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David Brooks on America’s Tribes

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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.

That is TRC’s ever-favorite “conservative” editorialist, David Brooks, writing about the widening gaps between American tribes in his piece yesterday, titled, the Great Divorce.

Brooks clearly is enamored by his idea that American culture is tribal, not classist, and he runs and runs and runs with it. As a major news and opinion consumer, TRC thinks it can be pretty easy to notice when a writer has come up with something he or she thinks is quite clever, and, maybe doesn’t think it all the way through. Thus is Brooks’ dilemma.

It looks today as though David Brooks’ piece is causing a bit of an internet uproar. Politico has the rundown. The main complaint seems to be that Brooks, that harbinger of east-coast 1950s conservatism who longs for America to regain its glory by acknowledging it is losing its moral compass and soul (or some such nonsense), is oozing with bourgouis elitism and condescension.

So, internet, I have to ask: Why are you surprised? This is David Brooks. He is a standard upper-class (ahem, upper-tribe) ideas man, who when it comes down to it, is thoughtful, but clueless about modern life. I just assumed everyone knew that was David Brooks m.o. Brooks work in the last few years at the NY Times has represented only a swan-song to golden era nostalgia.

Even Brooks’ conclusion that we need a big national service program to bring the upper and lower tribes together (I agree), falls apart in the need for one harmonious tribe that shares values and practices. He misses the entire point of what comes before in his piece: the tribes don’t have much in common, we don’t all need to share the same practices and institutions and values, and besides, the postmodern neighborhoods of the poor are probably too confusing to find their way to each other anyway.


Written by Christopher ZF

February 1, 2012 at 14:11

sidestepping the problem with cultural diagnoses

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There is a tendency in opinion reporting to direct the causes of specific problems to amorphous conversations that do little to shine any light on the subject at hand. It usually goes something like this: “The major problem X is a result of lost moral code. Our values are deteriorating, and as a result X has increased.” This is something that causes heart-ache at TRC. And it is not because such moral diagnoses are incorrect. More often than not, I agree with the proclamations that individuals are too selfish, are losing a moral center, lack strong values, etc. The problem is: that is usually not the problem. The problem is much, much more specific than that. You can take almost any issue you like and find myriad examples of losing sight of the real issue.

This comes up tonight because of an article that looks to understand why people do not talk more about climate change. The author gives several reasons: We don’t like to feel like we have no control. Social etiquette calls for politeness, making conversations about catastrophic futures difficult to engage. We use humor to deflect, rather than engage (Global Warming! With all this snow!). You get the idea. The author also includes deflection:

Another common way to practice social denial is to change the subject to moral deterioration in general (“We live in an age of rampant selfishness and greed”) or to criticize others in particular. “We’re not as bad as the Americans,” Norwegians like to say, despite being one of the largest oil producers and exporters in the world.
Criticism of scientists as “doomsayers” and “junk scientists” serves the same diversionary purpose, even in the face of the scientific consensus that humans are heating up the planet.
Ranting about researchers inventing global warming to garner grants is a distraction from thinking about a future of increasing droughts, floods, and disease.

An astute observation, I thought, and one I had not attached to climate change. I will admit, my first impulse when I read this was to think of David Brooks, the humble NYTimes op-ed writer who has one cure for everything that has ever gone wrong: people have lost their values. It is the most exhausting and useless diagnosis there is. Again, not because it is wrong, but because it offers no one any insight into a specific problem (i.e climate change) 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 scandal at Penn State (and it turns out I’m not alone in finding this tendency of Brooks to be simply unbearable).

When it comes to problems that are existent, and pose real danger to the world as it stands now, we should not neglect the actual, present reality. This does not mean we should not discuss the potential societal causes, or discuss the moral implications that lead us to where we are. But that can only function as a part of the conversation, an equally important, but often less urgent part. Climate change is real and here. To limit serious consequences, our actions have to change, now, regardless of whether our addiction to fossil fuels is a result of a lack of a core value system that once represented a glorious unity but has now fractured into the celebration of the I, or if we just weren’t paying close attention. Otherwise we can sit in our comfy chairs, squawking about how we have lost our moral compass, while outside the window, the world burns.

WR Mead joins David Brooks in lamenting the terrible nature of everything

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What is changing? Is the Twilight of the Boomers setting upon us, requiring cultural prognosticators to make social diagnoses about the failure of America? I know things are bad around here these days, but, come on.

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.

Today it is Walter Russell Mead, decrying the moral failures of the Baby Boomers, casting his moral judgment upon the whole of an American generation. Says Mead:

 Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves. What begins in arrogance often ends in shame; there are some ominous signs that the Boomers are headed down that path. Sooner or later, the kids were going to note what a mess we have made of so many things, and now, it seems, the backlash has begun.  

Mead goes on to list the failings of the boomers, and suffice it to say, the list is long, and the charges leveled at our parents are pretty dire.

Apparently, the nostalgia of recent American history is waning, and there is not too much hope for the American future these days, as we forthrightly criticize the whole population as a bunch of narcissistic, self-serving, evil-embracing failures. What is going on?

Maybe I’m wrong to find these kinds of laments frustrating. Perhaps we are a nation that has fallen away from goodness and into the territory of amorality and self-interest. Perhaps my failure to recognize that aspect of American Culture results from my participation in that amorality. But, for the love of Christ, I sure hope not. I sure hope Brooks and Mead are wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course there are moral failings, and of course the baby boomers have screwed things up. But the boomers did good things for this country, too, and sorry David Brooks, but I tend to think that every day in the United States, most people choose to do the things that are upright, positive and good. We are not a country that has turned our back on caring for each other, recognizing each other, and longing for peace. Not as a whole, not even as a majority. Maybe TRC is just optimistic. Maybe the people who are attracted to power, attracted to making the rules, are the ones who have such grave moral failings, or maybe not. But it does not compute, at TRC, to find such deficiencies in our whole nation.

Or maybe a generation is reaching its twilight, and looking back on their own failures. If that’s the case, I hope all this sorrow works itself out soon, so the rest of us don’t have to spend the next 5 years reading about how a cloud of failure and despair has ruined everything. That certainly won’t help anything get better.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 14, 2011 at 14:53

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

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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