David Brooks, the ubiquitous political commentator, gave a fluid talk at Princeton University this past Monday evening, as the audience overflowed beyond the paneled confines of McCosh 50 into another room, and another room beyond that. On Public Broadcasting's News Hour, NPR's All Things Considered, the NY Times opinion page, and no doubt many other venues I'm not aware of, he plays the role of a moderately conservative commentator in an age when we see our politicians mostly through the filter of the punditocracy. Pundits like Brooks speak or write at length, while the words of our leaders are chopped up and delivered to us in sound bytes, with the exception every fourth year of party conventions and debates, and the annual state of the union address. Even on those occasions when political leaders get a chance to speak to us directly and unabridged, we still need commentators afterwards to tell us what we just heard.
But lest my own punditocratic tendencies obscure completely that of which Mr. Brooks spoke, here is an account:
David Brooks is a scintillating speaker who offers up a rich cuisine of anecdote, insight and perspective, sprinkled with humor and recommendations for books and articles worth reading. In a talk, he reveals aspects of his talent that remain largely hidden in his multimedia opinionating appearances. One witnesses a highly mobile and insatiable intellect that can morph at any moment into stand-up comedy.
Sometimes we found ourselves listening in rapt attention to a speaker telling us how messed up we are, as a nation, as a generation or as individuals. Other times, aware he was speaking to a room largely composed of Democrats, he served as go-between, making us privy to conversations he's had with his Republican friends. Much of what he says comes off as oblique criticism of the Republican Party he is hired to favor. Perhaps he could best be called a liservative or a consiberal, or a consiberal liservative, which when fused forms a consiberaliservative sandwich, in which liberalism is squeezed between two containing slices of conservatism and made visible only where it spills out around the edges.
So, again, let me aim to fend off digressions long enough to speak of what he spoke of:
First came an extended and many-angled comparison between 1950s culture and today. We are now more narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-satisfied, with higher self-esteem and lower achievement in math and science. We are worse followers, more obsessed with consumption and self-realization. There is less self-criticism, which might mean that people more often draw a line between good and evil not internally, through the middle of the self, but externally, as in us vs. them. There is a loss of public identity and public virtue. People live in information cocoons--witness Karl Rove denying the election results in Ohio. This most recent presidential campaign, Brooks said, was the most dishonest he had ever witnessed, and the campaign operatives were fine with that. (He preferred to imply that both sides were equally dishonest, which of course rewards the greater offender and punishes candidates who adhere more closely to truth.)
He made it clear he wasn't suggesting we return to the 1950s, but wanted to point out aspects from that time that had worth. Having become well-known and omnipresent in the political media, he somewhat ironically extols the virtues of the self-effacement common back then.
One thing Brooks would clearly like to bring back, though he won't say it explicitly, is the Republican Party of long ago. Republicans, he observes, "missed the shift" in America--the post 1950s changes in demographics, ethnicities, cultural norms. "The job of a conservative party is to conserve," by which he might mean remain the same in the face of change, though he could have noted that the Republican Party has not really conserved itself, but instead shifted dramatically in recent decades to embrace its more radical elements.
Many Republicans, he reports, wanted to quit Norquist's no new taxes pledge years ago, but are only now speaking openly about it. That would suggest a Republican Party under siege of its own ideology, its members afraid to speak their own opinions.
He says Republicans equate government action with dependency, while many growing elements of the electorate look at Pell Grants and community colleges as ways to become less dependent. Brooks calls for Republicans to return to a more Hamiltonian tradition in which government gives people the tools to excel. And he seems to empathize with Democrats trying to lead in a time when public virtue is less valued. He praises scientists for an ethos that shuns hasty conclusion and unsupported conviction. Brooks favors a national service requirement, in part because it would bring people of diverse economic and geographic backgrounds together in the service of the country, promoting a sense of shared destiny otherwise experienced only in times of disaster.
He is most optimistic about the judgement and spirit of those 35 and younger. He jokingly gave some credit for that to the parents of the below 35s, thus absolving just about all of us from his critical appraisal earlier in the lecture.
Despite Brooks' agile intellect, he is in some ways trapped, like those Republicans who can't, given the demands of ideological conformity, speak honestly about taxes or climate change. If Brooks wishes for a more honest, public spirited political discourse, then he must speak out directly and forcefully against the more rightwing elements he is employed to side with, rather than couching his criticisms in a "both sides are equally to blame" gauze of mutual culpability.
One could charitably say he is doing the best he can, as a conservative commentator in a time when conservatism, through radical drift and denial of reality, has mostly lost connection to its original meaning. But it's hard to sympathize. Brooks' mental agility can be used just as effectively to obscure truth as to reveal it, as in his Oct. 18 NY Times column's attempt to blame Al Gore for Republicans' refusal to support action against climate change:
"Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The global warming issue became associated with the highly partisan former vice president. Gore mobilized liberals, but, once he became the global warming spokesman, no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive. Any slim chance of building a bipartisan national consensus was gone."
After such a statement, conservatism lies eviscerated on the floor, an empty husk of what once may have been. Conservatism cannot preach personal responsibility while blaming others for its own intellectual cowardice. If climate change is real, and poses a grave risk to the country's future, then you don't sit back and blame one of the messengers for not being more lovable. When the status quo feeds radical changes in climate, attempts to "conserve" the status quo become a form of radicalism.
Like Christie in a talk in the same university lecture hall last year (see related post here), Brooks did not mention climate change.
He ended his talk with a final finale of one liners, worthy of a spot on Letterman's Late Show. During the Q and A, Brooks was accused by a morose-sounding fellow of making false assertions based on misleading interpretations of various studies, including a supposed comparison of American and Chinese values based on what they remember from looking at fish in an aquarium. A debunking can be found here, though Brooks refused to concede any error.
It would be a full time job to correct false impressions created by pundits. Their role is to speak authoritatively about myriad issues--an impossible task. Most lack the scientific training needed to appreciate the urgency of climate change, or to see nature as anything other than a distant backdrop for human drama. In fact, their training is not even considered relevant to whether we should take them seriously or not. Brooks' skill at sounding authoritative places him in high demand, but the more time he spends speaking or cranking out the next column, the less time he has to dig deeper into issues. Like a politician, he risks his living if he admits error or strays too far from his established positions. He can seem like an intellectual globetrotter, summoning whole eras for analysis and comment, and yet he is also trapped, struggling to escape from a box of his own making. Not surprising, then, that he's sounding consiberally more liservative with time.
The talk was a Stafford Little Lecture, part of the fall, 2012 Public Lecture Series