Headless Statue
Claremont, CA. Men of Western civilization, take note: David Brooks thinks that you – and he – are done for.

In a recent exchange with Gail Collins, published on The New York TimesOpinionator Blog,” Brooks makes an argument that boils down to the following five points:

1)   Westerners think linearly, and in terms of individuals, while Asians think more in terms of context.

2)   Women pick up more social signals than men do.

3)   We live in a newly “networked age of social information flows.”

4)   Therefore, Asians and women are better equipped to deal with the twenty-first century world.

5)   Western men had better shed that “linear style we’ve inherited from the Greeks” and “change and adapt quickly!”

Keep in mind that Brooks calls himself a “moderate conservative,” which is a strange thing to do when you make arguments that advocate neither moderation nor conservation. (Someone should tell him that he’d better put his exclamation points away before company comes over if he wants to maintain that moderate-conservative facade.)

The whole argument keeps reminding me of the plot of Blade Runner: a future where the street signs are all in kanji, and the loner white man is running around trying to undo the past mistakes of his kind and figure out what women are thinking in the vast, urban microchip jungle.

Things work out OK for Harrison Ford in that movie, as I remember, so maybe Brooks can take heart.

Or maybe not. Because if we take Brooks as an Emblem of Modern Western Man – I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but work with me, here – it seems to me that Modern Western Man’s problem might be his inclination to overgeneralize to the point of sounding a bit hysterical.

I’ve heard lots of ostensibly smart people make arguments like this one lately, and they set my teeth on edge, especially when they somehow involve criticism of the ancient Greeks. Don’t be messing with my long-dead Greek boys, David Brooks!

It’s hardly radical to say that the intellectual legacy of the ancient Greeks is a legacy of complexity, one which offers many grounds for us – the human “us” that eclipses distinctions of culture or gender – to complicate and add nuance to our conventional understandings of things.

Herodotus, for instance, spends a lot of his History calling into question the extent to which the conventional distinctions between “Greek and barbarian” (or European and Asian) are really meaningful, or even exist. And in The Republic Socrates famously calls into question whether the conventional distinctions between women and men are really meaningful, or even exist.

Those old Greek dudes remind us, in other words, of the need to interrogate precisely the kinds of claims that Brooks is making – to question the argument from its premises to conclusion. In doing so, they help to tone things down, to help us think through our own uncertain times without jumping to inappropriate conclusions. As the political theorist Sheldon Wolin has written, “The archaic forces the modern into self-questioning, slowing the urge to totalize.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we can only find such intellectual resources in ancient Greek teaching, or in Western thought more generally. But I am saying that it might not be wise to abandon the Western tradition altogether (to the extent, that is, that we can even claim that a self-contained “Western tradition” exists) in the name of change and adaptation, at least not just yet. Not, that is, in an age when even self-proclaimed conservatives are susceptible to thinking that is ungrounded in multiple senses of the word.

For lots of reasons, I’m not sure the call to “change and adapt quickly,” exclamation point, is the best one. It’s too easy for people who lose their footing to lose their heads.

You should probably take my word for it, especially if you are a man. After all, I do have that feminine insight into social life that allows me to see all the complexity that you boys, like David Brooks, tend to miss.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Susan, I haven’t read the piece and now don’t intend to. Your gentle destruction of Brooksy is so compelling that I think the picture should show the head and not the body. He apparently does not exist below the neck.

  2. Ms. McWilliams, thank you! This is great (though apparently we’re no longer supposed to make these kind of comments. Sorry.).

    Mr. Willson, thank you for the visualization of body-self dualism! Ha. We should suggest some Aristotle for him to read.

  3. In composing intelligent remarks in response to Brooks gems such as — “This seems like a gross generalization but it is robustly supported by hundreds and hundreds of studies” — Ms. McWilliams has squeezed blood from a stone (head).

    I mean, honestly, I should think it’s like trying to rebut a Monty Python character or something.

    We’re doomed, my good chap! No, no point denying it — doomed! Too much linear thinking, and too many Greeks!

    And shrubbery!

  4. The best way to interact with the output of David Brooks is to consider them a kind of inadvertent satire, burbling up like a viscous ooze out of the popular culture he inhabits with such steady alacrity. When one is Most Favored Conservative Court Jester to the so-called “Liberal” Media, one inhabits a kind of lark and if Willson thinks Brooks might not have a body while any sentient being knows his head is a mirage, we are confronted with the fact that he is some kind of phantasm for the internet age. Perhaps he is one of those manifestations of modernity he likes to cover…like the BoBo…maybe he’s one of those role playing figures…a statistical creation representing the Greatest Hits of Semi-conservative Sophistry.

  5. Elaine of Seinfeld and Susan of the Front Porch are right: exclamation points generally ought to be limited to birth annnouncements.
    Y’all (not Susan) are too hard on Brooks, though. The man knows more about our politics and our culture than most of us do. But it’s undeniable that being a brainy conservative-leaning moderate without having the wisdom (i.e., the grounding) commensurate with that braininess makes must make one, despite the semi-approval of NYT-types, a bit tiresome to oneself. And obviously, the columnists’ task of perpetually providing pithy lil points about “linear thinking” and what not, a la Tom Freidman and bad management books, must really, realy suck!!! (3 exclamation points are hardly enough!) His Bobo books are so much better, and I’m sure Susan likes them or would if she hasn’t picked them up. And if Mark Shields, the 1,342,678th example of a stale-boomer-who-so-obviously-needs-to-retire, were to finally leave the News Hour, Brooks might be able to have some intelligent and politically wise conversations there. Perhaps his talents are more suited to pundit-talk and the book, and the column is deadly for him.
    Ciao, I’m off to get in touch with my socially-networked and informationally flowing metro-asiatical side.

  6. Slightly off-topic perhaps, but I think Ms. McWilliams needs to watch Blade Runner again if she thinks that “things work out OK for Harrison Ford in that movie”, unless she’s referring to the studio cut with its tacked-on happy ending.

  7. Just to say Brook’s internet moniker is Bobo..

    And if I recall correctly, in BladeRunner Ford dies with his head between Darryl Hannah thighs…

    There are worse ways to go 😀

  8. Sorry Pale Scot. Spoilers follow for those who haven’t seen the film.

    In the studio cut, a convenient deus ex machina means that Rachel doesn’t only have the standard 4-year lifespan of a replicant after all, and she and Deckard drive off into some recycled footage of the mountains (taken from The Shining) to live happily ever after.

    In the director’s cut, Gaff reveals to Deckard (by way of an origami replica of the unicorn he had been dreaming about) that he too is a replicant, captured and programmed by the Tyrell Corporation to hunt down the other replicants. With the awful knowledge of the implications of this, he and Rachel go away together to die. By the simple addition of a 17 second dream sequence (the origami unicorn was also in the studio cut, but didn’t mean anything), the film is therefore transformed from a conventional thriller into a meditation on mortality.

  9. “2) Women pick up more social signals than men do.

    3) We live in a newly “networked age of social information flows.”

    4) Therefore, Asians and women are better equipped to deal with the twenty-first century world.”

    This is another way of saying that sociopathy (surface appearance) is and has triumphed over substance.
    Readers and introverted people who may reflect more on history than hairstyles and hype on both the left and right are being increasingly pushed to the margins by the media generated corporate hologram.

    Although I consider myself on the “Green” anti authoritarian left I find far more of substance to agree with here a Front Porch Republic and in Susan McWilliams’s article specifically than anything the same old, same old, tired corporate puppet Democrats or the “liberal” (decadent consumerist) media have to offer.

    Keep on keeping on, and know that you don’t only have the ear of pleo-cons but a lot of us on the anti authoritarian anti corporate left as well.

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