You didn’t think I’d forgotten about this project, did you? No, the Silliest Take of the Week Project may hibernate from time to time, like a great bear, but it always returns. So, without further ado, let’s get to work. I’ve got two this week, which is fewer than normal, but I have grown loquacious in my months of absence.
David Has Some Questions and Some Thoughts
David Brooks, “Speaking as a White Male…,” The New York Times, 3/22/2018
David Brooks is a conservative writer for the New York Times Opinion Page. He also writes a lot of Silly Takes. (But I repeat myself.)
In this column, Brooks attempts to work through questions about to what extent a person’s sociocultural background shapes their ultimate beliefs. These are complicated questions, often discussed in philosophy and psychology, and there are no easy answers to them. So, when Brooks says:
“I’m searching for a line here, a distinction. Under what circumstances should we embrace the idea that collective identity shapes our thinking? Under what circumstances should we resist collective identity and insist on the primacy of individual discretion, and our common humanity?”
You know, fair enough! These are tough things. But Brooks doesn’t have any kind of answers, easy or otherwise, and the way he asks these questions is pretty silly. For instance:
“Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?
Now, when somebody says that I always wonder, What does that mean? After you’ve stated your group identity, what is the therefore that follows?”
I’ve thought about it, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard somebody start a sentence with “Speaking as a [demographic characteristic]” in actual conversation. But maybe I don’t go to the fun kind of parties.
Regardless, “what that means” really varies depending on how the sentence gets finished. If somebody says “Speaking as a Latina, I didn’t like it when Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried to compare herself to my abuela,” what she means is “I am a member of the demographic this politician is clumsily trying to court, and I didn’t like this very much.” If a person says “Speaking as a Jew, I felt like Trump using a six-pointed star to accuse Sec. Clinton of being corrupt was anti-Semitic,” they mean “My experience and identity makes me aware of how certain symbols are used to attack my ethnicity and religion.”
If somebody says “speaking as a queer person, I much prefer Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite to the others,” then they are making a joke.
“Wider inclusion has vastly improved public debate. . . . But other times, group identity seems irrelevant to many issues. How does being gay shape your view of U.S.-German relations or breaking up big tech? How does being Latina influence how you read a black writer like St. Augustine?”
Has anybody ever said “Speaking as a gay person, I have special insight into Angela Merkel’s most recent campaign?” If not, then why do you bring this up, David? Do people often cite their identities to you before opining on entirely unrelated things?
Also, was St. Augustine really the best example you could find of a black writer? I feel like I should read something into your choice, here, particularly given that I don’t think we actually know what color St. Augustine was.
I want to end, though, by pointing to the way Brooks begins this column:
“How much are you in control of your own opinions? I ask this sincerely because, as you’ll see, I’m trying to think this through and I’m not sure how.”
“I’m Trying to Think This Through and I’m Not Sure How” could be the tagline for the entire NY Times Opinion page. So could, as he says later, “I’m a Columnist and I’m Supposed to Come to a Conclusion, but I’m Confused.”
But I love more than anything that Brooks starts this column with “How much are you in control of your own opinions,” because although he presumably just means “how many of your beliefs are shaped by your cultural background, and how many are yours because you reasoned your way to them,” I like to imagine Brooks frantically Googling “how much are you in control of your own opinions” at two in the morning because he’s terrified of all the Takes he keeps writing, and he wants to know how to make it stop.
The Silliest Take of the Week, 3/18/2018-3/24/2018:
Jesse Kelly, “Why A Good Father Prepares His Sons For War,” The Federalist, 3/19/2018
Most weeks, I could probably fill an entire Silliest Take of the Week post just by printing out the front page of The Federalist and using it for a dartboard.
This week, on March 19, a Federalist writer named Jesse Kelly took aim at a piece written by Will Leitch for The Cut. Leitch’s article is about the tension he feels between wanting his sons to be the best they can be while also knowing that, since they are young white boys, a proper ordering of society will probably make things harder for them than they would have been some years earlier. Kelly’s article is about how Leitch is a pussy.
In fairness to Kelly, Leitch opens his article with a story that is pretty well-calculated to annoy anyone who is at all familiar with guns. The story is about the time his father tried to teach him to shoot, which he did by handing a teenage Leitch a shotgun, apropos of nothing, and telling him to fire into a field, without any further instructions or, apparently, ear protection. I’m pretty sure that’s not how you’re supposed to teach your kid to shoot.
Further, in the course of telling this story, Leitch describes his father “load[ing] a bullet into the chamber” of the gun, and later says he “scramble[d] behind [him] to pick the rifle off the ground.” And listen: shotguns don’t fire bullets, and rifles are different things from shotguns. Left-leaning writers (or, more importantly, their editors) have got to stop scoring own goals by mangling basic firearms terminology. This is not just because I am a pedant, but because every time somebody calls an AR-15 a machinegun, some jackbooted NRA demagogue can point to that and make fun of them, and thereby ignore any otherwise-meaningful arguments in favor of gun control that person might be making.
But Mr. Kelly’s criticism of Leitch’s article is not “Leitch and his father clearly don’t know anything about guns, and that worries me because I think people should be familiar with guns.” We might agree or disagree with that, but it wouldn’t inherently be a Silly Take. Instead, we get stuff like this:
“Do you know why men like football? Why they watch boxing? Why Romans watched the gladiators slaughter each other? Because part of men was made for violence and their instincts draw them to it. We cannot suppress human nature. We cannot half-embrace who and what we are—how God made us, and how we are built.”
“A man’s nature cannot be repressed. Men were made for the intentional use of force and power. Throughout history, societies have understood this. Here in America, we have coddled and weakened our boys by refusing to embrace the very nature they are born with, then told ourselves this is progress. It is not. It’s fighting against a tidal wave that cannot be stopped. Attempting to divert the wave just results in more damage.”
Kelly’s thesis, such as it is, is that Leitch and those like him who seek to teach their sons not to be football fans and not to punch bullies are destroying young men and, with them, society, because men are always violent, and pretending otherwise turns them into serial killers.
“If you find [teaching your sons to stop bullies by punching them in the nose] distasteful, you need to get over it. You are wrong. One can no more suppress human nature than one can stop a firehose. If you do, eventually it is going to break out somewhere, and when it does, it’s going to be ugly.”
this is beside the point, but I’m pretty sure people can stop firehoses? I’m pretty sure firehoses are not just constantly spraying water everywhere all the time
“Obviously there are different degrees of how [this ugliness] manifests itself, depending on the person and level of suppression. Certainly we can agree that Ed Gein wearing people’s faces and Nikolas Cruz shooting up a school is one level, but thinking men should weaken themselves is another. Weak men may not be as violently damaging as a school shooting in the short term, but at a macro societal level, it’s worse in the long term.”
But for all that the chest-beating “I AM A MAN, A MAN DOES NOT CARRY A PURSE” paragraphs in this piece are the funniest, Kelly doesn’t seem willing to actually read or engage with Leitch’s article. Leitch’s whole piece is about him trying to navigate the tensions he feels between knowing that his sons have an undeserved leg up in the world because they are white boys, while also wanting them to have every advantage. He specifically states that he is “not going to try to stop [his] two sons from doing normal boy activities because [he’s] trying to prove some sort of post-graduate thesis.” Kelly willfully misreads Leitch’s piece throughout, painting Leitch’s hesitance over his son being called a “golden boy” by his teacher as a desire for his son to fail, rather than a fear that his son is already being treated differently due to his race.
In short, not only is Kelly’s macho posturing ridiculous, he can’t be bothered to give his ideological opponent a fair reading. Maybe we’re destroying society by teaching little boys not to like football, but I think our pervasive tendency to argue in bad faith might be helping, too.
That’s it for The Silliest Take of the Week! Please resume sending the silliest takes you find to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will resume reading them and making fun of them in this small corner of the Internet.