Friday, March 11, 2011

Stop Beating Up on David Brooks

Writing a book is like any act of indecent exposure: You can enjoy doing it, but sooner or later, may be punished, as David Brooks is discovering.

A New York Times columnist and PBS commentator, Brooks is widely respected (including here), but "The Social Animal" is taking a pasting.

That's a risk if, like Brooks, you search for deeper meaning in the daily flood of news, particularly when you subtitle your book, "The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement."

What emerges, from promotional interviews and book reviews, is that he is using brain science and sociology to explain how "the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics...(W)e’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas."

If Brooks has set himself a high bar, he is not getting points for that from critics across the board.

Embattled NPR calls it "messy. Midway through, its characters devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces who deliver prescriptions for culture, business and politics. On occasion, Brooks veers into satire, which muddies his intentions."

Rightward, Forbes headlines "A Scornful Review," while Salon labels it "David Brooks' dream world for the trust-fund set" and Slate sums up:

"To tell the story of the unconscious and its role in shaping our fate, Brooks invents a man and a woman, Harold and Erica. The two are like the Forrest Gumps of social science..."

Ouch. But a few words, however qualified, for the defense are in order. Brooks' book seems an updated and more sophisticated version of those best-sellers of the 1950s--"The Organization Man" and "The Hidden Persuaders"--which wowed the post-World War II generation with news that society is not always what it seems and there are unseen forces at work.

If Brooks is a little late and/or "muddled" in searching for the unconscious in 21st century lives, he deserves respect for trying to understand what has driven America into a segmented, selfish and hate-filled society.

He may not have all the answers but is asking some of the right questions, and a witness for the defense can cite one of his political gifts that should not be overlooked.

In October 2006, Brooks spotted the potential of an unknown politician in a column, "Run, Barack, Run." Now he has written "Run, Mitch, Run," urging Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to go for it next year:

"He couldn’t match Obama in grace and elegance, but he could on substance. They could have a great and clarifying debate: What exactly are the paramount problems facing the country? What is government’s role in solving them?"

David Brooks deserves respect, however flawed his attempt at pseudo-novelistic deep think may be, as a journalist who is always asking the right questions. There aren't too many of them around.

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