The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks
Brooks would also say that his call for humility is in keeping with what the scientists know about us: that we are immersed in a dynamic, intersubjective world, one that reason can’t possibly apprehend in its fullness. He is no doubt right about that. But it is hardly modest for him to claim that the composition of those secret springs of action can be known, that they are placid and refreshing, that they flow in an orderly fashion and that they can be harnessed for our use. His confidence in his knowledge echoes the constellation of scientists and thinkers who have, in recent years, turned to the study of happiness. Books like The Politics of Happiness, by Derek Bok, and Flourish, the latest offering by the father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, propose that we use science’s insights into human nature to create a politics that ensures our happiness—a politics that some way or another always ends up resembling some version of late capitalist democracy.
But felicitous as it may seem, this prescription has a problem. In The Social Animal Brooks puts Harold and Erica through their paces: wins and losses, good sex and bad, adultery and alcoholism and depression. Harold, finding himself deep in his cups too often, goes to a few AA meetings, decides to drink less, and then does; he treats his ennui (and his regret at not having had children) by getting involved in a camp for girls—all without actual drunkenness, hangovers, penance, sadness or anything resembling passion. For her part, Erica not only leaves adultery behind with nary a look back; she becomes White House deputy chief of staff without ever having fought a political battle or espoused a single belief. She’s an empty vessel waiting to be filled with Brooks’s political philosophy by way of Harold’s tiresome lectures. But Brooks never shows Harold or Erica struggling or confused or damaged in a way that compels sympathy or engagement. They are endlessly resilient, the shining embodiment of the Composure Class that Brooks thinks is our proper destiny, and to which a culture of scientism makes entry automatic.
This is no mere literary failure, or an indication that Brooks ought to stick to his day job. Nor is it only the predictable downfall of extended allegory. It is also a failure of the imagination, of the sentiments, and therefore of Brooks’s idea of sentimental education. Brooks engineers a new world—how French is that?—and then fills his characters with his sentiments, his gauzy and fervent wishes for a civilization of modest and moderate people untroubled by belief. In that world, it really doesn’t matter that one ideology favors protecting the poor from the rich while another seeks a government that does the opposite. On planet Brooks, all convictions are equally worthless. The good life is a shiny, skull-numbing slither along the surface of things, and the best world is fashioned by wise, scientifically informed leaders. In that world, it is not absurd, let alone obscene, to use Kant’s reflection on the endless uncertainty of our moral lives in the way Brooks does: to comment on Harold’s decision about which brand of car to buy. This is your brain on Brooks: an organ hard-wired to reduce moral decisions to consumer choices.
And therein lies the appeal of this book. Who would not like to believe that we harbor deep within us the inborn ability to grapple successfully, and free of anguish, with the ever-multiplying, seemingly insoluble moral conundrums we face? Those of us who, unlike Brooks, live in a state of negative capability, must be willing to admit that he could be right, that our dourness and doubts about our prospects are mere error, that our sense of the unconscious as irredeemably wild, of human life as inescapably tragic, and of struggle and contradiction and belief as crucial aspects of what makes life worth living could be entirely misguided, or even perverse. On the other hand, if my true moral makeup is such that the decision to buy a Honda or a Ford is no different from the decision to have children or the decision to support a candidate or to protect someone from shame, decisions all arrived at as smoothly as an automatic transmission cycling through the gears; and if the government adopts policies to help me function that way, then, like Ivan Karamazov, I think I’m going to return my ticket.
Brooks wants our leaders to do to us what he has done to Erica and Harold: fill us with a scientifically justified notion of the good life. That vision of the good life is what’s ultimately unforgivable, and frightening, about The Social Animal. Precisely because human nature is malleable, and selves the product of culture, we should be afraid when people with power and influence tell us they know who we are and what is good for us. Scientific theories of human nature aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. They can’t help adopting as universal the passing fancies of a given age—or, in the present case, the fervent hopes of a ruling class whose greed and ambition seem to know no limits, and who, cheered on by their favorite newspaper pundit, would warmly embrace a politics dedicated to making a populace happy in exactly the way Brooks describes. A government devoted to our happiness is a terrifying prospect. I’d settle for a politics, and a political columnist, committed to preventing misery.