My God, David Brooks

Image: Melissa Golden/Redux

According to New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, some of us do not lack the mental equipment to govern ourselves. And that is good news, indeed.

We have it in us, naturally, to see the world on its own terms, to choose our battles, wisely, and to wield our hard-won reason in the service of a kinder and gentler world. Others, particularly those who might question Brooks’ self-assured rendition of Western/American/Brooksian selves and the choices we make, not so much. They “lack even the basic mental ingredients.” A week after this claim (the occasion being the coup in Egypt, and the object of ire being ‘Islamists’) Brooks engaged in a differently controversial topic—Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The implication of choice, however, remained the same.

“Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: ‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?’”

And Brooks’ inevitable spin: “That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?”

The first few graphs are pure Brooks—the doctrinal issue; the promise of evidence and explication; the faux humility in the face of an esteemed authority that the rest of us have chosen, wisely, not to know about.

“I might as well tell you upfront,” Brooks admits, “that this column is a book report. Since 2007, when it was published, academics have been raving to me about Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age.’ Courses, conferences and symposia have been organized around it, but it is almost invisible outside the academic world because the text is nearly 800 pages of dense, jargon-filled prose.”

Rest assured, we do not need to read Taylor for ourselves because David Brooks can be trusted. His ongoing effort to distill for us the density of jargon is a choice well-honed. The result: a column that we have chosen to read (again, wisely) and, moreover, a readerly choice that becomes a sign to others and ourselves that we are active participants in this buzzing world of 24/7 democracy.

Despite Brooks’ self-deprecating worry about “totally butchering” Taylor’s answer to what it “feels like to live in an age like ours,” there is a brutal edge to Brooks’ anti-intellectualism. He belittles the presence of critical thinking in the public sphere even as he defines critique, thinking, and civic responsibility as matters of personal choice. Here we encounter the gospel of David Brooks (and a metaphysical strain of American civil religion) as he doubles down on the reach of his own cultural sway, disseminating, far and wide, the message that we are at our best when we choose to receive watered-down versions of crusty tomes full of abstractions (easier to digest according to the recent discoveries of neuroscience, or something to that effect).

Trust your gut and David Brooks, whose common sense is both yours and mine.

There is something about David Brooks that rings true in the conditions that make possible our secular age—his aw-shucks demeanor, his reasonable reason, and the capacity of his columns to displace the experience of thought with the promise of choice itself. And that is how Brooks sells himself and his politics—he is a choice engine—promoting choice, heralding the individual, and spreading the gospel far and wide, enabling more decisions to be executed by you by making your life easier—you do not have to read Taylor after all! 

And here I must offer a requisite disclosure: I have read A Secular Age and I am on record as a critic of Taylor’s framing of modernity. Although I am fearless when I talk trash about Brooks at parties, I continue to struggle to pinpoint what, exactly, bothers me about A Secular Age—a book that is so rigorous, subtle, and for the most part, correct in its assessment of what lies behind and before our contemporary condition.

According to Taylor, secularity does not connote the erosion of religion as much as the transformation of Western attitudes toward, and definitions of, the religious. Religion becomes an opportunity to express our true selves, our freedom, our choice. Spirituality, well-chosen, amounts to a state of world-transformative longing. The opposite of tradition, so called. But whereas Taylor ruminates on our remarkable situation of having a choice to be religious or not (unlike medieval folks for whom such a choice would be all but unfathomable), I feel it necessary to think twice about the tradition of choice, to resist its allure.

Or to put this another way, the massively mediated import of Brooks opining about religion and secularity is precisely the thing that Taylor’s book misses the most—the nova effect of choice at every turn, the encomiums, the warnings, the incessant buzz of our almost authentic, almost perfect selves calling us to read (or not to read) Taylor, among other things. All those mundane moments that enable us to better situate ourselves vis-à-vis this thing out there called religion. 

Taylor does not appreciate the Leviathanism that is the most apt description of the world we are currently living in. This is the secular age with its endless horizon of pixels and pundits and calls to liberation and fullness and health to which we all inevitably race to bow down. 

To be clear, such Leviathanism does not merely signal the presence of power, hierarchy, injustice, and bad things impinging but—and perhaps more importantly—that the world, at base, does not give a flying fuck about you or your fate, family, and friends, but may actively be working to ensure your obliteration. (This is what I have gathered from watching the news at night, from reading history, etc.).

That we are, more often than not, able to deny that we do, as Melville warned, hover over “Descartian vortices” speaks to incredible powers of conviction. That we can so easily obscure this fragility of self and precarity of nation from our vision is testament to our civilizing illusions. Perhaps, then, it is a story suitable only for mature audiences. But if you are offering up a theory of how things are, in general, here in the West, well, then come the fuck on! The legacy of colonial violence and slavery; the emergence of vast networks of media, mediation, and surveillance; money, money, money; and the slow but incessant corruption of the water, woods, and very air we breathe—to name only a few examples—betray the ideal of choice for all involved, both then and now. So, yes, I may be put off by the stubborn optimism of Taylor, but I get downright pissed when I encounter what can only be called a blissed-out reading of Taylor by someone who should know better. 

To frame modernity as a profusion of choice leaves the very concept of choice unexamined. And this has always been my fear about the reception of Taylor’s tome. As Saba Mahmood has suggested, Taylor does take into account how attitudes, conventions, and sensibilities play a role in the making of conviction. For Taylor, these attitudes, conventions, and sensibilities are grounded in the human, ultimately protected by the buffer that is the inheritance of our secular age.

But what happens, asks Mahmood, when choice is overwhelmed by an attitude adopted, a convention encountered? What about those things that exceed the human? How to account for one’s susceptibility to the sensibility of others—people, of course, but animals, machines, New York Times columns, and even abstractions such as religion and/or the secular—power words that never fail to incite. 

So when Taylor poses his central question—what does it feel like to live within a secular age?—the erudition and subtlety with which he strives to answer is often betrayed by a conception of religion as overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) cognitive—a one-on-one psychic investment into the question of monotheistic divinity that is recognized, in the act, as a psychic investment. A choice well chosen. In a secular age, Brooks reports, “Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.” One senses that in Brooks’ reading of Taylor the principle of choice becomes its own form of transcendence—the difference that the secular age makes in all of our lives. 

Which is to say that Taylor and Brooks are not wrong about this particular change over time—more and more people have convinced themselves that they have a choice to make when it comes to God. They feel the need to have a stable of answers when they are called upon to state their religious preference; when they feel compelled to offer an opinion about this scandal or that hypocrisy in which religion is at stake; when they ruminate over whether they should label themselves spiritual, or religious, or both, or neither; when they encounter any number of mundane moments when questions of religion press upon them.

But what if our choices vis-à-vis religion have some other complicated and fraught economy beyond that of the psychic? Might such choices never be choices to begin with, despite the fact that the a priori status of that choice has gained such philosophical and political currency over the last few hundred years, becoming part and parcel to the legal, political and experiential framework of liberal democratic regimes?

Of course we like to tell ourselves that we have choice in the matter of belief (as long as there’s no pickpocketing or breaking of legs). We celebrate our choice to be religious or not, or somewhere in between, at every turn; in our demographic submissions and census formalities, our yoga dabblings, Facebook profiles, and so many other moments of consumer bliss combining seamlessly with the comforts of self-governance and possessive spirituality.

Choice vis-à-vis religion is self-evident and a good thing. Scholars and scientists alike have made a career out of framing religious history as a history of choice. And we, in turn, expect everything to be not just voluntary but also on-demand. But might these everyday acts within our chooser-palooza world occlude from consciousness our acceptance of a tradition that is neither religious nor secular but one that demands that we have a convincing answer to the question of religion? Might these acts of occlusion—yes, indeed, I am talking false consciousness here—be definitive within our secular age? For it has become all but impossible to imagine a differential between the religious and the secular without referring to choice. In the beginning was choice.

To be sure, there is a searing critique between the lines of A Secular Age—one that Brooks would rather set aside. “Taylor can be extremely critical of our society,” admits Brooks. But rather than dwell on the negative, Brooks chooses differently. Rather than focus on the malaise or even the manipulations that are part and parcel to the democratization of choice, Brooks concludes that Taylor’s book is really “grateful and upbeat.”

“What I most appreciate,” writes Brooks, “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.”

Cue the optimism and cliché!

We are, instead, moving toward what [Taylor] calls a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years. Poetry and music can alert people to the realms beyond the ordinary . . . We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland . . . Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice — give us a richer understanding of our natures. Shakespeare helped us see character in more intricate ways. An improvement in mores means we take less pleasure from bear-baiting, hanging and other forms of public cruelty. We have a greater understanding of how nature works . . . These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.

For David Brooks, in other words, it feels amazingly great to live amidst the spoils of our secular age!

But really, how does it feel to live in an age like ours, having moved from “the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?”

I’ll tell you how it feels. It feels a lot like reading a column by David Brooks. Let it be known, here and now, that I feel the secular age most viscerally at those moments of intense anticipation, when I have chosen to love to hate David Brooks (and who amongst us does not love cursing under our breath as we scan for the most outrageous bits?). For when I read David Brooks I feel the superiority of my intellect, of all the choices that have brought me to this moment of righteous condemnation. I choose to despise you, David Brooks! I choose to post snarky asides about you on various social media sites, David Brooks! I choose to write this flippantly negative essay about David Brooks, David Brooks! 

But then it hits me. The feigned frustration, the performance of class resentment and apocalyptic asides, my sneering sense of intellectual pride—these states of possibility are precisely what David Brooks is celebrating about our secular age. This is where David Brooks want me to be. This is what David Brooks wants me to feel.

Pay no attention, I hear him whisper, to the internal dynamics of this self-organizing, massively mediated Leviathan, these gears of the choice-machine that artists and writers seek to witness, the intricate workings of self-organization and feats of self-deception to which scholars respond with vague conspiracies and desperately constructed missives such as this.