Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bobo Types, We Read (Now w/ More Chewy Goodness)

From yesterday's national edition of the NYT: David "Bobo" Brooks' column. (Found Section A on top of a garbage can, if you must know. No, we aren't yet reduced to going through dustbins for recyclables, indeed if we ever find ourselves doing that we are going to check out permanently.) Yes, we know we're a day late, but it isn't as if the Times can telegraph it around the country & have it printed locally on the same day it appears in New Yo–What? Satellites? Satellite printing plants? Really? You're kidding. You're sure? Huh. Whaddaya know?

Anyway, it's another senseless, meaningless column from Bobo, in which his main point is bemoaning the end of "sin-centric" character-building.

The concept of maturity has undergone several mutations over the course of American history. In Lincoln’s day, to achieve maturity was to succeed in the conquest of the self. Human beings were born with sin, infected with dark passions and satanic temptations. The transition to adulthood consisted of achieving mastery over them.

You can read commencement addresses from the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the speakers would talk about the beast within and the need for iron character to subdue it. Schoolhouse readers emphasized self-discipline. The whole character-building model was sin-centric. So the young Lincoln had been encouraged by the culture around him to identify his own flaws — and, in any case, he had no trouble finding them. He knew he was ferociously ambitious and blessed with superior talents — the sort of person who could easily turn into a dictator or monster.


In January 1841, Abraham Lincoln seems to have at least vaguely thought of suicide. His friend Joshua Speed found him one day thrashing about in his room. “Lincoln went Crazy,” Speed wrote. “I had to remove razors from his room — take away all Knives and other such dangerous things — it was terrible.”

Lincoln was taking three mercury pills a day, the remedy in those days for people who either suffered from syphilis or feared contracting it. “Lincoln could not eat or sleep,” Daniel Mark Epstein writes in his new book, “The Lincolns.” “He appeared at the statehouse irregularly, hollow-eyed, unshaven, emaciated — an object of pity to his friends and of derision to others.”

Later, Lincoln wrote of that period with shame, saying that he had lost the “gem of my character.” He would withdraw morosely from the world into a sort of catatonic state. Early in his marriage, Epstein writes, “Lincoln had night terrors. He woke in the middle of the night trembling, talking gibberish.”
Brooks doesn't further mention Lincoln's taking of mercury pills, or recent speculation that his friend Joshua Speed might have been more than a platonic friend, which might have been a bit of torture for young Abe.

Instead, David B.'s idea of "maturity" is the usual Rabid Weasel approach, skin-deep only, & mindful of Exodus, the outfit that claims to "cure" gay people, mostly by telling lesbians to wear more make-up & play less softball, & telling gay men to play more sports & wear less make-up. More like a stuff back in the closet approach than a "cure."

Here's how Brooksie says Lincoln achieved "maturity."

Over the course of his young adulthood, Lincoln built structures around his inner nature. He joined a traditional bourgeois marriage. He called his wife “mother” and lived in a genteel middle-class home.
Yep, he got himself a beard, Mary Todd (And called her "mother." Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud.) who was not exactly stable herself, as any historians in the audience may remember, & lived in a "genteel middle-class home." Do you think they had "nice things" in their "genteel home?"

He concludes:

In the last few years, we may be [sic] shifting toward another vision of maturity, one that is impatient with boomer narcissism. Young people today put service at the center of young adulthood. A child is served, but maturity means serving others.
A source for this? No? O. K.
And yet, though we’re never going back to the 19th-century, sin-centric character-building model, for breeding leaders, it has its uses. Over the past decades, we’ve seen president after president confident of his own talents but then undone by underappreciated flaws. It’s as if they get elected for their virtues and then get defined in office by the vices — Clinton’s narcissism, Bush’s intellectual insecurity — they’ve never really faced.

It would be nice to have a president who had gone to school on his own failings. It would be comforting to see a president who’d looked into the abyss, or suffered some sort of ordeal that put him on a first-name basis with his own gravest weaknesses, and who had found ways to combat them.


Somehow a leader conversant with his own failings wouldn’t be as affected by the moral self-approval that afflicts most political movements. He’d be detached from his most fervid followers and merciful and understanding toward foes. He’d have a sense of his own smallness in the sweep of events. He or she would contravene Lord Acton’s dictum and grow sadder and wiser with more power.

All this suggests a maxim for us voters: Don’t only look to see which candidate has the most talent. Look for the one most emotionally gripped by his own failings.
Do those last four paragraphs make any sense? "Gone to school on his own failings?" "Somehow?" "Most emotionally gripped by his own failings?" What does this mean? Bush certainly seems "emotionally gripped by his own failings," he's been nothing but a failure his entire life. Do we want another one like him? How about McCain, who claims never to have sought help, counseling, or whatever for his horrific POW experiences? We're surprised Mr. Brooks doesn't have anything about Sen. Obama's "failings." Maybe he's not a "narcissistic boomer."

We are, & we say up yours!

UPDATE (7 June 2008 @ 1620):
We were on deadline (the adult mental daycare center where we hang only allows us an hour of internettery a day) so we were unable to get to one last point concerning Mr. Lincoln & that fool Mr. Brooks. Here it is: Lincoln is generally assumed to have suffered from depression, & the mercury ingestion certainly didn't help. Here is but one web page the Just Another Blog (from L. A.)™ research staff
located on the subject. Yes, it's from "Neuroscience for Kids." Perhaps a bit too deep for Mr. Brooks, who wouldn't want to be thought of as an elitist or anything, we're sure. One more, from The Atlantic. (Yes, the very same Atlantic where Megan McArdle types.)
Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.
It would, therefore, appear that David "Bobo" Brooks' entire take on "character" & "maturity" is invalidated by his complete avoidance of Lincoln's mental health problems, especially as exacerbated by ingesting mercury. We may also note that Brooks dismisses mercury merely as medication for those suffering from or fearing contracting syphilis. Not so much at Neuroscience for Kids:
In the 1800s, these blue pills were commonly prescribed for a wide variety of conditions, including worms, tuberculosis, toothaches, and cholera. They also were often prescribed for "hypochondriasis," a very general medical term that was used to describe many different physical and mental problems. Lincoln was said to have suffered from one condition often attributed to hypochondriasis: melancholia or depression. It is likely that a physician recommended that Lincoln take these blue pills for his depression.
According to Brooks, however, Lincoln managed to "mature" by "joining a traditional bourgeois marriage." Joining? Is that like joining the B. P O. E.? Or DeMolay? It's as if the marriage were already going on & Abe joined in, threesome-style. Oh, Bobo. Oh, New York Times. Oh, the humanity.

A fuller spectrum of stuff on Lincoln + depression may be found @


Glennis said...

I'm going to continue my approach to such subjects by holding forth before doing any research, but it's my contention that Brooks' entire theory (that 19th century Americans saw maturity as achieving mastery over one's in-born sin) is a load of horseshit.

My first clue? Bobo cites commencement speeches given in the "19th and early 20th" century.

It's hogwash just on chronology alone.

Lincoln was born in 1809 and spent about 18 months in formal education. The commencement platitudes of the "early 20th century" Bobo cites were uttered in an America totally different from the America of Lincoln's childhood. The Industrial Revolution, demographic shifts due to massive immigration, technology (railroads, to name one) and - oh, let's not forget the Civil War and Emancipation - had completely transformed this country.

Bobo looking at post Civil War commencement addresses to divine the character of Abraham Lincoln is like someone citing Punk music lyrics to analyze the character of Teddy Roosevelt.

I will now go perform some cursory research to back up this uninformed rant.

or maybe not. Depends on what I find in the intertubes.

M. Bouffant said...

Editorial Response:

Added piercing insight from "g." Thank you!