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."
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