Maybe this is why I like David Brooks’ work

I’ve said a lot of positive things about David Brooks over the years. I not only agree with the guy a lot, but I tend to wish I had written what he did. I feel like I should have written it. His thoughts just run that much in sync with my own.

I’ve never thought about why, but maybe this is why. Or part of why…

I’ve been enjoying this new app from The New York Times — NYT Audio. It’s particularly great for my walks around the neighborhood, a sort of supplement to NPR One.

Anyway, today’s NYT Audio offered something I haven’t heard before in that format. It was a piece by Brooks, read by himself, headlined “We’re Disconnected and Lonely. David Brooks Has a Solution.”

Early on in the short piece, he says:

My nursery school teacher told my parents, apparently, David doesn’t always play with the other kids. He just observes them, which was great for my life as a journalist, but maybe not great for having strong bonds and intimate connections…

Wow. I really, really identified with that.

Not that I didn’t play with the other children at that age. I did. But there was always that sort of theme in my childhood. Part of it was moving around all the time as a Navy brat. For awhile, I would observe this bunch of kids, and soon I’d move on and observe that bunch of kids, and so forth. And as much as I would enjoy their company, I wasn’t quite… one of them. Not quite.

And yeah, these are characteristics that lend themselves to the profession of journalism. In fact, I’ve noticed that it seems a lot of military brats end up in the trade, and I’ve always thought that characteristic had something to do with it. You know, the habit of observing a community of people rather than feeling fully a part of it.

I’ve also noticed that — it seemed to me (I’ve never tried to quantify it) — it seemed like more journalists were Jewish or Catholic than you would find in the surrounding population. In other words, they were used to looking at things in ways slightly different from the way the majority would. David Brooks isn’t a military brat, but he sorta-kinda fits in both of those other categories.

This tendency to be an observer rather than a participant can be problematic. When you share with other people something you have observed — particularly something outrageous, such as, say, having heard someone else say wildly racist things — they wonder what’s wrong with you that you didn’t react at the time. What did YOU do? they demand. And they have a point. They make me wonder, too.

But I still tend to look at the person asking that rather blankly. Because when confronted with something really wild and strange, I tend to simply observe more intently. I might even think, in frustration, I can’t take notes, however much I want to, without interfering with this phenomenon. Which I wouldn’t want to do, because it would change the nature of what was happening. And not necessarily for the better. Sure, it might make the person act differently, superficially in that moment. But I always want to know what he or she is really thinking.

Way back during my reporting days, I was conscious of that on the job. A lot of reporters feel at home in a press box, or otherwise labeled and sequestered. I never did, because I was conscious of the Observer Effect, which in one thing in physics, but in journalism could be stated as, If the newsmakers are aware that a reporter is present, they will act and speak differently, and the news will change. Sometimes, that can be a salutary thing. But if you really want to know what they’re thinking and doing, it is not.

Anyway, in recent years I have rethought this mode of being, as you have seen. And so has Brooks, and that is the larger point of his little recited essay. It’s not about him. It’s about the fact that just when he started trying to change and engage better with other people, he saw that people in the surrounding, observable world were getting more distant, less engaged and even more hostile toward each other.

Which caused him to resolve:

I’m going to double down on spending as much time as I can, as effectively I can, and seeing another person, in trying to understand their point of view, and trying to make them feel seen, heard, and understood…

The ending is sort of upbeat. On his effort to be more of a full human, “maybe I’ll give myself a B minus.”

Which is better than flunking…

12 thoughts on “Maybe this is why I like David Brooks’ work

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Something I already knew about Brooks is that he is hard to pigeonhole in the simplistic categories of our day. Prominent, syndicated columnists all tend to be people who can easily be described as “conservative” or “liberal.” Because if you’re not a clear member of one of those ones-and-zeroes groups, people don’t know what to think of you.

    With that, I could also identify.

    Because it’s like a rule in our society that you must be describable one way or the other, Brooks gets described as “an American conservative political and cultural commentator.

    But that doesn’t really explain him. It might work for George Will, but not for Brooks. I have at times described him as “communitarian,” because a lot of my fave columns by him are in that vein.

    And yeah, that’s part of why I’m a fan. But so is this other thing described in this post…

    1. Bob Amundson

      Political labels can be a double-edged sword in observation. They often come with preconceived notions that might cloud our understanding. When we attach labels, we risk oversimplifying complex narratives. It’s akin to reducing a novel to its genre. To truly walk in someone’s shoes, we must strip away the political veneer and engage with the nuances of their experience. In reporting, transcending labels allows us to capture the intricacies that make each story unique, fostering a more authentic and empathetic narrative.

  2. Bob Amundson

    The art of reporting should be a balanced dance between observation and active involvement. Sometimes, in the pursuit of objectivity, the essence of the story is lost. The observer isn’t a detached spectator; they become part of the narrative simply by witnessing it. Facts are more than data points; they carry the heartbeat of the story. So, let’s not just watch from a distance but step into the frame, acknowledging that the act of observation inherently influences the observed reality.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re getting close to the reason why I abandoned news coverage for opinion back at the start of 1994.

      Only it wasn’t really about seeking involvement. It was about the way the false god of Objectivity. It won’t let you tell the truth. If all you can report are the (allegedly) “objective facts,” you have to leave out a huge part of the picture. You can’t tell people what’s really going on. So what if some of what you’re reporting is subjective. The truth is, you can’t describe something fully without describing the subjective considerations. You just do your best, and let people decide over time whether your perception is sound or not…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The “seeking involvement” didn’t come along for me until 2018. This link takes you to the first stage of the process, and this one takes you to the second…

        But… I had only been editorial page editor for a couple of years before I did something that really separated me from a lot of my news colleagues: I started CARING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED.

        It wasn’t enough to offer opinions. I cared about outcomes. I’ve got a story to tell to illustrate just how far that removed me from editors in news, but I don’t have time to tell it today.

        I can say that this changed my approach to editorial and column writing. Early on, it seemed enough to simply say, this is what should happen. You know, take it or leave it. Sort of in a perfect world, here’s what would happen stuff. Without worrying about the fact that we didn’t live in a perfect world.

        I don’t know if y’all notice, but a lot of people are totally stuck in that mode and never get out of it. It explains the extreme ideological partisanship of our day. People like to say this is what should happen, and when it doesn’t happen, they don’t shift gears. They just blame those dirty, hateful bastards out there who kept it from happening, and take comfort from the fact that they can see plenty of right-thinking people out there who agree with them on all this.

        But if you want things to get better, you have to consider reality.

        I think I need to develop that a bit in a separate post as well…

        1. bud

          Ok Brad put your money where your mouth is. Say some nice about Donald Trump. Or if that’s not possible how about Bernie Sanders. You once called Bernie a Marxist. That’s comparable to calling him a ” dirty, hateful bastard”. At the very least acknowledge that Bernie is a thoughtful, patriotic American who you just happen to have strong differences with on policy. If you can’t do that then you probably need to stop writing posts like this.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I don’t understand how this post prompts this comment.

            But I’ll play… is it OK if I use things I’ve said before?

            Donald Trump

            People give the Donald a hard time because he likes his steaks well done and with ketchup. They have not only a sneering tone when they do this (what a rube!), there’s a moralistic quality to it. Trump spends a lot of money on these steaks, and there’s a distinct suggestion that he’s “wasting” not only the money, but a quality cut of beef.

            They are wrong. I may not go all the way to “well done,” partly because I don’t trust the kitchen not to burn it just to spite me for being a philistine — or simply because they misunderstand. I order “medium well.” Because I want it cooked. Full cooking improves the flavor. And if I wanted to drink blood, I’d go bite a cow in the neck.

            They really get indignant, of course, when they talk about “ruining” good meat by putting ketchup on it. They’ve got it backwards. The better the steak is — and yes, I have taste buds, and I can tell when it’s good — the more I want to make SURE I don’t waste it. And it would be bad to waste something that good by failing to make it even better by putting ketchup on it. That’s why they sell the ketchup. With beef, it enhances the flavor.

            So leave the guy alone on this. He’s entitled to have his steak the way he wants it, and the way he wants it is the right way.

            Bernie Sanders

            First, you’re wrong to say “Marxist” equals “dirty, hateful bastard.” It does not. It’s simply a term that describes certain political views, such as the one Bernie embraces, “democratic socialism.” Hey, believe me, I like Bernie a lot more than certain others that embrace such terms, such as, say, Jeremy Corbyn.

            Within the Marxist universe of socialist systems, there’s the benign — such as Sweden — and the malevolent, such as Leninism or Stalinism or Maoism.

            But no, I don’t think Bernie is philosophically, emotionally, or in terms of his personality, suited to being president of the United States.

            But I think the guy means well, even though it’s sometimes hard to tell. And even a lot of his indignation comes from caring for people.

            And hey, how can you not like this guy? Like, that is — not elect.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I’m still not sure what it was about that post that caused Bud to react that way. It’s not that I mind being asked to “say something nice” about somebody. That’s a fine thing. Maybe even the best thing you can ask.

              But that’s not what this was about. Nor was it what my last comment — which I suppose is what Bud was reacting to — was about. Considering reality rather than insisting that what you think would be perfect MUST be done was a very different thing from thinking of something nice to say.

              And frankly, Bernie would be a great example of people who REALLY need to learn to be more pragmatic. He’s extremely doctrinaire (which is not surprising with any sort of Marxist). Probably the best example of this is his habit of saying, when challenged on “Medicare for all,” that he knew what it would do better than anybody because “I wrote the damn bill!” He’d really get ticked off about it.

              It seemed to never even occur to him that it’s extremely rare for the final form of a bill to bear a close resemblance to its original form. He doesn’t realize, even after his years in Washington, that other people get a say, too. It’s his way or the highway, apparently. And his manner basically says, “I’m a cranky old man, so you punks better sit down and do what I say!”

            2. bud

              Uh no. Calling someone a Marxist as it is generally used in todays context is extremely insulting. As a man who professes to be a man of words you should know that. All these posts about how people should interact with others is getting very preachy. Bernie is a far better man than David Brooks will ever be.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Yikes. I won’t even address that last part. I don’t know where to go with it.

                But I’ll mention this: “Calling someone a Marxist as it is generally used in todays context is extremely insulting.”

                Bud, you’re younger than I am, but you’re showing your age.

                If by “today” you mean 50 years ago — or even before your or my time, in the early 1950s — you’d have more of a point. If you look around, we’re surrounded by young people who don’t have that same negative associate with the name of ol’ Karl…

            3. bud

              Words convey more than the basic dictionary definition. When you say someone is a dirty, hateful bastard you’re saying that person is really terrible. Yet the actual words “dirty” and “bastard” do not in and of themselves brand a person that way. (Hateful is pretty unambiguous). Dirty could simply mean a person has been working hard doing yard work or playing a sport. Sliding into 2nd base gets you dirty. Bastard is at its root a child born to an unwed mother. Today no one would brand such a child a morally terrible person. Yet in todays context it is accepted that calling a person a bastard is highly insulting. Same with Marxist. Argue all you want that Marxist is merely an umbrella term that can describe a person who subscribes to greater government involvement over private sector approaches. But that simply does not represent a 21st century interpretation of the word. So calling someone a Marxist is just as insulting as calling them a bastard.

  3. Barry

    Brooks is a Conservative. He’s not a Trumper (for the most part), but there is a reason he’s described as a Conservative. Of course, Trump isn’t a conservative either.

    This seems to be the opposite of reality. (I admit I don’t really pay Brooks any attention)

    However, the older people get, the more they are set in their ways and the less likely they are to engage with other people that differ from them- or even want to hear from people that differ from them. Nothing new about that and that’s not going to change.

    This is true for most everyone I know, and is more true for me every day.

    I suspect Brooks will encounter reality: Many of the people he intends to “listen to” won’t be interested in interacting with him and will just consider him a wishy washy person and most people these days want to be around people that think just like they do- not someone that can’t seem to make up their mind.

    After all, these days many people don’t want to be listened to- they want to hear that the other person totally agrees with them.

    This is the Donald Trump world we live in now. I mean, just yesterday, a former President who lost his re-election bid sunk the Speaker candidacy of a man just because that man thinks Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020. Right wing tv and cable news, including the highest rated cable network, celebrated that he lost because he didn’t believe a lie about the election. That’s where we are.

    With more and more people dumping friends (and even family) that don’t have the same values/political opinions as they do, I find that most people are ok with not getting involved with others to any real degree.

    Recently, I was talking business with someone (not a friend) and he mentioned that his social circle is now only a few people, mostly his wife and children. He’s in his mid 50s and not even 10 years ago he mentioned that he had a fairly large social circle. He sounded a bit like me in that political differences with others had caused his social circle to shrink to a tiny circle. I have no idea about his politics. We never discussed it and I don’t know him that well to guess.

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