The Social Animal by David Brooks

David Brooks has a new book and his lingo usually gets picked up by the rest of the media. He coined red/blue states, bohemia bourgeois, and polydoxy.
His new book basically says that we have intuitions, feelings, habits, and reactions that make them have a happy successful life. An unreflected middlebrow upper middle class life style teaches one to get the right schooling and connections, create the right home life, and join a house of worship. By doing this one has the good life.

I find this interesting because I just wrote a paper saying the exact same things about the construction of Centrist Orthodoxy. They know how to go through life for a good life. They have tuned out intellectual and ideological issues and focus on the community and family. Culturally they are happy with a lake Woebegone smug shallowness, Brooks uses all the books that I have discussed on the blog and in my paper– Putnam, Christian Smith, Bourdieu,- and creates a synthesis. I have no such synthesis, but Brooks goes off into speculative neuroscience.

Brooks simultaneously makes fun of the composure class and holds them up as a model. I have the same problem that describing the Centrist community one cant help but point out their foibles. Brooks tells his story as comic and ironic. I, more influenced by frum Christians, tell the story with a greater sense of paradox, concern, and rejection- searching for something deeper in life. Brooks takes out all the problems and issues and see this shallowness as the peak of life. The Victorian family, the 1920’s Middletown, the Eishenhower era, and now the composure class (or consumer class) are models of conservative life.

David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, follows the lives of two extremely contented grown-ups.
“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” it announces. “It’s about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives.”

If you’re cynical, this probably sounds repellent. But thankfully, these two people turn out to be fictional. And the book’s subtitle, “The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” is misleading. The Social Animal doesn’t reveal “hidden” formulas at all. Rather, it’s a giant parable about the power of our unconscious. It suggests how we might improve ourselves and our world by understanding how we really think.

In the tradition of Rousseau, Brooks illustrates this through narrative. He invents two characters, Harold and Erica whom we follow from childhood to grave. Along the way, we meet Harold’s parents, his roommate, Erica’s coworkers, even a wildly charismatic presidential candidate named, of all things, Grace.

Watching their lives unfold, we’re treated to commentary about how and why these characters behave and believe as they do.
Brooks has a terrific sense of humor, too, but it’s oddly deployed here. The

Social Animal opens with a wicked parody of cultural elitism — or what Brooks calls the “Composure Class.”

Funny? Absolutely.
But this class seems to be the very group that Harold and Erica wind up in. By veering into satire, Brooks muddies his intentions. Are we supposed to admire his characters, or mock them? Empathize, or view them as cautionary tales?
Strangest of all, for a book that claims to be about our “emotional” inner realm, there’s little if it depicted here. Neither Harold nor Erica suffers from the daily insecurities, compulsions, and anxieties that plague most real people. The biggest emotional challenges in their lives — children, infidelity, aging — are glossed over in a few pages. Mostly, Harold and Erica face concrete, defined problems — which they solve promptly, using street smarts and research.

Yes. But irritating! For all its intelligence and imagination, Brooks’ narrative suffers from its own lack of real suffering.

This description below could just as well describe the Centrist Orthodox community.Here is his pitch why we all need the strong support system of community and religion. Note his new word limerence. Let’s see how long before it catches on.

In essence, The Social Animal is a book about the human need for connection, friendship, love—what Brooks identifies as “limerence.” Behind the elaborate theorizing is Brooks’s desire to articulate a universal feeling: that all of us are caught up in what he calls “the loneliness loop.” We yearn for “community”; we have “the urge to merge.” When two people are having an intense conversation, their breathing synchronizes; laughing together creates a feeling of joy; soldiers drilling in unison experience a surge of power. What drives us, ultimately, is the need to be understood by others.

And the odd thing was, they weren’t born geniuses. They did okay on the SAT and IQ tests and that sort of thing, but they had no extraordinary physical or mental gifts. They were fine-looking, but they weren’t beautiful. They played tennis and hiked, but even in high school they weren’t star athletes, and nobody would have picked them out at that young age and said they were destined for greatness in any sphere. Yet they achieved this success, and everyone who met them sensed that they lived blessed lives.

How did they do it? They possessed what economists call noncognitive skills, which is the catchall category for hidden qualities that can’t be easily counted or measured, but which in real life lead to happiness and fulfillment.

First, they had good character. They were energetic, honest, and dependable. They were persistent after setbacks and acknowledged their mistakes. They possessed enough confidence to take risks and enough integrity to live up to their commitments. They tried to recognize their weaknesses, atone for their sins, and control their worst impulses.
Just as important, they had street smarts. They knew how to read people, situations, and ideas. You could put them in front of a crowd, or bury them with a bunch of reports, and they could develop an intuitive feel for the landscape before them

Of the dozen reviews that were posted on the day the book came out, the Christian Science Monitor had the most critical review. As someone who has posted on this new social science, only the CSM noted that Brooks left out the problems discussed in the recent volumes. If the upper middle class is having fun then they have weaker family ties, which are needed for happiness than the lower middle class. My observed answer is that the religious community substitutes for family. What about the stress of upper middle class life? Brooks has no answer. What about the lack of interest in books or high culture by this consumer composure class? Brooks himself in his article bemoans the loss of the middleclass acknowledgment of highbrow. If his fictional characters Harold and Erica are happier watching Purim youtube video than study, then how do you get them back to highbrow or serious religion?

The debate between culture and politics is a serious question. The recently departed Shmuel Eisenstadt taught that everything was culture. The new generation of Israeli sociologist chose politics.

In “The Social Animal” Brooks approvingly cites the words of the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The creator of Harold and Erica aligns himself with the Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, when he argues for “limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility,” and he supports policy initiatives like early childhood education and charter schools that paternalistically “reshape the internal models” and install “achievement values” in the minds of the poor.

He also takes a surprisingly nearsighted view of how value is distributed along the socioeconomic ladder. The 2002 General Social Survey found, for example, that as people internalize “achievement values” and move into the middle class their relationships with extended family attenuate. This is partly because people in the middle class are more mobile and tend to live farther from their kin. But it also happens for more fundamental reasons: University of Pennsylvania and Brooks-approved sociologist Annette Lareau has shown that the individualism of middle class life tends to devalue ties with extended family. These are the relationships that Brooks says are so essential for happiness, but “The Social Animal” is too assured of itself to linger on such contradictions.

Their story lets Brooks mock the affluent and trendy while advancing soft neoconservative themes: that genetically ingrained emotions and biases trump reason; that social problems require cultural remedies (charter schools, not welfare payments); that the class divide is about intelligence, deportment, and taste, not money or power.

6 responses to “The Social Animal by David Brooks

  1. One could paint a convincing picture of degeneration from Hegel’s visions of sociality and sittlichkeit to Brooks, where sociality only exists to give us a more fulfilled suburban life due to the contingencies of evolution noticed by overachieving suburban scientists. The goal of articulation, of making the world transparent to ourselves, goes from life praxis or philosophical imperative to somewhat useful thing for kiddie Soccer. I disagree with the impulse to denigrate the achievements of Shabbos Baseball leagues and Cholent cook offs, not to mention residencies at Beth Israel. My beef is not with the way of life, which seems nice enough compared to the various alternatives on display in Libya or even five miles away in Newark. Rather it is with the substitution of the self justification of this way of life for thought. Brooks is only the latest to buzz this cultural meme, and much more unacceptable in this regard is the faux production of literature ala Jonathan Franzen that raises, as one reviewer noted, the logic of “f*ck it, i’ll have the steak” to the level of a Kantian antinomy.

    • From the Salon review:

      His buzzed-up new fiction/science amalgam had me leaping to my feet — to yell, “Die, yuppie scum, die!”
      I had begun reading it determined to be dispassionate and analytic and fair, but I couldn’t bear it for long: I learned to loathe Harold and Erica, the two upscale avatars of upper-middle-class values that Brooks marches through life in the story. And then I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness; it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations (have no worries, though: Like Barbie and Ken, no genitals appear anywhere in the book), while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is, and what is going on inside his dolls’ soft plastic heads.
      Brooks has created a world where history doesn’t matter and there are no troubling external intrusions on the blithe reality of Harold and Erica. If ever you are in the market for the antithesis of the Great Russian Novel, here it is, the petty provincial string of anecdotes about only two characters who never experience a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.
      I don’t know whom this book is really written for.. . I suspect that its only virtue is in uniting C.P. Snow’s two cultures, both of which will be populated with peeved readers flinging the book with great force across rooms everywhere.

      So Avraham, when you visit a centrist Orthodox community that fits this bill: Do you want to scream Die Yuppie Scum, Die? Do you associate the Five Towns with “unthinking consumption and privilege”? But back to my original question: What attitude should one take toward it? Should one want to change it? Should one reject it? Should one remain aloof and seek true philosophy? If one just smirks in irony then one actually is Brooks

  2. Here is a recent article from Haretz, easily applicable to America that gives a more realistic picture.

    There is a total disconnect on Brooks part from what happened in 2008. Ever since then everyone is confused where we are going as a country, should we expect inflation or deflation, will the dollar fall apart, when we will stop piling on trillions of debt? Unless this couple is clueless, they worry if their savings will be worth anything down the road?

    I did find one happy woman just this morning, courtesy of Failed Messiah. You gotta love her. It’s Adar so I couldn’t resist.

    • EJ – there’s a class in our society that’s since recovered from 2008, got its bonus this year, and found that nothing’s really changed. Remember, Brooks’ book is perpetually set in 2010. The market is booming, unemployment notwithstanding; that’s not their problem.

      That’s the class Brooks writes about. The New Yorker excerpt was infuriating because it was essentially explaining how the upper class (which is more and more polarized from everyone else) is actually different from the rest of us, and is that way for reasons that go back to the womb. The way they pick up on cues, the way they read people and situations – their brains are actually wired differently than ours. It leads to, and supports, a smug conservatism that believes that the privileged deserve what they have – its just nature taking its course – and those who are not privileged are that way for scientifically measurable, hard-wired reasons.

      Going back to Alan’s question, it is more than a little frustrating to consider a community where the vast majority of households are two-income professionals – meaning the top 5% of wage-earning households in the country – and yet everyone complains that they cannot make ends meet.

  3. “Die Yuppie Scum, Die?” is so 80s. We need a new mantra. How about “Die Necon Scientism, Die”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s