Op-Ed Paint by Numbers


Thank the gods for the "Times Select" firewall for once; it will prevent your eyeballs from being seared by the full text of this David Brooks column—proof that the 800-words-twice-a-week format can't possibly be healthy for anyone. (Unless, dear reader, you're Arthur Sulzberger. In which case: Only fooling, feel free to drop a line.) Pitching a "moral philosophy for middle-class America," Brooks manages to dredge up three time-tested op-ed idea balls from the depths of his manatee tank:

  1. The Goldilocks Frame: Begin by introducing a cartoonish tripartite typology, consisting of those wacky extremists "religious conservatives" and "social libertarians," and a reasonable middle-ground, "social traditionalists," which just happens to be your own position. Gloss over how the "social libertarian" view that "government should be neutral on values issues" used to just be called "liberal" (in the broad, political theory sense). Instead, caricature this as the view that "individuals come up with solutions to moral questions alone," like little Robinson Crusoes.
  2. The Gee-Whiz: Toss in a dubiously relevant reference to a pop science book you've just read. Extra points if you can get away with using a fact—like the phenomenally intricate way norms are shaped and transmitted by subconscious emotional cues—that actually cuts against your broader argument that social policy is a sound tool for forming people's characters.
  3. That Other Adam Smith Book: Shock and fascinate the four or five of your readers who have been living under a fucking rock for several years—during which time every other scribe with pretensions to "public intellectual" status wrote this same column—by observing that free-market patriarch Adam Smith had a big book other than The Wealth of Nations: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Conscript Smith to support your position, offering it as the lone alternative to "absolutism" on the one hand and "nihilism" on the other.

Voila! Slap it on some newsprint and you're done. [Cross-posted @ NftL]