The second-dumbest column EV-AH
posted at 8:57 am on August 4, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
Recently Gail Collins penned a New York Times column about a town with one percent unemployment that I dubbed the “dumbest column EV-AH.”
Now there’s a runner-up. The silver goes to…David Brooks (of course!) whose August 2 “The Credit Illusion” completely misunderstands the brouhaha over the president’s “you didn’t build that” (YDBT) comments while it fails to strike the clever/funny tones he seems to wish to hit.
Brooks, of course, is the Times’s token conservative columnist. Scratch that. He used to be until people started noticing he’s not a conservative. He’s what I think of as a moderate showman. That is, the type of moderate who believes in certain “why can’t we all get along here in the middle” policies because such beliefs draw attention to how above-it-all and enlightened he is. Oh, I’m sure he’d protest. But we’ve all met this kind of guy/gal before, haven’t we? They’re the types who, when losing an argument about some policy issue, eventually close the discussion with a “Washington is broken” line, the implication being that policymakers who disagree with them aren’t as wise and sophisticated as they are. But to me, this kind of claptrap always feels a bit like a gussied-up form of schoolyard name-calling. Disagree with Mr. Moderate and you’re a backwater cretin, dumb as a rock, bub. That’s the real message.
So, Mr. Brooks pens a fake letter from a wondering entrepreneur—who really built his business, Imaginary Businessman muses, when Mr. Obama says he didn’t do it on his own, but Mr. Romney says “culture” creates success. Oh, heck, let me paste the whole fake letter here, so you can ooh and aah over Mr. Brooks’s fictional fiction-writing talent:
Dear Mr. Opinion Guy:
Over the past few years, I’ve built a successful business. I’ve worked hard, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. But now President Obama tells me that social and political forces helped build that. Mitt Romney went to Israel and said cultural forces explain the differences in the wealth of nations. I’m confused. How much of my success is me, and how much of my success comes from forces outside of me?
Confused in Columbus.
Our “Mr. Opinion Guy” goes on to answer “Confused” with a gentle gravitas, weaving a story of the seasons of life. In our yute—oh, sorry, make that “youth” (I was carried away there for a moment with Mr. Brooks’s fiction, thinking of his audience perhaps the way he does…)—we think we’re capable of anything on our own, and that’s the way it should be, he writes:
In your 20s, for example, you should regard yourself as an Ayn Randian Superman who is the architect of the wonder that is you. This is the last time in your life that you will find yourself truly fascinating, so you might as well take advantage of it.
An aside: is Mr. Brooks in his 20s? What, no? Oh, sorry. That “finding yourself truly fascinating” line threw me for a second.
Anyway, onward…the rest of the piece takes you through the Voyage of Life, and how at each stage, we come to realize how much help we’ve had along the way and how we’re not the center of the universe. And so, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…no, wait, that’s a different column, a good one.
The wrap-up to the piece, the grand finale, says…well, it says…
In short, as maturity develops and the perspectives widen, the smaller the power of the individual appears, and the greater the power of those forces flowing through the individual.
But you, Mr. Confused in Columbus, are right to preserve your pride in your accomplishments. Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.
Well, kiss my grits and smack my dupa, but that’s about as clever a thing that’s come down this here pike since they put in the ole Piggly Wiggly on 895. Good golly, but that man can sure pen a fine piece of shinola, as they say in these here backwoods.
Okay, I’ll stop.
The point is that Mr. Brooks misses the point. Those of us who took umbrage with the YDBT speech don’t subscribe to the simplistic notion that success comes without help. No, our outrage was directed at the president sneering at achievers, who, yes, with mentors and family and friends (and even a government-built road or two that they helped fund with their own taxes), used their smarts and hard work to accomplish things many people do not. They might have had help, they might have had luck on their side, but they worked 60-plus-hour weeks and took risks that many people do not. They should be celebrated for that work, not derided in speeches or poked fun at in columns.
If Mr. Brooks doesn’t understand that, maybe he’s “Confused in New York.”
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.