About a month ago, I polished off David Brooks' latest effort On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. Picking up where he left off after his humorous look at "bourgeoisie bohemians" in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks turns his attention to more average Americans and looks at what drives us as a people. Part sociological, part philosophical, part historical Brooks' book is an effort to explain how much of the today's middlebrow behavior is a continuation of the pursuit of the American Dream.
While Brooks is more than willing and quite able to poke fun at what he encounters in his journey through the suburbs, schools, and shopping malls of America, he does so with a sympathetic eye, absent the sneering tone so prevalent in most of the work on this subject: for he believes in the idea of American Exceptionalism, even when it is not always so easy to recognize.
The first few chapters are a look at the type of communities we live in and what those communities say about us and the country as a whole. He deftly captures the attitude of the urban cool zones or what he calls "bike messenger land", including the "alternative" media:
As you know, the alternative weekly is the most conservative form of American journalism. You can go to just about any big city in the land and be pretty sure that the alternative weekly you find there will look exactly like the alternative weekly in the city you just left.
On dressing down to look cool:
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 post-hygiene hair, a red-rimmed teary look around their eyes, their orange, just-escaped-from-the-mental-hospital blouses, and the sort of facial expression that suggests they're about forty-five seconds away from a spectacularly successful suicide attempt.
When he reaches suburbia, he gives us a hilarious look at the "Grill-buying Guy":
Once inside the megastore, he adopts the stride American men fall into when in the presence of large amounts of lumber.
I know that swagger. I love the smell of lumber.
And what is the deciding factor in the grill buying decision matrix?
All major purchases of consumer durable goods these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.
Brooks examines the social structure in America and concludes that it defies the simple stratifications used in the past:
There is no one single elite in America. Hence, there is no definable establishment to be oppressed by and to rebel against.
One of the great observations about this country is that here, anybody can kick everybody else's ass.
As you may have noticed, 90% of Americans have way too much self-esteem (while the remainder has none at all). Nobody in this decentralized, fluid social structure knows who is mainstream and who is alternative, who is elite and who is populist.
He also looks at different areas of American life to see how the drive for exceptionalism plays out. Here are some of my favorite observations.
The American is conceived amid a flurry of quality-control evaluations ("Was it good for you honey?"), lives in an atmosphere of progress reports, and dies amid a carefully calibrated burst of obituaries, funeral evaluations, and testimonials.
It's true that most professors are liberal, and in its wisdom, American society has decided to warehouse its radicals on university campuses--in departments that serve as nunneries for the perpetually alienated.
We assume that if adults try to offer moral instruction, it will backfire, because young people will reject our sermonizing (though truth be told, they more often seem to hunger for precisely this kind of big question guidance.
The secret to American economic success is that we have millions of people in this country capable of devoting intensity to infinitesimally narrow product niches.
The American work ethic grows both out of the old-fashioned work ethic--creating oneself through labor--and out of the intoxication induced by plenty, the availability, all around, of opportunities to punch through and surpass one's fondest dreams.
Many of the best people have embraced commerce while knowing it is insufficient. They adopt a gradational ethic that begins with material striving and is meant to lead to higher aims.
And even the plethora of magazines devoted to the most arcane subject matter:
Here we begin to see the feature that we observe so often in American life: the ability to slather endless amounts of missionary zeal on apparently trivial subjects and thereby transform them into harbingers of some larger transcendence.
About those photos that people send in to Cigar Aficionado:
The best shot I ever saw in this genre featured a cigar smoker crouching in front of his Corvette, with his three-car garage and two rider mowers visible in the background: a masterpiece of compressing all of one's penis-augmentation devices into one small photograph.
Which helps explain why:
As we see again and again in suburban life, this paradise drive, this longing to realize blissful tomorrows, can take both the highest and lowest forms, involve the most noble and the most crass qualities, sometimes in the same person in the same hour.
There were a few times in the book when I thought Brooks was wandering too far a field and I didn't always understand how his argument was being laid out, but when you reach the last chapters it comes together nicely (at least it did for me). Brooks is seeking to define the American Dream, what it means to be an American, and why America is exceptional.
In fact, the American Dream is the dream of finding a place where one is liberated from the burden of the future, though that place is always in the future.
What defines us as a people is our pursuit, our movement, and our tendency to head out.
Our exceptionalism takes the form of energy and mobility and dreams of ascent.
America is a country that goes every year to the doctor and every year is told that it has contracted some fatal disease--whether it is conformity, narcissism, godlessness, or civic disengagement--and a year later, the patient comes back with cheeks still red and muscles still powerful. The diagnosis is just as grim, and the patient is just as healthy.
The bottom line for Brooks is that for all its faults, foibles, and fetishes, America is the solution. As I said earlier, that works for me.
Other books of note from my summer reading:
An American Life, the autobiography of Ronald Reagan. You want a straightforward, honest, simple, and yet compelling memoir by a President? Read this book. Here's one of my favorite anecdotes that any real American boy could relate to:
On the eve of the Fourth of July, when I was eleven, I managed somehow to obtain some prohibited fireworks, including a particularly powerful variety of firecracker known as a torpedo. As I approached the town bridge that spanned the Rock River on afternoon, I let a torpedo fly against a brick wall next to the bridge. The ensuing blast was appropriately loud, but as I savored it, a car pulled up and the driver ordered me to get inside.
You think John Kerry every "let a torpedo fly" as a kid? I mean without considering the future political ramifications of it.
Ever since 9/11, I've been hearing about a book that was a "must read" if one were to seek to understand the nature of the struggle that we're engaged in. I recall listening as callers to both the Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager talk radio shows begged the hosts to read the book. I believe that Prager now has, but I'm not sure about Hugh. It was also repeatedly mentioned in publications such as National Review and at various web sites. This constant drumbeat of buzz about the book caught my attention and I added it to my lengthy reading list.
Having finally gotten around to it, I can say without hesitation that it lives up to all the hype. And so I add my voice to the chorus urging you to read David Pryce Jones' The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.
Pryce describes how tribal societies, the power-challenging dialectic, the code of shame and honor, and careerism have shaped and continue to influence Arab countries and culture. Needless to say, such analysis has probably never been more relevant than today. In one of the chapters Pryce deals with Turkey, and a few quotes from Ataturk nicely summarize my views on running Fraters Libertas:
"I don't mean to be like the rest of you," Ataturk had boasted. "I mean to be somebody."
"I don't want any consideration, criticism, or advice. I will have only my way. All shall do as I command."
"I don't act for public opinion; I act for the nation and my own satisfaction."
Now that's what you call a strong horse.
Finally, we turn to fiction to lighten things up. If you are a fan of alternative history and the Civil War you should enjoy Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War. This is the first book in a series by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen that speculates on what might have been. Some of the reviews that I've read have nitpicked over details, but for my money it's a well researched and riveting account on how the pivotal battle could ended much differently. The next volume is called, Grant Comes East, and I look forward to diving into it in the near future.
After I read the nine books sitting in my backlog right now that is. Maybe, one day, I'll finally have time enough at last to catch up.