Always feels good to get back to the blog, even if (as is always the case) nobody missed me. So, what can we (“we” meaning “me”) expect in the future? I’m not sure, but I can promise one thing: I’ll resist the urge the critique critiques of critiques. There is an inverse correlation between “Quality of Critique” and “Degrees of Removal from the Thing It’s Critiquing.” Also, there will probably be more about opera, because why even have a blog if I can’t ramble about the things I find interesting.
Please indulge me while I whack at a straw man. There are, of course, a lot of things about the profession of history–my profession, I should be clear–that bug me, but nothing more so than the tendency to substitute history for values. Some historians seem to think it’s enough to say, “X has a long history” if they want to prove the goodness of X. Or, conversely, that it’s enough to say “X is an invented tradition” to prove the badness of X. Obviously, you need some historical understanding of anything before you can judge it, but that understanding is not synonymous with the judgement.
Gold chains, combovers
Nostalgia for seventies
Con artists are cool!
This new biography of Norman Rockwell, written by Deborah Solomon, seems well worth reading. And Garrison Keillor’s review of it is darn good. Particularly the line about masturbation.
Greg Grandin looks at the history and mythology of slavery through the lens of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and finds an America in which deception was not simply common but all-pervading, to the point where it becomes impossible to disentangle society from its own myths.
Alex Pareene, one of the few pundits gifted with an entire brain, is working on his annual Hack List. To mix/stir/shake things up a bit, he’s writing each entry in the style of the person he’s mocking, whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s just-so stories, Peggy Noonan’s faux-poetic ramblings, or Richard Cohen’s flat-out awfulness. Normally I’m not a fan of these kinds of parodies–I do them plenty of times myself, of course, but it always makes me feel lazy and ashamed of myself. These things are barely a step above “What If Historical Figure X Had Facebook?” or “What If Great Work of Literature Y Had Been Tweeted?” But Pareene is so familiar with the works of these imbeciles–and such a good writer himself–that his parodies rise beyond “lame” and into the realm of “actually good.”
People are talking about the new David Brooks column, People talk about op-ed columns only when they say something either significant or stupid, and in this case, Brooks has achieved both by saying something significantly stupid. He offers us a “biting” “satire” on the “Though Leader,” who is supposedly a “highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler.” Any resemblance to New York Times columnists, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
Some folks on Twitter are saying that this column somehow marks a step forward for Brooks. But let’s get serious–this is the same kind of crap Brooks has been shoveling for well over a decade. It’s a “social profile” that combines New Journalism and academic analysis, minus the insight and vigor of New Journalism and the rigor of academic analysis. So it’s basically a bunch of dumb jokes dedicated to ridiculing some “type,” whether that type be “Bobos” or “Patio Men” or “Though Leaders” or whatever.
You might have noticed that “Bobos,” “Patio Men,” and “Thought Leaders” are all pretty much the same kind of person, which is to say, upper-middle-class white professionals. Which is also to say, people exactly like David Brooks. Aforementioned “folks on Twitter” are also trying to figure out whether Brooks is trying to mock other people or whether he has somehow gained a scintilla of self-awareness and is mocking himself. My answer: it doesn’t matter!
Because deep down, below all that BS, this is the problem with David Brooks. He seems utterly incapable of understanding the thoughts, feelings, and social worlds of anyone who is not within one standard deviation of being David Brooks. Knock Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman all you want–and you SHOULD knock them–but they at least sometimes try to get outside their own heads. Not so with Mr. Brooks. All three of his books are about the same kind of upper-middle-class white professionals, no matter what cutesy name Brooks gives them.
Imagine, for a moment, Brooks trying to understand and write about the experiences of an illegal immigrant from Central America living in California. Or an unemployed steelworker living in Ohio. Or a drug dealer living in New York. The mind boggles, and then breaks into laughter. David Brooks can only understand David Brooks, and that’s it.
Let me leave you with Sasha Issenberg’s masterful demolition of some of Brooks’ more outrageous lies.