The Human Animal – Life Through The Eyes of Others
I really think David Brooks hit the nail on the head with his book The Road to Character. Like a lot of baby boomers, I was raised by parents who believed that human beings were fallible, and that constant vigilance was required to ensure that their children were shaped into something worthwhile.
Of course, my generation reacted to that parenting style, which many of us thought was excessively punitive and pessimistic. So we veered off in the other direction, lavishing our children with love and letting them know how special they are.
I’m older now, and I think my kids turned out pretty well in spite or because of the prevailing ethos, but I understand my parents better. One thing David Brooks wrote in his book of the generation that survived two World Wars and the Depression : “People in that culture developed a moral abhorrence of anything that might make life even more perilous, like debt or childbirth out of wedlock. They developed a stern interest in those activities that might harden resilience.” Like many of his observations, that sentence helped me understand where a lot of my parents’ caution and fearfulness came from.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a PBS commentator, but he has managed to find time to write several books – he’s one of those ‘how do you do it all’ people. I’d like to mention a couple:
His first book that made it on to my radar screen was 2000’s Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How they Got There I love the word “bobo.” Brooks has a wicked sense of humor and somehow the word “bobos,” a cross between “bourgeois” and “bohemian” with a bit of an anthropological twist to it, was the perfect term for the people he was writing about – former or wannabe members of the counterculture who now have largely been absorbed by the elite. They feel guilty about it! So they spend vast amounts of money on things like state of the art kitchens, because kitchens are, you know, necessities. ”This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites,” Brooks wrote. “They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out. They are by instinct antiestablishmentarian yet somehow sense they have become a new establishment.’ ‘Brooks is a social conservative, but he made clear that he had become a bobo himself; he liked gourmet coffee and stainless steel appliances as much as anyone. This was the first, but not the last book by Brooks to showcase his ability to synthesize a lot of facts, deliver prescient social and political commentary and deliver it all with a humorous twist.
The next David Brooks book I want to mention is 2011’s The Social Animal. In this book he followed two young people – one a young man with a privileged background, the other a young woman with a working class background, as they both struggle to “make good” in contemporary America. This was a fascinating book that looked at a lot of different aspects of contemporary society, and how people’s attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, determine what we in America call success.
At the time I was on the verge of sending my kids off to college, and Brooks highlighted the difference between the attitudes of the two families involved. The family of Harold, the young man with a privileged background, considered it the thing to do to send your child off to the best college possible, regardless of how far away it was. The New Jersey family of Erica, a half-Chinese, half-Mexican scrapper who raises herself up into society’s most rarefied circles through focus and ambition, perceived her departure to the University of Denver as almost a betrayal – she was expected to stay close to home and, even if she did make it to college, to continue to support the family. Both families loved their kids, but it was striking how differently they viewed this major life event.
Moving on, I want to highlight some books about people David Brooks writes about in his search for clues to how “character’ is shaped. I get to talk about biographies, one of my favorite kinds of books!
The first is Frances Perkins. How glad I am that this inspiring but unheralded woman is finally getting her due! As Brooks writes, she came from a very genteel background, but was galvanized by her horror at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She apprenticed in social action at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, worked her way up through New York State politics and eventually became U.S. Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A terrific biography of Perkins just came out about five years ago – The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey.
It is hard to overstate the influence of Perkins. She was America’s first female cabinet secretary. She spearheaded the development of unemployment insurance and Social Security. She overhauled labor laws, including laws governing a minimum age and regulating child labor and a 40-hour work week. Of course, as Brooks writes, her unwillingness to draw attention to herself and devolve all her accomplishments onto her boss’s shoulders probably contributed to her relative obscurity, at least until recent years. She’s a pioneer, both in the world of women’s accomplishments and in social legislation, and I’m glad someone finally wrote a book about her.
Another fascinating character Brooks writes about is someone we baby boomers grew up with – Dwight David Eisenhower. Of course, our parents knew him as commander of the Allied forces during World War II.
As Brooks writes, for years historians liked to think of Eisenhower as a bit of a rube, which is really preposterous when you consider all his accomplishments. It’s only when his diaries became available that historians realized how much he was juggling, how complex his thinking was and how his image as a rather simple-minded person was one that he carefully cultivated for political effect.
One recent book about Eisenhower that I hope to check out is Evan Thomas’ Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.
This book looks at the eight years in which Eisenhower was president and how he successfully steered clear of America becoming embroiled in another war. He had seen the horrors of war firsthand – a powerful motivator. Keeping the peace was no small accomplishment in the Cold War era of nuclear weapons, when there were numerous opportunities for the U.S. to become engaged in world conflict. Eisenhower kept the U.S. out of war. It didn’t take long for his successor, John Kennedy, to embroil the U.S. in Vietnam.
I wonder if the definitive biography of Eisenhower has yet to be written. Liberals don’t love him, because he was a Republican. Republicans don’t love him, because he was a far more moderate Republican than the contemporary version. I hope someone is up to the task; Eisenhower was responsible for guiding his country through two very perilous eras, World War II and the Cold War.
Finally, I want to mention a great book in which Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker and one of the people Brooks profiles in The Road to Character, is a key presence. The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, is a fascinating study of four 20th century writers whose work was powerfully affected by Catholicism – Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. O’Connor and Percy were much lauded writers. Merton, who became a Trappist monk, and Day lived a much more religious existence. But all were writers who had what a New York Times review called “a religious imagination” – “The sense that human actions are played out against a cosmic canvas of good and evil, of right and wrong.” This isn’t solely a Catholic point of view, of course, but Elie’s book shows how it powerfully affected the lives of his subject who lived between the 1930s and 1960s in America, when so much was changing. They used their faith to try to understand.