Wednesday, March 09, 2011

David Brooks - Irrelevanter Than Ever

Just when I thought David Brooks had consigned himself (and the New York Times) to permanent irrelevance, he proves me wrong by writing an Op-ed that is so vapid and meaningless that it sets an entirely new standard by which drivel will be judged.


I refer to this, his latest sophomoric indulgence, BraveNewWorldishly entitled, “The New Humanism.” You can read it for yourself or, if you believe that life is short and time is precious, you can allow me to summarize it for you. Why not? I have already wasted my time, so you may as well benefit from my mistake.

The essence of Mr. Brooks’ 802 words (802! Doesn’t anyone edit any more?) is that our gravest errors as a nation seem to stem from – prepare yourselves to be dazzled –

…reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature…

A continuing insurgence in Iraq, the failure of our education system, the collapse of banks – all due to oversimplification. Forget a meddlesome Iran, government intervention in the housing market, and teachers’ unions that are more interested in power than in empowering students. Those explanations are so old-humanism. To really understand the fundamental issues, we have to overcome our silly, outmoded notion that,

Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.
Mr. Brooks argues facts that are not in evidence. That is to say that he fails to make the case that anyone really thinks this way. He builds his entire thesis on a straw man, and then expects us to pat him on the head when he blows it down. The problem with this approach is that it wears thin very quickly. If you elucidate to any extent, the thinness of your argument becomes readily apparent, and Mr. Brooks is not one to simply make a point and move on. He is compelled to elucidate.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. (Down below?) We are really good (“really good?” Not “really, really good,” or “very good,” but just really good?” honestly – who edits this stuff?) at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion. When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say.
Really? Exactly where in our culture these days are we overemphasizing reason and downplaying emotion? Is that what’s happening in the debate over public service unions? Are the discussions of nationalized healthcare characterized by an overabundance of rationality? Are our public schools turning out little machines of logic and reason, or are they scrapping meaningful standards of education in favor of bolstering self esteem? If schools are all about measurable traits, then why, when people hear that my kids are homeschooled, is their first question never, “How much are they learning,” and always, “How will you socialize them?”

If we were enslaved to logic, we would be relieved to know that a new perspective,

is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on. This growing, dispersed (I think you mean disparate, don’t you David?) body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. (Wow. Awkward much?) Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; (Yes, but nobody thought it was; that was just a false argument you concocted.) our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships. (Honestly, I’ve read this sentence several times, and I still can’t figure out what he’s saying. Maybe I’m just getting hung up on “interpenetrated.”)
That would really be enough for one day, but as I mentioned, Mr. B. loves to elucidate, so he goes on to summarize the difference between the French and British Enlightenments (See what agony I have spared you by reading this in your place?) and admonishing us to “educate our emotions,” which will yield “different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics…” This is important, you see, because, “Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills.”

You may color me surprised. Have you ever measured people in such narrow terms? Of course not. The emotional dimension is always present. It is one of the primary components of a job interview, something with which Mr. Brooks apparently has little experience.

And just to prove he’s a good sport, and not above a little linguistic japery, the verbally flatulent Mr. Brooks (as in Babbling Brooks) lists a few character attributes to which we should all aspire. My translations are in parenthesis.

  • Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer. (Stay out of my mind and just listen to me.)
  • Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings. (I thought this had something to do with being able to mimic a horse. Why couldn’t you just say “level headedness?” Is that too rational?
  • Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations. (Uh, wisdom? Common sense?)
  • Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups. (Sorry – that’s not sympathy. And do we really want to thrive in groups? Why can’t we thrive as individuals?)
  • Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line (“skull line?” Have you been drinking with Charlie Sheen again?) falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others. (Ok. You’re on your own with this one. It did make me think of a limerick though.
There once was a fop named David
Whose reputation couldn’t be saved
His outrageous lie
“The senator fondled my thigh
Would have been better unstated.)
But enough frivolity, let us get back to the important work of redefining human nature. Brooks breathlessly assures us that, “…hundreds of thousands of researchers (Who knew!) are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are.” And what will be the effect of this army in lab coats? "… I suspect their work will have a giant effect on the culture. It’ll change how we see ourselves. Who knows, it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.”

Of course it will, David. And the words to Donald Fagen’s song IGY, will all come true. There will be

Just machines to make big decisions,
Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision,
We’ll be clean when their work is done,
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and, eternally young
What a beautiful world this will be, what a glorious time to be free…

1 comment:

Ran said...

“Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills.”

This, from the clown who calls Palin "a joke" because she lacks... sophistication.

I quit the New York Times subscription twice: Once when I cancelled the paper a decade ago and then again recently when I left our synagogue because the rabbi was zealously quoting from the Times' Op-Eds. I found Freidman and Safire difficult to stomach; I wasn't going to tolerate Brooksie.

To his thesis, progress is tied to "reason"? What about G-d, Natural Rights and the responsibility of self-governance? Where is Faith in this lad's metaphysics?

Moreover, Faith and Emotion both are no enemies of Reason... and yet he insists on a simplistic paradigm of Reason v Emotion.

Thanks for your brave wading into the muck...