New York Times columnist David Brooks has a question for you: "What Is Your Purpose?" That's the title of his latest missive on public morality—and he, predictably, is worried about its weakness. Brooks has other questions, too:
What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?
As late as 50 years ago, Americans could consult lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions.
Back in the good old days, which Brooks dates elsewhere to the 1940s, Americans had lots of these lofty figures—public theologians, secular intellectuals—to thank for a "coherent moral ecology" and a public discussion "awash in philosophies about how to live well." That all "went away" over the past two generations, he submits, and it was replaced by nothing. Today, Brooks argues, "there is less moral conversation in the public square,” and “there are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most."
It was striking to read these words in the midst of our robust, collective dissection of the police killings of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott. These deaths have prompted a very public discussion about America as an ideal, a polity, and indeed as a state of life. And that discussion has its own set of core questions—guiding questions that are quite different than those asked by David Brooks. For instance: Can a system be considered just if it disproportionately polices and punishes—and even murders—its poorest and the most marginalized citizens?
There is no absence of public morality. For everyone who reads a newspaper, or who browses the web, or who watches a morning news show, our regular conversations these days are fundamentally about moral questions. And in our conversations we are guided by the extraordinary public writing of Charles Blow, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Brittney Cooper, Jamil Smith, Teju Cole, and many, many others.
Why, one wonders, don’t these writers—all of them gifted prose stylists with muscular analytics—count as “lofty authority figures”? Why doesn’t their body of work count as a contribution to a public conversation about moral purpose? Brooks's answer might be found here:
These days, we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.
“What is Your Purpose?” is a very revealing piece of writing. Brooks’s deeper concern is less the diffusion of conversation than the nature of the conversation itself. Today's intellectuals "write more for each other and are less likely to volley moral systems onto the public stage," he writes, later adding: "Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life.”
Here, as throughout the piece, Brooks describes moralism as an existential matter, one connected to the life of the soul—not, as #BlackLivesMatters would have it, as the practical matter of actually living and surviving. And it doesn't take much imagination to see that the above-referenced intellectuals—Coates, Cobb, Cooper, and the rest—are indeed volleying moral systems onto the public stage. After all, some things don’t require identification as moral issues. If this new cadre of public intellectuals doesn’t explicitly reference morality, maybe that's because civil society established long ago that these issues—ending systemic racism, reducing poverty, reforming the criminal justice system—were quite obviously moral concerns. Rather than wonder what happened to the towering moral beacons of yore, we should wonder why this group is forced to repeat the foundational moral truths of the last 75 years, and why these repetitions go unheard or are dismissed as partisanship. We should be self-reflexive about that.
“The task now,” Brooks writes, “is to come up with forums where these sorts of conversations can happen in a more modern, personal and interactive way.” That America's most visible rights movement of the past year is associated with a hashtag—that is, with social media—should tell Brooks we’ve already found new ways of having conversations. He need only he would climb down from his own perch and engage in debate on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere online.
But Brooks has a better idea: Rather than descend into this new public square, he has created his own website—one tied to the promotion of his new book, The Road to Character. He links to it in his essay, and the willing reader who clicks it will encounter a neophyte moralist’s paradise decorated with compass roses and cluttered with purpose-driven “to-do lists,” aspirational reading lists, and heartfelt confessions. Direction and purpose are apparent everywhere—and carefully curated.
The internet might well be a madhouse, but it is also full of great writing and thinking about serious questions, and this cornucopia of great writing and thinking is engaged by a public that is global, dynamic, and energized. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s page at the Atlantic, for instance, is famous for its “Horde” of readers and commentators, and its below-the-fold comments section so full of vibrant debate that the magazine has chosen one of its editors from within the threads. Coates, his ribald readers, and his critical analogues on the internet are the future of public debate.
Reading Brooks's column, one can't help but detect anxiety that he's the past of public debate—that he yearns for the old days because he wants to be one of those "gray-haired sages." Instead of turning back the clock, Brooks ought to join the fray. The moral concerns of the day are everywhere around us—bleeding on screen, dying right in front of our eyes—and the compass to guide us is readily available, even sometimes in the New York Times. The day Brooks's essay appeared, the front page of the print edition featured a story on President Barack Obama’s recent speech on race, on the “Jihad” shooting in Texas, and on the use of force by the police. The day Brooks asked, “What is Your Purpose?,” was also the day that Jelani Cobb was awarded a Hillman Prize for “excellence in journalism in the service of the common good.” Cobb’s acceptance speech began with an enumeration of black death, a plain-spoken listing of those who’ve been killed by police.
Ignore the front page, Brooks assures his readers; I’ve got the real issues right here, he suggests, and points toward his own book, toward a safer, sanitized, colorless set of questions and answers on his website. Coming from the self-appointed critic of the “me” generation, this is an extraordinary hustle.