Tuesday, July 16, 2013

David Brooks' Mind is Aglow -- UPDATE

With whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention...which he uses to clumsily bolt together two completely unrelated subjects to pad out his bi-weekly, 800-word contractual obligation to the New York Times.

At the top of today's column, Mr. Brooks offers us a tepid, below-average review of "The Searchers".  At the bottom, some patented, Brooksian word-spackle about values and virtues and the problem of male unemployment.  It the middle, a ludicrous, whiplashing transition that would have bought Mr. Brooks an "F" and a long note from the teacher about seriously considering another course of study in any competent English comp class in America.

But since the inherent absurdity of the plutocracy's softest and most obsequious manservant padding around his vast spaces for entertaining dictating a column on a John Ford western, male unemployment and a failure of the manly virtues to some dead-eyed intern almost buries the needle on comically oblivious myopia all by itself, it is impossible for me to proceed further without first pausing at the altar of that other Mr. Brooks: the one who camps out the extreme opposite end of the talent spectrum from the one at whom the New York Times continues to inexplicably throw bales of cash:

So let's begin with "The Searchers", which is a fine movie but an amazingly poor choice onto which to paste a column about adult American men in the 21st century being remaindered and left to die by an economy geared to service the 1%.

In fact nothing in the allegorical canon of Western films really touches on that at all, although several come close.  Like "Once Upon a Time in The West".  Or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Or "The Magnificent Seven".  Or "Unforgiven".  Or "Silervado". Or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".  If it has to be John Wayne, "The Shootist" would have made a good choice. Or, if Mr. Brooks had wanted to talk about the gunmen of one era taking up the badge to protect the rule of law in the next, "Rio Bravo" or any of the dozens of iterations of the story of the OK Corral would do the job. Hell, pretty much half the Westerns made after the era of Randolph Scott were about the arrival of the railroad, women, churches and schools and the closing of the frontier.

But while the "The Searchers" makes a terrible fit for the subject about which Mr. Brooks wants to lazily pontificate, it does have the unique advantage of being part of a book on movies that Mr. Brooks was skimming before writing this column, so "The Searchers" it is!

As every discerning person knows, “The Searchers” is the greatest movie ever made.
No, it's not.  The greatest American movie ever made is "Casablanca": the story of a man of high ideals left stranded and broken in a tiny, hopeless corner when the tide of the world suddenly shifts.

"The Searchers" isn't even the greatest American Western ever made. That honor belongs to  "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", the story of two men with vastly different skill sets; Ransom "Rance" Stoddard -- a lawyer who masters the coming future of statehood, railroads and the rule of law but whose leg up into that world is built on a myth of the past -- and Tom Doniphon -- to whom Rance owes his life and who reluctantly helps midwife the coming age of statehood, railroads and the rule of law to which he cannot adapt.

Either "Casablanca" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" would have made a fine choice to slot into a column about men who can and cannot cope with changing circumstances.  Or, if you insist on it being a John Ford film about men being screwed out of their livelihoods and dignity by economic forces beyond their control, the perfect "Western" for the job is "The Grapes of Wrath". Of course NBC will put Matt Taibbi at the helm of "Meet the Press" before David Brooks locates a barge pole long enough to touch the story of a man screwed over by unfettered capitalism who becomes hero union organizer, and neither "Casablanca" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" were apparently part of that book on movies that Mr. Brooks skimmed before writing this column, so there you go.

Mr. Brooks:
The center of the movie is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne. He is as morally ambiguous a figure as movies can produce, at once brave, loyal, caring and honest, but also vengeful, hateful, dangerous and tainted by racism.
No, Ethan Edwards is an unreconstructed former Confederate soldier who is driven by rage, racism and obsession.  He is out of place because he lost his war to save the Confederacy's Slave Empire and has no role to play in peacetime.  He excels at tracking and killing human beings and has found a place where he can ply that trade. He is indeed a memorable character: so memorable that Paul Schrader used him to build Travis Bickle (from the late Roger Ebert):
The Ethan Edwards story is stark and lonely, a portrait of obsession, and in it we can see Schrader's inspiration for Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver;” the Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) is paralleled by Harvey Keitel's pimp named Sport, whose Western hat and long hair cause Travis to call him “chief.” Ethan doesn't like Indians, and says so plainly. When he reveals his intention to kill Debbie, Martin says “She's alive and she's gonna stay alive!” and Ethan growls: “Livin' with Comanches ain't being alive.” He slaughters buffalo in a shooting frenzy, saying, “At least they won't feed any Comanche this winter.” 
None of which has fuck-all to do with men in a shitty job market in this Year of Our Lord 2013. Or as Mr. Pierce explains:
These days, "The Searchers" can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.    
Yeah, these aren't boom times for Indian scouts or cowpunchers. Also, in this context, "profitably" is defined by "That which can get me to 800 words before the cocktail hour in Cleveland Park."
Also, as Mr. Pierce helpfully points out, not only do Mr. Brooks' metaphors end up bare-ass-down in a cactus patch, but he manages to once again screw up the history of an era onto which he is piling his awful, awful prose.  Which would be mock-worthy for any pundit, but almost transcendentally hilarious for a pundit who majored in history at the University of Chicago:
As Cantor notes, "The Searchers" is about this moment of transition. Civilization is coming. New sorts of people are bringing education, refinement, marriage and institutionalized justice. Crimes are no longer to be punished by the righteous gunfighter but by law.  
Actually, The Searchers takes place in 1868. Ethan Edwards is a former Confederate soldier. (A fact that Brooks does not choose to mention, probably because he has been unmanned by 21st century political correctness.) General Custer would miscalculate the number of Cheyenne and Sioux in and around the Little Bighorn eight years later. The gunfight at the OK Corral was 13 years in the future, the killing of Jesse James a year after that. Wounded Knee was in 1890. Things stayed pretty damned wild in the west even after Ethan Edwards saddled up, and they would remain so for decades. All of those refinements certainly came, but they came passing slow, and the myth of the "righteous gunfighter" is something young master Brooks learned while tossing Jujubes at the screen during the kissing scenes. Most gunfighters were murderous yahoos.
And so, after thoroughly failing American Cinema 101, Mr. Brooks ropes the English language to his saddle and drags it around the prairie until it finally gives up and lets him use it to create the Mother of all Shitty Book Report Transitions:
That image of the man outside the doorway is germane today, in a different and even more tragic manner. Over the past few decades, millions of men have been caught on the wrong side of a historic transition, unable to cross the threshold into the new economy.

Their plight is captured in the labor statistics. Male labor force participation has been in steady decline for generations...



And just that quickly we're in the middle of a discussion of male unemployment.

Except, of course, the alert reader will quickly notice that we're not really going to discuss the nuts and bolts of unemployment at all, male or otherwise.

One big hint is that nowhere does Mr. Brooks actually use the word "unemployment". Nowhere does Mr. Brooks mention the effect of 30 years of strip mining our manufacturing base.  Nowhere does Mr. Brooks mention giving companies tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. Nowhere does Mr. Brooks mention the catastrophic effect of Reaganomics on the middle class.  Nowhere does Mr. Brooks mention 30 years of union busting. Nowhere does Mr. Brooks mention the GOP standing athwart every effort to make things better screaming "Stop!".

We are not really going to discuss the nuts and bolts of unemployment, male or otherwise, precisely because for 30 years clowns like Mr. Brooks have been in the intellectual vanguard of every batshit Conservative scheme to gut the middle class and enrich the plutocracy that Mr. Brooks so eagerly serves, which means that any real conversation involving Mr. Brooks and the collapse of the middle class runs the risk of suddenly turning all torch and pitchforky.

So instead of a single word about the nuts and bolts and roads and bridges of unemployment, we get another sermonette on values and virtues and ineffability from Yale's favorite wildly-overpaid Professor of Humility featuring such steaming nuggets of timeless wisdom as this: 
The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure...
And this:
But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.
And this:
Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating.
And speaking now as a very bright, very competent, very hardworking, strong-backed, multiply-talented and radically underemployed man in my 50s who has lost his job, his savings, his insurance, his condo and 80% of his earning potential in the last six years -- and who never expects to see his prospects rise much higher than the are now no matter what I do -- words alone cannot express how much comfort I take in knowing that Mr. Brooks has a job-for-life working for the New York Times explaining to people like me how changes in my family structure and some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity are all that is keeping me from the stepping across some imaginary threshold into Mr. Brooks' bright, bright future.

Honestly, having live this reality for so long, and having immersed myself deeply in labor market and unemployment issues since long before I became a statistic, this whole subject just wrings me out.

Anyone who's ever been unemployed knows that statistics like the ones Norris cites have everything to do with what kinds of jobs are available, and very little to do with the willingness of the population to work. Pretty much everyone who doesn't have a job will do just about anything short of organ donation to get a job. If you've got kids and you can't make rent, nobody needs to help you cross any freaking threshold into any new age. If it doesn't involve sucking on someone else's body parts, you'll do it.

Not according to Brooks...

If Brooks thinks there are 50-year-old men out there with families, people maybe facing foreclosure, who turn down jobs because they don't want to take orders from "savvy young things," he's crazy. All jobs involve taking humiliating orders from bosses and everyone who's ever had a job knows that. If you need a job badly enough, you'll take a job offered by Hermann Goering, Hannibal Lecter, Naomi Campbell, anyone.

It's not just Brooks. These days you can't throw a rock without hitting some muddle-headed affluent white dude who spends his nights stroking his multiple chins and pondering the question of the lazy poor, convinced as he is that there are plenty of jobs and the problem is that prideful or uncommitted or historically anachronistic (that's Brooks' take) folks just won't suck it up and take them.
UPDATE:  A reader was curious to know how far and wide a typical David Brooks post of mine travels compared to a post on the same subject by the estimable Matt Taibbi.  I have no real idea, but if one uses Twitter likes and reposts as a proxy, here's how we compare.

Mr. Taibbi:


DrBB said...

Drifted over here from a link on Charlie's thread. Glad I did. Nicely ranted!

From a 50-something clinging to his underpaid job like grim death and not because of anything the least bit ineffable. All TOO effing effable, in fact.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, that was epic!

bowtiejack said...

Brooks column is just the same old Who Moved My Cheese crap. These people are allergic to actual analysis or any new ideas.

I seem to recall from somewhere that one of the markers of pre-revolution is not having a lot of unemployed poor, but having a lot of young highly educated unemployed. That doesn't apply to exceptional America though, so the students must pay for the loans for the education that doesn't result in a job. I'm sure it will work out all right.

And Driftglass, I love your stuff. Well done.

D. said...

I restrained myself from saying elsewhere that Mr. Brooks is excellent as an emetic; as a columnist, though, no.

blackdaug said...

Mr.Peirce suggests a magical spell that would cast the Brooksite into unemployment for 6 months, just so they could get some sort of connection to real humanity.
I would prefer a much more Sterling-esque approach, where Brooks is flung though time itself, and dropped down in to say 1868 and forced to contend with a few more down to earth survival scenarios.
John Wayne might have made it 6 hours in that world (if that long)....Brooks? 6 minutes....tops.

It's bad enough he and his ilk are completly to blame for are current situation...but to have them paid mountains of cash to clumsily muse on its origins (or..as he usually puts it "a complex web for future historians to sort out")

down right painful.

Anonymous said...

Love to help you out man, but speaking as a most early adopting technophile, who has spent the last 35+ years on computers, has owned, unlocked, rooted and programmed both smartphones and tablets for the past 4 years ...

a 747 on full thrust will not be dragging me to twitter.

Social media is a toxic wasteland....

Scott Ingram said...

I am absolutely speechless, this was wonderfully done!

I have only to add that, sadly, the length and breadth of both Mr. Taibbi's reach and yours combined don't match that of David Brooks.

Which is why we're all screwed.

I will do my own little bit and rt you, once I dig up your tweet.

marindenver said...

I would totally re-tweet you if I knew how. This was an epic post and I so loved reading it. I should figure out that Twitter thing. I have people following me and I never Tweet anything because I don't know what I'm doing. Is there a Twitter for Dummies somewhere?

Again - super post. As always.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Scott, it's not only the reach, but also the punch delivered. And in that, driftglass far outpunches Taibbi.

Kevin Holsinger said...

Good morning, Mr. Glass.

You know, it occurs to me (if it hasn't to you already) that this might just a calmer, NYT-sanctioned version of "We just had a hurricane because God's mad about all the butt sex."

What should be a discussion of weather patterns turns into a discussion about problems with the values of our society.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of your day.

Kevin Holsinger

Anonymous said...

I have never understood the cult of The Searchers, and as for the "tainted" by racism - racism is the heart and soul of the movie. It's like he's never seen the movie.

Thanks for the Tunnel in the Sky shout out a few posts over. That's always been a favorite Heinlein scene of mine

Anonymous said...

Pow! Boff! S-l-ap!! Whoa, yeah. Brooks is bad w/ movies.

C'mon, smart people. Movies are complete and utter shit. Always have been, always will be, are right now. Brooks likes him a movie...don't bite! Don't go down the "greatest American movie ever made" path! It's a trick question, fuckholes. There's no such thing!

Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman pointed out there's a simple way to tell if companies are having a hard time finding workers - wages go up as employers compete for scare labor resources. You can have high structural unemployment where a lot of people are out work but at the same time jobs are going unfilled and wages rising. But that is clearly not happening now so there is zero evidence of a lot of jobs out there for the men (and women) out of the labor force. The unemployed are playing musical chairs and that's a game someone has to lose.

Incidentally, the Searchers would make a good double feature with Kiss Me Deadly.

G. Steve Arnold said...

Mr. Brooks needs to find a better online essay mill.

G. Steve Arnold said...

Mr. Brooks needs to find a better online essay mill.