David Brooks: Commentator, Realist, Humble Pie Server

David Brooks looks pretty humble to us.
David Brooks looks pretty humble to us. // Allie Krause

This semester, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is back at Yale to teach two courses at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. WKND BLOG’s Foreign Dispatch correspondent Kiki Ochieng was able to catch up with Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative (especially after his comments on the GOP last year), about the contradictions inherent in teaching a seminar on humility while co-teaching Grand Strategy. Is this meant to be irony or an exploration of two sides of the same coin? Is there any overlap? How do all the egos fit in the room? Brooks chatted with WEEKEND about the lack of moral arguments in contemporary politics, the need for diversity in political thought and America as a “pain-in-the-ass” superpower.

Q. One of your most quoted and referenced articles is your famous 2001 piece for “The Atlantic.” In that article, you describe the generation of college students born between 1979 and 1982 as the “organizational kid.” How do you think today’s generation compares to the students you profiled in that article?

A. I guess the first thing that’s the same is the amount of energy and pressure to succeed. I graduated from high school not in the top 40 percent of my high school class, [and] my GPA was extremely mediocre, but I could still get into the University of Chicago, undergrad. When I look at contemporary student resumes, not only was I not like that, but nobody I knew was like that. The pressures of meritocracy have continued to build, and now, the rewards for energy and early intelligence, or the kind of intelligence that blooms early, are higher and higher. I think those pressures are already ratcheted from when I wrote the article.
As far as the moral challenges that I describe, I think they’re still true. I don’t think this is just a big problem with people until 30 — I think this a big problem with people under 60. We’re sort of morally inarticulate. We’ve grown up in an era without a strong external moral code, and it’s hard to have moral arguments. We’re good at having arguments about neuroscience and how to succeed and how to make wise decisions. The language of virtue and vice and sin — all that has sort of drifted away from us.

Q. How do you think that factors into emotional education? You’ve touched on that subject in other columns.

A. The column about Bruce Springsteen? One of the things that is striking about the field of cognition is that it used to be that people didn’t pay attention to emotion in particular. They paid attention to reason and decision-making, but now we realize that reason isn’t the opposite of emotion. Emotion is the foundation of reason, and our emotions tell us what to value. Our emotions influence all sorts of cognitive processes. The older you get, the more you realize — especially if you’re a guy — the importance of an emotional repertoire. If you ask people, especially men, what they regret most in life, it’s that they weren’t emotionally open with their families. Even as you get into the world I live in, the emotionally avoidant world of politics and economics regimented on growth and budgets, I spend a lot of time myself, I think about emotions and reading novels and going to places like Yale to work on that side of the education.

Q. What influenced your decision to teach a course on “Humility”?

A. Well, the short answer is that I work in the most obnoxious, narcissistic profession ever. I’m perpetually spouting off, so humility is a concern of mine [laughs]. But I think a lot of people are like that, and we’re all forced to market ourselves and brand ourselves and win attention. Second, more generally, I do think over the last 50 years, there’s been a tremendous rise in self-esteem, which is measurable by a bunch of different statistics: the way we perform on narcissism tests, the rise in the number of people who think that someone should write a biography about them, the rising desire for fame. I do think there was a whole moral code 100 years ago built around humility, built around the sense that you’re an underdog, you’re struggling against your own weaknesses. I think we’ve lost touch with that tradition. The course is not designed to turn back the time, but to connect people — including me — with a moral tradition that includes St. Augustine and Edmund Burke and Dorothy Day. I think that it would be part of a good education to be familiar with these other traditions.

Q. Do you think that the lessons of your “Humility” course factor into how you’ve taught “Grand Strategy”?

A. Good question. The “Humility” course is people writing about internal struggles, struggles against your own weaknesses, and the “Grand Strategy” course is the course of that external struggle against enemies. There are some parallels there. Machiavelli believed you could have two moralities: the morality of your private life, where you could be nice and compassionate, and the morality of politics, where you have to be a ruthless bastard. I’m not sure if he’s right about that, but in both cases, you’re talking about how to be a good person in an ugly world.

Q. What place does idealism have in the American political scene, nowadays?

A. I guess I’m a believer in skeptical idealism. I’m a believer that we are all extremely limited creatures. When you do what I do and you spend your time around politicians, you realize that they never have the choice of a really good policy versus a really bad policy. They have a choice between an awful policy and an even more awful policy. They have to make these brutal decisions. Often, idealism doesn’t even come into it. They’re just trying to survive. One of my heroes, Michael Oakeshott, had this theory: Politics is like you’re on a ship, you’re in storm-tossed waters, you’re just trying to keep the ship upright. That’s what politicians are doing a lot of the time. I give them a lot of credit because everyone’s dumping all over them and they are faced with horrible choices and very constrained power. One of the things I observe as I watch, say, President Obama — as all presidents, he learned how the office seems really powerful, but very often their power and their ability to implement change is extremely limited.

Q. Does America have a superiority complex? If it didn’t, would its actions abroad be different?

A. All great nations have a superiority complex. I really have no taste for nations that don’t think they’re great, so I like the French. Everyone else hates the French and their arrogance. I like their arrogance. I covered Europe for a long time, and grew to respect them because they just think they’re a great nation. I was at dinner last night with a senior foreign policy official and this person was saying that all these theories that we’re in decline, that people don’t respect us as much as they used to or that we don’t have as much influence, are not reality at all. We have our troubles, but every other country has even worse troubles. We’re still the big dog on the block. I think we’re bound to be a superpower for a long time. We’re going to be the kind of superpower we’ve always been, which is a pain in the ass for everybody but genuinely a force for good.

Q. We’ve talked a bit about morality and politics. How does the use of drones change warfare and what new moral perspective does that mean we have to consider?

A. That’s a classic case of what policy is like. When you talk to people in the military, they say that drones are just so damn effective. You’re president of the United States. Every day you get an intelligence briefing that says this person is trying to launch a bombing raid, this person is trying to kill Americans, that person is trying to blow up an airplane. You’ve got a few options. Option A is to do nothing and hope you can stop them at the TSA gate at the airport. Option B is to do some bombing strike. Option C is to send in special forces, but special forces don’t work the way they do in the movies. You can’t just send in eight people. You probably have to send in 500 people. Option D is to send in a drone. Of those four options, Option D seems like the best one — or the least bad. Now, having said that, because I am the sort of person who distrusts myself and others, I would like to see oversight. I’m a believer that we should have a court, overseen and appointed by Congress, that oversees the president’s authority, or at least who gets on the kill list.

Q. Many people complain about polarization and how we don’t see any bipartisan bills being pushed forward. Do you see the polarization of American politics increasing or decreasing as today’s youth move into positions of power?

A. My view is that polarization goes in cycles. For example, the Revolutionary War period was highly polarized. My hero Alexander Hamilton was killed by the vice president, which was a polarized act. The Civil War period obviously was. We’ve had 30 or 40 years of pretty great polarization. I have to think that it’s going to burn itself out. Maybe it’s in the process, with the last election, of burning itself out.
Having said that, there is still a lot of geographic polarization. People moving into neighborhoods of people just like themselves. There’s a lot of academic polarization — people going to colleges filled with people just like themselves. It’s not evident or obvious that the era of polarization is ending. But eventually, you just get sick of it and have a big fiscal crisis which forces you to compromise.

Liked this interview? Check out Yale Daily News multimedia reporter Cody Pomeranz’s video interview with Brooks for more!