Friday, January 14, 2011

An Immodest Response

I guess I was not as impressed by David Brooks's column today as some others were (judging by the Most Emailed list, the Facebook share widget, etc). I applaud the overall emotion, that this is a more complicated world than any one of us will ever figure out completely, and so it behooves us all to be aware that we have limitations and to be open to others correcting us, but I don't think he supported his argument very well.

While it's nice for Brooks to include himself among the limited creatures of whom he speaks ("Every column … has its own humiliating shortcomings."), it hardly changes the reality that he is very well paid to pronounce upon whatever he feels like, including, most frequently and most annoyingly, What's Wrong With Society Today. As Mr. Riley has observed from time to time, Brooks chronically comes off as being unable to see history except as a span of time that began with his getting noticed by Bill Buckley (for being a self-described know-it-all punk, mind), peaked at Reagan's Inauguration, and has been declining ever since. Further, he habitually asserts his feelings as objective truths, and the narrowness of his perspective -- even as he criticizes others for being trapped in various bubbles -- is often nothing short of comical. Applebee's salad bar, anyone?

I grant that he has to fit his ideas into spaces with strict word or time limits, and of course I acknowledge that opinionators do not thrive, especially in today's media marketplace, unless they express themselves forcefully, but still, it's a little rich to hear David Brooks of all people telling us The Real Problem In Society Today is the loss of modesty.

There's are some other problems with that claim, too. First, it's beyond a cliché to complain about people being overly impressed with themselves or unduly self-promotional, particularly as this is supposed to be something new. I started hearing this, in torrents, at least as far back as the launch of GeoCities and the coining of the word blog. And I'm pretty sure it didn't start there. I remember the tsking about the Me Generation of the '80s and the scolding about the '60s mantra Do Your Own Thing, and while I don't have labels handy for previous generations, I'd bet tall dollars there was grousing of this sort going back as far as you'd care to look. For one thing, I seem to remember reading plenty about hand-wringing concerning that Gutenberg guy, and how awful this was going to be, now that every slob was going to be able to print out his thoughts. And for another, literacy itself has often been viewed with suspicion. By the powers that be or were, regarding their own oppressed populations and the horror that they might read and form their own opinions.

Second, Brooks's attempt to illustrate with examples, as always, inclines one to think immediately of how many exceptions there are.

Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

We are not here to pile on Joltin' Joe, but let's just say that (a) Brooks evidently has not read Richard Ben Cramer's fine biography, especially the part about the contract rider at autograph shows, (b) appears not to have heard of Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, Pete Rose, Babe Ruth, or Ted Williams, or to touch on other sports, Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlain, or Muhammad Ali, (c) suffers from extreme confirmation bias and/or only watches highlight shows instead of actual games, and (d) has forgotten about an actual new look-at-me! tic which is far more prevalent and annoying, and catnip for the replay directors: giving it up to God after every bloop single.

Anyway, who cares whether someone is being a blowhard or has an inflated ego? Ultimately, we'll judge his or her ideas, and the manner in which they're presented, same as we always have. Society is wonderfully self-regulating that way. We don't need David Brooks to wag his finger for us; most of us have ten of our own.

As for Brooks's lamentations about civility, I'll give him a little credit, because his blinders notwithstanding, his lips are not perennially foam-flecked, but then I'll take it right back, because he has either forgotten or will never admit what his colleague said, today, right next to him on the very same page.


[Added] Mr. Riley has also read this Brooks column. Probably I should just have waited for that.

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