Monday, April 13, 2015

The NPR Interview with David Brooks

I caught a bit of an NPR interview this afternoon, and it irritated me enough that I went back to look at it when I got home.  It's an interview with David Brooks about his new book.

In it, he talks about seeing people who "glow" and gives the following example:
I remember I was up in Frederick, Md., visiting some people who tutor immigrants; they teach them English and how to read. And I walk in a room — 30 people, mostly women, probably 50 to 80 years old — and they just radiated a generosity of spirit, they radiated a patience and most of all they radiated gratitude for life. And I remember thinking: 'You know, I've achieved career success in life, but I haven't achieved that. What they have is that inner light that I do not have. And I've only got one life — I'd like to at least figure out how to get there.' And so I really wrote the book to save my soul, if you want to put it grandly, to figure out: How can I be more like that? And writing a book doesn't get you there, but it at least gives you a road map.
It strikes me that a couple things are in play here, and he really doesn't think about them.  First, the people he's looking at are mostly women, and women of a certain age, mostly doing some work that's either volunteer or not super well-paid.  But he says they've got something he doesn't have, a gratitude for life.

I think he's romanticizing these people.  But if he's right, then maybe he really does know how to get that glow: give up being an overpaid journalist and go help someone else for little or no pay.*  If it works, good.  If not, well, start asking the other people you then work with, the ones who glow, what you're missing.

But writing a book, and then giving interviews about the book so that you can sell more copies, all the while noting that professional success doesn't bring happiness, seems all wrong. 

It also denigrates the professional or volunteer success these teachers may be having.  He seems to think professional success is all about bringing in bucks and having (some) fame, but it's really about doing a job well, whatever that job is.  Maybe those teachers glow because they do their work really well; they may not get paid the big bucks for their work (and may in fact be volunteers), but they may do it better than he does his work.

I wonder what the age thing has to do with it?  Is there a certain level of security (of housing, food, and perhaps social connections) that (mostly) women from 50-80 have before they tutor other people how to speak English and/or read?  (In other words, I'm guessing that the tutors have a reasonable level of security and happiness BEFORE they start tutoring.)

Enough.  I doubt the book provides a road map, but I bet it provides him more money, more of what he thinks of as professional success. 

* And while he's at it, he can donate the better part of his savings.  As he's found, money doesn't buy happiness, but it helps stave off hunger and homelessness, which make it a lot harder to find happiness.


  1. I had a similar reaction to the same interview -- definitely romanticization of the women he observed (and of particular kinds of activities, paid or unpaid). Perhaps even odder is that a book that's billed as getting away from a me-me-me focus ends up being me-me-me in another way (i.e. "how can I be happy/ get that glow?"). Ugh.

  2. Gah, David Brooks is so vapid. My parents, irritatingly, seem to think he's a Sensible Conservative. (I tried to point out that David Brooks's entire JOB is to sell conservatism to people like my parents, viz., moderately liberal upper-middle-class New York Times readers from the Big East Coast Megalopolis, so of course he's going to know the rhetorical moves that resonate best with people like them. I'm not sure it made an impression.)

  3. Anonymous6:21 PM

    Hahaha, I didn't catch the whole interview, just the tail end (where he bores on and on about his spirituality and how superior it makes him, but you know, all fake-humble) and was wondering who the dick was. When she said "David Brooks" I was like, oh yes, *that* dick. NOT looking forward to the next year of him saying passive aggressively misogynistic stuff about Hilary Clinton. I did, however, find the next bit on K-pop coming to the US to be fascinating.

    1. Anonymous6:21 PM

      humble-brag, that's the word I was looking for

  4. ... And also, there seems to be a rule that all comp readers must include a David Brooks essay, probably because the people who do the selection are moderately liberal upper-middle-class New York Times readers from the Big East Coast Megalopolis, and they feel like they ought to include a few Token Conservatives. This is one of many, many reasons why I hate comp textbooks with readings. Just give me the damn documentation guide and some not-too-stupidly written chapters about how to formulate a thesis statement and avoid plagiarism, and I will find some interesting things for the students to read, or better yet, send them out to find some things to read by themselves.

    (Sorry, I think I have just ranted all over your blog. Feel free to ignore this comment.)

  5. I caught the second half of the interview, after reading his column yesterday, and, well, it's David Brooks. What I was thinking about is all the research about how women don't promote themselves in things like job letters. So women don't need to learn to take credit for their accomplishments, because humility is so much better. Grrr...

    Oh, and the bit at the end when he said his faith was so new and green and he didn't want it trampled? Just how precious can you be?

    How to get that glow? Don't assume you are the center of the universe, and that everything should revolve around you.

  6. Anonymous2:48 AM

    Ugh, loathe him and his faux populism. With this piece, it's as though he never heard Pulp's "Common People."

    1. Anonymous4:30 PM

      I've had the Shatner version stuck in my head since reading this comment. Thank you?

  7. The Saturday WSJ had an essay by DB excerpted from his book, so we had a similar conversation chez Hull. The essay started out with the glow coming from people who listen to those around them and make them feel smarter and funnier, and we agreed that that isn't virtue, it's a personality trait. DB seems very confused about virtue and I'd love to see a real Buddhist help him figure out where he's going wrong.

  8. I think the internets ate my comment yesterday. Anyway, I was co-signing your thoughts and thanking you for putting a finger on it for me. Brooks' interview made me feel itchy.