On Friday, in an op-ed which made the paper's print edition, David Brooks, the alleged conservative commentator at the New York Times, surprised more than a few people by calling for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to resign over his awful handling of now ex-employee James Damore's "Echo Chamber" document.
Brooks identified the five key players in the drama, and directed sharp criticism at three of them: Google's diversity officer, the press, and ultimately Pichai.
First, Damore (links are in originals and bolds are mine throughout this post):
Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.
You can almost hear the gasps of surprise throughout Times headquarters at Brooks's reliance on inconvenient science.
Next up, women in tech:
We should all have a lot of sympathy for the second group of actors in this drama, the women in tech who felt the memo made their lives harder. Picture yourself in a hostile male-dominated environment, getting interrupted at meetings, being ignored, having your abilities doubted, and along comes some guy arguing that women are on average less status hungry and more vulnerable to stress. Of course you’d object.
What we have is a legitimate tension. Damore is describing a truth on one level; his sensible critics are describing a different truth, one that exists on another level. He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality. It takes a little subtlety to harmonize these strands, but it’s doable.
Brooks's baseline assumption that tech in general is a hostile male-dominated environment across the board is shaky. But it exists in more places than it should, and as Brooks noted, people of good will should be able to work through and resolve these issues.
Brooks then moved on to people who have demonstrated an annoying tendency not to be of good will throughout Corporate America, namely diversity officers like the one at Google (one handy rule for job seekers is that if the prospective employer actually has someone in such a position, there must be better companies at which to hang one's hat):
The third player in the drama is Google’s diversity officer, Danielle Brown. She didn’t wrestle with any of the evidence behind Damore’s memo. She just wrote his views “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” This is ideology obliterating reason.
At this point, the folks at the Times may have started wondering who took over Brooks's body when he wrote his column. But he's absolutely right. Brown's response was knee-jerk, entirely off-base, and, sadly, all too typical for someone whose job and status depend on fomenting employee discord while posing as a peacemaker.
Next, Brooks fired a broadside at the media, and tested the guardrails by broadening the topic to include college campus intolerance (link is in original):
... The fourth actor is the media. The coverage of the memo has been atrocious.
As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” Various reporters and critics apparently decided that Damore opposes all things Enlightened People believe and therefore they don’t have to afford him the basic standards of intellectual fairness.
The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety.
The rest of the establishment press must now be wondering what got into Brooks. It's bad enough that he exposed how they deliberately botched the Damore-Google drama. But then he went a step further to decry how intolerant so many of the nation's college campuses have become in just the past several years. The press has given that trend undeserved breathing room by generally failing to expose the true depth of what has become routine intimidation of those with dissenting views in academia. You're not supposed to talk about that David, especially in moralistic terms which look (oh my goodness) almost religious in tone.
Finally, Brooks got to Pichai's role:
Which brings us to Pichai, the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”
That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.
Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a nonleadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.
Well, it was unrealistic to expect Brooks to turn in a perfect performance.
Of course, he had to throw in a bogus "but the right is just as bad" bone to his leftist readers, even though one struggles to identify a single instance where a leftist speaker has been shouted down by conservative dissenters.
But that flaw doesn't change the fact that for once, David Brooks made quite a few good points, especially about Pichai's apparent inability to be a leader when it really counted.
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Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.