Missing the Dream

Review of On Paradise Drive, by David Brooks

New York Post , July 02, 2004

On 9/11, a handful of ordinary business travelers fought back against the hijackers of United Flight 93, crashed the plane in Pennsylvania and saved the nation's capital from a devastating attack.

Someone who knew America from the work of David Brooks would not have predicted this heroism.

"Democracy has a tendency to slide into nihilistic mediocrity if its citizens are not inspired by some larger national goal," he wrote in 1997. "If they think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities, they lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose." He found no "national greatness" among the country's white-collar workers.

The Americans who labor in office parks, he wrote in late 2000, are self-satisfied and complacent, "great but insufficient," dangerously lacking "tragic sense and moral gravity." They suffer from a "flatness of soul."

In On Paradise Drive, Brooks changes his mind. Sort of.

The book attempts three difficult and possibly irreconcilable goals. First, it tries to recapture the humor of "Bobos in Paradise," Brooks' bestselling 2000 venture in "comic sociology." "Bobos" suffered from wild generalizations and shifting definitions, but most readers were laughing too hard to notice.

Second, "On Paradise Drive" promises to report "how Americans really live," to depict and analyze the many cultures of middle-class America.

Finally, the book seeks to answer the question that torments Brooks the patriotic intellectual: "If middle America is so stupid, vulgar, self-absorbed, and materialistic, which it often is, then how can America itself be so great?"

Oddly, for a slight work with no footnotes and little continuity of argument, "On Paradise Drive" comes closest to achieving its intellectual goal.

The book lacks the specificity needed for humor or insightful reporting. The introduction promises statistics, "parables, composites and archetypes," and the book delivers. Everything is aggregated.

"On Paradise Drive" even strips the reportorial details from magazine articles Brooks has previously published. In The Atlantic, he recounted how he couldn't spend more than $20 on a restaurant meal in Franklin County, Pa. "On Paradise Drive" turns that specific (and testable) claim into a statement about "many small towns."

The book has its funny moments, of course, often about the folks Brooks used to call Bobos.

"Inner-ring people," he writes, "work so arduously at perfecting their homes because they dream of building a haven where they can relax, lay aside all that striving and just cocoon. . . . Yet you know they are wired for hard work, because they feel compelled to put offices in every room in the house."

Work is the core of Brooks' dilemma. He wants young people to adopt grand ambitions: "to help create a world in which all nations are democratic," "to help create a world in which there is no cancer," "to help create a world in which there is no starvation" or "to devote my life to God's word."

Yet America's economic greatness -- and, ultimately, its cultural and military power and its historical legacy -- comes from the pursuit of excellence in tasks that seem "a certain formula for brain death." Americans invent Pull-Up diapers and worry about Six Sigma quality. We concentrate on incredibly specialized problems.

Brooks is impressed by our energy and achievements, but worried about our souls: "The quest may be epic, but the goal is trivial."

"On Paradise Drive" redeems these quotidian pursuits by giving them an eschatological motivation: the "Paradise Spell." Americans, the book concludes, are driven by the enduring faith that "just out of reach, just beyond the next ridge, just with the next home or entrepreneurial scheme or diet plan" lies a new Eden.

This positive conclusion highlights Brooks' ambivalence. Why must the future promise utopia to have meaning? "Trivial" goals in fact make human life better over time. Besides, the whole point of ending starvation or curing cancer is to give more people a chance to enjoy more everyday pleasures.

Every great achievement requires mundane, incremental progress. Want to spread democracy? You have to fix the sewage systems and electricity grid in Iraq. That isn't a job for philosophers.