Sunday, January 6, 2013

Libenter enim suffertis insipientes

Image by C.E. Brock, 1898. From Golden Bridge Inmate.

Sometime last week David Brooks was reading, or at any rate looking at, last March's issue of Foreign Policy; to be exact, it was the first page of Tina Rosenberg's profile of an American human rights statistician who documents mass murder and genocide all over the world, Patrick Ball. Was he really planning an article on mass murder and genocide, or for that matter on statistics, subjects he would surely regard as indecorous, ungrateful, and outside his usual beat? We will probably never know. But we do know what the article was, because he describes it unmistakably:
Recently I was reading a magazine profile of a brilliant statistician. The article mentioned, in passing, that this guy doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
I mean, how many magazine profiles of statisticians are there in a given year? And how many of those note their statistician's attitude to suffering fools at the bottom of the first page?

As to what happened next, it's a bit of a mystery. Before we proceed to that, though, I need to introduce a few suspicious characters. [jump]

1. G.K. Chesterton

In 1906 the indefatigable G.K. Chesterton produced a book on Charles Dickens, including a chapter on the characters of Dickens's novels, in which, with reference to Mr. Toots from Dombey and Son, there is a digression on what he calls the "apostolic injunction to suffer fools gladly." I think that would not be a normal reading of 2 Corinthians 11:19, in which Paul is usually understood to be chiding the Corinth congregation for tolerating fools—in this case, false prophets—more than they should. Nevertheless the Chesterton passage is a very pretty one, and has been much quoted:
We always lay the stress on the word "suffer," and interpret the passage as one urging resignation. It might be better, perhaps, to lay the stress upon the word "gladly," and make our familiarity with fools a delight, and almost a dissipation. Nor is it necessary that our pleasure in fools (or at least in great and godlike fools) should be merely satiric or cruel. The great fool is he in whom we cannot tell which is the conscious and which the unconscious humour; we laugh with him and laugh at him at the same time. An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect. 
It is given in full in the Wikipedia entry for "suffer fools gladly".

Also in that Wikipedia entry is a link to to a column by one Robert Fulford in the Canadian paper National Post, April 23, 2002, which discusses suffering fools gladly at length, giving a large number of celebrity examples.

2. André Comte-Sponville

On July 29, 2009 Margaret McCray, a pastoral counselor at the Presbyterian-affiliated Westminster  Counseling Center in Minneapolis, presented a sermon in which she talked about the need to treat a spouse or partner with respect even when what one feels is hurt and anger,  mentioning in this connection a recent column by David Brooks ("In search of dignity", 7 July 2009) and an essay on "Politeness" from A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life by the French philosopher, proponent of a "spiritualized atheism", André Comte-Sponville (2001; from a French original, 1995).

3. Emma

On January 17, 2011 David Brooks devoted his column to Amy Chua's controversial memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, calling her a "wimp" for not allowing her daughters to sleep over at friends' houses, since a middle-school slumber party is more intellectually challenging than the rounds of music lessons and tutoring to which they were subjected instead. The following day, Huffington Post blogger Amy Gutman offered her own take on the Tiger Mother with an odd and enlightening comparison between Chua's behavior to her children and Emma's rudeness to the (possibly great and godlike, in Chesterton's sense) fool Miss Bates in Jane Austen's novel. The Wikipedia article on Battle Hymn has an extensive section on the critical reception of the book, in which Brooks's and Gutman's discussions are mentioned right next to each other.
Image by C.E. Brock, 1898. From Golden Bridge Inmate.

The column

What Brooks writes next, as opposed to what he may have done next, is as follows:
I come across that phrase a lot. I’ve read that Al Gore and former Representative Barney Frank don’t suffer fools gladly. Neither, apparently, did Steve Jobs, George Harrison, Pauline Kael or even Henry David Thoreau.
Then he goes on to say that he himself does not think much of those who suffer fools ungladly, as represented by the actor Ed Harris, or a "senior House member" he once saw berating a young female reporter for asking an ignorant question. The congressman, says Brooks,
looked the bigger fool. He was making a snap judgment about a person with no real information about her actual qualities. He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others.
At this point he's pretty much home free. He has but to adumbrate his judgment with some apposite quotations, by his beloved Edmund Burke, by André Comte-Sponville, and by Jane Austen; insert a paragraph worthy of a Humility Professor by admitting that he's not so good with fools himself (but he flees them instead of treating them unkindly the way Harris or the unnamed congressman do; the Humility Professor's modesty is always leavened by a dose of self-praise); and wind up with the Chesterton, like a huge, eggy dessert.

But where does all this material come from? Has he really started reading as much stuff as he normally pretends to? Is he reading modern French philosophy, for heaven's sake, and spiritualized atheism, as well as Regency romance? And who is that congressman, anyway?

Teh Google

It is no secret that just about everything I know nowadays comes in the ether; if I had to rely on the old neurological memory I'd hardly be able to get dressed in the morning (fact! I'll be sitting there with my coffee listening to the radio, and the helpmeet will ask what the weather is like, and I'll get up to look online even though I've already heard it, in theory, three or four times). I'm sure many others have found themselves in a similar situation, and Brooks would be one, but he wouldn't be very happy for the readers to see it that way, and indeed he does his best to hide it.

In the present case, after putting away the old Foreign Policy, he searched "doesn't suffer fools gladly". The names of particularly famous people he came up with who do not suffer fools gladly (looking only at the text snippets displayed onscreen, without opening up the documents) included, in this order, Stephen Harper, Barney Frank, Roger Ebert, George Carlin, Al Gore, Russell Crowe, Judy Davis, Susan Rice.... He happily extracted the names of the two rebarbative Democrats and moved on.

Then the past tense, "didn't suffer fools gladly", yielded Northrup Frye, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Andrew Jackson, Blossom Dearie, Steve Jobs, George Harrison, John Silber, Bruce Lee, Hedy Lamarr, John P. Sears, Pauline Kael, Russell Kirk, Erving Goffman, Frank Zappa, Pierre Trudeau....

Or maybe he got bored after Jobs and went directly through the Wikipedia article to Fulford, who brought together non-fool-sufferers Harrison, Kael, Thoreau, and Harris, whom he decided to reserve for a later use. The appearance of all four names in the same column (how often does that happen?) more or less proves that he used Fulford at some point. But he had to be using Google as well, for Frank, Gore, and Jobs. "I've come across that phrase a lot" is bullshit.

He may also have checked out a reliable expert at
The origin of suffer fools gladly comes from the Bible. It was translated into the New Testament in 1534 by William Tyndale. It was a mocking rebuke to the Corinthian believers that were taken in by false apostles and Satan worshipers. "For ye suffer fools gladly, because that ye yourself are wise". Now it's a phase used by people to insult others they regard as dim witted or foolish.
 Or as Brooks puts it, using the King James "seeing" rather than the Tyndale "because that",
The phrase originally came from William Tyndale’s 1534 translation of the Bible. In it, Paul was ripping into the decadent citizens of Corinth for turning away from his own authoritative teaching and falling for a bunch of second-rate false apostles. “For ye suffers fool gladly,” Paul says with withering sarcasm, “seeing ye yourselves are wise.”
Copy editor went to sleep again there in the citation, where an unruly s has wandered over from noun to verb, but we must march forward. Brooks does, having apparently decided at this point what the column is going to be about.
Ball supper menu. From Austen Only.
The authorities

Edmund Burke we understand as Brooks's beau idéal of a philosopher, and we don't question where the quote comes from:
Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”
But what about Sponville and Austen?
In his extremely French book, “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues,” the contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that “politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others.” Politeness is a discipline that compels respectful behavior. Morality, he writes “is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life, a code of duties, a ceremonial of the essential.” (I told you it was very French.)
He clearly hasn't read Sponville. The first sentence he quotes is literally the first sentence of Sponville's first chapter, and the second is from four pages later. Its meaning is distorted by the omission of what comes in between, the assertion that politeness
is also the poorest, the most superficial, and the most debatable of the virtues, and possibly something other than a virtue as well. In any case, as virtues go it's a small one, an easy virtue, one might say, as used to be said in reference to certain women. Politeness doesn't care about morality, and vice versa.
Indeed, Sponville ends up concluding that politeness is not really a virtue after all, but only a kind of "morality of the body", a physical expression of what morality looks like, "a code for life in society, a ceremonial of the inessential," which can be taught to children before they develop a mature moral sense, and a framework in which they can live it, as McCray has understood:
Politeness is a behavior that encourages children to interact in acceptable, non-hurtful ways with other human beings.  Ideally, the politeness we learn as children matures and evolves into more thoughtful feelings and virtues such as compassion and respect for others. 
Cruel Nazis, he repeatedly notes, could be exquisitely polite; mastering manners had done nothing for their moral character. And can't a kind, generous person also be gruff and ill-behaved? This is why Burke is wrong: "civility" is not more important than goodness.

As to Emma, he likely hasn't read that either, at least not recently.
Jane Austen is the novelist most famous for advocating this point of view. In her novel “Emma,” the lead character is rude to a foolish and verbose old woman named Miss Bates. Emma’s friend George Knightley rebukes her.

If Miss Bates were rich or smart or your equal, maybe this rudeness would have been tolerable, Mr. Knightley tells her, but “she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!”
Miss Bates is not an "old woman" (as Knightley observes in the passage); she is middle-aged, with an elderly mother. And Austen, dictating Knightley's response, plainly disagrees with Burke: manners do not "compel" morality; rather, morality compels the differential use of manners—it is more important to be polite to those who are weaker than we are, less to those who are more powerful.

What I think happens is this: Brooks, or an intern, actually trawls the Internet looking for his name—not for the pleasure of seeing his name backlit, but to find serviceable quotations associated with ideas that he is associated with too. Thus the McCray sermon, from which he got Sponville briefly into the Kindle, and thus the Wikipedia article on Chua, which introduced him to Emma (linked, of course, to the Gutenberg text of the novel, so he could find it all the more easily: I'll tell you right now, it's the 87th instance of "Miss Bates"). That's incredible!

And the "senior member of the House" who spoke unkindly to "a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question." He's not saying who he has in mind, but the aptest example on YouTube features somebody he's already mentioned here, Barney Frank, along with Nicholas Ballasy (not a woman, but maybe the genders have been changed to protect the disingenuous) of CNS, on December 21, 2010:

What Brooks wouldn't realize here is that the reporter is not merely ignorant but extraordinarily rude and presumptuous, and really requires a smackdown. Also Ballasy is representing not an actual news outlet but a rightist propaganda organ, the Christianist News Service (as we call it around here; Ballasy is now working for the Daily Caller, so it looks like getting humiliated by Barney did not get him thrown out of the Boys' Club), and the question is loaded, not looking for information but trouble.

Sure enough, Brooks seems to have a problem in this connection with Barney Frank in particular. Here he is about a year after that scene, on the PBS News Hour, December 2, 2011:
JIM LEHRER: Finally, with just a minute left, any thoughts about Barney -- I understand you are not a big fan of Barney Frank, and he, of course, announced his retirement this week. 
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And this wasn't ideological. 
You know, you go to Capitol Hill, and we see -- just on the show today -- there are these scrums, where these reporters surround the politicians. And most of them are like us, who are sort of middle-aged guys, and we can take it. But there's always a bunch of young people who are just learning the trade. And they're nervous. 
And I just saw Barney Frank as cruel to them on a couple of occasions, needlessly cruel. And I'm sure he did a lot of good things, but that needless cruelty always put me off. 
And two days later on C-SPAN he said much the same thing; but the really interesting thing about that appearance was a caller suggesting a present Brooks could give Frank on his retirement (in closed-captionese; click link for audio):
There we have it! And now Frank is out of the House, and Brooks is giving him his present (and even his Burke citation is borrowed, uncredited, from somebody else)! What a nasty man our Mr. Politeness is, eh? I don't think he's really so polite after all!


  1. Still gets a paycheck...

    The single plausible explanation is that DFB has soft lips and knows how to use them.

    When future historians/archeologists study our present, they may use DFB's career as instructive as to our apparent immunity to immutable facts.

    There's a lesson in this for somebody? DFB is a great columnist because he's polite? DFB enjoys a position of stature and import because he is not impolite? DFB serves to give better writers grist to grind?

    In a just world, DFB would be first against the wall for crimes against humanity.

    1. DFB serves to give better writers grist to grind?Or at least talented apprentices? Thanks! (I think.)

      I think his soft-lips days ended when old Mr. Buckley passed away. Now it's all just niche marketing. That's where the politeness comes in: he doesn't write for conservatives, he writes for liberals who want a "nice" conservative on their reading lists. Like a literary equivalent to Mike Huckabee on TV. I don't quite know why he enrages me so much, but I know I'm in good company.