Sunday, December 4, 2011

David Brooks: The Social Animal

David Brooks is a socialist.

Okay, he’s not a socialist in the sense that you and I might think of as socialist. In fact, David Brooks has never made such a statement about himself that I know of. However in his book, The Social Animal, he describes his alter ego as a socialist. However, his alter ego is the strangest and perhaps most unique socialist that you've ever heard of. The kind of socialist that Brooks is speaking about is not of the Marxist-Leninist variety, nor of the Maoist variety, or of any other off-the-shelf varieties. Instead, his alter ego is what most of us would think of it as a well, an Aristotelian, or a Burkean, or, in more contemporary terms, a communitarian. In other words, Brooks thinks that most folks who describe themselves as socialists today are in fact statists.

The above gives you a sense politically of where Brooks is coming from, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his columns in the New York Times regularly. The Brooks alter ego in The Social Animal is someone who admires the politics of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. He believes that the state should be useful and is necessary, but is should not be dominant. He stands between free-market libertarians and the statists (i.e., whom everyone else thinks of it as socialists).

I listened to The Social Animal with a great deal of enjoyment. Brooks brings valuable perspectives to this book. First, Brooks is a keen observer of contemporary social mores. He can be satirical, but always with a light and humorous touch. Secondly, he’s deeply taken with the neuro-psychological revolution that is ongoing. Only a small portion of the book is really dedicated to Brooks pithy observations about the society around us, and more of it is centered on what we have learned about humans as social animals. Of course, this perspective is as old as men and women have been thinking about society. Names like Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, and Toqueville pop to mind. Brooks brings contemporary scientific (especially brain) research and contemporary social science research to the table. Brooks does this by using the conceit borrowed from Rousseau’s Emile, wherein the education (not just schooling) of individuals serves as a vehicle to expostulate about his perspectives on learning and behavior. (I think it's safe to say Brooks would be very critical of Rousseau's political thinking.)

I enjoyed this book very much. It was fun to listen to. Brooks did well to choose the stories of individuals to draw us into a narrative that provides doses of contemporary scientific thinking that become relevant and easily palatable. Of course, I have to also have to say that I'm easily sold on this book because I agree with most of his perspectives. If anyone has read this blog before, they know that I often have cited my agreements with Brooks. While I don't consider myself as politically conservative as he considers himself, I think the differences are those of shades and not of absolutes. I, too, admire the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. However, I do believe that the contribution of FDR is one is crucial for modern America. Indeed, the second Roosevelt's political program and economic program is vital to our well-being and extremely relevant today. Obama probably could not find a better role model than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Theodore lived in an earlier, less industrialized age. We need the likes of FDR and Keynes more than ever.

In the end, a highly enjoyable and recommend a book

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