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Sex Sells

Puzzling essay by David Brooks writing on Tom Wolfe. There's plenty to take issue with there, but the weirdest thing to me is the ease with which Brooks (possibly channeling Wolfe, I haven't read the book, though I was once treated to a rant of his on the subject) slides from discussing changes in dating culture to grand themes about Truth and the Good. Leaving aside the merits or demerits of the "hook-up culture" or whatever on campus, could it possibly be a matter of such transcendent importance. Not to get too hyperbolic here, but traditional family life and sexual norms were more-or-less alive and well in Nazi Germany. This business just isn't all that integral to assessing the overall goodness of someone's character. A healthy family life is an excellent thing to have, but it's ultimately a very personal, parochial sort of virtue that doesn't have a huge amount to do with the great issues of the day. Dodgy types can do great things for the world, and upstanding family men can own vast plantations full of chattel slaves.

Sex and dating are obviously topics that are of intense interest to people, so there may as well be books (and newspaper columns) about them, but one shouldn't mistake the fact that these are interesting subjects for the notion that they're all that significant or that good behavior in this regard is the essence of morality.

November 16, 2004 | Permalink


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» Ethics and sexual mores from Majikthise
Nicely put. Even so, I think Matt gives too much credit to Brooks and Wolfe. The issue is not whether you can be a paragon of sexual virtue and a scoundrel. To argue the relative badness of promiscuity vs. war crimes is to accept the conservatives' fra... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 16, 2004 1:13:27 PM

» Brooks, Wolfe, Dating, and Morality from D.F. Moore
Everybody (okay, not everybody - two people I read regularly) is talking about this great column by David Brooks (as is every column he writes - I mean, he did go to Chicago) on Tom Wolfe's new book, I am... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 16, 2004 3:02:39 PM


it seems you could use a one-word comment on both Brooks and Wolfe: "Prudes!"

And, while Wolfe is interesting, what with the cream-colored suits and all, he should be banned from publishing any novels after having written the last 75 pages of "A Man in Full," which easily could be the worst ending in the history of American fiction.

Posted by: Goldberg | Nov 16, 2004 11:05:22 AM

It's getting ever harder to believe that once upon a time Tom Wolfe wrote "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test".

Posted by: David W. | Nov 16, 2004 11:10:54 AM

well, one shouldn't, but many do, and many of those who do are the so-called "moral values" voters whose importance matthew disputes. Lax on premarital sex, lax on national security appears to be the mindset in play.

as for tom wolfe, surely he hasn't been in a cocoon for the last 30 years - why is he suddenly discovering that college students like to do it?

Posted by: howard | Nov 16, 2004 11:12:03 AM

That's what I thought too. It's going to be a looong way to January when we finally get Krugman back :^(.

The point I think Brooks was trying to make -- and I haven't read the Wolfe novel, so I don't really know for sure -- is that all of this moral ambiguity and uncertainty just makes life too hard. People have to think too much about whether it's Palestine or Israel that is in the right or in the wrong, or whether sex on a first date is emotionally safe. It would be easier all around if everyone believed in absolute morality that solved all of these issues for them, but they don't believe in absolute morality or, if they do, they don't think they have direct, doctrinal access to it through something like the Bible, so their lives are made unnecessary difficult by all this complexity.

That might not have been what he was trying to say, but that's the closest to what I divined from it.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 16, 2004 11:17:49 AM

What an awful life you must lead, Matt.

I mean, I love politics. But politics isn't life.

Matt, you may not have ever heard this before, so I'll tell you now: it matters how you live your life, even if no one ever takes one thing you write seriously. Even if your favored candidates never win an election. Even if your favored policy positions are never enacted.

Posted by: Thomas | Nov 16, 2004 11:18:53 AM

I have feeling that Brooks was secretly hoping for a Kerry victory. Imagine the anxiety he must feel knowing that he has four more years ahead of him trying to defend the indefensible. How much easier it would have been to nip at the ankles of a Kerry administration. No wonder he's taken to flacking books--first his own failure last week, and now Wolfe's latest doorstop.

Posted by: Bragan | Nov 16, 2004 11:22:37 AM

Leaving aside the merits or demerits of the "hook-up culture" or whatever on campus, could it possibly be a matter of such transcendent importance. Not to get too hyperbolic here, but traditional family life and sexual norms were more-or-less alive and well in Nazi Germany. This business just isn't all that integral to assessing the overall goodness of someone's character.

That's a rather sloppy argument. If, as conservatives argue sexual morality is necessary but not sufficient to overall goodness of character, and if, as they argue, it is one of several things that a shortage of inevitably leads to broader moral decay, then it is that integral, and that the Nazi's or the culture they presided over had it is irrelevant, because having it doesn't make you good if you are bad in other ways, but not having it does, in and of itself, make you bad, and make you tend to become bad in other ways.

So your comments seem to be a non-sequitur, or an attempt to knockdown an implicit strawman, the argument that sexual morality is not merely necessary but also sufficient for overall morality.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 16, 2004 11:33:09 AM


I think the point is, yes, it matters how you live your life, but who cares if you have premarital sex?

Posted by: Goldberg | Nov 16, 2004 11:34:21 AM


You need to add Hugh Hewitt to your blog roll. He's been very generous in linking to your blog, and many people have been directed to your blog because of him. I'm sure the omission is not intentional, right?

Posted by: Tom B. | Nov 16, 2004 11:36:02 AM

Thomas it matters to Matt to live a happy life. Me? Society at large? We really don't feel any impact on how Matt leads his life.

Posted by: Rob | Nov 16, 2004 11:41:32 AM

I'm more concerned about how Brooks channeling of Wolfe is a sign of the coming reinstatement of sexist norms that women are supposed to be held to. I'm not for irresponsibility by any means, but neither am I for the bad old fashioned roles of virgins & whores.

Posted by: David W. | Nov 16, 2004 11:41:50 AM

Anyone notice that the first paragraph seems to apply to negative reviews of Brooks's books?

Posted by: Aaron Bergman | Nov 16, 2004 11:47:20 AM

A book about how college students like to fuck and drink, and athletes are priveleged on cmapus and take bird courses? Wow, he must have done an enromous amount of fresh reporting to come up with those earth-shattering insights!

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Nov 16, 2004 11:54:03 AM

Not to defend Tom Wolfe or his book, but why do you say personal virtues are so unimportant? Treating other people decently in your personal relations surely isn't the only kind of virtue. But for most people in a modern society, who aren't influencing the future course of world history directly with their ironic prose, it's the main avenue in which to exert virtue at all. Our society, after all, is nothing more than the sum of its individuals. If our personal lives are morally vacuous, our society is too.

Posted by: Nick Williams | Nov 16, 2004 12:06:45 PM

"and that the Nazi's or the culture they presided over had it is irrelevant"

The empirical evidence is that cultures with restrictive sexual norms tend to be authoritarian and martial, and periods of relative sexual laxness tolerant and creative.

The intention is to change the culture in extremely profound ways.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 16, 2004 12:07:06 PM

"Wolfe takes risks in his novels to describe the moral climate of the age"
That's the problem. It takes an act of outstanding arrogance to think anyone can describe the moral climate of any age.

"Wolfe sprinkles his book with observations about how the word "immoral" now seems obsolete, about how sophisticated people now reject the idea of absolute evil"

Really? Is that why there was so much comment on Abu Ghraib? Is that why there is horror at the thought of war crimes being commited in Iraq? I could go on...

"Wolfe describes a society in which we still have vague notions about good and bad, virtue and vice, but the moral substructure that fits all those concepts together has been washed away"

Really? And what was that 'substructure' exactly? Was it the one in place when homosexuality was a crime, when black men were lynched, when Cambodia was bombed. The one that was also in place while Eisenhower and Kennedy indulged in extra-marital sex? Wolfe is suffering from 'Mother Teresa Syndrome', where morality is judged by what you do with your genitals (usually by people who no longer do very much with THEIR genitals). I prefer my 'substructure' if there has to be one, to rest on slightly more solid foundations than Wolfe's organ.

Posted by: MisterP | Nov 16, 2004 12:13:47 PM

Puzzling for the clueless.

I think I'll leave you in your current state. Brooks' review was excellent.

Posted by: LDR | Nov 16, 2004 12:14:07 PM

Brooks: "When moral judgment and courage are called for, she's unprepared."

What it's really about is self-esteem. If a young woman has it, it's much easier to make intelligent decisions about sex in complicated and ambiguous dating situations.

Posted by: sofia | Nov 16, 2004 12:38:30 PM

MisterP is exactly correct -- for the currently triumphant moralists of the right, one's sex life is pretty much the beginning and end of the "values" subject. Abu Ghraib is a frat party; someone getting drunk and laid at college is a disgrace that must be stopped.

I haven't read this current Wolfe book, but, to judge by his many others, he's moved progressively further from comprehending (or at least pretending to comprehend) his subjects. In Kool-Aid Acid Test, he never really let on that he was appalled by what he was describing. The Right Stuff was somewhat apolitical (and pretty wonderful). Bonfire, while a page-turner, suffered in the end from overwrought white male entitlement/rage (he viewed Sherman as put-upon innocent sacrficed at the altar of "political correctness"). A Man in Full -- I have to say I'm not really sure what the hell he was driving in that one.

This new book seems to be the work of a man walking into a place he hasn't visited in 50 years and reactng with horror to all the "change". Jesus Christ, I'm out of college 30 years, and the stuff he describes as so shattering was fairly commonplace back then. There are points to be made that sex immediately post-adolescence is a confusing arena for many, that trial and error can lead to regret, that maybe some are doing what they're pressured into, not what they actually desire. But to wrap that all up as something brand new -- and something somehow soluble by reverting to early 20th century mores -- simply marks Wolfe as an old fogy whose cover of faux hipness is irreovcably blown.

Posted by: demtom | Nov 16, 2004 12:40:00 PM

Really, has no one read Philip Roth?

Posted by: Rob | Nov 16, 2004 12:47:44 PM

Not to get too hyperbolic here, BUT OMIGOD HYPERBOLIC!!!!!1!!1!!!

Posted by: praktike | Nov 16, 2004 12:50:27 PM

That is an odd review. If you read the midsection of the review, Brooks thinks Wolfe is almost completely off-base about elite colleges (a topic Brooks has written about), except for the amorphous "character" concerns.

I don't think Brooks actually likes the book, he is just hoping it gets popular with middle america as a wedge against elites. I also don't think Brooks really thinks that there is anything wrong with pre-marital sex, he just wants people to vote as if they did.

Posted by: Joe O | Nov 16, 2004 1:03:43 PM

As Bragan so astutely noted above, Brooksie finds himself in a very uncomfortable position. A thoroughly conservative administration is about to spend four more years getting a lot of Americans killed to no purpose and getting a lot more impoverished for the sake of a handful of richies. Defending Bushco won't be much fun, which is why--I suspect--Brooksie's NYT conservative stablemate Bill Safire is getting out while the getting's good.
So Sir Brooks will have to serve up a great deal of ersatz-Tom Wolfe Kewl Kultural Kommentary over the next four years. Lots of topical witticisms at the expense of leftie academics, leftie show biz personalities, etc.. A sort of endless replaying of "Radical Chic" with minor variations. This sort of thing actually worked 35 years ago when Wolfe, Bill Buckley, etc.. could defend conservatism simply by being sophomoric about liberalism. Problem for Brooksie is: it isn't 35 years ago, it's now. My advice: follow Safire out the door pronto.

Posted by: Angry Blue Planet | Nov 16, 2004 1:33:01 PM

There is usually a big dose of envy in older men's condemnations of youthful promiscuity. If the little sluts gave it away to older guys too, perhaps the New Right would be fatally weakened.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 16, 2004 1:37:23 PM

'A healthy family life is an excellent thing to have, but it's ultimately a very personal, parochial sort of virtue that doesn't have a huge amount to do with the great issues of the day.'

Shaking my head in awestruck wonder at the willful ignorance.

Somewhere another 13 year old who cannot be bothered to do her algebra homework just had a child. That child will grow without a father. That child is headed for misery and jail.

Perhaps some people think that is just a parochial event that doesn't qualify as a real issue for the day.

(Which is odd considering how much of my money they want to spend on it.)

I disagree.

Cue the twits.

Posted by: BigMacAttack | Nov 16, 2004 2:01:16 PM

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