Tuesday, May 21, 2013

We Join Professor David Brooks' Humility Class Already In Progress... -- UPDATE

So America's Greatest Conservative Public Intellectual decided to use Teh Googles to pad out his Yale class on Humility:
What Our Words Tell Us

About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs.

The database doesn’t tell you how the words were used; it just tells you how frequently they were used...
The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.

Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.
First, we must all agree agree right now that nobody is going mess up Bobo's latest Pet Theory scam by mentioning that words like, say, "Pride" and "Prejudice", "Vanity" and "Fair", "Great" and "Expectations", "Crime" and "Punishment", and "The" and "Idiot" probably showed up a lot more in the literature after the 18th century than before 18th century for reasons that had nothing to do with humility, freedom, Benghaaaaazi or, for that matter, the relative woodiness or tinniness of the words themselves.

Also don't mention that sheer number of books being vomited out by the publishing industry in the 20th century almost certainly skewed the results beyond salvation, as does the fact that the tonnage of books being produced does not necessarily have any relationship to the number of readers or depth of influence any give book may have.

Second, for the sheer chutzpah on display in converting an afternoon farting around on the computer into a way to burn three hours of class time ("'Humility' down. 'Twerking' up.  Discuss!"), bravo, Mr. Brooks.  Bravo!

But let us not tarry, because there is so much more to see!

For example, as some of you may know, America's Greatest Conservative Public Intellectual only landed that gig teaching Humility to Elis because several years ago the Sulzberger family had the bright idea of giving him a job for life drizzling 800 words of room-temperature verbal tapioca into the op-ed page of America's Newspaper of Record twice a week.  For awhile, Mr. Brooks got by on his new job by basically doing the kind of wingnut scut-work that Bloody Bill Kristol had been paying him to do his previous job --  penning paeans to the unalloyed awesomeness of George W. Bush, bashing Liberals for being cluelessly or unpatriotically  or antisemitic or mulishly or doltishly wrong about things like economy and Iraq, etc.

But then things got bad.

Then they got very bad.

Then Reality itself reached out and slapped George Bush's dick out of Mr. Brooks' mouth, at which point America's Greatest Conservative Public Intellectual burned out his brakes and clutch frantically trying to veer away from the Mainstream Media's suddenly collapsing main story line -- "Liberals are awful and wrong about everything!" -- and onto the Mainstream Media's New!And!Improved! mother road -- "Isn't it sad how everyone on the Right and Left both get everything equally wrong every time!" -- before the paint on the "Both Sides Do It" mile markers had even dried.

And by God he did it.

He did it by dint of sheer, brute repetition -- sticking hell-or-high-water to his story that Conservatives saved America from the pot-smoking, sexytime Hippie Peril of the 1960s but also might have gotten a wee bit drunk at the V-L Day party and said a few impolitic things, but hey, don't we all? -- and by making sure that he never found himself in the presence of anyone who would ever ask him any long, tricky questions about the Bad Old Days when he made a living putting his less-than-humble boot in to the Liberals, Mr. Brooks found a second career for himself as Chief Defender of a Centrist faith which only a few years earlier he repeatedly and roundly mocked during his first career.

Which is why, to this very day, in column after column, you will find Our Mr. Brooks hewing fanatically to the strategy which bought him his mansion:  making sure every single fucking hobbyhorse he mounts comes with a Centrist Trojan crouching inside,

Including the one he rode in on today:.
This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue...

Liberals sometimes argue ...
After which, to avert the possibility that some future smartass might come along and add this column to the Great Big Pile Of Things David Brooks Has Gotten Terribly Wrong, Mr. Brooks used half of his final paragraph to inform his readers that he had just completely wasted their time by completely negating the premise on which the entire column was based:
Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here...
Because that's how you do it in the NBA!


Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at Berkley makes a similar point without saying "fuck" nearly as often:

And if the story Brooks would like to tell is true, this shift in word usage would neatly and clearly tell us that liberalism has changed our characters in negative ways. The problem is that, even granting that the facts cited by Brooks are unequivocally correct, they cannot be used to draw Brooks’ conclusions. The link between linguistic form and real-world reference and function is tricky and complicated. Yes, sometimes the appearance of new words, and the vanishing of old ones, can tell a story about social and political change over time: when was the last time you heard “spinning jenny”? And how often did you encounter “blogosphere” 20 years ago? In cases like these, it’s easy to see the connection between usage share and cultural importance. But when one applies the same tests to words that do not refer to technological innovation or political structure and the like, the test is not nearly so reliable.
Consider “racism.” It is first attested, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the first decade of the 20th century. By Brooks’ standard, that would imply that racism, the attitude and behavior, only came into being then, and therefore only then needed a word to describe it. Similarly, “sexism,” in its current sense, is only attested in the mid-1960s. What should we make of that?
Actually, the appearance of these words at those times is a positive indicator. Racism and sexism have been endemic in our species as far back as the historical record allows us to determine, and probably further. But it was only in the 20th century that people first began to see these kinds of behaviors as something other than normal and inevitable, and therefore worthy of naming and eventually changing. To name these evils was to show them as aberrant and evil, something that could be recognized as peculiar and changeable.
While "Living Anthropologically" points out (via Tyler Cowen) that I have been a fucking moron for  actually sweating over what I write David Brooks these last eight years when making a post out of simply copy/pasting six paragraphs of a David Brooks column and buttoning it with "Here is more, interesting throughout" can yeild 92 comments in one day.


steeve said...

"onto the Mainstream Media's New!And!Improved! mother road"

There we go. Centrism isn't the media's foundational bedrock lie. It's just a desperate last resort, never seen before 2006.

Its newness is the problem, though, because the rate of change is _still_ the amount of time it takes a generation to die the hell off.

Anonymous said...

Good morning, Mr. Glass.

"Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again."

Correction: should read "1850s".

Enjoy the rest of your day.

---Kevin Holsinger

Anonymous said...

I read your "piece" on David Brooks ending in "that's how they do it in the NBA."

Trivial rant.

Marc Mathieu in Los Angeles

marc mathieu said...

Again, in case you did not recieve my first comment.

Your take on David Brooks is unsatisfactory. Just a rant.

Good luck with your blog.

Marc Mathieu in Los Angeles

PS, I note that your have invoked "Comment Moderation." Good idea to avoid publicatin of works like "f___k"


Anonymous said...

Brooks is an idiot. (That word probably gets used a lot more these days.) Google's Ngram Viewer--which, as I refuse to read his column, is what I assume he's writing about--can tell you how the words were used. There are various advanced Ngram functions that help to calculate the frequency of usage of words in particular ways. And you can download the corpora and futz with the data all day long. But I'm not sure the increase in publishing significantly skews the results: Google claims to have normalized the display to counter that problem.

Pinkamena Panic said...

marc, your opinion is duly noted and pobably ignored. Also, DG moderates comments because if he doesn't, he gets 4 trillion spam posts. Look in the archive sometime, it's fuckin' UGLY.

Cliff said...

No, no, this is a trivial rant:

even granting that the facts cited by Brooks are unequivocally correct, they cannot be used to draw Brooks’ conclusions

That should be nailed to the motherfucker's forehead while he begs for spare change in the Mumbai slums.


It's also, to the best of my knowledge, completely true.