Saturday, July 7, 2018


Photo by David Ake/Getty Images.

David F. Brooks, 24 April 2015:
There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree. As Dorothy Parker once joked, American children aren’t raised; they are incited. They are given food, shelter and applause. That’s a thousand times more true today. Children are incessantly told how special they are.
Then the other great defining feature in that column is his contrdictory thesis that children aren't praised unless they do something meritocratic, like their homework, or a victory in a sporting or artistic activity, so that they will grow up thinking their parents' love is conditional, which will make them resentful, risk-averse, and "driven by internalized pressures more than by real freedom of choice," which is a bad thing, unless of course, as is so often the case in the thinking of David Brooks, it isn't, as last November, when real freedom of choice was the bothsides curse of modern society:

The big social movements of the past half century were about maximizing freedom of choice. Right-wingers wanted to maximize economic choice and left-wingers lifestyle choice. Anything that smacked of restraint came to seem like a bad thing to be eliminated.
And yesterday, in a column with the remarkably sickly, smarmy, crypto-Catholic headline "Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good", when he paid his tribute to the great and late Mister Rogers, protagonist of a new documentary film in a theater near you, Won't You Be My Neighbor? and the hero of the effort to make every child feel special and unique and gifted, which was actually a good thing, if not when Brooks was writing about the movement in 2015, though as we just saw he contradicted himself there too, when he seemed to adhere to the traditional conservative view of Mister Rogers, as described in a review of the film by Christine Emba at Wapo:
The second half of the documentary takes note of the right-wing commentators who derided Rogers’s belief in the “specialness” of every child as progressive softness that turns children into entitled snowflakes, the uncharitable parodies of his show that proliferated on late-night television, and even the Westboro Baptist Church protesters who picketed his funeral.
But to Brooks,
there’s also something more radical going on. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.
Is he saying that being a lifelong Republican and Presbyterian minister and expressing mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life is more radical than some other thing he was just mentioning ("Rogers's radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce")? Reader, I don't think so, but those are the words that got lost in the miniature forest of his paragraph and looked for the trail of bread crumbs they'd left on their way in. It's only four paragraphs down, after a lengthy and not obviously relevant anecdote, that he explains,
And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.
It's Matthew 20:16, which in the Brooksian reading means understanding that every child is not only special and unique and equally valuable but actually more valuable than David Brooks
(Q: Why is David Brooks like Mexico?
A: Because he's so far from God and so close to the United States.)
which is probably true in most cases, but honestly I don't believe he really thinks so himself, with his Capitol Hill house and his millions, and more valuable than Mister Rogers too—
Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
Which may be what Mister Rogers said, but leaves out what Junod notes in the essay, that this boy's "challenges" included self-hatred and suicidal ideations, and he'd had to be taken away from Mister Rogers when they met because he was so nervous that he started hitting himself, but Mister Rogers insisted on talking to him, and that meeting was (according to Junod) a successful intervention: afterwards the boy stopped talking about wanting to die. Suppressing that essential part of the story bleeds all the sophisticated theology of Rogers's prayer talk out of the story and makes it like a bald statement that Rogers simply recognized, Matthew 20:16, that the boy was his superior in the hierarchy of holiness.
Children are superior for their instinctive small acts of neighborliness, the small hug, sharing a toy. In 1997 a teenage boy in Kentucky warned classmates that “something big” was going to happen. The next day he took a gun to school and shot eight classmates, killing three. Mister Rogers’s response was, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.” Rogers dedicated a week’s worth of shows to the theme of “Little and Big” on how little things can be done with great care.
Was the Kentucky killer also superior to David Brooks and Mister Rogers? He was a child too! I feel certain that Rogers would not shrink from the question and talk about the boy's struggles and insist that he too was special and unique , but Brooks makes him a simple bad example, somebody who apparently failed to be an authentic child offering toys and hugs. Again a weird paragraph structure, since sentence 2 is in the place where you'd expect him to offer an example of the pattern ("Children are superior because...") identified in sentence 1.

This story is lifted from Junod's essay as well (David Brooks Plagiarism Watch!), and of course lifted from its context, which isn't Rogers's reaction to the 1997 West Paducah killings but his creative work on presenting his audience with ideas of bigness and littleness, in collaboration with the architect Maya Lin, but never mind that.

At the end, Brooks comes to this place of nostalgic regret for the America where everybody, bothsides of course, was just like Mister Rogers—
Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.
—but it strikes me what he's really wanting to tell us is how holy—special, unique, and holy—he is himself, with his unique Rogersian recognition that children are holier than he is, which nobody in our decadent age understands any more, but he does.

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