Holding a Kimmel Arena audience rapt with humor, anecdotes and his unique take on American culture and politics, New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered UNC Asheville’s 90th anniversary Founders Day lecture on Oct. 12. And earlier that afternoon, he led a master class for UNC Asheville political science and history students.
The master class “was one of the most provocative ones I’ve had in years,” Brooks later told his Kimmel Arena audience. “The students quoted Immanuel Kant and St. Augustine, and then they made me squirm on issues I hadn’t really thought about and I was sort of unsatisfied with my own opinions on issues like free speech, about how to deal with fanaticism. They were serious, they were intent, and they were really challenging me. And I’m grateful for that.”
Many participating students also were grateful for the exchange, including Mason Magruder, a senior political science major who first read Brooks this semester. “It has been a mixed response in our class with a lot of back and forth over the articles,” said Magruder. “We have a kind of liberally-focused class and it doesn’t necessarily agree with what he has to say, but I don’t see a lot of what he has to say as ideologically motivated. … I’m trying to stay away from ideology at this point in my life. … The more I’ve been in school, the more I’ve been learning, the more I see that I really don’t know as much as I thought and should not pretend like I have the answer. I really enjoyed this chance to talk with him.”
History student Jennifer McLean was pleased to get the opportunity to question Brooks, known as a conservative. She asked “where is the conservative voice” in opposing police brutality. “What I’ve noticed in the classroom at UNCA is that students and faculty are working hard to make a safe environment for political disagreement,” she said afterward. “It’s so important that it happen on university campuses and that we have dialogue. … We feel we can express ourselves no matter what political stripe we are, so I’m very thankful that UNCA is doing that.”
Political science student Christopher Bobbitt, a junior studying political science, stayed after the master class to continue the discussion with Brooks. “I do consider myself a progressive but I value hearing different opinions like those that David Brooks has,” said Bobbitt. “I think that UNC Asheville is often an echo chamber, and what I mean by that is we have a certain political bias and that we only communicate with each other on the frame of that bias, and it’s difficult for people to hear opinions different than their own. … I think there’s only so much you can learn by talking in the mirror, by talking to people with the same ideas.”
While there was consensus in the master class on the importance of dialogue, some of the discussion focused on the limits of what dialogue and argument can achieve in terms of changing minds, especially because, as Brooks pointed out, most people ‘inherit’ their political loyalties from their families.
“Even though what I do for a living is try to make arguments, I don’t think I’m really persuading people,” said Brooks. “What you try to do with a column, or making an argument at the dinner table, is to try to provide a context in which people can think – kind of provoke people into making up their own minds. Or you try to name something, a pattern in society that they use to understand the world.”
Politics and Football
At Kimmel Arena that evening, Brooks used everything from food, to styles, to sports to convey the patterns he sees in American culture, and how those patterns have produced today’s political divide.
He quoted the announcements, full of gratitude and humility, that were broadcast on the radio the day World War II ended, and contrasted those with the victory dances football players perform even after less-than-crucial plays. And he presented stories of American heroes of the postwar era who, Brooks argues, demonstrate that era’s ethos of self-effacement and service to others – something that he feels is lacking today.
And he again used football, and two opposing Super Bowl quarterbacks from decades ago – the older, quiet and unemotional Johnny Unitas with his military-looking crew cut, and the younger, brash and stylish ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath, who guaranteed victory and bragged of his good looks – to convey the cultural shift between the postwar era and the one that began in the 1960s.
“And if the culture of the 40s and 50s was, ‘we’re all in this together,’ the culture for the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s was, ‘I want to be free to be myself.’ There was a liberation and it had to happen,” said Brooks. “We had too many people who were taught to think too lowly of themselves – minorities, women – they needed to think well of themselves, to be liberated from the oppression of racism and sexism. And so we ended up getting a new culture. …
“The biggest problem is that it’s a very individualistic culture. It’s about individual freedom, and that has some great benefits but it’s weakened our society. … A generation ago, most Americans said I trust my neighbors most of the time. Now only 32 percent of Americans say they trust the people around them. … People are living alone. … There’s been a decline in marriage … in friendship. There’s an epidemic of loneliness in this country. … We’ve sort of fragmented, and we’ve fragmented along class lines. What this affects is the electorate.”
Brooks, who like most pundits, once gave Donald Trump no chance of gaining the Republican nomination or the presidency, says he spent 18 months after the election on the road talking to Trump voters. Brooks says Trump “understands that the big debate in this country is not between big government and small government – that was the Reagan era.” Trump understands, says Brooks, “that the core debate is between open and closed. … There are a lot of people who feel that the headwinds of globalization are smashing in their faces and making their lives worse. And they want closed borders. They want closed trade and they want security. And he [Trump] told them a story of how to close things.”
Brooks says the future new culture needed in America is one that restores the humility and self-effacing culture he saw in the 50s but without the emotional coldness. “If we’re going to reweave the fabric of society, we have to be more open with this concept of love. … Love de-centers yourself. It teaches you that your true riches are not in yourself – they’re in another person. … Ultimately, what love does is unify people and it creates bonds. …
“We live in a culture that’s material, that’s utilitarian, that’s isolating, and that’s full of fighting. And I’ve tried to talk in this kind of mushy anti-political way because if we’re going to ‘re-weave,’ that takes an entirely new consciousness – a consciousness that’s not afraid of emotion, that’s not afraid of talking about purpose and meaning, and not afraid of talking about a common future – that will take the ugly political situation that we’re in, and make it a pretty one for our children.”
In addition to writing for The New York Times, Brooks appears regularly as a commentator on the PBS Newshour and NPR’s All Things Considered. He also teaches courses on humility at Yale University. The author of many books, his most recent, The Road to Character, has been translated into Spanish, Chinese and other languages.
His visit to UNC Asheville, originally scheduled for Founders Day on Sept. 12, was delayed by a month due to Hurricane Irma. UNC Asheville’s 90th anniversary Founders Day keynote lecture was supported by The David and Lin Brown Visionary Lecture Series and The Van Winkle Law Firm Public Policy Lectures.