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“Voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.”

One of America’s leading political columnists, David Brooks, has just come out with a column called “The Cost of Relativism” about the growing chasm between college-educated America and those who write for major newspapers. It’s got a definitive collection of data about this divide.

Just kidding about the “definitive collection of data.” Anyway, to continue:

In the 1960s or 1970s, newspaper readers and newspaper columnists behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. Columnists dine with their readers less, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.

I don’t really want a columnist taking me to church, but whatever.

The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of columnists caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

That sounds like bad news. It’s hard enough having to come up with three columns a week, without having to deal with anarchy of the intimate life as well.

But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms.

I agree. A lot of people think that we can solve the problems of columnists by throwing money at them, but I think that money will take them nowhere unless there is moral renewal.

The health of journalism is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its journalists. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a columnist. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one set of numbers was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

I agree. We need to set standards.

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic work environments can still be asked the same questions: Are you writing for short-term clicks or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your readers? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

That’s a pretty good paradox: “Freedom of self-control.” I like that, no joke.

Let’s continue:

Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less well-connected are behaving irresponsibly and the more connected are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to sloppy writing, the comprehensive failures of leadership in political journalism. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.

People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.

I can’t be sure, but I think he’s talking about the problem of newspaper writers who fill their columns with inflammatory and false statistical claims, and then don’t correct themselves when their errors are revealed.

Or maybe he’s talking about that “Friedman Unit” thing? Who knows, he so damn vague!

Now we’re getting to the end:

History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.

Every editor loves his or her columnists. [Not really — ed.] Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.

A-men, brother! Ideals and standards. Let’s start here. And, after that, if we have time, we can consider the work of Ray Keene. This we praise, this we don’t.

P.S. In answer to your inevitable question, Why do I keep harping on this?, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Journalism is important. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The press is the fourth branch of government. So, yeah, it’s worth banging on this. As a statistician, I see no embarrassment at being irritated when a prominent journalist throws around fake-o numbers that just happen to advance his political agenda. It’s tacky tacky tacky, and if he’s going to have the bad taste to go on about morality like this, then, yeah, damn straight I’ll call him on it.


  1. Nick says:

    I also like “freedom of self-control … bondage to your desires” But both the idea and its quippiness is copied from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

    • Andrew says:


      Damn! That’s one famous book I’ve never read. I didn’t even see the movie. On the upside it’s good to see some that Brooks, for all his flaws, is well read.

      • JohnR says:

        “On the upside it’s good to see some [evidence?] that Brooks, for all his flaws, is well read.”

        You know what assumptions do. There’s no reason not to assume in contrast that Brooks, like Buckley before him, uses a stable of ‘quote-boys’ to bring him nifty-sounding literary sound-bites for his columns. At the very least, given his history and his output, picking one assumption over the other is a pretty iffy proposition.

  2. John says:

    “Freedom of self-control” sounds a lot like “master of your domain.”

  3. Roy says:

    I have been told by someone who should know that Brooks has no editor – neither about the ideas he writes about nor for the column itself. For reaction to other recent drivel (sorry my keypad has a mind of its own, I meant column) see:



  4. numeric says:

    Freedom of self-control.” I like that, no joke.

    “Freedom’s just another thing for nothing left to lose”–Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster (Me and Bobbie MaGee).

    We’ve (or at least I) have discussed before a somewhat over literalness on literary expression and that may be in play here. On the other hand, maybe newspaper columnists should be more literal than figurative. It seems this particular column may be echoing the increasming, atomization, anomie and alienation of American life, only this time applied to newspaper columnists.

  5. Chris G says:

    “David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.”

    A few thoughts:
    1) David Brooks has adopted Bob Dole’s speech patterns?
    2) I’m a little surprised that Taibbi and/or driftglass aren’t all over that column. Maybe they’ve decided it’s no longer worth the bother? (My favorite driftglass post on Brooks – )
    3) The unnamed individuals to whom Brooks poses the questions, “Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?” I wonder if DB had a mental picture of those people? If so, I wonder what he imagines they look like? Hmmm…
    4) Andrew, I’ve given you flak a couple times in the past for being insufficiently harsh on Brooks but this is a worthy beat down.
    5) David Brooks is still a prick.

  6. Chris G says:

    > That’s a pretty good paradox: “Freedom of self-control.” I like that, no joke.

    The essay question on the application to the college I attended was “What are ‘the wise restraints that make men free’?” That might not have been it verbatim but that’s close. I have no recollection of what I wrote – although it must been adequate to get be admitted – but I still recall the question.

  7. EW says:

    I’m more curious about the validity of the columnist’s inference: That (1) Putnam’s data show a divide between high- and low-affluence group behavior and norms and (2) that the differences in norms are, in part, causing the differences in behavior.

    But I wonder if norms even vary in the correct direction here. I suspect that college-degree-holding individuals are *more* likely to express nonjudgemental viewpoints (e.g., on sexual orientation, drug use, religion, family structure) than their HS-degree-or-less counterparts.

    • Andrew says:


      This came up a couple years ago in a discussion of my review of a book by Charles Murray. Murray claimed that college-degree-holding individuals hold judgmental viewpoints but for ideological reasons do not like to express them. I expressed skepticism. The comment thread was a fascinating instance of people talking past each other.

  8. Rjb says:

    I honestly thought this was a parody of Brooks from the Onion, until I got over halfway through. Replace “columnists” with any of a dozen categories (students, children, politicians, names of parties, races, genders, jobs) and it is barely distinguishable from a hundred columns I’ve read before. I think Brooks wrote several of them.

  9. BillWAF says:

    It would be helpful for those of us who are not statistician if you could point out the false statistics that he used and why they are wrong.

  10. joel hanes says:

    One of America’s leading political columnists, David Brooks</em?

    One of Theoden King's leading counsellors, Grima Wormtongue

  11. marc sobel says:

    Thank you for intermixing facts with Brooks’ column. I still have two questions:

    1) Is he writing dystopian science fiction or pure fantasy? I think the love of Feudalism speaks for fantasy but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

    2) Are his recent run of obscure fine whine columns all about his divorce?

    • Andrew says:


      Regarding item 2: Heartbreak comes to all of us, so I’m inclined to cut Brooks some slack on that one. It may not be the height of professionalism for a political columnist to let his love life spill into his newspaper column, but as a personal blogger who mixes all sorts of topics, I’m hardly one to criticize. Divorce is sad for anyone. Where I do criticize Brooks is in his stubborn refusal to correct his published errors of fact.

  12. Peter Dorman says:

    Rousseau: Liberty is “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves”.

  13. blader says:

    Ha! I was about to chime in with a link to Driftglass, who’s hands down the world’s leading Brooks authority, but all is well, he was on the scent.

    Look, Brooks writes using a 10 variable, 4 parameter macro, on a wordperfect-driven 8086. Remember those? Macros, that is.


  14. J Calvert N says:

    The press seem to see themselves as ‘opinion formers’.

    As a reader I would prefer to think that the only opinion-former in my life is me myself. So I have no respect at all for journalists who wish to do the opinion-forming for me. And as for “This we praise. This we don’t” For X’s sake! A bunch patronising gits!

    The press should stick to their job of investigatng and reporting FACTS!

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