Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Babbling Brooks

The New York Times probably hired David Brooks for the sole reason to give us something to laugh about. His recent column on the tsunami death toll would be a C-minus essay in college-level writing courses, but as he is a Republican writer who invents sociological trends it's worthy of being printed in the most important newspaper in this country, while wonderful lefty writers go begging on the outer fringes of the blogosphere (no, I'm not necessarily referring to myself here).

Here's a summary of Brooks' column: Nature is horrible and cruel. Humans had no power over the tsunamis which is very bad. At least in the past we thought such disasters were fair rewards for sin and a way to purify humanity. This put humankind into the center of the picture as is proper. Now we can't do that anymore, so we are left trying to feel good about the relief efforts. And, by the way, environmentalists are all wrong in trying to prettify nature. The real nature is just like all those programs on television which show only the last minutes of some poor gazelle in the mouth of the devouring Republican lion. Now we all feel bad, not just those who lost a loved one, but even people like David Brooks because they were not told that this would happen.

Well, it's almost a summary of his column, with a few interpretative touches by Yours Truly.

Brooks doesn't like the idea that "If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves."

This is rude to the gnats, for one thing, and also quite impertinent towards the god that Brooks might believe in if he is a believer like most of his Republican brethren. Why should a god explain anything to us? Why should we be any more important than gnats? That human beings search for meaning is true, but it is equally true that the meaning of things such as natural disasters is not for us to judge. To suppose otherwise is arrogance out of all proportion with the actual standing of human beings in the order of things.

My explanation of the mess that Brooks has made is simple: He tried to argue that fundamentalists have an upper hand in enduring catastrophies of all types, because they see these as punishment from God and therefore controllable by human beings who just need to behave differently. But most of his readers will not swallow that explanation as superior to our post-modern angst, so he tried to rewrite it as suitably angstful. He failed.