Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Five Lies They Tell Us

David Brooks is back on the meaning beat, excoriating "Five Lies Our Culture Tells Us". I present these below, with some of Brooks' exposition and some of my own thoughts

1) Career success is fulfilling. 

Brooks comments: "I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing."

It's hard to argue with this at a base level; a successful career is not a route to happiness for most people, and our culture probably puts far too much emphasis on this. On the other hand, a failed career seems to be a pretty widespread source of woe, and people who can't find some way to be economically useful are pretty miserable. I tend to think that success in a career you don't hate is a nice ingredient for a good life, if you can get it.

2) I can make myself happy.

This I certainly agree with; I think we are at our core social animals and must seek happiness in relationships with others. The thing about relationships, of course, if that other people are also maddening and prone to letting you down. Which is to say, seeking happiness alone may be impossible for most people, but seeking it in the company of others is no picnic, either.

3) Life is an individual journey.

Life, says Brooks, is not an exciting journey along the lines of "Oh the Places You'll Go":
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
I think this is partly a matter of individual taste. People like Brooks and me are not much interested in a freewheeling life of travel and adventure, but from what I read some people are. Some people are driven to misery by responsible drudgery and long for freedom; and who is to say they are more wrong than Brooks and me? The key here, as in so much else, is Know Thyself. Figure out what makes you happy and seek it out.

4) You have to find your own truth. 

My readers know I am also dubious of the power of most humans to create their own value systems. But:
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Historically this is of course true. But toward what institution would you look for values today? The Catholic Church? The Evangelical Mega-Churches? The political parties? Wall Street? The universities? Just writing down this list makes me shudder with existential horror. The reality is that  there is no institution or community that I very much respect, or that I think embodies my own values, and so far as I can tell Brooks feels the same way. This is the post-modern situation: the old institutions have crumbled or been exposed, and for most of us nothing new has come along to replace them.

Not that we aren't trying. In America we are actually surrounded by communities that are working to create group values, but I suspect Brooks, like me, is not impressed by them. What is a Trump rally but a group of people coming together to celebrate common values and seek common truths? What are SJW twitter mobs but people trying to create and police common values?

In reality attempts to create group values are contentious and rife with nastiness, whining, self-righteous preening, and all sorts of other things I want nothing to do with.

5) Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

Brooks isn't going to get much argument here; just about every moralist agrees that we fawn disgracefully over money and celebrity. I wonder, though, if this is as important as Brooks thinks:
No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.
Ok, so celebrities dominate our news. But is that really why so many people are unhappy? Some people seem to get quite a bit of joy from reading celebrity gossip or political news. Is there something wrong with that?

Ultimately I think much of this comes down to how rich and safe we are. We were born to struggle, and without that we all have a lot of energy and emotion we don't know what to do with.


Miss Grimke said...

1) A best seller is not a career. It's a sign that you've been working and doing a good job and should carry on.
3)"Responsible drudgery" is not the opposite of "freewheeling adventure."
5)Plenty of institutions create their own value systems, usually on top of old ones, adapting from and to groups of individuals. Unitarian Univeralists, Girl Scouts, bluegrass jamming.
I can't believe I'm still wasting time refuting Brooks. Dammit he gets under my skin again with his thick-headed absolutes.

Anonymous said...

Puh-leeze. I would SO rather get my values from Dr. Seuss than David Brooks.

I would hope after your "life journey" that you are reading further than DB's inane pabulum -- and that you are encouraging your loyal readers to do likewise. As Samuel Johnson said, If I pick up a skein and find it packthread, I do not expect to find silk at the other end.