Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tone poem -- how Duncan Black and company missed the big picture

I'd thought about blogging this yesterday, then I decided that too much had been written about Penn State, at least too much by people like me who knew nothing about the subject. I reconsidered when I followed this link from Brad DeLong. DeLong, Black and co. see David Brooks' statements as standard issue liberal bashing, but I think they missed a more significant part of story.

Take a look at this excerpt from All Things Considered:

RAZ: In the just short time we have left, E.J., I want to ask you about Penn State - both of you. Obviously, the university president and the head coach, Joe Paterno, were fired by the board of trustees.

Do you think they should've considered shutting down the program for a year?

DIONNE: Yeah. Well, you look at that indictment, I mean, what happened was hideous. What was done to kids, 10-year-old boy and others that young, was just awful. And you had an institution that seemed more interested in self-protection than anything else. And we've seen that before.

And I understand Joe Paterno is a much-loved figure in sports terms. He was one of the better college coaches. His kids graduated. But this entire episode is so ugly and it, again, you hate institutional protection over the interests of little kids.

RAZ: David.

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess think - it's I have a bigger view, which is that when we have a society where we don't know how to handle the concept of evil when we see it, we don't know how to deal with it, we're not really aware of it and people hid away. I do not think they should shut down the program, however. I think a lot of very honest football players have committed themselves to that program. I don't think they should be punished.

If you've followed any of the major debates going on now, you have to be discouraged by the lack of progress. You will see some good substantive arguments but more often the pundits will simply focus on maintaining the appropriate tone and making the right associations.

David Brooks is a master of this kind of punditry. That skill has allowed him to maintain his reasonable conservative persona under very difficult circumstances (look at what happened to David Frum). See how he hits both notes here, first chastising us for moral relativism then warning against excessive reaction. In terms of tone, this combination of conservative values and measured responses is almost perfect. As an argument, though, it's gibberish.

There is no way to reconcile the two sides here. You can't condemn society for lacking the strength and clarity of vision to deal with evil then recommend that we not punish an institution that tolerated and enabled genuine atrocities. Brooks, who is a very intelligent man, undoubtedly knows what he said makes no sense, but he also knows that, as long as maintains that proper tone, most people won't care.

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