David Brooks – Jackson Institute for Global Affairs

by Jasmine Horsey

On Tuesday afternoon, conservative pundit and New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered a Jackson Institute Senior Fellows Lecture. His talk, titled “What Would Plutarch Write About Today?,” addressed the shift in moral culture that has taken place worldwide since the 1940s.  

Brooks, who is part of the Grand Strategy Program and teaches a seminar at the Jackson Institute, began by illustrating society’s changed approach to moral codes. In September 1945, when Bing Crosby announced via radio that the Japanese had surrendered, his tone was one of humility. After years of struggle and perseverance, such a titanic victory was treated with modesty. Nowadays it is possible to turn on the television and see soccer players in wild celebration after scoring a goal. Brooks argued that such different approaches to success mark a profound shift from a “culture of self-effacement” to one of self-advancement and expression.

Building on this point, Brooks detailed several of the popular beliefs of the 1940s that determined culture. These included the idea that humility is a prime virtue, and that the inherent struggle against sin and weakness is an essential part of life. Unlike today’s culture, where we are optimistically (and vacuously) advised to be true to ourselves and follow our passions, people of the 1940s realised defeating weakness meant having to rely on something outside themselves.

“No person could achieve self-mastery on his or her own,” Brooks said. “Defeating weakness meant finding a code outside yourself.”

In current society, where books displaying a high level of self-trust like “Eat, Pray, Love” top bestseller lists, Brooks said individuals think they can go anywhere they want. He used a verse from Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to demonstrate this modern attitude: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” Despite the positives of such an outlook, Brooks warned the audience that it has its downsides. In two decades, median scores indicating narcissism have risen by 20%, he said.

Brooks said the attitude of self-restraint and modesty was particularly well practiced by Eisenhower, who struggled with anger throughout his life. As a soldier in WW2 and then as President, he served the duties of balance and moderation. Kennedy’s inauguration of 1961 was ambitious and utopian, claiming the world had the power to defeat global poverty. Contrastingly, Eisenhower’s farewell speech represented an entirely different ethos of modesty.

Brooks said he wouldn’t want to return to the 1940s and 50s—a world that was “racist, sceptic, anti-Semitic, boring and emotionally starved.” However, he explained that with these two different moral traditions of self-effacement and self-expression, society has probably veered a little too far over to one side.

“I think if Plutarch were alive, he’d want exemplars of things we’d need to recover,” Brooks said. “Achieving some of that rival tradition—self-effacement—would probably be a good thing.”

Jasmine Horsey is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at jasmine.horsey@yale.edu.