Monday, July 12, 2010

David Brooks Gets Honest

In his latest column, David Brooks makes the case that books are better than the Internet. This is hardly a revolutionary claim, but the arguments Brooks uses to back up the claim are disturbing and indicative of the heart of the conservative movement. He begins by recounting a couple of studies that show that school children given books over the summer perform better in the next academic year and that the expansion of broadband has resulted in a decline in math and reading scores.

I'm not going to dispute the studies. There are many reasons why books may be better at intellectual stimulation than the Internet. People might spend more online time Facebooking than looking up classics at Project Gutenberg. The Internet, because it is consumed from a screen, may encourage skimming rather than long, in-depth reading. However, Brooks, while he mentions the shallow skimming theory, doesn't think that's the main problem with the Internet. We get our first glimpse of his real beef with the web in this paragraph:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

This sounds harmless, and even laudable. Surely some books are better than others. The trouble starts when Brooks contrasts the qualities of the Internet:

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. New media are supposedly savvier than old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authority disputation.

Translation: The real problem with the Internet is that it encourages the questioning of traditional sources of authority like the "old media." Note that, though I linked the Dayton Daily News' version of the column, Brooks actually writes for The New York Times, the flagship of the beleaguered "old media," a formerly sacrosanct journalistic authority that is now frequently questioned from both the right and left.

And just in case you didn't get the point, Brooks doubles down:

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

My problem with Brooks' analysis isn't a rejection of all hierarchy. I believe there is a hierarchy of ideas. Reason dictates that some ideas are better than others (e.g., more logical, more in line with observed reality). However, Brooks doesn't really believe in a hierarchy of ideas; he believes in a hierarchy of people ("greater minds" or "your teacher"). In his world, you're not supposed to respect a philosopher like Plato because of the quality of his ideas, but just because he's Plato. He slips up and admits a key tenet of conservative thought: the rabble must not be allowed to question their "betters." We can't have a world in which cartoonists/bloggers can criticize almighty authorities like NYT columnists. And naturally, the "betters" always include some group the conservative either belongs to or identifies with (in this case, "old media"). After reading this column, my hatred for all the jerks on the Internet has abated somewhat. After all, I'd rather live with idiotic commenters than the button-down world David Brooks envisions.

As inadvertent conservative confessions go, this one's not as bad as apologizing to BP or calling for higher taxes on the working class, but it is revealing nonetheless.

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