PLAYBOY: What was the hardest time you’ve been given on a show?
BROOKS: One of the least pleasant I’ve ever done was Bill Maher’s. He has a big audience. When you do his show, for months afterward people say, “I saw you on Real Time With Bill Maher.” But I really did not like being on his show. It’s 20 minutes of how evil everyone is who disagrees with him. I always think it’s unfair, and his critiques are never about policies; they’re about which so-and-sos are right-wing yahoos. Maybe they are, but that’s not why I’m in the business.
PLAYBOY: Does it concern you that some people get their news only from Fox on the one hand and Jon Stewart on the other?
BROOKS: People who watch only Fox have certain beliefs that are factually false. There’s more of that going around than before. That’s troubling. To be fair, the Pew Research Center does surveys of who knows what, and the Limbaugh audience is pretty well educated. Rush’s audience and the NPR audiences tend to be at the top. Whether they have a distorted view of the science on global warming is another thing. And how much clout do they have? Limbaugh spent five years attacking John McCain, and McCain still won the Republican primary, even among Limbaugh’s audience. They listen because it’s entertaining. People like Jon Stewart, but that doesn’t mean they’re passive receptors of everything they hear.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel about Stewart as you do about Maher?
BROOKS: With Stewart and Colbert I feel there’s humor and poking at the left, but there’s a genuine compassionate, admirable thing inside both those guys, and I don’t feel there is in Maher.
PLAYBOY: These days you seem to be everywhere: in the Times, on NPR, on PBS, on Meet the Press and other shows, on the Times blog, at speaking engagements and in your books. How do you pull it all off?
BROOKS: It can be overwhelming. If I can have a day when I have nothing to do, I’m happy. I regret a lot of the commitments I have. I do spend a lot of time with my kids, but I don’t spend much time with my friends, and I don’t spend any time watching TV, except for some sports. I used to play golf, but I don’t do that anymore. So it’s basically work, drive kids to practice somewhere and go to bed. Bruce Springsteen is touring Europe this year, and I want to go to that. I’ll make a few exceptions for Springsteen.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned that you had 290,000 e-mails over a six-month period. In the days before e-mail, there would have been far fewer letters, because readers had to sit down, write them and mail them. Now it’s the era of reader and viewer comments, many anonymous and many harsh. Do you bemoan the civility that’s lost when there are so many unrestrained voices talking about every small and large issue?
BROOKS: I think it’s good that people are talking, even if I don’t always like what they say. I think it’s heartening that, in spite of predictions, the Times feels healthier than it did a few years ago. The readership is climbing. More people are willing to pay for it. A couple of years ago I thought we were in the whaling business and it was going off the deep end. But now I don’t think that. There are enough people who want some authority, and so we’ll be fine. Newspapers are closing, but there isn’t less news. If you go out on the campaign trail, there are more reporters than ever, and somebody’s paying them. I think we’re in a golden age of long-form journalism. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. I don’t think we’re in a crisis or a decline.
PLAYBOY: In addition to your political columns, increasingly you’ve been writing about psychology, sociology and brain science. What’s pulling you in that direction?
BROOKS: A zillion people write about politics, but relatively few write about the social and cultural implications of this field, and it’s a hot area that is exciting to be witness to.
PLAYBOY: Because of your interests in sociology, psychology and science, do some of your colleagues in the political world look at you with curiosity?
BROOKS: There was a little “Are you having a midlife crisis?” There’s also a message that politics is the real stuff—tax rates—and the other stuff is sort of squishy. I have the opposite attitude. I write about politics because it’s my job; it’s like eating your broccoli. The how-we-live stuff is more important, and readers like it. Still, there’s a definite sense that if you’re writing about lifestyle or culture, it’s because you had no good political subjects to talk about, whereas it’s the opposite for me.
PLAYBOY: You’ve written that one problem with American politicians is that they have little understanding of people’s emotions. Why?
BROOKS: Washington is the most emotionally void city in America, or maybe the world; you feel it in the way people dress—including me—and the way people talk.
PLAYBOY: You’ve criticized the Occupy movement as a bunch of poetry majors, but you claim to value poetry and the arts and bemoan the fact that they’re being pushed aside in favor of practical study that leads to jobs.
BROOKS: The point is that a lot of the research I looked at shows that the things that seem so squishy are hard and practical. I firmly believe in arts education, music and majoring in English and history. But I was just with a bunch of CEOs, and they talked about the difficulty they have finding employees with technical skills. How do I reconcile the firm belief that the humanities are important to leading a good life with the fact that if you look at who earns the highest incomes, it’s not even close? Education majors and communications majors have bad incomes, whereas general computer and tech majors have much higher incomes. I wrestle with this with my own kids.
PLAYBOY: How do you advise them?
BROOKS: My eldest son is a history major. The best advice is to major in what you want to in college, but understand you’ll probably have to find some technical skill, some actual market-savvy skill, afterward. Get that layering of understanding narrative, stories, background and history, but realize that’s not going to be sufficient in the marketplace. It’s also important to remember that money isn’t what makes people happiest.
PLAYBOY: Besides whom they marry, what else does?
BROOKS: One of the clear themes of the Life Reports was that people are good at knowing how to talk about their professional lives and bad at knowing how to talk about their personal lives. Yet those able to talk about their emotional lives, who were more connected to their family and friends, expressed much more satisfaction. Their emotional lives gave them more happiness than their intellectual lives.
PLAYBOY: And yet, despite writing The Social Animal, much of which is about our emotional lives, your wife said that you writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony. You told Time, “I’m not good at moments of intimacy with family or friends.” How do you reconcile that with the message of your book and the Life Reports?
BROOKS: You can know the right things but be unable to live them.
PLAYBOY: After your research, do you try harder with your relationships?
BROOKS: The sad part is you can’t consciously change just by wanting to. You can if you change your environment and your habits, but the happy part is that you have within you flows of information and resources, some going back to American culture, some to your family, some to your religion, some to your genetics—there’s incredible richness inside each of us. But it’s so rich and deep and unconscious, it means you can’t actually change it all that much.
PLAYBOY: Are you regretful?
BROOKS: I have the same regrets everybody has. I’ve worked pretty hard on my career—I still do—and spend less time having fun. I have friends. I go to hockey games, baseball games, dinners. I went hiking with a friend in Berkeley who took a bunch of his buddies out to Zion National Park. Eight guys just went out and did a hike. I don’t do too much of that stuff, so I regret not working harder on friendships.
PLAYBOY: Twelve years ago, in your book Bobos in Paradise, you made fun of the kinds of people who go hiking in the woods.
BROOKS: That’s true. Well, as I get older I find I write fewer nasty pieces and fewer cynical ones. I don’t know whether I’m just older and more fuddy-duddy, or maybe I have learned some life lessons. I have regrets, but I’m not stopping. I care about all the stuff I write about. I think it’s important whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the election, because people are affected, the country is affected. It can be frustrating and overwhelming to do this work, and you give up something to do it, but you feel you’re part of the debate, and it’s worthwhile.