The Vanity of David Brooks

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St. Anthony.jpegDavid Brooks, ace social psychologist of the New York Times, is put out with all those fellow chatterers who have been heaping obloquy upon JoePa and the rest of the Penn State gang that couldn’t manage to get alleged boy rapist Jerry Sandusky properly brought to the attention of law enforcement. In Brooks’ view, all that high dudgeon is “based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or
assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better.
They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.” What vanity!

Personally, I haven’t read anyone actually claiming that he or she would have behaved better. What they claim is that these folks did not do the right thing. I suppose Brooks would have them say, “There but for the grace of God went I.” But actually, Brooks doesn’t say that about himself. He contents himself with heaping obloquy upon the obloquists.

And he locates the crux of the problem in the good old alleged liberal refusal to own up to the inherent sinfulness of human nature. Armed with some social psychological evidence of people not stepping up to do the right thing, he recycles the good old Niebuhrian critique of modernity:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this
weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people
of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle
against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware
of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise
discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to
process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They
helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst
our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our
inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look
for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the
culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look
for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

OK, we’re not Puritans…Brooks is the last of the breed. But actually, there weren’t a lot of Puritans in centuries past either. There were a lot of people who, like us, had the habit of placing lots of the blame on evil outside forces–call them the snares of the Devil. Ever read the Life of St. Anthony? That holy man thought himself beset by bogeys–and, indeed, there are a lot of temptations out there. The vanity of the Puritan is imagining that he can handle them by himself.

Historical postscript: My colleague Andrew Walsh points out that the Puritans themselves were “more than willing to blame others for misfortunes and shortcomings–e.g.
Catholics, witches and malign old ladies, syncretistic Indians, Hawthornian
babes, etc., etc.”

  • I’m a bit left short by your critique of Brooks. Are you saying he got his analysis of Puritan theology around human brokenness incorrect? Or that because the Puritans existed so long ago their theology is no longer applicable? I think the “outside evil forces” you offer as an alternative to Puritan theology work because they are able to connect to “inside potential evil forces” which reside within every human, as do forces of potential good. That’s the human state from Adam onward. Hence when bad things happen it is right for us to at least ponder “There but for the grace of God go I.” As a mainline Protestant/Liberal minister I constantly run into resistance from many whom I serve about the notion of human fallen-ness. They often desire Gold’s mercy but not God’s merciful judgment, hence the knee jerk reaction to point and blame and condemn with little or no inward reflection about the spiritual struggles with evil we all face. Thoughts?

  • Mark Silk

    I don’t doubt that liberal Protestants–and a lot of other contemporary Americans–resist the notion of human fallen-ness. And there may well some undeserved self-righteousness in the criticism of the folks at PSU, to say nothing of the Catholic bishops, etc. But people in earlier times did not hesitate to condemn wrongdoing, or to advocate harsh punishment for wrongdoers. My point is only this: To the extent that the Puritans pointed to their own fallen nature as the alpha and omega of their wrongdoing, they were relatively rare birds in Christian history. The impulse to lay the blame on external forces–whether these were (as in the Middle Ages) the satanic hosts or (in modern times) socio-economic circumstances–seems normal to me. And pretty realistic. The cultural of clericalism has, in my view, contributed powerfully to the cultural of cover-up in the Catholic Church. And the culture of Penn State football seems to have had a lot to do with the Sandusky cover-up. Indeed, it could be argued, contra Brooks, that the liberal impulse to social reform recognizes the fallen-ness of man precisely through its understanding that without proper institutional safeguards, people will, by nature, behave badly.