David Brooks Hopes COVID-19 Will Purge America Of Sissies

After initially warning, a few weeks ago, that the normal bonds of human compassion simply can't survive a pandemic, New York Times columnist David Brooks seems to have noticed that we haven't yet descended into a Mad Max dystopia just yet, and that a lot of people are actually doing a lot of good for each other, especially our medical heroes, who are willing to put their own health and lives at risk to help other human beings. Contemplating such impressive compassion and dedication in the face of horrible odds, Brooks has found inspiration for the future.

Does he come away with a heartwarming insight into the human capacity for empathy, or community? Does he express outrage on the behalf of nurses who spend some of their desperately needed downtime demonstrating for adequate personal protective equipment? Heck no! David Brooks has larger thoughts on the the lessons America may take from this crisis: Maybe, he suggests in his latest awful column, the COVID-19 pandemic will be just the thing to end American culture's long slide into wimpiness.

American young people, Brooks explains yet again, have grown soft and degenerate from too much coddling, because, as he says, their overprotective parents have tried to eliminate all stress, and hence all challenge, from their precious little snowflake children's lives. Parents won't let their kids play outside because the little darlings might get a boo-boo (or because all the TV news shows insist any child playing outside will be snatched). Also, according to some moral scold in the Atlantic, Parents These Days are even accompanying their nine-year-olds to the toilet because they're afraid of being alone, or even — the horror! — "preparing different food for a child because she won't eat what everyone else eats."

As a result, we have grade inflation and schools have banned dodgeball. (Surprisingly, Brooks doesn't offer a paean to the character-building effects of being chosen last for dodgeball.) The pandemic of coddling, says Brooks, has been "a disaster. This overprotective impulse doesn't shelter people from fear; it makes them unprepared to deal with the fear that inevitably comes."

Before we go any further, let's just point out that Brooks is assuming a hell of a lot about the wimpification of the American character; it's the same load of culture war crap conservatives have pushed since Dr. Spock. And let's not forget that Brooks is talking about the generation of young people that's also being taught how to hide from gunmen in their schools, with optional instruction in rushing the heavily armed shooters or at least pelting them with cans of food long enough for their teachers to unlock the classroom gun safe and blow away the bad guy.

It's a deadly fallacy.

But where conservative culture warriors in the Before Times might have prescribed a return to spankings as the solution to all this moral laxity, David Brooks sees in the current pandemic another cure for our cultural ills. Since doctors are our heroes now, and they're all handling this pandemic with superhuman perseverance and grit, maybe American parenting and education can get out of the doldrums by adopting the insane pressure cooker atmosphere of medical schools. Says Brooks,

But there has been one sector of American society that has been relatively immune from this culture of overprotection — medical training. It starts on the undergraduate level. While most academic departments slather students with A's, science departments insist on mastery of the materials. According to one study, the average English class G.P.A. is above 3.3 and the average chemistry class G.P.A. is 2.78.

While most academic departments have become more forgiving, science departments remain rigorous (to a fault). As much as 60 percent of pre-meds never make it through their major.

Med school is intrinsically hard and is sometimes harder than it needs to be. But it trains people to work at a very high level amid incredible stress.

All that rigor, Brooks says, has given us a corps of medical professionals who are ready for the stresses of the current crisis, who are ready, as doctor and medical educator puts it, to "run into the fire and not away from it." We'd add, though, that the doctor, Adina Luba Kalet, who directs the Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education at the Medical College of Wisconsin, adds that "Today, the young doctors feel free to say, 'I'm terrified, but I'm going to do it anyway.' That's courage. We're staying. We're a team." That sounds perilously close to acknowledging doctors have feelings.

Brooks is duly impressed by the perseverance and resilience of our hero doctors and nurses, but we aren't sure we buy his insistence that's entirely a function of rigorous, high-stakes training so much as it is the human tendency to keep going when things are rough, yes even if your parents didn't spank you when you were in diapers. Still, Brooks hopes we'll all be transformed by this crisis, even though we aren't all doctors:

I'm hoping this moment launches a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. I'm hoping it exorcises the tide of "safetyism," which has gone overboard.

The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof of existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.

But we still think Brooks over-states the problem, and therefore the cure. Mastering hardship and building something new to redeem it sure sounds like what the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High did after the mass shooting there, and it sounds a lot like what kids in the climate strike movement are trying to achieve, in the not inconsequential fight to keep the planet habitable for large mammals, including columnists who think we're all too soft.

But we'd be careful about romanticizing the character-building potential of a tragedy, too. Londoners showed great fortitude during the Blitz, but that's not a very good argument for carpet bombings. Doctors and nurses and hospital staff are rising to the occasion, but plenty of Americans are also meeting the challenges of the pandemic by grabbing guns and demanding they be allowed to go shopping. Whatever went wrong with those folks, we're going to assume their problems don't stem from not playing enough dodgeball.


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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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