Friday, July 17, 2015

The Search for Good Nature




I used to watch David Brooks and Mark Shields debate the issues on PBS.  It was a much more thoughtful and nuanced exchange than you would find on any of the other networks.  They didn't shout each other down or cast ad hominems at each other.  Unfortunately, it got boring after a while as you knew where each person stood on an issue so you pretty much knew what to expect.

Over the years, Brooks has tried to present himself as the conscience of social conservatism, a kind of "middle way" that is appealing to both Democrats and Republicans alike, at least those who consider themselves "moderate."  He is critical of Democratic leaders, but at the same time gives praise where he considers praise is due, such as applauding Obama for what he regards as a relatively "scandal-free administration."  No faint praise for a man who regards Reagan as one of the leading lights of conservative politics.

You won't see him jumping ship to Fox News as Juan Williams did.  Brooks abhors yellow journalism, preferring instead to moonlight as an Op-Ed columnist on the New York Times, although I'm not quite sure which came first.  Pico Iyer writes a glowing review of Brooks' new book, The Road to Character, in which the author searches for his own soul through role models he believes define true character.

It's a well-used format.  Brooks however picks some unusual figures for his pantheon such as Ida Eisenhower, the mother of Ike, George Eliot and Francis Perkins.  Nice to see women figure into these defining characters, as most books of this genre typically present male archetypes.  Brooks also explores St. Augustine, using him to question the moral superiority currently being exhibited by the Religious Right in America.  By Brooks' own admission, he doesn't go very deep into any of these character studies.  It' a kind of once-over-lightly survey in the search for good nature, as Yvonne Roberts wrote for The Guardian.

In Brooks' defense, he's a political pundit not a philosopher, even if he name-drops Nietzsche and offers up The Lonely Faith of Man by Rabbi Soloveitchik, a modern-day Maimonides.  If anything, Brooks is trying to get readers to look past this narcissistic world we live in and be more like "Adam II" who tries to find himself by first losing himself.

Brooks apparently doesn't believe in the Art of Shelfishness, as promoted by Ayn Rand and adopted by Neo-conservatives and Neo-liberals alike.  He thinks we should return to a more natural order in society, promoting what he calls "an older moral ecology."  All well and good, but given that we live in an Age of Twitter it makes it pretty hard to reconcile these deeper yearnings with a time in which immediate gratification is the norm.

I don't think you can expect too much from this book, unless you are a Brooks' fan, but it is nice to see someone try to bring a more civil level of discourse to the political debate.

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