March 9, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I had no intention of writing about David Brooks’ latest New York Times column, a column in which he declares his fealty to the New York Mets. Then a contributor to my Website pointed me to a response by popular New York Times commenter Gemli. So I still won’t write much about Brooks’ column, but I would like to share Gemli’s insights.
In explaining his love for the Mets, Brooks writes,
I’ve … come to accept that my connection to the Mets exists in a realm that precedes individual choice…. The neuroscientists might say that, in 1969, I formed certain internal neural structures associated with the Mets, which are forever after pleasant to reactivate…. The neuroscientists might say that, in 1969, I formed certain internal neural structures associated with the Mets, which are forever after pleasant to reactivate.
Brooks goes on to relate his love for the baseball team to deeper psychological and sociological phenomena which he claims are illustrated by two works of fiction:
There’s a core American debate between ‘On the Road’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ‘On the Road’ suggests that happiness is to be found through freedom, wandering and autonomy. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ suggests that happiness is found in the lifelong attachments that precede choice. It suggests that restraints can actually be blessings because they lead to connections that are deeper than temporary self-interest.
Brooks concludes, “The happiness research suggests that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is correct and ‘On the Road’ is an illusion.”
First, Brooks mischaracterizes On the Road, a 1951 novel by Jack Kerouac which has been made into an as-yet unreleased film. (The trailer is to be released today.) There is nothing happy about On the Road. Manic, yes. But happy? Absolutely not. On the Road is a seeker story in which the seekers never find the object. The novel is largely autobiographical, and Kerouac was a wreck of a guy who died young as a result of a long history of alcohol abuse. For Brooks to pretend On the Road is the liberal’s version of the pathway to happiness – and this is what Brooks does imply – is downright duplicitous.
This brings us to Gemli’s commentary, which illustrates that Brooks also misrepresents the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Gemli writes that Brooks “forgets that central to the plot is an evil skinflint who tries to ruin the banking system and take over the town. Fortunately, 99 percent of the townsfolk Occupy Bedford Falls and thwart the evil plan. Talk about life imitating art.”
So what, you say? Brooks wrote a column about baseball. What have his shortcomings as a literary or film critic to do with that? As Gemli points out – plenty. Never mind the text. Think subtext. Brooks’ column is not about books or movies – or baseball. Gemli writes:
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Mr. Brooks is a conservative columnist. He’s unlikely to waste good column inches on a paean to the Mets, but we soon realize that he is using baseball as a metaphor, and that our pundit is wistfully justifying his youthful romance with conservative ideals in a year when most thinking Americans are embarrassed at the mere thought of the latest Romney gaffe or Santorum insanity.
Mr. Brooks wants us to know (and Lady Gaga would agree) that he was born this way. His brain lights up when he hears the social safety net being ripped. He waves a big foam finger in the air when there’s talk of privatizing Social Security, and he does a one-man wave when Medicare is being disparaged.
Now the conservative cant is in full gallop, and we’ve left baseball for the movies. We learn that the freedom, autonomy, and choice in ‘On the Road’ are threatening, and don’t lead to happiness. Mr. Brooks prefers the lifelong attachments, restraint, and subjugation of self-interest found in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’
Brooks may be telling more about himself and the conservative mindset that he intended to. There is a good deal of sociological research that demonstrates that conservatives are not as good as are liberals at adapting to new circumstances, even when it is in their interest to do so. This is hardly surprising. Now there are some neurological studies that suggest that liberals and conservatives are hardwired differently. This does not imply a one-to-one correlation between political affiliation and capacity to adapt, but there does seem to be a group trend. As Our Mister Brooks reveals today, he fits neatly into the conservative cluster: even though he has lived outside the New York of his youth for decades, and even though the Mets historically have been a mediocre team, Brooks says he is “inescapably” attached to them. “I have no choice but to love the Mets,” he writes. He claims, really, to have no free will. His is an utterly Calvinistic, Puritanical view.
For Brooks, freedom’s just another word. Period. This is why it is easy for him to associate freedom with rootlessness; that is, “another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Kerouac and Kristofferson. Since Brooks believes he cannot be free of his obsessions, he finds what happiness he can locate within the obsessions. Tethered to his youth, Brooks finds some relief in nostalgia for things he imagined when he was a boy.
Therein lies the heart of conservatism, or at least the idealistic strain of conservatism. It is a belief in something that wasn’t. It is a longing for something that should have been — the fifth-grader’s primer on American history. Most of today’s conservatives, and I would include Brooks here, are more pragmatic than that. They are hard-edged, self-interested partisans who employ nostalgia and other psychological triggers in order to persuade voters that theirs is a legitimate narrative. If it means rewriting fiction, that is scarcely a big deal. Conservatives are, after all, perfectly willing to rewrite facts, too, in pursuit of their objectives.
So Brooks uses his column today to try to convince readers that restrained conservatism, wrapped in an appreciation for the inescapable past, is the secret to whatever limited happiness and self-governance we may enjoy: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” as Fitzgerald wrote. Unfortunately for Brooks, he is beating on against the current of our quintessential American narrative, which is ever aspirational. To “Yes We Can,” Brooks says, “No we can’t.” And adds, “Really, we should not.” Brooks’ conservatism relies on pessimism. We should limit our aspirations, Brooks says. Restrain yourself: “Restraints can … be blessings.” Restraints “lead to connections that are deeper than temporary self-interest.”
The Calvinist in Brooks defines aspiration as inherently sinful: he associates free will with “self-interest” and “temporary pleasures.” On the conservative side of Brooks’ theological equation, we find words like “blessing,” “love,” “virtue,” “abiding,” “allegiance,” “connections,” “magical,” “shimmering,” “loyalty.” etc. Brooks packages conservatism in positive language, but it remains a negative message. His column, ostensibly on baseball, is a lecture in support of a status quo he claims is “inescapable.” As Gemli illuminates, Brooks’ fidelity to the Mets is a metaphor for faith in conservative values.
I don’t know much about sports. But I know this: whether or not you still root for the sports insignias of your youth (the teams themselves are long gone), it would be wise not to get too entrenched in Brook’s underlying message. It is more of a loser than the Mets.
Marie Burns blogs atRealityChex.com