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David Brooks and Civility

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David Brooks liked President Obama's Tucson speech. But in his January 13 column he fears that even a "great speech won't usher in a period of civility." Instead, "those who are inclined to intellectual thuggery and partisan one-sidedness will temporarily resolve to do better but then slip back to old habits the next time their pride feels threatened." No they won't; they won't pause for a moment. Does Brooks believe his own predictions? Why change if you're Andrew Breitbart or Glenn Beck? Their current shticks have made them fabulously rich and ridiculously influential. Rush Limbaugh is a thug because his pride is threatened?

David Brooks by New York Times

Why not identify a few of these intellectual thugs and one-sided partisans? He can't, of course, because any honest accounting would find the vast majority of them--and certainly those with large audiences--co-habiting with Brooks in the nicer, conservative neighborhoods of Punditland. Instead, we get a typical Brooksian Sunday School line: "Civility is a tree with deep roots . . . what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness, and ignorance."  

Just when you're about to thank God that Brooks fails to preach the dreaded, near-certain sermon on failure, sin and the rest, he shifts to a lecture about how "sensible person[s] involved in public life" are pleased as punch by the educational give-and-take of media-mediated political discourse. It makes them better people, forces them to accept their limitations and learn from their critics. "We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement." This probably explains the demise of the presidential press conference.

"So this is where civility comes from," thinks Brooks, "from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation." No, it's not. Civility, like honesty, generosity, politeness, and cleaning up after one's self, is learned (or not) early in life. You're civil (avoiding name-calling and bullying), share your toys, and go down at naptime, or you get punished. It's just a component of common decency, like respect for one's elders. You don't need to suck up to your favorite albeit unnamed public figures--or express gratitude for a dysfunctional political system--to explain civility.  

Our contemporary incivility can of course be analyzed through Brooks' trusty culture wars frame. It's predictably rooted in the permissive parenting of "the past 40 years or so" when our self-worth was artificially inflated, the politics of "institutional restraint" were replaced by those of frenzied catering to the voting masses, and athletes began victory dances in the end zone. We're much less modest than were the Founders (yes, even George Washington gets dragged into this). One problem with Brooks' version of events is that it's bad demography. The loudest of the least civil among us came along prior to the famous decline of proper parenting.

What Brooks really misses is that we don't need fake civility; we need a news media willing to call intolerance, dishonesty, racism, sexism, and the other everyday tools of the Talking (and Ruling) Right when they see it. Instead, we get gushing feature-length portraits of the talkers in magazines that ought to know better. We get beat reporters and columnists who, without apparent irony, take Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich seriously.

You might counter that calling for a press that was an asset to civil society is as unrealistic as wishing for civil public discourse. You'd have a point. But I'm less sure about the longer-term prospects of my project. The fuel for my pipe dream may be found in the hardworking media reform movement. I don't know what David Brooks is smoking.


Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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David Brooks, a former columnist for the Wall Stre... by marc rogers on Monday, Jan 17, 2011 at 1:09:04 PM