Don't Worry, Be Happy
David Brooks is a writer whose chief claim to fame is not what he says but where he says it. These days he says it twice a week in the New York Times and on PBS and NPR, where he functions as the tame conservative, the right-winger without flecks of foam on the sides of his mouth. A book written by a man thus placed will get talked about perforce, and given the marketing power his position accords him, he will attract attention. He is on the required review list. His books must be given a look-see, no matter how trivial and insipid they may be.
A look-see at Brooks's On Paradise Drive reveals old-fashioned, spread-eagle oratory groaning with passages such as:
whatever the nation's problems, America, and the idealism present in that word, are the solution. America is the solution to bourgeois flatness, to materialistic complacency, to mass-media shallowness, because America, with all its utopian possibilities, arouses the energies and the most strenuous efforts. America is the answer to insularity, to balkanization, to complacency, to timidity, because America is a set of compulsions pulling people out of their narrow and trivial concerns and lifting their sights to the distant hopes.
Brooks fails to mention that America is also good for teenage acne, children with reading disabilities and/or enuresis. For those of us in our sunset years, America has proven effective in lessening the debilitating effects of arthritis. America is good for you.
In On Paradise Drive, Brooks looks at how the great American middle stratum lives (top- and bottom-income people are left for another time). But this is no Travels With Charley, for it is written by a man who, though he seems to have bounced about here and there, has no eye for the telling detail and no ear for the colorful quote. Though Brooks humbly likens his writing to Twain's and Mencken's, the best you can say for him as a writer is that he's fought the English language to a draw. Whereas Twain on the warpath was a sharpshooting rifleman and Mencken laid about with the broadsword, Brooks's literary weapon is the tweezers. Follicle by follicle, he snaps the hairs out. Painful but not so entertaining.
His travels led him to the conclusion that the middle is not an undifferentiated mass but a garden of subgroups chiefly distinguishable by how they spend their money. In a characteristically revelatory passage, Brooks writes:
Hispanics spend a far greater percentage of their income on footwear and clothing for children under two, and a far lower percentage on stationery and tobacco products than the average American consumer. Whites spend much more on entertainment and much less on clothing for teenage boys. Blacks spend more on poultry and telephones and less on furniture and books.
Judging from descriptions like that, Brooks seems to have spent the better part of the past twenty years below the gradient in a think tank. He may be the last person on this continent to have discovered giant, stand-alone box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. But if On Paradise Drive yields little of moment about contemporary America, it offers us a map of the mind of a right-winger who has cleverly packaged himself and is marketed as a caveman with a throbbing heart and a kinder, gentler sensitivity. The Brooksian gestalt is glimpsed in the following:
There is no one single elite in America. Hence, there is no definable establishment to be oppressed by and to rebel against. Everybody 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. You can be a short-story master and travel the nation from writers' conference to writers' conference, celebrated for your creativity, haircut, and style.... Ours is not a social structure conducive to revolution, domestic warfare, and conflict. The United States is not on the verge of an incipient civil war or a social explosion. If you wanted to march against the ruling elite, where exactly would you do it?
More to the point, why exactly would you write these words? Civil war? Domestic warfare? Social explosion? What can the man be thinking? The only people in the United States tortured by such turbulent dreams are crackpots, those among the very rich who are pursued by the fear that some of their money will be taken from them and naughty conservative publicists seeking to impute treason to those on their left.
These passages are revealing. The first sentence, when translated out of the original opaque, means that wealth and power have successfully disguised themselves and are safe from scrutiny. Every American man and every American woman, according to Brooks, is a king and queen in his or her small, meaningless, slightly contemptible, slightly humorous, compartmentalized world. With people organizing themselves into nothing more dangerous than skateboard clubs and long-haired writers' conferences, the possessors of power and property have nothing to fear.