The Moral Animal
David Brooks' curious take on Tom Wolfe and the Duke lacrosse scandal.
David Brooks is America's one genuinely likable conservative. And for this he needs to be watched very, very closely. Brooks is most famous for practicing his own unique brand of opinion journalism, which he has called "comic sociology." As a comic sociologist, Brooks paints an amiable and superficially apolitical portrait of contemporary America. According to comic sociology, there is no escaping the inexorable logic of the commodity. You are what you buy, even—especially—if what you are buying is authenticity, in the form of Birkenstocks, exposed wood beams, a copy of Leaves of Grass. As many commentators have noted, this genial shtick is not merely an incidental or charming add-on to Brooks' persona; it's what saves him from appearing to the elitist left as just another angry right-winger, and from appearing to the angry right as a crypto-elitist. (To his left he can always murmur, I kid because I love; to his right, Can you believe these snobs?) And so it came as quite a surprise to inveterate Brooks watchers when, this past Sunday, he decided to run down, of all things, sociology.
Brooks' column started out by observing how many commentaries on the Duke lacrosse scandal—in which affluent white collegiate athletes have been accused of raping a black townie stripper—invoke a "sociological explanation" for the alleged crime. "Several decades ago," Brooks pointed out, "American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character." Brooks then implied that a "nihilistic moral universe" of "shock jocks" and "raunch culture" has corroded the character of young men, while older codes of chivalry have been allowed to slide into oblivion.
Setting aside the obvious contradictions (Raunch Culture and Its Effect on Pack Male Behavior—sounds like a sociology thesis to me), it's important to get at what is really bothering Brooks. When a sociologist—someone like C. Wright Mills, for example—hears the word "chivalry," he doesn't hear the language of personal responsibility but its dark underside, the language of self-blame. There was a time—surprisingly coterminous with the heyday of Brooks' chivalry—when a black stripper who had been raped by white college boys would never think of going to the cops. Totally unaddressed by Brooks' nostalgia for"the 1920s," when "you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within" is whether the best aspects of that bygone era (decency in public manners) could be resurrected without the social apparatus that sustained it (white Anglo-Saxon hereditary elitism). Brooks doesn't mention it, but one way to return university presidents to the language of inner beasts is to once again exclude women, blacks, and Jews from universities. Also unmentioned by Brooks is that Duke's president (and my old thesis adviser) Richard Brodhead responded to the allegations with both swift action and harsh words ("sick" and "repulsive" have been two of his adjectives) unembarrassed by their moral rectitude. Before a career in administration, Brodhead was a Yale English professor, whose methods were avowedly sociological.
Hazy as Brooks' memory of the 1920s is, his recollection of Tom Wolfe's recent novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is even hazier. Winding up his column, Brooks claims that we need less sociology and more character building. To that end, Wolfe's book, Brooks says, "tried to steer readers back past the identity groups to the ghost in the machine, the individual soul." Brooks argued that it was Wolfe's heroine, Charlotte Simmons, and her search for "honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved" that had infuriated those critics who roundly panned the book. (Brooks ends his column with the heavy-handed insinuation that the critical incredulity at Wolfe's chaste heroine is part of the debased cultural atmosphere, one that leads to incidents like the alleged assault at Duke.) As one of the critics who loathed Wolfe's book, I was puzzled by Brooks' memory of it as a kind of chivalric paean to "honor" and the "soul" that transcends the petty self—dealing of identity politics. I remember Wolfe's novel—in addition to being overwritten, overdrawn, overwrought, and just plain bad—as a Leni Riefenstahl-like paean to the bodies of young men ("They were sweating … AND the mighty LumeNex lights brought out their traps, lats, delts, pecs, abs, and obliques in glossy high definition, especially when it came to the black players") and as a compendium of stereotypes, in which everything about the moral content of a person's character was fully determined by his social class and, more disturbingly, by his race.
The novel Brooks holds up as a would-be plinth to our new moral edifices had a particularly nasty preoccupation when it came to Jews. Only two of the main characters in Charlotte Simmons are Jewish. Both are consumed with resentment, and each is described with a malicious relish as a physical degenerate: the campus nerd, Adam Gellin, who is feminine, slight, and "scurries" when he walks (later Wolfe describes him as a "dark-haired conniver"); and Professor Quat, a "butterball grotesquely squeezed into a dark gray sweater," who believes in abortion, "not so much because [he] thought anyone [he] knew might want an abortion as because legalizing it helped put an exhausted and dysfunctional Christendom and its weird, hidebound religious restraints in their place."
Surely there are better ways of returning the language of morality to the university setting than resuscitating stale clichés like "the beast within" or over-praising a third-rate Nietzschean like Tom Wolfe. One way might be to think about what nonsociological vocabularies we possess for describing moral action. The greatest secular moral thinker was Immanuel Kant, who argued that in obeying the moral law, and thereby treating all human beings as ends in themselves, we exit the world of physical causation. Moral action is an expression of our free will—it's nothing like a billiard ball bouncing off of another billiard ball, and, for that matter, has nothing to do with a person assaulting another person because he is white and rich, and she is poor and black. I often wish I could be a good Kantian, motivated only by the moral law, the same way I sometimes wish I could be a believing Christian, motivated only by agape. It would be equal parts terror and joy, and as a nice secondary effect, it would sweep away forever the ability of David Brooks or Tom Wolfe to draw any conclusions about a human being from his or her Visa bill or ZIP code.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photographs of: David Brooks by Win McNamee/Getty Images for Meet The Press; of Tom Wolfe by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.