In the time since I last discussed David Brooks, a lot has changed. Brooks’ main identifying trait as a “thinker” has always been that he maintained the same bland pretense of evenhandedness no matter what he was discussing—a trait well-adapted, perhaps, to a world we could at least pretend was sane. The zeitgeist has shifted, and that world no longer exists. If we’re all going to get nuked tomorrow by a reality TV star, should we still spend most of our time hand-wringing about civility? When your personal brand is premised on being the sane guy, and all around you is going mad, do you go mad too?
American culture abounds with knee-jerk displays of patriotism. Fourth of July fireworks, Presidents’ Day, elections, baseball games, football games, gun shows, the Country Music Awards, pep rallies, NRA conventions, even the state fair — all come with flag-waving, anthem-singing, and the implicit belief that America is the best because we have the most “freedom.” But does this assumption comport with facts, or is it a reductive, even jingoistic oversimplification? The naïve citizen would claim that freedom means the ability to choose the direction your life will take, or a lack of undue burdens like oppression and bigotry. These definitions create a false binary, putting freedom in the “good” category while consigning so-called “evils” like slavery, totalitarianism, unjust laws, bigotry, poverty and lack of opportunity to the “bad” category. That kind of black-and-white thinking might fly in kindergarten, but it simply won’t do for the sophisticated readers of the Paper of Record! They demand nuanced, rigorous thought.
New York Times editorialists are ready to give it to them. And for most, that can mean only one thing. Continue reading “Bobos in the Panopticon; or, Why Does the New York Times Hate Freedom?”
Frank Bruni’s accession to the position of New York Times editorialist was announced in May by Andrew Rosenthal (no relation to former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal) (just kidding, he’s his son). The op-ed page editor suggested that Bruni was qualified by virtue of his ability to provide a “sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different,” presumably involving a medium-sized event. Further lending gravitas is that fact that the former restaurant critic’s NYT career has “spanned…part of a papacy.” (This is true of many events, but it does sound impressive: “We’ve been sitting here for part of a papacy, waiting for our appetizers! This service is atrocious!”)
In the six months that followed, the papacy-spanning pundit has been called “a pretty bad columnist,” denounced as inane, unreadable, and an unqualified poseur, vilified for his lack of arithmetic skills and contempt for substantive issues; it’s even been suggested that he doesn’t know he’s writing for the Times at all.
But I believe he does. Oh, he knows it all too well. Whatever his faults of relevance or coherence, Bruni’s work is distinguished for its firm grasp of the New York Times house style — that mélange of dad-joke whimsy, inspiring truisms, fake sociology, celebrity snark, magnificent scorn for the lowbrow, and horse-race election reporting, all united by a pervading tone of NPR blandness and upper-middle-class obliviousness. Frank Bruni’s writing could appear scrawled on a bathroom wall, or crumpled in a bottle that washed up on the beach, or blazoned in the sky in letters of fire, and you’d still be like “is that from the New York Times?” (Although you might mistake it for Gentzlinger.)
So by understanding Bruni’s literary techniques, we’ll understand the essence of the Times editorial page. In no particular order, here they are.