Playing Favorites

by Kieran Healy on April 5, 2005

Mark Schmitt, Jesse Taylor and Matt Yglesias have some interesting (and, in Jesse’s case, annoyed) things to say about this David Brooks column. All I have to say is that I hate this sort of thing:

A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I’d asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he’d call me back. He never did.

This is supposed to be an indictment? I mean, I’m sorry the guy didn’t call Brooks back. But can you think of any answer that Brooks would not have been able to turn into a head-shaking anecdote about the intellectual poverty and disarray of modern liberalism? Meanwhile, Brooks switches on his dichotomizer and, remarkably, always has himself come down on the right side—Red and Blue, Thinkers and Actors, Isolationists and Interventionists, Fifties intellectuals and Contemporary intellectuals , Lucky-Charmers and Cheerioians. Occasionally he’ll divide people up in a way that makes sense in the light of your own analysis of things. This is what seems to have happened this time with Mark Schmitt. But whereas Mark has a point of view and an argument to back it up, I don’t see much evidence that Brooks’ efforts are coming from anywhere other than the ur-distinction in his head between Us and Them.

{ 45 comments }

1

Ted 04.05.05 at 12:03 pm

I can only characterize your response as anti-Semetic. Sad, really.

2

C.J.Colucci 04.05.05 at 12:08 pm

What the hell kind of question is “who’s your favorite philosopher?” If you do have an answer (mine: Hume), what does it tell you that you can usefully discuss within the limits of popular short-form journalism? I suspect that the very idea that the question means something important reflects a different kind of split than Bobo wants to acknowledge: between conservatives who think “[X] said so” is a powerful argument, where X=Burke or Hayek or DeMaistre or whoever and liberals who are largely unimpressed by “[Y] said so” where Y=Dewey or Lippman or Rawls or whoever.

3

des von bladet 04.05.05 at 12:20 pm

The problem is there are so many to choose from: Hobbes, Sutcliffe, Bradman, Lindwall, Miller, Benaud…

4

Steve LaBonne 04.05.05 at 12:30 pm

Real Americans don’t give a damn about philosophy, and anyway they know the correct answer to the question is “Jesus”. Why does David Brooks hate America? ;)

5

Jake 04.05.05 at 12:32 pm

The fellow just couldn’t bring himself to see “Jebus”, like he was supposed to. More reeducation will be required.

6

Andrew C. 04.05.05 at 12:32 pm

There is only one correct answer to all questions of the form “who is your favorite X” – Jesus. Unless you are an America-hating liberal traitor, of course.

7

Dan Kervick 04.05.05 at 12:35 pm

I think Brooks has a point, if he is telling the truth about the response he received, although a better way of putting the question might be “Who is your favorite social and political thinker?” That leaves open the possibility of getting a response like “Thucydides”, “Weber”, “Erasmus”, “Keynes”, “Marx”, “Smith”, “Sen” or “Chomsky” instead of someone generally thought of as belonging to the academic profession of philosophy.

If the purported leader of a liberal think tank can’t answer because he is divided between two or three names, that is one thing. But if he can’t answer because no names occur to him, then there is something really, really wrong with liberal think tanks. Hopefully such think tanks are not populated entirely by intellectually rudderless technocrats.

8

norbizness 04.05.05 at 12:47 pm

And if Brooks just made that shit up to write a head-slappingly idiotic, unsourced column, that’s yet another horse of a different color.

9

abb1 04.05.05 at 12:51 pm

Undoubtedly the head of a think tank himself is his own favorite philosopher.

10

Steve LaBonne 04.05.05 at 12:57 pm

Meanwhile, Brooks switches on his dichotomizer

Remember, there are 10 kinds of people- those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.

11

Rob 04.05.05 at 1:11 pm

We have proof that in the past Brooks has just made stuff up to fit his worldview. I have no clue why he still has a job.

12

Ereshkigal 04.05.05 at 1:11 pm

Maybe, just maybe, that “head of a prominent liberal think tank” regretted ever having answered the phone that day, and vowed never again to respond to any parent doing his fourth-grader’s homework.

13

tim 04.05.05 at 1:17 pm

What the hell kind of question indeed, though the problem I have isn’t the choice of phrase “philosopher” vs. “social and political thinker” but rather the use the word “favourite” as though it had an agreed meaning in this context.

For example, I derive my main intellectual inspiration from J.M. Keynes and Rawls, but my favourite is Gary Becker. I find his economic analysis of suicide so wacky that I can’t help but call him my favourite because he makes me laugh so hard.

Can’t we have a “favourite” thinker with whom we vehemently disagree?

14

Colin Danby 04.05.05 at 1:36 pm

Exactly, Tim — and often one’s favorites in the sense of people who are really exciting and mind-expanding to read are people whose positions one doesn’t share.

The thought-tub head, if he exists, probably realized that “favorite philosopher” would be interpreted as a declaration of intellectual fealty.

15

JRoth 04.05.05 at 2:35 pm

Brooks is just being modest. Obviously the think-tanker, unaware of the identity of his interlocutor, answered, “that clever David Brooks – he’s every liberal’s favorite conservative thinker!”

16

lemuel pitkin 04.05.05 at 3:16 pm

Dan Kervick makes a good point: Brooks’ supposed question is sort of like one Kervick would have asked, so there is probably something very wrong with liberals.

Oops, sorry, no he doesn’t.

17

John Quiggin 04.05.05 at 3:29 pm

The world is divided into two sorts of people: those who expect Brooks to make sense, and those who’ve long since given up.

18

Thomas 04.05.05 at 3:33 pm

It’s an anecdote, not an indictment. Heck, nothing in the piece is an indictment. It’s relatively gentle stuff (“four hours of brilliant conversation” doesn’t exactly suggest intellectual poverty, does it?). It’s the right that he says is in disarray, a disarray he recommends to the left.

As I read Yglesias and Schmitt, they both agree with Brooks. Which isn’t to say he’s right, but at least he’s not unreasonably or uninterestingly wrong. (My standards for op-ed work are lower than most, because that’s all I hope for.)

As for the Ur-distinction between Us and Them, why break it down with this line: “If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn’t want message discipline.” The line between Us and Them seems to be awfully thin.

19

nolo 04.05.05 at 4:05 pm

Coming from someone like Brooks, the question “who’s your favorite philosopher” feels a whole lot like old prank call questions such as “is your refrigerator running?” or “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Whatever the answer, you know Brooks would just say something snotty about it, snigger, and then perform the rhetorical equivalent of hanging up.

20

mq 04.05.05 at 4:06 pm

Um, Brooks argument is garbage, even if a few liberal bloggers didn’t treat it with the contempt it deserved this time. Look here for a great debunking by Jonathan Chait:

http://www.tnr.com/etc.mhtml

21

Mike S 04.05.05 at 4:30 pm

‘But can you think of any answer that Brooks would not have been able to turn into a head-shaking anecdote about the intellectual poverty and disarray of modern liberalism?’
It is difficult to see how ‘David Hume’ could have been thus used, but perhaps Mr Brooks is disingenuous just because he is a conservative?
And Jefferson as an icon of the right? OK, you have made your point.

22

joe o 04.05.05 at 4:43 pm

mike s,

hume = atheist

why do liberals hate religion so much?

23

Ajax 04.05.05 at 5:19 pm

Right on, Kieran.

24

NeoDude 04.05.05 at 6:33 pm

Yo Mama!!!

That’s who my favorite philosopher is, BITCH!!!

25

David Margolies 04.05.05 at 6:38 pm

I was thinking about favorite things. Julie Andrews means things she really likes, but she seems to have some categories with more than one favorite thing. There are a lot of things I really like, but in very few categories is there a single winner. It depends on the day, my mood, the context, etc. (I don’t have a favorite desert, a favorite writer, a favorite restaurant, though I do have a favorite wildflower: Lupinus stiversii.)

Dan may be right that Brooks was hinting that the head of some liberal think tank is uneducated or unreflcetive, but if Brooks meant that, why not say it. (Presumably the job of the head of a think tank is to raise money. Is having a favorite political philosopher is necessary to that task?)

Better questions are which political philosophers do you like? and which have influenced you? But those questions are only useful if you are interested in the answer.

26

rea 04.05.05 at 8:32 pm

“It is difficult to see how ‘David Hume’ could have been thus used”

Anyone who said “Hume” (or gave any other serious answer) would be mocked as pretentious, and out of touch with the common man.

27

hilzoy 04.05.05 at 9:48 pm

You all do know that one candidate for President in 2004, when asked who his favorite philosopher was, actually answered ‘David Hume’, right? (Seriously, this is true.)

28

Mark 04.06.05 at 12:35 am

Plausibly, the guy chose not to call back because on reflection it seemed a cheaply manipulative question. Why answer such a question when the probability is so high that Brooks will use whatever answer you give just for his own contrary ends? Even having said one would call back, it’s difficult to think of an all things considered reason for doing so. Moreover, nothing follows about the intellectual depth of even the relevant think tank, much less “liberal think tanks” in general.

29

CKR 04.06.05 at 12:38 am

It’s a dumb question, but look at the rest of what Brooks wrote. He’s giving us the real secret of conservatives’ success! They are divided into many factions and fight with each other! Brilliant! Who woulda thought it?

Or is this just “being on the right side” of the current squabbling over the government’s right to legislate about every personal moral issue (via Terri Schiavo) they may see fit? Making lemonade from them lemons, David? Or just a smokescreen to throw those dumb liberals off the trail?

30

bad Jim 04.06.05 at 2:11 am

Hume? Who, Hilzoy?

31

Andrew Boucher 04.06.05 at 2:33 am

“Remember, there are 10 kinds of people- those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.”

I prefer:

There are 2 kinds of people – those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.

OR

There are 3 kinds of people – those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.

The “10” confuses the joke for me.

32

bad Jim 04.06.05 at 3:33 am

There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary numbers, those who don’t, and those who wait for the punchline.

There are 10 kinds of people…

33

Steve LaBonne 04.06.05 at 7:27 am

There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary numbers, those who don’t, and those who wait for the punchline.

Um, that’s 11 kinds of people. ;)

34

rea 04.06.05 at 8:02 am

“You all do know that one candidate for President in 2004, when asked who his favorite philosopher was, actually answered ‘David Hume’, right?”

Didn’t win, you’ll notice . . .

35

C.J.Colucci 04.06.05 at 9:35 am

Please, who was it?

36

john b 04.06.05 at 10:04 am

Wes Clark, innit?

37

Simon 04.06.05 at 12:26 pm

Even if he chose Hume, you cannot prove that his choice caused Brooks to call the think-tanker an elitist, pointy-headed America-hater.

38

Viator 04.06.05 at 12:45 pm

I think nolo put it best. I can imagine two things: either the phone ringing and immediately “Who is your favorite philosopher? Eh? WHO??” or, in the style of his ridiculous debates with E.J. Dionne, veering completely off topic when they were discussing the Red Sox or something.

39

Dan Simon 04.06.05 at 2:00 pm

My response to Brooks’ column is here.

40

hilzoy 04.06.05 at 10:45 pm

Sorry, yes: it was indeed Wes Clark who said his favorite philosopher was Hume. Yet another thing to like about him: since Clark is himself quite religious, I think we can infer from this not only that he has very good taste, but that he likes a good challenge over agreement with his views.

He briefly taught political philosophy at West Point, and I believe did PPE as a Rhodes scholar.

41

bad Jim 04.07.05 at 2:27 am

Thank you Hilzoy, thank you, thank you.

42

Steve LaBonne 04.07.05 at 7:21 am

Of course, that’s an example of why the press made him out to be some kind of unstable weirdo, as they do every candidate who doesn’t confine himself to uttering the usual platitudes.

43

steve kyle 04.07.05 at 9:42 am

Or, as my favorite dichotomy goes – There are three kinds of economists – those who can count and those who cant.

44

carla 04.07.05 at 9:50 pm

If the guy would have called Brooks back and said, “Jesus Christ” as his answer…would it have shut Brooks up?

If I call Brooks up and say “Jesus Christ”..would it shut Brooks up?

Just what will shut Brooks up, anyway?

45

Uncle Kvetch 04.08.05 at 7:54 am

If the guy would have called Brooks back and said, “Jesus Christ” as his answer…would it have shut Brooks up?

“Now the liberals are desperately trying to jump on the faith-based bandwagon. But we know they’re all atheistic moral relativists at heart, so their protestations to the contrary ring hollow.”

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