Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, April 18, 2006

David Brooks, for better and worse

"The liberal's favorite conservative," he's called (I can vouch for the description). His op-ed column about the Duke lacrosse scandal, called "Virtues and Victims" (you can read it below) is superb and found a wide readership around the country. Brooks on personal morality and masculine leadership is unbeatable.

Then two days later his column was deplorable. Why? Because he took the opportunity to compare the Iraq occupation to the Exodus? Well, not really, though-- as some letters to the editor pointed out-- it was a flawed analogy. The real reason, as unfortunately no letter-writers pointed out, is that he described Exodus at length without any reference whatsoever to God. In his view, the spunky Israelites got themselves out of Egypt.

This sort of Bible-reading is far more common than most people realize. In fact, most people are so clueless about the real meaning of the Bible that they just assume it is one book among many about human religious striving, human spiritual successes and failures. God is either non-existent, absent, inactive or impotent.

Those who lead congregations, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, and other Christian groups need to be aware of this widespread tendency and be ready to mount opposition to it. The Bible is about God.


Here is the "good" David Brooks column:

Virtues And Victims
By David Brooks
New York Times, April 9, 2006

All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.

If you wander through the thicket of commentary that already surrounds the Duke lacrosse scandal, the first thing you notice is how sociological it is. In almost every article and piece of commentary, the event is portrayed not as a crime between individuals but as a clash between classes, races and sexes.

''This whole sordid party scene played out at the prestigious university is deeply disturbing on a number of levels, including those involving gender, race and the notion of athletic entitlement and privilege,'' a USA Today columnist wrote.

''The collisions are epic: black and white, town and gown, rich and poor, privilege and plain, jocks and scholars,'' a CBS analyst observed.

The key word in the coverage has been ''entitlement.'' In a thousand different ways commentators have asserted (based on no knowledge of the people involved) that the lacrosse players behaved rancidly because they felt privileged and entitled to act as they pleased.

The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players ''license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.''

It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically.

Several decades ago, American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character.

If you were looking at this scandal through that language, you would look at the e-mail message one of the players sent on the night in question. This is the one in which a young man joked about killing strippers and cutting off their skin.

You would say that the person who felt free to send this message to his buddies had crashed through several moral guardrails. You would surmise that his character had been corroded by shock jocks and raunch culture and that he'd entered a nihilistic moral universe where young men entertain each other with bravura displays of immoralism. A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault.

You would then ask questions very different from the sociological ones: How have these young men slipped into depravity? Why have they not developed sufficient character to restrain their baser impulses?

The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That's why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920's, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within -- a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.

Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.

But in ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' Wolfe tried to steer readers back past the identity groups to the ghost in the machine, the individual soul. Wolfe's heroine is a modern girl searching for honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved, and who commits ''moral suicide'' because she is unprepared for what she faces.

Many critics reacted furiously to these parts of Wolfe's book. And we are where we are.