The David Brooks Problem

I started a new job at Deadspin about three weeks ago, and I endured a tough first stretch. That was, in part, because, like anybody starting a new job, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

So, especially in the first few days, I had a self-preoccupied question on my mind: How am I doing? There was no noncrazy-making answer to that question. I was always looking for some ultimate validation, which, of course, can never come. But, after a little while, I settled into a routine and my focus shifted from my own performance to the actual subjects I was working on. This shift from performance to subject may not have made my editing any better, but it sure did improve my psychic equilibrium.

That period was a lesson in the perils of self-preoccupation.

I think of this because I read a stupid column David Brooks wrote about Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from baseball through the 2014 season. Judging from the outside, the rest of us are pikers of self-preoccupation next to Brooks. When you read one of his exercises in Lehreresque fabrication or tedious propagandizing for discredited ideas, you see a man who seems to be manufacturing his own persona, disingenuously crafting a series of behaviors designed to look right.

When he writes a column, he doesn’t seem like a man writing a column. He seems like a man giving a performance of writing a column. Even his off-the-page life—buying a $3.95 million house, preposterously teaching a course on humility at Yale, the syllabus for which of course features plenty of his own scribbling—leaves the impression that he is always observing himself, and measuring to see if he lives up to the image of a superstar.

Brooks was a sheltered twit from his earliest years. He attended a fancy day school in New York, a fancy high school in the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs, and the University of Chicago. From there he moved on to comfortable sinecures at propaganda mills like National Review, the Hoover Institution, and the Washington Times. After a stint at the Wall Street Journal, he moved on to the Weekly Standard, where he worked under editor William Kristol, who damaged whatever chances Brooks had of becoming a normal human being.

Kristol turned him into a corporate entity. For example, at the Standard Brooks peddled something called "national greatness conservatism," which amounted to a varietal form of fascism (great monuments at home, air raids abroad). In other words, he attacked his own countrymen in order to squeeze a few dollars out of them. From the beginning, Brooks’s preoccupation was not with the public good, it was with self.

Brooks then began writing ridiculous pop sociology articles for The Atlantic, which further isolated him from the public and fixed him in his self-conscious, prefab self-help formula.

By the time Brooks joined the Times Op-Ed page as their token conservative, he was the marketing facade of Brooks Inc. His first book appeared to have been largely contrived, with nearly any point you cared to fact check easily refuted by publicly available information or basic reporting. Asked about it, he scoffed at a young reporter, and called the idea of giving readers accurate information "just something you'll mature beyond."

Of course, this sort of egomaniacal behavior alienated him from his fellow writers, isolating him in the zone of his own self-concern. He was always one of the most talented propagandists around, able to argue for the murder of foreigners or the enslavement of the working class at home with an air of real thoughtfulness, but never a leader. He developed a reputation for caring more about his own reputation than any particular cause.

Even when he tried to align himself with a given politician, there was little naturalness or spontaneity. Self-preoccupied people hit the right notes, but often so hard that they sound tinny. Self-preoccupation creates an ego that is at once overinflated, insatiable and overly sensitive. Self-preoccupation also seems to make it hard for talented people like Brooks to deal with their own talents.

One of the mysteries around Brooks is why a wealthy propagandist capable of scoring cushy gigs at Duke and Yale would risk his career to apparently just make shit up.

My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tells them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.

As the Yankees' former manager, Joe Torre, once wrote, the really good hitter has to “concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. ... There’s a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it’s always gong to be good. ... Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.”

At every step along the way, Brooks chased self-maximization, which ended up leading to his self-destruction.

The A-Rod Problem [NYT]

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