(Community Matters) New York Times columnist David Brooks cited the LGBT community’s fight for marriage equality as an example of willingness to limit choices and freedom.
Kip Keller, one of our best friends, takes great exception with Mr Brooks, who has a disarming & distracting tendency for oversimplification, pseudo intellectualism and the misleading habit of presenting false choices & erroneous assumptions as facts.
Okay, so this is the last time I waste a single moment reading David Brooks’s asinine drivel or responding to it. I mean it—not even a juicy, Brooks-engorged blog entry on Community Matters will tempt me from now on.
Every time I think that he’s reached absolute nadir, that his mind-bendingly amazing ability to not see what is directly in front of his face, his unswerving proclivity for NOT GETTING IT, has reached some end point, he sets a new personal standard for puffed-up, whining dumb-assery that would be breathtaking if it weren’t so pathetic.
So marriage, even gay marriage, is all about restricting freedom? And somehow Edmund Burke gets called in as the expert witness for this proposition. First, Burke wrote the material quoted in the column in the 1790s, when a surfeit of freedom was not a problem most people were burdened with. Unless you were a member of the aristocracy or the commercial elite, your life was circumscribed to a degree no one can any longer really appreciate. There was no welfare state or social safety net, no modern medicine, no voting except for the well off, and no choice but to pay taxes to the state church; you were, in essence, free to work until you dropped dead, to be carried off by any of numerous epidemics, to live under laws you had no say in, and to involuntarily support a religion you might well have despised. If, on the other hand, you were a member of the group that made the laws and lived off the taxes paid by the lower orders, you could strike your servants with impunity, beat your wife as much as you liked with a rod no thicker than your thumb, know that you would never be sent to jail for rape or even, possibly, murder, and generally carry on like a drunken lord without any repercussions. I wonder which group Burke was talking about? Because the way I read it, the constraints on liberty—liberty, mind you, not freedom, much as Brooks tries to elide the difference—that Burke referred to were the ones that well up from the basest human instincts, the ones that Burke watched, with horror, get unleashed during the French Revolution. Does Brooks really intend to include marriage in that category?
I think Brooks’s contention that marriage is the legal equivalent of some sort of metaphorical shackling is prima facie bullshit, so I won’t spend a lot of time picking it apart (an intelligent eighth-grader could do it). What sticks in my craw is the whole unstated worldview behind this and every other column of his I’ve read, and I’ve regretted reading every one of those. When he gets piously schoolmarmish about “a decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate,” “decline in marriage,” “more children raised in unsteady homes,” “higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings,” or becomes wistfully hopeful for a future when “maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home,” he never, not once, not even after consulting the Oracle of the Applebee’s Salad Bar, so much as hints that maybe, just maybe, structural, macroeconomic forces might have something to do with the unenviable lives of the “less fortunate.” A venture capital firm shut down your town’s factory and shipped the jobs to Vietnam? Well, you can all work as Walmart greeters instead—enjoy your new, fantastically reduced standard of living. But any slight tear in the social fabric, any rise in the number of divorces or children born outside marriage, any uptick in drug use, well, that’s entirely due to the lazy, no-good, barely-getting-by underclass having completely lost its moral compass. And whose fault is that? Hippies’, of course. (His unthinking, clichéd trashing of the 60s is so stale by now that I can’t believe the NYT still lets him get by with it.) Because there’s no way that higher debt levels might result from people desperately trying to fend off homelessness or pay for food or get medical treatment for their uninsured children. No, it’s just the result of layabouts wanting to “satisfy their cravings.” Because in the David Brooks universe, your sorry state of affairs is clear evidence of your own moral degeneracy, and nothing else. So put on your smock and get back to work—those shoppers aren’t going to greet themselves.
My other long-standing beef with the pseudo-intellectual trappings of Brooks’s bilge is HOW FREAKIN’ WRONG HE IS ABOUT HISTORY. The third paragraph of his most recent squitterings can serve as an epitome of this: “The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.” Really, David, “big thinkers”? Really? To start, Tocqueville and Durkheim didn’t come up with an insight; they repeated a truism. The class of people in history who were “left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires” is tiny—ancient emperors and, later, maybe Stalin and Mao—yet Brooks writes as if this is some widely applicable warning that we all should heed. (I can’t tell you how many time a day I have to tell myself, “No, you can’t sleep on a mattress stuffed with rubies and emeralds and keep a harem of slave boys—only one or the other.”) As for those today who could gratify their every individual desire, the most obvious group is the super-ultra-wealthy, who can buy unlimited travel (even to outer space!), perfect security, and whatever material extravagance their imaginations conjure up. Does anyone really think that this group, rather than the grasping, mooching “less fortunate,” is the one Brooks has in mind?
And the idea that the perfect freedom to pursue personal desires might not be conducive to psychological health didn’t originate with nineteenth-century sociologists. Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, makes it crystal clear: the realization that, within the limits of extant technology, they could do anything, have anything, or order anything to be done drove the Roman emperors completely insane. Tiberius and Caligula may have been the most grotesque examples, but none of them could handle unlimited power. No one can—and those guys were trained in its expected use. Suetonius, by the way, was writing early in the second century AD. But you know what? This nugget of wisdom was ancient by the time he put stylus to papyrus. When I read about Caligula in Suetonius, the story rang a bell. As a kid, I had read a Chinese folktale (it was probably first read to me) about a king who is granted a whole series of wishes, and at the end he realizes that to want everything is to have nothing. So David Brooks, grossly overpaid hack for the f***ing New York Times, flutters and simpers and pontificates about a point that children learn before they can read. Beautiful. And this guy, this guy, teaches at Yale.
That’s it for me. No more Brooks. I feel as if a vast expanse of weedy underbrush has been cleared from my mental landscape.
Cinnamon Bun out.