If you're like me, you can barely make it through a David Brooks column. Should you arrive at the bitter end, your face is screwed up--like you were sucking lemons or whiffing a fetid odor--in a painful mix of disbelief, consternation, and sadness at the waste of prime op-ed real estate. Most days you quickly move on to whatever's next, and your face slowly relaxes to normal.
I no longer partake of television, so I haven't had to suffer through Brooks' banal performances on Jim Lehrer's show for a couple of years. My recollection is of someone unable to master the obvious. I've never had the courage to read one of Brooks' regular exchanges with his Times colleague Gail Collins in what the paper modestly calls "The Conversation."
Brooks affects a cloying meta-analytical air in his columns, taking on big questions about culture and civilization. The opening anecdote (typically obscure) is loosely connected to a midsection where that day's character flaw of one or some or most or all American(s) is on display. The moral comes in the form of a rueful lesson about a classical virtue in short supply in modern life.
A recent column ("A Case of Mental Courage," August 23) is more or less true to form. Brooks begins with the horrific story of eighteenth-nineteenth century English diarist, novelist and playwright Fanny Burney's mastectomy, conducted without anesthesia. Burney survived to write an account of the procedure, which Brooks fancifully appropriates for this week's lesson in character: "She seems to have regarded the exercise as a sort of mental boot camp -- an arduous but necessary ordeal if she hoped to be a person of character and courage."
Pardon me? Burney, a careful editor, didn't even re-read her own essay before sending it to her sister, the experience was so painful. "Mental boot camp"!? Can you imagine? (Disclosure: I too lost a prized piece of my anatomy to cancer surgery, but was blissfully unconscious thanks to an anesthesiologist. And, oh yeah, I also survived an especially grueling boot camp. I recommend neither should you aspire to be "a person of character and courage").
But Brooks' imagination is fired, and he's off:
Burney's struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.
She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one's weakness.
In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.
This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There's less talk of sin and frailty these days.
I know, I know, the excerpt has your face bunching up again, but bear with me. Paraphrasing just doesn't do the man justice. Did you catch the moral-in-the-making? I trust you were not fooled by the zealous supporting cast of inherent sin, arduous lessons, earnest sermons, or conquered self-approval. It's right there: "the ability to face unpleasant thoughts."
"Unpleasant thoughts!?" Even the world-class denialists (denihilists?) of the tea party factions and the climate change know-nothings "face unpleasant thoughts" (Obama is a socialist, climate change is a global conspiracy to advance One World Government, etc.). Anyone paying the slightest attention to the human condition is awash in "unpleasant thoughts" each and every day.
Understand again that this denialism or moral cowardice is also a form of "mental feebleness" or "flabbiness." We're "all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions" these days (post-nineteenth century). There are, according to Brooks, American exceptions to mental laziness, like Larry Summers. (Yes, you read that right: one of the three or four guys most responsible for the bungled bailouts, insufficient stimulus, and jobless "recovery').
But enough about Larry Summers. Brooks is really serious about mental flab: "Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one." He finds it "most evident in politics." Here's your chance to watch myth propagation in action:
Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.
Just throwaway examples of bipartisan politico-mental laziness? I think not. The example of conservative mental feebleness (and myth circulation) is priceless. But, come on Brooks, dig deeper: the conservative controversy is from right now, 2010, the liberal from huh, when? 2007-08. If that's the best you have for liberal denial, then we're all in better shape than I thought.