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Mr. Brooks's Miracle Elixir

Mr. Brooks's Miracle Elixir

Mini Teaser: The Social Animal is an instruction manual for politicians, the chief virtue of which is that it is practically useless. Faced with geopolitical and economic upheaval, the New York Times columnist offers a reassuring refuge from reality.

by Author(s): John Gray

The dangers that come with this increased knowledge are captured in the story of Genesis, which used to be one of the West’s guiding myths. Now this biblical story has lost its power, and another—the Socratic myth that says knowledge and virtue go together—has replaced it. Even among those who profess to be religious, the idea that advancing knowledge can deliver us from moral and political conflict has a powerful allure. Brooks’s book is testimony to this faith in science. To be sure, his grip on the new sciences of human behavior is shaky, and he exaggerates what we can learn from them. A great deal in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology remains speculative and controversial. Where they seem reasonably well established, the findings of these new sciences do not always support Brooks’s conception of virtue. Recent inquiry—as well as centuries of literature—may suggest that we should favor “the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self”; but it is hard to square this plural view of selfhood with old-fashioned notions of character. Advancing knowledge may undermine simpleminded rationalism, but it also undercuts traditional morality. As to the overall impact that science may have on human values, no one knows.

THE FACT that the new sciences of human nature are in their infancy will not diminish their appeal to governments. The deflation of economics as a discipline has not shaken their hope that science can show us how to live; it has only led them to embrace another kind of scientism. Importantly, it is a version that has the advantage of not requiring any radical reassessment of economic orthodoxies. For the present generation of politicians—here the charge of callowness is not unjust—the hegemony of the market is all they have ever known. Even now, when global markets are falling apart under the strains of sovereign bankruptcy, currency wars and resource conflicts, our rulers continue to insist that there is no alternative. Rather than making the effort—intellectual as much as political—of deciding what can be entrusted to the market and what cannot, they look for gimmicks that will serve as proxies for new thinking.

This is where Brooks comes in. Whatever he may say, the view of human beings that is presented in The Social Animal has no definite implications for public policy. For our rulers, that is a positive feature: it allows them to use Brooks’s ideas as they please. Most of the books that have purported to show how to reinvigorate government over the past decades—consultant David Osborne and government official Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government comes to mind—made the mistake of being too specific in their prescriptions, whose ineffectiveness was soon apparent. Brooks is more prudent. Offering little in the way of specific advice, he is really selling a tone of voice—a way of talking about politics rather than anything more substantive. In the United States and Britain (it is difficult to imagine it being taken seriously anywhere else) the book’s appeal seems to lie precisely in this lack of specificity. In America, Brooks’s disdain for “big policies” can be invoked to evade the painful fact of ongoing impoverishment. The consoling message is that if only American creativity can be freed from the dead hand of government, the cycle of decline can be reversed. Brooks’s readers can then turn their minds from the discomforting shifts that are under way—such as the palpable erosion of public infrastructure, which leaves the United States looking more and more like the third-world countries of a few decades ago—and seek refuge in an American pastoral. How the United States fits into a post-American world can be left to future generations to decide.

In Britain, The Social Animal can be used to reinforce a Burkean conceit of sound government. The reality has long been a succession of dodges, slogans and ephemeral “initiatives” which serve to conceal the government’s inability to control—or for that matter understand—history as it happens. Here too the fact that it gives no clear guidance may be the book’s principal strength. Brooks cites Michael Oakeshott’s observation that in politics we “sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination.” It is a refreshing reminder of what conservative thinking might once have been. But Brooks would have done better to cite another passage from the same volume, where the skeptical British philosopher notes that

there seems little to stand in the way of the appearance of a vulgar counterpart to this literature of political inquiry. . . . A little book on How to Restore old Cottages may be flanked on the bookstalls by one on How to Restore old Monarchies; an article on “A face-lift for the kitchen: new and exciting materials” in a Do It Yourself magazine will be followed by others on “Dos and Don’ts in making a Revolution,” “How to win an Election.”

Oakeshott comments that “writings of this kind (with perhaps less obvious titles) have been available for more than a century.” It is doubtful, though, whether Oakeshott envisioned a book like The Social Animal: an instruction manual for politicians, the chief virtue of which is that it is practically useless.

This appealing emptiness will not ensure the book’s longevity, however. Soon enough, Brooks’s manual of positive thinking will be consumed and discarded. History will move on and yesterday’s gurus will be remaindered and forgotten. But if Brooks’s book will hardly be remembered, the reverence with which it has been received tells us something important about how we have come to be ruled. The Social Animal is an exemplar of political discourse as we know it today; the chief function is to distract attention from intractable realities, which governments and those they govern prefer not to think about.

Pullquote: Brooks is attempting to sell the world his brand of positive thinking. It is a morality tale of the most transparent—and unconvincing—kind.Image: Essay Types: Book Review