06/11/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

David Brooks Is Pretty Sure That Cynicism Is The Real Threat To Our Nation


David Brooks has really only got one thing to say about the world, and that is that we live in an "atomized" society. He writes about this over and over again; it's pretty much the only insight he brings to the table. His fellow New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has really only got one thing to say about the world, and that is that we live in a "hyperconnected" society. Maybe if we put them in a room together, they would both wink out of existence. Leaving us with Gail Collins, I guess. This would be a preferable arrangement to everybody, actually.

Naturally, David Brooks has sized up the whole Edward Snowden/NSA data mining story with his "have hammer, nails everywhere" approach to the world. At bottom, however, is the assertion that the real grave threat America faces is cynicism. Brooks seems to ignore the things that could only instill those feelings of cynicism, because there is no other rational way to respond to them.

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, [Snowden] appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

Like I said, Brooks writes about "the atomization of society" again and again and again and again. Here is possibly the most ironic deployment of this trope, because the news these observations hang upon is that we, as a society, have never been more intimate than we are within some database at the National Security Agency. PRISM has brought us all closer together.

Beyond that, logic simply eludes Brooks. If Snowden was nothing more than another Atomized Man in a long line of Atomized Men, Snowden probably wouldn't say things like, "I'm no different from anybody else," and "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things."

There is obviously an ongoing debate over whether Snowden is a stooge or a hero or a fame-seeker or a whistleblower or a traitor. But Brooks seems to have made up his mind about him, and calls him "thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs." It's very puzzling, then, to see Brooks write him off as just another disaffected young man living an existence in a technology-enabled "fuzzy" land. If Brooks is prepared to testify that Snowden is "thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs," why is he incapable of taking an inventory of Snowden's thoughts and beliefs? Because whether he is right or he is wrong, he believed he was doing something important for his fellow citizens, something that he was honor-bound to do. However Snowden felt about what he was doing, it's hard to call him "atomized."

Maybe society is not so much atomized as it is steadfast in its refusal to fully accommodate David Brooks.

But all of this raises the question: If Brooks dislikes the society we're living in, what sort of arrangement would he prefer? As near as I can tell, he would prefer that we all bind ourselves to one another in a shared commitment to never make anyone come face to face with any hard truths. Brooks lays this out, thusly:

But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

So, ideally, what Snowden should have done with the knowledge he had was keep it to himself. Not because it risks "national security!" Because he should have ideally committed himself to protecting us from that knowledge, for the sake of maintaining "basic levels of trust."

I sort of thought that it was the NSA's PRISM program that wasn't hewing to keeping a "basic level of trust," actually. But the people, places, things, actions, and institutions which sow cynicism, to Brooks' mind, are not the cause of cynicism. If we never talked about that stuff, we would never get cynical. Peaceful easy feelings, brother, all the way, with the only atomized things for miles around are the individual grains of sand, into which we've inserted our heads.

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