Monday, May 17, 2010

David Brooks at Occidental College

On Sunday morning I was lucky enough to eavesdrop on the commencement at Oxy, my wife's alma mater, and stand at the far edge of a natural amphitheater, under an old oak tree alongside a eucalyptus grove, to see the address by David Brooks.

The commencement speech by Brooks, the New York Times columnist associated with the neo-conservative movement, came after honorary degrees given to a number of other luminaries, including Warner Bros/ Dreamworks exec Mo Ostin, one of the few non-weasels in the music industry and the man who helped record everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Elliott Smith.

Brooks speech began with a bit of mild, genial standup, but then became more interesting. Mostly, he was there to recount to a mostly liberal or left audience of students and faculty how he had moved, after a childhood as a New York liberal, grounded in the Enlightenment, to conservatism. Once he got going, the address was Brooks at his best.

"When I graduated college, I guess you could say I was optimistic... that solving social problems would be relatively easy," as long as government was full of good and compassionate people. But when he covered Chicago as a reporter, and wrote about the clearing of blighted neighborhoods to build projects, he realized that urban renewal "tore down something they couldn't even see." Social relations were destroyed . "Before long these housing projects were horrible and uninhabitable."

While covering education, the paranoid and un-trusting last years of the Soviet Union, and disease in Africa, he came to see things in in common with various failed policies: "They all had in common a truncated view of human nature, that we are rational, autonomous beings... who respond to incentives."

Instead, he began to learn the role of emotions, unconscious biases, and the limits of utopian planning. "I switched from being a child of the French Enlightenment, to being a child of the British Enlightenment," under the sway of Edmund Burke with his "epistemological modesty" -- and Scots Adam Smith and David Hume.

And he began to realize, as he gradually digested the lessons of Stanford's "marshmallow experiment," he came around to Daniel Pat Moynihan's realization that "culture" and character are what matter, and a Burkean respect for limits, tradition and the way reform can destroy "invisible but important social relations."

Some of the speech was fascinating, if familiar from Brooks' columns. But it was interesting paired with the conditions these Oxy students are graduating into: A national economy destroyed by the "magic of the marketplace" trumpeted by Smith's disciples, by three decades of the kind of free-market/anti-government conservatism Brooks embraces, by all kinds of international and environmental problems created by a president Brooks supported, and a state government in absolute shambles because of the conservative, anti-tax Proposition 13 (which has led to me paying more in property tax for my cottage in a middle-class neighborhood than Warren Buffett pays for one of his Laguna mansions) and an obnoxious Republican governor who has simply passed debt down the road.

Even more boldly, Brooks's almost fatalistic worldview -- however intelligent it evolution -- was virtually contradicted by some of the other speakers honored on Sunday. Most clearly, Father Gregory Boyle, who runs gang-intevention group Homeboy Industries, and the two Latina women in the group - Patricia Alireza and Suzanna Guzman -- who became a pioneering physics professor and an opera diva, respectively, complicate the picture a little bit. (Not to mention our current president, who began his academic career at Oxy and benefited, like yours truly, from tons of financial aid, a progressive plan targeted by many conservatives.) Boyle's group has had an enormous amount of success in gangland L.A. and shows that social change, when implemented carefully, is possible. (The group is no, like most nonprofits, struggling because of the recession and has laid off more than half its staff.)

Anyway, I enjoyed Brooks' speech and the lovely SoCal weather, as I enjoy his column and his book, Bobos in Paradise. (And wishing all those fresh Oxy grads a better economy than they have now.) He is at the very least an honorable, if at times glib, guy. But I would have loved to heat what he, Boyle, and the others would have had to say to each other.

Update: Brooks has posted a version of his speech as a New York Times column, here: "We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment," he writes. "Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one."


CFMunster said...

I like Brooks, though I think he weaseled out a bit in supporting Obama. As a neo-con he should have gone down with the ship.

I disagree about conservative principles being the sole cause of our current mess. Horrible attempts at social engineering at the federal level related to the housing market played a huge role as well. Loose monetary policy and even looser lending requirements - pushed by members of Congress on Freddie and Fannie under the misguided notion that people who could not previously qualify for a home be given a chance to own - created not only the conditions for a bubble, but a class of vulnerable consumers the government should have protected from predatory lenders and real estate agents.

The people in Congress and at the SEC who were responsible for regulating the market over the last decade should be stripped, tarred, feathered, spanked, and thrown into the Alaskan wilderness.

Scott Timberg said...

Well of course I don't consider conservatism the "sole cause" of the recession. though the blame originally placed on Fannie and Freddie has mostly proven illusory as people look into it more closely.

I can certainly agree that the people who f'ed up the economy should be thrown into Alaska the way Mr. Munn describes and and forced to listen to Sarah Palin's demagoguery for the rest of their nasty little lives.

Van said...

Let's face it: If our only problem had been a bunch of junk bonds formed by combining risky loans the bottom wouldn't have dropped out. It was having those bonds blended with my mortgage and then sold worldwide with AAA ratings. Take that misinformation, then leverage it all 15:1 by introducing CDO's and the entire system collapses.

As for Mr. Brooks, he is one of the few conservatives whom I can read and reason with. I understand where he is coming from and I can have a rational discussion with. Unfortunately for all of us, his style of conservatism died with Nixon. Reagan ran up the budget and used "trickle-down" to begin our transition into a 1890-style plutocracy. Welcome back robber barons.

Nice to hear a great, intellectual walk down memory lane. Too bad it had no connection to today's reality.

Scott Timberg said...

Well said by Van -- Brooks is a neo-con but also in some ways a Rockefeller or Eisenhower Republican, the kind pushed aside by the Reagan revolution. You don't the nasty edge you get with a lot of neocons, nor the demagogue bullshit you get with Palin, Limbaugh, Beck and most of the conservative movement these days. He's like a New England Republican or a faculty-club Republican.

My main problem with Brooks is the way he dodges the issue of race almost entirely. Overall, the guy's got integrity and it was a pleasure to see him speak.

Pete Bilderback said...

Great post. Brooks is a smart guy, and one of the few conservative commentators who tries to be honest. But it is a mistake to resort to nihilism when you discover that problems are tougher to solve than you thought they would be when you were an sophomore in college.