The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks
Brooks is the latest in a long line of writers to try to bridge the distance from science to culture, and from there to politics. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels come to mind, as do Charles Davenport, the first president of the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations, and Ernst Rüdin, his successor at the IFEO helm and a co-founder of the German Society for Racial Hygiene. More recently, and less scandalously, the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry tried to bring an Americanized version of psychoanalysis to bear on big social questions, while Rollo May and Abraham Maslow proposed to remake the world with their humanistic psychology, as did B.F. Skinner with his behaviorism. Nor is Brooks the first to draft fiction to do the job. “I’m going to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” he announces at the outset of The Social Animal, invoking Rousseau’s Emile. He probably shouldn’t have set the bar quite so high, especially when he could have reasonably compared his book to Skinner’s Walden Two and Aldous Huxley’s Island, novels whose wooden characters, contrived situations and turgid prose are far worse than what one finds in The Social Animal.
These science-minded utopians may disagree wildly with one another about the essence of human nature, and the kind of world best suited to its flourishing, but they all are equally certain that only scientific inquiry (or at least their version of it) can settle the matter. We can crack our own source code, they believe, and once we have deciphered how genes or Oedipal complexes or reinforcement mechanisms inscribe us, we can build a world in which we cannot help being, as Skinner once put it, “automatically good.” Approached this way, the old riddle of modernity—how autonomous selves can be bound together without coercion—will have been solved.
Having used science to determine beyond all doubt what constitutes our “true makeup,” these dreamers then claim that their answer to the question of what the good life is and why it is good is not arbitrary or incomplete or even subject to debate (except by scientists using the scientific method). When Brooks has Erica’s adulterous night with a tycoon turn into a flop (“just motions without any reverberations”), one so awful that forever after the mere idea of adultery “filled her with an intense and unthinking aversion,” he is not suggesting that her remorse reflects the point of view of the author or the character. Rather, her newfound automatic goodness reflects only what social scientists, according to Brooks, already know: in “the debate between On the Road and It’s a Wonderful Life,” there is a clear winner. “People who have one recurrent sexual partner in a year are happier than people who have multiple partners.” Monogamy is how a mind that wants nothing more than “community, connection, and interpenetration” conducts its sex life, which is why Erica’s regret is not mere faith-based guilt, and why this outcome is better than, say, relishing an illicit hookup, feeling moderately guilty for a few weeks and then forgetting about it. Erica’s adultery was a betrayal of “the deepest potential of her own nature,” Brooks says, which is why we should all draw the same lesson from her remorse: monogamy is the social arrangement best suited to our “true makeup.”
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With data, if not God, on his side, Brooks claims certainty for his advocacy of sexual fidelity (presumably as good for gays as it is for straights, which may be why he favors gay marriage) and the other virtues he espouses, which include self-control, wisdom and modesty. But more important, he claims to possess the antidote to a poison he thinks has been coursing through the body politic since at least the middle of the eighteenth century—one that has made it impossible for us moderns to see how we are truly made. Brooks argues (or, more accurately, has Harold explain to Erica in one of many wonkish lectures delivered near the end of the book) that the plague was unleashed when Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and other philosophes of the French Enlightenment, with their “great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth,” prevailed over Britons like Hume, Smith and Burke, and their idea that, as Hume put it, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” The French view that “society and its institutions [are] machines, to be taken apart and reengineered,” triumphed over the British tendency “to see them as organisms, infinitely complex networks of living relationships” that can’t be dissected without destroying “the connections between the things you are studying.” The rest, Brooks says, is history—the disastrous history of well-intentioned efforts by think tanks and policy-makers to improve the world, efforts that are inevitably undermined because they are in thrall to a misplaced faith in the individual’s prerogative to use reason to improve him- or herself.
This confusion explains our current political stalemate. The left and the right, Brooks claims, are equally steeped in French-influenced individualism—the “individualism of the market” (the right) or the “individualism of the moral sphere” (the left). The right wants lower taxes, privatized Social Security, school vouchers; the left wants choices about abortion and euthanasia, religion and family affiliation. Each has had its revolution—“one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s”—and each revolution served society poorly. “No matter who was in power, the prevailing winds had been blowing in the direction of autonomy, individualism, and personal freedom, not in the directions of society, social obligations, and communal bonds.” Both sides made the mistake of assuming “there was a direct relationship between improving material conditions and solving problems.” And by ignoring “matters of character, culture, and morality” both sides failed to grasp the significance of Burke’s reminder that “the senses and imagination”—our points of access to the intersubjective world in which real life happens—“captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them, or to oppose them.”
Burke thought those educated sensibilities would automatically gravitate toward beautiful monarchies rather than the messy democracies favored by the French. But in Brooks’s telling, science is heedless of politics, and “the cognitive revolution of the past thirty years…strongly indicate[s] that the British Enlightenment view of human nature is more accurate than the French” view. The idea of an ultimately unfathomable inner landscape, of ourselves as a mystery that cannot be plumbed and yet must be broached, is the legacy of that disastrous eighteenth-century turn. In real life, as Brooks tells us Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” In the grip of individualistic ideology, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be a social animal. We’ve been thinking too hard about our moral lives, about discovering the truth and the good in our deep interior, and all we have to show for it is decadence, political deadlock and disastrous social policies. Now that science has alerted us to the error of our ways, Brooks says, it is time once again to take seriously what Adam Smith understood as the education of our sentiments.
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In The Social Animal, Harold’s education is the handiwork of a Ms. Taylor, an “overwrought” young woman, singer-songwriter by night, high school teacher by day, whose “emotional neediness” and other “sentimental qualities” make her a “superstar” when it comes to teaching kids. She believes she can “look deep into her students’ souls, diagnose their core longing” and devise a syllabus to match it, which in Harold’s case turns out to be classical Greek literature. She forces him to find the relevance of Aeschylus and Herodotus to his present life, even wrests from him a final paper titled “Pericles at the Prom.” Without his knowing it, Ms. Taylor guides Harold “through a method that had him surfing in and out of his unconscious” until he “no longer had to work to apply qualities like thumos to the world around him; they simply became the automatic categories of his mind, the way he perceived new situations.”
Erica’s education occurs in a charter school. She ends up there after bursting into a school board meeting and demanding entry to the academy, behavior that rather than getting her kicked out somehow persuades the school’s benefactor to order his board to rig the lottery in her favor. “Surround a person with a new culture,” Brooks says, and “they will absorb new habits of thought and behaviors.” Sure enough, a few years and intemperate outbursts later, Erica “has taught herself, or been taught by those around her, to see situations in the right way.” Equipped with an automatic goodness mechanism, she finds that her ruthlessness has been channeled into the right kind of ambition, and she’s off to succeed in the game of life.
What Erica and Harold acquire by accident—an unfailingly accurate EPS—is, Brooks proposes, not unlike the expertise of chess grandmasters: the ability to see the array of pieces on the board as a story. Their sentiments educated, they emerge with “domain expertise,” with the ability to know, without thinking about it, indeed without even knowing that they know, what move to make next.
That this kind of expertise is rarely achieved, and then only by accident, is, according to Brooks, the most tragic burden of the French legacy. It’s not that we don’t act automatically; it’s just that we automatically do the wrong things. That’s why we have a government that can’t decide whether to be a nanny state or an absent father, despite the demands of our neuropsychological makeup for something else entirely: the “limited but energetic” politics proposed by Alexander Hamilton, one that gets involved only insofar as it creates the conditions for our prospering.
The French legacy confounds our political lives in other ways. You may think you are attracted to a candidate or a party out of conviction, because the person or the group reflects the values and beliefs you have cultivated, but according to Brooks, you; have it backward. His scientists have concluded that we generally inherit our party affiliations from our parents or form them in early adulthood. These affiliations then shape our beliefs. “People become Democrats first, then place increasing value on equal opportunity, or they become Republicans first, then place increasing value on limited government.” The problem is not that we lack conviction, or that our convictions are shamelessly manipulated by politicians, corporations and the media, all of which have an equal stake in maintaining the stalemate. The problem is conviction itself. Belief—in our case the belief that we are morally autonomous beings—throws off our EPS, skewing our view of the game board. “People’s perceptions,” Brooks says, “are blatantly biased by partisanship.”
Ideologies: evidently we all have them, and they all stink. Replace them with science, however, and we can’t help creating a culture that will equip us with what comes naturally to Harold and Erica: a magnificent cognitive apparatus, one that can’t help achieving a “wonderfully fulfilling” life for its host.
“We can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action.” Brooks cites this remark of Immanuel Kant’s very near the end of his book, just before Harold, incapacitated by tendinitis and old age, and sitting on the porch of his house in Aspen, peacefully slips away. It’s a curious coda, given the scientism that pervades The Social Animal—all the facts and figures, all the breathlessly recounted neuroscientific insights about our true makeup (strippers earn 45 percent less in tips when they are menstruating! spouses in a healthy marriage make five positive comments for every negative one!). Brooks no doubt means to complement his earlier allusions to the necessity of “epistemological modesty” and the value of “negative capability” (the capacity to live in a state of uncertainty)—British inventions both. It’s as if by introducing a German philosopher, Brooks thinks he can squeeze the arrogant French from both sides of the map.