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Will the iPhone kill love?

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David Brooks thinks twitter has killed romance. "Across the centuries," he says, "the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment. But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. ... In today’s world, the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner."

Matt Yglesias responds by posting an excerpt from Brett Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction that predates text messages but doesn't seem very romantic. Ellis, however, was an able chronicler of the generation that led to cellphones and text messages, so he might just have been a leading indicator. This example of the sanctified choice of an erotic power comes from a fairly sanctified, and suitably aged, source: Genesis 38.

When Judah saw [Tamar], he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.[...]

And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff. And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

In short, Judah sleeps with an anonymous prostitute in exchange for a young goat, then calls for an old-fashioned burning when he hears his widowed daughter-in-law is pregnant after having sex with men in exchange for young goats (and other goods, presumably), then backs down when he learns that he's the father. And where Tamar almost got burnt, Judah's punishment is that "he knew her" -- which is to say, slept with her -- "no more." Also, he becomes the father of twins.

Columns like Brooks's irk me because they demean not only my lived experiences, but those of everyone I know. To offer a slightly more modern rebuttal, Sunday was my one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. A bit more than a year ago, we first met, the sort of short encounter that could easily have slipped by without follow-up. A year and a week ago, she sent me a friend request on Facebook, which makes it easy to reach out after chance meetings. A year and five days ago, we were sending tentative jokes back-and-forth. A year and four days ago, I was steeling myself to step things up to instant messages. A year and three days ago, we were both watching the “Iron Chef” offal episode, and IMing offal puns back-and-forth, which led to our first date. A year ago today, I was anxiously waiting to leave the office for our second date.

It is not for David Brooks to tell me those IMs lack poetry, or romance. I treasure them. Electronic mediums may look limited to him, but that is only because he has never seen his life change within them. Texting, he says, is naturally corrosive to imagination. But the failure of imagination here is on Brooks's part.

Photo credit: By Leah L. Jones/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  November 3, 2009; 6:25 PM ET
 
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Comments

I think pundits in 1460 said the same things as Brooks about Gutenberg. No more singing of love songs. Just dead type on dead trees.

Posted by: glewiss | November 3, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

It cracks me up when David Brooks wanders out into the world of sociology....last time he did so to describe the importance of some animated film he'd just seen.

Back to Ezra Klein's love life, however, wow!! I honestly assumed you were gay all this time. I dont know why, other than you're a foodie and an increasingly militant vegetarian.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 3, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

I read it too and indeed utterly useless column. Brooks is in habit of putting things with no scientific basis and doing some just idle speculation with no particular relevance to lives of common people.

Passing implicit judgments on people's private ways - let us just say, he is indecent, rascal there.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 3, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

zeppelin003 - what is that to do with 'gay'? Don't you read Andrew Sullivan? He is married and he is gay.

Who is cave person here - David Brooks or 'zeppelin003'?

zeppelin003 - totally politically incorrect comment...

Posted by: umesh409 | November 3, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

I met my girlfriend posting on a sports newsgroup on the USENET, and got to know her better in e-mail. Since usenet is largely obsolete given the things Ezra allued to in the article (Webpages/Facebook and IM'ing), that tends to date how long the relationship has been. We just past our 13th anniversary in September.

I think we know that if he had been born in a different era, Brooks would have said that the lack of arranged marriages was screwing up moral systems.

It remains amazing that idiots like that hold down so many positions in the media and are treated with "respect" that they've done nothing to earn.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | November 3, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I used to read AS, and think he's brilliant, but had to stop because he is obsessed with the insanity of the right and I'd rather not read that reactionary garbage anymore.

As far as thinking EK was gay, its politically incorrect to think someone is gay or straight now? I never can keep up with all these arbitrary rules. If someone thought I was gay I'd think it a compliment, who knew.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 3, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Fantastic rebuttal! I like Brooks' style in revealing some of the absurdities of modern life, but disagree with his thesis. Like Mr. Klein, I recently celebrated my one year anniversary with my girlfriend, who is from a different race. Judging by the reactions of my parents, I would argue that allowing "larger social institutions" like our neighborhoods to govern our private lives is antithetical to building a just society. A person's romantic possibilities should not be so circumscribed by his or her origin or appearance.

Posted by: willtownes | November 3, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

And just to spice up this discussion I will share a minor detail - mine is the arranged marriage whereas my parents in 60's decided on their own despite being part of an extremely conservative society (I guess passing simple letters, I am not sure how).

It is foolish to relate 'means of communication' with people's personal choices in finding their spouses / life partners.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 3, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

My husband is shy. He's much bolder in writing than verbally until he gets to know you. Without email, I wouldn't have had exposure to how hilarious and clever he is, and would never have realized how much FUN a life with him could be.

Yes, he's also noble and true and loving and all those other good things that make relationships work. But you know what? Funny helps make the relationship work, too. Funny is quite valuable in a mate when the toilet breaks. I always wanted funny, and I wasn't willing to compromise on it.

And I'd never have known he had this quality without the internets.

So give me a break, old man. And get off my lawn. Because my husband's gotta mow it.

Posted by: theorajones1 | November 3, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to see how Twitter could be any less romantic that David Brooks...

Posted by: Brian5 | November 3, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm 47 years old, about the same age David Brooks is. Over my adult life there have been many perennial journalistic chestnuts, but one of them certainly is the article about how promiscuous and superficial young people are. This kind of article is popular because, like the old Cecil B. DeMille pictures, it manages to make its over-30 audience feel virtuous and titillated at the same time. Don't feel too offended, one day you'll enjoy these pieces too, even though they will be just as much nonsense then as they are now.

Posted by: wagster | November 3, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse

For Christ's sake, I have no idea how writers as intelligent as Brooks don't realize that they're writing the exact same sentiment that has been expressed ad nauseam since time immemorial. Does he really think that no innovation has ever posed as big a shift in how humans communicate as Twitter? Really?

Seriously, if pop music didn't kill romance, nothing will. God knows it tried.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | November 3, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Aww, your anniversary. Stop talking about yourself all the time.

Posted by: truck1 | November 3, 2009 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Take the test, Brooks! Can you beat the monkey:

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/lists/1vincent.html

Posted by: tcarobruce | November 3, 2009 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I loved this post, and I'm old enough to understand nothing whatsoever about social networks. People are whom they've always been, and those who fail to realize it deserve to be called to task.

Posted by: kpidcoc | November 3, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

the need to love and be loved doesnt change....
and a text message can be as romantic as a browning poem.

"I thought of that old joke: This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, 'Well why don't you turn him in?' and the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships. They're totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs."

woody allen

Posted by: jkaren | November 3, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

I just thought Ezra was gay because he looked too cute to be a straight guy. Alas, I am disappointed. :(

Posted by: aawiegel | November 3, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone other than me creeped out by the image of David Brooks thinking about erotica?

Posted by: pj_camp | November 3, 2009 10:56 PM | Report abuse

heh heh...David Brooks is quite interesting, it appears.

To me DB represents the most prominent, articulate and rational conservative voice.

It's unremarkable to me that he's clueless in certain ways, as that is consistent with what I've seen from many conservatives I've met. Sure, some are better at relationship, etc., but there are certain costs for certain elements of the conservative world view. Certain blind spots.

I think of DB as representing about 20% of the electorate, and a part that is rather influential, as it aligns in certain ways with views of many business people.

To engage in good public policy, one needs to be able to communicate with people like DB, and understand his point of view, etc., just as one needs to get certain other points of view, etc.

Posted by: HalHorvath | November 4, 2009 1:17 AM | Report abuse

Did anyone here bother to read the column? This is not a column about how bad young people are today. To wit: "This does not mean that young people today are worse or shallower than young people in the past." It is a column in which Brooks uses a particular subset of the texting culture, which he identifies as such and as unrepresentative, to talk about a fragmentation that does not help people move toward permanence and stability. He may be right or wrong, but nothing he says is rebutted in these comments, or even by Ezra's own positive experience of courtship in a digital age, which I daresay is much tamer than the stuff of the New York Mag feature.

If it is annoying to read a column (which this column manifestly is not) that discounts the young out of sheer curmudgeonliness, it is equally annoying to have mindless protests of same celebrating the now as if all movement in history were in a direction called progress, as if all change is gain and nothing is worth reflecting upon, as if it is always and ever more the best of all possible worlds.

Brooks may be right and he may be wrong, but nobody here is even responding to his point. Perhaps because in the digital age, attention spans are too short to make it through a column and remember what it was about from start to finish.

Again--is he saying, as Ezra suggests he is, that Twitter killed romance? No. He's saying this: "It does mean they get less help. People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things. The accumulated wisdom of the community steered couples as they tried to earn each other’s commitment."

I personally think that Brooks's column overplays the examples from the New York Mag feature, and my own experience working with people preparing for marriage is that today's marrying-age folk are aware of the ways in which fragmentation and a consumer mindset have militated against commitment, and are yearning to overcome it. So I think he's behind the times, and that commitment is on the rebound. But his column is far more thoughtful than the off-the-mark, over-the-top vituperation thrown at him here suggests.

Posted by: FrBill1 | November 4, 2009 3:28 AM | Report abuse

Amen.

Fundamentally, writing about the "corrosive influences" of things one doesn't understand, let alone like, is an easy template for those who have to come up with something to say every week, but do not have any intellectual curiosity.

Posted by: ArininSF | November 4, 2009 3:43 AM | Report abuse

FrBill1 said:

"Perhaps because in the digital age, attention spans are too short to make it through a column and remember what it was about from start to finish.
Again--is he saying, as Ezra suggests he is, that Twitter killed romance? No. He's saying this: "It does mean they get less help. People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things. The accumulated wisdom of the community steered couples as they tried to earn each other’s commitment."


to attack the attention spans of a generation, and to insinuate that perhaps they are so inattentive, that they cant read through a column, is a generalized and ridiculous insult.
and second, you are only romanticizing the past.
the accumulated wisdom of the past, kept much of the misery repressed and hidden away, so "housewives" suffered in private, and young girls who were "guided" by society, had abortions in back allies. and women with alcoholic, raging husbands pretended everything was perfect when they went to their luncheons and pta meetings.
please. i was around in those days.
my uncle was a homosexual in the "good old days." his internal suffering was absolutely immense. society made his life, in many respects, a tragedy.
mothers and fathers stayed together in perfect and unnamed misery, "for the sake of the chldren." and those that got divorced, were often stigmatized.
please dont romanticized the" supportive communities and collective wisdom" of the past.

people suffered in silence, and oftentimes, people were guided by their community, to put up and shut up.
is it better now? hard to say.
but the quotient of love and suffering is always around.
and the human heart is a lonely hunter, and nothing changes in our interior lives. we still struggle with the same emotions and situations that greek tragedies are made out of.


Posted by: jkaren | November 4, 2009 6:54 AM | Report abuse

" People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things."


Fr Bill1

i was born in 1949. i dont know how old you are.
what time in history, and people are you talking about...linking urges to higher things?
you mean, like how african-american families were treated and supported by our society in the "good old days?"
how women were "guided" into marriage, instead of education, and unmarried women were called :spinsters?"
the suffering today, may be raw and exposed.
but the suffering then, was just as intense...it was just done in silence, with people wearing their "happy faces" on the street.
it is dangerous to idealize the past, beyond a pleasant nostalgia for personal remembrances.

Posted by: jkaren | November 4, 2009 7:06 AM | Report abuse

Brooks bases his remarks, in part, on Wesley Yang's observation that the diarists "use their cellphones to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead." To guard against not being chosen at all, Yang writes, "everyone is on somebody’s back-burner, and everybody has a back-burner of their own, which they maintain with open-ended texts."

Arguing with that observation is difficult; however, the converse of the observation is also true. Those who can use a new medium to aggregate and successfully express the totality of their physical and emotional needs to a fellow individual whose intellectual [and perhaps even physical] sauce merits front-burner attention might just have an edge over seemingly more poetic elders.

For millenia, commentators have sought, but failed, to document a general or typical form of courtship: human relationships are as unique as human individuals. There will always be people seeking immediate physical satisfaction, people seeking emotional bonding (perhaps even claiming it to be completely lustless), and people fortunate enough to find both -- if even just a sliver of both -- in a single, lasting package.

If being a member of that ultimate category comes partially as a result of Twitter and other technology, so what: life's too short -- and too enjoyable -- to sweat about little things like the technology du jour.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 4, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

jkaren,

I submitted a longer reply earlier but it seems to have disappeared into the aether.

A few points: First, I was born in 1972. Second, you ask me what I meant by what I quoted from Mr. Brooks, from a column which I make clear in my last paragraph I disagree with. So I will not answer what he meant, much less defend the parade of horribles from your years before the dawn of text messaging. Third, I did not attack a generation or generalize its attention spans--I talked about attention spans (including my own) in our own times.

Your thorough misreading of my own post, and the strong likelihood, given your failure to distinguish between what Brooks wrote from what I wrote (despite my use of quotation marks) that you didn't even read Brooks, do not seem to undermine the point I was making.

Posted by: FrBill1 | November 4, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm 47 years old, about the same age David Brooks is. Over my adult life there have been many perennial journalistic chestnuts, but one of them certainly is the article about how promiscuous and superficial young people are. This kind of article is popular because, like the old Cecil B. DeMille pictures, it manages to make its over-30 audience feel virtuous and titillated at the same time. Don't feel too offended, one day you'll enjoy these pieces too, even though they will be just as much nonsense then as they are now.

Posted by: wagster | November 3, 2009 8:01 PM

----------------------------

I'm 43 and my girlfriend is 47, about the same age David Brooks is. I have to say that Brooks column doesn't make me feel virtuous and titillated at the same time. It made me feel that Brooks was talking out of his ass.

The funny thing is that articles about Brooks have referenced him getting IM's from his wife. So it's not like he's ass backwards on technology.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | November 4, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

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