I hate David Brooks

i hate david brooks

I’ve written about David Brooks before. He is a toffee-nosed middle-of-the-road sort-of-conservative social commentator for the New York Times. He is priggish and frequently clucks his tongue over our decadent society. His preferred society would, I think, be a cartoonish Eisenhower-era America, with everyone living in a little white house and going to church every Sunday, in a rocket car (because David Brooks is a great believer in progress).

Seriously, people like this kill me. They long for the days of Big Religion, when everyone went to church except the really bad people. People like Brooks often whine about how society has suffered without Religion as a Unifying Force.

O yes indeedy, it’s a unifying force, all right. Go ask all the Lutherans and Catholics who died in the Thirty Years War, back in the seventeenth century, about how powerfully they felt about their religion as a unifying force.

But religion is also a civilizing force! the David Brookses cry. Music! Poetry! Art!

(They overlook all the music and poetry and art that’s been created without benefit of religion.)

Which is why this passage, from a recent Brooks NYTimes.com editorial in which he describes Charles Taylor’s book “A Secular Age”, drives me batty:

 “. . . What I most appreciate is [Taylor’s] vision of a “secular” future that is both open and also contains at least pockets of spiritual rigor, and that is propelled by religious motivation, a strong and enduring piece of our nature.

This gives me a splitting headache. First of all: “pockets of spiritual rigor”? Does Christian fundamentalism, or Muslim fundamentalism for that matter, constitute a “pocket of spiritual rigor”? If so, in what way do they add to the value of their respective cultures?

And why would a “secular” future be “propelled” by “religious motivation”? This baffles me completely. I’m a non-believer myself. Can I somehow “propel” myself with “religious motivation” that doesn’t involve believing in a particular religion? Or do I just sideline myself, and allow my culture to be “propelled”?

I don’t know why people read Brooks seriously. I only read him to reassure myself what a completely fatuous bore he is.

Now excuse me while I propel myself into the secular future.

The decline and fall of CNN


Ted Turner, a true visionary who’s also a true kook, founded the Cable News Network in 1980. People said he was crazy; there wasn’t enough news in the world to justify a 24/7 television news network.

CNN sputtered along through the 1980s. Finally, the first Gulf War in 1991 gave them a breakthrough. People sat hypnotized in front of their TVs and watched the live coverage from Iraq and Kuwait: Wolf Blitzer, Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett, Christiane Amanpour. I remember sitting mesmerized in front of a friend’s television myself (I didn’t have cable in those days).

Then cable became common. Then it became almost universal. Then it became almost necessary.

Then CNN found that it was competing with Fox and other news networks, which were using the formula CNN had itself created: reporting, reporting on the reporting, experts. It is hard to fill up twenty-four hours a day with news, so you come up with other stuff – let’s be charitable and call it “commentary” – and pretend that the “commentary” is news too.

Let’s fast forward to the present day, shall we?

On the morning of the fourth of July, Partner and I happened to be watching CNN, and I suddenly realized that they were running a promo for the return of “Crossfire.”

“Crossfire”! This was a point-counterpoint program with Tucker Carlson maybe ten years ago, which got shamed off the air when Jon Stewart pointed out that they were accomplishing nothing except filling time.

Now they’re bringing it back.

Okay. Back to CNN. They’re doing a piece on the New England Patriots player, Aaron Hernandez, who killed some people. First, the anchor garbles the words “New England Patriots” into something incomprehensible, and stares silently into the camera for a long moment until she recovers control of her voice. Now we go to the story. CNN has a reporter on the scene in Attleboro, Massachusetts; a neighbor is leading her around the crime scene, explaining things to her. How the hell does this guy know anything? Best of all, the neighbor is introduced this way: “This is Jay. He asked that we not use his last name.”

Hi, Jay. We can see your face. If we really meant to do you harm, we probably wouldn’t need to know your last name.

But don’t blame poor Jay in Attleboro. Blame the CNN reporter who said, “Uh, sure, if you don’t want to use your last name, you don’t have to. But of course you can appear on camera.”

Isn’t CNN hiring anyone with any expertise in journalism?

Evidently not.

But journalism is no longer in demand.

You gotta fill up those twenty-four hours a day with something!

Old men reading the news

old men yelling

CBS is the network of the elderly, especially on Sunday mornings. All of the correspondents on “CBS Sunday Morning” speak slowly and carefully, so we old codgers can understand them as we gradually awaken. The host of the show is the charming (but elderly) Charles Osgood, who’s eighty years old as of this moment.

And the show is followed by CBS’s “Face the Nation,” hosted by Bob Schieffer, who’s a comparatively youthful seventy-six years old.

One Sunday morning last spring, Schieffer opened the show with something like this: “Flooding! Snow in the Northeast! What’s with the weather?”

It’s a perfectly valid question, with a plethora of answers, all of them interesting. But it was his tone – his shrill old-man querulous tone – that made it almost funny. He seemed to be saying: What’s this? And why haven’t we heard about this before?


Well, we’ve heard about it approximately a thousand times. I first heard about it in the 1970s in high school, when the first Earth Day was celebrated. I even spent a few pennies then to buy an Earth Day decal, the money for which was supposed to go to some good ecological cause.

But here we are. The atmospheric CO2 level has gone to 400 parts per million, the highest level in three million years. This will have definite consequences on the climate.

And yet Bob Schieffer, who’s possible more than three million years old, wants to know what’s going on!

I’m on the verge of being an old man myself. But even I know more than Bob Schieffer seems to know.

The climate is changing.

Grab your hats and head for the exits, ladies and gentlemen. The future isn’t going to be very nice.

I’m only sorry that the old men on the Sunday-morning television programs aren’t preparing you for this.

The Kerouac commandments

Kerouac’s rules for writing

There is a website called brainpickings.org, which posts all kinds of interesting things: book recommendations, repostings, quotations.

Sometimes they recopy the advice of great writers. Usually, sadly, the advice is crap.

The following is a list the Beat author Jack Kerouac (supposedly) wrote and tacked to the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s hotel room in 1954, a year before Ginsburg’s most famous poem, “Howl,” was published.

Take this list for what it’s worth. I think, for a change, it has a few worthwhile items on it.



  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  26. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  27. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  28. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  29. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  30. You’re a Genius all the time
  31. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

For me – stupid aging me – “Accept loss forever” and “Like Proust be an old teahead of time” are the two most immediate dicta here.

Also #25, which is a blank. I choose to believe it means: “Insert your own truism here.”

Although I am crazy about “You’re a Genius all the time.”

The most trusted people in America

most trusted people

Partner and I subscribe to quite a few peculiar periodicals: Consumer Reports, Conde Nast Traveler, the Vegetarian Times, Mother Jones.



But I do believe that Reader’s Digest is the most peculiar of all.



Decades ago, I loved Reader’s Digest. My sister Susan used to renew my subscription year after year as a birthday gift, and I loved it. I actually learned from it. I remember whole chunks of things I read in it. My god, back in the 1960s, they did a summary version of “The Naked Ape”!



Times have changed. It’s a conservative publication now. They print 100% American articles about Our Troops, and Everyday Heroes, and What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You.



Recently they did an article on the Most Trusted People in America. O dear god, such a list they did! Evidently Tom Hanks is the most trusted man in America. Why, for god’s sake? I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice man, and he’s been in some good movies (and some stinkers, like “Joe and the Volcano”). But “trusted”? For Jesus’s sake, why?



Also, evidently, we trust Alex Trebek, who recites trivia answers that he receives through an earpiece. Also Sandra Bullock, who is the female Tom Hanks. Also (most confusingly) several Nobel Prize-winners, two chemists and an economist, of whom I’ve never heard. How did they even get on the list?



The ridiculousness continues. Tony Dungy. Johnny Depp. Tim Tebow!



All of these rate above Barack Obama, by the way.



What is this “trust,” anyway? I actually read the article twice, to make sure I was extracting all of the vital information. It appears to have something to do with making us feel good, and making our brains release oxytocin. Evidently Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock make us release gallons of oxytocin.



What rubbish!



Get this, from the article:



“The real winners aren’t here. We removed the three top answers: ‘my doctor,’ ‘my child’s teacher,’ and ‘my spiritual advisor’ – from our results, to make the list more universal.”



Tom Hanks is universal? Tony Dungy is universal?



We have left Earth and entered a parallel dimension, in which Tony Dungy is more important than anyone you might know in your private life.



I suppose you’d better get used to it. Reader’s Digest says so, so it must be true.


Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

I have been a semi-regular viewer of a Sunday morning CNN show called “Reliable Sources.” Its topic is not so much the news itself as the way news is covered. Its participants, led by journalist / moderator Howard Kurtz, discuss tone, and thoroughness of coverage, and whether one story is being overdone while others are being forgotten. The show is generally merciless when it comes to bad journalism; you can argue legitimately over how many minutes to give a news story, but there’s generally no argument that a bad story – unchecked, inaccurate – is bad journalism perpetrated by bad journalists.

I was startled this last Sunday morning to see Howard Kurtz himself sweating under the lights on his own show.

The story goes like this: Kurtz published a story in which he accused Jason Collins (the pro basketball player who just came out as gay) of covering up the fact that he’d been engaged to a woman. This was false; Collins had mentioned the engagement right up front. When Kurtz was called on this, he grudgingly acknowledged his error, but claimed that Collins hadn’t talked about it very much, which was also untrue. End result: Kurtz has now left two of his jobs, at the Daily Beast and at Newsweek.

Where to begin?:

–         Kurtz got the story wrong, and obviously didn’t bother to fact-check himself. The Collins interview wasn’t all that lengthy, so he must have given it the most cursory read possible. He would have crucified any other journalist who did this.

–         He claimed that Collins’s “plotline” had been “muddied” by the fact that he’d had a relationship with a woman. Plotline? Life don’t got no plotline.

–         He seemed startled and outraged that a gay man might be involved with a woman, as if this threw doubt on Collins’s whole story.

–         Apparently he’s made several other slips over the past year or two, mostly involving misattribution of quotations. He attributes all of his slips to working too hard. Also, according to him, everyone knows how much he’s always believed in the ideals of good journalism.

–         He has for the past few years been working for his own news outlet, the Daily Download. His business partner Lauren Ashford has been a guest on “Reliable Sources” on several occasions, but he has never disclosed their business relationship on the show.

Well, he was in full Mea Culpa mode on Sunday. Some of the questions being thrown at him were pretty harsh, but his answers were incredibly ingenuous – as in “working too hard” and “always been devoted to good journalism.”


Mistah Kurtz, he dead.

News is news

news is news

Recently I wrote about young George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” and his (evident) impression that two men kissing was newsworthy.

Well, it got me thinking. What do we mean – what do I mean – by “newsworthy”?

There’s an excellent show on Sunday mornings called “Reliable Sources,” hosted by Howard Kurtz, which tries to answer that question. It examines the news of the week – not for itself, but for the way it’s been covered. It asks: are we getting the news correctly? And, just as importantly: Are we getting the right news?

This last Sunday, Kurtz and his guests examined the relative importance of this week’s big stories: President Obama’s State of the Union address, the crazy California policeman who killed people and then got killed himself, Marco Rubio’s drink of water, and the Carnival cruise that stalled in the Caribbean.

Obviously the State of the Union was the most important story of the four: it will have the most lasting implications, over the coming months. But the networks were apparently thinking about split-screening it with the Jonathan Dorner siege, if it came to it.

Well, wasn’t the Dorner story news? Yes, in a way. It was certainly important to Californians, as it impacted their own safety. It also reflected on the inner workings of the police force, and how they react to attacks on their own. But it wasn’t as weighty a story as the State of the Union. And the standoff at the mountain cabin was pure theatrics. And – imagine – the networks thought about split-screening it with the State of the Union!

The Marco Rubio story was purely fluff, naturally. However: like Dan Quayle misspelling “potato,” and like Howard Dean’s unfortunately Muppetish scream in 2004, it showed him to be maybe less than Presidential timber. So it was probably half a story, at most.

The Carnival cruise? One “Reliable Sources” guest quoted statistics on the number of Americans who take cruises, and it’s a significant number. And Carnival is based in Panama, and sails under Bahamian flags, and has offices in Miami. This raises serious questions about management and organization. How many times over the past few years have Carnival cruises come to grief? Several, including (most tragically) the Costa Concordia in Italy. This is a real story. (But it’s a story about a mismanaged corporation. It’s not a story about how badly the passengers suffered. They ate a lot of vegetable sandwiches, and used smelly toilets for a couple of days. They weren’t transported forcibly to Somalia.)

I love “Reliable Sources.” It grounds me. It reminds me of a passage from the Analects of Confucius (chapter seven, verse 21): “The Master did not speak of anomalies, feats of strength, rebellions, or divinities.”



In other words: flashy stuff is fun, but it’s not really worth your serious attention.

So how ‘bout them Kardashians?

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