David Brooks: on the hollowness of success, the meaning of sin and being Obama’s favourite conservative

Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian:

Brooks“I started out as a writer, fresh out of college, thinking that if I could make my living at it – write for an airline magazine – I’d be happy,” says Brooks over coffee in downtown Washington, DC; at 53, he is ageing into the amiably fogeyish appearance he has cultivated since his youth. “I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered. Brooks builds a convincing case that this isn’t just his personal problem but a societal one: that our market-driven meritocracy, even when functioning at its fairest, rewards outer success while discouraging the development of the soul. Though this is inevitably a conservative argument – we have lost a “moral vocabulary” we once possessed, he says – many of the exemplary figures around whom Brooks builds the book were leftists: labour activists, civil rights leaders, anti-poverty campaigners. (St Augustine and George Eliot feature prominently, too.) What unites them, in his telling, is the inner confrontation they had to endure, setting aside whatever plans they had for life when it became clear that life had other plans for them.

This may seem like serious stuff to readers who recall Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s acutely well-observed debut about the new class of “bourgeois bohemians”, the emerging elite who fused the social values of the hippies with the consumerism of the yuppies. Returning to America following a stint in Brussels for the Wall Street Journal, Brooks found that it was “now impossible to tell an espresso-sipping artist from a cappuccino-gulping banker.” (He counted himself a Bobo, as must at least some Guardian readers.) He zeroed in on a new form of conspicuous consumption: a Bobo would never spend thousands on a fancy TV – that would be crass – but would willingly blow cash on “necessities”, such as restaurant-quality kitchen appliances, or a bathroom lined with slate of precisely the right artisanal roughness. For Bobos, he explained, it was “perfectly acceptable to spend lots of money on anything that is of ‘professional quality’, even if it has nothing to do with your profession”: if you’ve ever purchased an “expedition-weight, three-layer Gore-Tex Alpenglow reinforced Marmot Thunderlight jacket” for a country hike, as opposed to an Everest ascent, he meant you.

More here.