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What In Heck Happened to David Brooks?

OK. So after reading the DMN‘s Sunday Q&A with him and Liz’s interesting interview yesterday and after attending his DMA Arts & Letters Live talk in Dallas last night, I’m still not sure what the hell David Brooks is talking about with his new book, The Social Animal. The conservative scribe, described by one Dallas CEO as “the only New York Times columnist I can read without throwing up afterward,” was characteristically smart and modest and funny and insightful, for awhile. But then, he started talking up this new book that apparently describes new research on our emotions and our “unconscious” minds, and how it has the potential to change U.S. politics for the better. At least, I think that was his point.

Brooks rocketed to fame with 2000’s Bobos in Paradise, a hilarious and prescient look at America’s new bourgeois-bohemian elite. And last night, in a prelude to the Social Animal discussion, he was at his old best scattershooting at the Bobos: How, for example, it’s OK for them to drive a “luxury” car like a Volvo or a Saab–“so long as it’s from a country that’s hostile to U.S. foreign policy.” Then, unfortunately, he launched into this long discussion of some woman named Erica–apparently this is a character he made up for the new book–who was empathetic and purposeful and who used her emotions to … do something sort of important with her life, but it wasn’t really clear what it was.

Sensitivity and our unconscious thoughts are too often ignored, I believe Brooks was saying, and if we don’t make public policies that speak to “our central emotional natures,” it’s, well, it’s going to be too bad for us.

When he was finished, a questioner asked–rightly I thought–for Brooks to please give an example of how public policy would be smarter if only we would address our emotional natures.

In response, he pointed to the U.S. “COIN” counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan, which seeks, Brooks said, to “build networks” among the Afghani people, leading (everyone hopes) to lasting democratic reform there.

A second example involved “rethinking our human-capital policies.” Meaning? Since many students are not emotionally engaged in college studies, they need to have a “favorite teacher” in order to re-engage emotionally and build up their relationship skills.

Which I guess is cutting-edge stuff in somebody’s world.

To his credit, Brooks disclosed that some of his Washington, D.C., colleagues have been puzzled by his new book, asking him jokingly whether he weren’t having a “mid-life crisis.”

I think he said he isn’t.

3 comments on “What In Heck Happened to David Brooks?

  1. @Glenn: I was also at David Brooks’ promotional appearance last night at First Presbyterian. I think you’re right that Brooks’ leap from the psychological research he was citing to how this could be put to use in the realm of politics and policy was difficult to follow. I made the assumption that I’d need to read the book (which I haven’t) to understand it better.

    But I do think Brooks pointed to one area in which it’s obvious how some of this learning could be put to use: education. The research, which he discussed, showing that the likelihood of high-school graduation correlates strongly with the opportunity an infant has to make a strong social/emotional connection with his or her parent – that was astonishing. And it speaks to the point that what plagues our public education system more than lack of money or bad teachers is the general socioeconomic disparity that exists. People living below the poverty line want to have the same level of engagement with their children as do those in the middle or upper class, but often cannot because they’re working multiple jobs or jobs with less-than-ideal working hours to make ends meet.

    Which is why Brooks seemed to be speaking out in favor of keeping mentorship programs and early childhood development part of our educational priorities.

  2. I have a copy of the book and had already decided not to read it. Do either of you want it?