I know I’ve been mostly absent, and will continue to be so. (At least until this makes it through copy editing.)*
I know as well that there’s too much to be talked about to waste much time on the utterly predictable.
And I also know that what I’m about to point out is far less an indictment than, say, today’s column should earn. I do plan to take a whack at that one sometime soon, unless, as I hope, Charles Pierce eviscerates, and I can just crib.
So this is just a bit of nastiness on my part, some pissed-off snark, on confronting the “look inside” excerpt now available for the divine’ BoBo’s new hacktacular, The Road to Character. As a matter of substance, I’ll just say that I agree with Driftglass, (via the above-referenced Mr. Pierce), that for David Brooks, such an avenue remains the road not taken.
But as a matter of pure spite, let me just say that nothing I’ve read of Mr. Brooks’ new minimum opus changes my core opinion. He’s got a gift for glib writing, the prose analogue to your easy-listening adult classics. But in any attempt to sustain prose over the long haul…the cracks show.
Exhibit A. The first two sentences of work:
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.”
I’m sorry, but what tin ear, what grudge against English prosody, allowed these clunkers to pass? That’s the barker at the door, the first words one encounters while deciding whether to commit precious hours of one’s life into David Brooks’ care! Such blunt repetition, the rhythmic fail of the second sentence, the parody of explanation — “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé” — forsooth! I never would have guessed! Even if Brooks didn’t mind such clumsiness, where in the name of all that’s pasta was his editor?
Trivial, I know, and I’m hardly a without prose sins of my own to regret. But as I read reviews that praise Brooks depth or countercultural mastery, it’s worth remembering passages like this one. Brooks is not a great writer, and the reason isn’t that he can’t manipulate words well when he pays attention. He clearly can. Rather, it’s that such hack writing hints at the hack thinker putting cursor to phosphor. Expressing bad thoughts clearly exposes their flaws…which can and hence must be elided in a fog of mediocre prose. As here you see.
Bonus reading, which has the added benefit of showing what happens when villagers (even genuinely capable ones) review fellow villagers. See, for example, Pico Iyer in last Sunday’s New York Times book review:
For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).
Umm. Iyer sees in that “Philosophy is likely to be…” a stunning epiphany, a sentence that puts mere piety to shame. I see a nearly content-free assertion that undercuts itself by word three. Seasoned Brooks’ readers will recognize the gambit: in order to justify one of his famous and very often risible claimed dichotomies (resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues) he must impose his judgment on possible contradicting authorities. Here, philosphy is drained of potency as it fights on the dubious ground of half-truths. And just in case anyone calls him on it — this magisteral dictum is only “likely” — thus granting Brooks his ex cathdra authority while insulating him, just a bit, from any instance of reality failing to acknowledge his infallibility.
In other words: this is pure Brooks, a seemingly epigrammatic heap of nonsense, structured to give him both the appearance of gnomic wisdom and plausible deniability. And this his exceptionally friendly critic sees as masterful.
We need a new culture.
*I can make one prediction with a fair degree of confidence. Shameless self-promotion to come much closer to the day.
Image: John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1820-1821.
We need a smaller boat–and to heave david brooks overboard so the sharks can have him.
If Brooks wasn’t allowed to use weasel words, he’d have a hard time finishing a clause.
Iyer’s review is content free. If you’ve seen Next Stop Wonderland, you have to remember the scene where Erin realizes that Alan might not be as shallow as the suits that have been pursuing her:
Iyer, of course, gets it wrong.
There’s a lot of failed technique in Brooks’ writing, and it’s good to make fun of it– but the flailing technique masks a deeper problem. Brooks sets out to demonstrate that it’s possible to be a high-minded and thoughtful conservative. He sets out on this project, he tries, and he fails. And… there’s a reason for his failure.
@MattF: You are onto something. It’s analagous to those praising Rubio as a serious, thoughtful policy thinker. It’s only possible to think so in the company he keeps. Ditto Brooks.
@MattF: Brooks sets out to demonstrate that it’s possible to be a high-minded and thoughtful conservative. He sets out on this project, he tries, and he fails. And… there’s a reason for his failure.
Like an easter peep that sets out to be wholesome, healthy and nutritious?
@MattF: very well put.
Friends don’t let friends read David Brooks.
And I think it’s a personal failure. It is possible to be a high-minded, thoughtful conservative, or at least to write high-minded, thoughtful arguments in favor of conservative positions. Daniel Larison is a popular example of how this can be done. It’s just that you have to limit yourself to the very narrow range of topics where conservatives have something worthwhile to say.
Chinese fortune cookies with colons and semicolons for roughage.
Yeah, this post is definitely missing the “I Read These Morons So You Don’t Have To” category, though you could argue that anything having to do with David Brooks belongs as a subcategory.
The Pachabel of Pundits?
I’ve had my stuff changed by editors, but I am low on the food chain. How does it work for someone like Brooks? Are editors afraid to make too many marks on his page, for fear of their bosses being complained to?
@Germy Shoemangler: That made me laugh.
1. If David Brooks meant what he purports to say, he should write but not publish the book. (humility vs pride).
2. I suspect that he admits to generalized, but no specific failings (I am not planning on reading it to find out). I think it is in the Driftglass post on David Brooks
being brought up short by a questioner asking what he thinks of ridiculing Iraq war dissenters, that Brooks does not come out well.
3. (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”) Is Brooks, who was raised Jewish, about to convert, already converted?
I would really want to add an ‘if’ to that statement.
@Porco Rosso: You try writing something that is played millions of times a day, 400 years later.
I bet Brooks will suffer in the comparison – I hope that readers 400 years from now will not.
@JPL: I try to stay lighthearted when it comes to Brooks but I have changed, and will change again, the channel when his face appears on our tv.
Bobo rules The New York Times most emailed stories over the previous 30 days list. #1. Le sigh. FWIW, #2 is “The Look of Love is in the Dog’s Eyes”, and, between you and me, I’d look there for more profound observations.
Anyway, The Moral Bucket List. Before I excerpt, let me tell you that a friend who is not political at all read this one and said it was all over the map. (“He didn’t prove his case.”)
And now, what Times readers are emailing back and forth, frantically:
[Problem, of course: they can’t necessarily be monetized.]
Brooks then blathers along about Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, and Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor. Shining examples, all.
And this reader wonders: could any of these people belong to the modern Republican party, as it is?
Brooks may have to start hanging with a better class of people.
Very honestly, I see people lit with inner light and love several times each week.
Why doesn’t Brooks?
Another thought: The Bucket List.
Obama’s “rhymes with Bucket List,” from the #hackprom.
Was he riffing off Brooks? Funny.
David Brooks is creating a new religion whose primary purpose is to absolve people like David Brooks of any responsibility for any of the terrible things they say and do.
And he’s getting away with it too.
“Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks” – about as profound as “Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths,” only without the pretension.
Also, after seeing “résumé” three times in the space of less than 20 words – why the hell is there an acute accent over the first ‘e’ of “résumé” ?
In French, the acute accent over the e turns it into an ‘ay’ sort of sound. Which applies to the final e, but not the first one. The two e’s are pronounced quite differently, which shouldn’t be the case if they have the same accent mark.
@low-tech cyclist: Indeed. Meant to point that out as the acme of pretension, but forgot in haste. What a tool!
@Elizabelle: I’ll just highlight a couple of things in the quote:
They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
Didn’t Bill Clinton have the ability to make you think that you were the only person in the room who mattered?
Is Brooks being conned by someone who can fake sincerity ( and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made).
I have gotten the impression Brooks is just going through the motions and not really caring. Recently, he seems to write most about shlock psychology or sociology. The Times needs a higher class of columnists.
@catclub: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Brooks becomes/already is a convert. My guess would be RC.
@low-tech cyclist, @Tom Levenson:
Whether you two like it or not, résumé (with two accents) is not Brooksian pretension but the actual spelling of the word, which is a direct
theftborrowing of the French word meaning “summary.” And it does have two accents in French. Which, of course, you could have checked with five seconds on the Google. But by all means wank on.
Wait, are you saying they aren’t?
@Steeplejack: Two accents, you say?
Uh, does that require an accent too?
But not if enough people read your blog.
@driftglass: I like your new column!
Good to see you here.
Do you ever live in fear Bobo will leave the NYTimes; take his wankery elsewhere?
@Steeplejack: I don’t like it. Humph. I was a C student in French anyway. But you are, alas, correct.
I truly do wonder if some day Brooks will have an epiphany.
Not like I stay up nights wondering, but he seems to draw closer and closer, and then skitters off.
Caught a whiff of “maybe I’ll be one of the shining ones once I’m retired.” But then all his dark arts damage will be done.
Making Republicanism safe for totebaggers. He’s like the anti-Lasik.
@Tom Levenson:@Steeplejack: or should I say, hélas?
Then there is the sleezy hit piece on Hillary Clinton yesterday. Brooks mischaracterizes a Quinnipiac poll that says 54% of people don’t see her as honest or trustworthy, cherry picking the independent voters to claim the number is 61%. He accepts this as proof that Clinton is not trustworthy. He then writes an entire column on how untrustworthy people cannot be effective leaders because modern world/”people with astute moral sentiments have an early warning system” (he actually says that!) / blah blah blah.
Regardless of Clintons moral failings, iffy policies and politics, David Brooks is the last man qualified to talk about it.
(Don’t go there, I get the print addition so I don’t add to Brook’s click count.)
@bcw: This is the third step in the right wing ratf**king waltz: sleazy right wing operative with truth problems writes a bogus book full of innuendo. News pages of seemingly impartial outlets report on the book, because it’s
“out there.” Brooks then takes the implied conclusion and uses it as grist for a “more in sorrow than in anger” ruling against HRC’s presidential legitimacy. From the tinfoil fringes to the heart of “reasonable” political discourse in three easy paces…
Because that’s how it works in French.
Leaving aside the quality of your copy-editors, I am putting aside four dollars each month from now until publication date.
@Tom Levenson: The “Oh no! Hillary is so dishonest” was so patently obvious.
I don’t care if she’s a kleptomaniac in private. Her Democratic policies are going to be far more humane, and grounded in reality, than anything her Republican counterparts would do.
And the counterparts, to a person, would not stand up to close scrutiny. Which is why Brooks never goes there.
If Chauncey Gardiner received a bad head wound he would still best Brooks in a debate.
But would he be more humble?
Tomato, tomáto. All is forgiven.
What did the word ‘virtue’ ever do that allows Brooks to torture it so badly?
Iyer is too polite to come out and directly call Brooks a lazy accuracy-averse self-plagiarist, but he hints at it:
Speaking of lazy self-plagiarism, I’ll recycle a comment from elsewhere:
This would merely be a sad indication of a sealed mental ecology, a Biosphere-II of culture, except that Brooks made up the attribution that he’s copying off his filing-cards now.
Yastreblansky tracked down the actual source of the “joke”. In slightly less flaccid form it was written by Randall Jarrett (1954) and put in the mouth of a character he’d created to satirize bumptious numpties and their superficial, poorly-observed generalisations.
So we’ll have a chance to buy a signed copy of said tome?
These conservative assholes are all trying to be WF Buckley. And none of them are worthy of holding the can of piss Buckley used for ink.
Very honestly, I see people lit with inner light and love several times each week.
Why doesn’t Brooks?
3 Reasons. You hang with decent people. Brooks doesn’t or is by himself. And he doesn’t actually want to see any, anyway as that would upset his entire concept of life. He’s heard tell of this creature that he wouldn’t recognize if it kicked him in the groin, which of course a person with love and light would only do if they had to be around him for longer than 15 minutes.