Tag Archives: david brooks

Good Journalism, 4/19/18

19 Apr

Here is week two in my attempt to collect a smattering of semi-related pieces of good journalism on topics that I think deserve more attention than anything in the regular news cycle.

From Franklin Foer, one of the Atlantic’s most fascinating writers, comes a discussion on the end of reality. It should leave you quite concerned about our virtual future, and the past couple of years show just how much it can threaten a traditional understanding of truth and, yes, reality itself. As a defender of reality, it’s a timely call to arms.

From something called The Educators’ Room, which is dedicated to teachers’ empowerment, here is a list of ten things that teachers today have to deal with that they didn’t ten years ago. The timing here is apt, as I close in on my own 10-year reunion. Sure enough, few to none of these things existed when I walked out of Duluth East ten years ago, and just about all of them leave me saddened or frustrated with the state of education. Some of them key off the concern over virtual lives that comes out of the Foer piece, but others deal with safety, a decline in authority conferred to teachers, and broader social forces that affect home lives. My own profession is often complicit in #10, and while I do think there is very good work being done in better aligning curriculum with realities of a changing economy, whenever I get caught up in these discussions I just want to yell at people to stop and make sure we’re not thinking about education or childhood in a strictly utilitarian way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, both here and in the testing culture the author rightfully decries.

Spinning out of our theme of losing touch with the world around us, here is David Brooks on loneliness. From my own travels and observations, I would wholeheartedly concur that this epidemic is as dangerous as any afflicting contemporary American life. One line sums it up well: “the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.” We will either find some way to heal these wounds or we will continue to crumble away from reality.

Next, some notes on the political journey of a man who, while facing long odds, had as good a chance as anyone to heal the wounds of a fractured nation: RFK goes to Pine Ridge. There have been some timely RFK reflections of late, including a number on the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I expect they will continue as we close in on the anniversary of his death. I’m not sure there’s a more haunting figure in American history.

Following up on last week’s theme, but closer to home: Jana Hollingsworth and Brooks Johnson at the Duluth News Tribune delve into a sexual abuse case in Itasca County. One can certainly throw some stones at local papers like the News Tribune, but something I’ve noticed in recent travels to smaller communities is the hole left by the decline of newspapers as a communal source of knowledge. Once upon a time, these places had a common source of information; nowadays, ask a resident where to catch up on local happenings and many of them will shrug, or admit they’re relying on Facebook gossip (which many hate but can’t escape) or just the good old rumor mill at the coffee shop or bar. Institutions like newspapers play a vital role. And I’m pleased to say that the DNT reporters who I’ve interacted with in recent years, which include Jana and Brooks, along with Peter Passi on local government and Louie St. George on hockey, are all in it for the right reasons, and do great work. May they continue to have the resources to do more of this.

And, staying local for my final piece, here’s an obituary that caught my eye this week. Mary C. Van Evera is a name I’ve heard around Duluth from time to time, usually as a donor somewhere in the background. I often wonder who these people are, and how they amassed their wealth, and what spurred them to grace certain causes with their patronage. With Mrs. Van Evera, it’s obvious enough: her maiden name was Congdon, and she was a granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon, the builders of Glensheen and the exemplars of Duluth’s golden age a century ago. Obviously few to zero people reading this blog will have Congdon-level wealth, and I can’t claim to have known her or how she operated. But when it came to civic involvement, and to commitment to a place while maintaining a global perspective, Mrs. Van Evera was exemplary.

I’m building some steam here. Let’s do this again next week.

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A Bunch of Good Journalism, 4/11/18

11 Apr

I’ve been reading a lot of random stuff this week. Here are links to some of it.

In my dreams this might become a weekly or semi-weekly feature, though that also requires me to read and collect enough interesting things over the course of a week, and these things will need to be linkable from a blog. (My book-reading goes in fits and burst these days, as I sometimes spend days buried in print, and then lapse into weeks of nothing but articles on the screen, or in print editions of magazines.) I’ll do my best to collect a wide range of thought on timely topics, though I make no claim that they will aspire to some sort of balance, and much good writing is not necessarily timely (or always is). I will even resist the urge to take potshots at Mark Zuckerberg as part of this, even though this week’s events have teed me up there. The intent is really just to collect good, thoughtful journalism.

No, instead of any take on Facebook, I’ll direct readers to the most jarring thing to hit the presses this week: Junot Diaz’s confessional on the abuse he endured as a child, and how it left him sexually broken for years and years thereafter. It’s a searing take on how trauma can linger, and is a valuable window into human brokenness and sympathy, which can be all too rare in highly charged times. It deserves to be read a billion times more than the latest piece on why Donald Trump is destroying America/is its savior.

Sticking with the New Yorker, we come to Vinson Cunningham’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, which is a critique of the direction of the Catholic faith under Pope Francis. The review is one of the most clear-eyed takes on Catholicism in recent popular press, and engages the Church as the complicated institution that it is, instead of trying to cram a take on the church into a liberal or conservative worldview. (I’m not Catholic, but I dabble in Catholic circles more than anywhere else.) Cunningham seems to share my appreciation of Douthat, who is a master of poking holes into liberal orthodoxy and making people think, while also delivering valuable critiques to his book within a historical context. The concluding stab pairs nicely with Diaz’s piece, and points to something that turns off at least one person with some curiosity about the Church far more than any doctrinal debate ever could.

Okay, fine, I’ll find one article about Trump: David Brooks, another member of the Times‘s Endangered Conservatives Club, speaks to the failures of  Never Trumpism in his Tuesday column. I’ve defended David in the past and have him to thank for a supporting role in my drift into my current career trajectory, but have found him a frustrating columnist in the Trump Era. He’s at his best when doing pop sociology and reviewing others’ scholarly work, not when he’s trying to mount a defense of a mushy view of the American republic from his privileged throne. (He said he was going to make a better effort to understand his country post-election, but evidence of any such effort is pretty thin.) This time around, though, he’s exactly on point as to why the forces arrayed against Trump, whether on the left or conservative critics such as himself, have failed, and will continue to fail unless they change tack.

Or maybe the issue is just baked into the media. Over at The American Conservative, Telly Davidson provides a take on a dust-up over Kevin Williamson, the National Review writer who was hired by the Atlantic for a hot second before the Atlantic got cold feet over his comments on. Williamson is a firebrand who likes to unsettle people; I quoted the piece that put him on my radar when he took a conservative angle to blast the working class white people who became a focal point among the chattering classes during the 2016 election season. I’m ambivalent on all of this; my instinct is usually to appreciate a skilled writer who brings an original perspective, yet I’m also not really a fan of Williamson’s level of bombast, and while the Atlantic‘s waffling elicits an eye roll, he largely dug his own grave. But, whatever one thinks of Williamson’s current employment status, Davidson is on to something in discussing the broader media environment in the time of clickbait. It’s broad brush writing, and there are obvious exceptions, but it’s also a very fair diagnosis of an industry that deserves much of the criticism it has merited in recent years. So quit reading all that junk and stick to intellectually curious blogs.

Lest we get down on journalism, though, here’s Roger Cohen from a couple of weeks ago, writing beautifully about the importance of his craft. I make no claim to being a journalist, but it does get at why I write, and is a reminder of how a lifetime of observing can burst forth in a few moments of clarity that, with any luck, will mean something to someone, somewhere. We’re drowning in supposed journalism today, but a few pieces really do pierce through the endless news cycle and the default cynicism that seems to pervade an era. May we continue to find those pieces, whether in the Times or some local rag, and share them as widely as we can.

On Public Intellectuals

23 Aug

Once upon a time, or so the tales go, a group of people stood astride the world, casting about learned opinions to large audiences. These people were known as public intellectuals, and while they were often academics or writers or somehow involved in political affairs, they often defied categories and showed impressive range. People who like to see grand debates instead of people yelling past each other on the television networks will lament these lost days of yore, back when these learned men and women (mostly men, but sometimes women) offered reliable voices of authority, or at least a formidable argument. From Sartre to Milton Friedman, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Vaclav Havel, from Gore Vidal to Bill Buckley, to some of my old favorites like Octavio Paz and Hannah Arendt, these people shaped the thoughts of nations in the 20th century.

Such debates never capture the national imagination anymore, and while we could point to a few people on the New York Times editorial page and other such venues that have some claim to the title, no one has the reach of those in earlier eras. This isn’t because intellectuals have stopped intellectualizing; I could do a quick search and find a few billion videos of people blathering about topics of their choice, but very few rise above the din. The sheer power and authority of those old figures doesn’t hold up well in an age where everyone has an opinion on everything.

A couple of things happened. The walls of old media came crashing down, and a couple of TV networks and newspapers no longer set the terms for polite debate. Anyone with a keyboard or a camera can now take a stand. Academia deserves some of the blame, too: universities have grown more and more specialized, and a publish-or-perish culture forces academics to churn out an endless heap of articles on obscure topics in even more obscure journals that will never gain any broader purchase. This siloed thinking has inevitably led to more clouded language and at times reinforced a sense that the academy is a cloister where people can go earn salaries to pump out inane thoughts rather than engage with the world beyond ivy-covered walls. Relatively few scholars manage the range necessary to sound intelligent in a wide variety of fields, and to weave together literature and politics and moral philosophy in a satisfying way.

Or so some would have you believe: I always try to stay skeptical of tales of decline and woe. We remember the handful of brilliant mid-century thinkers whose reputations deserve to endure, for good or ill; all the middling thinkers of that era have drifted away, and in twenty years, maybe we’ll be able to look back on the early 2000s and identify a few people whose ideas on what was going on were sharper than most. And some of those past intellectuals were so colossally wrong that their bloody legacy lives on today. David Brooks (who has to rank among the top handful of people with a contemporary claim to the title) diagnosed the shift away from public intellectualism in a sympathetic but hardly uncritical column earlier this year: we live in an era of thought leaders who offer quick TED talk pitches, not intellectuals laboring to understand the world through a distinct moral lens.

Every now and then, though, some people try to follow the exact road prescribed by Brooks. Take the boys at American Affairs, a journal that is the second generation effort of some men (here, basically all men) who are trying to put some intellectual meat on the bones of Donald Trump’s presidency. Obviously, a lot of people (including a fairly large class of conservative intellectuals that includes David Brooks) are not fans of what they’re trying to do for conservatism or American politics more broadly, but when the journal appeared, a little part of me was kind of pleased to see that a handful of people with big ideas can still jump into the fray and broadcast their opinions like that. Even wholehearted critics of their project can acknowledge that they probably had a much better handle a broad swath of America than their more established fellows in the intelligentsia.*

But to what end? To their considerable credit, the American Affairs founders recently invited Anne-Marie Slaughter, an Obama-era State Department official and no one’s definition of a Trumpista, to comment on the content of their first two issues. She did so, and with devastating effect. She approaches the journal authors’ efforts in good faith while at the same time skewering them for their narrow thinking as they claim to reinvent American politics. She challenges them to either reflect the country they purport to speak for or make peace with being a mouthpiece for Trump’s 2016 electoral coalition, and no more. They risk either becoming just another grumpy group of self-righteous thinkers in that cottage industry of well-written and narrowly-read journals of political thought consigned to be a footnote in a David Brooks column.

This is the point at which I make a self-serving confession: as someone who has long had vague pretensions in this realm, the direction of Slaughter’s attack is reassuring. I turned my back on Washington think tanks and instead went to work back home, but (as if this blog wasn’t obvious enough proof) I won’t pretend to have abandoned my desire to hold court on issues great and small. Getting there, however, won’t come from burying myself in intellectual circles or typing out thoughts late into the night that I then blast out into cyberspace. It won’t come from hammering on certain principles over and over again, hoping that this time someone will listen. It will come from practicing politics in the old sense of the word: trying new things in concert with other people, honestly assessing one’s efforts, and being willing to say that my experience to date does not make me some sort of authority. Sure, I have ideas on how to do things based on a very wide range of reading and an increasing amount of practice, but I recognize that I need more than that to move any sort of needle.

This requires patience. This requires tact. While there are certain circles in which I’m happy to launch into a debate on Aristotle or John Locke, I’m not going to force them on any unsuspecting victims. It requires translating messages for a bunch of different audiences, not because the plebes can’t handle intelligent thought but because no two people see the world in the same way. Knowing one’s classics or cutting-edge scholars or being able to construct abstract theories are signs of intelligence, not wisdom, and divorced of some understanding of human politics in all its gritty flaws, the best-laid theories and plans are all for naught.

The best of the public intellectuals I mentioned at the top of this post were highly self-critical, always revisiting old thoughts and willing to admit mistakes. This is a lifelong project, and one that may never really end. I can’t say that my plan for my own little pulpit is fully formulated yet, but I’m okay with that, and I have some idea of how to get to where I want to go, and why it is I’m going there. For now, that’s enough.

 

*One of the founders of American Affairs, Julius Krein, disavowed Trump in a widely circulated New York Times column last week. Of course, a wide swath of Trump critics were hardly impressed: it really took him this long to see that this man’s character would lead him to operate in this way? I can probably include myself in that category of critic. Even before the election, I wondered if Trump’s ascendance might not do more damage than good to the platform he (sort of, sometimes) espoused, as it chained various principles to a baggage-laden man unlikely to ever implement them. The impulse to support him, or some comparable figure elsewhere on the political spectrum, in spite o those concerns only reveals the pervasive extent of the god-worship of the presidency, and a national obsession with Important People and Big Ideas that plagues so much of our political culture. Perhaps the real problem is much closer to home than many of the figures who trade in these tales would like to believe.

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.

The Man in the Arena

16 Mar

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” from a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, 23 April 1910.

Fighting words there, Teddy. There’s an obvious tension between these lines and the tone of many posts on this blog. I am often a critic, and rarely go overboard for particular causes. It sounds inspiring, of course, but when you think about it, the chivalrous attitude one sees in TR and his European contemporaries rubs thin. After all, it’s exactly what kicked off the First World War just a few years later. It drips of hubris. It carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, breeding resentment and fueling the collapse of the old world order. And while I think there are obvious things to admire in Teddy’s politics, whether he knew it or not, his machismo and controlling demeanor contributed quite a bit to America’s imperial ambitions and gradual centralization. It’s the blustering bravado of a man who can’t accept the fact that there’s a dark side to everything, even in the seemingly most enlightened projects. It turns life into a roller coaster of victories and defeats, a bipolarity ill-befitting of anyone just trying to get by.

And yet, despite that withering dismissal, I’m still on board with TR. My favorite people are those who are in the arena: the star athlete, the charismatic leader, the far-reaching visionary. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the company of other critics, but after a while that life wears thin, and it’s not uncommon to find people using cynical detachment as a cheap excuse for not doing anything. Just as wholesale commitment to life in the arena fails to provide any perspective, so too does a life that never enters it come up short. Call it ambition, eros, transcendence, whatever you like: cynical detachment alone denies an unavoidable part of human nature that we cannot suppress or wish away.

All this talk of arenas reminded me of a David Brooks column that is now several years old, but has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Here it is—and to my pleasant surprise, upon rereading it, I found it was based around All Things Shining, a book that I read last spring, and blogged about here and here. Anyway, Brooks’ point is that, in the modern world—and especially for those of us who struggle with religious truth—it can be hard to find transcendent, unified meaning in the universe. Instead, we have to look for it in the fleeting moments of daily life, and in communion with other people in those institutions that bind us together. That is, in arenas.

This is pretty much how I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve outsourced much of my emotion to, in Brooks’ words, “activities often dismissed as mere diversions [that] are actually central.” I am, obviously, a big sports fan, and use that as a main channel. I also get the “wooshing” sensation in plenty of other places—in nature, in the company of family and good friends, and so on. Most of my pleasures and ambitions are not all that grandiose, and I intend to keep it that way.

Politics, however, occupies a somewhat more complicated place. Most of those other things I get swept up in have no vast consequences, but as Brooks writes, the excitement of politics offers no “satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.” Lives and livelihoods are at stake here, and anyone who thinks deeply about these things probably fears becoming too partisan, since they know that virtually all political platforms oversimplify. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to head into political ambivalence. It’s all too complicated, too distant; why bother?

Since the moment some three and a half years ago when I realized my happiness is not tied to politics, I’ve reveled in the resultant freedom. Yet somehow, I can’t tear my eyes away. I play the detached observer, parsing the rhetoric and shaking my head at all these yelling and screaming politicians, sometimes letting an emotional outburst or two slip through. I couldn’t retreat, even though part of me wanted to do so completely. I’ve re-focused my energy on the areas I can have an influence, and I’m still motivated by a sense of duty; perhaps the word “stewardship” would be an apt one for the compulsion I feel toward political action. I plan to have kids some day, after all, and I want them to inherit a world—or, at least, one corner of it—that is worth inhabiting. So long as I’m a part of this world, I can’t get rid of that pull, no matter how much I claim disinterest.

I say all of this because I am re-entering the arena right now, after a fashion: an old college friend has asked me to reprise my role as his PR man, this time on a campaign he’s managing for a school board candidate in Phoenix. It’s hardly a daring leap into the gladiatorial ring, and my decision was driven more by loyalty than by an ideological commitment to a cause; I haven’t met the candidate yet, and will be doing my work from 1800 miles away. I’m intrigued by the situation in Phoenix, but I’m at some remove from it all, too.

Clearly, this isn’t a rush into the center of the arena. I could probably get there if I put everything I had into it, but instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that I am better suited for being the guy behind the scenes. I may point out where the strong man stumbles, but I don’t do it out of spite; I do it because I don’t want to see him make that same mistake again. I want to make sure he doesn’t become blinded by all the dust and blood and forget what it is he’s fighting for, or how to conduct himself while doing so. And if he needs to lose a battle to win a war, I want to be there to talk him through it. Why would anyone enter the arena if he doesn’t have someone behind him?

There needs to be a bridge between the arena and the world beyond it. What I aim for is balance, or a smooth cycle between two poles, both essential, but incomplete on their own. When one finds that perspective, it’s not too hard to see that all things really are shining.