“’David, the question is what are you doing out there?’”
The salient phrase in today’s David Brooks column in The New York Times is, “If we talked as if people had souls.” The central word is “talked.” Almost as important is “we.”
It’s extremely important for a writer hoping to have an impact on culture to do more than write (or talk). The crusader has to live as well—and that means living beyond the confines of academia or, in the case of Brooks, the constrictions of the Washington beltway and the elite (as defined by Charles Murray and Richard Florida). Our convictions should lead us to personal actions in our lives and not simply to talk about them.
For some, they do.
The person who most influenced my own life was the son of a college president and advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. Ernest Morgan could have been part of the elite of the time, but chose differently. He became a printer, a businessman and a writer—in addition to founding a school. He taught me the rudiments of letterpress printing at that school, the Arthur Morgan School (named for his father), in the early 1960s. He was often away, crossing the country in his International Harvester Travelall, visiting bookstores to convince them to accept displays of his Antioch Bookplate Company products. At school, we packed and mailed copies of his little book, A Manual of Simple Burial (which later grew to be Dealing Creatively with Death: A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial). When I last saw Ernest (more than 20 years ago), he was in his mid-80s; he proudly showed me the water-saving and composting toilet he had just installed in his efficient little house on school grounds.
Few of us have the energy, strength or conviction to match Ernest, but he is a model for all of us who want to help change the world for the better. He did not simply talk or write, but lived—and not to be an example but because it was what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. At the same time, he never talked about “we,” but concentrated on what he could do by himself. It was for others to make their own decisions; he never would have fallen into the sanctimony of telling us how we should talk.
This is the problem with this particular Brooks column: He preaches something he does not live. Given his position, he shouldn’t do the former. Given his desire to maintain that position, he cannot do the latter.
Brooks opens the column with trenchant comments about the brouhaha over transgender restrooms but doesn’t seem to realize that his own disconnect between talking and living is part of the reason it gained traction. That is, the “overpoliticized set of gestures designed to push people’s emotional hot buttons” that he bemoans is the direct result of a media concentration on ‘talking heads’ like Brooks at the expense of real examination of American lives—and that comes from a deliberate attempt by the right, one that started on the heels of Goldwater’s epic 1964 fail, to divert American attention to the real issues of the time. Welfare queens, Willie Horton, school choice… the number seems endless. The right, in particular, has whipped people into frenzies over ersatz issues for so long that its leaders now know how to do it in their sleep.
Again, the laws restricting restroom use “are in response to a problem that doesn’t seem to exist.” Right, but, Mr. Brooks, you have been part of a political movement that has been creating such “problems” for decades. It’s a little late to start complaining now when the logical consequences—North Carolina’s HB1 and even the rise of Donald Trump—appear. You write:
For some reason, some defenders of traditional values are addicted to sideshows that end with the whiff of intolerance. At the same time, the larger culture itself has become morally empty, and therefore marked by fragmentation, distrust and powermongering.
It’s not ‘for some reason’ but because it has led to tremendous political power and media attention. That its result is a “morally empty” culture (and, again, the rise of Trump) should be no surprise. And it is not something you are going to be able to change simply by complaining about it and positioning yourself as somehow outside of responsibility.
Brooks, you list four ways in which you say the culture needs changing: 1) reduced emphasis on individualism, 2) attending the moral and not simply the utilitarian, 3) more spiritual and less material, and 4) emotionally intelligent and not simply cognitive. People, especially on the left, have been arguing all of that for years—Ernest, and many like him, lived it. Attention, though, was hijacked by an elite (with our Mr. Brooks being one of the poster children) mesmerized by the media attention it drew (once more, with the logical result, Trump), pushing this long American tradition right out of the contemporary landscape—as far as our media could see, at any rate.
As Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience”: “There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire.” Brooks might want to keep that in mind if he is serious about his desire to turn American culture to another direction.
If he really wants to change things, however, maybe he should first move away from talking and start doing. Then, maybe, “we” will start paying attention.