Sunday, July 20, 2014

Brooks' Brilliantly Banal Bullshit

This is my second post on the New York Times Op Ed writer David Brooks in the past few months mainly because he so perfectly captures the laziness of far too many of our media pundits today. When David Gregory screamed “Obama Economy” in the middle of an interview with Rick Santorum a couple of weeks ago (see link here), few were really surprised. NBC has been called a GOP friend by the GOP itself since at least when Bush ran for reelection in 2004, and Gregory has never been mistaken for a serious journalist by anyone beyond NBC. Sure Bill Maher and John Stewart provide strong and well-reasoned critique of politics, and the media, but they are able to do this from the lofty confines of humor, where accountability is limited. Rachel Maddow tries hard to provide an alternative voice to the right-leaning mainstream media, but often seems to surround herself with those who support her general ideological position. And then there are true greats of journalism like Jim Lehrer and Bill Moyers, though they are so far outside the mainstream as to offer but a whisper of reasoned debate against the spectacle-driven, rightward turn that has swamped and undermined the fourth estate.

Brooks has been writing banal tripe for so long it is hard to understand who even reads him seriously any more and who in the world is buying his books. The more fascinating question that emerges, as he gets lazier and lazier in both his writing and thinking, is whether he can reach the basement of expectations that Bill Kristol elicited before being pushed aside by the Editors at the Times after a short spell in that hallowed space. But there seems to be little chance of him being so unceremoniously dispatched from the perch where he offers us such brilliant analysis as wondering whether life is “more life baseball or soccer.” Seriously? This is how bad things have gotten for the right, where their most reasonable intellectual, besides the disingenuous Paul Ryan, is this simpleton buffoon. Let’s take a like at the highlights of this column from July 10:

“Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.” Hmm, let’s see – a pitcher throws a ball, which is either hit by a batter or caught by the catcher, who tells the pitcher what to throw (based on what the manager has told him, in many cases). If the batter gets the ball in play, a player must grab that ball and, if it’s on the ground, throw it to at least one other. I could go on, but it is an absurd argument to claim that baseball is predominantly an individual sport. It has consistently been shown that a bunch of super stars on one team very often doesn’t lead to a World Series victory, and that above average teams with great chemistry can, in fact, win it all.

He then goes on to argue, “In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space.” This makes more sense, except for the fact that goals often emerge as the result of a brilliant moment by one player (as we so often see with Messi, Ronaldo or Suarez), or a small group of players (like the beautiful team goal finished by Jack Wilshere last year for Arsenal). Soccer, aka football, is a team sport and has a lot to do with tactics and formation, but baseball is quite similar in a number of indirect ways that apparently Brooks never bothered to learn about (the shift, where to position fielders, pitch selection, moving runners, bunting, the squeeze, etc.). Individual moments occur more often in a baseball game then your average soccer match, but it is the key pass, the important interception, the tough save, the beautiful shot to the upper corner of the net, the yellow or red card, the silly mistake, that ultimately have a lot to do with winning, losing or drawing. As just one example, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard made a huge mistake against Chelsea that led directly to a goal, costing the Reds the title they have been craving for almost 25 years (when they were in the driver’s seat, even with a draw, at that point). Gerrard has had a wonderful career (except for England), but will probably be remembered for that play as much as his performance in winning the 2005 Champions League final win over Milan.

Then he speaks for his entire readership, claiming we all think we are playing the “individualistic” baseball: “Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.
This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold. As Nicholas Christakis and others have shown, if your friends are obese, you’re likely to be obese. If your neighbors play fair, you are likely to play fair. We all live within distinct moral ecologies. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it.” A very simple, and only partially accurate, rendering of Sociology 101 that he passes on as a brilliant observation.

Moving forward, he describes the importance of networks and then gives us the implications of playing football over baseball in our lives: 1. “Awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom … Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.” This sounds wonderful, if we accept the fact that there is one “reality” and not many, that wisdom is merely awareness of reality (it used to mean a lot more) and that genius has been stripped of its creativity and ability to recapture the curiosity of youth together with the experience and knowledge cultivated throughout a life. 2. “Predictive models will be less useful.” Beyond the rather obvious fact that he is creating a predictive model himself, about predictive models in the future, is a very questionable argument – given that statistics and access to data has only increased and, one could argue, people are becoming more, not less, predictable in recent years (with the exception of some very obvious outliers). And 3. Life is “like a 90-minute anxiety dream – one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way.” Well, reading his work certainly gives me great anxiety and does sometimes promise to get somewhere, without ever actually doing so. So good metaphor there, at least as relates to his own work.

Brooks has the honor of having been wrong on a consistent basis for over a decade, starting with the Bush election, through the Iraq War, to his notion of the Bobos (Bourgeois-Bohemians) and hundreds of other simplistic and wrongheaded ideas. He is like the anti-Mencken, reminding us that in America while no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of our people, many have gotten rich by those overestimating their intelligence. Brooks stands near the perch of that pantheon, once again reminding us that the distance between quality and success continues to lengthen with each passing year. 

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