To: David Brooks
Columnist, The New York Times
We have met a few times over the years while covering the same events. I’m a big fan. You write beautifully and, more often than not, have insights about our politics, lifestyles and beliefs that others have missed. But as time passes, you have grown increasingly somber about our national condition. Your most recent column, based on your new book “The Second Mountain,” is downright depressing.
Here’s a brief summary: “The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis. . . . We’ve created a culture based on lies.” One is that “career success is fulfilling.” Not so, you say. “Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true.” Another related lie is that “I can make myself happy” through “individual accomplishment. . . . The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. . . . You are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.”
As a rule, I rarely respond directly to other columnists. Many columnists do the same. It’s a good rule because, if abandoned, it would make commentary even more personal and shrill. But sometimes rules need to be broken. This is, I think, one of those times.
So, David, let me respectfully suggest: Lighten up.
To be sure, most of your insights are true. But they’re also utopian. You argue that we’ve lost our moral compass and have surrendered to delusional beliefs that rationalize a cultural emptiness. You seem disappointed that we haven’t arrived in some Garden of Eden paradise where almost everyone is happy, fulfilled, responsible and respected. I yearn for this as well, but I have reconciled myself to the inevitability of imperfection.
Our job as journalists is not simply to point out untruths, injustices and societal problems. It is also to illuminate the inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions of our national condition. It is, in short, to be realistic, especially when being realistic is politically and intellectually unpopular — as it is now.
We have a culture of complaint, where nothing works, selfishness is rampant, disillusion is widespread and hatred — practiced across the political spectrum — is common. There is no virtue in feeding this frenzy of pessimism, just because it fits the temper of the times. We need to recognize the limits of our condition. Many legitimate problems can’t be solved, and some problems aren’t worth solving.
It is also worth acknowledging that things could be worse. Most Americans who want jobs have them; we are not engaged in a major war; millions of households are doing the difficult work of balancing the duties of child-rearing with the rigors of their job schedules. The Trump presidency has turned up the heat on public and private discourse without (yet) leading to a breakdown of debate. Crudely, the nation’s institutions seem to be working.
David, here are a few comments on the “lies” that you describe as polluting today’s American dream:
● Ambition is America’s blessing and curse. It is a blessing because it encourages people to try new things, to stretch their abilities and to see how much more they can achieve. It fosters a vibrant economy, even if the most ambitious people are often unattractive as human beings. That’s the curse. Great ambition often causes great character flaws. Obsessed with their projects and themselves, people mistreat co-workers and family. They’re creatures of their ambitions, which can be both frustrating and fulfilling.
● Happiness is not a practical goal of public policy, even if governments sometimes reduce or eliminate some conditions that make people unhappy or miserable. But if some sources disappear, others may arise. There are too many factors (personality, religion, schools, luck, parents — or lack thereof — and much more) that determine outcomes. Pursuing happiness should remain, mostly, a personal responsibility. Making it a public responsibility would ensure failure.
●The meritocracy — frequently criticized — is not nearly so sinister as it’s portrayed. Of course, it creates stress among its members. They’re constantly being measured and prodded to do better, or to lose out to the students, workers and athletes next door. But the meritocracy’s principles, even if sometimes violated, are the right ones to govern our institutions. We want people who know what they’re doing; competition is not a bad way to make the selections. What are the alternatives? Would we be better off if social connections, race or political affiliation assumed a larger role?
Finally, there’s the matter of work. Everyone complains about it, but without it, most of us would die of boredom. Learning new stuff, the essence of journalism, is inherently rewarding, and, David, you and I are paid to do it. The virtues outweigh the vices.
So, let’s keep perspective. We don’t live in an ideal world and never will. But things could be worse, maybe quite a bit worse. Let’s try to avoid that.
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