Soon after his viral essay in The New York Times—“What If We’re the Bad Guys Here?”—had made the rounds, David Brooks penned a new piece in The Atlantic that gives a deeper treatment on what makes a “Bad Guy” bad in the first place. It is bluntly titled “How America Got Mean.” In it, he claims that more and more Americans lack the moral training that used to exist in American institutions and are, thus, becoming less kind, more belligerent, and more self-absorbed: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.”
From the outset, Brooks acknowledges the contributing factors of digital technology, emptying churches, changing demographics, and economic inequality. However, he believes the real root of the problem lies with young Americans growing up in an increasingly amoral world. To illustrate this, he gives a history of moral formation in the United States, starting with the country’s founding in which religious practice and virtuous living were heavily emphasized and ending with the ubiquity of therapeutic relativism today: “In sphere after sphere, people decided that moral reasoning was not really relevant. Psychology’s purview grew, especially in family and educational matters.”
In the concluding section of the essay, Brooks reflects on how politics now defines people’s identity and social behavior. Such tribalism, he asserts, will inevitably fall short and lead to widespread malaise and meanness. That said, he can’t help snarking, “After decades without much in the way of moral formation, America became a place where more than 74 million people looked at Donald Trump’s morality and saw presidential timber.”
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Consequently, Brooks recommends reintroducing moral formation into American culture and fostering a healthy “moral ecology” in which people grow up with the right values and resist the temptation to be mean to their neighbors.
As upright and admirable as Brooks thinks his argument is, there’s so much wrong with it that it actually does more to discredit the idea of moral formation than anything else. Despite his best efforts, he comes off as a “self-righteous prig” and “rank hypocrite” (his words, not mine) with a warped perspective that mischaracterizes the issues at hand and threatens to make the situation worse. As upright and admirable as Brooks thinks his argument is, there’s so much wrong with it that it actually does more to discredit the idea of moral formation than anything else.Tweet This
One can’t even say that Brooks’ heart is in the right place but that his reasoning is flawed. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that his heart is in the wrong place and his reasoning is flawed as a result. This is shown in the glaring fact that at no point in his 6,695-word essay does Brooks explicitly define the term “mean.” He might cite statistics about homicide rates and depression, and deride populist conservatives as crude, uneducated rubes, but he never actually explains what he is saying when he claims that Americans are becoming meaner. He assumes the reader agrees with him and has the same idea.
This assumption leads him to conclude that the problem lies with certain Americans’ moral formation, which is partially true—but not for the people he has in mind. He clearly indicates that the real meanies in society are part of a specific political tribe (i.e., not establishment Democrats and Republicans) and inhabit a specific part of the country (i.e., not large coastal cities like New York). And as for who is tasked with helping this benighted bunch, he obviously imagines it will be humble, wise people who watch Ted Lasso. Only a Yale professor and acclaimed writer for The New York Times could be so bold and yet so oblivious.
For those outside of Brooks’ bubble, it’s no mystery which side is putting out the negative vibes and stoking hostility. Who endorses upending the constitutional order, denying political opponents a right to free speech, and weaponizing government agencies? Who were the ones pushing vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and prolonged shutdowns that would ruin small businesses and disrupt millions of students’ lives? Who are the ones purposely funding and defending vandalism, looting, and rioting in major cities? Who are the ones routinely accusing their political opponents of bigotry and sowing confusion in young people about the basic facts of nature? And who are the ones writing condescending articles that liken Trump to ruthless authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?
By contrast, who are the ones defending the American way of life, regularly attending church, promoting strong communities, preserving individual rights, and protecting children? As diverse as the Right may be, most conservatives agree on these basic points. And as beleaguered as they are by the other side, vanishingly few of them advocate violence or duplicity. Sure, there are plenty of calls for order and justice—but never at the risk of hurting other people. The same really can’t be said about the Left.
Because Brooks judges merit (and by extension, “meritocracy”) on superficial criteria like attending Ivy League schools, identifying cured meats properly, and using words like “Latinx” and “problematic,” he fails to see the actual qualities that make a person moral. This creates a blind spot so vast that he misses the forest for the trees and equates Trump’s tweets with tyranny while utterly ignoring Joe Biden’s corruption and incompetence.
The great tragedy is that Brooks seemed to be on the verge of having an epiphany about all this when he wrote his “Bad Guys” essay, rightly sensing a widening gap between the privileged elites and the hapless non-elites being used and abused in an unfair system. Sadly, right at the moment Brooks seems to reach this great truth, his empathy runs dry and he suddenly decides to pat himself and his fellow elites on the back for being “earnest, kind and public-spirited” and understanding “why people in less-educated classes would conclude that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault.” Nowhere does Brooks entertain the notion that those “less-educated” Americans he understands so well might actually be right.
Likewise, in “How America Got Mean,” Brooks never bothers to consider who makes the country mean. Rather, he continues to flatter himself and his audience, cynically affirming a toxic outlook that divides and demoralizes a majority of the population. Unfortunately for him, that just means this majority will have to settle the problem of meanness on their own and continue putting off attending Brooks’ moral formation academies.