Archive for November 2009

The Passive Voice is the Tell: Mike Huckabee is a gutless sophist dept.

November 30, 2009

Update: A day late, but still:  Huckabee takes responsibility — and defends his decision to commute Maurice Clemmons’ sentence to make him eligible for parole.  His defense is coherent, morally consistent, and — incidentally — one which I find persuasive.  (That TomLevensonSealOfApproval™  is not worth very much:  the question of whether or not this was a sound decision at the time turns on more finely grained detail than Huckabee’s statement provides.  But within the context of this statement, Huckabee’s reasoning makes sense, morally and practically).

I stand by my rhetorical scorn for the first queasy remarks Huckabee’s campaign released in his name, as detailed below.  But credit where credit is due:  Huckabee confronted the issue directly, accepted executive responsibility, and presented a strong defense of his judgment.


I was just going over some student writing this morning when I came across a passage in Mike Huckabee’s attempt to dodge his own Willie Horton moment in the tragedy of the murder of four police officers in the state of Washington.

On question of commuting the suspect’s prison sentence, not a seraph or an angel of the Lord, but that righteous Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee wrote:

He was recommended for and received a commutation of his original sentence from 1990…

Aha!  I said.  I know this game.

Just before I read that line, I had been hitting the red comment button a lot on one particular, quite promising student story, in which the writer had not completely shaken the MIT-inculcated rhythms of professional scientific communication.  In a section on the development of what a certain class of drugs could offer patients suffering from a particular mental illness here that writer defaulted again and again to the passive: “it was believed,” or “it was found,” or “it is known…” .

I pointed out to my student that writers use this kind of rhetorical gambit when they want to assert  authority without responsibility.  No actual person “believed” that a given drug would or wouldn’t work, but by FSM it is known — fer shure — that it does (or doesn’t).

Such writing is a standard trope in formal scientific communication, which makes the claim that whatever human process lies behind any result, the finding must speak for itself.  And in that context, such a rhetorical claim has value — and costs.  Certainly, MIT undergraduates get taught to see outcomes of scientific inquiry in this manner, and it takes some effort — a lot — to remember how to express the active, individual, present commitments needed to drive the work they do and mostly love.

But when it comes to “values-for-thee-but-not-for-me” Huckabee, there is no excuse.  It’s all about the duck-and-weave.

The suspect, Maurice Clemons, then serving a 95 year sentence of aggravated robbery, “was” recommended for mercy and that mercy, commutation of his sentence was received.  No one in particular seems to have had anything to do with this, at least in Mike Huckabee’s universe, (though not in that inhabited by Arkansas law enforcement at the time).

Huckabee screwed up.  Why he did, and whether he did it alone or with help are yet to be determined.  There is a lot in Clemons’ history to suggest that the former Arkansas governor was not alone in allowing this terribly violent man to slip through the cracks.  I do not for a minute wish to suggest that Huckabee acted in the expectation that tragedy would result from his decision.

But if you want to test the character of a person, see how they react in the wake of consequential failure.  Do they step up, own their error, explain their reasoning, and express their remorse.

Or do you find that according to them, their homework was eaten by some dog.

That is:   one crucial qualification for a job in which you have the lives of others daily in your hands is the character with which you face the consequences of choosing wrong.   In this moment of tragedy — or rather in his reaction to it — we have come the measure of Mike  Huckabee.

Image:  Jeff Crites for the U.S. Army, “I didn’t do it,” 2009.

I’m Baaaaaack….with some Newton notes…

November 29, 2009

A return to full blogging this week, I promise, but just to get things going (barring that little amuse bouche re Google voice recognition) with a teaser for a renewed assault on the “Diary of a Trade Book” series, I thought I’d post a reactions to a couple of bits of Newton and the Counterfeiter news.  (As always: Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son.)

First, still very happy with the Library Journal’s placement of the book on their year-end, “Best of” list — but I have to say that I was truly chuffed by the implied institutional critique and explicit compliment coming from Henry Bass, book editor for Essence, who compiled his list of those who should have been finalists for the National Book Awards.  Among them, he said, blushing, mine own Newton….

My thanks to Mr. Bass, and my heartfelt admiration for his exquisite and discriminating taste…;)

Next: I’m so far behind in acknowledging (and disseminating) positive reviews and blog mentions that I can’t even begin to dig myself out just yet … but one post that did stand out for me was this one by Paul Levy at the Running A Hospital blog.  Why such special notice from YT (beyond the obvious desire to point up praise wherever I can get it)?

Because, as astute readers of this blog will note, I’ve been having trouble keeping up with even the minimal task of getting something up a few times a week, just because I’ve got a day job and students and a wife and a kid and all that stuff.  I should complain:  Paul Levy’s day job has him runnimg  the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center here in Boston, which, for all that I find that no spare second survives the crush of the demands on my time, is unquestionably a more demanding job than mine — by a Secretariat-at-Belmont margin, I’d guess.  So if he can find the time to say nice things about my book, I can find the time to wonder how the heck he managed to read it, much less write about it.

More, and more substantive stuff to come…but for now, channelling my inner Ed Murrow:  good night and good luck.

Image:  Hokusai, “Portrait of a man of noble birth with a book,” before 1849

Still a Few Bugs in the System: Google Voice edition

November 29, 2009

Unedited (though topped and tailed to remove identifiers), parse this voicemail message, as interpreted by the non-evil doers at Google:

I’m waiting for just pick me up from the hospital. I spent last night here and I am now much better. They a ring me out and shot a bullet up up the under, and expand the bat. Let me know what the drives and I’m going to be fine, but it was husband full day dry.

Errr…Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Which leads, for old time’s sake, to this:


Horn Tooting: Library Journal/Newton and the Counterfeiter Edition

November 20, 2009

I’ve been waaay remiss in self aggrandizement/book hawking on this blog lately, so it is my pleasure to report that Library Journal put Newton and the Counterfeiter on its Best Books 2009 list.

Money quote from the accompanying article:

“What I looked for in my best books picks was unique voices,” [Library Journal Fiction Editor] Wilda Willy explained, …She also wanted original ideas, a fresh take on a well-worn subject (“yes, we all know about Isaac Newton, the genius scientist, But did you know he was also a genius detective?”), and beautiful writing.

This is, I devoutly hope, the first swallow in a Newton spring of renewed attention, but Library Journal has a special place in my heart — first to review (and star) the book, and now this.  I esteem their editors’ taste and thank them for their kindness.

Oh…and if you had a thought to actually go out and follow the LJ commendation, you can find Newton and the Counterfeiter quite easily: Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son

One last thought:  publishing a book is a strange business, emotionally a bit whacked.  You write the damn thing over some number of years, mostly all by yourself…and then you send it out into the world.  Unless you have the good fortune to hit it really big, showing up on all the chat shows and clipping reviews by the ream, it mostly goes … not quite silently into the void…but quietly.  It’s hard to know, even with a solid sale, whether people got what you wrote, whether they actually value it.

It’s like sowing seeds out the window of a moving car; you almost can’t know whether anything sprouts.  And then, something like this drops in on the wings of a Google alert.  And you know something did.  It’s sweet.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1889.


Friday Quote + Bonus Audio/Video: Jimi and Muddy edition

November 20, 2009

From August Kleinzahler’s truly addictive book of essays on music (and obsession…) Music I-LXXIV:

Jimi Hendrix once told Rolling Stone: ” The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters.  I heard one of his records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death.”

not to mention…

Sexual terror kills people: a sort-of follow up to David Brooks’ sexual queasiness.

November 19, 2009

A few days ago I wrote this screed of disdain about David Brooks data-less, thoughtless complaint about the vapid sex lives of Kids These Days™.*  I have more than once commented on the evil consequences of marrying sexual queasiness to bad science, social or otherwise — and it struck me that  it is important to remember that Brooks’s queasiness about sex has a broader context and worse consequences.

The thought came to me as I was reading my pre-pub copy (what used to be called a galley) of Rebecca Skloot’s marvelous new book The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks.  Rebecca has written a work that  is proximately the story of HeLa —  the most ubiquitous (some would say ferocious) human cell line used in modern biology — and the woman from whom those cells were derived, without her knowledge or permission.  It’s more than that, of course — an inquiry into race and its twisted history in America, family, medical practice and medical ethics, the autonomy — or lack therof — with which we all inhabit our own bodies, and much more besides.  I’ll blog about it properly closer to pub date, but put this one on your list.

Within all that, the factoid that got me thinking was Rebecca’s discussion of the particular type of cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks so swiftly and cruelly: cervical cancer, the sequel to her multiple infections with HPV-18, one of the most malign of the 100+ strains of Human Papilloma Virus.

HPV infection was and is an epidemic.  In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control reported that

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with about 20 million people currently infected. Women have an 80 percent chance of getting HPV by the time they are 50. HPV is most common in young people who are in their late teens and early 20s.

That is:  about 7 percent, give or take, of the American population — closer to ten percent of the adult population**–are infected with a virus whose consequences range from nothing to death in predictable proportions.  The same CDC report tells us that each year 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and that 3,600 will die of it.

For those of you keeping score, the number of women who will die this year of the disease that killed Henrietta Lacks is about 80% of the total US military deaths in Iraq since 2003 — 4363, according to the latest AP count.  It is greater than the number of combat deaths in that period:  3,476.

There is this difference of course:  death is a necessary component of battle.  War is the imposition of national will by violence, in one short hand definition, and within that context, people will die.

By contrast, no one — or rather, within a generation, very close to no one — need die of HPV infection.  The HPV vaccine, approved by the FDA in 2006, protects against four of the strains of HPV, including those that cause genital warts and cancer.  It is effective, according to the CDC, and safe:

As of June 30, 2008 VAERS has received a total of 9,749 reports of potential adverse events following HPV vaccination. Ninety-four percent (94%) of these reports were about non-serious adverse events.

Six percent (6%) of adverse events reported for the HPV vaccine were considered serious, which is about half of the average number of serious reports for other vaccines. In comparison, the overall average in VAERS for any serious adverse event following vaccination ranges from 10% to 15%; therefore, the percentage of serious reports for Gardasil® is less than the overall average for other vaccines.

The CDC goes on to caution that the number of adverse events actually caused by the virus vaccine is almost certainly lower than that number, due to the post hoc ergo propter hoc problem.

The virus vaccine is recommended for girls aged 11-12.  Why?  Because this is before the age of likely infection, given that HPV is a sexually transmitted pathogen.

We all know where this goes.  The notion of protecting girls from a deadly disease transmitted in the context — oh get the fainting couch ready — of the sexual lives of their older selves is terrifying, at least to some.

So much so that  those terrified of especially female sexual appetite and expression (see for an allegedly respectable example, Chunky Reese Averse Ross Douthat) would rather kill people than acquiesce in the possibility that human beings might on occasion make the beast with two backs.

Recall:  Texas secessionist Governor Rick Perry wasn’t always 100% crazy.  Back when the loon quotient was down to no more than 95% or so, he actually, in a moment of clarity in 2007, signed an order that all require all sixth grade girls in Texas to receive the HPV vaccine.  The response?  As you’d expect.  Texas legislators “rushed to file bills that would override the governor’s order, which they said revokes parental rights and could encourage young girls to be promiscuous.”

To his credit Perry stood up for modern public health:

Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than the Hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use,” Perry said Monday. “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”

Soon, though — damn soon — in fact, he lost.  Though he complained — accurately, that the legislators who had voted in favor of the bill overturning his executive order would rather tell women that  “We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and your granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric,” he lacked the votes to prevent his veto from being overturned, and allowed the bill, unsigned, to become law.

Perry, it should be noted, still defends this decision.  I have no time for just about everything Perry stands for  — but on this one, he has it right.

So let’s recap:  we face a disease that kills more women in this country each year than have died in battle in the last six in our war in Iraq….

…that will be allowed to persist in the lives of our daughters because to some people it is more important to pretend that human beings don’t have sex with more than one person in their lives than it is to prevent wholly avoidable suffering.

So, finally, to return to why I find David Brooks’s maundering about the sex lives of New Yorkers so pernicious is not just because of the gaping crater of intellectual shoddiness at its heart:  it that he offers a well-spoken version of the attitude that declares, whatever may actually happen in real human experience, women shouldn’t have the temerity to uncross their legs.  Remember the corollary of that belief as well:  if they do, then, by gum, disease, distress and death are merely the appropriate consequences for such sin.

Last note:  when ever I hear the term “value voters” I throw up in my mouth.  The single central value of just about any ethical system, including those advanced by the sages of traditional religion, is that it is wrong to use other people as objects, rather than subjects, individuals of intrinsic value.  Requiring others to die to avoid unpleasant contradiction with one’s own value system is not a virtue.  It is, in the only true sense of the word, the very definition of a sin.

A pox upon them.

I mean that literally.

Oh — and one more thing.  If anyone wants to draw the obvious connection to the current health care debates (Joe Stupak, are you listening?  Senators?) then I think that is an entirely appropriate link.  The entire anti-health care movement is in the end a decision to allow innocents to die in large numbers in order to achieve other ends; it sacrifices individuals in the service of either or both abstract “values” and the financial interests of various elites.  Mere sin hardly covers the case; evil is more like it.

*I later found out that Brooks’ silliness was deeper than I thought, for I chanced across the original article in New York magazine in which the editors described the process by which they accumulated the sex diaries that so confounded the gentle Mr. Brooks.  These were, which I’m sure will surprise no one, wholly selected for maximum effect.  Producing social commentary on the basis of sought-and-found soft porn purveyed to prop up an at-risk publishing model is something only the credulous or the contemptuous-of-their-readers would attempt.  Consider this an exercise for the readers to decide which it might be.

**and yes, I know that plenty of under-18s will have HPV infections.  This is numerical shorthand here — an attempt to express scale.  It is not, as I hope the language makes obvious, a precise claim.

Update: minor but crucial edits above (for “virus” read “vaccine” twice) thanks to the eagle eye of  Lovable Liberal.

Images:  Albrecht Dürer, “The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse” 1497-1498

Berthe Morisot, “The Balcony” 1872

Apologia Pro Vita Bloga (With apologies to Mrs. Small, who taught me better Latin.)

November 17, 2009

No blogging for more than a week!  Massive fail.

My only excuse:

November is the cruelest month, at least as far as my particular academic calendar goes.  As my students toil, so do I (the part they never tell you about when you step sideways into the Academy).

So, a couple of posts are slouching towards Publish’em…but a humble plea for indulgence in this, my untoward silence.

See you soon.

Image:  Johann Heinrich Füssli, “The Silence” 1799-1801.

All you need to know about the modern press, (The Push Cart War Edition)…

November 7, 2009

…you can find in my kid’s fourth grade reading assignment, that classic, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.

In Chapter IX, “The Secret Campaign Against the Pushcarts,” Merrill describes the truckers’ skillful use of captive media.  An anonymous columnist in a weekly owned by one of the truck companies wrote again and again about “The Pushcart Menance.”  This was the latest in a series of reports that purported to document threats to wholesome living in New York, all of which happen to be, just by coincidence matters of concern to trucks trying to ease their way through the streets.

Trees, it seems were “unsanitary” — the leaves, ya’ know — and that anonymous “people” wanted to banish them from sidewalks in order to widen roadways. Sidewalks themselves — and other obstacles to wider streets, like houses and churches and small candy stores, were “unsound and unsanitary” and hence ripe for removal in support of easing traffic flow.

But trees and shops and sidewalks were as nothing in that last few months and weeks before the war, compared to the overt threat to civic order posed by the five hundred or so pushcarts licensed to do business on the byways of New York.  So, in that spring, Merrill reports, the “Community Reporter” produced a flurry of stories “that made it sound as if pushcarts were even more unsound and unsanitary than trees, houses, schools, churches and candy stores.”

Now that would not have mattered much, for the captive rag in which these columns appeared was such transparently crap that Merrill notes, “some grocers had trouble giving it away, as most of their customers did not mind a few leaves falling off trees.”  But, cannily, the paper was also sent, gratis, to the influential:  “members of the City Council and other important people.”

You can guess what comes next.  Some free shopper makes a noise and…

Let Merill tell you how it worked — and still does:

Enough people did see the Community Reporter’s column for one of the more respectable papers to announce a series entitled:  “Pushcarts — Are They a Menace to Our Streets?”

When in doubt, don’t question the assertion, report the controversy.

And, even better (or more true to life), the respectable — that is to say, for “respectable,” read “serious” — series,  the MSM reporter interviewed not the pushcart peddlars, but Big Moe Mammoth, legendary head of Mammoth Moving, famed for its Baby Mammoths, Mama Mammoths, and the very Mighty Mammoth truck whose assault on Morris the Florist triggered open warfare on the streets of New York City.

In case you were wondering, Merrill published her prophetic tale in 1964.  You couldn’t call it fiction today.

Image:   George Benjamin Luks, “Houston Street,” 1917

Newton and the Counterfeiter News: A whole hour of me talking about the book for your pleasure

November 6, 2009

Here, via MIT World, is the video of my talk in the MIT Writer’s Series to explain the who, what, why of that book I’ve mentioned here once or twice, Newton and the Counterfeiter.  (Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son) Bonus video: a wonderfully generous and over the top introduction by my colleague, Junot Diaz — short story artist and novelist beyond compare, Pulitzerite and all that, and a kind man.

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Why Does Anyone Listen To David Brooks? Women and Sex Scare Me edition

November 6, 2009

The punditocracy is, as we all know by know, frighteningly well populated by naked emperors.  David Brooks is not the most egregious — not for lack of trying, I admit — but given the competition, I’m not even sure if he makes the top ten.

But he is exemplary, and his column of November 2 provides a great case study of how elite opinion composes itself — and yet makes, seemingly, no contact with the world of experience the rest of us inhabit.

In that column Brooks advances the following argument: that the sexual adventurers have never had it so good — or at least so easy — thanks to the advent of cell phones and social media…and that the rise of this technologically-enhanced libertinism has cast all of us out of “the Happy Days era” — his term, to our sorrow and loss.


Where to begin?

Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already identified the essential flaw in this particular column.  He writes of Brooks — and “conservative” (actually radical) nostalgia:

This is a theme residing in the conservative soul–a professed, thinly-reasoned skepticism of the fucked-up now, contrasted against a blind, unquestioning acceptance of the hypermoral past. This is a human idea–most people, like those slaves, believe some point in the past was better. And indeed, in some case the past was demonstrably better. But the writer who would argue such has to prove it. He can’t just accept his innate hunch.

Exactly so.  To put the same thought into the frame of this blog:  it is a central theme of what happens around here that much journalistic sin would be avoided, and much gain for the republic accrued, if only the habits of scientific thinking penetrated the punditocracy (and the citizenry at large, of course).

If you are aspire to a job like the one Brooks holds, and you want to think and write well about our world, then you need to acquaint yourself with the standard tools of a scientist working on more or less any problem:  notions of quantification; of the importance of empiricism and of analysis;of what might be called informational hygiene  and the proper skepticism in the face of claims of fact unsupported by a clear portrait of how those “facts” came to be known…all the tools with which researchers try to make sure that what they think they know is real.

And if there is a single unifying flaw that connects most of the really disastrous punditry and opinion “journalism” flooding the intertubes these days, it is that so many — and most of the most prominent — don’t come close to this standard.  Rather, their approach seems to be dominated by the “too good to check” approach to whatever received wisdom they may wish to purvey…

…which brings me back to Mr. Brooks.

His essential claim is that reading the accounts of 132 New Yorkers who chose to offer  New York magazine with a diary of one week’s worth of their sex and social lives demonstrates that modern technology has fundamentally transformed courtship, love, and by extension the fabric of meaning in society.

It’s a superficially plausible argument.  It certainly feels as if various technological developments — geolocation for one, the ease with which it is possible to converse with multiple individuals or groups over multiple information channels for another — have the power to alter, even undermine, the experience of a one-on-one conversation, carnal or otherwise.

But, as Ta-Nehisi says, prove it.

And this Brooks doesn’t — and he fails to do so in a way implicates him in twin sins:  claims of fact unsupported by the evidence, and flaws of logic that undermine each step of his argument.

Let’s watch, shall we?

First of all, the entire premise of the column rests on sample bias.  He bases his conclusions about all manner of things — sexual habits, commitment and ritual issues and all the rest, on a gloss of  the words of 132 twice-selected people who chose to share their sexual adventures with an audience of millions.  Remember — these came from  (a) those that chose to write about their sex lives and (b) who  did so with enough gusto to be selected for maximum audience titillation by some folks aiming to sell magazines.

Problems anyone?

Brooks, lazy but not dumb, is of course alert to half the issue.   He writes,

“people who send in sex diaries to a magazine are not representative of average Americans.”

But never mind.  Because Brooks knows the answer already, these unrepresentative adventurers are, suddenly, representative:

“the interplay between technology and hook-ups will be familiar to a wide swath of young Americans.”

So what is this territory, foreign to us greybeards for whom Brooks wishes to serve as Virgil, guiding us through the sexual underworld enjoyed by Kids These Days?   “On nights when they are out, the diarists are often texting multiple possible partners in search of the best arrangement.”  This, Brooks writes,

leads to a series of marketing strategies. You don’t want to appear too enthusiastic. You want to invent detached nicknames for partners….You want to appear bulletproof as you move confidently through the transactions.

So, let me get this straight: Brooks is saying that texting produces novel sexual marketing strategies…and, that folks raised to sexual maturity in the “Happy Days era” gained a pureness of heart that derived from their lack of have access to the same technology.

The logical flaw is obvious, I think:  there is a difference between saying technology renders something easier and that such technology makes the same practices possible.

And empirically, I have to say that reading this made me wonder if Brooks has either pulse or memory.  The notion that in some glorious past folks seeking the or  many mates haven’t cloaked themselves in confidence or tried to game the chase between hunger for the most desirable and the potential loss of the available misses everything I observed in myself and my peers from junior high school on.

More concretely, if you don’t trust personal recollection (and why should you…see above), then look to the literature.  Data matters.  What people have done when they approach such questions systematically, helps those who would think with their gut or other organs straighten themselves out.

You can begin with the Kinsey studies of 1948 and 1953, which show that depending on socioeconomic class, between 67 and 98% of men engaged in premarital sex — the bane of Happy Days nostalgia, with 68% doing so before they turned 18.  The number for women topped out a 50%.

(Half a nation of bad girls back there in Daddy Eisenhower’s ranch house?  Who knew?  Everyone.  Except of course, Mr. Brooks).

Or, more recently, one could check the National Health and Social Life Survey for data on numbers of sexual partners (and much else besides), collected in a massive survey in 1992.  There, you will find that within the prior year 11.7 percent of women and 23.4 percent of men of all ages had more than one sexual partner, and that the pursuit of such variety is skewed — surprise! —  to folks 18-24, of whom 32.3 percent report playing the field.

That is:  Brooks has no idea whether the anecdotes on which he bases his conclusion that we’re doomed to emotional evisceration describe anything that is in fact new — and there is plenty of evidence within easy reach of a bit of googling to suggest that sexually active folks have been, well, active for a while.

Doing even such minimal research, is dangerous, of course.  It might make it more difficult to write passages like this.

Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

Say what?

This is nonsense on so many levels.  Remember the Kinsey numbers:  lots of sex happened in the ’50s, much of it outside the formal bounds of the guardrails in question. For a literary confirmation, you might want to check in on this text.  It’s post Ike but pre Free Speech Movement (the other FSM).

And then there’s the logical flaw here:  one of Brooks’s favorite cons, the false dichotomy.   Does Brooks really think that social media exist outside social institutions?  In that case, who are the people being texted in the diaries that so offend his sense of propriety?  As I read through them, it looks kind of familiar folks from neighborhoods, workplaces and friend/family networks.


Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era.

Ahh…now we get it.  Women who might like (a) jobs that give them economic independence and (b) sex, made enormously less life-changingly risky by access to reliable contraception, are at fault.

But yet again, data matter.  Here is where the real idiocy of the whole column comes into play.  Brooks asserts that nasty sexually active women (and presumably their sexually engaged partners) have destroyed a traditional path of encounter-relationship-marriage.

Brooks knows this how?  He doesn’t say, because, I infer, he doesn’t actually know anything at all.

He doesn’t cite data on changes in the number of sexual partners over the years; he doesn’t discuss the long term patterns — pre texting, post contraception — that show a drop in both marriage and divorce rates.

He doesn’t note the fact that the number of unmarried living-together couples has increased tenfold from the Happy Days era to know, a reservoir of committed couples not captured in the marriage and divorce statistics.  (It has nearly doubled since 1990, and one wonders what would happen to the marriage statistics if only cohabiting same-sex couples enjoyed the bare minimum of equal protection under the law.)

And so on:  whatever the data may be, with whatever problems of interpretation, Brooks doesn’t engage any of it, and thus has no basis for saying that familiar patterns of human mating have fallen prey to the evilss inherent in text message.

I’ll give Brooks this.  He’s clever.

Unlike Serious Person wannabe Megan McCardle, to take a favorite target here, he doesn’t commit himself to many real claims of fact that could simply be shown to be false.

Rather, as in the three paragraphs leading to his Extremely Serious Person conclusion, he avers, (a) that “the opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization” [aside:  was this man never at a party with more than one object of desire present?–ed.]; (b) that same opportunity” …seems to encourage an attitude of contingency;” and it  (c)  “…also seems to encourage an atmosphere of general disenchantment.”

Now that’s playing it safe.

You can’t quite call him wrong…because it only seems that he is completely off track…

Except I can and will.

Worse still, he is gutless.  He thinks he knows something so important that it must not be false, and therefore should not be checked.  That is, as any scientist knows, the fastest ticket to hell anyone nominally committed to reality can buy.

I’ll close with one last example, just because it gives me an excuse to post some Youtubes I wanted to get up there anyway.  Brooks writes

Across the centuries the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment.

But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. A coat of ironic detachment is required for anyone who hopes to withstand the brutal feedback of the marketplace. In today’s world,the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner.

Oh my dear FSM.

It’s not just the women, it’s those damned environmentalists too.

Lot’s to dissect here, but why?  Brooks is mailing it in through this passage, as he has for the column as a whole,  I suppose.

I could point out that “texting” and “the utilitarian mindset” are not equivalents, either as entitites in the world — one is an action, the other is a worldview — nor as complementary phenomena.  One may txt a love letter — hell , whole novels are written on cell phones — while it is almost overwhelmingly obtuse for Brooks to use a scary word like  “utilitarian” to mean, I think, “instrumental,” and not that philosophical position that is, at least for some, the gateway to a truly humane understanding of our obligations to our fellows.

I could note that his maunderings about love as a holy cause is the stuff of Regency Romances, and capturing none of the extraordinarily rich history of both the idea and experience of love and marriage, that legal commitment that is as much about property law as it is about passion. (See Middlemarch if you want eloquent testimony to that hard truth). [Update: or as Tim notes in the comments, ponder the history of love as the enemy of sound marriage — as in Tim’s on-target example of the source of tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.]

I could note that Wallace Stevens was an insurance man, William Carlos Williams a doctor, and that poet laureate of anti-Semitism, the man whose poetry was better than his cause, T. S. Eliot, was a banker.  And yet somehow these men, fulfilling their utilitarian obligations within the brutal feedback mechanism that is the market, somehow managed to write a lick or two more imaginatively and poetically than one Mr. David Brooks, himself a prosodic peddlar of easy nostalgia and misremembered pasts.

But why bother, when Brooks’ true sin in this passage is his attempt to neuter the Boss.  I mean, Bruce Springsteen can surely write as romantic a ballad as anyone… but he’s also written this:

And this:

And, if you really want to get your Jersey groove on, this:

(and if you think this one’s a paean to self sacrifice and selfless commitment, you might want to ponder the concept of fever in the context of love.  Just sayin.)

Seriously, Mr. Brooks.


Trust me on this.  There is nothing more painful than watching an aging never-cool guy — long past the need for coolth — trying to be catch the wave just once in life.

Which means, right here and right now:  Don’t go bandying your Bruce at me.

That is all.  [Ain’t that enough?–ed.]

Images:  Alexander Vladimirovich Makovski, “I am bored with you,” 1897.

Sir Frank Dicksee, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” c. 1890.

Jan van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait” 1434