David Brooks and the five lies culture tells us

Readers who have followed several incarnations of my blogs (like this one, and this one, and this one) will have easily figured out that, politically speaking, I lean left, though with a number of qualifications and caveats. But I make a point of reading conservative authors and columnists, for a couple of reasons: first, to keep up with what they say and how they think (so to sharpen my own opinions and arguments), and second because they too, at least some of the times, have something interesting or constructive to say.

A recent example is David Brooks, a regular New York Times columnist, who is defined by Wikipedia as a Canadian-born American conservative political and cultural commentator who writes for The New York Times. On April 15, he has published a column for said newspaper entitled “Five lies our culture tells us.” I’d like to examine each of the lies in turn, in order to stimulate a discussion that may help us all see why such lies contribute to (or even, as Brooks argues, are at the root of) our political problems.

Lie n. 1: Career success is fulfilling. Brooks suggests that this lie is most evident at the point of college admissions, which put a lot of pressure on students (and their families) by instilling status anxiety. I think he is far too modest in his claim. Status anxiety is built into the very fabric of American society from the moment people are born. I live in Manhattan, and I know parents who fiercely compete (and pay outrageous amounts of money, and sometimes cheat) so that their five-year olds get into the best elementary schools. And it only gets worse from there.

A number of my students tell me that they have to defend tooth and nails their decision to major in philosophy because both peers and relatives are of the opinion that they are wasting their time and won’t make any money. (Which, incidentally, is not true.) Everyone is after grades, not learning, because they think the former, and not so much the latter, are what will get them a well paying job.

Also, as Brooks puts it, actually achieving things — even things you really wanted and thought meaningful — isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. He recalls the instance when his editor called him to tell him that his first book had made the best-sellers list. “It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.” I have had similar experiences, when my books come out, when I got my PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, or the one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. When I got my first academic job. And then the second. And the third. And the fourth.

But Brooks goes overboard when he implies that career achievements are not fulfilling. They can be. Especially if the career is meaningful in a broader sense. I’m sure he feels good about being a journalist and writer, contributing to society in a positive fashion. So do I, as a teacher and writer. The reason we don’t feel much once a goal has been accomplished is because we are already thinking of the next goal. The book just published has been in the rear mirror for months, and we have been working hard to finish the next one. Writing is a telic activity, as Aristotle pointed out, so it needs to be constantly renewed.

It also depends on what sort of contribution to society your career makes. If you are in the business of helping people, one way or another, that’s fulfilling (think of doctors, teachers, even lawyers). If you are in the business of harming them (e.g., working for a company that pollutes the environment, or makes weapons, or exploits people), not so much. And most businesses are neutral, neither making society better nor worse. Which means that the people who pursuit those careers tend to think of what they do as a means to pay bills, not a source of meaning for their lives.

Lie n. 2: I can make myself happy. The problem here, according to Brooks, is with the notion that happiness is an individual accomplishment, dependent on things such as winning one more time, losing ten more pounds, becoming better at whatever. By contrast, he points out, research shows that people on their deathbeds say that the things that made their lives worth living were loving relationships, not accomplishments.

Here I agree to a point. Yes, relationships are most definitely crucial for happiness. We are, after all, highly social animals. But relationships are hard to maintain, regardless of whether we are talking about friends, relatives, or partners. And sometimes it is a good thing to let go of a relationship, because it has gotten to the point of being more harmful than beneficial.

Moreover, there is something to the notion that happiness is “an inside job,” so to speak. Meaning is a human construct, and we — individually — are in charge of the particular meaning we invest other people, or what we do, with. So I would say that in a sense our happiness is up to us, and yet it does very much involve the way we relate to other people. One thing I know for sure, and I think Brooks will agree: when I’ll be on my deathbed, I won’t regret having forgone writing one more technical paper, especially at the expense of cultivating deep relationships with the people I love. But I will also cherish the memory of those few books that I wrote and I’m actually proud of…

Lie n. 3: Life is an individual journey. Brooks suggests that too many people think that a good life consists in racking up accomplishments, as if they were points in a video game. What matters is to get to the next level. And then the next one. Hence the bizarre American obsession with “bucket lists,” and the success of books like “1,000 Movies to See Before You Die.”

A corollary of this attitude is that we should be free in the sense of unimpeded by close ties and relationships. I remember when I first moved to New York, back in 2006, I saw advertisements (I forgot for what!) that said “If opportunity is around the corner, turn often.”

But that’s an impoverished view of “happiness,” one that is hedonistic in nature, discounting the fact that — on the contrary — in order to live a meaningful life we need to have bonds with others. Again, we are eminently social animals. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Brooks does when he writes that “it’s the chains we choose that set us free,” but that’s partly because I don’t consider my ties with my partner, my daughter, or my friends to be “chains.” They are more like symbiotic tendrils, through which life-giving substances flow back and forth between myself and those I love.

Lie n. 4: You have to find your own truth. Brooks calls this the “privatization of meaning.” He objects to what he sees as an attitude according to which everyone gets to choose their own values, their own answer to the ultimate questions in life. He mockingly warns that, unless your name is Aristotle, you ain’t likely to succeed, arguing instead that values are created by communities, in a group process that takes generations.

Yes. And No. There is no question that values — again, being a human construct — are created by people, and that such creation is indeed a group affair. If nothing else because if your values aren’t recognized by at least a minority of people in your community you are going to have a really tough time pursuing them.

But values also change over time, which I suppose it’s something that Brooks may less often be happy about. I mean, there is a reason why people use the word “conservative.” For instance, we are slowly — and certainly not inevitably — moving toward a society where gender, race, and religious affiliation don’t matter to someone’s prospects of living a good, fulfilling life. While we are still very far from that ideal, an increasing number of people do recognize it as an ideal to be pursued.

Let’s not forget that this wasn’t always the case. The 1926 (please notice the late date!) slavery convention, for instance, has been ratified as recently as 1953 by Australia, Canada, Liberia, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and the UK. By 12 more countries (including Italy) the following year. Nine more nations (including Israel) followed in 1954. Paraguay and Mauritania have joined the club only in 2007, and Kazakhstan only the following year. And of course the abolition of slavery doesn’t mean the extinction of racism.

Do we want to consider women’s right to vote instead? Saudi Arabia has granted it as late as 2015. But even Switzerland agreed only in 1971, Portugal in 1968, and Colombia in 1957. Even the so-called “greatest democracy in the world,” the United States, approved women’s suffrage as late as 1920. And of course there is the issue of gay and transgender rights, very much a work in progress. At best.

So, yes, values are not individual, they are societal. But societies evolve, and we — as individuals — do play a role in nudging the process forward, or at least not allowing it to slide backwards.

Lie n. 5: Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. Or, as Epictetus puts it with characteristic sarcasm:

“The following are non-sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’” (Enchiridion 44)

Brooks here hits the nail right on the head when he says “we pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it.” Meritocracy and competition are — allegedly — the essential ingredients of modern capitalist societies. (In reality, crony capitalism and inheritance of wealth are far more important driving forces of societal dynamics, or, rather, societal stagnation.) So it is refreshing to see a conservative commentator attacking them.

The opposite of competition is cooperation, a concept lauded in theory but despised in practice. Even though — again because we are inherently social animals — it is cooperation (within groups) that has driven human cultural evolution. Arguably the biggest challenge facing humanity now is to extend cooperation outside the in-group (the definition of which has been flexible throughout history anyway: bands, villages, city states, nation states…) and toward a truly cosmopolitan society. That’s the only way we will truly be able to both flourish as a species and tackle existential threats, including self-inflicted ones like climate change.

This is actually an old concept, which has still not been fully realized more than two millennia after it was first articulated:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I.9.1)

But as they say, hope springs eternal. In order to nourish that hope, I somewhat agree with Brooks’ final comment: “we talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.” Here, though, Brooks himself would have done well to remember his Aristotle: “political” comes from the Greek polis, which means not just a city, but a body of citizens. Turns out, political and cultural changes are two sides of the same coin.

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