SELF-HELP DECEMBER 29, 2013
It is bad enough that Frank Bruni has decided that his New York Times column should be devoted to cheesy stories told in a you-can-succeed-if-you-really-try style. In a recent piece about how people can form close relationships with each other even when they are not related (it's this totally weird thing called "friendship"), Bruni exclaimed, "As good as we humans are at division, we’re better still at connection." This touching message was brought home at the end of the column, when Bruni noted that "spiritual" ties can be as thick as blood ones. (Bet you didn't know that.)
Even worse was a column several weeks ago about a hamburger entrepreneur. What explained this man's success?
But when I asked him for the most important takeaway from his story, he mentioned something else — passion...Passion gave him the energy for the 18-hour days that were necessary during that first, whirlwind year. And without passion in the creation of a business, he said, there’s not likely to be passion in the reception of it. People can sense whether you’re going through the paces or going for something better, something novel. It’s not dollars they want to hand over; it’s devotion. You just have to give them sufficiently juicy cause.
This is the sort of thing you might find on the $3.99 self-help shelf at your local bookstore. But The Times's page hit a new low this weekend with Charles Blow's resolutions for the New Year. The piece begins with some talk about the Holiday Season but it really gets cooking when Blow turns to his actual resolutions.
He begins with a promise to stop treating politics like a game, because "there are real lives hanging in the balance of the decisions made — or not made — by those in power. Often, those with the most to lose as a result of a poor policy move are the most vulnerable and most marginalized. Those folks need a voice, and I will endeavor to be that voice." Okay, you might say, this is merely boring and clichéd.
His next resolution is to remind politicians that "A democracy is a government by the people, for the people," and "that they are servants, not rulers." At this point I started to get antsy. I had a vague memory of having already read these sentiments elsewhere (where they were presented somewhat more stoically). Resolution number three is "To remember that justice is a natural aching of human morality," and "I will do my best to highlight that basic quality." Yeah yeah. But number four takes the cake. He actually wrote this, and I urge you to read it in full:
To focus more fully on the power and beauty of the human spirit. Regardless of their politics, the vast majority of the people I meet, when they can speak and listen and act of their own accord and not in concert with a group, are good, decent and caring people. Most work hard or want to. They love their families and like their neighbors. They will give until it hurts. They fall down, but they bounce back. They are just real people, struggling to get a bit and get by, and hoping to share a laugh and a hug with an honest heart or two along the way. That is no small observation and not one of little consequence. I believe that I can write more about those traits.
I believe you can too but please don't!
What is incredibly irksome about these columns is that Bruni and Blow have arguably the widest and best journalistic platform in the entire world. They can sound off on whatever they want to. They can highlight unusual stories, try to be funny, bring up important or ignored subjects, make clear and unique arguments, start intellectual debates, and even piss people off once in a while. (Blow's idea of being controversial is to tell New York Times readers that the Tea Party is bad.)
The pieces I have quoted above aren't columns; they are Christmas cards. And the best newspaper in the world has better things to print.