David Brooks: On Character and Citizenship

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Screenshot of David Brooks during his recent TED talk.

Screenshot of David Brooks during his recent TED talk.

David Brooks is Greek philosopher incarnate trapped in the body of a modern American journalist. His resume lists him as a political and cultural columnist for the New York Times, a contributor to PBS’ “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” and a familiar voice on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Tune out the television and radio, put down the op-ed page, and listen more closely: Brooks engaging an audience sounds like a 21st century echo of Aristotle: philosopher, scientist, cultural observer, tutor.

Ask him to name a historical role model and he cites Edmund Burke, that 19th century, anti-establishment Irish orator, House of Commons politician and supporter of the American and French Revolutions. Burke, after all, is considered the founder of conservatism. Indeed, Brooks, like Burke, is the most reasoned of conservatives in his time, his politics often secondary to his humanism, his rhetoric exceptionally persuasive.

Still, Aristotle might be a more apt historical figure for anyone decoding Brooks, who defies all conventional descriptions in the age of cable television bullies posing as journalists. The father of Western philosophy also was a scientist and ethicist, and it’s Brooks’ low-key embrace of facts over politics, of the common good over partisanship, that makes him a singular figure in the current national conversation.

New York Times Columnist and author David Brooks. Courtesy photo.

New York Times Columnist and author David Brooks. Courtesy photo.

Commenting on climate change, Brooks said, “I’m a journalist. If 97% of the scientists agree on something they’re probably right. They might be wrong, but they’re probably right.”

On President Obama: “I’m ambivalent about Pres. Obama. I like him personally, but I disagree with him about policy.”

On the noisy scrum of national politics and and political commentary: “We are in the worst political shape of any time since I’ve been doing this over the last 30 years … If you meet some of these politicians in private, you learn they don’t want to be who they are in public … The people who I know who are really unhappy host cable television talk shows. They are rated every minute.”

Brooks is the conservative other self-styled conservatives love to hate. He has no interest in running with the pack. Lucky for the audience members who braved what passes for winter in San Antonio to attend the latest in Trinity University’s Distinguished Lecture Series, the gift that keeps on giving from the Walter F. Brown Family. The series brings some of the most interesting and important public figures to San Antonio, and the lectures are free and open to the public. Members of the community far outnumbered students for the Brooks lecture

Some might have expected Brooks to dissect the mid-term general elections or hold forth on Washington gridlock. Brooks left the play-by-play to others and delivered far more. His talk, unrehearsed and conversational, was intentionally deeper, more like a walk in the woods on Walden Pond with Thoreau.

A familiar face on university campuses, Brooks came to talk about how “one becomes a good citizen.” The country’s current political polarity, he said, “is fundamentally an issue of citizenship … and the older I get, the more I think it’s about character and morality and virtue.”

Achieving that ideal state of citizenry and leading an exemplary individual life as part of the larger community, Brooks said, requires one to elevate their “eulogy virtues” over their “resume virtues,” an elegant way of saying it matters less where you went to school than how faithfully you adhere to a value-driven life.

Put another way, worry less about what the prospective employer thinks of you in a job interview and think more about what people will say about you when you are gone.

While sharing the story of his own upbringing as a Toronto transplant to Greenwich Village, the child of leftist professors, Brooks stressed in the autobiography segment of his talk that his unconventional roots were unlike those of the average American.

“If you really want to understand the American man, you have to watch him buy a barbecue grill at Home Depot,” Brooks quipped, drawing laughter from his Texas audience.

A Baby Boomer with Millennial children of his own, Brooks said the cry of the Millennial that he hears today as he travels the country is this: “We are so hungry.” Not hungry for material reward or personal gain, but hungry to do good, to convert “moral imagination” into acts of tangible change.

Young people, Brooks suggested, can find guidance on the path of life by doing what so many before have done: “We learn by imitating people we admire. It’s why we put pictures of dead people on our walls. They’re watching us.”

That brings us back to Burke, or even earlier, to Aristotle.

Editor’s footnote: If you’d like to get to know David Brooks a little better, check out his TEDTalk, titled the same as his latest book, “The Social Animal.”

*Featured/top image: Screenshot of David Brooks during his March 2011 TEDTalk.

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2 thoughts on “David Brooks: On Character and Citizenship

  1. What a beautifully-written profile. I hope Mr. Brooks continues to lecture around the country and that “conservatives” listen to his reasonable perspective.

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