I read Brooks' Bobos in Paradise
shortly after it came out, intrigued at the reviews from a variety of sources and by the status Brooks quickly acquired as "liberals' favorite conservative," a position confirmed not too long ago when he gained a spot as a New York Times columnist. While I enjoyed reading the book, I didn't think much of Brooks' taste for superficial cataloging and sketchy inference. His ascent to the NYT editorial page was paved, it seems to me, by his focus on lighter subject matters and his persistent niceness, in contrast to the fire-breathing angry conservatives the Clinton administration overproduced. These things have allowed many people to overlook his tendency to provide overly simple and often unsupportable assessments because they are framed so reasonably. His tenure at the Times has, however, demonstrated that his sloppy treatment of facts and cavalier generalizations shouldn't be indulged nearly as much as they are when he addresses serious topics.
His weekend column devoted to the Terri Schiavo controversy demonstrates this. Entitled Morality and Reality
, Brooks doesn't have a grasp on either of these subjects. He argues that the only morally grounded position in cases like this is in favor of the intrinsic value of every human life, justifying implicitly whatever means are necessary to sustain physical persistence. This fallaciously assumes that only bright lines, only one bright line in fact, can be defended on moral grounds. Certainly, even Brooks recognizes that individuals can make morally informed choices without conforming universally to a simple absolute. He also ignores other, perhaps equally bright lines, like the positions of Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses, among others, who severely restrict permissible medical interventions to preserve life on moral and religious grounds. One can dispute these positions, but it's preposterous to claim that they abandon moral argument.
Brooks also mischaracterizes the debate in the Schiavo matter between "social conservatives" and "social liberals," categories that come with convenient exclusions. Interventions into the Schiavo case made on behalf of social conservatives in the legislative and executive branches have been procedural, not substantive. When the Schindlers acted on their congressionally-created procedural intervention in federal court, however, their claims revolved primarily on their daughter's asserted Catholicism. Arguing that Catholic doctrine should control the disposition of contested legal claims explains why social liberals raised the specter of theocracy in a broader argument that Brooks derides through insinuation.
Of course, to the "social liberals" as Brooks describes them, the larger controversy is secondary to the individual dispute, where institutional competence and jurisdictional propriety should be powerful arguments. Not that the Schindlers and their supporters have ignored process concerns, arguing throughout that the state courts have mishandled the case. They've done everything possible to cast into doubt the procedures used to recover Terri Schiavo's wishes. These arguments, not based on morality, apparently don't qualify as "socially conservative" under Brooks' limited rubric, so they can be ignored while counterarguments are taken to be the center of the "social liberal" position.
He also overstates social conservatives' commitment to principle even as he underestimates the principles at issue in process concerns. I haven't seen social conservatives pressing for state and federal laws invalidating living wills, which should follow from a dedication to legalize a moral commitment toward sustaining life. At the same time, conservatives tend not to see arguments about the level at which decisions should be made as so thin and free of a moral dimension when it comes to property rights and consumer choices. See Eduardo Porter's
article in the Sunday Week in Review section for quotes to this effect from Newt Gingrich and Richard Posner.
For me, this was a typical David Brooks performance. It might be satisfying to someone willing to accept Brooks' blinkered, stylized account of the issues and the facts, but these are often based on flimsy and convenient simplifications. Perhaps Brooks should actually sample the substance of the controversies he writes about, rather than relying on impressions and ill-fitting generalities.