David Brooks’ excellent column advocating ‘personalism’

Cindi Scoppe and I used to go back and forth over the enduring value of op-ed columns.

Her view was that if they’re good, they’re good, and if she had to wait two or even three weeks to get a good column into the paper, she’d do it.

I saw them as far more perishable. With syndicated columns, I didn’t want our readers to see them more than a day after they were first published elsewhere. I had a prejudice in favor of columns from the Washington Post Writers Group, because they sent them out in real time, as soon as they went to the Post‘s own editors, so we were able to publish George Will, Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer in the same day’s paper as the Post. The New York Times, by contrast, didn’t move their columns on the wire until after we were done with our opinion pages — so the best I could do was run Tom Friedman and David Brooks a day after they were in the Times.

Past that, even when a column was really good, it would tend to lose out to something fresher if I were picking the columns that week.

There are arguments for both points of view, of course, and the relative value of the opposing approaches could vary according the particular column. Today, I’m very happy that today The State ran a David Brooks column that first appeared on June 14, a whole week ago. (It was his column before the column that I mentioned in the Open Thread two days ago — therefore quite moldy by my usual standards.)

I had missed it when it first ran. And it wasn’t perishable at all.

The headline was “Personalism: The Philosophy We Need,” and it won me over from the start:

One of the lessons of a life in journalism is that people are always way more complicated than you think. We talk in shorthand about “Trump voters” or “social justice warriors,” but when you actually meet people they defy categories. Someone might be a Latina lesbian who loves the N.R.A. or a socialist Mormon cowboy from Arizona.Brooks_New-articleInline_400x400

Moreover, most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

Yet our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff….

Yes! And going back up to his mention of journalism at the top…. most news coverage is as guilty as any of these other culprits of trying to cram people into boxes that aren’t made to fit them. As I’ve said many times, too many journalists write about politics the way they would about sports: There are only two teams, and you have to subscribe to one or the other — Democrat or Republican, left or right, black or white. And one is always winning, which means the other is losing — you’re up or you’re down.

Which I hate. One of my motives for blogging is the same as my aims when I was editorial page editor: to provide a forum where we could talk about the world and public policy in different, fairer, less polarized and more accurate terms. The truth is that almost nothing about human affairs is black or white. And I’ve always wanted to provide a forum where that aspect of truth could reign, and lead to more productive conversations.

In this column, Brooks is talking about the same thing I’m talking about when I say “people are people.” Which sounds vaguely stupid, I know, but I mean they’re not just “liberals” or “conservatives” or members of this team or that team, or predictable because of some demographic accident — they’re complicated.

And I think the only way we can write and talk about people and public affairs is to acknowledge that complexity at all times — to get past the black and white and not only deal with the gray, but with the full range of color and combinations of colors.

Anyway, you should read the full column. It’s full of good bits on the meaning of life and other things that are hard to squeeze into so few words. It’s so good I suspect the Brooks haters have been out in force trying to tear it apart over the past week. I’ll close with the ending:

The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”


8 thoughts on “David Brooks’ excellent column advocating ‘personalism’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    It occurs to me that I may have made Cindi’s approach sound better than mine. But I defend my approach still — and in an era in which I generally see columns the day before they appear in ANY print medium (or earlier), the imperative to be as up-to-the-minute as possible is stronger than ever.

    But of course, the best approach is to be open to both approaches, to read each column on its own terms, according to its own unique value. In other words, to apply the principles of “personalism” to ideas as well as people…

  2. bud

    Are members of the KKK complex? Nazis? Communists? Moonies? I would say yes, yes, yes and yes. After all Hitler was a dog lover. I’m not really sure what useful point Brooks makes.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Speaking of which, today I ran across this examination of what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote of “the banality of evil,” and whether she was right or totally full of it. Check it out.

      The bottom line is, everyone deserves to be seen as he or she is, not as one label or measurement would describe him or her. We don’t just owe it to them to see them that way, but to ourselves as well, to keep us from being easily deluded.

      That, too, can be argued against.

      Also, I suppose everyone agrees with the assertion to some extent. But some of us — those of us who are appalled at the idea that anyone would ever pull a party lever rather than assess each candidate on the basis of the merits specific to that candidate and the specific merits of his or her opposing candidates — may believe it more fervently than others.

      Anyway, I enjoy reading Brooks because — since I don’t feel comfortable in parties — it’s a nice change of pace for me to regularly read someone who makes me think, “Yes, that’s what I think, too.” Not everyone is going to react to him that way.

      But I share him because throughout my writing an editing career, I’ve frequently had the pleasant experience of people coming up to me and saying they get that experience sometimes from reading my thoughts. (Scout was kind enough, just in passing, to make a comment similar to that just the other day.) So it is my hope that those people, too, can have that experience reading this column. Because people who regularly agree with me probably don’t experience such affirmation all that often. 🙂

  3. bud

    While I can appreciate that some Republicans are fine people I will not vote for one at this time. I also will not vote for a Facist, Communist, Nazi, a member of the KKK, a Moonie, or any number of others who associate with an organization whose basic tenets are offensive to my sensibilities. It is simply a matter of arithmetic. The Republican Party as a group has far too much control. I find it inexplicable for someone to argue that party affiliation should not be regarded as a factor in making a vote. Wouldn’t you take party affiliation into account if that party was Communist? Heck Brad you’ve argued against voting for Libertarians. I have many disagreements with libertarian philosophy. But frankly it pales in comparison to Republican philosophy as it exists in 2018.

  4. Mr. Smith

    Op-ed columns perishable?
    Some, maybe. But obviously there are plenty of exceptions. Many columnists of the past have had their columns published in bound collections, including Art Buchwald, William Safire, Molly Ivins, Dave Barry, Andy Rooney, Nat Hentoff, A.J. Liebling, H.L. Mencken, Joseph Mitchell, Ernie Pyle, Mike Royko, I.F. Stone, etc.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, but you usually have to read them as artifacts of a certain moment.

      Not always, of course. Ideas are, of course, timeless. And I enjoy reading columns about timeless ideas.

      But as an editor at a daily newspaper, I had a prejudice toward good columns addressing the latest news.

      This counted with my own columns as well…

      Cindi would write something as soon as the idea came (or I assigned it) and she had the necessary information — even if it wasn’t scheduled to run for a week or more. Then she’d move on to the next thing.

      I might have plans to write something off in the future, and I would procrastinate, because I had this horror of having to revisit what I’d written because of the facts becoming outdated. I liked copy to move in one direction, toward publication. I didn’t like to look at it again.

      I would try sometimes to get ahead. For instance, sometimes I’d try to finish my Sunday column — due midday Friday — on Thursday before I went home. I’d be slugging away at it until 8, 9, 10 at night, then go home thinking Friday (always the worst day of the week) might be a little easier than usual.

      Then, almost invariably, I’d come in the next morning and scrap it. Sometimes because of news developments, inspiring me to write about something more immediate. Sometimes because I just hated what I’d written in the light of day. I’d just start over in another direction, and take every minute available to me and then some. So it never paid for me to work ahead.

      Once, in the early 90s when I was still governmental affairs editor down in the newsroom, my boss Paula Ellis called me a “newshound.” I thought that was odd — weren’t we all newshounds? She said no, as a matter of fact, not all working journalists were. In fact, relatively few were. I looked around me and decided she was probably right. I had a strong drive to pursue the latest news and get it before anybody else.

      And I think that latest-thing drive carried over into the way I edited the editorial pages later.

      Also, it’s one of the reasons I love Twitter today…

  5. Mr. Smith

    As for Brooks’ column, “personalism” is all well and good — as far as it goes. But if he wants me to agree, for example, that there “were good people on both sides” during the events in Charlottesville, that’s where I balk.

  6. bud

    Here are some of the opinion people that I like:

    Paul Krugman
    E.J. Dionne
    Rachael Maddow
    Chris Hayes
    Nicholas Kristof
    Dana Milbanks
    Eugene Robinson
    Robert Reich

Comments are closed.