Once in a while I read something that makes me take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and look again. I haven’t seen much commentary on David Brooks’s latest column, maybe it’s because everyone else has just stopped reading him. I guess I’m a little more masochistic than that. His latest, “What Life Asks of Us,” reads more like a column someone wrote making fun of him.
Brooks writes about what he (and some political theorist no one has ever hear of) call institutional thinking. Just the name of that freaks me out. He argues that all our individualistic “thinking,” “examining” and “discovering” have caused the destruction of baseball, the economy and all that’s good about society.
“New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of.”
The first sentence is simply absurd. Of course new generations invent institutional practices. How else are new practices created? He uses the example of bankers later in the column. Did CDO’s or hedge funds invent themselves? No, new generations of investment bankers invented them. That’s what people do, it’s called innovation. Saying practices “evolve” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is. Changes that people make to their institutions (or even creating new ones) isn’t a random process. To say so is insulting to anyone who’s ever had an idea about how to do something differently.
He spends a sizable chunk of his column quoting Ryne Sandberg about his reverence for baseball traditions – specifically classic small ball. I’m a fan of both Sandberg and small ball. Some traditions are good, but small ball didn’t invent itself, “Wee” Willie Keeler did. And he did it because he was 5-4 140 and couldn’t hit a ball very far. He didn’t decide not to hit home runs because of some respect for the purity of the game. Tangentially – Sandberg spent one game as a DH, a change to the tradition of the game that some people just made up.
The most frightening part of the column is when he writes, “The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is.”
When a person’s social function defines who he or she is, they live in a society that needs some re-imagining. I thought we left that kind of thinking behind in the fifties. The eras of American history that I look to for inspiration are the times when we threw off the yoke of tradition and fought tooth-and-nail for progress.
Sure, there are some good things about some traditions. I like small ball, partly because I’m not much bigger than Willie Keeler. But many if not the majority of traditional institutions embody the worst of our past. The MLB was institutionally for whites only, but thankfully some innovators changed that. The greatest thing about the American tradition is our disregard for tradtional institutional practices and willingness as a society to do new things. It’s why England still has a monarchy and a house of lords and we don’t. If we want to fix what’s wrong right now, we need to look forward in addition to backward.
For some further reading on tradition from someone who is slightly less crazy than Brooks and a much better writer, check out T.S. Eliot’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent.