David Brooks Jumps the Stupid Shark

Yeah, OK, it’s David Brooks, possibly the world record-holder in stupid shark jumping. But in today’s column he lays out the conservative beef with empathy. Empathy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, Brooks informs us.

“In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it,” Brooks says.

Of course, there is at least one eyewitness account of a prison guard refusing to shoot who was promptly tossed into the pit of Jewish women and children to be mowed down. Death is a rather large motivation to obey orders.

But then after Brooks goes on awhile about empathy is nice but doesn’t make the trains run on time, he turns to what does —

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. …

… The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow.

Um, but weren’t the Nazis all about identity and codes of honor? In fact, those soldiers in the firing line had sworn this oath

“I swear by God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.”

Duty, identity (racial, ethnic, religious, nationalistic, politial, tribal), honor — yeah, that always works out well.

18 thoughts on “David Brooks Jumps the Stupid Shark

  1. As far as I have read, and learned, no member of the Einstatzgruppen, who ultimately felt that they could not shoot unarmed civilians, was ever tossed into the pit to suffer the same fate. They were allowed to transfer and did so without any notation in their records or any denial of future promotions etc. Of course, in the real world, I am sure they some were denied benefits, but shot? I am pretty sure that this is incorrect. There is documentation of several enlisted men who could not, ironically for religious reasons, kill unarmed men, women and children and who were transferred out to other duties without any form of punishment. If you could send me a citation of any incident where they were tossed into the pit, I would be very grateful.

    • If you could send me a citation of any incident where they were tossed into the pit, I would be very grateful.

      It may be a legend, but I’ve heard the story several times. I don’t have time to find a citation.

  2. What a farrago. He tries his hand at moral philosophy and winds up advocating a return to some kind of tribal shame society.

    Not to mention, there are codes that have empathy built into them. How about one that says “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you?”

    Or maybe “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

  3. And this!

    If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes.

    I’m trying to think of some way to help people revere codes that I don’t share that would not call on my capacity for empathy. And then:

    Accept that codes conflict.

    Where did that come from, and how is it supposed to help his argument? Are we supposed to believe that empathy makes you less likely to accept that codes conflict? The people Brooks is accusing of the crime of empathy are the same people who in other contexts are accused of moral relativism.

  4. David Brooks should get on his knees and thank the Jesus Christ for the NY Times having an Affirmative Action program for Conservatives so that mediocre and insipid writers like him and Mini-Bobo, Douthat, have jobs.
    What a waste of column space!

    When you compare David Brooks to the Op-ed writers who came before him, like the great Russell Baker, Anthony Lewis, even William Safire, is to compare a day-old McDonalds hamburger to one made of fresh meat, and seasoned and grilled at home.

    He must have some pictures of one of the Salzberger’s with children and barn yard animals in compromising positions, with a syringe in one arm, a doobie in one hand, and a liter of cheap bourbon.

    He’s a cheap knock-off at the $1 Dollar Pundit Store.

  5. I had to read the article twice before I could ‘get’ what he’s driving at. Brooks should have defined terms. “Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings experienced by another being.”

    “Code”… Brooks isn’t talking about Morse code or computer code. He palmed a card because the only ‘code’ he could have been thinking about is a MORAL code. He wasn’t ready to go there. There is no universal moral code, and there are good moral codes – and some pretty warped ones. So the message is – don’t feel for others – use ‘the’ code. Which code? I don’t claim to read minds, but the moral code of conservatives is to reward the rich and accept that the misery of the poor and elderly is their moral punishment for not being rich.

    But Brooks is right. The capacity to feel or identify with the state of another person is NOT enough by itself. However, empathy is a ‘natural’ emotion you will find in all cultures. Not all people – some folks are cold – they are either incapable of identifying with others or they are trained (in their code) to only sympathize with those of their tribe.

    Brooks has a message – it’s important. The biggest threat to conservatism is empathy beyond your tribe. If your ‘code’ causes you to be concerned with justice, when you are not the one on trial or concernd with the quality of education even in a state where you don’t live or. Concernd about pollution even when its not your water, then the selfish code of Any Rand will fail.

  6. After a while, you begin to notice that Brooks has several templates for stupid.

    Beware columns in the form that begins the second paragraph with something like “As X writes in his (insert effusive adjective) new book “Something My Publisher Asked Me To Read,” etc. They are among the worst.

    Typically, he will provide a simplistic summary of whatever he thinks the book’s main point is, then make a bad argument based vaguely on that point, and end with a pivot in the final paragraph to some position that he’d like you to think follows from what came before, but really doesn’t at all.

    Rule of thumb: even if you feel you must read Brooks, if you hit a second paragraph that begins “As So-and-So writes…” stop and go read something else. Life is short, don’t waste it.

  7. I can semi-sorta-sympathize with him. He feels that The Scarecrow, that mythical creature with no brain, has been praising only empathy, empathy, empathy. Empathy is all you need! Empathy is the basis of all morality, and you need nothing else!

    It’s an understandable mistake; that argument is a *strawman*, not The Scarecrow.

    Okay, not a very good joke, but… seriously, that strawman *is* erected quote a bit (and by “erected” I do mean that it leads to a lot of wanking.)

    But this:

    The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow.

    I’ve grown thoroughly sick and tired of that ancient bullshit.

    “Join us, and if you don’t find our code to be a vital part of your identity, something you pursue with joy, and arousing of strong emotions and attachments, you’re not really one of us, so you’ll have to try harder and harder to be like us, many of whom are faking it.”

    Fuck that shit. Sometimes, people do what’s right for one reason and one reason only: because it’s *right*. It doesn’t require joy and emotions and attachments.

    But doing what’s right does require empathy. It requires an understanding of what one’s actions mean to others. There was a code that let George W. Bush give orders that lead to the deaths of tens of thousands, quite possibly millions, of innocent Iraqis. And there’s basic empathy that should have prevented him from being willing to sit back and let those people die.

  8. Some influences, which we think of as trivial, are much stronger — such as a temporary burst of positive emotion. In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime. Empathy doesn’t produce anything like this kind of effect.

    Am I experiencing the onset of dementia? I’m totally befuddled by that paragraph. I sense that something is missing but I’m not sure whether it’s in the paragraph or in my mind.

    Empathy might not spur me to moral action like Brooks says, but it does have a tendency to temper my insecurities. Empathy is the reason I’m not rampaging like some to drive homosexuals back into the closet, or screaming to incinerate Muslims or incarcerate Mexicans. Live and let live. Empathy is a good barometer of the condition of your heart — spiritually speaking.

  9. Not trying to get us too far off topic, but in regards to Swami’s post about Hispanic students vanishing from Alabama schools (because of a new law requiring schools to check the immigrant status of newly enrolled students)…

    Basically, this is the law pretty much everywhere outside the USA. I know that some are not comfortable with that assertion, but it’s true. Where I am in Asia, when you enroll a student in school, you must have a national ID card for the kid. National ID numbers are only issued for citizens. If you’re a foreigner (but a LEGAL resident), you and your kids get an “alien resident” ID card (much the same as a “green card” but they don’t call it that here). I have such a card myself, and that entitles me to do most (but not all) things a citizen can do. I can’t vote or buy farmland, but I can own a house, car, and participate in the national health insurance scheme (which is single-payer – way ahead of anything in the USA).

    Now I don’t know much about the immigration laws of Mexico, but I would guess that American children can’t just enroll in Mexican public schools if they’re in the country on a tourist visa or (worse) with no visa (meaning they are illegal immigrants). And yes, Americans do need a visa to visit Mexico for more than 72 hours (I know that for sure, I have one stamped in my passport). My Mexican visa was good for six months, but was for tourism only, though I was free to enroll in a PRIVATE school to take Spanish lessons, which I did. But that would not be the same as enrolling my kids in a public school.

    This isn’t to say I lack empathy for Hispanic kids who are being affected by this law. Just saying that almost nowhere in the world is it permitted for illegal immigrants to enroll their kids in school. In the case of seasonal farm workers, it would be nice if the USA could find the empathy to grant temporary work permits to the workers and their families, and even allow the kids to enroll in school, with the understanding that they must return to Mexico (or wherever) when the permit expires.

    That’s actually more liberal than what we have where I am – we do have plenty of temporary foreign workers (mostly from Indonesia), but they aren’t allowed to bring their families with them. Maximum time for these permits is three years, after which they must return to Indonesia, but they can apply to return for a second three years (and I know several who have done so). But they cannot bring their families, which is of course a serious hardship except for the young unmarried ones.

    • candide — In the Alabama situation, my understanding is that most of the children are citizens, because they were born here. It’s the parents who are undocumented.

      And this takes us to the insanity that is our immigration law. There are millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived here for years, had children here, have ties to communities, have extended family who are citizens, who have jobs, and who haven’t broken any laws other than being undocumented. There are far too many to deport, and in any case, deporting some members would be breaking up families. And sometimes it’s just nuts. I was reading the other day about a young adult woman brought here as a baby who was being deported back to a country she doesn’t know and whose language she doesn’t speak, for no reason other than she got caught.

      In the long run, it makes far more sense to allow such people to have some kind of legal status so that they don’t have to hide. Not allowing their children to be educated is likely to create a huge underground of societal cast-offs that would be genuinely burdensome.

  10. I think the biggest problem with Brooks’ logic is that, since tribalism (essentially) elicits more emotional response, it is the more powerful tool for creating a better world. But, do you know what elicits the greatest emotional response? Pain. So maybe we should inflict more pain on others. That’s where his logic leads. The world doesn’t just become a better by picking a powerful tool. There has to be some overriding vision, and mine includes empathy!

  11. “Not allowing their children to be educated is likely to create a huge underground of societal cast-offs that would be genuinely burdensome.”

    That serves two purposes:
    1. It creates a desperate, uneducated underclass.
    2. It gives Conservatives more reason to bitch about and rial against brown people.

    A Conservative WIN/WIN if there ever was one!

  12. The Einsatzgruppen were a very small number of troops (about 3000) who were to annihilate the Russian jews and bolschevics. It is probably correct that they were transferred and not shot because several tried to use this defense at the Nuremberg trials and it could not be proven. They did suffer by not receiving vacation and promotions.

    This does not rule out the other executions happening elsewhere, and the possibility of guards being shot for disobeying orders (Todesstraffe was always one of the punishments and that is documented). But I amon an ipod today and have no more time. Perhaps Mark could add references…

    My source: http://Www.kominform.at – cannot paste rest with stupid ipod

  13. Was it empathy that I was experiencing when I was so appalled that over 2 million Iraqis became refugees as a result of Bush’s golorious invasion of Iraq? I remember thinking how horrible a situation it must be to have to abandon your home, your community, and a lifetime of hard work so that some asshole on the other side of the globe can craft a political image of himself as some sort of defender of lberty/ destroyer of evil doers.
    Drats, that damned empathy gets in the way of patriotism. Maybe I should have been more vigilant in guarding my undeveloped emotions with the notion that those Iraqis aren’t really human like us Americans..They don’t experience pain like us.. They’re towel heads!.. if their child gets killed by an American airstrike they just dismiss the loss and pain as being the will of Allah..no big deal. and even at that it’s just an economic loss, they only have children to achieve what we manage to accomplish with our Social Sercurity program.

    God Bless America!..The shining city upon the hill.

  14. I think there is a universal human code, and religious historian Karen Armstrong talks about it in her TED talk:

    I think as well that the example of the Nazis lack of ethics had an enormous impact on those growing up during (as well as older folks who were part of) the Sixties. We realized that we had to scrutinize our actions, because, as Hannah Arendt, pointed out, evil can be quite ordinary and banal. The Nuremburg Trials may have not had a huge judicial impact, but the impacted millions of young people.

    PS- If folks want a copy of the #OccupyWallStreet declaration for their local bulletin board, you can get them at http://j.mp/OWSDecPDF

  15. This is one of the primary reason I want nothing to do with anything the wingnuts are doing. I find them highly immoral.
    It appears Brooks noticed that others were noticing this total lack of goodwill. Of course like all the kneejerk reactionaries do these days he doubled down.
    I guess if the point of your life is money and things then empathy and compassion ARE rather useless.
    Regardless of his rationalizations there is nothing more vital to our survival than empathy and compassion. Anyone apologizing for it or denying its importance like Mr. Brooks gets no respect or consideration from me.

Comments are closed.