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Thursday, July 29th, 2004


 

On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense

by David Brooks

What, Me Worry?

A review by Nicholas Lemann

A funny man is an angry man. David Brooks sets himself up in his new book as an amiable, sunny-dispositioned "comic sociologist," but something that feels awfully like hostility (and that is a lot more interesting, therefore, than the niceness that characterizes Brooks's official persona) regularly pokes through, like a rampaging weed in a genteel flowerbed. Here, for example, are "Ubermoms," one of Brooks's amusing categories:

You can spot them easily, because they generally weigh less than their children. They may have given birth to their youngest one, say, twelve hours before, but they still have washboard abs and buttocks firmer than footballs. That's because even at the moment of conception, which occurs during highly aerobic multiorgasmic intercourse, the prospective alpha mother is doing special breast exercises to prevent sagging. While her love partner is contentedly dozing at her side in postconnubial bliss, as his sperm is breaching the membrane of her incredibly fit and fertile egg, she is staring at the ceiling calculating which year her child will be ready to enter nursery school and when she can run to be chairperson of the school auction.

Mee-ow!

And here are residents of the urban "hippoisie cool zone":

It's cooler to be poor and damaged than wealthy and accomplished, which is why rich and beautiful supermodels stand around in bars trying to look like Sylvia Plath and the Methadone Sisters, with their posthygiene hair, a red-rimmed, teary look around their eyes, their orange, just-escaped-from-the-mentalhospital blouses, and the sort of facial expression that suggests they're about forty-five seconds away from a spectacularly successful suicide attempt.

And -- one more -- the professional classes in "inner-ring suburbs":

Eventually these advanced-degree moguls cave in and buy the toys they really want: the heated bathroom floors to protect their bare feet, the power showers with nozzles every six inches, the mudrooms the size of your first apartment, the sixteen-foot refrigerators with the through-the-door goat cheese and guacamole delivery systems, the cathedral ceilings in the master bedroom that seem to be compensation for not quite getting to church.

There is nothing wrong with being not-nice, Lord knows, and Brooks is regularly funnier than he struck me as being in the passages that I have just quoted. The puzzle of On Paradise Drive is the mismatch between its tone and its stated message, which is that the time has come for us to celebrate the genius of American middle-class suburban culture.

One can easily understand the contrarian appeal of Brooks's supposed project. Although the suburban middle class is certainly not in any actual danger, it does often get a bad press. Most accounts of the situation in which most Americans live have a tone of grim concern or even crisis, as Brooks rather gleefully points out. This isn't a recent phenomenon (think of Bowling Alone or Habits of the Heart) or a phenomenon only of the past half-century (think of The Organization Man and The Lonely Crowd). It has been a constant in writing about America since Europeans began coming here on inspection tours before the founding of the United States. As a result, it is hard to figure out from the published record what precisely accounts for the success of the dominant culture in what is now, for good or ill, the world's dominant nation. And that is the task that Brooks sets for himself: defining "the First Suburban Empire."

His means for accomplishing it is a satiric grand tour of the country, accomplished first geographically and then through life stages. In prose that is bouncy and always straining for a laugh, Brooks riffs us through a collection of "archetypes" -- or, more accurately, stereotypes -- that will be familiar to readers of his magazine work: Patio Man and Realtor Mom, dutifully conformist college students and overscheduled sports kids, cell-phone-clutching businessmen and self-regarding magazine editors. In the manner of Tom Wolfe, who is obviously a heavy influence on Brooks, he builds characters, and in the aggregate the country, from the outside in, through recitations of what he supposes to be their brand-name consumer preferences. Brooks nails what Wolfe calls "status details" quite well, and then he goes for the laugh with a hyperbolizing twist, such as calling Patio Man's street Trajan's Column Terrace, or having him contemplate roasting a bison on his new outdoor grill, or, in another part of the forest, comparing my ex-wife to Goethe. It says a lot about most journalistic and academic writing on the suburbs that Brooks, merely by employing a light tone and displaying an interest in commercial culture, and without having engaged in backbreaking authorial labors, achieves the feeling of being a fresh voice on this much worked-over subject.

For some reason Brooks has elected never to say in On Paradise Drive that he is a conservative, though he doesn't hesitate to proclaim his beliefs in other venues. He occasionally tosses in an evenhanded though somewhat rote-sounding condemnation of conservative writers who hand-wring about the state of American society (differently from the liberals, of course -- think of Robert Bork). Still, his conservatism manifests itself. One sign is the high ration of venom in his descriptions of liberals:

The anthropology professor can stride through life knowing she was unanimously elected chairwoman of her crunchy suburb's sustainable-growth study seminar. She wears the locally approved status symbols: the Tibet-motif dangly earrings, the Andrea Dworkin-inspired hairstyle, the peasant blouse, and the public-broadcasting tote bag. She is, furthermore, the best outdoorswoman in the Georgia O'Keeffe Hiking Club, and her paper on twentieth-century Hopi protest graffiti was much admired at last year's Multidisciplinary OutGroup Research Conference. No wonder she feels so righteous in her beliefs.

Another is his lack of a sense that there is any real wrong or misfortune in American society -- no want, no discrimination, no unfairness. By focusing on the suburbs, Brooks has pre-emptively taken out of the discussion the parts of the country where most poor people live, the cities and rural areas; but he does, perhaps by way of demonstrating that he is being unideological in these pages, mention a time or two that there are some problems out there. These rare passages are stated so dutifully and perfunctorily compared with everything else -- "We devote the highest percentage of GDP to health care than any other people, and have the best hospitals, but more than 40 million of us are uninsured. We are incredibly rich, but our distribution of income is strikingly unequal, and the American welfare state is much smaller than that of comparable nations" -- that they actually communicate unconcern. At the same time, Brooks's summary of anyone else's criticisms of American culture, especially foreigners' criticism, fairly vibrates with rage, and so it communicates that he regards the project of America-criticism as not significantly different from the project of America-hatred, and inherently illegitimate and evil: "They feel spiritually superior to Americans but are economically, politically, and socially outranked. They conclude that the world is diseased, that it rewards the wrong values. They have no real strategy to bring the U.S. low, just their rage, their burning sense of unjust inferiority, their envy mixed with snobbery."

Brooks's understanding of the United States as a collection of happy, materially prosperous types -- this is his second book in which he refers to bourgeois America in his title as "paradise" -- also implicitly rules out the possibility that anybody might be doing better than anybody else, let alone that some are doing well at the expense of others. Explicitly, Brooks insists, "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." Even if one believes that all ressentiment is unjustified, it is so widespread an emotion (residing, for starters, in the president of the United States himself) that removing it from the discussion robs one of a lot of interesting material about American culture.

What's good about Brooks's putative lack of politics in On Paradise Drive is that it takes out of his reach what would be, if he were writing as an "out" conservative, the weapon most readily at hand: portraying Middle America as a great civilization threatened by the liberal culture on the coasts. That is a stance that works rhetorically, but one can almost recite its particulars from memory. It is hard to imagine a restatement of the defense of the middle class against unfair attack that could come across as original.

Brooks has set a more challenging task for himself, which is to offer a version of mainstream American culture that is persuasively celebratory and that explains its extensive influence on the rest of the world. "Comic sociologist" though he may be, Brooks obviously aspires to a status grander than that of a mere jokester; and finally his book does not lack for soaring rhetoric. He wants to be a theoretician of ordinary American society. This is a project that has defeated many writers more scholarly and thoughtful than he. If one is writing about the Founding Fathers, say, there is a natural fit between the magnitude of the evidence at hand and the grandeur of the sociopolitical result. But everyday life in America today -- if one understands it, as Brooks does, as possessing world-historical significance (he glibly invokes Whitman, Emerson, John Winthrop, Crèvecoeur, Jonathan Edwards, and others as witnesses in his case) -- presents a more difficult problem, because the material itself is exceedingly quotidian. Brooks is obviously aware that it isn't easy to make something profound out of the world of SUVs and big-box retail outlets. His relentlessly upbeat language and his stated eschewal of ideology only increase the difficulty.

That Brooks does not deliver on the promise of his book may merely be a sign that he has set an insuperable task for himself. Almost no interesting and valuable portrait of the American suburbs tries to make a big point, or to have its characters and settings represent anything more than themselves. And On Paradise Drive feels hasty, stitched-together, under-researched. There are problems of continuity in the argument: in an early passage, for example, Brooks appears to sign on to the idea that well-educated "hard-core meritocrats" now form "a mass upper class" of millionaires, but in a later passage he approvingly offers Thomas Stanley's quite different version of the American millionaire as an indifferent student who didn't get an elite education. American society as a whole comes across in this book as a giant version of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, where Brooks lives. Brooks mentions a lot of other locales, but his rendition of them and the people who live in them does not have the same tone of assurance and familiarity. Driving around these places on short visits and combing through marketing statistics may produce some interesting results if your eye is as sharp as Brooks's; but it is striking that Brooks nails his own sociological microclimate -- professional, Eastern -- far better than any other.

Then there is a more profound problem. We may grant Brooks an exception for people with Andrea Dworkin-inspired hairstyles, but in order to succeed at his self-assigned task, he has to like -- I mean really like -- typical bourgeois American suburbanites. At the level of generality, he does like them; but when he encounters them individually (individually as types, that is), his heart just isn't in the project of liking them. Immigrants are an exception: Brooks's descriptions of them are genuinely empathetic and approving. But when he gets into the belly of the suburban beast -- white, cheerful, subdivision-dwelling, in business -- Brooks adopts a tone that strikes me as patronizing rather than truly admiring:

They are imagining waterskiing buddies and Little League teams. They are imagining happy high school graduations, even though that high school may still be nothing but a steel frame. They are imagining outings with friends at home-style Italian restaurants that don't exist yet, outings to Science Olympiads with unformed teams, road trips to spring training with friends they haven't met, who are now sitting in their old suburb and haven't contemplated moving here. But they will.

Or (remember, Brooks is describing people he sees as embodying the genius of American society):

They will endure hour upon hour of jargonics, the unique sales-conference language, receiving valuable advice on how they can prioritize their cost-effective operational performance and increase network functionality while magnifying their brand power through strategic B-to-B partnering in ways that will leverage their competitive-advantage matrixes without sacrificing any of their core-competency components or their multiple-vendor, mission-critical supply-chain service-provider solution resources.

Or, in describing politely ambitious college students: "They are engaged in objectless striving, working furiously at one level, so they can be admitted into the next and more exclusive level of striving." How different are these sentiments -- not the way they are expressed, but the sentiments themselves -- from what you would hear from the sort of censorious commencement speaker that Brooks would almost certainly eviscerate?

Reading along in On Paradise Drive, I felt certain that I knew where Brooks was going: he would find most of his subjects to be good people who were leading too-shallow lives, for which the remedy would be the kind of "national-greatness conservatism" that he and his former colleagues at The Weekly Standard have been advocating for the past several years. There were passages that seemed to exist partly to set the stage for the introduction of the concept of national greatness: Brooks wondering whether suburban materialism has a spiritual base, or complaining about college students' lack of a sense of mission. At one point Brooks even seems to be longing for a return of the old regime: "The best members of the WASP aristocracy know that privilege corrodes virtue in certain ways. They worked up a moral language to fight that. We have only the dimmest idea of how the achievement ethos corrodes virtue in certain other ways. And we have not begun to come up with a way to counter it."

But every time Brooks walks up to this particular precipice, he backs away, and returns to his happy little tour of suburban America, with its characteristic mockery in the guise of praise. His decision not to call for a series of grand, ennobling, redeeming national projects may stem from a desire to keep the tone light and non-partisan, or to avoid getting into arguments with his critics about the chief manifestation of national-greatness conservatism presently before us, the war in Iraq. But it is a decision with heavy consequences for his book.

Brooks must find moral profundity in suburban civilization in its actual, mundane form, rather than in the form that it would assume if provided with a mission. This, it turns out, is a lot of work. Brooks has to strain to detect transcendence in the very shopping magazines ("These magazines are about aspiration") and malls ("What is truly striking about this country is how material things are shot through with enchantment") that he has spent page after page gently, or not so gently, satirizing. He has contradicted the tone, and even the stated position, of significant portions of the book, those in which Brooks appears to detect a hollowness in his subject. He has to employ a kind of ad-copy prose that is a sign that he has drawn a difficult debating position: "The old impulses, fevers, and fantasies still play themselves out amid the Palm Pilots, the Hummers, the closet organizers, and the travel-team softball leagues."

Brooks's argument is that even if most Americans aspire merely to the ordinary, the universality of their aspiration elevates our society to distinctiveness and connects it with the moral profundity of the Puritan "errand in the wilderness." Brooks has forbidden us, in one of his New York Times columns, to think of him as a neoconservative, but it seems inarguable, at least, that he is not a paleoconservative -- someone who finds ordinary life inherently noble, and grand moral and political passions inherently dangerous. It just isn't in his playbook to praise the typical suburbanite, sincerely and with a straight face, merely for wanting to live out his or her life among family and cars and malls. He can satirize; he can chastise; he can, straining, detect a kind of holiness (hence his repeated use of the word "paradise") in his subjects' ambitions. What he cannot do is celebrate them for what, evidently, they are.

Brooks, we know from his columns, very much dislikes realists, and he is trying very, very hard here to give us a nation of moralists, when all the evidence that he presents runs in the other direction. At most, his subjects, if he is right about their predilection for super-sized consumer products, are practitioners merely of national-bigness conservatism. Hence the visible strain in the passages that are supposed to deliver the heartfelt praise on which the book's point depends:

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.

American society, especially the center of it, is an important subject, and it is also an accessible one, but it presents more literary and intellectual perils than you would expect. In cleverly and successfully avoiding some of them -- artificial gloominess, facile prescription, political hectoring -- David Brooks has let himself fall prey to what is, in this realm, the most venerable peril of them all: boosterism.


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