David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly and writes an opinion column for The New York Times. He is a regular commentator on National Public Radio and the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer. His book, Bobos in Paradise, looked at the bourgeois Bohemians of upscale America. His newest book, On Paradise Drive, looks at Americans' spiritual drive to create paradise on earth. Brooks spoke recently at Seattle Pacific University's Greater Seattle Community Breakfast. We thank the University for the opportunity to speak to Brooks.
You have this phrase, "We used to talk about knowing thyself, now it's over-rating thyself," and that is only possible in isolation.
We're all the lords of self-esteem. We talk about diversity a lot, but our own lives, I think we all don't honor them too much. Human beings are really good at finding people like themselves and moving into neighborhoods. When people find there are people like themselves moving into a place, they move in there.
We live in little clustered worlds. And we can reinforce that by getting in little media clusters where everything we hear or watch or read reinforces our basic view of the world.
You also talk about a town that had a parade but no place to hold it because there was no center of the town.
All through our history, human history, we've lived around a center, or a harbor, or a port, or a factory. In New England villages there's always a town square. But you drive through much of American suburbia, there's no center. Everybody has their own centers. They go to their own school, their own church, their own soccer field. But there's no one place where the whole community can go together.
The one common theme that you find in all of your analysis of America is the energy. There is this great drive that fuels everything about us. What is it that makes America this kind of place?
Sometimes you look at this country and you think, well, we're the country of competitive cheerleading and sugar-frosted Cocoa Puffs and, you know, message T-shirts and bumper stickers. And you think, can we really be as shallow as we look? But we can't be because we wouldn't move around so much. Forty-three million Americans move. We work harder than any other people on the face of the earth. What on earth are we looking for? And I think the answer is that we're looking for heaven. We're looking for paradise.
We think that just over the next hill some happiness is possible. We're always reaching out and striving for it. We have a vision of the future, sort of a paradise spell that pulls us forward.
I think that's what marks us. We're divided, we're segmented, we disagree about this or that, but we all have a mentality in common. None of us was formed outside of the culture that we've inherited. For hundreds of years there have been Americans with this paradise spell, and we all have it.
What's interesting about the paradise spell is that we are not introspective. You say we're born with this spell.
Look back at the people who have written about this country. In 1830, Alexis De Tocqueville, it still fits. We are born into a culture. And we raise our kids that way. And we raise our kids different than the way kids are raised anywhere else on earth. They are raised like little achievement machines. We've revolutionized—especially in the last 25 years—the way children are living. They spend a lot less time just hanging around outside, a lot more time with adult-structured, supervised activities, getting ready for the great big future that's out there.
What's an ubermom?
Ubermoms are highly educated women who have given up very fancy jobs to perfect and hone their little ones. And I always say you can tell an ubermom because she weighs less than her kids because she's so, you know, she's so trim and she's got her life together. But she's got that little baby, you know, she reads that book What To Expect When You're Expecting. I have a joke in there, there should be like a Fascist version, What To Demand When You're Expecting. So from age 3 the little kids, they've got their little phonics video games, they've got their mobiles up on top of their crib to help their spatial recognition skills, they go to school with these backpacks that look like they've got BMW's strapped to their backs. If they tipped over they'd be stuck like beetles on their backs unable to get up. They are just laden down with homework. They're just ready for the future.
Early in this country's history there was a fear of success. You trace that through to the literature of today, which over the last decade was focusing on Americans as self-absorbed individuals. What does that say about this place?
We became the richest country on this earth in 1740. In 1740 the average American was richer than the average European. It's been a long time we've been affluent. And the idea was countries get rich and then they get decadent and then they corrupt and fall apart. Well, since 1740 somehow we've not fallen apart.
I think what that says was the Puritan founders had a phrase, "rowing to heaven." You may be rowing, you're working hard, but you're not just rowing for more money, you're rowing for some sort of salvation. We torture ourselves with this sense that we've always got to achieve some ultimate perfection, some ultimate happiness, and we have God's plan on our minds.
What does it mean to you when you read a poll that says Americans are on a spiritual journey?
I think it's always been true. But what Americans lack is a vocabulary to make this journey. It's like going out on a trip and you don't have the wagons, because you don't have the knowledge of what matters, what doesn't matter, how to even talk about what character is, what virtue is, because the language has been lost.
Now, whose failure is that?
It's all of ours. It's in part because people lost the language of America, they lost the language of God. The media decided the spiritual side of America was not something we were going to cover very well.
How does it fit with your column on evangelicalism and the fuzziness of evangelicalism, losing our theology and our distinctiveness as part of becoming part of the mainstream of American culture?
There are tens of millions of evangelicals in this country so it was natural that evangelicals were going to be part of the mainstream culture of America. But one of the problems with that is you become part of the commercial side of America, part of the side that is not about theology, not about the exact words and language written in the Bible. It is merely about being happy, getting over your problems, having fun, going to church and having great conversations and sharing compassionate moments, but losing touch with what are the demanding doctrines of a faith.
When you look at America as a nation that needs bridging between politics, media, religion, a nation that is on a spiritual journey but doesn't like religion, who can be the bridger?
One of the things I'd hope to see, say, in the evangelical community, is that there would be people who'd reach out to explain themselves, to join the mainstream community and talk about the specificities of their faith. But I hope more in the secular community there'd be less easy condemnation of the evangelical communities and more education. And to be honest, I really think that's happening. I think the media has improved 100 percent in the past 10 years since the Washington Post said that evangelicals were poor, uneducated, and easily led. That was an era of real prejudice and I think there's been a lot of progress made since then.
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More on David Brooks is available from the New York Times.
On Paradise Drive is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at dickstaub.com. Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:
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