David Brooks Went on a Trip.

Sorry, David Brooks again. (Promise, it’s the last time). But I almost missed this piece in NYT magazine last weekend. It’s a cool read.

As I mentioned earlier, I like David Brooks. But occasionally, this student of bourgeoisie shows such a misunderstanding of his own subject that I can’t pass by quietly.

Recently David Brooks went on an $120,000 world-wide tour as an assignment for NYT. He was surprised to find that people who can spend that kind of money on a trip weren’t behaving like rich assholes. He was almost disappointed.

What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class. One had a family carpet business. Another was an I.T. executive at an insurance company. There were a few law partners. There was a divorce coach who’d worked in finance, a woman who’d started a telecom business with her ex-husband and the vice chancellor from a medium-size university. Very few of these people were born to money. They did not dress rich, talk rich or put on airs. They have spent their lives busy with work and family, not jet-setting around or hanging out with the Davos crowd.

In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious. They treated the crew as friends and equals and not as staff. Nobody was trying to prove they were better informed or more sophisticated than anybody else. There were times, in fact, when I almost wished there had been a little more pretense and a little more intellectual and spiritual ambition.

 

Of course they treated the crew as friends, of course they were not trying to prove anything! They don’t need to! The proof is in the fact that they are traveling in this manner. Nothing else needs to be said or done.

I mean, what did he expect: top hats and frocks and Oxbridge accent? The rich, for a long time, have not looked like that. In fact, the rich love to dress unpretentiously (I mean he described it in his own book, Bobos in Paradise). They love to pretend to be one with the people. The powerful don’t like to think of themselves and to look like powerful at all. They manifest their status by the access to exclusive services that regular folks not only haven’t heard of but can’t even conceive in their dreams (like a livered valet insisting on bringing a second bottle of champagne in Brooks’ room), not by what they wear or by how they speak. These days if you fly first class you’ll make sure you look like a bum. In fact, a folksy demeanor is almost a must-have, a way of underplaying one’s status. By Brook’s logic if one sold his company for $100 mil or made a partner at some investment firm he must immediately display it in flashy clothing items and change his manner of speech. On the contrary, such success usually behooves him to assume a role of a regular guy even more. I saw Lloyd Blankfein a few months ago near Columbus circle, walking among the crowd on the sidewalk, in unpretentious baseball hat and some dull jacket he probably got for free at some conference. That’s how the power dresses and behaves in public. Don’t look at me – the message is – I’m just like you.

Comfort, time-efficiency, exclusivity and privacy – that’s what modern-day luxury entails, not the ability to buy an expensive piece of clothing. I would think Brooks, of all people, would understand that.

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David Brooks’ Transformation

I kinda like David Brooks, ‘kinda’ being the key word. I think he’s going through some serious soul-searching, part of which he’s eager to share with us as general thoughts on morality, and a part of which that is so personal that he’s yet afraid to mention. But it’s hard not to notice that many of his recent columns are a manifest of some personal transformation, perhaps due to collapse of his previously held beliefs. Let’s not be too harsh on him with our ever-ready schadenfreude.

A few critical thoughts on his newfound enlightenment. He’s known to zero in on the morality, especially the morality of the poor. But from his elevated position as an elite thought leader, the examination of habits of others, especially those at the bottom of social ladder, has to start with introspection. It is only after we, the elites, those for whom everyday grind comes in the form of first-world problems, take a gaze onto ourselves that we should be allowed to pontificate on the lack of morality in others, less fortunate. I’m still waiting on David Brooks to do that. I do believe that his efforts and thoughts are genuine and that he really wants to be a better man. But in order to lecture us on how to be better people he first has to face and admit his own faults. Perhaps even in a separate Mea Culpa column. He came close, like in a recent column excoriating modern GOP, but if he were truly honest with himself he would put a partial blame on himself as an earlier cheerleader and apologist when his party kept taking one wrong turn after another.

What I appreciate is his the effort, however. That shows, partially, the admission of the problem in the first place.

What we’re talking about here is not the issue of what’s legal or not. The discussion transcends the legal boundaries: some illegal things are harmless, and some legal things are harmful to a greater society. What he (and I am too) is concerned about are the issues of right and wrong and his main complaint is that we have nowhere to learn that, not in a university, not in a workplace. Our current morals stem from, as Brooks says: “…a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge?” There are no judges but those in public courts that can only interpret the civic law, not moral code. But the civic law, in many cases, will often absolve big companies of their obligations, without extending the same courtesy to an average schmo. Thus we, as a society are inarticulate in the matters of right and wrong and are also squeamish talking about it, because the language of right and wrong sounds too religious, too pious for our fast, competitive and thus hostile to thought way of life. It has a very unpleasant, monkish, Dostoyevskian flavor to utter in a polite company.

We can’t ask of Appalachian meth-cooking, dole-grabbing hillbillies to become virtuous if we don’t ask the same of the Wall Street or the politicians. That’s why it would be nice to see Brooks to take on the privileged first. It is only by their own example, by their new virtuous way of life that they earn the right to lecture the ‘unwashed’ on how to lead moral lives.