David Brooks is one of America’s most successful thinkers in much the same way that Thomas Kinkade, painter of light, is one of America’s most successful artists. And Brooks’s column on Teddy K’s endorsement of Obama is artful in much the way “A Day at the Cinderella Castle” is artful.
The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early ’60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.
Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service.
Got that? The “residue” of 9/11 is not the bitter recognition of how a surge of panic and nationalism can lead to unjust failed wars. The residue is David Brooks’s unconsummated desire for further nationalistic sacrifice, as if all those corpses in Iraq were not, are not, enough. He believes that America’s young, like him, long for a day at the Cinderella castle, which, it should be emphasized, has a dungeon in the basement.
Do you think Kinkade thinks clouds really look like that? Maybe he does. Do you think Brooks really thinks that we are “free to be you and me” only if we are unsocialized atoms? Well, maybe he does, because the way he puts it, we aren’t individuals at all. We — you and me — “emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities.” What you are is a mere part of a larger, grander whole. And if that whole demands your time, your money, your life–demands to consumate its desire for sacrifice and service — who are you to say no? Well, nothing, really. At least not anything distinct, with purposes, plans, and a value of its own. You are it.
The truth is that we emerge from networks, webs, and communities as individuals with a heavily socialized set of ideas and desires. Individualism is an idea about the locus of agency, worth and respect, about how responsible we are, or can be, for our decisions. It is an idea about the uniqueness of individuals, about self-discovery, self-creation and self-expression. These ideas can become embodied in the norms that govern our networks, webs, and communities. A culture can be individualistic. The evidence is that people in individualistic cultures thrive. But for Brooks it is nihilistic, vain, anti-social, empty self-indulgence or the marching “idealism of jackets and ties,” idealism for conformists — for conformist men.