David Brooks on Idealists, Sam Spade and “The Maltese Falcon”!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has advice for  idealists who think they can take on social causes without recognizing the realities of the political system.  He comments:

“These people are refreshingly uncynical. Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age. Idealistic and uplifting, their worldview is spread by enlightened advertising campaigns, from Bennetton years ago to everything Apple has ever done.

It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

That’s a delusion.”

I agree fully with Brooks’ assessment.  As someone who grew up in the 1960s as a member of a  generation that was filled with idealism, as early as the 1970s, it became apparent that while some social progress had been made especially in areas such as civil rights, many things had remained the same.  Fifty years later  I continue to think as a society we have made progress but still have a long way to go.

Brooks suggests that young idealists read noir novels such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or at least watch the movie starring Humphrey Bogart.  Hammett’s  hero, Sam Spade,  is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.  He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.

Brooks conclusion:

“I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.”



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