Fairly regularly, the online commentariat will erupt with frustration at the truism that you can’t get fired from the Op-Ed page for being wrong. If anything, a record of incompetence burnishes a career. Someone takes to Twitter and thunders that Newspaper Columnist is the only profession with real lifetime tenure. Well, that and Justice of the Supreme Court, another venerated institution that proves the truer truism: people rise to the level of their incompetence. There is, of course, an odd, often unvoiced conviction underlying these complaints: that in the Wild-Western private sector, people get bunged out for being incompetent all the time. This is part of a broad myth about corporate efficacy that anyone who’s ever actually met the C-suite occupants and corporate board placeholders of many a major corporation—or, frankly, just worked in any office anywhere—knows to be completely untrue. The smartest people in business do frequently get fired, yes, but it’s when the latest round of right-sizing cans the smart toilers on the lower end of the pay scale. The cream rises, yes. What that really means is that fat floats. David Brooks doesn’t get an endowed chair at Sulzberger University in spite of his mediocrity. All of the institutional incentives are designed to reward it. It is the curricula of his vita.
Brooks has lately invented himself as a kind of genteel moralist, and you can imagine him cast by George Eliot as a gently satiric country priest whose bit of Greek impresses the parish but makes him an object of fun at the manor. To be fair, few of us are really willing to pursue our moral sentiments to their most rigorous ends, and the elision of coherence and consistency in our criticisms of other people’s politics and philosophies is its own kind of error. Nevertheless, there is something not just comical, but slightly sinister, in a man who corrals his timid approval of “cop cams” with a dozen caveats about the value, and virtue, of privacy. Eleven months ago, he made “vast data sweeps” a pillar of privacy! Now he’s worried that some patrolman’s Go-Pro video of a domestic will wind up on YouTube.
“Cop-cams strike a blow for truth, but they strike a blow against relationships.” I won’t be the first to observe that Brooks’s turn to moralism coincided with a divorce. Maybe it’s unkind to psychoanalyze, but, after all, the man is very publicly lying on the couch several times a week. I think you find, in Brooks’s soft authoritarianism, his Matryoshka society of nested obligations, one overriding conviction, which is that too much truth kills a relationship, and wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all just drank our cocktails at five and pretended nothing was wrong? His “zone [of] half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve” sounds an awful lot like the moment the brain requires to tell the wife that yes, of course she looks lovely in that dress or, oh, dear, I’m going to be working late tonight, so don’t wait up. And in fact, I agree with him in broad principle; we are all due some space to be furtive little shits, only not when that secrecy possesses, and uses, a gun.