There was almost nothing worth saying about the racist Parkland Harvard teen. He was a mean dummy and Harvard has no obligation to take mean dummies unless their parents give the school a lot of money. The racist teen can go to hell, or, more accurately, he can get on with his life, as teens do, on their own terms, regardless of where they do or don’t go to college.
But the racist teen was a symbol, because he had worked hard to be a symbol, and the industry in which he chose to work runs on symbolism. “It’s hard to know if
[the racist teen] has learned from his repulsive comments,” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “but if he has, wouldn’t Harvard want a kid who is intellectually rigorous and morally humble?”
This was in the final paragraph of Brooks’ column, far below the headline, “Harvard’s False Path to Wisdom,” and after Brooks had written:
the decision, which Harvard is not commenting on, may reflect a misunderstanding of how moral character develops
In a sin-drenched world it’s precisely through the sins and the ensuing repentance that moral formation happens. That’s why we try not to judge people by what they did in their worst moment, but rather by how they respond to their worst moment.
These days many people seem to think that the way to prove virtue is by denouncing and shunning, not through mercy and rigorous forgiveness.
David Brooks did not know whether the racist teen had learned anything, yet Brooks was sure that Harvard was in the wrong, and he suspected Harvard had misunderstood the nature of moral character. He was confident that this all could stand as an object lesson for everyone about the difference between “denouncing” and “rigorous forgiveness,” even though he was not able, himself, to come to a rigorous conclusion about whether the racist teen had, in fact, earned forgiveness.
(Now is as good a time as any to remember that David Brooks taught a course at Yale called “Humility,” in which he assigned Yale students to read the writings of David Brooks.)
Brooks’ approach to the question of forgiveness was, on inspection, so non-rigorous it was not even clear what he thought the experience was from which the racist teen was supposed to have learned something. “From his repulsive comments,” was what Brooks had written, but the teen didn’t learn anything from his comments, as comments; he just typed them and moved on. What Brooks seemed to be referring to, instead, without quite understanding it, was what the teen had learned from getting in trouble for making racist comments.
And that collapsed even the already absurd timeline by which the racist teen’s defenders were trying to argue that a college applicant should not be held responsible for the racist remarks he made two years ago, at the age of 16, when no one is doing anything that affects their college chances one way or another. The real clock started when it first became possible that the teen might be held accountable for his racist remarks, which was less than a month ago.
Before that, the teen had been an organizer for Turning Point U.S.A, the right-wing campus troll group that has been, for some reason, chronically plagued by revelations that its young members have said and done racist things. David Brooks left that off the teen’s resume, presumably because he wanted to talk about individual moral development in the abstract, rather than the institutions and circumstances in which the teen was flourishing as a public figure, and what values and incentives those might have conveyed to the teen.
That context was what the teen’s defenders would absolutely not talk about. Alex Pareene already neatly explained why in the Baffler, in discussing the defense of another, even more famous rotten teen, Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh:
A large part of the desperation that members of the conservative intellectual class mobilized in order to “get to yes” with Kavanaugh was because the case against him almost immediately morphed from one individual accusation of assault to a broad and very well-supported indictment of their entire class. What was revealed was not that Kavanaugh the man was individually monstrous but that he was a product of a monstrous milieu. The case against Kavanaugh was the case against the culture of Georgetown Prep, of fraternities at elite colleges, of the entire social world that produced the entire conservative elite. So the more we learned about its horrors, the more urgent it became to find Kavanaugh innocent and to join him in safeguarding the sacrosanct life chances and career achievements to which he was—and they were—entitled…
What made all this the stuff of Dantean hyperbole was the simple, self-evident truth that Kavanaugh was “a good kid.” Good Kids are determined to be good not according to their actions, which are frequently quite bad, but by their standing. On this status-driven reckoning of the natural order of things, the worst thing imaginable is for a good kid to be denied future opportunities to wield power.
It’s not hard for David Brooks to know the truth about what good kids do in this sin-drenched world. It’s just impossible for Brooks to care.