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Don't Worry, Be Happy

David Brooks' latest book is a celebration of a conservative vision of the great American middle class: all mindless consumption and mediocrity.
 
 
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David Brooks is a writer whose chief claim to fame is not what he says but where he says it. These days he says it twice a week in the New York Times and on PBS and NPR, where he functions as the tame conservative, the right-winger without flecks of foam on the sides of his mouth. A book written by a man thus placed will be talked about perforce, and given the marketing power his position accords him, he will attract attention. He is on the required review list. His books must be given a look-see, no matter how trivial and insipid they may be.

A look-see at Brooks's On Paradise Drive reveals old-fashioned, spread-eagle oratory groaning with passages such as:

[W]hatever the nation's problems, America, and the idealism present in that word, are the solution. America is the solution to bourgeois flatness, to materialistic complacency, to mass-media shallowness, because America, with all its utopian possibilities, arouses the energies and the most strenuous efforts. America is the answer to insularity, to balkanization, to complacency, to timidity, because America is a set of compulsions pulling people out of their narrow and trivial concerns and lifting their sights to the distant hopes.

Brooks fails to mention that America is also good for teenage acne, children with reading disabilities and/or enuresis. For those of us in our sunset years, America has proven effective in lessening the debilitating effects of arthritis. America is good for you.

In On Paradise Drive , Brooks looks at how the great American middle stratum lives (top- and bottom-income people are left for another time). But this is no "Travels With Charley," for it is written by a man who, though he seems to have bounced about here and there, has no eye for the telling detail and no ear for the colorful quote. Though Brooks humbly likens his writing to Twain's and Mencken's, the best you can say for him as a writer is that he's fought the English language to a draw. Whereas Twain on the warpath was a sharp shooting rifleman and Mencken laid about with the broadsword, Brooks's literary weapon is the tweezers. Follicle by follicle, he snaps the hairs out. Painful but not so entertaining.

His travels led him to the conclusion that the middle is not an undifferentiated mass but a garden of subgroups chiefly distinguishable by how they spend their money. In a characteristically revelatory passage, Brooks writes:

Hispanics spend a far greater percentage of their income on footwear and clothing for children under two, and a far lower percentage on stationery and tobacco products than the average American consumer. Whites spend much more on entertainment and much less on clothing for teenage boys. Blacks spend more on poultry and telephones and less on furniture and books.

Judging from descriptions like that, Brooks seems to have spent the better part of the past twenty years below the gradient in a think tank. He may be the last person on this continent to have discovered giant, stand-alone box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. But if On Paradise Drive yields little of moment about contemporary America, it offers us a map of the mind of a right-winger who has cleverly packaged himself and is marketed as a caveman with a throbbing heart and a kinder, gentler sensitivity. The Brooksian gestalt is glimpsed in the following:

There is no one single elite in America. Hence, there is no definable establishment to be oppressed by and to rebel against. Everybody can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus. You can be an X Games celebrity and appear on ESPN2, or an atonal jazz demigod and be celebrated in obscure music magazines. You can be a short-story master and travel the nation from writers' conference to writers' conference, celebrated for your creativity, haircut, and style ... Ours is not a social structure conducive to revolution, domestic warfare, and conflict. The United States is not on the verge of an incipient civil war or a social explosion. If you wanted to march against the ruling elite, where exactly would you do it?

More to the point, why exactly would you write these words? Civil war? Domestic warfare? Social explosion? What can the man be thinking? The only people in the United States tortured by such turbulent dreams are crackpots, those among the very rich who are pursued by the fear that some of their money will be taken from them and naughty conservative publicists seeking to impute treason to those on their left.

These passages are revealing. The first sentence, when translated out of the original opaque, means that wealth and power have successfully disguised themselves and are safe from scrutiny. Every American man and every American woman, according to Brooks, is a king and queen in his or her small, meaningless, slightly contemptible, slightly humorous, compartmentalized world. With people organizing themselves into nothing more dangerous than skateboard clubs and longhaired writers' conferences, the possessors of power and property have nothing to fear.

On Paradise Drive is devoted to the glorification of ordinariness, of blinkered plodding, of going along to get along, of mastering the practice of not standing out. For the mediocre, the rewards can be rich. "Millionaires," Brooks writes of his favorite kind of people, "are not exactly Einsteins. The average millionaire in the U.S. had a collegiate GPA of about 2.92, a B- average. The average SAT score for the millionaires is 1190, good but not nearly good enough to get you into an Ivy League college." It is beyond explaining how such strange statistics are gathered or, perhaps, invented, but the point of publishing them is to restate the ancient conservative suspicion of brilliance, of wit, of anything smacking of instability or unpredictability and therefore of danger to the treasure hoard.

The right-winger substitutes Sitzfleisch, unrelieved and unrelenting labor, for flashy outbreaks of genius. With pride of country, Brooks proclaims that his fellow citizens are "the hardest-working people on the face of the earth. We work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of any affluent people." The nonaffluent, most of the population of the planet, apparently take shorter vacations, perhaps because so many live in tropical climes where life is so pleasant and the trade winds so refreshing they don't need vacations.

"Polls indicate," Brooks explains, that the American reluctance to recreate "is not all forced; far more than people in other lands ... Americans take the initiative to check in with work while they're supposedly on vacation." In the real world of water coolers and cubicles, people "check in" because they know that when you come back from vacation your desk and your chair may be gone.

The man can seriously write that "for most of human history, people at the bottom of the income ladder worked longer than people at the top. But that's no longer true." Doubtless he can produce yet another one of his polls to back this stuff up, but in a land of two-, three- and four-job households, it's nuts. You can't tell me that those people with the house in Telluride, the apartments in New York and London and the place on the Côte d'Azur work harder than the people who clean their bathrooms. What Brooks is describing is not what is, but what right-wingers tell themselves is.

It follows that the book includes de rigueur grousing about the French, French intellectuals and the intelligentsia in general. In place of thought, Brooks offers the reader litanies of brand-name products bought and owned by various statistical categories of people. The work positively suppurates with the results of polls and surveys proving that satisfaction reigns and our investments are safe. In a passage worthy of Dr. Pangloss, he writes:

I would like to think that an idealist flame does burn in every American split-level, that every day American life is shaped by grand metaphysical visions, a holy sense of mission.... I would like to believe that we are all driven by some spiritual impulsion of which we are perhaps not even aware.

You may be sure that somewhere in his papers Brooks has a survey showing that three out of four Americans are impulsed every 9.4 seconds by grand metaphysical visions and/or facial tics.

The people of the United States may need a decent system of public education or adequate healthcare, but one thing they do not need is another TV or radio program, another article or book telling them how terrific and contented they are. That is what David Brooks has given them, but isn't one of the traits of conservatism to give us more of what we already have too much of and to withhold what we have too little of and need?

Nicholas von Hoffman, a columnist for the New York Observer, is the author of "Hoax," just published by Nation Books.