Brooks be humble…

January 8, 2013

I hear David Brooks, the NYTimes conservative columnist, is teaching a course on humility at Yale.  There’s so much irony, I just won’t touch it.

I don’t read him these days unless something particular points me there, and I saw a reference to a column he wrote on his favorite topic these days, humility, mentioning Pauline Kael and how she didn’t “suffer fools gladly.”  Hah! I thought, who is she to suffer or not suffer fools?  (I don’t like her film reviews much.)  He dissects the meaning and use of the phrase, and I agree with him there. People who speak foolishly out of naivete, simple ignorance, and the like, should be treated with graciousness and respect.  We’ve all been in that situation, and will be again, but…

As with so much of Brook’s ‘deep’ commentary, I can’t help think that there’s something autobiographical here, some secret wound he’s nursing.  Heavens, did somebody not so nice maybe treat him shabbily, like a damn fool?  Maybe it was someone really smart, who knows a lot about something that Brooks was remarking on (and perhaps knew very little about.)  Maybe, could it be, somebody like Paul Krugman, or some other intellectual?

Let’s face it, people who treat badly the kind of fool I described here are not looked upon well by thoughtful people.  But there is also the other kind of fool, the kind who is ignorant, and prefers to remain so.  The kind who is quite arrogant in, even about his ignorance.  The kind who loves to hear him or herself talk, even when he or she knows nothing about the topic.  Yes, there’s that class, of which Brooks is a premier member, of the pundits, the pedants, and the talking-heads.  They often speak as fools, and you can hardly blame them; it’s their job to keep talking to fill up the air time.  Or to fill up those column inches.  And they do seem to get it into their heads after a while that they actually have powers of intellect which they consistently fail to display.

I’d put Brooks in this latter class of fool.  He’s also paid a huge amount for his chatter.  So if someone takes him down in print or on the air, I will not feel he’s been treated badly, despite his pleas for humility.  It just goes with the territory.

Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…

Play the odds

January 4, 2010

David Brooks, the columnist I love to hate, wrote on New Years Day about the failed bomb attack on the Northwest Air jet:

…we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.

…  But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity. [link]

I happen to agree with him on this, and I think our social conceptions of risk are way off.  I don’t think, however, that this case is a good example of that.  A decent system should have caught that guy.  Oh well, easy for me to say in hindsight, right?  Absolutely. 

I think Brooks’ column is barking up the wrong tree.  It is so hard to make a large organization function well, and to allow the full power of individual human intelligence to be brought to bear on problems.  Organizations that handle information, quickly become, as you move up the chain, detached and mechanical in their procedures.  How can they not?  There’s all that paper, all those calls, all those lists to go through!!  Has it always been so?  Did Assyrian bureaucrats miss vital clues on food supply and impending invasions?  Did they loose their heads because of it, literally that is?

But Brooks is wrong because he doesn’t say why it is so hard to do right.  He just seems to accept it as a fact of nature – the odds are stacked against the system.  It’s hard because it goes against such entrenched political interests.  Turf wars, egos, prestige, the usual culprits.  He seems to have the attitude that, in principal, the systems are being reformed correctly, and that that their failure is an inevitable “wastage” that we must expect.  I doubt that the efforts have even scratched the surface of what should be done, and I haven’t the foggiest notion of what should be done to change it.  So maybe we agree after all?

Meanwhile, back on Planet Stupid…

August 16, 2008

Once again, David Brooks clocks in with a column that makes me ask, “what planet do you live on?”  Visiting the countryside in China that was recently traumatized by earthquake, he comments:

We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

For someone who bills himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative Republican, and a “pop” sociologist, his response is remarkable.  Does he not read the newspaper that publishes his drivel?  He hasn’t heard of the protests by grieving parents, their children crushed to death in shoddily built schools, that were broken up by police, the parents beaten?  He is not aware of the concerted effort by the Party to buy silence with a hush money policy?  It never occurs to him that the vast network of Party officials throughout the country has made it perfectly clear what sort of statements are acceptable?  Does he think that these people are as stupid as he is?  Does he really think that the Chinese collectivist spirit, as he calls it in his superficial maunderings of the last week or so, precludes grief over the death of a child, especially when such mind boggling political corruption is involved?

And speaking of ideas that are so stupid only an educated person could believe them (to use George Orwell’s phrase here for the umpteenth time), what about that “End of History,” eh?  People like Francis Fukuyama are why the word “intellectual” is, for some, a slur.  Just add the pointy headed… How could anyone take this idea seriously?  Well, it seems that Vladimir Putin didn’t.   Fellow neo-con Robert Kagan gets a jab in at FF with his new article, “The End of the End of History,” commenting on the return of 19th century history as Russia pursues the “Great Game” with renewed vigor.

Yeah, every movement is supposed to end history.  The same thing in art – we had Modernism…then Post-Modernism.  In the end, all we have are styles and fads.

Against Revelation…for Mr. Brooks

December 1, 2004

Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, pointed out that the problem with revealed religion (for those who are not already wedded to the idea that it is the solution to all problems) is that only the recipeint of the revelation has any basis on which to vouch for its authenticity. Hmm…there’s a problem. More recently, Richard Dawkins pointed out that religion based on revealed truth leads to young men hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, because, after all, there is only one truth, theirs! Take that you nattering nabobs of relativism!And now, we have the educated Mr. Brooks, guiding us through the thickets of revelation in his latest New York Times column about the evangelist, John Stott. I must say, I increasingly find Brooks to be bizarre in a fascinating way. What does he mean, and what planet does he come from?

We learn that politicians, mostly Democrats, and other liberal secularists don’t understand evangelicals because we take Jerry Falwell to be the exemplar of their ilk. Brooks then treats us to a mini-tour of evangelical thought as expounded by Mr. Stott, a world leader in the evangelical movement, who he says represents the real evangelicals, not the buffoons. Okay, he sounds thoughtful, but his ideas don’t seem much different than Falwell’s. Tellingly, Brooks cites Thomas Wolfe in his description of Stott’s tone – for these two pseudo-intellectuals (i.e. non-intellectuals who want to be seen as intellectuals) style always trumps substance. So, Mr. Stott has a spine of steel, and no doubt a fist of iron, albeit inside a velvet glove.Brooks tells us that Stott is quite “embracing” so that it is a shock, “especially to a Jew like me,” when it is clear that he won’t compromise on some things. Well! Is Brooks saying that he is the type of Jew that always compromises on everything, i.e., has no principles? Or is he implying that all Jews are without rock-solid principles? Neither makes for an appealing proposition. Or, to be more charitable, is he saying that as a Jew, he was shocked to find that there are evangelicals in the world who see him as a man sunk in sin and doomed to hell because he has not abandoned the false way of his Hebrew tribe…etc? Perhaps Mr. Brooks needs to watch Casa Blanca again, and pay special attention to the scene in which the local police chief announces that he is “shocked, shocked,” that gambling has been going on behind those doors. Where has he been, has he been listening while talking with those “hundreds of evangelicals,” he has met all over the USA? Those of us outside of the chattering classes know many religious people who vary from rock hard bigots to open minded spiritualists, and we are not shocked. Nor are we deceived.

Brooks goes on to discuss Stott’s dismissal of relativism. That’s an easy stance to take when all truth flows from (your interpretation of) the Bible. Stott is pro-death penalty and anti-abortion. Does Brooks mind that this is not only contrary to the position of the Pope – who at least has a morally consistent position, in a way – but that it is not based on anything but a preconceived notion? At least he believes in something, right? So did Hitler. And of course, we have, once again, the totally erroneous prejudice and smear that liberals, secularists, and rational people don’t believe in anything. Apparently, unless you are an anti-scientific born-again, you are awash in a sea of apathy, indifference, and anomie. Perhaps Brooks is, and perhaps that’s why he seems so drawn to these people.

Further on, he reveals that Stott is dead set against the “homosexual lifestyle.” How can anyone write that for a major newspaper? Does Brooks believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice? If he does, and if Stott does, shouldn’t they at least provide some evidence in support of that? Well, it’s in the Bible, they say, and I guess all those gay and lesbian people who say that they realized they were gay when they were in pre-teens are just making it up, or they were not sufficiently indoctrinated.

Mr. Brooks made his name as a “pop-sociologist” (his words) witing about self-indulgent yuppies. Perhaps he never did the work to learn real anthropology, sociology, or even history. Does he really feel that he is educating us with this fawning revelation of the nature of revealed faith? Has he not read any history? Even American history? These people have been with us always, and they were fulminating against the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in 1787 and they’re still at it. We don’t need Brooks to teach us the meaning and dynamics of faith and revealed religion – we have one of the best examples of what the worst of it can do in the destruction of the World Trade Center. These fundamentalist terrorists have ideas about truth, and how to find it, that are not much different than Stott’s – they just happen to have major political grievances against the USA as well.

When true believers meet and differ, they have no recourse but to fight to the death. Once we understand these people of faith (and I don’t make the mistake of assuming that all religious people are like this) what shall we do? The only thing they want is for us to give in, and be like them. They take no prisoners.

I have no gripe with people like Stott living in accord with their faith, but I do have two concerns about it:

  • When they are part of a growing political movement, I fear for what they may wreak politically, on me. After a few years of increasing power, will they start passing laws to put crosses in classrooms, say the Lord’s prayer before council meetings, etc? Maybe Brooks won’t mind because I’m sure they’ll allow non-believers to stand by silently, for a while, anyway. How far will they go? Is there anything about their point of view that councils restraint? No, when you’re right, you’re right!
  • It seems today that the only belief, the only values, the only principles that are respected as such are religious ones. What about the great intellectual/ethical traditions of the West that are not based on Christianity or Judaism (though they may be very influenced by them.) At the same time, nobody seems to have any notion of what science is, how it works, and what its value is. Intellectually, these people are deeply reactionary in the plain, objective, historical sense of it.

So, Mr. Brooks can waffle and maunder on about their faith, express his secret wish that he could be like them since they seem so strong and authentic, as opposed to the drippy people he has to work with, but let’s call a spade a spade. They have the right to be as they are, and if they get organized enough, they may well alter our constitution and jettison 225 years of our tradition of tolerance, pluralism, and secularism; and they have the right to dislike that tradition and to want to change it. But make no mistake about it, their aim is nothing less than to destroy democracy in the USA as we know it.