April 13, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
David Brooks of the New York Times has some advice for youthful do-gooders. Even though he finds them “refreshingly uncynical…, their service religion does have some shortcomings.” One shortcoming: they are living “a delusion.” According to Brooks, young idealists don’t appreciate “the rule of law” and the importance of a regimen of good “habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion.” You might think poverty and suffering comes from, oh, lack of money and resources, but Brooks tells us “Most poverty and suffering – whether in a country, a family or a person – flows from disorganization.” If only the wretched of this earth would get organized, all their suffering would dissipate.
But forget the wretched of the earth. Brooks’ concern is with the misguided altruists who have the wrong ideas about how to help them. Brooks, ever-inventive, has hit on a novel way to educate naïve bleeding-hearts. By novel, I mean “novel” as in “detective novel.” Yep. Nothing to cure altruism like a dose of Sam Spade. Seriously, this is Brooks’ plan: to knock some of that idealism out of their heads, have the kids read
the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least [watch] the movies based on them.” The noir heroes like Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
What is it about these fictional characters that makes Brooks think they can help young people contemplating good works?
The noir hero is a moral realist…. The private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality…. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within. He is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor…. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected.
So Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye must precede a venture out to save the world. The Glass Key holds the key to life. For extra insurance, watch “Double Indemnity.”
Brooks claims that “This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism.” Really? I’ve read most of the book-length fiction of both Hammett and Chandler. I’ve seen most of the films. Much of this reading and watching I did at a relatively young age. Never once did it occur to me that I should be more like the hardboiled characters. The exception to this rule might be Myrna Loy’s portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man films. I was probably awed by Loy’s sophisticated comedic banter and her goofy assertiveness. But fun-loving, quick-witted New York socialite is not what Brooks has in mind as a role model. She is just not noir. For noir, we must look to someone like the Barbara Stanwyck character Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.” Dietrichson gets her lover to murder her husband for the money, plots the murder of a young woman with another lover and ultimately shoots Lover No. 1 in self-defense, just before he plugs her. In other words, young people, be more like a psychopath. (If Brooks prefers the Fred MacMurray character Walter Neff, he’s the first lover: “I killed him for money – and a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” Fade out.)
Brooks’ column might be more about Brooks than about the rest of us. Perhaps these characters did give Brooks a warped view of the world and of the way to negotiate it. One of Hammett’s best-known characters, the Continental Op, is so hollow he doesn’t even rate a name, though he is the protagonist in two dozen short stories and two novels. Maybe the Continental Op took over young Brooks’ personality, and that’s why he can so callously advocate for policies that would work terrible hardships on millions of Americans. In Brooks’ own “sense of good order,” these hapless millions should accept their lot in life. As Brooks writes, in assessing the noir heroes, they believe “each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work.” That’s a life lesson Brooks thinks everyone, no matter the degree of decay, should follow. And he aims to make sure we do.
In his assessment of the “shortcomings” and “delusions” of the work of young altruists, Brooks writes, “Often they are bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.” Brooks sees these efforts as high-minded but largely unproductive: “You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.”
Brooks, who is obsessed with psychology and sociology, should revisit his introductory course textbooks. No doubt one or the other of those books describes Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow – and common sense – posits that the highest levels of well-being cannot be achieved without first securing the basics like water and food, then the security of health, employment and other resources. The young people Brooks wants to harden into a phalanx of Sam Spades are attempting to provide these basic human needs, needs that must be met before a people have the capacity to institute higher-order values like Brooks’ idea of good government. Brooks writes, “Unless there is a healthy political process to resolve disputes, the ensuing hatred and conflict will destroy everything the altruists are trying to build.” Brooks puts the cart before the horse. A society in which people are starving and uneducated is not equipped to put in place “a healthy political process.” Providing access to clean water, adequate crops, shelter, seed money, disease control, rudimentary education – all of these basic necessities are precedents to enlightened self-governance. It is not young altruists who are delusional but Brooks and the coterie of neocons who think first-world countries can parachute into third-world places like Afghanistan, pick a friendly local to run things, hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution along with blueprints of Western civil and criminal law, then give themselves prizes for “nation-building.” One would think Brooks had written his column before we tested this recipe in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brooks’ faulty thinking is precisely the kind of wrong-headed, self-serving ideology that has cost our own nation trillions and brought little in the way of order to the countries where we have tried to impose Brooks’ idea of the “rule of law.”
Detective novels are fun. Good detective novels, like those by Hammett and Chandler, may give us some insights into what is wrong with us, but the heroes seldom provide models for how we “should be.” The film “Double Indemnity,” written by director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is a case on point. There is no doubt that the hero of the film is Walter Neff, the cool insurance salesman who takes up with Phyllis Dietrichson and helps her trick her husband into buying a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause, then murders the husband so Phyllis can collect on the policy. But there is a character in the film who represents Brooks’ “rule of law.” He is Barton Keyes, the claims investigator who works with Neff and who thinks there is something fishy about Mr. Dietrichson’s death. If there is any question as to which character the viewer is supposed to identify with, the casting answers that: Neff is played by tall, handsome Fred MacMurray, who usually played heroic roles; Edward G. Robinson, famous for playing mobsters, takes the part of Keyes. Keyes has a secondary role, but he drives the story. Neff and he are friends, but Neff must always keep one step ahead of Keyes, who says he has “a little man” in his chest who keeps nagging him about the Dietrichson claim. What blinds Keyes to Neff’s complicity in the crime is his love for Neff.
The lesson – if one is implied – is that justice must be impartial. But remember this: the structure of justice, of the rule of law, is already in place. The moral code, dictated by the Motion Picture Production Code which at the time did not allow crime to pay (“No picture should [allow] evil … to appear attractive; … in the end the audience [must] feel that evil is wrong and good is right.”), was set in stone, even if in the film, the expression of the code is an unseen “little man” – the angel of Keyes’ better nature. The basic needs of all of the characters had already been met. Nobody was destitute or starving. The protagonists Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff aimed to subvert the moral code and the rule of law for “evil” reasons.
“Double Indemnity” is a terrific film. (So is the 1981 movie “Body Heat,” which borrows the plot.) But there is nothing in “Double Indemnity” that should dissuade anyone from helping to build water purification systems or inoculating Africans against guinea worm disease. Neither this film nor the body of 20th-century detective fiction provides lessons about the necessity of “the political process” or the “problem of disorder,” as Brooks claims. Nor does this literature and film genre “fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos,” as he writes. In fact, most of the genre better demonstrates that “the law is an ass.” The police are almost uniformly corrupt, and the private detectives are in business precisely because the public justice system is dysfunctional. If anything, the “lesson” of film noir and detective fiction is that the political process itself is so corrupt that one must go outside the law to effect any sort of justice. That is, the fictional genre “teaches” us to do exactly what young people who work outside the established order are doing. Brooks has “the moral of the story” backwards.
So read the literature. Go to the movies. Forget David Brooks. And keep up the good work.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com