David Brooks does not get noir

Echidne of the Snakes discusses David Brooks’ latest column, in which he suggests that young idealists working on economic self-sufficiency or water purification projects overseas are blind to how corrupt governments can impede them (“if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.”). The solution? Film noir! “The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it. A noir hero 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.”
As a fan of film noir and the novels that gave birth to it, I find Brooks’ analysis incredibly shallow.
It’s true noir pays a lot of attention to social corruption (although a lot of noir novels—Night Has a Thousand Eyes, for example—do not). As Raymond Chandler put it, they take place in a world where a judge with a cellar full of booze has no qualms fining a man caught with a hip flask.
But noir has no illusions about re-establishing the rule of law. Where corruption is the issue, there’s no hope of serious reform, it’s about rescuing one innocent person, punishing one crime, helping one soul breathe free within the corrupt system.
Applying a band-aid, helping a few people do better as the projects Brooks dismisses might, is closer to the noir ideal than sweeping social reform (and safer—if American idealists go and charge into the Third World hoping to remake entire governments, they’d better write their wills first). He’s fallen into the trap David Rieff disccusses in A Bed For the Night, the conviction that nothing but systematic reform is worth doing.
As for noir making no social-class distinctions, bullshit: Noir is much more concerned with the corruption of the rich than Brooks, who worries about the morality of the poor. The Long Goodbye, for example asserts that nobody ever makes a hundred million dollars without some dirty work.
Noir also frequently emphasizes (as I noted previously) that people get into trouble because of blind chance, not because successful people have better morals. In DOA, a man is poisoned for fear he’s read a document he never even saw. In the novel The Big Sleep, everything starts with one man brushing off an unstable girl who retaliates withmurder.
Brooks’ pose also fits poorly with his past writing. Where was his concern for a stable political system when he urged us to invade Iraq and insisted it would go smoothly? Or when he protested Obama administration proposals to restrict the influence of lobbyists in Washington?
Or maybe it fits his work. The emphasis on morality (as Charles Pierce notes). The willingness to send people off to “fix” third world governments. The touch of condescension toward the activists for not having Brooks’ understanding of the system. And the insistence that everyone, even the noir heroes, are tainted and morally flawed (whereas Chandler argues in “The Simple Art of Murder” that the hero has to be, while not Sir Galahad, a man above the corruption he swims in). As witness Brooks’ argument that those of us who criticized Penn State for covering up alleged child-rape in the sports department are only criticizing the college to feed our moral superiority.
I suspect if Brooks ever appeared in a noir film, Bogart would have gut-shot him.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Politics

One response to “David Brooks does not get noir

  1. Pingback: Bad right-wing insights, followed by good news. | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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