David Brooks: Gaza War Proved My Son Was Right to Serve in IDF

NYT columnist-writer talks about his eldest son's decision to become a 'lone soldier' in Israel, and being liberals' 'favorite conservative.'

Hila Weisberg
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David Brooks.
David Brooks.Credit: Josh Haner / The New York Times
Hila Weisberg

In the early 1980s, the American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio encountered a singular patient, whom he referred to in his writings as “Eliot.” Before becoming a “patient,” Eliot was a standard comfortable American from the bourgeois class. A senior executive in a big corporation, he had a good family life and did volunteer work in a neighborhood church. But in the course of surgery to remove a brain tumor, the frontal lobe of his brain was damaged. After the operation Eliot tried to resume his former way of life, but he was a completely different person. He had lost the ability to make even the most prosaic decisions. He couldn’t decide where to have lunch, whether to use a blue or black pen, or what to do with his money. He was fired from his job, lost all his savings, lost his wife and family, remarried but was divorced again. In short, Eliot self-destructed, and no one knew why.

Enter Prof. Damasio. He subjected Eliot to a series of psychological tests, and was astounded to discover the source of the problem: Eliot was incapable of feeling emotion. Shown images that were meant to arouse some sort of emotion – an earthquake, a house on fire, a naked woman – Eliot remained unmoved. His IQ, though, remained very high: in the top three percent of the population.

Damasio’s groundbreaking discovery involved the understanding that an absence of emotions does not contribute to more rational decision-making. On the contrary: a brain that doesn’t feel can’t decide.

Eliot’s story – a smart man whose life tragedy is the absence of emotion – encapsulates the thesis put forward by the author and New York Times commentator David Brooks in his book “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (2011; newly published in Hebrew). In the book, Brooks lauds the virtues of emotion and of non-IQ forms of intelligence, such as emotional and social intelligence, while playing down – to the point of almost ignoring – the significance of the intelligence quotient.

‘Children should take risks’

Brooks has always had a close attachment to Israel – he’s visited the country almost every year since 1991. But in the past few months those ties have become even stronger, as his eldest son, aged 23, has enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in the Lone Soldier program (for soldiers with no family living in Israel).

“Every Israeli parent understands the circumstance, and that it is worrying,” he says, “but I do think children should take risks as they get out of college and university. They should expand their expectation of risk, and I do think they should do something hard – and military service is hard. And they should do something outside themselves. I think that service defines all those three things, and I can’t very well advise that to other people if I don’t think my own family should do it.”

His son “arrived [in Israel] probably four or five months ago,” Brooks tells Haaretz, in a telephone interview conducted last month. “To be honest, I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that, because it’s his own life. When I said that to Katie, I told her I wanted him to have his own life and not be talked about so much in public” – referring to a July interview he did with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, in which he first revealed that his son had decided to enlist in the Israeli army. After the Gaza war, he says, “I’m more convinced that it’s the right thing to do.”

Brooks – speaking from his home in Washington, D.C. – admits he should have been a bit more respectful to human intelligence in his latest book. “The Social Animal” was a best seller, but was also lambasted by reviewers in prestigious organs such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

“I think, in retrospect, some of the criticism is correct on that,” Brooks acknowledges. “There’s a big, disparate debate on how much IQ matters, and how much other skills matter. What I’m trying to do is figure out where the balance is, where that center of gravity is. I would say that we pay much more attention to IQ than to the other side, because it’s easier to quantify. What the people who study this for a living [look for is the] middle spot, where would that be – and I think I got that slightly wrong. Some people think that IQ is 50 percent of your life outcome, and some people think it’s only 5 percent. I probably was a little too low in the last bit of the book. IQ is a little more important [than I suggested]. It’s not super important, it’s not everything – but it’s important.”

Understanding human nature

Another criticism of the book is that you stuck too close to the cliché of the socially inept genius. That you divided the world into two groups: geniuses, who are incapable of reading social situations; and normal people, who are adept at displaying emotions. It seems to me that people are not necessarily IQ-smart or people-smart; they can be both.

David Brooks (right) on NBC's 'Meet the Press,' December 2012.Credit: Reuters

“Right. And I think they are not related. A lot of people have them in different parts of the brain. And some people are both. Some people are one or the other. Some people are neither. But I think the point is, you can take your natural endowments and become a lot better.”

Brooks, 53, has been writing a personal column in the Times since 2003, focusing largely on social and political topics. In “The Social Animal,” he plunges into the realms of emotion and psychology. He argues that politicians everywhere repeatedly fail in implementing programs to reduce social disparities or eradicate terrorism, for the simple reason that they don’t understand human nature.

The key to success in life, he maintains, is emotion that’s translated into action. Accordingly, the prospects for poor children to succeed in life are low – not because they suffer from economic deprivation, but primarily because they suffer from emotional deprivation. And, of course, there is also the personal element: Brooks’ acknowledgement that he himself is not very good at expressing emotions.

Brooks says he came to realize that he was “moving in a world of emotion, but not really thinking about it. I do believe men are no less emotional than women; they’re just less good at expressing their emotion.”

You write at length about the famous “Stanford marshmallow experiment” that was first conducted in 1970. It subsequently found that children who were able to restrain themselves from pouncing on a marshmallow placed in front of them – in other words, who displayed self-control – were more successful in adult life. But in the current culture, self-control looks like an obsolete value. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t very disciplined when he dropped out of Harvard...

“I think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were obsessed around certain problems, but they are exceptions, outliers. For the average person, graduating from university is a pretty important thing to do. And to do that, you have to do a lot of boring work. And self-control is important in treating other people well. If you’re angry at someone, you don’t always need to lash out at them, and you try to understand where they’re coming from.”

Still, success is defined very narrowly in the book: good grades in school, then going to university and afterward landing a well-paying job. But there are many other versions of success. You define it exclusively through Western capitalist codes.

“That’s right. In ‘Social Animal’ I was worried about inequality, social mobility, rising. And the safest way to rise and make more money – though not the only way – is through good grades and that kind of job. My next book is really about the ‘inner rise,’ while ‘The Social Animal’ is really about our external life, our life of work. It only goes over half the definition of success, but maybe not the most important half. My next book is ... more on philosophy, it’s about humility.”

Shaped by university

What would you say to young Israelis who served in an elite army unit and can move directly into high-tech and earn an excellent salary without a university degree? They can’t understand why academia would be good for them.

“First, for some employers it’s a signaling device; I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I know I can only speak for myself, but in university I had professors who taught me a way of reading, and introduced me to certain books that have affected me throughout my life. Some people are shaped by the army, others by religion; I was really shaped by my university. I’ve read a lot of books on my own, and thought a lot on my own, but these professors forced me to read books that now I’m very glad I did.”

You’ve said that universities should teach students about marriage, too, not dwell only on academic subjects. Do you really believe a college course can help a student have a better relationship?

“I think that people are born with a range of possibilities. But I think that’s only 50 percent of who we are. The other 50 percent is what we make of ourselves, or what the environment makes of us. There’s different ways to think about marriage. For example, you obviously can’t predict what the next 50 years will be like, but you can say, ‘Do I admire this person enough so whatever happens I’m going to want to serve this person?’ That is something you can make a judgment about. It’s been said that marriage is a 50-year conversation, so you can ask yourself, ‘Can I talk to this person for 50 years?’

“Also, do both of you react to stress the same way? I met a family last year whose daughter was killed in Afghanistan. As horrible as that was, this family pulled together. The parents are close now, because they reacted to the stress in the same way and used the tragedy to support each other. There’s a little trick I heard about from psychologists. If you’re thinking of marrying someone, sneak up on them and clap behind them, startle them. If they react by laughing, that’s a good sign; if they react with anger, it’s a bad sign.”

A moderate conservative politically, Brooks is a big fan of psychological studies – especially if they jibe with his philosophy, according to which success is pretty much a direct derivative of an orderly, disciplined life.

One such research project, known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conducted in the 1990s by Dr. Vincent J. Felitti and Dr. Robert F. Anda, examined the connection between childhood trauma and problems in adult life.

The ACE index represents the number of traumas a person experienced in childhood – such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse, parental divorce, and so on – from a range of 0-10. It was found that people with a score of four were seven times as likely to become alcoholics as adults than people with a score of zero. A follow-up study found that only three percent of those who had a score of zero had behavioral or learning problems in school. Thus, Brooks notes, the study shows that initial stress in childhood is a predictor of much of what happens later, because stress has an impact on the brain. It’s harder for people who underwent stress in childhood to plan ahead, control their impulses, etc., he observes.

Tackling inequality

The British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s famous attachment theory, which distinguishes between secure mother-infant attachment and various forms of insecure and disorganized attachment, is also prominent in Brooks’ writing and public talks. “Scientists at the University of Minnesota did a study in which they could predict with 77 percent accuracy, at age 18 months, who was going to graduate from high school, based on who had good attachment with Mom,” Brooks noted in a TED talk.

And, in a July 2012 Times opinion piece, he discussed the research conducted by Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam. “A generation ago,” Brooks wrote, “working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day.” They read them stories, talk to them, and “cheer them on from the sidelines,” whereas working-class parents are spending the same amount of time with their children as they did 40 years ago.

You are arguing, then, that in order to address social disparities in general, and high school dropout rates specifically, children at risk need to be given an emotional response, not necessarily an economic-material one.

“That’s right. When we talk about inequality, we have too shallow a view of it – that we can just distribute money and make things better. But if the underlying human capital is unequal, then you’ll get wide inequality, no matter how much you redistribute.”

What are the solutions?

“There’s a menu of many things that can be done. One of them is to start from pre-birth, so that mothers and fathers can give their children ‘pre-health’ in the womb; and then you have family visits by nurses to give young mothers tips on how to be effective parents. And then you can build neighborhoods that have a lot of fixed relationships, clubs for teenagers to go to, mentoring programs, schools that not only teach the students but help the parents form communities.

“Schools are crucial, because if a child isn’t being raised in a very stable environment, schools have to leap in and basically be parents. And the structure of the school doesn’t matter that much; what matters is the loving relationship between the teacher and the student. That means recruiting and paying the best teachers you can get.”

Do you believe it’s the state’s role to subsidize these projects?

“I think it’s partly the state’s job. There are limits, because the state usually works as a bureaucracy, not as a loving partner. You need family, synagogues, and other institutions. There are roles for institutions at all levels.”

In 2011, protest movements arose around the world, including in Israel and the United States, claiming that the way to deal with inequality is by moderating rampant neoliberal capitalism. Do you agree?

“I’m not a libertarian. I don’t think capitalism should be given free reign, but I don’t think the solution can any longer be primarily through unions, minimum-wage laws, trying to change or restrict trade, or restructuring capitalism. The effort has to be on giving people the tools to compete in capitalism. It’s not only being better at math – it’s the emotional and social skills: knowing how to attach to your parents and your teachers; how to build emotional relationships at work; how to be emotionally steady; how to perceive the world without fear.”

In the book you associate yourself with a new type of socialism.

“The socialism [reference] was sort of a joke. I believe social life is really important, but the word ‘socialism’ has been taken over by people who believe in the state more than I do. They should call themselves ‘statists,’ not ‘socialists.’ I’m an old-fashioned conservative. I’m influenced by Edmund Burke, the 18th-century [Irish-] British politician who basically said that the world is very complicated, we can’t know it very well, and, therefore, we should be very cautious and modest about what we think we can plan. So I’m very skeptical of big government plans, and more comfortable with local, small efforts. And capitalism is so complicated – I’m not against regulation at all, but I’m more skeptical that we can regulate something as dynamic and complicated as markets.”

Liberals’ favorite conservative

Although Brooks, who was born in Canada and grew up in New York in a Jewish leftist hippie family, crossed the lines to the right side of the political map in the United States, he harbors a complex worldview that is not easily labeled. When I ask what he thinks of been called “the liberals’ favorite conservative” – because of his tendency to present views from both sides of the political arena – he laughs. “Well, I’m socially pretty liberal,” he says. “I’m from New York City, I’m Jewish, so I fit in culturally with liberals – maybe that’s what’s behind it.”

But Brooks doesn’t hesitate to have it both ways. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, he dubbed Alaskan governor Sarah Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican Party,” and subsequently went on to heap praise on the newly elected president, Barack Obama – whom he had urged in 2005 to run for president. Moreover, it turns out that Brooks and Obama are old acquaintances from the 1980s, when they were neighbors in Chicago.

“We both were in Chicago at the same time, and we’re both the same age,” Brooks recalls. “When we met we found we share some similar personality traits. We got along pretty well and I admired him quite a bit. I thought he would be a good president, so I was a very enthusiastic supporter early on. I saw how thoughtful he was, how intellectual. I’ve been a little disappointed since. I think he is not as assertive or idealistic as I thought.”

Did you vote for him?

“I never tell anyone how I vote; not even my family knows. I think, partly for journalistic reasons, I like to stay a little separate. I don’t like to be a partisan of one party or another so I can criticize everybody. So I always keep that kind of private.”

From the views you espouse, it just seems that you identify with the Republican Party.

“It’s not that my views are more Republican, but personally, I liked Obama. I was also very close to John McCain, his opponent [in 2008], and I spent a lot of time with him. So I had two people I knew quite well running against each other.”

Taking a hard line

Brooks seems not to have been bedazzled by the fame and glory he’s achieved in recent years – even Obama calls him occasionally. There’s not an ounce of arrogance in him. He’s friendly, accessible and amusing. Audiences at the many talks he gives and panel discussions he takes part in surrender willingly to his humor, which stands out in contrast to the deadly serious pontificating of others. “I used to have all the normal human drives for food, water, sex – but now I only have one drive: for the column I do,” he told Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival last July, to the delighted laughter of the audience.

Brooks thinks the United States should show a hard hand in its war against fast-spreading radical Islam and other international threats to democracy, such as Russia under Vladimir Putin. In recent columns on the subject, he backed the militaristic, pro-Israeli approach that Hillary Clinton expressed last August in an interview to The Atlantic. “This summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired,” he wrote in his Times column last month. In July, he justified the Israeli operation in Gaza, telling PBS’ “News Hour,” “It’s a rare moment in military history where a party rejects a cease-fire in order to get more of their own people killed. But that’s part of the strategy, which is a global strategy – a propaganda strategy of eliciting this European response The Israeli problem obviously is they can’t sit there while missiles are raining down on the country.”

Returning to the subject, Brooks tells Haaretz, “I’m not an expert on whether everything that was done in Gaza just now was the right thing, but I believe in the existence of the State of Israel. I think the Middle East is probably in worse shape overall than at any point in my lifetime in the surrounding region. I believe it’s important to be a part of at least keeping this island of democracy in this insanity.

“I do believe that the 1979 Iranian revolution was as big as the 1789 [French] revolution. It changed the minds of many people in the Arab world, and those ideas are very destructive, whether it’s in Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Islamic State ... I just think those ideas are going to take a long time to fade. In the course of this waiting, there has to be constant affirmative action to at least impose restraints and reduce damage.”

In the book, you analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a psychological viewpoint. You say countries do not clash with one another only over land, capital and vested interests, but in order to force others to see the world as they do.

“Yes, it’s a game of narratives. I’ve been covering the Middle East since the Oslo peace process many years ago. And there’s always an assumption that if we could only find the right lines on the map or the right structure for the peace process, then we could settle the problem. The point of the book is that most of our thinking is unconscious, and most of our motivation comes from deep down below. When you read all this research on the brain, you become aware of our unconscious motivations, which can’t be solved by technocratic solutions. You become aware of the intense power of emotion, and you realize that conflicts like this have to be solved from the bottom-up and can’t be solved from the top-down.”

Implying what?

“I do think that one of the prime motivators is for dignity and respect and recognition. We all want to feel recognized and respected. If this current situation allowed – which I don’t think it does right now – for some settlements to be withdrawn – unilateral withdrawal – Palestinians in the West Bank could live with some sense of dignity. Having said that, I think one of the lessons of psychology is that you can’t change other people if they don’t want to change. If some people want to believe what Hamas believes, you can’t just change them; they have to stop believing in that stuff on their own. Sometimes you just have to wait.”

In this last Gaza war we saw phenomena that are the opposite of mutual respect and dignity. Racism and violence were unleashed against everyone who was branded an “enemy.”

“I agree with you. To me, that is the largest story. Over the course of time I’ve certainly heard more racism than I used to. We have a very quick, unconscious bias to separate groups into people like us; into us and the other – this happens in psychological experiments amazingly quickly. In one experiment, when Chinese people watched a Chinese person in pain, you could see the whole brain light up. And then they watched a non-Chinese person in pain and they didn’t care as much. That is wired into our nature, and we have to fight against it.”

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