Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Heart of Brooksness: Oh, the places you won't go!

Heart of Darkness illustration by Matt Kish.
The Odyssey's over! David Brooks ("A Nation of Healers") has completed that voyage into the heart of whiteness, out of the bourgeois strata, across the chasms of segmentation, and into the pain, where folks are in such distress that they will even consider voting for Trump, as a less addictive alternative to Oxycontin. He's finished changing the way he does his job so he can report accurately on this country, getting socially intermingled and listening carefully.

At least I think he has, because there's an elegiac, retrospective tone to the way he brings up some of the things he's learned along the way—

I’ve been traveling around to the most economically stressed parts of this country.
You see a lot of dislocation on a trip like this. In New Mexico, for example, I met some kids who lost their parents — to drugs, death, deportation or something else.
It's a terrible thing when you dislocate your parents.

You meet people who are uncomfortable with the basics of the modern economy.
I met a woman in West Virginia who had just learned, to great relief, that she didn’t have to give an anticipated speech at church. “We’re not word people,” she explained. Those words hang in the air.
"I'm a word person," replied Brooks, snatching the woman's words and shoving them quickly into his portfolio. That takes care of West Virginia, he thought with a satisfied smile.

I have to apologize to him here, by the way, for openly suspecting he never spoke to anyone on the West Virginia visit. Clearly I was wrong; he spoke to at least one person, perhaps even more. But I wish he'd dug a little bit deeper. Did this person's anxiety about public speaking incline her to vote for Trump? How basic is speechmaking to the modern economy? I'm sure it's vital to Brooks's economy, but how modern is that?

You see the ravages of drugs everywhere. I ran into a guy in Pittsburgh who hires people for his small plant. He has to give them drug tests because they’re operating heavy equipment. If he pulls in 100 possible hires, most of them either fail the drug test or don’t show up for it because they know they will fail.
His informant there wasn't actually speaking from personal experience, but from a survey commissioned by the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association and, as we established the last time he sold us this anecdote, it has some problems.

In any event we now know of four places he's visited in his pain tour, including today's Albuquerque, and he mentions three of them in this column (the fourth was Lost Hills, California, but there he ended up spending all his time with billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick—billionaires and Democrats, honesty compels me to add, though not the kind of Democrats I personally prefer). One of those references, from the only West Virginia resident he spoke to, being an awfully remote stretch, and one being recycled from an earlier piece and bogus to boot.

What I'm saying is I think this may be all we're going to get. Oh, the places he went!

The Albuquerque research went pretty well, in any event.
  • At the New Day Youth and Family Services center, Albuquerque's only shelter for runaway and homeless kids, he met a young woman who has had an unspeakably horrible childhood as the daughter of drug addicts and traffickers, foster child, victim of abusive men, and subject to depression, who now "glows with joy and good cheer" (has Brooks dropped "radiates"?) and had "learned to express her moods through poetry and novellas". (I had to mention that, because I know how she got this interest in a literary form so associated with the late style of Henry James, as in The Beast in the Jungle, and Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness—it's that Brooks and his assistants don't know that novela is the Spanish word for a conventional short story, and that's what the young woman was talking about.)
  • At the Children's Grief Center of New Mexico, where children whose parents have died (or been dislocated) get some special kinds of help, he hung out with the director, who lost her own father when she was a teenager, so she's obviously doing fine. That's two people total, already!
(The Barrett Foundation, which operates a 40-bed family shelter, finds that there are some 2,200 individuals with nowhere to sleep on any given night in Albuquerque, half of them women and children, and 6,000 homeless children enrolled in city schools, so there's probably still more work to do.)

Thus he learned in the course of his travels literally across our great nation that everything is fine after all:

The social fabric is tearing across this country, but everywhere it seems healers are rising up to repair their small piece of it. They are going into hollow places and creating community, building intimate relationships that change lives one by one.
That's probably where West Virginia comes in; everybody knows it has hollow places, colloquially known as "hollers", and tons of social fabric until the textile industry in the Northern Panhandle started to die out in the 1940s.

It turns out, amazingly enough, that everybody in the US is doing exactly what David Brooks has been urging them to do for the last few years, and Brooks is not surprisingly amazed:

I know everybody’s in a bad mood about the country. But the more time you spend in the hardest places, the more amazed you become. There’s some movement arising that is suspicious of consumerism but is not socialist. It’s suspicious of impersonal state systems but is not libertarian. It believes in the small moments of connection.
It turns out he wasn't doing his job all wrong after all! He was right, and intermingled, all along! Happiness, and a correct political agenda, were buried in his own back yard! Donald Trump probably doesn't even exist!

No, wait, there's more! And a fifth destination. It turns out he visited Texas too, where he picked up an authentic anecdote! And it's so cute you'll—

I remember watching an after-school counselor in Texas sitting in a circle of little girls who had nowhere else to go. She offered them a tongue twister: “O.K.,” she said chirpily, “who can say ‘Unique New York’ six times fast?”
Well, somewhat cute. Maybe pointless, but in a sort of cute way. That's literally the last paragraph of the piece, its triumphant conclusion: surely, in a country so great that after-school counselors to deprived children can teach tongue twisters to their little charges, chirpily, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world! Welcome back inside the Beltway, Brooksy! Are you planning to get a book out of this?

Driftglass thinks the journey is just beginning. Time will tell. Susan in comments reminds us that we shouldn't go away without noticing that this apparently apolitical gibbering is intensely political, with the classic Tory message: the government doesn't have to spend any money on alleviating poverty and distress and chronic joblessness, because there are so many nice and kind people in the world who will take care of everything for free, glowing with joy all the way.

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