Mirror on America

David Brooks in The New York Times:

Cover-600 Alexis de Tocqueville introduced the genre and ruined it by actually being brilliant. In the 19th century Brilliant authors came with their superior European sensibilities. In the 1980s, Jean ­Baudrillard came armed with Theory and set the modern standard by dropping puerile paradoxes from coast to coast: “Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity.” Brilliant! “Here in the most conformist society the dimensions are immoral. It is this immorality that makes distance light and the journey infinite, that cleanses the muscles of their tiredness.” Brilliant!

Today, Brilliant writers seem to come with camera crews, and they seem to do much of their reporting while the crews set up their visuals. I enjoyed Bernard-Henri Lévy’s meditation a few years ago, and now the great historian Simon Schama has entered the field. Schama was born in Britain and makes documentaries for the BBC, but he has spent more time in the United States than most Brilliant authors, having taught at Harvard and now Columbia. But this is very much an outsider’s book, and if Schama doesn’t come from a strictly European perspective, let’s just say he comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-­kisses The London Review of Books.

His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.

More here.