Heading Out to the Highway (with David Brooks)

The ethics of driving is a topic dear to my heart, having lost my two closest childhood friends (and the wife of one of those friends, who was also a friend) to traffic accidents, and living as I do in north Jersey, where every day’s commute is a near-death experience. I hate cars, I hate driving, and above all, I hate driving in New Jersey, so I’m always open to anyone who’s willing to trash the way “we” drive, ascribe it to “our” moral failings, and demand that “we” do better. (I hijacked a presentation on the Aristotelian virtue of eubolia at the Felician Ethics Conference this past fall to insist that in the modern world, eubolia is a virtue best exemplified by virtuous drivers.)

This anti-driving (or anti-bad-driving, or anti-ubiquitously-bad-driving) attitude competes with another downer sentiment of mine: I can’t stand David Brooks. Just to be clear: I can’t fucking stand David Brooks.

So I opened up this morning’s New York Times, turned to the Op-Ed page, and faced a bit of a dilemma. Here was David Brooks trashing the way “we” drive, describing Jersey drivers as people who “treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide,” acknowledging that “driving means making a thousand small decisions” (internalized eubolia, anyone?), and getting a few things right. But like so many so-called dilemmas, this one wasn’t an instance of that fabled entity, the irresolvable ontologically-based moral dilemma, and collapsed before long. Because as per usual, Brooks managed to snatch polemical failure from the jaws of success, re-confirming my hate for everything he writes.  

The column begins on a problematic note with the title “How Would Jesus Drive?” I don’t like pointlessly unanswerable counterfactual questions of this nature, especially when it’s not entirely clear that Jesus would drive, even if he lived in New Jersey. There is, apparently, a sizable Internet literature on Jesus’s counterfactual driving habits, with speculations about what he would drive, how he would drive, and so on. Truth is, Jesus seems like a mass transit/pedestrian/donkey-riding sort of guy to me. But let it go. Here’s the passage that annoyed me:

If you feel perfectly fine doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, blocking everybody else going both ways, you teach me that people here are selfish and feel entitled.

Why can’t we turn this around and say: if you can’t wait for someone to do a three-point turn on a busy street, maybe you’re the one with the entitlement mentality. It could be that the person doing the turn has realized that she’s going the wrong way, needs to turn around, and has no other feasible options but to make this turn. How long does it take, exactly, to make a three-point-turn? Thirty seconds? A minute? Seventy-five seconds? How “busy” would you have to be to feel impatient at having to wait that long? I don’t know whether Jesus would encourage the making of hasty generalizations (“it’s never justified to make a K-turn on a busy street”). I just know that when David Brooks tries his hardest to become an amateur sociologist-cum-moral-philosopher, he does. The irony is that Brooks’s judgment rests on the very thing he’s criticizing: driverly impatience with the needs of other people on the road.

While I’m picking bones, what about this passage?

Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else’s, or are we all equal? BMW drivers are much less likely to brake for pedestrians at crosswalks. Prius drivers in San Francisco commit more traffic violations. People who think they are richer or better than others are ruder behind the wheel.

Let’s grant for argument’s sake that the claims about BMW and Prius drivers are true as broad generalizations. Still, wouldn’t a careful writer want to point out that people thrive on stereotypes about car ownership, and that car-ownership stereotypes, based on generalizations of this sort, are a bullshit habit to have? Not all BMW or Prius drivers are rich, think they’re better than others, or are ruder than people who drive less expensive cars–despite the ingrained tendency to believe all those things in the absence of bona fide evidence for them. While we’re at it, if anyone has genuine evidence for these generalizations, I’d love to see it–not so much because I’m interested in the issue per se, but because I’m interested in learning if there’s any actual data behind these claims, or, as is so often the case, David Brooks has more or less bluffed his way to his intended conclusions.

You might accuse me of cherry-picking the textual evidence against Brooks in a gratuitous way to feed my hate. And you may be right. But still.

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