Better Them Than Us — David Brooks Lands In London Town

Poor Old Blighty. Once again a Yank (really Canadian born) “is over-hyped, overpaid and over here.” David Brooks is the darling of what passes for the British political smart set; his new book is so hot that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are meeting him this week. Steve Hilton, Cameron’s top strategist, has invited him to hold a seminar at No 10 on Friday.

Other Brits across the political and social firmament are tripping over themselves to apply Brooksian thought to everything from clogged drains to dry skin. At last, America has revenge for the Arctic Monkeys.

Why the adulation? Like Gertrude Himmelfarb, wife of Irving Kristol and mother of Willie, Brooks’ book seeks to reinterpret the Enlightenment so as to turn it inside out as it were. Rather than a period of ascending rationality, both Himmelfarb and Brooks focus on certain British thinkers of the era who urged the supremacy of the irrational, emotive essence of mankind. Brooks approvingly quotes Hume “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.”

“When we invaded Iraq we were blind to the social problems that would be involved. We didn’t realise they didn’t trust us.” Hold on – didn’t he write a New York Times column urging invasion? “I did. I was so blind about it. In that column I wondered what Michael Oakeshott [the British conservative political philosopher] would have said. He would have said: this society is very complicated and you should be circumspect in thinking about what you can achieve, and that invading to install democracy without trust is doomed. And then I wrote: ‘Having said that, I think we should invade.’”

Brooks apparently thinks the problem with Iraq was that America was insufficiently irrational with ‘street smarts’ and too rational. And his message to the UK is add some irrationality and street smarts to the government along with vague communal spirits. Don’t the Brits realize they can get all this penetrating insight for free weekly on PBS? In mercifully short 10 minute doses, too.

Perhaps we are too dismissive. Forbes doesn’t think so. There, Will Wilkerson eviscerates “The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement.”

It’s easy to see the appeal of a spoonful of human interest to make the medicine of science go down. And it would be easy to forgive Brooks the insipidity of his characters and the tedium of his tale if he really delivered on his promised synthesis of the paradigm-busting sciences of the mind, but he delivers only a muddle.

Brooks detects in the scattered findings of the psychological and brain sciences a “revolutionary” picture of human decision-making that emphasizes the role of the unconscious. This research, Brooks argues, establishes “the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connection over individual choice, character over IQ, … and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.” In the course of The Social Animal, Brooks alights briefly on the work of an astonishing number of important researchers and theorists, making the book a convenient point of entry for readers looking to dip a toe into new-ish thinking about the mind and brain. Yet, he rarely makes more than superficial contact with any body of research long enough to really draw out its implications, and nothing resembling an integrated synthesis of science ever emerges.

The story of Harold and Erica does not really illustrate a new, coherent, science-based theory of human nature. It is a bowl hammered from Brooks’ philosophic predilections into which a jumbled stew of scientific anecdotes is poured. And it is not good stew. Brooks withholds necessary ingredients and fails to detect that some of his great tastes don’t taste great together.

Americans in a way can be excused for tolerating Brooksian nonsense for so long. According to Stewart and Bennet (1991):

By defining people according to achievement, Americans can fragment their own personalities or those of other people. They do not have to accept others in their totality [ . . .]; they may disapprove of the politics, hobbies, or personal life of associates and yet still work with them effectively. It is this trait of seeing others as fragmented, combined with the desire to achieve, that provides Americans with the motivation to cooperate.

Brits don’t have this excuse. Perhaps they’re just excited someone at the New York Times remembers Britain had a history. Oh to be a fly on the wall at 10 Downing Street to savor compliments extended to thou celestial, smooth-faced nose-herb.