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Worse than that

It’s not Your Humble Blogger’s job to complain about David Brooks. I haven’t come up with a justification for the existence of this Tohu Bohu, but whatever it is, complaining about David Brooks is not it.

Digression: I met David Brooks once, if by met you include directed to the elevator, and if by directed to the elevator you actually mean was standing nearby when a co-worker directed to the elevator. Is there a word for that? I suppose something like I saw David Brooks once in real life, although that might imply that I had attended a talk or something. I think I would use something like I saw him on the street, although it was not, in fact, in the street, but it does give the right idea, I think, of the nature of the contact. End Digression.

If it were my job to complain about David Brooks, my work would never be complete, but on the other hand I would probably have to read his stuff and what’s worse, watch and listen to the man. Yich.

I did, however, read yesterday’s column on The Jeremy Lin Problem, for which I blame Charlie Pierce. I don’t blame Mr. Pierce for the column, I mean, but for drawing my attention to it. I found it hard to believe that Mr. Pierce had pulled actual quotes from an actual column, and I went to check, and the thing was worse than that. I know, I know, the answer to how bad was David Brooks’ column this time is almost always worse than that, but still. Boggles the mind.

You see, Mr. Brooks has written a column about the anomaly (as he puts it) of the religious person in professional sports. Not that he is claiming that most professional athletes are irreligious. No, when he says it’s an anomaly, he means that he feels that the religious life is fundamentally incompatible with professional sports. Why? An excellent question. You might, for instance, think that the hours of training, practice and travel would prevent attention to the study, contemplation and good deeds that mark the religious life. Nah, that’s not it. Or that the temptations of the athlete—money, groupies, gambling, swearing, Sabbath-breaking—would harden a person’s soul. Nah, that’s not it, either. No, it’s that The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Another Digression: Do you think he made a deliberate choice to diss Hindus and Sikhs? I understand the desire for triples, and you don’t really want make a huge list with Buddhism, the Confucian thing, Neopaganism, Shinto, Santeria, Jainism, whatever, but come on. If you are talking about the moral ethos of faith and want to abstract it from the particular faith of any actual individual persons, then (a) you are almost certainly wrong about whatever you are saying, and (2) you can’t start listing faiths and then stop without giving the impression that you think you have made a complete list. This whole Jewish, Christian and Muslim thing (which seems to have replaced the Judeo-Christian thing) is insulting to, well, everybody. End Digression.

Mr. Brooks claims that The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God and contrasts that with the sports ethos of victory and supremacy. The primary virtue of the athlete is courage; the primary virtue of religion is humility. Now, I know less than nothing about the ethos of professional sports. And, frankly, I don’t care that much. I love baseball, I am hugely, hugely excited that pitchers and catchers will be reporting this weekend for Spring Training, and I really want to see if Buster Posey is in shape. But I am not terribly interested in his internal struggle to reconcile his religious life and his professional life. Well, I am more interested to know about Buster Posey’s internal struggle than about David Brooks’ internal struggle, or Jack Welch’s, or Dean Kamen’s. Actually, Dean Kamen’s internal struggle might be interesting, if he has, in fact, experienced such a struggle. Anyway.

The real reason I am writing about this is that Mr. Brooks takes it as a given that his view of religion is the view of religion, and that view of religion puts pride first. Well, putting pride first rang a bell for YHB—if it didn’t ring a bell for you, Gentle Reader, it’s because I haven’t been talking enough about Judith Shklar and her essay Putting Cruelty First, as well as the rest of the book of Ordinary Vices. Ms. Shklar draws a distinction between those for whom cruelty is the worst of all evils and those that see cruelty as a sin, but see the worst of all sins as pride. Then the question is whether the first of virtues is humility (as the opposite of pride) or valour (as the opposite of cruelty). Mr. Brooks calls it courage, because Mr. Brooks is an idiot.

Now, I disagree with Judith Shklar’s statement that putting cruelty first does place one unalterably outside the sphere of revealed religion, although I am not entirely sure what she means by revealed in this context. Cruelty is, of necessity, an action of this world against a creature of this world. One cannot be cruel to the Divine, she implies, and that’s where I think she goes wrong. Those traditions that emphasize the Creator in the Created , those (which I think include mainstream Christianity) which emphasize the Divine spark in us all, those which look to the Divine within animals and people, those traditions should see cruelty as an act against the Divine. As do many Jewish writers. Not a majority, but quite a few. Enough for me to be convinced that there isn’t a divide between religion/pride on one side and secular/cruelty on the other. Of course, I think that I do put cruelty first, and I think that I do remain in the sphere of revealed religion, so naturally I think there’s an overlap there.

Still, the distinction she makes is incredibly valuable, and it’s a distinction that has guided a great deal of my thinking over the last several years. It’s worth thinking about whether you put your priority on preventing and ameliorating cruelty, or whether you put your priority on preventing and punishing pride. That priority comes out in all kinds of ways, in policy preferences and in domestic life, in the workplace and the career, in art and music and theater and so on and so forth. It’s a Big Deal. And it’s much more of a big deal to explore the repercussions of those choices than to say that humility is somehow the central ethos of religion. Even if you entirely agree with Ms. Shklar, it is to say that pride is the sin from which the other sins derive, that pride is rejecting the Divine Will for your own will. To go from there to a claim that self-abnegation is the central teaching of religion-in-general is, well, Brooksian in the extreme.

This whole column, though, reads to YHB as if David Brooks read the old Jeremy Lin interview, and connected it with a dim memory of an essay he once read about something to do with humility and religion on the one hand and liberals and valour on the other. Since he couldn’t remember much about it, he just put professional athletes (who are probably liberals, being elite and urban and so on, right) on the other side. Maybe it was an essay by the Rav? Maybe he has an intern to look through his collection find it, or at least pull a couple of irrelevant quotes to use. OK, that’s an essay. Oh, wait, does he have to know anything about Jeremy Lin? Or professional sports? Or any sports? Or religion? Or humility?

No? Whew.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.