I like David Brooks, who is doing less frequent violence to the best real estate in journalism than, say, Dowd and Friedman, but I often add that it’s because he’s unpredictable. Sometimes this translates into inconsistency. Here is a strange column on “Sam Spade at Starbucks”:
If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good. Typically, they’ve spent a year studying abroad. They’ve traveled in the poorer regions of the world. Now they have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self.
Often they are bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world….
Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on.
Leave aside his leaving aside of those who don’t “attend a certain sort of conference.” Below is an op-ed, “The Rugged Altruists,” Brooks wrote only last August, while visiting my present home in Kenya. It’s a love letter to the “service religion” in lean economies that he disdains today.
Very few nongovernmental organizations or multilateral efforts do good, many Kenyans say. They come and go, spending largely on themselves, creating dependency not growth. The government-to-government aid workers spend time at summit meetings negotiating protocols with each other.
But in odd places, away from the fashionableness, one does find people willing to embrace the perspectives and do the jobs the locals define — in businesses, where Westerners are providing advice about boring things like accounting; in hospitals where doctors, among many aggravations, try to listen to the symptoms the patients describe.
What accounts for the turnaround?
I didn’t love the first column because it glamorized charity and ignored important political and economic stories in the region. Kenyan leaders are on trial at the Hague—and running for president at once. The East African community is attempting to introduce a new, single, currency. At the time, a group on the American terror watch list was blocking food aid from Somalia. For examples. Brooks covers those things in rich nations, but once in Africa, he forgot that. This kind of amnesia comes from pity, not respect.
I don’t like this column because it feels like the same kind of lazy freelancing. Politics versus “nongovernmental organizations” is a bad binary, if only because both can be useless for social improvement. I’ve seen it. And because social entrepreneurship is often engaging market, not political or philanthropic forces, it’s a third way that can’t be lumped in with NGOs so easily. Brooks doesn’t cover this space enough to know that.
I also don’t like this column because it flattens the good reasons people all over the world have for disrespecting institutions that don’t work for them—including those in the US. Chris Hayes, one of my co-fellows at the New America Foundation, is working on a book, Twilight of the Elites, that reports on the broken civic compact in America. Between Katrina, Iraq, steroids in baseball and the financial crisis—or a day in Congress—there isn’t much rule of law or “moral realism” to be had in America either.
This is a powerful force. I’d call the trend toward social entrepreneurship—and all the transparency initiatives that have also emerged—an outgrowth of generational frustration.
Five friends of mine were arrested on Wall Street this fall—and two more moved to Cairo to cover Egypt’s revolution. Nigerians of all ages got up and marched when the government threatened fuel subsidies this winter. Nairobi is currently covered with fabulous murals calling tribalist politicians “vultures.” There is an ongoing, global conversation about institutional failure that has nothing to do with trenchcoats or “a certain sort of conference.” Brooks doesn’t cover young people enough to know that.
But if he wants to come back to Kenya, I’ve got lots of good stories for him.