The XX Factor

David Brooks Embraces, Rejects Angry Brit’s Letter to His Disappointing Kids

David Brooks.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The election may be over, but poor David Brooks continues to waffle between his moderate and ideologue selves. It’s exhausting. Last week Brooks put his hopes for the future of the Republican party on the cranks and hardliners. But the problem with cranks is their crankiness, which tends to offset their admitted passion for right-wing arguments. Forever weighing his options, today Brooks tries to address that problem by asking the cranks politely to please suppress their passion and instead search out realistic solutions.

The occasion? An angry letter from an old British submarine captain all but disowning his children for failing to become the wealthy prudes he imagined when he and his wife created them for God and country. Right-wingers apparently love this letter, which was pretty much made to be forwarded to you by your gun-collecting uncle, lovingly embellished with animated GIFs of crying eagles and marching cartoon soldiers. The writer, Nick Crews, starts off by spelling out under no uncertain terms his expectation that his children live their lives for the sole purpose of giving him something to brag about to his friends. 

We are constantly regaled with chapter and verse of the happy, successful lives of the families of our friends and relatives and being asked of news of our own children and grandchildren. I wonder if you realise how we feel—we have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us.

Crews appears to believe that that the cause of his kids’ economic struggles is moral decrepitude, and not the declining economic opportunities available to the younger generation in the era of austerity. 

Which of you, with or without a spouse, can support your families, finance your home and provide a pension for your old age? Each of you is well able to earn a comfortable living and provide for your children, yet each of you has contrived to avoid even moderate achievement.

Above all other things, Crews denounces his children’s inability to cede their life decisions to their wiser elders. “None of these decisions were made with any pretence to ask for our advice,” he laments, adding that he and his wife “have been expected to acquiesce” to the private life decisions of their grown children. Particularly disgusting to him is his rebellious adult offspring’s’ insistence on controlling their own sex lives, instead of letting Dad’s superior judgment reign. 

The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren. If it wasn’t for them, Mum and I would not be too concerned, as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next. It makes us weak that so many of these events are copulation-driven, and then helplessly to see these lovely little people being so woefully let down by you, their parents.

Brooks accepts Crews’ assessment of his children as worthless layabouts and sexual deviants at face value. His target is not angry father-knows-best. Nope—the columnist only wishes to quietly scold the livid conservatives gleefully passing this letter around for thinking that you can yell at people until they submit to your demands.

I happen to cover a field — politics — in which people are perpetually bellowing at each other to be better. … It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

Brooks suggests that parents of adult children can exert their desired control over their children’s lives through a system of rewards: “Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.” Also, putting the scratching post near the couch can encourage your adult children to turn their attention away from the furniture and toward a more appropriate object for releasing their natural urges.

It didn’t take much Googling to find that Crews’ children are not, as you might assume, living in brothels, with their children manning the front desk. One works as a business interpreter, one in a sailing shop, and one for a taxi firm.  In other words, they all perform the kind of useful jobs that used to pay much more substantial wages in the halcyon days of Crews’ memory. All three have been divorced, which is sad, but hardly evidence that their oversexed adventures have made them incapable of caring for children. Two of them apparently refuse to speak to their mean old father.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to know and enough blame to go around—that’s family. What concerns me, though, is that Brooks took exactly the wrong message from the popularity of this letter. It’s not evidence that conservatives are on the right track but simply need to soften their tactics a bit. It’s actually more that substituting rigid ideology for love and compassion only serves to tear families apart—or alienate voters.