thinking about david brooks...

One of the many things I like about NY Times columnist, David Brooks, is his humility. For one of our nation's most elite pundits, he not only knows how to laugh at himself but is able to admit when he gets something wrong and strive to make amends, too. His self-deprecating smile suggests to me a man who has learned something of the spirituality of imperfection. Yes, he is a political and social conservative. That already disqualifies him from admiration from some I know and love. I prefer a less shallow measuring stick, one more like Dr. King's that starts with the content of our character rather than the color of our skin - or our political affiliation. 

For the past two years Brooks has mostly avoided writing and speaking about the passing fads of US politics. Instead, like Reinhold Niebuhr before him, he is attempting to reclaim a place for morality in our considerations of what nourishes the public good. It isn't easy work in a post-modern world that abhors meta-narratives and celebrates ethical relativism as normative. But, from my perspective, Brooks continues to work at this - even when he gets it wrong. His most recent book, The Road to Character, explores the way a variety of ordinary people grew into souls who shared compassion and hope from the inside out. Some have speculated that Brooks is on the road to conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but he isn't saying any more than this: "I don't talk about my religious life in public in part because it's so shifting and green and vulnerable. I don'[t really talk about it because I don'[t want to trample the fresh grass." He has sold his home and now lives alone just a short distance from the National Cathedral.

But who cares if he remains a Jew? Or converts to Roman Catholicism as some have mused? What grabbed my attention was his dramatic shift in emphasis two years ago and his abiding willingness to change directions when he gets something wrong. Both spiritual traditions call this repentance - literally and figuratively changing your life's direction to correct a mistake you now own as real and troublesome - and making amends. Brooks recently did this with his eight month insistence that "The Donald" would eventually crash and burn. He was certain that both common sense and the good will of the Republican Establishment would seize the day. But that never happened. Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party prompting Brooks to confess::  I got it wrong. I wasn't speaking to the right people. In fact, I was too caught up in my own small and elite world to know about the pain and fear of those whom Trump has energized. 

I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

And now he is doing what moral people do when they accept their err of their ways: they change directions - t'shuva - and make amends. It is refreshing for me to see ethical and common sense insights being shared on the Op Ed pages of the NY Times. Please don't get me wrong:  I don't think David Brooks is the Savior. That job has already been taken. He is just a real public intellectual who has changed directions and aches to restore a measure of moral discourse to our realm.  And for that I am grateful.  

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