“Freedom sucks. To be unattached is bad.” Or so says the New York Times columnist and author David Brooks in his latest book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life. In it, he wages war against our self-centred culture – and managed to knock Michelle Obama’s Becoming off the bestseller lists.
Its message is simple. For decades, we have exalted “me” at the expense of “we”. The ego has been centre-stage – pampered and made-over, instagrammed and tweeted – while “others” are sidelined. As a result, we are capable only of the flimsiest relationships, which leave us ultimately disappointed.
Brooks has hit a nerve. The rise in mental health issues, suicides, opiate abuse, absent fathers, broken relationships and distrust bespeak a seriously troubled culture. And not just across the pond.
“We’ve created a culture in both our countries that is way too individualistic and meritocratic,” he tells me during his two-day book tour of the UK. For decades, we were taught to consider our own feelings, rights and needs – “but we have gone too far.”
It’s time, Brooks says, for a rebellion against the previous rebellion, which was against the “conformism and repression of the 1950s”.
“We need a shift in norms. It used to be normal to be attached to the woman you had kids with, as well as to your kids. Today, it’s the norm not to have a relationship with the mother of your children.”
The rise in single householders similarly worries him. The fact that almost 16 million Britons live on their own testifies not to a lifestyle choice, but to a culture that has “been promoting autonomy for decades, always in the name of personal freedom”. Left-wingers talked about lifestyle freedom; Conservatives highlighted individual liberty. But lots of people, he says, didn’t want to be left alone. “All this freedom became the freedom to sit on your own at home with your computer games, your drinking, your drugs.”
The antidote, Brooks argues, is to connect and commit. We need to rethink what success and happiness mean.
It’s an audacious demand, and few public intellectuals could make it. But with a newspaper column that draws 800,000 readers worldwide, teaching stints at Yale and influential friends including Joe Biden, former VP and current presidential candidate, Brooks is in a position to do so.
His writings – including in this book (part self-help, part cultural analysis) – take a moral perspective on issues such as the under-employment of white working-class men and the need for tight-knit communities. Anyone seeking the conscience of the nation in the Trump era can find it here.
In person, Brooks is similarly thoughtful, even ponderous, speaking of “transformative pain”, “spiritual bonds within a community” and “moral renewal”. Slightly built, bespectacled, unassuming despite his smart suit, he seems an unlikely champion of love. Yet he speaks passionately about what he himself calls “gooshy” sentiments: “the magic” and “fusion” of falling in love (two years ago, he married his researcher, 23 years his junior), the need to see relationships as a “covenant”, the “joy of giving”.
I decided to give this lady life advice! Watch the chutzpah on SuperSoul Sunday on O! pic.twitter.com/iZ7yejyv3t— David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks) May 18, 2019
Such earnestly expressed romantic feelings may prompt some to mutter: “Steady on, old boy…” But when I warn him that his tone may not translate well for a British audience, Brooks merely beams: “Earnestness is a weapon for good. I think people are hungry for spiritual life and a moral life.
“When I speak to a group of 4,000 business people, mostly 62-year-old white men in bad suits, the more I talk about moral values, the more rapt they are.” He reckons British readers share this longing: “We know we have lost our way.”
Brooks, 57, has learned this the hard way. His professional success cost him his marriage of 27 years. He and his ex-wife have pledged never to discuss their break-up in public, but he admits that his “workaholism” contributed to the rupture.
But if reaching the pinnacle of his career didn’t bring joy, what could? The answer was, climbing a second mountain. This one requires us to discard our ego like a useless compass, and to “turn to others. When bad things happen, you can choose to break down or to break open – to let others in.”
Brooks found solace in two key encounters. The first was with a couple in Washington DC who invited teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds to live with them. On Thursday nights, Brooks would drop by after work, and watch the youngsters and their adoptive parents share the day’s experiences, seeking and offering support and hugs. The lonely author found in this makeshift family an example of a “relational mindset” that exposed the failures of the “hyper-individualism” he had lived by.
Brooks decided to seek other groups that “placed service above self”: here, he was beginning to suspect, lay the key to joy. His pilgrimage across America uncovered a host of inspiring men and women who ran soup kitchens, sports clubs for disadvantaged youths, mentored the unemployed. Each and every one had heeded advice that Brooks himself had given undergraduates at Brandeis University in 2013: “The purpose of life is not to find yourself. It is to lose yourself.”
Brooks’s second crucial encounter was with Anne Snyder, who had helped him research his last book, The Road to Character. After years of off-on courtship, they married in 2017, and Brooks’s face lights up endearingly when he mentions her.
I ask him how he hopes to have a good relationship, second time around. He frowns in concentration. “Look for your own selfishness in the relationship. Lead with vulnerability. Listen.” Not quite tips for the Tinder generation, but Brooks, with his beatific smile, looks like an advertisement for middle-aged romance.
He is unwilling to settle for personal fulfilment, however, when there is so much work to be done for the rest of us. In collaboration with the conservative Aspen Institute, he has set up a not-for-profit, The Weavers, to encourage the community-leaders he so admires. I hear echoes of David Cameron’s Big Society, which, I remind him, flopped. Can its trans-Atlantic reincarnation succeed in the Trump era? Brooks expects little support from a man he terms “an emotional cripple”: “I have a feeling that he was unloved. Now, he’s made himself unlovable.”
But he believes his countrymen “are going to bounce back morally from Trump. In a recent poll, Democrats said they were looking for a candidate with a moral compass.”
As for this country, “I’ve always been struck by how in these two countries, politics rhyme: Thatcher-Reagan, Clinton-Blair, Bush-Cameron, and now Brexit and Trump. My friends over here don’t like me to draw this parallel, but there is no doubt that both Trump and Brexit drew on similar emotions. People here are just as angry with the system that has let them down.”
Brooks feels at home here: “My parents were Jewish and huge anglophiles. At home we had a saying: ‘Speak Yiddish, act British.’ My turtles were called Gladstone and Disraeli, and one summer we swapped our house for Margaret Drabble’s in Hampstead. I felt I understood Britain, as I realised when I was watching Have I Got News For You every week… and got every joke.”
He has also experienced life on the Continent, spending the early 90s in Brussels as foreign correspondent. “I wrote a zillion Eurosceptic articles. I found the EU sclerotic.” He saw advantages in an economic union, but thought closer ties doomed. “No one could have the same political conversation, because they came from such different experiences of democracy.”
Nevertheless, Brooks enjoyed his time in Europe, and met “an entertaining correspondent – one Boris Johnson”. But he won’t be drawn on Britain’s politics. Brexit is clearly but a molehill in comparison to the second mountain he wants us to climb.
As he sets off for his next engagement, I can’t help wishing that our public intellectuals could be just a little…. well, more earnest.