Have you read any of David Brooks? He is a long-time New York Times opinion writer, contributor to the PBS nightly news, and multi-book author. Week after week, year after year, he can be counted on to write generally decent pieces that are center-right. He is kind of like Thomas L. Friedman: probably too “establishment” and “think-tanky” for me, but he is very tolerable. Lately, he has seemed fairly prescient, as someone of his ilk is just not cut out to appreciate, respect, or support the likes of Donald Trump. He’s more rational, sensible, anchored, and principled than that. He wrote an interesting piece on political moderation, and one on John McCain’s moral and political leadership. I realized then that I have quite a few David Brooks quotes. Is he wise, or wishy-washy? Magnanimous or milquetoast? Secretly co-0pted or smartly conservative? You make the call.
In this piece on bipartisanship and moderation and truth, he writes: “Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate. It is too milquetoast. But I’ve been inspired by Aurelian Craiutu’s great book Faces of Moderation to stick with this word, at least until a better one comes along. Moderates do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world. Moderates tend to embrace certain ideas….”
Aurelian’s and Brooks’ ideas are: 1) the word truth can better be described as plural, or what I would call dialectic in nature. He describes it as “There is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth.” When it comes to the political Right and Left, I would ask: Is tolerance better or worse than cacophony and ignorance (as in: to ignore)? Both the “multiculturalists” (his word) and the hard-right, “moral majority” types try to prevent alternative points of view rather than to hear them and let evidence and reason rule the day. So I get where he is coming from. He adds “Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all,” and I tend to basically agree. It is vintage David Brooks though: I would argue that there is, to some degree, objective truth, even in politics. Lies are lies, honesty is honesty. Programs either work or do not. Guns either need to be regulated or they do not. Politicians either are legally bribed every single day or I have that wrong. Truth is not simply relative, per se.
2) Politics is not the be-all and end-all of everything all the time, David Brooks and Aurelian Craiutu maintain. Some people live and breathe this stuff. They lobby full-time, they protest everything, they seek reelection ceaselessly. He writes: “Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. …Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends.” I get that. I mean, I do think that government can be a LOT better than it is, and look to European social democracies and welfare states as exemplars. I think Americans should become more like the ancient Greeks – more interested in their polis, in their rights, and in their government than they currently are. We are scattered, divided, tricked, and lulled and Aristotle would advise us to sharpen up and get serious about our role in civics.
3) The best ideas are syncretistic. “Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise moderate can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.” He offers the interesting, integrative example of “…combin[ing] left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law.” I think there is definitely something to that. Integration is one of the values of the wise, for sure. I would just note that one can’t combine a bad idea with a good one, such as lies with truth, or supply-side economics with a more responsible and legitimate economic philosophy. Mixing flour and eggs, though — a good thing for sure!
4) Fourthly, David Brooks and Aurelian Craiutu are wise to point out that in politics, we can really step in it. He describes it as: “The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the moderate operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith.” Indeed, this isn’t a rehearsal, this is the show. Real people are on the line. Big money is being risked. Nuclear war and environmental destruction of the planet from fossil fuels are game-changers, not something that one comes back from.
5) “Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.” Makes sense to me. I’m a liberal for the most part, and that means openness to experience, to ideas, and to rationality. The overarching goals are things like justice, rights, and forward progress, but truth is truth.
6) “Beware the danger of a single identity.” This idea is not the strongest, so I will merely mention it.
7) “Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.” He lauds John McCain vis a vis Donald Trump and the wreckage that is his presidency. McCain is a great example. Look below for quotes that came from the David Brooks article on the Senator, dated October 22nd 2017.
8) Modesty and humility are virtues. “Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.” Indeed, there are some things that are almost certainly true and passion in righting those wrongs is no vice — I am thinking of the great need to reverse Citizens United, which was the last nail in our collective political coffin. Or perhaps making police officers’ killing of unarmed civilians a serious offense — rather than a cause for whitewashing the incident and circling the wagons around the guilty cop. However, beyond those types of obvious issues that are only being hampered by faction and greed, things are more nuanced. In such cases, it would be better to be civil and respectful and modest in regard to the other.
He ends strong with: “If you have elected a man who is not awed by the complexity of the world, but who filters the world to suit his own narcissism, then woe to you, because such a man is the opposite of the moderate voyager type. He will reap a whirlwind.” That is wise David Brooks, wise.
Below are a few dozen other David Brooks quotes. He, along with Michael Steele and Andrew Sullivan and S. E. Cupp, is a conservative I think is a credit to the philosophy. Which is saying a lot because there are a lot of extreme, deluded, and greedy individuals who self-describe as conservative.
Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.
I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We’re in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that. This revival has been a bottom-up, prosaic, un-self-conscious one, led by normal parents, normal neighbors and normal community activists.
Control of attention is the ultimate individual power.
As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than from any other form of education.
So of course we need limited but energetic government. But liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America’s faith in big government.
Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.
These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.
In a friendship, people don’t sit around talking about their friendship. They do things together. Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends.
During the civil-rights era there was always a debate about what was a civil-rights issue and what was an economic or social issue. Now that distinction has been obliterated. Every civil-rights issue is also an economic and social issue. Classism intertwines with racism.
Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms.
You are reading quotations by David Brooks on www.ValuesoftheWise.com
The Democrats Americans trusted, from Harry Truman to John Kennedy, lived in the shadow of World War II. They’d learned the lessons of Munich and appeasement. They saw America engaged in a titanic struggle against tyranny and believed in using military means for idealistic ends. They also had immense confidence in themselves and in their ability to use power to spread freedom.
The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It’s based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.
Emotions are part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign values to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.
People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.
The biggest threat to a healthy economy is not the socialists of campaign lore. It’s C.E.O.’s. It’s politically powerful crony capitalists who use their influence to create a stagnant corporate welfare state.
Today, whether it is on the stimulus, on health care, or any other issue, the Obama administration and the Congressional leadership go out of their way to court corporate interests, to win corporate support, and to at least divide corporate opposition.
When the executive branch is dominant you often get coherent proposals that may not pass. When Congress is dominant, as now, you get politically viable mishmashes that don’t necessarily make sense.
People elevate and savor facts that conform to their pre-existing sensitivities.
The “liberty vs. power” paradigm… has been replaced in the public consciousness with a “security leads to freedom” paradigm. People with a secure base are freer to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.
The “security leads to freedom” paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology, but conservative think-tankers and activists have been slow to recognize the change in their historical circumstance. All their intellectual training has been oriented by the “liberty vs. power” paradigm.
One of the paradoxes of this war [Iraq] is that when U.S. forces commit atrocities, we regard it as a defeat for us because we have betrayed our ideals. When insurgents commit atrocities, it is also a defeat for us because of our ineffectiveness in the face of the enemy.
Voters are in no mood for a wave of domestic transformation. The economy is already introducing enough insecurity into their lives. Unlike 1932 and 1965, Americans do not trust Washington to take them on a leap of faith, especially if it means more spending.
Given the events of the past years, the U.S. is not about to begin another explicit crusade to spread democracy. But decent, effective, and responsible government would be a start. Obama and his team didn’t invent this approach. But if they can put it into action, that would be continuity we can believe in.
My secondary fear is that this moment will mark a turning point in World History, like the battle of Gettysburg, the defeat of the Spanish Armada or when Hot Lips became sympathetic on ‘M*A*S*H.’ I’ve really begun to get quite glum about the future of the republic.
My impression is that judges feel the strain between their social roles and their social lives more acutely than anybody. They are often outgoing people who, because of their jobs, cannot freely socialize with lawyers and others who share their deepest interests. But Sonia Sotomayor’s life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences.
This quest for dignity has produced a remarkable democratic wave. More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades. More than 85 authoritarian governments have fallen. Somewhere around 62 countries have become democracies, loosely defined.
You are reading quotations by David Brooks on www.ValuesoftheWise.com
The foreign policy realists who say they tolerate authoritarian government for the sake of stability are ill-informed. Autocracies are more fragile than any other form of government, by far.
Over the past decades, there has been a tide in the affairs of men and women. People in many places have risked their lives for recognition and respect. Governments may lag, and complications will arise, but still they will march. And, in the long run, we should be glad they do.
While the relative tranquility we have achieved is not to be sneezed at, given the alternatives, it is also possible to be tranquil to a fault. In preferring politicians who are soggy synthesizers and in withdrawing from great national and ideological disputes for the sake of local and community pragmatism, we may be losing touch with the soaring ideals and high ambitions that have always separated America from other nations.
‘Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,’ Maclean writes. When I read that back in my living room a few months ago, it seemed so profound. Now I can’t figure out what the hell it means.
I used to think that this was basically a centrist country and that political polarization was an elite phenomenon. But most of the recent evidence suggests that polarization is deeply rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country. Washington is not the cause of polarization; America is.
Today, the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just out-compete them. Their crucial advantage is not that they possess financial capital, it’s that they possess more cultural capital.
Is wisdom best attained by sitting in a book-stuffed studio on Riverside Drive, reading Freud and the existentialists, engaging in intense debates with an insular crowd, most of whom live within a few square miles? Or is it gained through broader experience with the world, by putting one foot in the river of mainstream life and then reflecting on what you found there?
As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, ‘Character is the main object of education.’ The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is ‘organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.’
In the first place, John McCain seems to be the only member of Congress who insists on holding hearings and working toward compromise before passing major legislation. This would seem to be the very elemental prerequisite of good government – like a doctor seeking a diagnosis before performing surgery – but McCain appears to be the only…Republican, willing to risk unpopularity to insist upon a basic respect for our sacred institutions.
Donald Trump and the campus multiculturalists want to organize people by tribe, which has always been the menacing temptation throughout our history. But John McCain seeks to preserve our traditional rallying point – our ideals.
Intellectuals understand the world better if they experience the same sorts of pressures that confront most people, the tensions between ambition and virtue, the distinctions between pleasant but shallow status and real accomplishment.
I hope you are profiting from these 52 quotations by David Brooks on www.ValuesoftheWise.com
Politics is a team sport. Nobody can get anything done alone. But in today’s Washington, loyalty to the team displaces loyalty to the truth.
Paideia is based on the idea that a healthy democracy requires a certain sort of honorable citizen – that if we’re not willing to tell the truth, devote our lives to common purposes, or defer to a shared moral order, then we’ll succumb to the shallowness of a purely commercial civilization; we’ll be torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of extreme individualism; we’ll rip one another to shreds in the naked struggle for power.
We publish the book of our lives every day through our actions, and through our conduct we teach one another what is worthy of admiration and what is worthy of disdain.
Books will someday be written about how Trump, this wounded and twisted man, became morally acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But it must have something to do with the way over the past decades we have divorced public and private morality, as if private narcissism would have no effect on public conduct. It must have something to do with the great tide of moral libertarianism…[that] progress meant emancipating the individual from shared moral orders. …the acceptability of Trump must have something to do with millions of religious voters being willing to abandon the practical wisdom of their faiths….
I love the fact that American businesses are going to be improved via competition with Chinese and Indian rivals. I love the fact that to compete we are going to have to reform our lobbyist-written tax code into something flatter and fairer.
The moral fabric of society is invisible but essential. Some use their public position to dissolve it so they can have an open space for their selfishness. John McCain is one of the strongest reweavers we have, and one of our best and most stubborn teachers.
Aw, shucks. This has been a humbling experience, Mr. Chairman. To think that a boy from an exclusive prep school and Harvard Law could grow up and be nominated for the Supreme Court – it shows how in America it’s possible to rise from privilege to power! That’s the hallmark of our great nation.
This may be a good moment to remind my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that in this country unelected judges don’t write the laws. We have unelected lobbyists to do that. Under our system, judges merely interpret the law and decide presidential elections.
These days most of us don’t want to get too involved in national politics because it seems so partisan and ugly. And as a result, most American citizens have become detached from public life and have come to look on everything that does not immediately touch them with indifference that is laced with contempt.
The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people tat began well and ended badly.
The central concern is equality. Power and wealth tend to concentrate at the top of society, so government must stand as a countervailing power. It must defend the people against the powerful to ensure fairness and opportunity for all.
Our general problem is not that we’re too dogmatic. Our more common problems come from the other end of the continuum. Americans in the 21st century are more likely to be divorced from any sense of a creedal order, ignorant of the moral traditions that have come down to us through the ages and detached from the sense that we owe obligations to a higher authority.
To his eternal credit, after 9/11 George Bush quickly understood that the terror threat was fundamentally an ideological threat, a product of deep historical consciousness. To his eternal discredit, he didn’t commit enough resources to successfully defeat and discredit that ideology.
The blunt fact is that groups of Islamic extremists will continue to compete and grow until mainstream Islamic moderates can establish a more civilized set of criteria for prestige and greatness.
Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person’s mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories, and habits which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context – which stimulus triggers which response – matters a lot.
I hope you enjoyed these quotations by David Brooks. Look him up here.