Yesterday, as Emily was writing her response to David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column, I was stewing about exactly the same topic. I had been similarly inspired a few months back, when Kevin wrote on the rise of pop-intellecutalism, but had found myself too enervated to complete a post. Now, spurred by Emily’s questions, and those of our commenters, I thought I’d give it a try.
The answer to “the mystery of the two faces of David Brooks” is, I think, precisely that he is a divided soul. His New York Times columns and NewsHour appearances reveal a man torn between a heterodox sensibility (the Dr. Jeckyll who is clearly disappointed by the Bush years) and his paying gig as a 21st Century pundit… that is, as the Mr. Hyde whose job is to regurgitate talking points.
Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s protagonist, however, Brooks’ double life is heavily incentivized. The success of the Brooks franchise rests on his reputation as “The Republican Who Explains Republican thinking to Democrats.” And so he’s rewarded – financially and reputationally – for flourishes of ideological eclecticism. “Ah, what a fresh take on things,” we think, reading his appeals for a new politics. “A center-right analyst who speaks his mind, regardless of partisan pieties.” (It bears mentioning that there are few pundits on the left who show comparable flexibility or felicity.)
But it is documentable that Brooks’ flexibility only lasts while the electoral stakes for the G.O.P. are relatively low – as they were for most of the long ’07 – ’08 Democratic primary season. Whenever things begin to look dark for the national Republican party, Mr. Hyde emerges, dagger in hand. As a deft reciter of the party line, Brooks becomes an apparatchik for the very status quo he spends 20 months out of every election cycle bemoaning. (This is, by the way, the exact pattern that has characterized the 2008 McCain campaign, except that it’s easier to forgive McCain; he’s a politician, not an “analyst.”)
In print and on TV, Brooks comes across as a smart and sympathetic guy, but for at least seven years now, he’s been (however consciously) perpetrating intellectual fraud. In Aristotelian terms, he embezzles from a surplus of hard-won Ethical appeal to support a slush-fund of Pathetic biases. A dramatic case in point comes from the 2004 Democratic convention, when, immediately after John Kerry’s speech, he told PBS’ Jim Lehrer that Kerry had done “quite a lot better” projecting “muscular centrism”:
I think the lesson for Republicans is you’re not going to destroy this guy John Kerry. You’re not going to disqualify him from being president after this week. You’re going to have to make the other alternative that you’ve got your own version of muscular centrism.
The next day, in the Times, Brooks, apparently unnerved by Kerry momentum, pronounced the same speech, “an incoherent disaster.”
Perhaps Brooks actually bought his conceit that the “unforgiving light of day” had chemically altered the contents of the speech; a critic of partisan posturing should know better. More likely, he merely underrated the overlap between NewsHour viewers and Times readers. A writer who claims intimacy with the Bobo lifestyle putatively lived in, say, Chicago’s Hyde Park – the “exlusive enclave” where my schoolteacher in-laws rent an apartment two blocks from the Obamas’ lovely but by no means extravagant home – should know better.
In any case, it should have come as no surprise to see Brooks skewer Obama the day after the convention – particularly when I suspect that Brooks, like Paul Krugman, wrote his column on Thursday afternoon, prior to watching Obama accept the nomination. (Note the rhetorical ambiguity of Brooks’ column, the way it skirts the question of whether it is a reaction or a prediction. Ask yourself if Brooks could have based his analysis not on Obama’s delivery, but on the leaked text of the speech – a text he praised on the NewsHour, by way of denigrating the delivery. Now ask yourself again if you want to take Brooks’ reaction seriously.)
A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but, if history is any indication, David Brooks is consistently inconsistent, and so screwed either way. In the last two months before a closely fought presidential election, we can expect him to rediscover his talent as a canny, cynical partisan shill, for whom politics is merely a rarefied form of marketing, designed to play on consumers’ fears. And in this, he will be no more or less than a member in good standing of a proud band of brothers and sisters – Frank Rich, Der Krauthammer, George Will, Cokie Roberts, et al. Perhaps we should rebrand the Op/Ed pages as what they really are – Special Advertising Sections – and be done with them. Me, I’ll be off reading Andrew Sullivan.
This morning’s David Brooks column has reinvigorated my long-running discomfort with pop-intellectuals. “We’re entering an era of epic legislation,” his column begins. “There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.” The bold assertion is a classic move of the pop-intellectual, who I think of as one who puts forth an idea as a new idea while lacking expertise in the field in which that idea would carry weight. The blending of disciplines is also a tell-tale pop-intellecual trait, and in the opening of his column, Brooks presents as a historian, a sociologist, and a political scientist, even though he is in fact none of the above.One thing I always think about when I read pop-intellectuals like Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell (if Brooks is prince of the practice, Gladwell is king), is the shift over the last couple centuries or so from lay intellectualism to professional intellectualism (I’m not an intellectual historian and I don’t know exactly where to date it – in my mind the the change took place concurrently with the the rise of method, around about the time of Darwin). Two hundred years ago it was good enough to be a well-educated citizen with a ruminative soul and you could write with authority about anything – philosophy, history, the natural world. Now to be taken seriously on any of those topics, to be seen as adding to our store of knowledge, you have to have a PhD and work in a university. In part, the change is due to the overall increase in knowledge – it required less learning to be an expert in mathematics a hundred years ago than it does now – but more than that, the change reflects the modern insight that learning shaped by disciplines simply produces better knowledge.Journalists like Brooks and Gladwell can still add value by bringing academic discoveries to the public, but books like Bobos in Paradise and Blink make me cringe for the lack of rigor with which they synthesize anecdotes to produce new ideas. The problem is not so much the content, benign as it usually is, but the methods. Brooks’ column, for example, actually promotes a tendency opposite of the one he intends. It makes people less effectively thoughtful, not more.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: “Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America’s latest elite–a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos–covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?