Wednesday, October 8, 2008

David Brooks's Identity Crisis.

Poor David Brooks. Over the past few months, he's gone from being the conservative darling Liberals loved to just another spineless Republican drone. I was first introduced to the guy in my sociology classes in college. He wrote a brilliant book called "Bobos in Paradise" about the culture of the new upper (and, I would argue, upper-middle) class. With biting social commentary, he so aptly described the Yuppie's successor: the bohemian bourgeois, or Bobo.

These Bobos don't want mass-produced objects. No, they want authenticity and originality. They want to support small businesses and social consciousness, just like the good old days, the days before everyone outfitted their houses in the same mass-produced Pottery Barn furniture. But being authentic and original and sustainable requires spending thousands importing, for example, a couch from Helsinki that's been crafted from vintage fabrics and clawfoot bathtubs. Living in a multiple-thousand-dollar-rent studio in a recently-gentrified warehouse. And eating simply and naturally, like the peasants did, with outrageously expensive free-range, grass-fed, organic, preservative-free ingredients. It's all about getting back to authenticity and simplicity, you see. It's a reaction against faceless corporate America. A very expensive reaction.

I was so smitten by his writing. Who among us hasn't bought into this mentality, this reaction against materialism that ironically requires MORE materialism? It was so astute.

When I found out that my dear Brooks, social commentator extraordinaire, was a conservative, I was a bit taken aback. He must be more of a libertarian, I assured myself. A fiscal conservative who has no opinion about social issues but isn't really committed to fighting for them, either. It turns out, he's a bit more Republican than that. He's no bible-thumper, but he's the type that advocates abstinence sex ed because of the utility of a two-parent household. His positions were disappointing but fairly logical, so it was okay.

This past election cycle, though, something happened to Brooks. Despite the political landscape, he remained quiet. Obedient. Complacent. For such an intellectual, he said little on Palin's ineptitude or disparaging remarks on intellectualism. Say whaaaaat? Brooksy, how could you sit and take that?

I know there are lots of smart conservatives. It's good to have a wide range of viewpoints out there. I disagree with these people, but at least I can talk to them. We share the goal of using rationality to guide our principles. Can you believe that the Republican party used to consist of these people? Now, it's been overthrown by folksy types who like Palin "cause she's a mom! She's just like me! Who needs experience?", and it's driving me insane.

I guess it finally drove Brooks insane, too. He's been acting erratic. Just last week, he was practically slobbering at the mouth after Palin's debate performance. He found her mediocrity brilliant. I was appalled. I was ready to give him the boot. But on Monday, he showed promise, hopefully for good. He finally said something contrary.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Brooks called Palin and what she represents, this anti-intellectualism movement, a "cancer to the Republican party". Here's the exact quote:
When I first started in journalism, I worked at the National Review for [William F.] Buckley. And Buckley famously said he'd rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. But he didn't think those were the only two options. He thought it was important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas, who celebrated learning. And his whole life was based on that, and that was also true for a lot of the other conservatives in the Reagan era. Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I'm afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.

Don't get me wrong, Brooks was also quick to defend McCain, even though McCain is the one who gave us Palin. Brooks actually praised both presidential candidates (even though he eventually said he found Obama to be a mediocre senator). But his greatest moment came when telling these stories about how Obama has "dazzled him":
Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I'm getting nowhere with the interview, it's late in the night, he's on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he's cranky. Out of the blue I say, 'Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?' And he says, 'Yeah.' So i say, 'What did Niebuhr mean to you?' For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.

And the other thing that does separate Obama from just a pure intellectual: he has tremendous powers of social perception. And this is why he's a politician, not an academic. A couple of years ago, I was writing columns attacking the Republican congress for spending too much money. And I throw in a few sentences attacking the Democrats to make myself feel better. And one morning I get an email from Obama saying, 'David, if you wanna attack us, fine, but you're only throwing in those sentences to make yourself feel better.' And it was a perfect description of what was going through my mind. And everybody who knows Obama all have these stories to tell about his capacity for social perception.

Doesn't that sound like glowing approval to you? It makes me giddy to read these stories. Regardless of whether Brooks agrees with Obama's policies, it's so nice that he's finally admitting to Obama's aptitude. I don't agree with McCain on practically anything, but I won't deny that he's as able as any other presidential candidate we've had. It's the validation I've been waiting, EXPECTING, to hear from my favorite Republican. Because, as an intellectual, it shouldn't come as a surprise to hear Brooks is no fan of Palin. As he mentioned above, he was mentored by and worked for William F. Buckley, a great intellectual conservative. In these past few months, I didn't know what had happened. Brooks had lost himself and my respect in refusing to acknowledge the danger of Palin. He finally seems back on his game, though conflicted with this election. I don't envy him. What does the smart, small-government conservative do when his party instead preaches anti-intellectual populism?

Here's hoping he doesn't revert back to complacency. Cause Brooksy, you might just win us back.


SOTTO said...

I just came across that same piece today and was going to email you about it.

picnic said...

Fantastic entry.


Michael said...

Really enjoyed this post!