David Brooks .. stretches and takes us with him

August 9, 2011 8:31 am 1 comment

There are a small handful of political commentator’s whose thinking I particularly respect. One is conservative columnist David Brooks who writes for the New York Times and contributes regularly on PBS’s NewsHour. Over time, I’ve come to more and more appreciate both the integrity and the originality of his writing. I try not to miss his column.

Do I think his contribution qualifies as culturally mature journalism? A significant amount of the time it does, at least of a first-step sort. I very often differ with him, sometimes greatly, as far as specific conclusions go. But the consistency with which his writing offers overarching perspective and brings helpful insight is rare. It more than warrants acknowledgment.

I find three characteristic of Brooks’s contribution particularly striking. First is how often it contains surprises. I find most political commentary to be wholly predictable. All I need to know is the person’s general ideological leanings and what they have to say follows pretty lockstep from that.

Second is how even Brooks’s original contributions tend to feel like common sense. Cultural Maturity proposes this “feels like common sense” quality as a hallmark of thinking that begins to be sufficiently systemic. (Such thinking feels like common sense because it attempts to take into account the whole systemic picture. That it has eluded us until now reflects that such thinking represents an inclusiveness of systemic perspective–and thus a maturity of common sense–that we are only now learning to get our minds around.) Brooks’s writing often has this almost obvious, “why didn’t I think of that” quality while at the same time providing fresh perspective.

Third is his comfort in engaging conversation across party lines. He does this in a regular column with Gail Collins in the Times and also with several different liberal commentators (most often Mark Shields) on the NewsHour. It is obvious that Brooks enjoys such exchanges and recognizes their importance and the unique insights they can produce. Opinions among the participants may strongly conflict, but Brooks is clearly, in the end, more interested in effective solutions than winning debates.

Brooks’s political commentary reflects a deep appreciation for how our political opinions are never just rationally arrived at positions, and how the conclusions that we reach tend to have deep psychological/social roots. His most recent book, The Social Animal, makes this recognition its main point. I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more than I did. The book’s point has been made by many others and Brooks’s, in the end, is a much better political scientist than a cognitive scientist. (While he rarely falls for simplistic conclusions in the political sphere, he is not always so rigorous in questioning the conclusions of cognitive researchers.) But Brooks’s broader willingness to bridge the political and the psychological is to be commended.

One more acknowledgment while I am at it. It is not directly pertinent to Cultural Maturity, but it is a characteristic that for me supports trust along with respect. Brooks seems always to be learning and growing. I remember thinking him something of a lightweight when I first heard his commentary. Obviously, today, I feel very much the opposite about him. And I suspect he is someone who will continue to stretch—and stretch us in turn—in the years ahead.


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