Politics, Moderate



How long until we're all happy?

Robert J. Samuelson on

To: David Brooks

Columnist, The New York Times

Dear David,

We have met a few times over the years while covering the same events. I'm a big fan. You write beautifully and, more often than not, have insights about our politics, lifestyles and beliefs that others have missed. But as time passes, you have grown increasingly somber about our national condition. Your most recent column, based on your new book "The Second Mountain," is downright depressing.

Here's a brief summary: "The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis. ... We've created a culture based on lies." One is that "[c]areer success is fulfilling." Not so, you say. "Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that's not true." Another related lie is that "I can make myself happy" through "individual accomplishment. ... The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. ... You are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized."

As a rule, I rarely respond directly to other columnists. Many columnists do the same. It's a good rule because, if abandoned, it would make commentary even more personal and shrill. But sometimes rules need to be broken. This is, I think, one of those times.


So, David, let me respectfully suggest: Lighten up.

To be sure, most of your insights are true. But they're also utopian. You argue that we've lost our moral compass and have surrendered to delusional beliefs that rationalize a cultural emptiness. You seem disappointed that we haven't arrived in some Garden-of-Eden paradise where almost everyone is happy, fulfilled, responsible and respected. I yearn for this as well, but I have reconciled myself to the inevitability of imperfection.

Our job as journalists is not simply to point out untruths, injustices and societal problems. It is also to illuminate the inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions of our national condition. It is, in short, to be realistic, especially when being realistic is politically and intellectually unpopular -- as it is now.

We have a culture of complaint, where nothing works, selfishness is rampant, disillusion is widespread and hatred -- practiced across the political spectrum -- is common. There is no virtue in feeding this frenzy of pessimism, just because it fits the temper of the times. We need to recognize the limits of our condition. Many legitimate problems can't be solved, and some problems aren't worth solving.


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