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Interpenetration
July/August 2011

 
Soulmates: New York Times columnist David Brooks was rapturously received by the starstruck British political class 

Which American is the present toast of Westminster? On a recent visit he was received rapturously at 10 Downing Street. Here in Britain his book, he modestly observed, was "the political class's flavour of the month." It has been recommended by David Cameron and Ed Miliband alike for Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers respectively.

No, we are not talking about Barack Obama, but David Brooks. By British standards, American newspaper columnists are taken a little too seriously, and New York Times columnists take themselves especially so. Still, Brooks was visibly surprised to find his book tour transformed into a virtual state visit, largely due to the good offices of the Prime Minister's Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton. Perhaps the gentlemen in Whitehall didn't notice the faintness of Brooks's praise (in the Spectator) of our "basically functional" political system, adding a nice double-cliche for good measure: "In this day and age, that's a wonder of the world." 

The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens (Short Books, £14.99) recapitulates in fictionalised form what has been the received wisdom of the Manhattan dinner party for the best part of a century–namely, that our lives are governed by the unconscious. An idealised couple, Harold and Erica, go through life fulfilling just about every wish that masters of the universe might make, plus a few that they might not. The wisdom of David Brooks is summarised in the final paragraph: "Harold had achieved an important thing in his life. He had constructed a viewpoint. Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines. Harold saw life as a never-ending interpretation of souls."

It is true that Harold is not identical with his creator, but when we are told that "there was a New York Times columnist with views remarkably similar to [Harold's] own", it is pretty clear which columnist the author is talking about. So it is a reasonable inference that the author, too, prefers perceptual interpenetration to chess.

If so, this seems rather odd. Life as an exotic variety of pneumatic intercourse may appeal to directors of strategy like Mr Hilton ("whose mind", Brooks tells us, "seems to ride the elevator from political marketing to top-floor political philosophy"). But it does not seem likely to yield that which apparently makes Harold's life significant, and which the columnist most desires — a viewpoint. Whereas chess, even between machines, may at least produce a winner.

What will British ministers take from The Social Animal, from this very American attempt to integrate the latest trends in science and psychology with the self-help books that the author calls "the literature of success?" Well, my guess is that they will turn to the chapter entitled "The Leader", which recounts the election campaign of a presidential candidate called Grace. Harold and Erica work hard for Grace, "the coolest person in any room", who (of course) wins and takes Erica with him into the White House. What is his secret? When his opponent shoots animals, Grace ladles soup in a soup kitchen. Could Grace by any chance be modelled on the candidate whom Brooks, a former Republican, backed in 2008 — Barack Obama?

In other words, the unprecedented promotion of The Social Animal by Downing Street was indeed an extension of the Obama state visit. David Brooks could not have done a better job of interpenetrating the souls of the British political establishment with those of the Obama Administration if he had been paid to do so. 

 
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