Friday, August 19, 2011


The world is in its worst economic crisis in nearly 80 years, and David Brooks, a political columnist with one of the most prominent platforms in the media, is responding to the parlous state of the world by writing columns like ... this:

We are born with what some psychologists call an "explanatory drive." You give a baby a strange object or something that doesn't make sense and she will become instantly absorbed; using all her abilities -- taste, smell, force -- to figure out how it fits in with the world.

I recently met someone who, though in his seventh decade, still seems to be gripped by this sort of compulsive curiosity. His name is Philip Leakey.

He is the third son of the famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey and the brother of the equally renowned scholar, Richard Leakey....

I met him at the remote mountain camp where he now lives, a bumpy 4-hour ride south of Nairobi near the Rift Valley....

The Leakeys live in a mountaintop tent....

Philip has experiments running up and down the mountainside. He's trying to build an irrigation system that doubles as a tilapia farm....

You read this and you think: What the hell relevance does this have when people all over America are reaching their 99th week of unemployment benefits with no hope of ever finding a job again, and when there's no sign that any politicians, anywhere in America or Europe, will ever figure out what needs to be done to reverse the situation?

I realize what this reminds me of. It reminds me of Nathanael West's Depression-era novella Miss Lonelyhearts (a better book, for my money, than The Day of the Locust). In one scene, Miss Lonelyhearts, a (male) writer of a newspaper advice column, is struggling to find a way to respond to letters from readers with serious problems. As he pores over one such letter, from the brother of a 13-year-old girl who's been raped, his editor, Shrike, dictates a response:

The difference is that Shrike is a cynic proposing what he thinks will mollify the rubes, while Brooks absolutely means what he's saying.

Look, I know that if you want to sell in tough economic times, you have to sell something that will appeal to people who have money to buy. But Brooks pretends to have lofty and noble ideals -- and yet, as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, what he's offering is as useless, as inadequate to the occasion, as the advice proffered by Shrike.

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