All of these things may be true. But David Brooks went and wrote another book. He wrote another book, and soon that book will exist in this reality along with me, and I must decide if I will pick it up.
There are many reasons to say "no" to this, enough that the odds of me touching The Committed Life are basically a rounding error:
- I no longer have access to the amazing Lawrence Public Library, so I'd have to pay full price for it, which won't happen.
- The blurb on the the Random House page suggests that this is just The Road to Character Redux with a different set of book reports in the middle and perhaps some more pseudo-religious hectoring, so I feel like I've done my duty already.
- Regardless of what he thinks or how he's treated by certain sectors of the media, Brooks and his beliefs are not terribly relevant today. I don't care how many think pieces you write, Michael Bloomberg is not going to be President and neither is Joe Lieberman or whatever "centrist" you care to name.
- Between a full-time job and my ongoing writing work (including a new, deeply personal project) I'm not sure that I can justify spending the time it would take to read the book, re-read it for material, transcribe the worst parts, and then snark on it. It feels like an unwise use of my time.
- Honestly, though, playing video games and downing shots of homemade green dragon might be a better use of my time than reading anything David Brooks has to say.
David Brooks is heir to a particularly old school branch of conservatism. The funny thing about these conservatives is that they insist that they are nothing of the sort - "centrists" or "moderates" or "independents" or whatever they care to call themselves from moment to moment. They insist that they are not conservatives because the modern conservative movement is now controlled by a radical right-wing version of libertarianism that they don't care for. They're not wholly opposed - those libertarian policies still mean more money in their pockets, and who would oppose that - but they've decided that they can do better.
I've penned very long breakdowns of what these guys believe, but you can break it down to one word: anti-modernism. If something is associated with modern society, they're opposed to it - modern economic systems (capitalist or socialism), modern political systems (basically anything post-Enlightenment), modern technology. They adhere to a decidedly anti-democratic belief that there own beliefs are mere pragmatism, beyond politics and correct by default, which must be implemented by a politician who is simultaneously massively popular and yet has no real voter base or ground strategy.
Perhaps the most perfect example of this comes courtesy of Charles Wheelan of Unite America, one of the various vanity projects sprouting up around this conceit. His use of "broccoli and ice cream" as a stand-in really hints at an amazing mindset, one in which voters are squawling children too self-indulgent for self-rule and "independent" politicians are the parents telling the voter-children what to do and making all their decisions for them. Truly, this is a winning message in the current political climate.
Brooks is still the king of this, though, and its visible proponent - he seems to be in proximity to a lot of these vanity projects, after all. I've made plenty of jokes about Brooks and his political beliefs, which in true "centrist" fashion are presented as objectively correct ideas rather than beliefs. As of late, though, Brooks has been avoiding talking about politics (in the sense of policy) and more about society and personal life, though these two are ultimately inseparable. He clearly adheres to something called right-communitarianism, a political philosophy in which 1.) the community is more valuable than the group, and 2.) there is a strict hierarchy consisting of traditional sources of authority.
Sitting here in the homeland of Confucianism - easily one of the world's oldest right-communitarian philosophies - I can easily see the foibles in trying to take an idea built around a homogeneous village of a few hundred and scaling it up to a heterogeneous nation of hundreds of millions. It doesn't matter, though, because he's directing this as individuals and small groups rather than the polity as a whole. In this sense, his philosophy is very similar to what Rod Dreher was selling in The Benedict Option.
So maybe it's worth a minute to take the briefest of glimpses at this before dismissing it outright. Here's the publisher's copy:
Most of us, over the course of our lives, will make four big commitments: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.These are straight out of The Road to Character. "Spouse and family" is from Chapter 7 (the one that sounded like it was written by a robot), "vocation" is Chapter 2, "philosophy or faith" is...really the whole thing, but Chapter 4 is probably most on point. As to "community," you can find the goods in this chapter, which isn't in Brooks' book at all but in Rod Dreher's. That's what this whole project sounds like, a collision between The Road to Character and The Benedict Option. Joy.
One could easily mock the source of this advice. This is a divorced man married to a much younger former subordinate, who does his job poorly and doesn't like it all that much but keeps doing it because it's an easy gig, who admires other people's faith but lacks the courage to commit to one for himself. This mockery has been done in other venues, with more venom and wit than I care to muster at the moment. It's not really my style, anyway. When I take apart someone like Brooks, I like to approach it on an intellectual level that the subject rarely deserves.
We have taken individualism to the extreme degree--and, in the process, we have torn the social fabric in a thousand different ways. The path to repair is through making deeper commitments.Yeah, that's Brooks all right. As you may recall, Brooks spent The Road to Character (or at least the non-stolen parts at the beginning and end) laying out a downright dystopian worldview in which people (young people mostly) were growing ever more shallow and self-interested, pulling the whole of society into a moral abyss in which the Kids These Days treat each other as obstacles in a ravenous struggle for status. He achieved this by compressing three generations into one enormous cohort and then cherry picking through six decades' worth of studies, ignoring anything that didn't fit his conclusion. This is how he treats his own "vocation," mind, and he's going to teach you to be just as diligent in your own doings.
We live in a society, Brooks argues, that celebrates freedom and choice, that tells us to be true to ourselves, to march to the beat of our own drummer at the expense of surrendering to a cause, rooting ourselves in a neighborhood, and binding ourselves to others by social solidarity and love.Let's break these down and go one at a time:
Surrendering to a cause. I really feel like Americans don't have a problem with this right now. His complaints about lack of civic engagement in The Road to Character were really just bad timing, but trying that argument after 2016 is willful blindness. Of course, David Brooks - like any Humpty Dumpty - has the right to simply change what words mean, something he did in the last book when he rather neatly dismissed social service as "a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life."
Rooting ourselves in a neighborhood. This is pure Dreher, with the wringing of hands over people who move to the Big City and lose themselves. As a man living overseas, my immediate reaction is to say "fuck you, Dave" in as many ways as I can dream up; I really don't feel that I'm more shallow or callous for choosing not to live in western Kansas my whole life. Brooks seems to view voluntarily relocating as a betrayal akin to leaving one's spouse. There's also the whole debate over whether a remote/virtual community constitutes a "community" but I already hashed this out with Dreher, so...fuck you, Dave.
Binding ourselves to other by social solidarity and love. I just don't feel that we have a problem with this, and Brooks never proved otherwise. "Inhumanly manipulative and cold" just isn't among the common KTD stereotypes of the moment - we stereotype them as too sensitive, too engaged in solidarity. Perhaps Brooks' upper-class world is full to the brim with outright sociopaths (in fact, given the recent news cycles I'd say there's a good chance), but that's not the world at large.
Moving up a bit:
...He gathers their wisdom on how to choose a partner, how to pick a vocation, how to live out a philosophy, and how we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose.How to choose a partner. Apparently in the world of the upper class, they don't just fall in love, go on a bunch of dates and then get hitched. Per Brooks, they get married to people who can advance their careers, and he assumes the rest of us are the same way. In Chapter 7 of the previous book, he suggested (over the course of five positively inhuman pages) that the purpose of love is to achieve some sort of personal betterment. I might suggest that choosing a partner based on those metrics is just as cynical as choosing for money and status. Either way, you are treating a human being as a means to an end.
How to pick a vocation. Again, most of us don't have the privilege to pick a job based on meaning. That's not even an option. I'd love to commit to writing full-time and honing the craft, but I'd be a very hungry man. The status vs. meaning dichotomy is another upper class problem Brooks projects onto the United States as a whole because he is out of touch and doesn't know better.
How to live out a philosophy. I struggle somewhat to reconcile this with Brooks' belief that holding strong political beliefs is a mistake and one must be a "trimmer." I feel like I am very deeply committed to a philosophy and Brooks insists that this is "tribalism" and very dangerous. Should I commit to a belief and remain firm no matter what, or should I bend and twist with the changes?
How we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose. I did wonder about this, because reading through this, all I could think of is all the potential conflicts in Brooks' perfect world. What if your philosophy is Catholicism and you opt to enter a monastic order? What if your vocation entails traveling to places in crisis, spending extensive time away from home? That's not what he means, though, and judging by the conclusion to The Road to Character I can't expect an answer.
The outcome of all this predictable. In the previous book, Brooks insisted that it's impossible to be a good person on your own, that you need structure and even shame to accomplish anything of merit. To be an individual is to be ruthless and greedy and cynical almost by definition. It is to grasp for glory with both hands, to treat other human beings as resources or obstacles, and ultimately to become less human. Bold arguments from Brooks, and hard to reconcile with the actual character of the youth of the nation, or even his own vision. After all, Brooks' ideal future as laid out in his writings is hardly egalitarian. He sees people as serving beneath a local elite who do receive wealth and status but apparently don't enjoy them, or at least don't enjoy them publicly where it might induce ambition among the Happy Peasants.
I'll probably never have anything to do with The Committed Life because, ultimately, the problems within are going to be the same as any other book on How to Live. By assuming that there is only one way to be fulfilled, all of these books rely on a lack of imagination and (ironically in this case) empathy, assuming that one's own experience of life is the only one. This being an advice book, I'd also feel compelled to ask a question that makes me a little uncomfortable: Has David Brooks changed his own life in accordance with the teaching within? The wisest teachers live their own lessons, after all. But Brooks has always been a master projectionist when it comes to his ideals. He found no lasting happiness in the pursuit of unearned status, so it's time for the rest of us to find our hairshirts and cords. Mr. Brooks will, of course, continue to bask in praise over his "brilliant insight" - but I'm sure he doesn't enjoy. It's just part of a commitment he made.