David Brooks is not a dogmatist. The thoughtful conservative commentator, best-selling author, television commentator and New York Times syndicated columnist has worked for conservative William Buckley’s National Review and was at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution. But he’s also praised former President Barack Obama, and was so outraged by candidate Donald Trump’s version of conservatism that he supported Hillary Clinton — and even wrote a “No, Not Trump, Not Ever” Op-Ed.
His newest book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” rejects the dogma of individualism and replaces it with communalism — a rather ironic turn, given that his first best-seller, “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” praised consumerism. Brooks also admits that another book, “The Road to Character,” was written while “I was still enclosed in the prison of individualism.” His beliefs have changed; he no longer thinks that “character building is an individual task,” but that “good character is a by-product of giving yourself away.”
To secure visible personal success is to reach the summit of what Brooks calls the first mountain in life. But one must also climb a second mountain by committing to something greater than oneself. The first mountain, Brooks writes, “is about building up the ego and defining the self”; the second “is about shedding the ego.”
While Brooks is an agile commentator on our country’s political culture, as a theorist constructing a new guide for our society’s future, he falls short. He makes little effort to show how a society can reach that second summit. That’s disappointing, given that the promise of Brooks’ book is to move people and societies from the first mountain to second one.
Instead, his attention is devoted largely to personal development. Two of the book’s five chapters focus on finding a meaningful vocation and maintaining a successful marriage. They don’t break new ground, but they provide compelling stories of people who have successfully changed vocations to better serve their communities, or how couples can achieve a long-lasting satisfying love. Brooks’ own 27-year marriage ended in divorce at about the time he began writing this book.
He laments that he went through a hard time (“life put me in a valley”) and was lonely and humiliated. But there is no mention of how his healing might have squared with his statement that “Marriage is the sort of thing where it is safer to go all in …”
The book’s much bigger omission is its failure to address the pitfalls of committing to something bigger than oneself. Good intentions can lead to immoral results. But Brooks romanticizes the feeling of being seized by a daemon, becoming obsessed with certain activities, like “helping a sick person out of bed” or “offering hospitality at a hotel.”
So what about those who are obsessed with doing what they see as good but with negative results? For instance, CNN reported how those who oppose vaccinating children sent Facebook messages to a mother who lost her son due to the flu, saying things like “You’re a terrible mother” and “You killed your child” — because the child had been vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers obsessed with stopping children from being vaccinated are something Brooks did not likely have in mind.
His narrow guidance for achieving joy becomes evident in the chapter titled “Philosophy and Faith,” a reflection on his lifelong balancing act between Judaism and Christianity. But he ignores the role of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, as another religion significantly influencing our society.
While he has written about the dangers of extreme views on the left and right, his book overlooks the unintended consequences of reaching the second mountain’s summit through blind faith instead of rational reasoning — something that has fueled today’s terrorism.
“The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” by David Brooks, Random House, 384 pp., $28
David Brooks discussed “The Second Mountain” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 29, Temple de Hirsch Sinai, 1511 E. Pike St., Seattle, $35-$40, elliottbaybook.com