jimsleeper.com » That Social Animal, David Brooks

That Social Animal, David Brooks

By Jim Sleeper – March 28, 2011, 2:13PM

“Aren’t you going to say something about David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal?” a reader-friend e-mailed me yesterday. It was the most recent of several such inquiries, but until I heard Brooks on a book-tour talk show this morning, I wasn’t inclined to add to what’s been said: Thomas Nagel’s New York Times review was eviscerating, if also condescending and churlish; Alan Wolfe’s more thoughtful assessment in The New Republic (subscription required) called it “a book by a conservative in which science is being used to buttress a prior point of view.”

But after listening to Brooks run through his folksy sound bites on the Albany, New York NPR station’s “The Roundtable” with Joe Donahue this morning, I realized that someone should explain why his summaries of recent neuroscience and cognitive science research merely dress up old and important truths as new breakthroughs. Someone should explain why Brooks, that great portraitist of middle class life, is invoking social science to confirm what every mother more decent than Amy Chua has always known.

The reason is that Brooks has spent so many years and so much ink mocking people who already understood these essential truths that he’s trying to achieve a political makeover without having to make an apology. To apologize might remind too many people of all the bloodshed, social degradation and individual dispossession and suffering that he has abetted so genially for twenty years. If Brooks were taking his own book’s message seriously as a writer, he’d admit that The Social Animal is, at bottom, his personal attempt to come in from the cold.

He’ll succeed at this, for reasons both good and bad: As the book should alert its most discerning readers, Brooks’ conscious if artful public penitence rides a powerful undercurrent of opportunistic ingratiation. Only time will tell whether the consequences themselves will be good or bad. I’m willing to wish him well while offering a few cautions.

On the good side, Brooks is quite right to declare — better late than never — that most of what we do in life is a consequence not of rational choices made by us as rugged individuals or the mythical homo economicus; rather, most of it is a consequence of unconscious needs stimulated in us and mediated in our lives by our interdependence with other people. “We’re not individuals who form relationships, we emerge out of relationships,” as Brooks said this morning.

He also rightly disparaged the individualist, free-market model of decision-making, characterizing the global financial crisis as an instance of emotional contagion among clueless bankers taking cues from one another. (The causes could be characterized a bit more systemically than that, but never mind.) Brooks even crooned a few proto-feminist ditties this morning: Not only does social science show that how an infant bonds with its mother foretells whether he or she will graduate high school, it shows that men like Brooks have more trouble than women in talking about their emotions and reading emotional signals in situations.

Who knew? Actually, a lot of people did. All of this is so central to so much feminist and progressive social and economic thinking that we tend to forget that some of it was always understood by certain conservatives, too, from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott. But, as Wolfe notes in the New Republic, America’s “free-market,” corporate-state conservatives have seldom been Burkeans. In fact, they’ve been heavy investors and shills for precisely the “rugged-individualist” thinking that Brooks, who shilled right alongside them, is now so keen to discredit. But I’ll bet that, on the more conservative talk shows, he’s noting that it’s not poverty per se, but the culture of poverty that’s causing social bonds to fray.

Now, he tells us, “I’m less individualistic” than before, and “I believe in early childhood education, I believe that government should help.” Thanks to his readings in social science, he adds, he has become more interested in the emotional and psychological bonds that connect people.

This last observation is a lie, and here we begin to see the disingenuous side of Brooks’ supposed makeover: He has always had a preternaturally keen eye for “the emotional and psychological bonds that connect people.” That was what made his writing so alluring to liberals in the first place. The difference then was that he spun his acute observations to make fun of liberals who took emotions and interdependency too seriously. He never seemed to wonder then — and doesn’t seem to now — whether all those hapless, feckless liberals’ reactions were really just that: reactive, not causal, to daily atrocities that were prompting them, from the contagion of greed among the bankers to the lusts of consumer marketers and warmongers — all of whom Brooks was defending and celebrating, as I showed apropos the Iraq war, predatory lending, and more at the time.

I reprised this harshly when The New Yorker’s George Packer tried to rehabilitate Brooks a few years ago, characterizing both of them as two monkeys grooming each other in the chattering classes’ zoo. A lot of what Brooks published and said in the years after that only confirmed my warnings.

Has he truly outgrown it all now? So we can hope. “The [ideological, left vs. right] labels are crude,” he said this morning, calling for “epistemological modesty” and urging that if we can start with a perception that we don’t have the whole truth, we’ll give greater priority to conversations across the old lines.

I’m reserving judgment, and I wish that people at The New Yorker and all the other places that are welcoming him in from the cold would reserve judgment, too. The “bad” reasons for Brooks’ makeover make its consequences unpredictable.

Toward the end of the 2008 election campaign, as Brooks was writhing and gyrating to maintain some intellectual self-respect without losing hold of his partisan and “market” niche as what Wolfe calls “the frequently interesting and reasonable-even-when-you-disagree-with-him” conservative, I predicted here that he ‘d slip into the posture of a wise, above-the-battle, columnist. I predicted that he would spin what Jonathan Chait of the New Republic has aptly called his “sociological ditties,” descending every so often to shoot the wounded, as he did recently to public-sector union workers in Wisconsin.

Now that the American national and global-capitalist dispensation he championed so sinuously is losing a lot of its legitimacy and sustainability, Brooks wants us to excuse him from the old game of ideological and partisan point-scoring. He’s donning the mantle of social science to say, credibly to the rest of us, what some of us have already been saying for years.

As I put it in an anthology of essays on George Orwell in 2004,

Orwell saw early while both the left and the right have credible claims on certain truths, each tends to cling to its own claims so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right about how the other is wrong. At any historical moment, one side’s claims may be the more liberating in struggle against the other’s institutionalized power and cant: For example, in the dark, proto-fascist Europe of the interwar years, Orwell sought liberation through democratic socialist movements, and indeed his sympathies abided with workers throughout his life, albeit sometimes against their self-proclaimed leaders as well as against Tories.

But he never forgot that both sides tend to get stuck in their imagine upswings and to disappoint in the end. The left’s almost willful misreadings of human nature made it founder in swift currents of nationalism and religion, pitching from sweeping denials of their importance to abject surrender: Stalin’s Russian-nationalist “Socialism in One Country;” Marxism as a secular messianism. Yet neither did Orwell doubt that the corporate capitalist state and its ministries of information could pose Nineteen Eighty-Fourish dangers.

He was always on the left enough to seek solidarity in struggles against capitalist overreach, but he also held to an irreducible personal dignity and responsibility that balk at solidarity itself. Just as a healthy person walks on both a left foot and a right one, a society needs both a left foot of social equality and social provision – without which neither the individuality nor the communal bonds which conservatives honor could exist – and a right foot of personal liberty through responsibility, without which leftists’ social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

The tragedy of David Brooks is that he has always known both sides of this but wouldn’t admit to all of it, for unconscious or semi-conscious reasons his new book should have helped him to recognize.

As Nicholas Confessore showed unforgettably in the Washington Monthly in 2004, Brooks has always had a maddening habit of oscillating between serious commentary and conservative hackery: In one column, he’ll stroke his chin like a sober savant; in the next, he’ll gyrate shamelessly for ideologues such as George W. Bush and for partisan operators such as Karl Rove or Scooter Libby.

It’s a little hard to believe that he has shed that habit when you recall his most recent spins on the Republican governors’ public-sector union-busting efforts, or on the causes of the mortgage crisis. This is an especially odd moment for Brooks to be calling for conversations across partisan and ideological lines. As the civil-rights movement understood — but as neither Brooks nor those who are welcoming his overtures give much sign of understanding — dialogue sometimes has to coexist with conflict, with taking firm stands. Sometimes, in other words, it still matters what side you’re on and what you do to maintain credibly a stance from which to converse.

Brooks knows well Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning that social science offers no way out of this challenge. But I suspect that he and his enablers are trying to avoid facing it. When The New Yorker ran an early excerpt of Brooks’ new book, I couldn’t help recalling the critic Robert Warshow’s observation, more than half a century ago that that magazine serves the liberal who is seeking “the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict….

“The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it,” Warshow continued. “This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately. The gracelessness of capitalism becomes an entirely external phenomenon, a spectacle that one can observe without being touched – above all, without feeling really threatened.”

Sorry to be the skunk at the garden party, but there really is something a bit too comfy about David Brooks’ revelations of truths that many have always known and that many have been willing to fight for.