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Thursday, December 5, 2013

David Brooks, "The Irony of Despair": Living in Desperate Times

David Brooks is back with a polemic against suicide. In a New York Times op-ed entitled "The Irony of Despair" (, Brooks writes:

"We’ve made some progress in understanding mental illnesses over the past few decades, and even come up with drugs to help ameliorate their effects. But we have not made any headway against suicide.

. . . .

According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years. The increase in this country is nothing like that, but between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among Americans between 35 and 64 rose by 28 percent. More people die by suicide than by auto accidents."

Regarding persons who reject suicide, Brooks concludes:

"That person can commit to live to redeem past mistakes. That person can show that we are not completely self-determining creatures, and do not have the right to choose when we end our participation in the common project of life.

The blackness of the suicidal situation makes these rejoinders stand out in stark relief. And, as our friend Nietzsche observed, he who has a why to live for can withstand any how."

In response, I would refer David to his own July New York Times op-ed entitled "Men on the Threshold" (, in which he noted a steady decline in male labor force participation. Brooks wrote at the time:
"In 1954, 96 percent of American men between 25 and 54 years old worked. Today, 80 percent do. One-fifth of men in their prime working ages are out of the labor force.

. . . .

The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure. Work by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force. Some of the problem probably has to do with a mismatch between boy culture and school culture, especially in the early years.

But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.

Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating. A high school student doesn’t want to persist in a school where he feels looked down on. A guy in his 50s doesn’t want to find work in a place where he’ll be told what to do by savvy young things."

So the next time I encounter a desperate unemployed man in his 50s contemplating suicide, I should read to him from "our friend Nietzche"? Why am I so uncertain that this will change his mind?


  1. Brooks is a pretentious and indecent bozo. After all he works for Der Neue Stuermer and sitting in his glass tower he preaches to the desperate of the world: "That person can commit to live to redeem past mistakes." Yes, only personal mistakes decide our fate." So says our philosopher at Der Stuermer.
    It's time for me to vomit. Again.

  2. "We’ve made some progress in understanding mental illnesses over the past few decades, and even come up with drugs to help ameliorate their effects. But we have not made any headway against suicide".
    I don't see why these topics are in the same paragraph.
    My own viewpoint on suicide is that many of the folks that consider it,are of good mind,are realists,well able to see the cards that life has handed them,what the future holds for them,and choose not to participate in extending their misery.

  3. Yes, anonymous (5:53), I agree, I too have a problem with viewing suicide as mental illness. It's interesting that Brooks who usually strikes such philosophical poses links mental illness and suicide, ignoring the philosophical/theological traditions and following what seems to be modern American (?) psychobabbling manipulation.
    There is no discussion of despair in his babbling, something what should be expected in the writing of the guy who usually babbles about good old times. There is a huge difference between depression and despair, but Brooks doesn't know that.
    I don't know how this replacement happened, but I suspect that it is related to the secularization of the West just as secularization in general lead to the prominent role of psychology.
    I find hybridization amusing. There are so many people who insist that they are so religious, so religious (most of Americans) and who proceed to display a totally secular perception of the world without any room for divinity.
    There is a difference between being and pretending.