New York Times columnist David Brooks needs to see a neurologist stat. Twice in the past month, Brooks's op-eds have included references to neurological disorders--aphasia and Asperger's--and both times he missed the diagnosis. I'm not a doctor--although I've written for them on TV--but this is a clear case of Brooks flaunting his intelligence and revealing his ignorance. I'm sure the Germans have a word for this.
Brooks's most recent column, "The Great Forgetting," ruminates on how our aging society is divided into "memory haves and have-nots." He writes: "This divide produces moments of social combat. Some vaguely familiar person will come up to you in the supermarket. 'Stan, it's so nice to see you!' The smug memory dropper can smell your nominal aphasia and is going to keep first-naming you until you are crushed into submission."
Brooks clearly thinks "aphasia" is a colorful word for "forgetful," but anyone who has dealt with aphasia--or read Oliver Sacks's wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat--knows that aphasia is a language-and-expression disorder, not a memory disorder, and occurs from damage to portions of the brain, usually after a head injury or stroke.
Brooks might defend this as a playful exaggeration. It's certainly easy to come up with equally witty comparisons, like saying someone who's nervous before going onstage has "performance Parkinson's." Or someone splashing in the pool has "aquatic epilepsy." Or a columnist who misuses medical terms suffers from "journalistic dementia."
The second mistake popped up in Brooks's March 14 column, "The Rank Link Imbalance." That piece, written just after Eliot Spitzer quit his day job, dissected the psyches of powerful men who achieve greatness but lack grace. Brooks writes, "They develop the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole: the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first names." (Clearly, remembering first names is a big deal for Brooks.)
Brooks goes on to blast Spitzer and his slick ilk for acting "like complete idiots." He continues, "These Type A men are just not equipped to have normal relationships. All their lives they've been a walking Asperger's Convention, the kings of the emotionally avoidant."
The National Institutes of Health describes Asperger's syndrome as a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum with "a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior. " People with Asperger's do not exult in being "emotionally avoidant," as the word "kings" implies. They struggle to understand social cues that any successful politician would take for granted.
I showed the Brooks article to autism expert Dr. Lynn Koegel (who wrote a book called Overcoming Autism with my sister, Claire LaZebnik) and she emailed me back: "Spitzer's behaviors are not consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. In fact, individuals with Asperger's Syndrome tend to be exceedingly honest, truthful, and forthright." It appears Brooks was dead-on--in an exact-opposite sort of way.
The King of the Bobos probably doesn't care that he insulted people with his sloppy neurological metaphors. I can imagine him smirking and saying to himself, "What are they gonna do about it? The aphasics won't remember and those Asperger types have no feelings to hurt."
And I know Brooks has bigger things to apologize for, but maybe he could start by saying he's sorry for these small things and work up to the big ones. I'm sure the Germans have a word for that, too.