David Brooks is really getting on my nerves these days. And I actually liked Bobos in Paradise. The David Brooks who wrote that book seemed to have affection for those who like hardwood floors and locally produced jams with hand-lettered labels -- he acknowledged that being one of these people doesn’t make you a bad person, or even, necessarily, a Democrat -- in fact, he counted himself among the Bobos.
But now he never misses an opportunity to portray well-educated coast-dwellers -- a cohort to which he belongs -- as morally rudderless hedonists with false, shallow values. In Brooks’s eyes, Bobos and like-minded coastal scum are clearly the worst people in America, and virtually everyone else is more virtuous and more genuine, from the Millionaire Next Door to Jenny from the Block.
It’s no surprise, then, that Brooks would wangle the opportunity to review Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone editor, for The New York Times Book Review and would use life at West Point as a stick with which to bash those awful Bobos: Here’s Brooks’s snotty summation of the book:
It essentially describes a contest between two competing values systems. There is first the ... value system of the military, emphasizing discipline, self-sacrifice, duty, honor, courage and controlled but savage violence. Then there is the value system of society at large (and of Rolling Stone in particular), emphasizing freedom, self-expression, pleasure and commerce.
Submitted for your edification is a story told in the book of Lieutenat Colonel Hank Keirsey, a much-admired member of the West Point faculty. At one point a subordinate of Keisey’s, Dan Dent,
produces a parody PowerPoint presentation slide headlined, ''Class of 2000 Homo Factor Report,'' a crude stab at humor.
The slide made it into the e-mail circles, and before long there was talk of court-martial for the instructor. Keirsey decided it was his duty to take responsibility for his subordinate, both as a matter of loyalty and because he thought his stature was such that he could take the hit without being tossed out of the Army. He was wrong. Keirsey was relieved of command of military training and dismissed from the Army.
Lipsky concludes: ''For me, what Hank Keirsey did for Dan Dent was one of the clearest examples I have of West Point values. When I tell civilian friends Keirsey's story, I have to go over it twice, because they keep asking, 'Wait, didn't the other guy make the slide?' A leader takes care of his soldiers. He puts their concerns ahead of his own.''
Sitting over our Sunday brunches, we were all supposed to wince at this, ashamed of the moral flabbiness of the civilian world. Me, I was thinking: What’s so great about an honor code that gets a well-respected instructor fired and preserves the military career of a callow bigot, who isn’t held accountable for his own actions?
Brooks also recounts the story of a “loser” cadet who struggled to stay at West Point, even though administrators
tell him he will be loathed everywhere he goes in the Army by officers who prey on the physically weak. ''That's reality. This is not your niche,'' one says.
We learn that he managed to graduate, and, well, good for him. But Brooks’s implication is that nothing in the civilian value system inculcates character like this sort of toughness. He ignores the fact that in many highly competitive situations in the civilian world people have to discover that they’re not making the grade -- and they have grasp this fact on their own., and redouble their efforts to gain respect, or else change course and start fresh. Sure, a military academy smacks you around -- but civilian life can smack you around, too, in a different way, and discounting this sort of struggle, while romanticizing military life, is short-sighted and insulting.
But Brooks doesn’t care, because he’s seen that insulting a culture perceived as liberal wins you a wide a readership, wider even than the one for Bobos. And that’s what he clearly wants now.