David Brooks was the quintessential journalist of 1990s America. As New Republic editor Peter Beinart has written, in those years “the hottest magazine writing was anthropological.” Armed with a sharp eye for detail, a broad knowledge of cultural history, and a knack for aphorism, Brooks traveled to malls, office parks, and soccer fields, illuminating successive segments of American life. It is more than a little satisfying that the writer who perfected this art was a senior editor at the Weekly Standard; Brooks is among the few right-wingers with a well-developed sense of humor and an appreciation for popular culture. He is an antidote to all the conservatives who thunder about decadence as if Scarsdale was Sodom, and whose pessimism is so ingrained they can’t acknowledge that some things, somewhere, are getting better.
Brooks’s ongoing surveys eventually yielded an insightful thesis, laid out in his entertaining and successful book BOBOs in Paradise. The contemporary American elite, he argued, was the product of the conjoining of two once-antagonistic forces–the bourgeois ethos and the bohemian ethos. It is getting harder and harder “to separate the anti-establishment rebel from the proestablishment company man,” he wrote, because contemporary Americans have “created a way of life that allows you to be an affluent success and at the same time a free spirit.” Some observers objected that the class Brooks describes is less an alloy than a bourgeois core with a bohemian overlay. Its essential qualities–hard work, worldly ambition, drive for self-improvement–are classically bourgeois. But Brooks’s descriptions–the aging, ponytailed hippie explaining “zerobased budgeting” to a young woman in “granny glasses and a peasant dress” in a Burlington cafe–were priceless, and they captured quite a bit of truth.
THE OTHER AMERICA
David Brooks’s America left out large swaths of the nation–the inner cities, immigrants who labor long hours not for fun but for sheer necessity, workers in declining industries who barely cling to their lower middle class status. His forays into what is now known as “red America” have been brief. But in a recent Standard article, “Patio Man and the Sprawl People,” Brooks looks to be correcting that myopia. The essay suggests that Brooks is striving to develop a more sophisticated demography, one that moves beyond the rather facile red America/blue America distinction that has dominated pop sociology for the past year and a half. Brooks identifies a new social sphere–the “sprinkler city”–the outer layer of suburbs beyond his now-famous “latte towns.” He argues that the inner suburbs are increasingly coming to resemble the cities that the last generation of suburbanites fled: crowded, congested, and socially stratified between the elite BOBOs and a growing immigrant population. The middling classes–with state university degrees, incomes around $70,000, and jobs in fields like marketing and technology–resent the snobbery of the BOBOs, are priced out of their neighborhoods, and are anxious that immigrants will bring disorder into their carefully tended streets and schools. So they are picking up and moving out.
Built to cater to this population’s tastes, the new suburbs feature small housing developments connected by numerous wide highways to office parks, chain restaurants, and big-box stores selling mega backyard grills. In “Patio Man,” Brooks doesn’t talk much about the attitudes of these folks, though it’s clear that they are less snobbish and more Republican than the BOBOs, and largely lack their bohemian trappings. But they appear to share the same work ethic, relentless schedules, competitiveness, and consumerism. They are still Brooksian meritocratic strivers.
Brooks has a warm place in his heart for these qualities in particular. He is perhaps the most enthusiastic advocate the bourgeoisie has ever known. BOBOs in Paradise was by and large a loving portrait of its subject, one that encouraged us to laugh a little at ourselves but also to appreciate the basic goodness of our ways. Brooks clearly respects the highly meritocratic structure of contemporary America, which opens up opportunity to a wide swath of society and has produced a leadership class more talented and accomplished on average than any in history. These elites might not share the moral code of the old WASP establishment, but they have replaced it with their own highly restrictive code of behavior. BOBOs have transformed the American corporation, making it more hospitable to creativity and individual expression. They want work to be socially constructive and personally enhancing, and their leisure activities–physically demanding, culturally enriching, and often both–are similarly bent to the goal of self-improvement. While these propositions may often be more aspirational than actual, and while BOBO values yield plenty of silliness–from the expanses of pricey hiking gear at REI to the linguistic abuses of contemporary business-speak–Brooks argued they are an improvement on the past.
SOULS OF GRAY
Yet Brooks’s BOBOs are also characterized by a strong ambivalence. Immersed in the complex, rapidly changing world of high technology, they seek out the timeless, rough-hewn work of colonial artisans and South American craftsmen. Addicted to the stimulus of the city and of a highly mobile lifestyle, they find themselves longing for the stability of small town existence. Brooks’s own writing reflects this ambivalence, especially when he discusses BOBO spiritual life. He identified in today’s elite “an impulse toward orthodoxy, which is to say, a desire to ground spiritual life within tangible reality, ordained rules, and binding connections that are based on deeper ties than rationality and choice.” Yet this impulse is at odds with BOBO values of freedom, autonomy, and pluralism. Brooks wrote: “The question for the educated class is, can you have your cake and eat it too? Can you have freedom as well as roots?” He bet they can’t: When push comes to shove, the BOBOs will not surrender their autonomy. “And so,” he concluded,
we get in BOBO life a world of many options, but maybe not a life of do or die commitments, and maybe not a life that ever offers access to the profoundest truths, deepest emotions, or highest aspirations . . . Maybe people who try to have endless choices end up with semi-commitments and semifreedoms. Maybe they end up leading a life that is moderate but flat. Their souls being colored with shades of gray, they find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing to bring their lives to a point.
But if that description seems rather grim, Brooks ended on an upbeat note, expressing the hope that BOBOs would use their energy and their unique combination of idealism and practicality to reform American institutions at home and promote our values abroad.
THE TRAGIC DIMENSION
In the months following the publication of BOBOs, Brooks’s continuing examination of the American upper middle classes took a more pessimistic turn. In his April 2001 Atlantic Monthly article “The Organization Kid,” Brooks described the students he met when he visited Princeton University to take the measure of the country’s rising elite. He encountered a group of collegians who pursue their academic studies, their sports, music, volunteer activities, and their social lives with the same self-motivated, goal-oriented professionalism. The young people at Princeton were cheerful, respectful of authority, optimistic about the future, and convinced that, on a fundamental level, all was right with their society. But Brooks found these quintessentially bourgeois qualities unsatisfactory. He worried that today’s parents had abdicated their responsibility to build character in the young; as a result, the highly articulate students he met fell silent when questioned about matters of morality. Moreover, he feared that today’s young adults, having grown up in a period of affluence and peace, lacked any sense of “the tragic dimension of life.” He contrasted the contemporary university with early 20th century Princeton, where the faculty spoke openly of sin, evil, honor, and duty, and the students aspired to heroism, not just success.
The tenor of this piece was somewhat at odds with that of BOBOs, in which praise far outweighed criticism, but it reflected the spirit of much of Brooks’s political writings. For in the realm of editorial polemics, Brooks, along with William Kristol, his editor at the Weekly Standard, has espoused a brand of politics known as “National Greatness” conservatism. National greatness conservatism might be described as a frustration with the bourgeois scale of politics in the late 20th century. Here we are, it seemed to say, the most powerful nation in history, and what preoccupies us? Tax cuts, inflation rates, prescription drugs, and presidential sex scandals. Brooks and Kristol’s disgust with both political parties reached its apogee in an editorial written by the two shortly before the 2000 election. “A presidential campaign isn’t about who can deliver the most chum,” they complained, “it’s about America’s purpose and greatness. It is, after all, a contest for the most powerful office on earth, not for some mayoral slot.” If bourgeois life represents the ascendancy of the private sphere, national greatness conservatism strove to bring attention back to the public.
In the fall of 2001, the attacks on New York and Washington gave a new relevance to Brooks and Kristol’s concerns. What had seemed merely an aesthetic complaint about the smallness of politics in the 1990s became an analysis with serious and urgent ramifications. What had seemed almost another dimension of BOBO narcissism–wouldn’t our lives be even richer if we had some great national cause to serve?–in fact pointed to a dangerous weakness in our national character. In a short piece I wrote on Brooks’s “Organization Kid” in April 2001, I scoffed that we were “unlikely to confront world war.” Yet on September 11 we found ourselves engaged, if not in a world war, then in a worldwide conflict with a group of violent men whose implacable hatred of us inspired whole populations. Our confidence that the inexorable spread of markets would bring peace, prosperity, and the values of liberal democracy to the rest of the world evaporated. Our BOBO attitudes and approaches, once a bit meager and a little silly, now seemed badly insufficient for the task at hand. Whether Americans were devoted to their nation, willing to sacrifice, and capable of making judgments about right and wrong suddenly seemed the most pressing questions of all.
Accordingly, in a November Weekly Standard article, Brooks declared that the mental universe of 1990s America had collapsed with the fall of the World Trade Center. “In an age of conflict,” he wrote, “bourgeois virtues like compassion, tolerance, and industriousness are valued less than the classical virtues of courage, steadfastness, and a ruthless desire for victory.” In the 1990s, “an easy cynicism settled across the land, as more people came to believe that national politics didn’t really matter. What mattered instead, it seemed, were local affairs, community, intimate relations, and the construction of private paradises.” But such a culture could no longer be sustained, Brooks argued. “In times Brooks’s descriptions — the aging, ponytailed hippie explaining “zerobased budgeting” to a young woman in “granny glasses and a peasant dress” in a Burlington café — were priceless. of conflict people are different. They go to extremes. Some people, and some nations, turn cowardly or barbaric. Other people, and other nations, become heroic, brave, and steadfast. It all depends on what they have in them…. War is the gut-check of the nation.”
THE RIGORS OF SUBURBIA
Since then, however, an interesting thing has happened: Brooks has checked our gut and found it solid. He has backed away from claims that our culture must be radically transformed to make it war-ready and that, quite possibly, we’re not up to the task. The qualities that earned his tempered criticism in BOBOs in Paradise and “The Organization Kid” and his outright disdain in the immediate aftermath of September 11 soon began to appear our hidden strengths. The change in his thinking was evident in an Atlantic Monthly essay, “On the Playing Fields of Suburbia.” Surveying the suburban tracts of Arizona from his airplane window, Brooks reconsidered his concerns about our softness and affluence. After all, the United States was still the world’s strongest nation and the victor in a half-century battle with communism. How was this possible? Brooks decided that “suburban life is more arduous than it appears, and provides more characterbuilding experiences than we imagine.” In his New York Times Magazine article “Why the U.S. Will Always Be Rich,” Brooks argued that abundance itself was the reason for our social health. “Abundance electrifies and motivates,” he wrote. “The noblest, most creative and fullest life” can be found “in the rushing mainstream of life, in the office parks and the malls and the Times Squares twinkling with lights, screens, and money.”
In the post-September 11 era, Brooks has shifted from the anthropological/descriptive to the anthropological/defensive. As is clear in another article, “Among the Bourgeoisophobes,” a virtuosic survey of past and present hostility toward the bourgeoisie, Brooks is disgusted with being lectured about morals by terrorists and condescended to by snobbish Europeans with “a simple-minded faith that whatever the problem is, the solution requires complexity.” He is also markedly impatient with domestic cultural critics on the right and left whose arguments, echoing those of the foreign bourgeoisophobes, slide easily into a rebuke of our essential qualities as a nation. Moreover, he insists that talk of our cultural deficiencies has been repudiated by the heroism of so many on September 11. Believing that “we have lost the ability to explain our strength to ourselves,” Brooks has taken up this challenge. In keeping with his talents, he is doing so not just by invoking broad political concepts like freedom and democracy, but by reference to our concrete daily experiences and the habits and attitudes they produce. And just as he earlier argued that conflict between bourgeois and bohemian had resolved into a new union, Brooks now suggests the bourgeois and the martial values have been reconciled in the American character. “Perhaps ordinary American life mobilizes individual initiative, and the highest, not just the crassest aspirations,” he writes.
The highest aspirations, the fullest lives–these are significant claims. In BOBOs in Paradise, Brooks would have said that BOBOs led good lives. But the fullest lives? And, especially, the noblest lives? Noble, from the Latin nobilis, of high rank, is a term of praise that recalls the values and social order of the feudal age. Nobility is associated with the martial, not the commercial virtues. Not content to defend the bourgeoisie on its own terms, Brooks is claiming for the class qualities it never thought to lay hold to. And this, unfortunately, is the element of his new defense that has been least convincing. It’s not quite clear whether Brooks believes contemporary Americans are already heroic, or merely that they have the potential for heroism. Regardless, his descriptions of BOBO Americans, and of the upwardly mobile Americans occupying the “sprinkler cities,” offer little evidence to support either claim.
The portraits of American life that Brooks has drawn for us suggest that we lack a basis for heroism on multiple levels: of ideology, of life experience, and of aspiration. In the realm of ideology, we can assume that noble or heroic action must be sustained by a firm conviction. It must rely on a belief that some values, some ways of living, and some modes of expressing grievance are superior to others. But nearly every group Brooks has discussed shows a marked disinclination to make moral judgments. Following sociologist Alan Wolfe, Brooks has identified nonjudgmentalism as the key axis of the American moral framework. Among the BOBOs, this attitude has a political quality; it is a result of an education that, without actually affording much knowledge of other cultures, is steeped in multiculturalist dogma. Among the less affluent Americans Brooks surveyed in rural Pennsylvania, the reluctance to judge is the consequence of an ingrained humility, a belief that private choices should remain private, and a religious conviction that true judgment is divine. In all spheres, the pervasiveness of nonjudgmentalism leaves little room for fiercely held opinions or for political action.
In the realm of life experience, Brooks has argued that Americans are ready to meet the challenges of our dangerous age; indeed, we are already battle-tested. He cites our competitive economy, the rigorous schedules of American kids–”hitting the books, mastering skills, chasing down growth experiences”–and the accomplishments of adults who “slogged their way through medical school, or negotiated the booms and crashes of the high tech-economy.” But he has also acknowledged that the vast majority of Americans under sixty have never known hunger or physical hardship and have grown up with the confidence that they never will. Americans under fifty have never known a time when the survival of our nation was threatened in an open military conflict. Almost no Americans under forty have ever fought in a war. Americans under thirty can barely remember a time when the United States was not the sole, unthreatened superpower. Standards of living have risen steadily, and new technologies have made life easier and more comfortable. That many us of have demanding careers, work long weeks, and go rappelling for kicks cannot make up for the fact that most Americans are unfamiliar with genuine danger or austerity.
On the level of our aspirations, we find that the space for heroism and nobility has been crowded out by our intense concern for our individual life ambitions. Brooks is correct that a large number of Americans work very hard, constantly struggle to improve themselves, and are trained in rigorous competition with others equally talented, motivated, and hard-working. But this type of self-denial should not be confused with self-sacrifice.
Instead, it is a temporary restraint aimed at reaping rewards later in life, in the form of an interesting job, a high salary, and the respect of one’s peers. When our disciplined strivers look beyond self-interest, it is usually to the happiness of immediate family members. This kind of self-denial bears little resemblance to the spirit that has led people to give up their lives in the name of God, country, or deeply held principle.
Is Brooks striving to reconceptualize heroism, to privatize it, one might say? It seems more likely that he aims to show that traditional heroism is compatible with our lives. But as recent corporate scandals remind us, the values and habits that promote success in banking or advertising are not always those that make a good citizen or a good human being. We have also lately seen real heroism, but drawing quick connections between the rigors of soccer practice and the ultimate self-sacrifice made on September 11 is not an adequate way to “explain our strength to ourselves.” (It is worth noting that many of those who made that sacrifice–New York City police and firemen–exist in a world rather different from that of either the BOBO elite or the sprinkler cities.) To identify and encourage selfless and public-spirited action, we may have to look outside the culture of meritocratic striving. We should be glad to have an articulate defense of our nation by someone as insightful as David Brooks. But lately, it seems, he has let us off the hook far too easily.
Elizabeth Arens just graduated from New York University Law School. She will be clerking next year for Judge Edward C. Prado on the Fifth Circuit.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire