The World Is Leaving David Brooks Behind

When David Brooks began to stipulate the “four levels of happiness,” I knew I was in for a night of groundless moral assumptions. Like his columns in The New York Times, Brooks overworked words like “soul” and “spirituality,” yet the elderly crowd at Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch lapped it up by nodding their gray (or bald) heads. Their welcoming of vague moral language allowed him the space to claim:

  • Humans are “loving creatures, not thinking creatures”
  • We need to aim for “spiritual achievements” in life
  • Social media leads to “moral insecurity”

The last bulls*** point there highlights a prominent theme that arose from Brooks’ speech: disparagement towards youth. And as a young man, it was very disheartening to hear—especially seeing as I grew up listening to Shields and Brooks on the PBS News Hour. Although I’ve come to disagree with many of his political philosophies, Brooks played an integral role in stoking my initial interest in politics. So it was difficult to hear him speak of my generation’s main social platforms (and my profession) in such discrediting tones. For baby boomers, I imagine it to be like when your grandparents told you that television was making you stupid—a criticism that came from nowhere but a lack of empathy and understanding.

Following on from social media, Brooks bemoaned how we now “live in an individualist society.” (This coming from a man who subscribes to a political philosophy whose foundation rests upon the idolization of the individual.) This state of selfishness, he figured, meant that “millennials are on pace for the biggest mid-life crisis ever.” He never expanded upon this trite point, but it drew hearty laughter from the older crowd which filled the temple. So I suppose it achieved its purpose.

Mercilessly, Brooks went onto complain about the dire state of free speech on college campuses and how my generation simply cannot stomach dissenting opinions. To highlight our moral intransigence, he relayed that many of his students were afraid to post contrarian viewpoints on social media due to fear of being socially shunned. Now, truly, I am of the opinion that political correctness on campuses has occasionally gone too far, as our current president has correctly noted. What bothered me about Brooks’ story wasn’t necessarily the message, but rather that he portrayed his students’ incidents as universal and not anecdotal. The message he wanted to extrapolate from his students was clear: the youth today are not open to other ways of thinking. And the crowd ate it up. The woman who sat next to me let out a deep sigh when he finished and whimpered, “Oh dear.”

The college campus example was a peculiar point for Brooks to elevate, as earlier in his speech he had applauded millennials for being “far more tolerant” than his generation. And yet here he couldn’t see an obvious paradox—that higher levels of tolerance will also lead to higher levels of intolerance. So what he is mistaking as anti-free speech is in fact a concerted effort to protect individuals from being badgered with bigoted opinions.

Brooks then threw a bone to millennials, while describing the premise of his most recent book, The Road To Character. He pointed out that the “morally successful” individuals he studied for this book all had one thing in common—they were “pathetic” when they were young, but as they grew older they were finally able to heal their “broken selves” in order to reach their moral height.

As a twenty-four-year old, who doesn’t feel particularly pathetic, that statement stung me. Perhaps it was his argument’s reliance on original sin which irked me. However, given Brooks’ history of writing dismissive pieces about youth and their culture (See: “Weed: Been There. Done That“) I have to consider that his claim came from a place of moral superiority and not of Christian theology.

So what’s disappointing about David Brooks isn’t necessarily his outdated and curmudgeonly attitudes, it’s that he doesn’t fully connect the dots and yet he has the gall to be sanctimonious about his conclusions. My generation isn’t any more pathetic than his generation. He just can’t understand the changes we’re going through. If you stripped away his journalistic credibility, all you would be left with was an old, conservative man who was watching the world leave him behind. To quote another David,

And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations
they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.