Let's say your job is to make fun of David Brooks. Not your whole job, God forbid. Part of it, though. People expect you to make fun of David Brooks, and they ask you to do it, and you have been doing it for years, because the smugness and wrongness of David Brooks has seemed like an inexhaustible resource.
But what if David Brooks turns out to be exhausted? What if his defining combination of complacency and insecurity has been turned upside-down by a public midlife crisis? What if his opinion columns have gotten weirder and more rambling, leading today to a cascade of second-person thought experiments about how much a person ought to care about the opinions of others?
It is confounding. The point of making fun of David Brooks, all along, has been that he is a hilariously ignorant dweeb whose politics is not so much an ideology as a set of comically transparent mechanisms for simultaneously denying and justifying his ignorant dweebiness. He has constructed an entire ersatz America out of sociological anecdotes and made-up claims about mass culture, an America he modestly stands ready to rule as benevolent wonk-king, while showing no signs of having ever spoken to or even met any actual living Americans.
Yet now you read a David Brooks column and the whole thing has broken down. "I admit I'm confused," he writes.
His old habits of mind are still there, but in fragments. There's still nonsense sociology:
We are also living during an epidemic of conditional love. Many parents bestow or withdraw affection depending on how well their children are achieving, producing millions of young people without secure emotional foundations, who pine for any kind of approval.
You have no idea where this even came from, the idea that millions of American children are being emotionally punished for underachievement. How did Amy Chua get so much publicity for being a mean mother, then? Wasn't the crisis supposed to be that all of our children were getting trophies for participation, leading them unprepared for anything but unconditional approval?
Most of our core beliefs originated with some great figure from the distant past. These ideas, creeds or faiths were then nurtured by generations of other people, who are also now mostly dead. They created a transcendent tradition, which we embrace and hope in turn to pass along to generations as yet unborn. No sensible person would ever be happy betraying the approval of the admired dead just to win some passing approval in the here and now.
You immediately recognize that the beliefs handed down by great figures from the distant past, nurtured by generations, have included "Breathing the night air causes disease" and "The Jews are a treacherous race." It was not sensible to betray our ancestors by abandoning those ideas?
But what can you do with this recognition? David Brooks isn't trying to argue anything. He's just throwing sentences at you. His thought experiments, he confesses, are made meaningless by all sorts of confounding variables.
"To sum up," he writes—not summing anything up—"I can't find any universal rules about when to defer to outside approval."
It does seem that people should defer less to public approval as they age. At 15, it's normal to be socially insecure. By 45, unless you're in a crisis, you should have distilled enough ancient wisdom to have inner criteria.
There's autobiography in that caveat, you are sure: "Unless you're in a crisis." But the crisis of David Brooks is an inverted crisis. You have heard murmurs about his flight from the married bourgeous suburbs, his squiring young companions around swankier parts of New York, in a sort of Rushdie Lite mode.
Now here on the page, he is adrift because he has cast off his defining insecurities. He has stopped pretending he knows what he is talking about.
Plus, sometimes it's smart to attract ridicule for its own sake. You'll learn that it really does you no harm if you don't let it. Your friends will laugh at you. And accept you in the end.
David Brooks wants you to laugh at what he writes. David Brooks wants you to know that David Brooks does not care anymore. You are stuck with him anyway.