Tuesday, December 17, 2013

David Brooks Drunk Dials America -- Multiply Updated

It is not unheard of for someone fresh from a vivisection with the divorce lawyers to go on a binge and start raving at the office Christmas party about how Everyone Is Really a Giant Asshole Fraud!

It is a much more uncommon and spectacular thing when that person is David Brooks, who, instead of an office Christmas party, has a column in the New York Times.  And who, instead of having the balls to stand on a table at TGI Friday's and call out that sonofabitch Steve from Accounting who he's pretty sure has been nailing his wife, is instead so stunted by his obsessive timidity, risk-aversion, Both Siderism and dread of personal confrontation that all he can verbalize is a string of incoherent snipes at unnamed caricatures.

Perhaps David Brooks is pissed at David Brooks, circa 2013?
The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler.
Or his students?
As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation.
Or Gawker (specifically Tom Scocca's article on Smarm vs. Snark)?
Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark.
Or me?
...he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority.
Or everyone in their 20s working for a consulting firm (leading some internet wags to speculate that Mr. Brooks just spent the weekend getting laid and dumped by some lithe young Bain Capital sharklette.)

Or everyone in their 30s whose idealism has been stomped out of them?

Or the middle-aged man whose lifetime of selling out is starting to pay off?
The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.

He’s succeeding. Unfortunately, the happy moment when you are getting just the right amount of attention passes, and you don’t realize you were in this moment until after it is gone.
Or, once again, perhaps David Brooks circa 2013 loathes David Brooks circa 2013 most of all: a man who has spent the last several years desperately trying to outrun the vicious, partisan tripe on which the David Brooks of 1988 and 1997 and 2000 and 2006 built the career which furnished the David Brooks of 2013 with everything he ever dreamed of:  fame, fortune, real power, vast spaces for entertainment and, of course, the comfortable, hand-stitched, glove-leather, lumbar-massaging New York Times column in which he now sits, spinning round and round randomly potshotting at the various manifestations of an anonymous caricature-amalgam all of which look disturbingly like David Brooks.
The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.
Like the old man in Ray Bradbury's "Night Call, Collect", stranded alone on a desolate, abandoned Mars, who finds himself at his weakest moment suddenly tortured by a flurry of taunting, tempting phone calls from

his younger, crueler self, you might feel a spot of pity for poor, ol' David Brooks (he intoned in his best Rod Serling voice-over) who took the took the money and ran but found out too late that he could not outrun the legacy of the casually vicious, callow, chicken-hawkish Young David Brooks.

You might feel a spot of pity...

...until you remember the acuity and self-awareness with which Young David Brooks wrote about his chosen profession back in the Year of Our Lord 1996, when he made it perfectly clear that he understood what a bunch of money and status-obsessed twats our Beltway Overlords really were, and how he not-so-secretly ached to join their august ranks:
Our editor, a composite, was suffering from Status-Income Disequilibrium (SID). The sufferers of this malady have jobs that give them high status but low income. They lunch on an expense account at The Palm, but dine at home on macaroni. All day long the phone-message slips pile up on their desks -- calls from famous people seeking favors -- but at night they realize the tub needs scrubbing, so it's down on the hands and knees with the Ajax. At work they are aristocrats, Kings of the Meritocracy, schmoozing with Felix Rohatyn. At home they are peasants, wondering if they can really afford to have orange juice every morning.

Status-Income-Disequilibrium sufferers include journalists at important media outlets, editors at publishing houses, TV news producers, foundation officers, museum curators, moderately successful classical-music performers, White House aides, military brass, politicians who aren't independently wealthy, and many others. Consider the plight of the army general, who can command the movements of 100,000 men during the week but stretches to afford a Honda Accord for weekend outings. Or of poor John Sununu, who ruled the world when he was White House chief of staff but had to feed, educate, and house eight children on $ 125,000 a year. The disparity is not to be borne.

There are two sides to the status4ncome equation. On one end is the Monied Class, those with plenty of dough who can use it to acquire status. But I am concerned with the Titled Class. Historically, when we think of the Grand Titles, we think of Prince, Duke, Earl, and Baron. But in the age of meritocracy, the Grand Titles are Senior Fellow, Editor in Chief, Assistant to the Secretary. Or titles that include an employer's name -- the New York Times, the White House, Knopf -- in which case it scarcely matters which position the individual holds.

The Titled Class has always resented and secretly envied the Monied Class. But for journalists, writers, and politicos, the pain now is acute. Until recently, a person who went into, say, the media understood that he or she would forever live a middle-class life. But now one need only look at Cokie Roberts or David Gergen to see that vast wealth is possible. Once it becomes plausible to imagine yourself pulling in $ 800,000 a year, the lack of that money begins to hurt.
Finally, for someone waking from a Christmas office party binge during which they went on an extend public rant about how Everyone Is Really a Giant Asshole Fraud, to stagger into the scalding light of The Terrible Day After, take a look at mess they made and suddenly remember that they have no real, marketable skills outside of sucking up to the rich and powerful 800 words at a time, there are really only two choices.

Choice 1:  Pile into an RV the size of a aircraft carrier and strike out across the surface of a desolate planet called America on a quest to touch Indians which will end with him dead broke and working as a crossing-guard in Safford, Arizona.

Or Choice 2: try to pass the whole thing off as a joke.

Those familiar with Mr. Brooks' work know that he has no interest in being a crossing-guard in Safford, Arizona.
“I was just trying to be amusing about the life people like me lead,” Brooks confirmed to Daily Intelligencer in an e-mail. “Nothing more.”

UPDATE:  Before carving him up and serving him on toast, Mr. Charles Pierce endeavors to explain history and English to Thought Leader and University of Chicago history baccalaureate David Brooks:
Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.
Actually, most little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wishing they weren't slaves, and wishing they weren't chasing sheep across a rocky hillside, and hoping they wouldn't be dead of cholera before they were 15. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of not catching the Black Plague. Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens. Who was left to herd the goats, I ask you. And something can't be both a phrase and a paragon, not even If You Capitalize It. Any little boy or girl in ancient Athens could have told you that.

UPDATE: Capitol New York reminds us that Mr. Brooks' December 17, 2013 column is basically a faded mimeograph copy of the "How to Become Henry Kissinger" column wrote back when he was Bill Kristol's National Greatness Conservatism Reachround Buddy at the "Weekly Standard" 20 years ago.

UPDATE:  Like many of us, PZ Myers remains astounded that David Brooks still has a job:
The web has been resounding with a mighty echoing “WTF?” — David Brooks has written another column in the New York Times, and it’s weird, even for Brooks. He’s sneering at “Thought Leaders”, apparently this new generation of pundits who are beneath his contempt. At first I thought maybe it was entirely autobiographical, and that he was describing his own career, in which case he really needed to be put on suicide watch. And then I thought, nah, it’s David Brooks — I’m assuming a degree of self-awareness that simply isn’t there.

So I wrote my own impression of Brooks...

UPDATE:  I would also be remiss if I did not thanks Molly Ball for reminding us that, once upon a time, upstart youngster Sasha Issenbern actually had the temerity to research some of Mr. Brooks' bullshit homilies to the koo-koo-kooky differences between Red States and Blue States.

Mr. Issenbern found that (surprise!) Mr. Brooks had made a buncha stuff up to flesh out his fairy tale of American Life as seen from his perch high above and far away from any America you or I would recognize. Mr. Brooks' responded that -- ha! ha! -- it was all just a fucking joke! Jesus, Sasha, where's your fucking sense of humor.

Mr. Brooks then went on to scold Mr. Issenbern thus:
I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn't see it when I was there, but it's true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”

I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That's totally unethical,” he said.

Satire has its purpose, but assuming it's on the mark, Brooks should be able to adduce real-world examples that are true. I asked him how I was supposed to tell what was comedy and what was sociology. “Generally, I rely on intelligent readers to know — and I think that at the Atlantic Monthly, every intelligent reader can tell what the difference is,” he replied. “I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They're both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places,” he said. “You've obviously come at this from a perspective. I don't think if you went to the two places you wouldn't detect a cultural difference.”

I asked him about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. “This is dishonest research. You're not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter,” he said. “Is this how you're going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do 'em, I know 'em, how one starts, but it's just something you'll mature beyond.”
In other words...
Do you really want to hurt me

Do you really want to make me cry
Precious kisses, words that burn me
Lovers never ask you why 


Rehctaw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I read the column via Pierce's excellent takedown, but my conclusion is that Brooks has been made aware of this blog, read a dozen or so posts about him, and has hurt fee-fees. That column is an attempt to rationalize his pathetic career while equally pathetically pulling rank on his critics.

He should have slept on this article before submitting it. I think he was a few scotches in while composing it.

steeve said...

If brooks had any moral character at all, he'd pull a David Brock turnaround tomorrow. It would be a tremendous service to the country and even prop himself up in the process. He'd matter - and in a good way!

But such a move would earn him five cents less in the very very short term, so no dice.

Lawrence said...

"Becoming Henry Kissinger" reminds me of "Being John Malkovitch". I can hear Brooks telling his divorce lawyer "She only loves me when I'm Kissinger."

WV 1st District DNC Delegate said...


Strider said...

I pay real money to see DB beaned in the head with a beer can a la "Being John Malkovich"!

Unsalted Sinner said...

The Yglesias piece WV 1st District DNC Delegate links to above is pretty good. I don't normally want to kick someone who's going through a divorce, but that rule seems unfair when we're talking about a man who once wrote a piece defending the wealthy with this argument:

"The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive."

Well gee, Bobo, welcome to the lower tribe's disorganized, postmodern existence! If it doesn't cause your family to be poor, perhaps you'll concede that the moral superiority of the patricians alone isn't quite enough to explain current economic inequality?

Kathleen said...

@WV 1st District: OMG. I read the Slate article you linked that quoted a Brooks column. I don't read actual Brooks columns - DG's takedowns are enough for me to get an idea of what he writes - but reading Brooks' actual words was like getting stabbed in the eyeballs with hot needles. Dear God. He's actually getting paid alot of money for that drivel.

blader said...

True story. I was up in the Himalaya last summer when my (young) traveling companion said, "You know, I really like that David Brooks of the NYT".

I almost fell off a cliff.

So, his schtick sells. Somehow.

T'would be good to satirize the bastage, as a way to experiment with just how deranged he truly is and find out what it is that some (unthinking) people see in him. Such a satirical character, I imagine, would have a thick bloodline back to the Second Estate. I'll probably need to bone up on my french, etc

jim said...

"Sure, okay, everyone already knows I've already been reporting on the view from up my own ass for years, but ... WE HAVE TO GO DEEPER ..."

CM said...

**True story. I was up in the Himalaya last summer when my (young) traveling companion said, "You know, I really like that David Brooks of the NYT".**

Similar experience I had. A friend was reading brooks book social animal and he recommended I read it too. I was also told that he is not a ridiculous conservative like Hannity and so I was supposed to take him seriously.