Friday, April 1, 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

I listen to David Brooks because he has a way looking at the world that adds depth to my perceptions. As a result of hearing his point of view, I can articulate my own positions better. Between the two of us, we do not cover all possible iterations of an argument, but we make a wider circle of opinion. He seems to be a man I could negotiate with, and come up with a better solution than if either he or I made decisions on our own. Well, anyway, he’d have to negotiate if he wanted my participation.

Another thing I like about David Brooks is that he is not despairing, despite knowing what he does about the way Washington works. He just plods along, looking for and picking up little gems along the road that might mean the difference between collapse and success in our post-apocalyptic world. Because he doesn’t make me comfortable that Washington is going to be able to change enough to save us from ourselves. I think he essentially has a dark view of the path our leaders are walking. But, he says, we the populace could change our fate if we took responsibility for learning the lessons science is now teaching us.

In The Social Animal Brooks writes a story meant to illustrate in narrative the results of studies done for the psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and medical fields in recent years. It is a quick and easy read, though I paused several times over the choices the protagonists made, remembering choices in my own life that echoed. I am familiar with many of the studies he used as a structure for the narrative, so could follow his lead, though I did wonder whether this was the best way to explicate the material. It’s not what I would have done, but then, I didn’t write it. It’s his way, and once again I’m willing to negotiate.

Protagonists Erika and Harold grow up in different types of social environments and we follow them through life. Things happen to them, and they also impact and shape their environment. They both end up in the same place, despite getting there by very different means. Brooks has his main character muse about limited government, but with targeted interventions that may help people focus on the hard work that is necessary to build a democratic society with (and here he laments that the term “socialism” has already been taken) a strong social-izing bent. He gives voice to his Hamiltonian bent (from conservative President Alexander Hamilton) and tries to describe ways this successful president might make choices were he alive today. Brooks makes a thoughtful attempt to synthesize disparate fragments of information that has gleaned in the course of his life and work and so adds to the national dialogue.

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