Fourth Time’s A Charm
June 3, 2011

I see David Brooks, bored with our campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (already!), is trying to gin up support for a shiny new intervention:

That’s why it’s necessary, especially at this moment in history, to focus on the nature of regimes, not only the boundaries between them. To have a peaceful Middle East, it was necessary to get rid of Saddam’s depraved regime in Iraq. It will be necessary to try to get rid of Qaddafi’s depraved regime in Libya. It’s necessary, as everybody but the Obama administration publicly acknowledges, to see Assad toppled. It will be necessary to marginalize Hamas. It was necessary to abandon the engagement strategy that Barack Obama campaigned on and embrace the cautious regime-change strategy that is his current doctrine.”

The absolutely crazy thing about this column is the standard Brooks applies for intervention: “normal” regimes like Saudi Arabia are fine, you see, but Syria is a depraved regime because, “Either as a matter of thuggishness (Syria) or ideology (Hamas), they reject the full humanity of other human beings. They believe it is proper and right to kill innocents.” That’s why he singles out Syria for intervention.

I suppose the implication is that Saudi Arabia embraces the full humanity of other human beings and doesn’t believe it is proper and right to kill innocents. But that’s ludicrous. Has Brooks already forgotten what country dispatched their troops into Bahrain to stomp out that country’s protesters? By what standard is that not depraved? Should we announce our intention to depose King Abdullah as well?

Of course not. For a whole host of reasons, the primary one being this: our “humanitarian interventions” are not successes. They are indiscriminate bloodbaths. And while it’s all well and good for a pampered columnist to talk in the abstract about the need to do something, it is appallingly irresponsible of Brooks to not consider the implications of what he’s saying.

As for the note he ends on — suggesting that peace between Israel and Palestine is impossible until we civilize those barbaric Arab countries — the less said the better. I’ll only point out that his colonialist condescension is even less palatable for implying that Netanyahu and the Likud party have done nothing to hinder the peace process. Especially knowing what we do now.

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Our Serious Intellectuals
March 8, 2011

There are intellectuals, and there are Intellectuals. There’s no real consensus over who qualifies for the former category, but a capital-I Intellectual is way easier to spot. These are people situated roughly within the mid-to-upper brow of mainstream American culture who expound on the important matters of the day and are often referred to in public as intellectuals.

David Brooks is such an Intellectual. In fact, he’s an extraordinarily accomplished Intellectual. And if PZ Meyers’ scorching review is any indication, then Brooks’ new book — called The Social Animal — might be his greatest accomplishment yet. Consider this passage from the review:

The plot is deadly dull: Erica, for instance, ascends smoothly from private school to business management to business leader to significant government functionary to the inner circles of Davos to a blissful retirement spent wallowing in high culture, with only brief stutters — losing a tennis match, a failed business, a brief marital infidelity — which she powers through with the discipline of her will, pausing only long enough for David Brooks to lecture the reader on how the mind overcomes adversity. What story there is here is pure mainlined bourgeois wish fulfillment, a kind of yuppie Mary Sue for the whole of the trust-fund set. There aren’t even any losers to contrast with Erica’s unending winningness, because everyone around them seems to be rising on the same cheerful bubble of privilege.

Nothing changes. In the introduction, Brooks even mentions this, that the story “takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century,” so the characters are born in this decade, grow up in this decade, work in this decade, die in this decade. Brooks has created a world where history doesn’t matter and there are no troubling external intrusions on the blithe reality of Harold and Erica. If ever you are in the market for the antithesis of the Great Russian Novel, here it is, the petty provincial string of anecdotes about only two characters who never experience a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.

That’s as good an encapsulation as you’ll find of the Intellectual master narrative: affluent yuppies succeed in their endeavors and feel generally good about themselves, forever. If Meyers’ review is to be believed, then Brooks tells a particularly naked, archetypal version of that narrative in The Social Animal. But just as the salvation narrative reveals itself in so much Christian philosophy, the foundational myth of Harold and Erica provides a conceptual skeleton for nearly every work in the Intellectual canon.

Take another example from the work of David Brooks, a recent New York Times column called “Make Everybody Hurt.” In the limited column space given him, Brooks (1) reaffirms soothing truisms his audience will recognize; (2) presents a not-particularly-dire problem which won’t alarm the audience (thereby making them shrill) but will concern them (thereby making them serious); and (3) offers up a solution that costs the audience nothing but will make them feel brave and clear-eyed for demanding sacrifices from others. In other words, Erica and Harold will have once again saved the world without breaking a sweat.

And then there’s a less obvious example of Intellectual dogma, courtesy of Simon Critchley and, yes, The New York Times (which seems to be a central organ of modern Intellectual thought). In “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley dazzles the audience with some clever parables from ancient times and a couple of self-deprecating remarks about his profession, but never gets to anywhere substantial or challenging. That’s because the point of his essay has absolutely nothing to do with explaining philosophy and everything to do with flattering the intelligence of his readers. Erica and Harold are intended to walk away from “What Is a Philosopher?” having learned just enough to feel educated witty, but not enough to feel troubled or challenged.

And here we begin to see that the project of the Intellectual is in many ways antithetical to anything approaching a genuine intellectual endeavor. Though few of their kind remain anywhere near the cultural mainstream, many of the intellectuals of yore were pugnacious radicals, rightly reviled by the Ericas and Harolds of their time. Their politics and philosophies were often extreme, their writing sometimes offensive. But their work bled, which was the important part. It sunk its burrs into your spine and clung to you long after you thought you had walked away.

David Brooks is the quintessential Intellectual in that he promises you, in PZ Meyers’ words, a whole life without “a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.” But those moments of self-doubt and inner turmoil are where the real intellectual work begins. The intellectuals we need — always, but I suspect now more than ever — are the ones who stir up that turmoil and then kick their readers in the ass just hard enough to make them pull themselves out of it. To those people, the Intellectuals are the enemy.

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