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David Brooks Lazy Accusations: Young people don’t recognize evil, sin

with 7 comments

This morning’s Meet the Press featured a segment with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, discussing the Penn State Scandal, and what it means. I was saddened by David Brooks response.

According to David Brooks, young people do not know what evil is. Young people do not recognize sin and have been raised to live a life that says, if it feels good to me, do it. This is not a direct quote, but it is very close. This is so condescending and so arrogant, it is maddening.

Such statements are filled with the moral superiority that drives “young people” wild. Because, you see, David Brooks has the inside story, he knows that raping children is evil. Not us young people, who lack a ‘moral script,’ and do not act or live in a way that recognizes what is evil.

This claim is especially frustrating coming from a mainstream, popular journalist and being aimed at “young people.” Presumably someone like David Brooks knows this is untrue. The problem of “young people” and their moral shortcomings are the same moral failings of all other people. The behaviors of youth always disappoint their elders. This is not an excuse. There is no excuse here for the rioters who took to the streets of Penn State to protest the firing of a man who covered up child sex abuse. No excuse; they are tasteless, and wrong, actions. Protecting such a man is disgusting.

But let’s not allow the idiotic and classless acts of college protests to distract from the evil that took place at Penn State, and who it was that failed to recognize that evil, David Brooks. The actions of the students after the firing of Joe Paterno are not the story. The story is the protection of a person who sexually abused children by an institution designed to educate youth. It is a man using an organization designed to help children as a way to find children to sexually abuse. And it is the culture of insulation, protection, money and power that allowed it to go on for decades. Perhaps worst of all, it represents the systemic and political and cultural power that has become Football in the United States.  Worst of all because football is so meaningless. Even Penn State football.

Perhaps David Brooks wants to go back to the previous moral scripts, the golden days. Maybe the past fifty years, when the moral teachers and leaders were sexually abusing children, and the byzantine structures of the Church were used to cover it up. Those were the days when our society was better able to recognize evil.

There are so many evils on display in this terrible, disgusting event, but the problems unfolding in our society are not going to be answered with the tired argument that youth are losing the moral script. The claim is as lazy as saying everyone in the Church lacks a sense of sin as a result of the Church’s history of abuse. Lazy and wrong.

So, David Brooks: You’re accusation of the “young people” being unable to recognize sin and evil, being without a moral center, is a lazy accusation and distraction from the true evils of this whole situation. You have grasped  a tired lesson that doesn’t stick and never seems to fade. It is as  filled with condescension and pride as it was when your parents generation made it about the college students of the 1980s. The moral failures that are on display at Penn State are sickening, disgusting, grotesque, there aren’t adjectives to describe how terrible these acts are. But they are also not new, nor is the behavior of Penn State’s students. Don’t pretend otherwise, and don’t fall to easy explanations of how this could happen by looking to the failings of  “young people.”


Written by Christopher ZF

November 13, 2011 at 10:48

7 Responses

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  1. I don’t believe Brooks made any mention of young people. He was speaking about our society in general, not young people.

    Here’s the link to the transcript:

    MR. BROOKS: If you’re alert to the sense of what evil is, what the evil is within yourself and what evil is in society, you have a script to follow. It’s not a vague sense. You have a script to follow. And this is necessary because people do not intervene. If–there’s been a ton of research on this. They say people, they ask people, “If you saw something cruel, if you saw racism and sexism, will you intervene?” Then they hire actors, and they put it right in front of them. People do not intervene. It’s called the bystander effect. It happens again and again, people don’t intervene. That’s why we need these scripts to remind people how, how evil can be all around.

    Todd Feinburg

    November 13, 2011 at 18:07

    • Your right, Todd.
      He doesn’t actually say “young people” in this interview. In the context, it is pretty clear that Brooks is talking about the students at Penn State, but he doesn’t name them as such. That context comes in the previous question asked of Brooks by David Gregory regarding the “kids rioting on campus” and his response in which he directs his moral judgments at an unnamed “they”.

      My frustration over Brooks on this issue has been growing since last Friday’s All Things Considered segment with Brooks and Dionne, when they both said essentially the same thing. In that segment, you hear Brooks talk about the lack of recognition of sin and evil as a society as the root problem at the heart of our country. He mentions it briefly then, and brings it up in the context of the kids rioting at Penn State on Meet the Press. And he doesn’t speak directly of ‘young people.’ So you are correct to call me out on in it, because I do set it off in quotes.

      However, I don’t think that affects the criticism I am making about the banality and shallowness of the argument. Whether it is about young people, or ‘society’ in general. Seeing a horrible tragedy such as this, and falling to a position of lack of moral script and recognition of sin doesn’t require anyone to reflect upon the actualities of the horror, the reality of abuse and tragedy, and recognize the individual evils that are being set upon individual people. This same misdirection happened in the broad conversations of sex abuse in the Church. Folks talked about a lack of moral direction and a failing of the Church, which is true. But too little time was spent on Priests abusing boys, and how they got there in the first place, and what the Church would do to make sure this never happened again. (again, in the broader national conversation). It is a shallow argument, used all the time in every age, to draw attention towards some ideal that is unbelievable and not practical. Whether or not society as a whole is less capable of recognizing evil doesn’t tell anyone anything.

      I want Brooks to say: Penn State is deplorable, they abused power, they allowed a child rapist to work for them after they knew it and we are going to resolve this. We as a nation and a species have a problem with allowing terrible crimes to be committed before our eyes and we need to figure out a way to ensure accountability to the law immediately: Call the cops before anything, etc. etc. Brooks social condemnations are not useful.


      November 13, 2011 at 20:04

  2. Also, note to bloggers: If you want good weekend traffic, post about David Brooks. Apparently.


    November 13, 2011 at 20:05

  3. It was weird David Brooks spoke of a child getting brutally rape by a grown man like he was speaking about an academic paper. Who would stand there and let this happen unless you have been intertwined in Penn State’s power, elitism and control. The Bystander Effect with Kitty Genevese was years ago was the notion the more people around the less chance you will be able to get help it doesn’t pertain to this case ..Most people would have intervened.
    To David Brooks: There is Sin then there is an Abomination everyone knows what’s Abominable.


    November 13, 2011 at 22:39

    • I agree, Jodee.
      And would say even words like Sin and Abomination are too vague to get to the a place where we can discuss the actions undertaken at Penn State.

      The question has never been: do people not realize that sexually abusing children is wrong. Of course nearly all humans know this. Nor is the question: has American society lost its ability to recognize evil.

      The important question is: What happened at Penn State? And how will we ensure that this never happens again?


      November 14, 2011 at 09:34

  4. […] Yesterday, it was David Brooks casting the country in the cloud of moral vacuity, unable to recognize evil, embracing the selfish returns of the individual, and hiding behind our interests to the demise of the nation. Pretty heavy charges. […]

  5. […] or any possible solutions to improve the situation (i.e. stop using fossil fuels). I kind of flew off the handle at David Brooks for what I termed his lazy use of this argumentative tool earlier this year regarding the sex abuse […]

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