So, did you catch the New Year's Day column by David Brooks?
If so, do you have any idea what the hell he's trying to say?
The column concerns America's reaction to the tsunami. It's a rich subject, and you expect Brooks to tease out some insight, but you get this instead at the outset:
...Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.
Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate....
Right away Brooks is in a box. It's clear why: He really wants to do a little preaching to us moral-compass-lacking secularists about the superior wisdom of ancient scriptures, but he realizes that ancient scriptures would imply that those poor bastards on Phuket Island deserved to die. That can't be right. What's a finger-wagger to do?
Brooks does the only thing he apparently can do these days -- he presses on and, with his usual understated air of moral superiority, expresses contempt for modern secular society anyway:
...And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.
In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.
If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.
So, according to Brooks, it may not be nice to think that the victims deserved the tsunami, but hey, at least it's better than thinking the tsunami was a horribly random act of savagely cruel fate. If you think that, that means you don't even think the victims are human!
I'm sorry, David -- I'm having a little trouble following that. If I think people suffer for no reason, that means I think they're not people at all? Why? How does the inability to understand an event in which large numbers of human beings suffer equate to thinking the suffering aren't human?
Brooks never explains this. Two paragraphs later, he heads in a different direction:
...The nature we saw this week is different from the nature we tell ourselves about in the natural history museum, at the organic grocery store and on a weekend outing to the national park. This week nature seems amoral and viciously cruel. This week we're reminded that the word "wilderness" derives from the word for willful and uncontrollable....
Who's he talking to here? Not us secularists -- clearly, if we think nature can be brutally random, we're not the ones who need to be told that "the word 'wilderness' derives from the word for willful and uncontrollable." I think Brooks is talking to himself. He's horrified and he really wishes God would offer him succor the way God does in the little tales that are stitched into gift-shop samplers.
But he won't admit that. Instead, he's projected his own dread onto his favorite target: the Upper West Side liberal. Yup, that's his "we." "We" lie to ourselves about nature, Brooks says, "at the organic grocery store" (not, of course, in the produce section of a red-state Wal-Mart!) and "in the natural history museum" (and the one he's thinking of, surely, is the Upper West Side's own American Museum of Natural History).
Now, I'll grant that a lot of us do think organic foods are healthier (than, say, Canadian agribusiness beef), a lot of us like out national parks, a lot of us have enjoyed the friendly butterflies at the Natural History museum.
But for years the crowd favorite at the Natural History museum has been the dinosaur exhibit -- and we all know that something rather harsh in nature was powerful enough to finish off the big, bad, dominant dinosaurs. And America's favorite recent books about nature have been The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air, books in which nature kills people without mercy. David, we really, really don't have a hard time understanding that nature is more than pretty butterflies and organic kiwifruit.
But Brooks has to persist. He invokes Thoreau -- and here he's using a winking code that, as his right-wing confreres know, means "hero of granola-eating throwback hippies with gray ponytails."
The naturalists hold up nature as the spiritual tonic to our vulgar modern world. They urge us to break down the barriers that alienate us from nature. Live simply and imbibe nature's wisdom. "Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds, but find her our constant nurse and friend, as do plants and quadrupeds," Thoreau wrote....
Here's the essay Brooks is quoting. He doesn't tell you that Thoreau goes on to say this (about a walk in the woods on a winter morning):
In the bare fields and tinkling woods, see what virtue survives.... A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it, and accordingly, whatever we meet with in cold and bleak places, as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan toughness.... what stays out must be part of the original frame of the universe, and of such valor as God himself.... we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter, -- as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.
In other words, Thoreau says something quite similar to what's in the old stories Brooks talks about at the outset: namely, that nature kills whatever lacks virtue, and that only what is virtuous survives.
Have I lost you yet? Or, to be more precise, did Brooks lose you, and then did I, trying to follow where Brooks seems to lead, get you even more lost? Sorry, but I'm afraid that's what happens when Brooks tries to wrestle with his own need for a God who will join him in bashing liberals, at a time when God, if God exists, clearly has had much nastier, more earth-shattering work --literally -- to attend to.
There's more; I'll spare you.