David Brooks Is Always Wrong-Yeshiva Bocher edition
David Brooks is the plausible half of the Times’ con-op pair; Douthat, to be sneered at later, is the best known for not being as overtly, epically awful as William Kristol. (Talk about the subtle bigotry of low expectations.)
Brooks’ trick, the one he’s mastered as his inferiors on the Right bloviating bench have not, is to present sentences that seem to imply great learning, whilst never falling into the temptation to make specific claims of fact that can be shown to be wrong. It’s an important skill, and it fools lots of people who should know better. Not so long ago, I was talking with a reporter from the Great Grey Lady herself — a good one, a real journalist covering a difficult beat and doing it well. Douthat, my interlocuter agreed, was an embarassment. But Brooks. Now there was someone, said my companion, who even if you disagreed with him, always managed to surprise you.
Well, I suppose, but not in a good way.
After I recovered from blowing bourbon though my nose, I put it to the room that the problem was that Brooks arrived not at unanticipated conclusions, but at pre-determined ones, to which he gave unmerited weight by grabbing the lustre of some intellectual antecedent or another whether or not that purported authority actually bore on the case at hand.
He does some variation on this gimmick over and over again. It can be an appeal to anonymous “culture” — as in this catastrophe of a column — or it can be a more direct invocation of some exceptionally learned, and often obscure source.
So it is with Brooks now infamous column on Jeremy Lin, basketball and Jewish Modern Orthodoxy.
Brooks of course has taken plenty of hits for his astonishing display of cluelessness about big time sports in general, basketball in particular, and the nature of the point guard position in fine detail. Charlie Pierce’s take down is vintage, but folks both here and many other places have had their way with the last-kid-picked-for-dodgeball poster child that is our David. I agree with everything said in such pieces; it takes a willed choice to write so badly, so wrongly about something as broadly understood and loved as basketball.
But I think that all those snarktacular take downs stopped short. Brooks is probably not as utterly dumb about this stuff as he appears to be in the first three quarters of the column; rather, as always with this sorry excuse for a public thinker, there’s a specific goal in mind. You have to look carefully, because he tries to disguise the tell in such a way you won’t notice the bad faith that underlies what he presents as a self-evident conclusion.
So, in this column, the goal isn’t to make any kind of point about basketball, or the nature of sport, or even about what actually goes into superlative performance in any human endeavor. The real end of Brooks’ barrage of high-toned word salad* comes late, almost buried in a gush of seemingly deeply pondered thought:
Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.
Translated: it’s OK for the bishops to meddle with your lady parts because they are really engaging the tragic tension between ambition and self-abnegation. Don’t get angry, because, damn it, this moral balancing is hard.
Of course, had Brooks simply said that we should not resist the injection of one view of religious obligation into the discourse of civil society, it would have been much easier just to say what many have recently hammered home: it’s not religious conscience that’s the problem; it’s the assertion of one person’s religious views (biases, delusions) at the expense of others’ ethical, moral, and or faith-derived perspectives.
So, what Brooks has to do here, slyly, is to assert a universal, inarguable property of moral thinking that could trump any picayune sectarian objection that, say, my interpretation of Jewish tradition would prohibit state-sponsored rape. He does so with the rhetorical gimmick outlined above. Lin, he tells us, is caught between his desire to excel as a basketball player, which Lin sees as self-glorifying, and the ability to direct the greater glory to the divine. That tension, Brooks tells us, lies between “two moral universes” that are not reconciliable.
And here is where he rolls out his big gun, a suitably impressive sounding, but (outside certain circles) almost wholly unknown really smart guy:
Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures.
A couple of things to note here. First, check out the very clever way in which Brooks appropriates to himself the mantle of the wise man. “Our best teacher,” he writes, to introduce Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is indeed a major figure in the construction of the Modern Orthodox view of Jewish life and faith. The implication is clear. Brooks himself has tilled these fields, has spent all the needed long hours in the study hall to master his Torah and his Talmud, the commentaries and the responsa — and from all this has distilled the labor of centuries to an essence captured by this one writer, hitherto utterly unknown to most of his readership. It’s a lovely bit of sleight of hand: Soloveitchik’s asserted authority confers greater weight on Brooks himself in his role as the judge of the “best” source on matters of moral complexity. How fortunate we are to have humble David as our guide!
The second feature to notice is that Brooks, in what appears to be his SOP, seems to hope that no one will actually go read the (outside Jewish Orthodox circles) reasonably obscure works he references. You will note that links to the two essays Brooks singles out are strangely missing. One might infer that such works — religious meditations by an orthodox Rabbi who died almost a decade ago (aeons in internet years!) could only be found in tattered volumes found in stacks to which most folks will never gain access. Or one might wonder about the possibility of bad faith.
Bet on door number two.
So what happens should you actually dive into that work?
Well — let’s look at what Brooks says he gets from his august teacher:
First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.In The Lonely Man of Faith and Majesty and Humility, he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.
Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the Earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.
A couple of thing. For one, it’s “The Lonely Man…” that engages the story of the two Adams. The other essay does draw a dichotomy based on two notions of the first man’s creation, but it draws on a rabbinical tradition to pick out two aspects of religious experience which Soloveitchik deploys to a distinct interpretative end — an astonishingly moving one when the essay shifts from a larger argument to an account of Soloveitchik’s search for some communion with the divine at the point of his wife’s death.
But really, all that’s trivial compared to the real sin Brooks commits here. That would be — and I’m sure this comes as no surprise — that he simply gets it wrong. What Brooks says about Soloveitchik’s teaching is not what can be found in the writing cited. Look above: Brooks claims that the man of faith suffers loneliness because he must move between an active role building the world and the passive one of an observer humbled by the glory of God’s creation. Here’s what the rabbi actually concludes:
Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the “foreign” language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by hinself. When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first—be he an outsider, be he himself. He returns, like Moses of old, to his solitary hiding and to the abode of loneliness. Yes, the loneliness of contemporary man of faith is of a special kind. He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma. This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man. (“The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 65)
So, to Soloveitchik, a person engaged in this world, Adam the First, is demonic (his word) in his quest to succeed. Adam the Second is lonely, but not because he has a dual allegiance, not because he flits between a sense of work and success in this world and a contemplative life of prayer and surrender. Rather, he suffers solitude — or embraces it — because the men and women of the world pay him insufficient heed.
That’s Soloveitchik’s view. I think it suffers from a conclusion derived from assumptions not in evidence, but that’s not the point. It is, rather, that Brooks distorts what his source plainly writes to bend that thinker’s ends to his own. This is the most basic form of intellectual dishonesty, an attempt to bolster a bad argument by laying claim to the authority but not the actual sense of a mind greater than one’s own. It is Brooks’ stock in trade.
And this takes us back to the end to which Brooks hoped to turn this bit of fakery. Remember, we face an irreducible contradiction. We must, he beseeches us, concede that the two goals of mastery — really authority over our own bodies, agency — and that of surrender, of devotion to something beyond ourselves are “irreconciliable” — which means we must at times defer to one side or the other. And that, he says, is what those who object to religion’s intervening into politics don’t get, but should.
Which is to say — sometimes you have to let the bishops mess with your body, or your desire to have sexytime without intending to enjoy babytime. That’s the price of living with the incompatibility of agency and surrender to established (moral) authority.
You can see why Brooks might not want to say that plain.
More simply: Expressed clearly Brooks’ conclusion does not follow from his premise: a this-world focus does not preclude a rich moral life, nor does it bar the recognition that life is tragic, that man (and woman) born of woman is bound to die. Those who oppose the injection of particular religious views into politics are unable to see complexity in life? Really? In what corner of the multiverse?
And that’s why you get all the wind and the flapping of authorial buttocks in this piece: Soloveitchik is this week’s victim of David’s friendly fire, just a name to be propped up to obscure the fatuousness of the underlying argument. No orthodox anything me, but the old Rabbi deserves better, and Brooks should, but won’t, be ashamed of himself.
I’ll give him this, though: he’s good. You do have to work to find the con in his work. But it’s always there.
So, in conclusion, let me simply say to Mr. Brooks (having finally exhausted any last reserve of politesse)…
…F**k you. With an oxidized farm implement.
*Think of Brooks as the rocket, goat cheese, and heirloom pear end of the spectrum of the baffle-with-bullshit crowd.
Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Old Rabbi, 1642
Pedro Berruguete, Burning the Heretics (Auto da fé), c. 1500
Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante (Divine Comedy, Inferno, 8) ,1822.
Jacob Jordaens, Suzanna and the Elders, before 1678.