able to get her a hearing like your Dad got and even though Georgia has a law directed toward educators that requires due process, like notice of charges and a chance to be heard or answer them whatever. A lawyer in Atlanta told me for $5000 he would file for a writ of Mandamus compelling them to give her a hearing. We didn't quiet have that much dough we could lay hands on with trying to save the house etc. The Superintendent and Principal are both retired superintendents from Florida and definitely good wholesome members of the 1%used to just squashing peons who are in their way. I just couldn't help but share since we're sort of living the experience of your father you shared. I agree with the quote over on "" as follows:"The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." - Albert Einstein

I don't know if he really said that, but I agree with it.

Mister Roboto said...

I think most of us have allowed a "happy-talk fantasy" to lead us down the primrose path a time or two (or three or four). Unfortunately, we live in a society where this behavior is never rewarded if one is not in that club of which you occasionally speak.

Suzan said...

He did say it, KD; thanks for the credit.

I feel lucky that I noticed the high number of comments and decided to drop back in.

I'm sorry to hear about your wife. And sorry that there are no decent attorneys left there who would run off the Mandamus writ in 2 mins. without charging you for filing it at her next trip to the courthouse. It's really pretty simple to get bad guys to do the right thing, but you've gotta threaten them just right. Spade knew how - with integrity.

We live in perilous times, and very few people are aware yet of just how perilous.

Until they get that call into the office.

Since I had it some time before, I know just how demoralizing it can be - even in a spotless work life (but who would believe that?).

Don't give in to the bastards!

Love you both,


knowdoubt said...

Why Thank you, Suzan, I think I have put one together (petition for Mandamus), but I don't want to file it before I find someone with a bar number willing do do the oral argument because she isn't up to that. Cartersville, GA is a small town < 20,000 so almost impossible to get a local attorney to do anything, but that is where I'm at. Thanks, so much for the kind comment, people just have no idea what's out there and when they do they suddenly find themselves just trying to survive never mind important principles like "due process".

RockDots said...

Great piece, DG. My dad protected us kids from knowing what unfathomable jerks he worked for, but in the end they finally got themselves into a situation they couldn't lie their way out of and blew themselves up (not literally, alas).

I think that if he were to actually to undertake The Case of the Missing Salad Bar, Private Eye Bobo Brooks would undoubtedly collar the same perp that Tracer Bullet did here.

Rev.Paperboy said...

Those who pay attention to the media will understand what I mean when I say "the truth" or "the facts" or "objective reality" is (or should be) the partner of every reporter, journalist, muckraker, columnist and editor. With that in mind:

“When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective (pundit) business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around-bad for that one organization, bad for every detective (pundit) everywhere.

If our Miss Brooks is lucky they won't stretch his pretty neck for him, but I won't play the sap for him.

Gene Oberto said...


Big fan of both writers, but reading the piece I'm reminded of Dylan, Bob that is,

"To live outside the law, you must be honest."