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The Evolution of David Brooks

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© Stephen Voss

by Marc Fisher

David Brooks, that rare New York Times columnist equally criticized by liberals and conservatives alike, was born in Toronto, Canada. His father’s college teaching jobs brought the family to New York City and Philadelphia before Brooks headed off to college at the University of Chicago, where he caught the attention of William F. Buckley. After graduation, Brooks worked as a reporter for the City News Bureau, a Chicago wire service. He left for a job at Buckley’s National Review, where he made the jump to opinion journalism. Later, he edited book reviews and op-eds at The Wall Street Journal before moving on to The Weekly Standard.

Brooks began his tenure as a columnist for the op-ed page of The New York Times in 2003. There were liberal readers who bristled over every column—even those that swept aside evanescent political issues in favor of exploring broader themes of American culture. And from the right, there were conservatives who viewed Brooks as an apostate—a closet liberal, even.

In the past year or so, Brooks—who also teaches a course at Yale University and is a regular on NPR and PBS’s NewsHour—has grown noticeably weary of the passing parade of politics, and pivoted from his fascination with social science and neuroscience to matters of faith and morality. Brooks has long attended Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington with many well-connected and politically influential members. The recently divorced Brooks is part of an informal Jewish study group led by Orthodox scholar Erica Brown along with fellow prominent Washingtonians, among them former Meet the Press host David Gregory and Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Brooks says he now also meets regularly with Christian theologians.

As Brooks, 54, struggles publicly with questions about who we are and what we believe,  he is more cryptic about what he describes as his transition into a new religious community. In this interview with Washington Post senior editor and Moment contributor Marc Fisher, he discusses his evolving perspective, while seeking to retain a zone of privacy around his changing spiritual life.     

There’s been a shift in the tenor and content of your columns and other work over the past year or so. This year, you’ve written 51 columns on timeless, big questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and 40 columns on news of the moment, mainly politics and policy.

Wow. I would have thought it had been the reverse.

You’ve been writing about your desire to live with a passion for meaning, about how you want to be more like people who display a generosity of spirit. You wrote that you want “to be better at balancing my life.” How’s that going?

It’s going okay. Every day, I try to read something of some meaning. This morning, I read a book about how we find our callings. I always try to keep a book like that open. The question is: Am I a better person? I hope so. My mornings are sadder.

I had a student come up to me at the end of this class I taught at Yale, and he said, “Since I’ve been taking the class, I’m much sadder than I used to be.” And I took that as a win. Sadness is not quite the right word. Hunger and longing is what I mean. There’s a biblical verse, “Blessed are the hungry ones.” So I’m hungry for this sort of knowledge. I have this vision that if I do this long enough, I’ll be the sort of person who, when people come to you for advice, I’ll have answers, I’ll have wisdom. I’m not sure it will really work that way, but the one measurable thing I’ve noticed in my life is that people never used to confide in me, and now, they do. I don’t always know what to say, but I’m getting there.

About Moment:  For more than four decades, Moment readers have participated in a spirited conversation about life from a Jewish perspective—a conversation that started more than 5,000 years ago. They like us because we’re different—we’re non-denominational, totally independent, and utterly committed to excellent journalism. We transcend ideology and allow for a genuine exchange of ideas. We’re always up-to-date in the latest in Jewish culture, politics and religion. Moment was founded in 1975 by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel and writer Leonard Fein. It’s editor and publisher today is journalist Nadine Epstein.

 

While I was counting columns, I noticed a marked turn in the sources and readings you’ve been relying on. It’s a shift from social scientists to philosophers, clergy and novelists. Is that a purposeful change?

Yes. I’d written this book, The Social Animal, and it had a lot of social scientists in it. I don’t abandon that stuff; it’s very useful. But I’ve really become disillusioned—not completely—but halfway disillusioned with neuroscience. Ten years ago, I thought that was going to teach us a lot about who we are. And it does, a little. It teaches you the importance of emotion, how the amygdala is involved in everything. But I don’t think neuroscience has taught us anything that George Eliot didn’t already know. It doesn’t at all solve the problem of meaning. So I felt I had to go back to the Soloveitchiks or the Niebuhrs or George Eliot or Dostoyevsky, who didn’t have fMRI machines but were pretty good observers of human nature.

Was your decision to switch directions a factor of living in the digital age or of your stage in life, or were there other reasons?

It’s a lot of things. First, stage in career, in which I’ve achieved more worldly success than I’d ever imagined and am not satisfied. Second, stage in our culture, which has gotten so technology-oriented. Third, teaching at Yale, where everything’s so achievement- and résumé-oriented. Fourth, I just read a book from Carl Jung, of all people, who said that every single one of his middle-aged clients was mourning the loss of a religious sense and was searching for that religious sense. And there’s some element of that in me. And then finally, there used to be a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschels in the world, and even Billy Grahams, and they were commenting in public on moral issues. Now we just don’t have as many. Jonathan Sacks is one. The Pope is obviously a giant. But there are really very few. And when I write about it, the reader interest is just off the charts. So if I’m interested—and I’ve learned, being a columnist, that it pays to be self-indulgent—and if the readers are interested, that’s a home run.

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Brooks gave the keynote address at a Gordon College event this past September. Gordon College is a nondenominational Christian college in Wenham, MA.

 

Will you eventually go entirely in that direction? Do you feel at all schizophrenic now, being on one hand a traditional political pundit and on the other a public moralist or sermonizer?

If I were just doing sermons, it might get bogged down. And I know my employers want me to pay attention to politics. If I were just doing politics, I’d get bored. I confess I am more excited by the moral and cultural columns than the political ones. But I believe in dual callings. One of my callings is to represent a certain moderate Republican Whig political philosophy, and the other is to try to shift the conversation more in a moral and theological direction.

Is there a conflict in trying to work on these moral issues in daily journalism? Is journalism by its nature relativistic?

There are some people who don’t expect to read this kind of crap in a newspaper. But I have found mostly welcome arms. I gave a speech in Connecticut, a very moral speech, and the women were loving it. But a bunch of guys, mostly hedge-fund guys, listened and said, “You’re making me feel guilty, I really don’t need this. Let’s talk about Chris Christie’s prospects.” But when I do public speaking now, I do this stuff full bore. I haven’t given a political speech in years. And there’s an intensity of listening that’s greater than anything I’ve ever experienced. There’s a hunger across all ages.

Did you need to reach a certain age or maturity to shift into this focus on morals?

No, I don’t think so. At 14 or 15, you discover profundity. And from then on, you’re hungry. I was having coffee with one of my students at Yale and he said, “We’re so hungry.” Because they’ve been raised with so little moral vocabulary and so much achievement orientation. They feel they’re humans, they have souls. I don’t have to tell them how to be good. I just have to name the categories. If we use a word like “grace,” what does that mean? Or “sin,” what does that mean? I don’t have to say, “Don’t be sinful.”

Was there a threshold event that led to your new focus on morality and spirituality?

No, I didn’t have a midlife crisis. If anything, it was the opposite, it was moments of coming home and seeing my kids so happy, and meeting people who were just so joyful. And I would love to experience and radiate that inner joy, which they did. So it’s more aspirational than that I hit rock bottom and I’m rebounding.

Did you become frustrated by our culture’s inability to focus on bigger questions?

Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say. We became such a diverse society that it became hard to know what to say without insulting somebody. And then we became a very individualistic society. If there’s something I’ve been frustrated with, it’s our excessively individualistic society. That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings. That, to me, was the big wrong turn.

Is that equally true on the right and the left?

Totally. The 1960s and 1970s were a great age of social individualism from the left. The 1980s and 1990s were a great age of economic individualism from the right. And as a result, we eviscerated a lot of things that we held in common.

Have you experienced a loss of personal religious purpose or are you seeing this primarily in society at large?

Both. Some people pray at shul or at church or mosque, or in the woods. I pray by writing. And that means sometimes I’m like one of those creatures who’s preaching to himself from the pulpit. I’ve been observant mostly through my family. We kept kosher at home, my kids went to Jewish day schools, we had Shabbat meals. So at that moment, I was more traditionally observant than I am now. At the same time, I’m now reading a lot more Soloveitchik and a lot more Heschel. So in some sense my observance is down but my thinking is up.

Is there a correlation between the two?

No, I should be doing both. I probably should be in community and in my mind. I’m too much in my mind and not enough in community.

But you’ve hinted that you’ve undergone some kind of shift in spiritual outlook. What is that?

I don’t talk about my own faith. It’s all so new and green that I’m afraid if I talk about it in public, it will become like my political opinions, just a bumper sticker, not a living, breathing thing. I will say that right now I’m just a magpie. I read everything, and some of it is Jewish and some of it is Christian, and some of it is just humanistic. Ethnically, culturally, historically, I’m Jewish. Parts of Jewish theology I like—the emphasis on agency. There are parts of Christianity—a more richly developed sense of grace— that I find very beautiful. And so now, just in my attempt at understanding, I’m reading everything and seeing everybody. I go to the Jewish Theological Seminary and I go to Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts. I’m just in learning mode.

You said you should be more in community. Have you done that?

That part I really don’t like to talk about. But the short answer is I haven’t found a community.

In a number of columns this year, you seem to be struggling with what you do and don’t want to talk about publicly. One column in particular generated a lot of speculation about your marriage and your relationship with your children. Talk a little about the tension between exposing your personal life and the fact that you write a very personal column.

That column read more personal than it was. I was at a party and a woman came up to me whose children had just gone off to college, and she was just crushed, just so sad. It wasn’t me. My kids were already off to college, and I wasn’t that crushed. That conversation was the impetus for that column. It was about when love goes away and how you keep it at that distance. Sometimes you write with an intensity so that people feel, oh, God, he’s spilling his guts. In that case, they weren’t my guts. When I re-read it a couple of months later, I could see why people were saying, “Why is David having mass therapy in The New York Times?” But there is a larger issue of how much to reveal, and I find this is intensely generational. People under 30 are bugged, in some innate way, by the reticence. I grew up in a reticent family, in a reticent culture. Most of my heroes were very reticent. Frances Perkins did not like talking about her private life. George Marshall, too. Some of my writer heroes, Niebuhr, Heschel or Irving Kristol, they could talk about these issues without saying, “Now I’m going to tell you what happened in my bedroom.” That involves lifting the skirt to the calf but not above the waist. I can tell you one thing: I’m certainly not holding up my life as a model.

You say in The Social Animal that although you write about emotions, you’re not good at expressing them. Actually, you say, “I’m naturally bad at it.” How does your desire to be better at expressing emotion square with your ideas about the virtue of restraint and reticence?

A woman in her 60s who had lost her son in a freak auto accident came up to me not long ago. She just described it to me and said, “How do I make sense of this?” Of course, there’s no answer you can give. But you can hug the person, and so now I’m a little better at that, just because I’ve spent the last ten years writing about and dwelling in the land of emotion. Before, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I find it easier with audiences than with individuals. In this last book, I wanted to have a variety of professions represented among the heroes I held up, and the toughest profession in which to find a really good person was writing. Writers tended to be narcissistic, and they were bad to the people around them. In journalism, we erect walls between us and people. It’s sort of a faux intimacy.

Orthodox scholar Erica Brown interviewed David Brooks in 2011. Brooks has participated in a study group run by Brown in Washington, DC.

Orthodox scholar Erica Brown interviewed David Brooks in 2011. Brooks has participated in a study group run by Brown in Washington, DC.

 

We’re playing roles.

Yes, playing roles. I was struck when I went to The New York Times 13 years ago for the first time by how many shy and socially awkward people there were. I remember thinking, interviewing is a social activity, but it’s structured. So if you’re awkward, you know how to do it, but it’s not like hanging out at a party.

In the book and in columns, you argue that we need to find a way out of the celebration of self and concentration on self that has characterized the secular West since World War II. After the war, you said, there was a “renunciation of renunciations.” What have you renounced?

I think our problem is too much freedom. The great challenge for me is tying myself down, and that involves maritally, that involves defining what I’m doing with the column. The thing I have not done is tie myself to a community.

Have you found examples in history of societies that have rediscovered or rekindled community?

Totally. In Ephesus, when the Roman Empire was at a stage of late, high decadence, there was a little guy in the market, who everyone probably considered a weirdo, named St. Paul, and he was preaching. Within 300 years, Ephesus was a ruin and Paul’s religion had taken over the world. There are other cases, closer to home. In 1830, in this country, it was totally acceptable to go to work, drink all day, drink afterwards, go home and beat your wife. By 1840, that was completely unacceptable. There was an awakening, and people said no, we don’t tolerate that. The year Judaism was most unpopular in America was probably 1913—all these immigrants’ kids wanted to renounce their parents’ culture, their parents’ religion, so they went totally secular. And then they snapped back, because human nature doesn’t change. These are all cases where what we thought was the modern trend has been reversed. People want community. They want their traditions.

You’ve become comfortable talking about some religious concepts to secular audiences who don’t always think they want to hear that.

A lot of the people I speak to are slightly religious or sort of religious, and when they left their church or synagogue, they got untrained in a vocabulary. I try to explain their vocabulary in non-religious ways. You can use the word sin as original sin, or, in secular vocabulary, sin is when you get your loves out of order—if a friend confides in you and you blab his secret at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s wrong, that’s a sin. And it doesn’t require going back to Genesis. It’s just a secular way of describing what sin is. I’m always careful not to pretend that I’m a religious writer. I’m not. I don’t talk about God, barely at all.

Is God an important part of your life?

Yes, I believe in God. But I decided not to be a religious writer. I’m just not qualified. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from theologians. There’s a lot of wisdom in the Bible.

Are our politics an impediment to the return to that community you’re looking for?

Politics have become a perverted form of community. One of the reasons we’re so polarized is that becoming a Republican or becoming a Democrat has become an ethnic category. In 1970, people were asked, would you mind if your son or daughter married outside your party? Five percent would mind. Now, 40 percent would mind. That’s screwed up.

Do you see that reversing in any useful way?

No. Historians talk about cycles of polarization, but according to their rhythm, we should have been out of this one 15 or 20 years ago, and it’s not exactly happening.

President Obama in his first campaign and in his previous writing got into a lot of what you’re talking about. Why was he unable to translate his charisma and thinking about morality and spirituality into greater political success?

Well, he’s not the first to fail at that. George W. Bush was allegedly going to be a compassionate conservative. Where Obama overlapped the most with me was that he was a big student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and I think he misread Niebuhr. Niebuhr believed in taking action, but with modesty and caution. And to me, Obama doesn’t believe in taking action. To be fair, Niebuhr was about shades of gray, and it’s very hard when you’re president to lead with shades of gray. But Obama’s a writer more than he is a politician, and that personal aloofness hurt his performance. But there are moments when he’s found his voice, especially on racial matters.

Do you sense in him the same kind of disillusionment with politics that comes through in your recent writing?

Yes, on stilts. I sense in him a disillusion with the stupidities he’s forced to put up with at every level. And there’s a little arrogance that, you know, he’s a visitor from a superior civilization.

Since you’re still in the pundit game, I have to ask, who do you think will be the next president and why will Americans choose him or her?

I think Hillary Clinton will be the next president. My normal rule is, people vote for order. They may want change, they may be disgusted with politics. But that disgust tends to lead to low expectations, and “just don’t screw things up any more.” And Clinton is a safe choice and moderately competent. People don’t like her, but she seems strong. I’ve always believed that Marco Rubio would be the Republican nominee because he has the raw talent, he has no natural opponents in the party, and he’s a decent guy and people like him.

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32 comments

  1. Gene Schulman

    The more I read by, of and about this guy, the more I want to puke. He was bad enough as a conservative political pundit, but his turn to ‘new age’ spiritualism merely indicates his lack of maturity and understanding.

    BTW: Moment Magazine is new to me. There seem to be more and more Jewish publications crowding out secular news. Alas.

    http://www.momentmag.com/the-evolution-of-david-brooks/

    • Nothing about why Brooks is “bad enough,” you simply say he makes you want “to puke.” Were you being ironic when you mentioned maturity and understanding?

      And Jewish publications are crowding out countless secular ones in the U.S.? You don’t seem to really believe that. There’s another point you’re trying to make.

  2. There is no god. Get over it.

  3. At the core of our culture there’s a canker. We’ve delegated to science the coming up with our origin story. But the methods through which science views the world are blind to conciousness, self awareness, creativity and volition. So, necessarily, the origin story science came up with–modern evolutionary theory–employs a discourse omitting reference to these, “proving scientifically” that we’re purely physical–a tautology, of course, not a scientific discovery. I maintain a website encouraging artists and humanists to develop a discourse that, while rational, recognizes these aspects of human nature. It’s evolutionforthehumanities.com. And as a model for how to come up with such a new discourse I’ve published a theory of evolution arrived at through the methods of the humanities–storytelling, “Neither Darwin Nor Deity: making sense of being evolved.” David, I will send a copy to you at the NY Times.

    The origin story we subscribe to and teach is a filter limiting what we can believe of, and expect from, ourselves and each other. I want to spread awareness that we live in danger of institutionalizIng just such a filter. We have a right to believe first and foremost in what we know about ourselves, that we are conscious, self aware, creative and volitional. Limitations in the reach of science disqualifies it, and its organs such as the NCSE, from overriding that right.

  4. David Brooks is trying to do something that most columnists don’t ever attempt: to explore the gray areas between things they’re certain about. That’s what I read him for. I don’t usually agree with his conclusions, but I really like that [1] he tries to draw on many different sources of ideas and [2] he’s willing to take part in conversations which might turn out several different ways. The comments after his columns in the Times often lack that intellectual openness. It will be interesting to watch as his thinking evolves over the next decade.

    • You’re right DeeDub, but I’d go further -I think good folks who are on the left with both feet would feel a bit ashamed with the NYT commenters, esp. of Brooks. Not sure I’ve met one yet; the few I have mentioned my feelings to a)don’t see it (maybe I’m imagining the level of intensity of shout-down) b)don’t see it as demonstrable of anything (of what I’d say is hatred) or c)regard it as a necessary keeping in check of Fox News or something. For a while I was surprised because I expected intellectual openness from it’s readers. Now I’d say NYT readers seem intellectually open to their own ideas and it stops there.

  5. A thinker in his 50’s! We need more of them!

    • Yes! A thinker of any age in our day seems to be the exception to the rule. Glad to read of one example of a journalist who is more about substance than style, and is not afraid to plumb the depths of what it means to be human.

  6. Too bad we don’t have Christopher Hitchens around — he’d make mince meat of him.

  7. REBECCA GRATZ

    I don’t mind a good sermon, but Brooks packs his writing with so many ridiculous generalizations as to make him unreadable.

    I wish the NYT would stop humoring his midlife crisis and find a more compelling conservative voice. (I’m a liberal but I want to hear the other side.)

    Anyone claiming to be a moral seeker while supporting Rubio is a hypocrite.

  8. What a poser. Even Hillary doesn’t proclaim to be a moderate. Brooks lives in a cocoon.

    No republicans think of Brook of anything other than a useful idiot for the NY Times. He is not conservative on any issue nor is he a republican. He is not an intellectual – he is taking space that is being labeled as conservative but he is one more yes man to the elites who add nothing to society.

    Where is his audience? Don’t know anyone who quotes him other than those who mock him.

  9. There is no god, thank God for that.

  10. samuel johnston

    I applaud Brooks for considering first principles, but I am not so sure he should be writing about them until his thoughts have congealed. His quest for meaning certainly seems naive to me. Life is opportunity. Glory in it! But does it really require any significance beyond that? So far, all such speculation has failed to achieve either general acceptance, or verification.

  11. This is a guy who said he was voting for Obama based on his pants being perfectly creased. Now he wants Hillary.

    And a guy who says “medical corpse” and thinks Austrians speak “Austrian” is frustrated by all the stupidities he has to deal with? Brooks is delusional.

    This is the NYTimes version of a conservative deep thinker.

    Please.

    • Who do you want to be president and who do you think is going to win are to completely different questions. He was asked and answered the latter.

  12. Political Correctness is perhaps a brainwashing technique based on Marxist Critical Theory

    It is a system of cyclical logic that once adopted by the user never allows for another approach, and the end-game is that the assigned antagonist always embodies hatred, racism, or oppression.

    They become intellectually trapped because in order to see and realize when they err, they would have to empathize and entertain their assigned antagonists point of view…this causes great cognitive dissonance due to contradicting their previously assigned value of the antagonist and so is rejected or avoided.

    The remaining cognitive dissonance is alleviated by the religious cult-like belief that they are on the ” right ” or ” good ” side of every issue, always battling racists, bigots, and oppressors, like religious zealots.

    And, just like religious zealots they always assume moral authority and claim to have ” more knowledge ” than the average folk.

    Religions have made up transgressions against their gods, and PC has made up transgressions against their ideal society

    It is the same type of system used by cults

  13. Mr. Brooks is an interesting amalgam of a confused, diverse, competitive culture. Unfortunately, he is not really of much use to it. Too much nattering and an aversion to taking a stand, or wanting anyone else to. Especially if that stand is anything less than completely tolerant of every other stand, which is no stand at all.

    Perhaps Mr. Brooks is experiencing an intellectual and spiritual progression similar to a caterpillar/chrysalis/metamrphasis/butterfly. Or maybe like a wasp. Time will tell.

  14. As a liberal who really likes Brooks, this interview made me think I get him less than I think. His willingness to be unsure, an explorer, always cheers me. He doesn’t make me sad. I look forward to learning what his explorations teach him.

    Now, I’ll try harder to understand his sadness.

  15. Brooks has really never seemed to be a conservative and I have disagreed with many of his columns.

    His current personal search is interesting. I get it, but I’m not as involved in my effort as he is in his

    Again, as in the past, his conclusion about Obama being disappointed with politics is off the mark in my opinion. If politics is about the art of compromise then I believe Obama has no experience in politics; but rather more experience community organizing, but on grand national level, in the cut and burn style of Saul Alinsky. Obama is a distructive force. Obama has done a lot of damage, some obvious now and more will revealed in the future.

  16. One more thing,

    I notice that Mr. Brooks does not site literature as a source of his learning. I’d be interested in knowing why.

    The subject of religion and books made me think of Mary McCarthy and Mallory Ortberg (dear Prudence for Slate magazine.) They both have written of how their religious learning as youths (Catholic and Evangelical respectively) prepared them for deep understanding and enjoyment of literature.

  17. He’s not really New Age. He’s moving toward Christ but won’t make a commitment – that’s why he sounds fuzzy. Neutral “spirituality” won’t get you anywhere.

  18. Harry Freiberg

    I fully expect, soon, to read that David Brooks has 1. become a Christian convert and 2. an employee for AEI…

  19. Esther Miriam

    Seeking spiritual community with other male media stars doesn’t seem very promising, even if all are Jewish. Brooks stays in his head, still, and apparently wants to become a guru/rebe, a goal not the same as a mensch.

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