A profile piece in the latest New York Magazine does much to explain why conservative columnist David Brooks is so often excoriated by conservatives and liberals alike: He insists upon clinging to the notion that one's ideas and opinions should be informed by the ongoing revelation of facts rather than the frozen-in-amber tyranny of ideology.
Brooks changed his mind recently. Not one of those small changes, like grande instead of venti. He abandoned an idea that until recently made David Brooks David Brooks.
“I’ve changed my view of suburbia,” he says. We’re sitting at the Best Buns Bread Company in the Village at Shirlington, a sort of prefab town square in Arlington, Virginia, designed to be quaint and homey. The streets are fresh red brick. The lampposts are faux antique. The trees are evenly spaced. A color-coded map explains the area’s layout, like a mall. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity—Aladdin’s Eatery abuts Bonsai Restaurant abuts Guapo’s—is matched only by its patrons’ ethnic lack thereof. We are sipping coffees and munching on identical Ginger Crinkle cookies, when it occurs to me: I am in a David Brooks book. We are Bobos. This is Paradise.
“In my last book, I was pretty pro-urban/suburban sprawl,” he explains. Pro is an understatement. On Paradise Drive, released in 2004, was a satirical, pop-sociological exploration of American suburbia, but also a celebration of it. Consumerism wasn’t just empty accumulation; it was how Americans express themselves. In the ever-expanding exurbs, he wrote, every man creates his own private bubble, “an aristocrat within his own Olympus.”
“Now I’m much more skeptical,” he says. For the last three years, Brooks has been researching and writing a book on neuroscience. At least that’s his shorthand for it. It’s basically about how unconscious processes—in short, emotions—shape our behavior, and what that means for public policy, all told through the stories of two composite, pseudo-novelistic characters. (A working title was How Success Happens, but he dismissed it as too Gladwellian.) Good policy, he argues, should understand that people make decisions emotionally, not rationally. It should also try to foster good habits with “communitarian” solutions like pre-K education, or zoning laws to prevent Wal-Marts from taking over neighborhoods. In other words, says Brooks, “the more contact with other people, the better.” Hence his newfound beef with suburbia.