The Missing Fifth (of David Brooks’s Brain): David Brooks Is an Idiot, Part I
“About 2,310 results for ‘I respect David Brooks’”
“About 7,360 results for ‘David Brooks is an idiot’”
David Brooks is an idiot. His writing is terrible, and his “ideas” (insofar as he has any) are horrible. But analyzing the badness of David Brooks is a tricky proposition. There are three reasons why. First, because it’s been done before. Unlike such previous targets of my blog as Pamela Paul, Neil Ganzlinger and Philip Galanes whose writings are simply ignored by most readers with normal-range cognitive abilities, Brooks is often actively denounced by serious thinkers. His work, while no more thoughtful, logical or well-informed than that of the average Styles-section celebrity profile hack, nonetheless draws many times more commentary and debate simply because it appears in the Opinion section. However copious his lies, evasions and self-serving half-truths, political bloggers debunk them as soon as they appear.
Despite his cushy spot on the back page of the “A” section, David Brooks isn’t just interested in slamming Obama’s foreign policy and defending the Bush tax cuts. Brooks is just as eager to torment his readers with vague, knee-jerk reactions to movies, technology, sexuality, fashion trends, and philosophy. Indeed, that’s the second reason why the Brooks oeuvre is so hard to take. It encapsulates everything that’s bad about bad NYT writing: Pop-culture references that don’t make sense, high-culture references deployed to no purpose, sexism disguised as high-mindedness, fear of sex, ambivalent fascination with technology, unthinking science worship, and ignorance of history, all encased in a veneer of moderation and likeableness
But some people must like his forays into film review and cultural satire. And indeed, some people do — just look at his Facebook page or the sales figures for his dumbass books. The veneer of likeableness is working. In fact, that’s the third reason that Brooks is so difficult to write about. The reasons why he’s horrible are indistinguishable from the reasons why he’s admired and praised. He’s the go-to conservative for liberals who want to feel open-minded, the guy they can “respect” for his apparent intelligence and moderation.
What he offers are the same talking points most other conservatives spout (cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting social programs for the poor, old-fashioned family values because the new ones make you feel kinda weird). But he wants you to think he came to these conclusions all by himself, through pure logic. So: Every column considers the liberal point of view, then reluctantly concludes that it’s wrong (and laughably soft-headed) yet again. Every column contains watered-down criticisms of the Republican party, thus showing that he’s willing to criticize the Republicans, even though they’re on the right side of every major issue. Every column contains allusions to important-sounding authors and philosophical concepts, which grant an air of learning to his Limbaugh-isms and demonstrates that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn’t understand federalism/the Enlightenment/cognitive science/whatever. Most importantly, Brooks doesn’t come right out and say anything that would grate upon the ear of the affluent Beltway insiders who read Brooks’ column and attend Brooks’s cocktail parties. So his points are garbled, vague, and written in a kind of pundit-ese that prevents Brooks from offending subscribers and from making a coherent point alike.
The Times, the Atlantic, and (alas) even the New Yorker may be fooled by this sort of thing, but I’m not. I can see through him. Below, I’ll go through a recent Brooks piece and translate it into regular human words.
“The Missing Fifth” concerns a crisis affecting America’s job market and causing untold suffering to thousands — of business owners! They can’t find anyone to work at their companies, because the government keeps giving everyone free money to stay home in bed. That’s the basic idea of this piece, but let’s take a look at the details.
“In 1910, Henry Van Dyke wrote a book called ‘The Spirit of America,’ which opened with this sentence: ‘The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.’” Who’s Henry Van Dyke? Is he an important figure in intellectual history, and on what did he base his conclusions? Why should we listen to NO TIME FOR THAT NOW! David Brooks has read a book, it’s from the past and written by a person who, based on his name, is a white dude. It’s probably a classic of the Western canon. You probably can’t even read! While David Brooks was reading a book, you were out getting jailhouse tattoos, listening to Insane Clown Posse, drinking Four Loko, huffing ether from a jar, pissing on the lawn, shooting at a lawnmower with an assault rifle, and recklessly conflating “democracy” with “republicanism” in your understanding of America’s founding institutions. David Brooks knows that about you. That’s the sort of person you are, if you disagree with him.
Okay, I just looked up The Spirit of America. The quote Brooks cites doesn’t appear until page 113, the opening of Chapter 4. Maybe when Brooks said the book “opens” with that sentence, he meant that one of the middle parts of the book opens with that sentence. I know when I read a book, I like to skip right to Chapter 4, where the meat is. The first three chapters are usually just filler anyway. (He totally didn’t read the book.)
“This has always been true.” Your method of proving something has always been true is to just tell us it “has always been true”? You shouldn’t be writing for the New York Times, you should be getting a C Minus on your first freshman English paper. Anyway, the argument here is: One writer says Americans are energetic; because that was considered true one hundred years ago, its has always been true; because it was considered true, it must be true; because it’s true, it’s the right way for things to be. That seems like an awfully tenuous intellectual edifice to build, based on one quote from a book nobody’s ever read.
“Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism.” We have? I thought we had always been known for our passionate, sensual natures, love of wine, high fashion and existentialism, and penchant for debating philosophy. No wait, that’s the French. Hang on a second… haven’t we always been known known for our huge wigs, flamboyant attire, transgressive, gender-bending personae, and double-entendre-laden public performances? No, that’s drag queens. Well, fuck! I wish you got to pick your country’s ultimate unchanging essence, instead of just being stuck with one. “Manic dynamism” doesn’t even sound cute. We sound like a bunch of methheads at a Marketing Strategy Optimization seminar.
“Energy has always been the country’s saving feature. “ Fuck, again. I though our saving features were democracy and the Bill of Rights and shit. Now I find out it’s people’s willingness to stand up, walk around, and perform actions — any actions at all? I’m moving to Jamaica.
“Thus, Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious.” Even if you accept the freakishly deformed syllogism with which Brooks opened, that doesn’t make any sense. If we started out more vital and industrious, shouldn’t we need to be less alert to declining levels of vitality? We could lose, like, 78 percent of our industriousness, and we’d still be better off than Greece or Italy. They’re the ones who should be “especially alert”! Ba-zang!
“In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.” They went from “manic dynamism” to not even getting up? They sound bipolar. Maybe in they’re just in a depressive phase right now. The good news is, they’re going to feel great when they swing back the other way in 55 years. All staying up until 4 in the morning, scrubbing their apartment with a toothbrush, going on $5000 Ebay shopping sprees, drunk-texting their resume to all their LinkedIn contacts, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure just for the hell of it. Forget about a “missing fifth,” it’s going to be more like a missing gallon of vodka! The U.S. economy is going to be off the chain!
But Brooks isn’t concerned with these men’s mental health problems. He’s also not concerned with other reasons for not having a job, such as being a full-time dad or not being able to find a job. No, he’s got his eye on a different reason for slacking off: disabilities. “The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.”
Brooks The American taxpayer is being forced to give his money away to a bunch of layabouts whose legs, arms or spines aren’t appropriatedly dynamic.
“Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.” “Emotional skills?” Are we hiring them to talk about their feelings? If we were hiring men based on their emotional skills, a hundred percent of them would be unemployed — amirite, ladies?! JUST KIDDING.
“There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.” “Structural, not cyclical” means the jobs they used to do welding cars or building railroads or whatever have disappeared. The “cycle” (recession) isn’t to blame, so everyone should shut up about fruity liberal stuff like stimulating the economy and creating jobs. It sounds counterintuitive if you say it like that, though. That’s why Brooks has fancied it up with the phrase “structural, not cyclical,” which sounds like a classical epigram or something. It’s like the “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” of trickle-down economics.
“Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have… not been generating more jobs.” Hey wait a minute, why are we talking about job skills and college degrees, when this article started out pinning the blame on disabled people? I don’t think David Brooks knows what a disability is. David Brooks thinks “disabled” means the head businessman of big company calls you up and says “Hello, sir, I’d like to offer you a prestigious job,” and you’re like “I’m sorry, I’m ‘not able’ to come in to work, because I’m too tired to get out of bed, plus I don’t have a college degree!” And that’s how you get on disability! No wonder he’s sick of giving them money!
“These men will find it hard to attract spouses.” Men only “attract spouses” by being rich and powerful. David Brooks must have learned that by reading his half-assed book that he based on a bunch of half-assed evo-psych articles. More on that in my next post. Anyway, I think if these guys are really having difficulty attracting “spouses,” they should be like “baby, my disability may be costing your household $1500 a year, but I’ve got manic dynamism in my pants! My tool is at its prime working age! Wanna help me find my missing fifteen inches? We’re all vital and industrious when you turn out the lights!”
“It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.” This sentence shows that Brooks is fair and balanced, because he says one bad thing about the Republicans for every bad thing he says about the Democrats. But he always uses a worse verb or adjective for the Democrats. Like, they’re always “navel-gazing” or “hand-wringing” or being “pedantic” or “elitist” or, in this case, “fantasizing.” Yeah, I really wish the left would stop “fantasizing” about stimulating the economy, what a bunch of escapists. Why can’t they see that this job shortage isn’t cyclical, like a menstrual cycle? The economy is nothing like a menstrual cycle! It’s “systematic,” like a manly pair of testicles! Or something.
More about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” “If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.” This means David Brooks wants to take away people’s unemployment and disability benefits, and give them a case of Five-Hour Energy. Problem solved!
“Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining.” It might be used to instigate dynamism?!?! Here I’ve been pissing away all my discretionary income on exacerbating ebullience. Of course, the liberals probably want to spend it on optimizing amelioration, those hippies.
“Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding.” This is the second time he’s mentioned “comfort.” I think “comfort” means food, shelter and medical care. Fuckin’ disabled people, unemployed people and (apparently now) retirees! Always wanting to be coddled with the basic necessities of human survival! “Ya know, when I get down in the dumps, the one thing that cheers me up is putting on my sweats, sitting down in front of House reruns, maintaining sufficient caloric intake to sustain life, and not going blind from macular degeneration!”
“Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.” “Demagogic” means means it’s not fair that one of the Democrats’ policies is popular, and they’re talking about it. Also, they didn’t make up obfuscatory new jargon to describe it. For instance, “premium support ideas” isn’t demagogic, because no one could figure out what it means in a million years. “Overdrive” means bitching about something one tenth as much as Republican politicians bitch about abortion, gay people, or the Ten Commandments. Anyway, when I think of “demagogic overdrive,” I think of like, ancient Athens, and politicians goading people into starting wars with Sparta and putting people to death and stuff. “Privatization” might be the most abstract concept about which the masses have ever been whipped into a frenzy.
Brooks goes on about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” He asks, “should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?” That means if we give money to losers, we’res loser too. But if we spend money on nebulous concepts,
our great nation David Brooks’s penis will rise, because abstraction gives him a boner.
Let’s be honest: I don’t care what Brooks proposes to do about this vaguely-defined, ever-shifting network of problems. No one does. The function of a Brooks editorial is to sound erudite and intellectually valid, without alarming anyone the way the fruits of actual erudition might do. It’s a branding exercise. Its purpose is to sell the idea of Brooks as a balanced, moderate conservative. Like most branding efforts, it is vapid. Nothing in a Brooks column will ever be really new, but nothing will ever be down-to-earth and commonsensical, either. Brooks may be employed — indeed, overemployed, with jobs at the Times, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and more — but his lack of interest in real people and reliance on high-flown abstractions means that he’s the one who lacks dynamism, energy and vitality.
In part II of my Brooks series, the top 10 worst David Brooks columns! And coming up soon, why do Manohla Dargis’s sentences read like they were badly translated from Old Norse?