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June 20, 2004 - "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

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I came an interesting assessment of the writer David Brooks.  My email discussion group has batted about things Brooks has said, particularly regarding his book Bobos in Paradise.  Brooks has a new book now, On Paradise Drive that is, by all accounts, much weaker. 

But this assessment is more comprehensive than a discussion of those two books. 

See David Brooks
Why liberals are turning on their favorite conservative. 
David Plotz – SLATE.COM - Posted Monday, June 14, 2004, at 3:17 PM PT

Plotz runs the table on Brooks.  And he discusses the two books. 

But more interestingly, he covers the political matters -


As a conservative columnist at the New York Times — a job he has held since September 2003 — Brooks is the steer at the steakhouse.  Liberals who admired him when he was the jolly voice of reason at the Weekly Standard resent him now that he occupies the throne of American journalism. 

And Brooks' Times column is a drag.  Occasionally he reminds us of his talent (and his enormous decency)—as when he gently mocks college admissions or pleads for gay marriage. 

But after 10 months, it's become clear that he doesn't have enough ideas—or anger—to sustain a twice-a-week column.  (To be fair, few columnists do.) …


I can relate to that. 

And Plotz dissects those columns. 

But he says there really is another problem with Brooks – and it is in his latest book:


… The most interesting section of On Paradise Drive outlines Brooks' notion that America has become a "cellular" instead of hierarchical nation.  No single elite remains, he says.  We all live cheerfully in our own separate tents, no group subordinate to any other.  Everyone, in fact, feels happily superior to everyone else. 

Everyone can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus.  You can be an X Games celebrity and appear on ESPN2, or an atonal jazz demigod and be celebrated in obscure music magazines. 

Perhaps you are an NRA enthusiast, an ardent Zionist, a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, a surfer, a neo-Confederate, or an antiglobalization activist.  Your clique will communicate its code of honor, its own set of jokes and privileges.  It will offer you a field of accomplishments and a system of recognition.  You can look down from the heights of your own achievement at all those poor saps who are less accomplished in the field of say, antique-car refurbishing, Civil War reenacting, or Islamic learning.  And you can feel quietly satisfied about your own self-worth. 

The implication of cellularity for Brooks is that Americans get along by not paying attention to each other.  Because we all get to achieve in our own way, we don't need to lord it over others (or even notice them).  There's a sharp insight here: Cultural fragmentation has diffused hierarchy.  But because Brooks believes in the primacy of culture, he seems to think that all that excelling means that we don't clash.  This is a delightful view to hold, and it certainly felt true in the late '90s, when Brooks was writing Bobos: The economy was booming, the world was at peace, and the big worries were stock options, lattes, and oral sex with interns.


But Plotz doesn’t buy it. 


… Brooks' cellularity wishes away conflict. 


He ignores that not every distinction is cultural and that much more is at stake than self-esteem. 


His "antiglobalization activist" isn't simply happy to wear his hemp shirt, as Brooks suggests; he also wants to shut down the polluting factory where the "Rush Limbaugh dittohead" works.  And the "NRA enthusiast" actually believes the Islamic scholar is a probable terrorist who should be jailed or deported.  Sometimes it's not enough to "feel quietly satisfied about [our] own self-worth." Sometimes we need to kick the other guy in the teeth.  The stakes are real in America: We are constantly truncheoning each other for more money, more liberty, more power.  By making Americans merely smug emperors of our own little consumer worlds, he ignores the bigger, brutal battles that we fight against each other. 

And Brooks also ignores the even bigger, even more brutal battles that we are fighting in the world. 


Maybe so. 

I too think the battles are real. 

Plotz reminds us that Brooks himself helped “set the table” for the wars on terror and Iraq.  He remembers that in 1997, Brooks wrote an influential manifesto for the Weekly Standard, "A Return to National Greatness."  In it Brooks claimed the United States was losing the sense of grand national mission that built the Panama Canal, conquered the West, won the Cold War, built the interstates, and walked on the moon.  The idea was that America needed to “reanimate itself” with a cause, and the federal government needed to "convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation." And Brooks said that it didn't really matter what the cause was—maybe colonizing Mars—but it had to be something. 

I guess he got his wish with the Iraq business. 

The problem, as Plotz notes -


As the occupation has soured, Brooks has wilted.  His columns have lost their swagger: "We're a shellshocked hegemon," he wrote last month.  "This has been a crushingly depressing period." Optimistic and conflict-averse, Brooks didn't see how our good intentions could go wrong, because our superior ideas were bound to win the day.  He has shied away from the bloody strife that is the requirement of his National Greatness ideas.  At the pit of the prisoner-abuse scandal Brooks wrote:

There's something about our venture into Iraq that is inspiringly, painfully, embarrassingly and quintessentially American.  No other nation would have been hopeful enough to try to evangelize for democracy across the Middle East.  No other nation would have been naive enough to do it this badly.  No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we are about to do. 

While other conservatives—Charles Krauthammer, his old boss William Kristol, President Bush—have the courage of their convictions and believe that Americans are killing and dying and torturing for a great cause, Brooks, squeamish, still sees it as a kind of academic dispute, where ideas can clash without bloodying noses.  Tellingly, Brooks hasn't gone to Iraq, perhaps because he doesn't want to see what these ideas look like on the ground…


Yeah, talk is cheap. 

Plotz concludes -


In Brooks' ideal world, Americans should all reasonably discuss the war, reach a consensus that it's righteous, persuade Iraqis of same, and win.  In real life, it is a much nastier business, and there is no consensus among Americans of either party about the morality of this war.  In peace, Brooks' genial mockery and optimism are delightful.  In wartime, they're a cheat.  Other conservatives confront the ugliness and bloodshed of the occupation and redouble their commitment.  Brooks, whose national-greatness ethos lent more energy to the war than anything his colleagues have written, will neither embrace the war, nor disown it, nor even look it square in the face.  He hides. 


One is reminded of the last paragraphs in Hemingway’s post-WWI novel “The Sun Also Rises.”

The final disillusionment. 


Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic.  He raised his baton.  The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. 

“Yes,” I said.  “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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