Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I can't get three sentences into the latest David Brooks column without feeling testy and impatient:

Over the past few weeks, America's colleges have sent another class of graduates off into the world. These graduates possess something of inestimable value. Nearly every sensible middle-aged person would give away all their money to be able to go back to age 22 and begin adulthood anew.

OK, maybe this is just me, but I was miserable and depressed when I was 22. If I went back to that age, I don't believe I'd correct all the mistakes I made, thus leading a brilliantly successful life -- I think I'd probably make the same mistakes, or worse ones.

But this isn't about me. Why is David Brooks saying this? Is he arguing that he would like to go back and start over? Does he grasp the fact that his life is really quite nice and he should he be goddamn good and grateful for what he has? Does he really look himself in the mirror and see not an elite millionaire pundit but an ordinary schlub? Does he not see how that's offensive to the rest of us?

But this column isn't about him -- as usual with David Brooks these days, it's about you and me, and how debased our culture is. This time he's grumbling about commencement speeches -- he's apparently the only person who's ever taken one seriously.

First off, though, he has to tell us why it's especially wrong to give bad advice in a commencement speech to this year's graduates (even though -- an obvious fact he ignores -- they'll be texting through the whole speech):

...upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

Apparently Brooks believes this is a new development. Apparently he believes America was a rigidly structured society until, oh, about 2006 or so. We courted like Jane Austen characters, we married at 22, and we rarely roamed more than 50 miles from the places we were born. Then, about five years ago, all hell broke loose.

Or maybe he just means you can be openly gay now in much of the country. (I assume that's the implicit meaning of the quaint phrase "amazingly diverse ... social landscapes and lifestyle niches.") Um, David Brooks is roughly my age. We had gay people when I was 22. We also had punks and non-whites, drug dealers and stockbrokers, and everything in between. And this was just as the notably crazier '60s and '70s were losing their cultural grip -- does Brooks think things are less structured than they were then for a young, confused 22-year-old?

It's odd that he says this, because he spends most of the rest of the column excoriating baby boomers for giving what he regards as bad advice to today's impressionable youth:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

This being David Brooks, you know what's coming next: priggish words of praise for self-denial.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments -- to a spouse, a community and calling -- yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Look, I'm pro-spouse, and while I'm a deeply unspiritual guy, I understand using "sacred" in reference to the commitment two people develop for each other? But community? In America? Where we barely believe in paying enough taxes to keep the schools running?

And a calling? How many people in America have what they would consider a calling? You go to work (if you have a job), you do what they throw at you, you curse them all day, you get it done, you leave, you go home and bitch about it. Or you're ambitious and you become the person the underlings bitch about. That's a calling? Either one of those?

And he's serious about this word:

Most successful young people don't look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer's and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn't in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don't form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

Brooks doesn't like the "follow your inner dictates" stuff you get in a typical commencement speech, but he's replaced that nonsense with his own nonsense -- he's saying that you'll find meaning in something you do for a living, or at least you will if you're not a failure. He's sufficiently aware of what airy-fairy nonsense this is that he throws in that example of the guy who "works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function." But that's not a calling -- I've done that, as have many people I know, and it just isn't. It's no more a calling than regularly putting out Combat when the apartment you rent at 22 is full of cockroaches is a calling -- it's just something you do to make the miserable aspects of your life more bearable. And trust me: it may keep you employable, but it won't make you a success. The people who clean up after arrogant alpha dogs are never the winners in life.

You know who is a success? People whose calling is finding what less lofty souls than David Brooks refer to as "the main chance." Elsewhere on the Times op-ed page we have Joe Nocera -- the good Joe Nocera this time, railing against too-big-to-fail uber-bankers. He interviews a successful small banker from Buffalo who thinks the uber-bankers are still doing extremely risky things while failing to do what bankers are supposed to do, namely lend to individuals and businesses. This small banker wishes we still had the Glass-Steagall Act in force.

But we don't, and so we have the likes of Jamie Dimon:

Dimon, who made more than $20 million last year at JPMorgan Chase, is widely viewed as the best of the big bank chief executives. But he's also become the most vocal defender of the status quo. "To people who say the system would be safer with smaller banks doing traditional banking, well, the system would be safer if we also went back to horse and buggies," he told the Chamber audience. "That is a quaint notion that won't work in the real world."

I guerss Brooks would say that preserving the status quo is Dimon's calling. And maybe he'd say that every young wannabe Master of the Universe who works for Dimon also has a calling as well -- to keep sucking at that ever-productive financial teat.

Those are this society's real successes. Please, David, explain to me where the sacred is in what they do.

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