David Brooks is on a one-man mission aimed at no less than changing human behavior. For the last several years Brooks has been on two writing tracks: his New York Times column addresses politics and society, while his books (such as “The Road to Character,” “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” and “The Social Animal”) have been examinations of character, morality and personal architecture.
His latest book is “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen” (to be published October 24 by Random House). And he’s the first to admit it’s partly about how to know himself.
He says he’s not shy about copping to his latest being a self-help book: “I’m trying to help myself,” he laughed. “So, it’s selfish. I’m trying to help myself, but I hope it’ll be helpful to others. And in my view, every book should be a self-help book. You should be able to learn something that’ll improve who you are.”
Brooks is not just concerned with himself, though. He writes: “We’re living in the middle of some sort of vast emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis. It is as if people across society have lost the ability to see and understand one another, thus producing a culture that can be brutalizing and isolating.”
His hope, he said, is that “people just learn to see each other. [If] there’s one skill at the center of any healthy family, community, organization or country, it’s the ability to see each other and to make each other feel seen, heard and understood.
“I think there’s nothing crueler than to be indifferent to someone, to make someone feel invisible,” he said. “And that’s happening. But the skill that I’m talking about, we don’t teach in school. And often we don’t teach it anywhere.”
The book’s thesis is that while human relations are hard, the skills can be taught, and if people can improve their one-on-one interactions – in listening, in conversation, and in what Brooks calls the “close at hand” – it might have a compounding effect on society.
He writes about two distinct types of people, diminishers and illuminators: “My theory is that in any group of people, there are some people [who] are diminishers. They make you feel invisible, unseen. They’re not curious about you. They stereotype you. They label you.
“And then, there are other people who are illuminators. And they are people who are just curious about you, and they make you feel lit up.”
To lift up those illuminators, Brooks started Weave: The Social Fabric Project. For six years, the non-profit has been supporting people who, he says, are working to weave together the social fabric in their communities.
People like Renee Mitchell in Portland, Oregon. She started the Soul Restoration Center. “I’m always, you know, working with youth who don’t see themselves reflected,” Mitchell said, “so I have to give them something that says that I see you, I honor you and your experiences.”
Brooks said of Mitchell, “She basically embodies everything I learned over four years of writing this book. She builds strength in people who have been wounded by injustices of society. And she’s everything I’m not!”
The challenge, as Brooks acknowledges, is that the forces of modern life – such as social media and partisanship – pull at our attention, rile us up, and turn the other into the enemy.
Even he was not immune from these forces recently, with his now-famous $78 tweet.
Last month, while eating at Newark International Airport, Brooks posted online about his $78 lunch of a burger and bourbon. “This is why Americans feel the economy is terrible,” he wrote.
The response was not favorable.
He was accused of being misleading, because the booze and not the food was pricey; accused of being out of touch, entitled, and worse. The post has been viewed more than 38 million times.
Dickerson asked, “Does that reaction surprise you?”
“It’s like every screw-up I’ve made on social media, not too many,” he replied. “I thought about that tweet for, like, three seconds, and I sent it out, and it started out as being a joke. It was, like, a picture of a meal I was eating at an airport with a burger, fries and bourbon. And it was probably the least healthy meal I hope I ate that week. And so, it started out as, ‘Look, and it was 78 bucks.’ The joke in my head was, I can’t even afford to make poor lifestyle choices. But the way I wrote it was incredibly stupid.
“And so, it seemed like I was oblivious to something that’s blindingly obvious, which is that me, as a New York Times columnist and a well-off, lucky, privileged journalist, as if I’m not aware that that’s very different than a family living paycheck to paycheck.”
Brooks started as a Times columnist twenty years ago as the conservative on the Op-Ed page. He often infuriated liberals. But recently he says he’s become more liberal – out-of-sync with much of the Trump era. On “PBS Newshour” September 29, Brooks noted, “The Republican Party used to be the party, you weren’t thrilled by them, but they were the business party; they knew how to run things. And that seems like eons or light-years ago.”
And in an August 24 New York Times column Brooks wrote that the first Republican presidential debate “illustrated the cancer that is eating away at the Republican Party,” which he called “narcissistic hucksterism.”
“Yeah, I think that’s what Donald Trump has brought into our life,” he said. “It’s what Vivek Ramaswamy was doing in that debate. It’s, like, you don’t have to tell the truth, you just have to tell the entertaining thing that makes you a showman. How many human beings can?”
And Brooks thinks there’s not a small chance that Trump could end up back in the White House. “I think there’s a 40% chance that Donald Trump wins reelection,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the majority, but I’d take it extremely seriously.”
So, does Brooks have the prescription to save us from ourselves? Or is he a lonely voice crying in the wilderness?
Dickerson asked, “One of the unifying ideas in politics, whether you’re on the left or the right, is that these are dire times and the wolf is at the door. And so, in those times, do you worry that what you’re prescribing in this book – which is to see the other – is naïve? Because people are saying, ‘Fine, but the wolf’s at the door, and I’m not gonna say, boy, isn’t that some nice fur you have’?”
“Well, I don’t think the wolf’s at the door,” Brooks said.
“Well, everybody does, I mean, left and right.”
“Yeah, but not me!” he laughed. “I find it’s very hard to hate people up close. All you have to do is show a little hint of humanity, and they say, ‘Oh.’ And then suddenly all the wolf-at-the-door stuff diminishes.
“It’s not naïve to lead with trust. It’s not naïve to lead with respect. It’s practical. And so, I guess I reject the idea that I’m being like a babe in the woods in a world of wolves. I’ve got the tools that are the most aggressively effective at countering the wolf.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Lauren Barnello.