David Brooks In-Person in San Francisco

Last night both George Soros and David Brooks were in San Francisco. I saw New York Times columnist David Brooks in conversation with Jane Wales, CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

I arrived at The Fairmont hotel, atop Nob Hill at the only place where each of the cable car lines meet, a bit early, so I read a book in the lobby. The person sitting next to me was an attractive, young 30’s woman who got on her cell phone and started screeching in the way a teenage girl does about Britney. Only for her it was excitement to see Brooks. (A sign I should enter the dating market?)

I, too, tremored with excitement to see one of my favorite commentators in-person (he even has his own del.icio.us tag). Brooks’ writing combines intelligence with humor. He calls himself a "comic sociologist". His book On Paradise Drive is hilarious.

The talk mostly focused on foreign policy and Iraq, but predictably Brooks sprinkled his remarks with many very funny lines. I was both surprised and not surprised that Brooks seemed pessimistic and discouraged by the world. Surprised because Brooks seems to be the resident optimist in a punditry that loves to bemoan. Not surprised because, well, with the Middle East right now it’s hard not to feel down. Overall, as impressive in-person as in print.

The WAC — of which I’m a member — continues to impress. Future programs this month include Tom Campbell in conversation with Lou Dobbs, then Bob Woodward, and Joseph Stiglitz. Jane Wales is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met and a real treat for San Francisco.

Scattered notes:

  • The enemy we’re facing — radical Islamists — may have a way of looking at the world that can’t be captured with our current vocabulary. It’s not simple ideology, or religion, or politics. It’s some mixture of that plus fantasy and identity. It’s hard to agree on a diagnosis, let alone a solution, to a problem that’s so hard to box.
  • Iraq fiasco has shown we may not be able to defeat this enemy militarily.
  • The Greeks knew that feeling like you’re making a difference — receiving recognition — is at the heart of human desires. (And when you vote, in a democracy, you feel respected and dignified.)
  • The kind of bourgeois capitalism that’s defining upper class America says that we can find contentment in petty pleasures.
  • Loss of confidence by Americans in every institution in American life the past few years.
  • How to give a speech if you’re a pundit: name drop with crushing banality. "So I was talking to Dick the other day — uh, yeah Dick Cheney — and he confirmed that there are in fact three branches of government."
  • Not enough troops in Iraq, but can’t raise the troop levels because of political cost to Bush. Bush would raise troops if generals asked, but they won’t b/c they don’t want to put him in that position.
  • Iraq is succumbing to the rules of nature. If California had no police or state troopers and the criminals were let out of jail, it would look similar.
  • We need to stay in Iraq. The best of bad options. If we left, the Iraqis who supported democracy in the first place would be the first to be killed.
  • Bush has increased domestic anti-poverty spending and foreign aid to Africa more than any of his predecessors.
  • Two strains of conservatism: Catholic social teaching tradition and the libertarian tradition. Bush subscribes to the former. This is the "compassionate" branch.
  • An important polling question to watch is, "Do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time?" Right now it’s at a low.
  • Civility in congress is low. At a Democratic congresswoman’s house in D.C. at a reception to talk about bipartisanship, a woman said, "I don’t hate Bush, but I regard him like the guy who molested my daughter."
  • American people are "seldom wise, but often sensible."
  • No evidence in any reports that political pressures altered intelligence. Every foreign intelligence agency and Saddam’s own generals thought he had nukes.

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