Friday, May 28, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil You (Pretend to) Know and He is Us

I felt like writing a "perspective" post, one of those things where I get all uncomfortable with certain self-truths (about me, and about us, you buncha complicit fat-cats you), and I figured I'd take the double-edged sword to David Brooks, who pretty well deserves a twice-weekly evisceration (I originally had a whole over-complicated metaphor as my opening graph, by the way, which I've scrapped, only regretting that now I'll have to shelve the phrase "pissant Promethei" for some other time), and for whom I developed a small fascination with his particular form of contemptibility back when I was reading him a lot back in the firewall days (thanks, daveto). Instead of digging around for the best example of his form, I figured I'd just wait for his next column.

Here's today's. I regret for the purposes of this post that it's a little more coherent than usual--normally Dave likes to offer non-sequitur sorts of theses, conclusions that pretend to resolve to Republican wisdom as derived from the bigger ideas or the (better) counterarguments that precede the message, ideas which clearly grab his interest, but which he doesn't labor to understand (Last week's piece on the Enlightenment is a good example of this. Did you know that the whole intellectual movement hinged on arguments over "go fast," which is where deductive reasoning gets you, and which perfectly describes populists and Democrats today, versus "take it slow," because Edmund Burke? I'm no philosopher either, but that seems to, uh, elide some important thinking of the time.)--and that I disagree with him just a skosh less then usual this time around (He may be right, sort of, about complexity, or at least it's an idea that many people accept. But in the case of BP and minerals management in this country, not to mention his other examples, he kind of elides the long-standing and fundamental problems of resource extraction vis a vis the environment, of public vs. industrial interests, about which people have not quite been silent but they have certainly been marginalized by serious chin-strokers such as himself, and here he pops up like Wormtongue again, flattering the industry, telling the world on its behalf that it was inevitable anyway, and was in no way related to cost-cutting or insufficient attention to the dangers of drilling that have been known since 1853. Complex systems may or may not be extra sensitive to external shocks, but you know what Dave? Fuck you.), but it's not a bad example of the traits I most feel like picking on.

Bobo is forever about that critical elision. What gets me is that I can't tell if he's lazy or lying, if he's failing to apply the reason he celebrates because he's dumb, or because he purposely ignores it. I tend to think it's the latter, and my running images of him include a contented lickspittle in the service of power or a knowledgeable, self-selected operative (like that guy Syme in 1984, who understood what was going on with the Eurasian political philosophy, and bought in anyway; in the novel, they eventually disappeared him, as I recall), but there's really no evidence of inner intellectual turmoil in his writing or speaking gigs. Even if he's in the habit of skimming science and philosophy articles for smart-sounding quotes, his conclusions never stray from conservative cant, no matter how irrelevantly he introduces them or how soothingly he enunciates. There's never any work to show. Maybe I get this impression that he's too smart to believe this shit because Brooks is an okay writer, a guy who can master the tone of his arguments, clearly, and is capable of delivering the intellectual patina that thoughtful conservatives crave. Maybe he's just phoning in the columns that he knows will keep him in print, burnt out eons ago from actually believing (or disbelieving) in anything, regardless of however he claims to have seen the half-light of boring faux-moderation. (I was going with "low-rent Lucifers" in the first draft too. Just sayin'.)

And that brings me to my last mental image of the guy, the one where I project heavily. Two columns and a half-dozen television and radio appearances a week have got to shake the believerism out of all but the most clear-headed or righteous, and never mind that sincerity isn't really a job requirement anyway in his line of work. The David Brooks of my sometimes imagination has defended against this by not treating the subject seriously, and softens the usual bullshit with a dollop of the important stuff he imagines he's interested in. Here's the author authoring away on auto-pilot, and in his fantasies he's dreaming of a job where he could wear a white coat and and carry a lab notebook, hammering out the problems of cognition, philosophy, or whatever it that he imagines Richard Feynman did, never mind that he doesn't really have the analytical skills to really understand the subjects or the motivation to keep up the technical effort for very long.

And you know, here I am, a mediocre scientist in an unglamorous discipline, gliding along with what skills are easier for me, fucking around on my blog in my free time and wondering if I could have been a writer instead. There are natural and brilliant scientists out there (and far better opinion writers, Bobo), and I am not one, but I am even less well-suited to the job of my fantasy, as should be obvious. Even if Brooks is fatigued down to his soul, it doesn't excuse the stuff he writes, and in his public life, he's a terrible human being. But I look at what I'm supposed to be doing for a living, and even though I have a lot of good rationalizations, I'm in many ways feeding the same beast, with about as much passion. I'm struggling to discern a difference.

[Added: There are far better opinion writers out there.]


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Keifus said...

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