Saturday, June 25, 2016

Edgy David Brooks

George Caleb Bingham, "Raftsmen Playing Cards", 1847. Saint Louis Art Museum via New York Times. David Brooks at left in the green trousers, left out because he's a four-flusher and can't count.
Shorter David Brooks, "At the Edge of Inside", New York Times, June 24 2016:
When you are located neither in in the core of an organization nor outside it, but just at the edge of the core, you could be a genuine reformer, like Senator Lindsey Graham or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people might not like you very much, but we need such people now more than ever. Lincoln, too, and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, co-author, with Cass Sunstein, of Nudge (2008), whose theories can "make it easier for people to save money, eat healthily and more," according to the TED Radio Hour, which shows you just how edgy-on-the-inside he is.
Actually that's not what Brooks says about Thaler. He says,
When the behavioral economist Richard Thaler uses the lessons of psychology to improve economic modeling, he is operating just inside the edge of his own discipline and making it better.
But I don't feel that's 100% accurate. I think you could say Thaler uses the lessons of psychology to explain what's wrong with economic modeling as it's done (its presumption of rationality on the part of homo economicus), rightly I'm sure, but he doesn't use it to improve modeling; he does it to justify his own work as a purveyor of interesting anecdotes instead of models, and assert that you can do useful work even if you're no good at math:
And if you criticize it, they suspect, and rightly so in my case, that’s it’s because you’re not as good at math as them. You know, most economists are failed mathematicians or physicists.
Of course Brooks is not merely no good at math but a clinically certifiable mathophobe. That's why he's content to make a wild guess as to what Thaler does instead of trying to find out.

It's hard to figure what he's up to today. I mean it really isn't about anything. It's not about an urgent issue, or an issue of any sort, in politics or policy. It's not about his preoccupations with Good and God. It's not about Lindsey Graham. It seems to be about business management to some extent, but that's putting it charitably. What is he trying to say? Who is or isn't on the edge of the inside now, and what difference is it going to make? Silence.

At the most purely material level, it is evident that he didn't spend his whole day in Albuquerque last Saturday getting intermingled with the Americans in pain who probably weren't going to vote for Trump, but you never know, and learning to do his job better.

He also paid a call on Brother Richard Rohr, O.F.M., "an internationally known inspirational speaker [who] has published numerous recorded talks and books, most recently Yes, And...: Daily Meditations, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, and Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi," who runs a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque and apparently presented Brooks with a rare hard copy of a pamphlet outlining the center's Eight Core Principles, now out of print but available in hypertext, of which Brooks seems to be especially intrigued by point 4:
Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures.
Rohr doesn't mention Senator Graham in his list of famous people who have served "at the edge of the core"—or Lincoln or Professor Thaler either—but he does name-check Dr. King, along with
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, John XXIII, Simone Weil, and Oscar Romero, [who] all hold this exact position on the edge of the inside. They tend to be, each in their own way, orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals, believers, but that very authentic inner experience and membership allows them to utterly critique the systems that they are a part of. You might say that their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean. These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform. It is the structural fate of a prophet (Matthew 23:29-36). 
Well, then. It's a stretch applying that to Senator Graham, in my view, who may be orthodox and conservative in his own way but is certainly not clergy, traditional or otherwise, to say nothing of Thaler, who apparently has billed himself along with Sunstein as a "libertarian paternalist", or proponent of radical centrist nudgery, for which the ideal government is neither too big nor too small but violently passive-aggressive.

Needless to say, neither Graham nor Thaler is known for being marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed. (I knew illusions could be dangerous, but I had no idea they were homicidal.)

There's something very peculiar about Brooks's picture:
The true insiders are so deep inside they often get confused by trivia and locked into the status quo. The outsider is throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution. But the person at the doorway is seeing constant comings and goings.
If there are constant comings and goings, then there is some significant number of people who pass freely between inside and outside, and the person at the doorway is some kind of chilly equivocator who can't make a commitment, clinging to the post. Remind you of anybody? Somebody who is "orthodox and conservative in his own way" but anxiously protests that he's not in the movement and never shows up at their parties?

I think we can find the sense of this column—Brooks isn't even partially conscious of it—in there. Rohr's principle 4 appeals to him because he sees himself in it, glorified: his timid inability to join and make a difference magnified into the character of a biblical prophet. And he sees his social martyrdom explained:
There are downsides to being at the edge of inside. You never lose yourself in a full commitment. You may be respected and befriended, but you are not loved as completely as the people at the core, the band of brothers. You enjoy neither the purity of the outsider nor that of the true believer.... When people are afraid or defensive, they have no tolerance for the person at the edge of inside. They want purity, rigid loyalty and lock step unity.
That's what the piece is about: David F. Brooks. And butthurt. The explanation of why he is disrespected wherever he looks, because he's really just like Bonhoeffer and John XXIII. He would have done well, as he studies Rohr's writing, to look more attentively at another little passage stuck in there, about the conservative looking for transcendent experience and something to write about:
We have let self-centered opportunism pass for love of God for too many centuries. Seeking a permanent reward is not the same as the search for God.
And as Tengrain always says, Get off the cross, Davy, we need the wood.

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