The great thing (there’s only one) about David Brooks is that he seems to lend credence to the joke that the New York Times chooses conservative columnists that make the Right look insane and/or stupid. And (I’m looking at you, Ben) don’t try to tell me David Brooks is a centrist, because that just goes to show how skewed the spectrum of political discourse is in this country. Granted, Brooks is no Ross Douthat, whose name alternately makes me think “douche hat” and “doubt that,” but he’s decidedly in the conservative camp. Case in point: “The Sandra Bullock Trade.” Now, I’ll admit that I can usually at least find most of a David Brooks column to be the product of a reasonable human mind, and it’s not until the very end that he draws some in(s)ane conclusion. This one, however, is straight up crazy from stem to stern. He starts right out by implying that professional and marital success are mutually exclusive–at least if you’re a woman. Ladies, did you not get the memo that you can either be a happy homemaker or a frigid bitch executive (although middle manager is more likely given that pesky glass ceiling)? You see, this is the “deal” that Sandra Bullock made–she chose an Oscar over marital fidelity on the part of her husband… or something like that. Brooks’ opening gambit requires a Wonderland-scale suspension of logic to even approach making sense.
But in any case, Brooks spends the rest of the column detailing some recent research on the correlation of happiness (however defined) to both income level and personal relationships. Okay, sure, I’ll buy it. But–and maybe I’m just speaking as a starving graduate student here–since when is income the sole measure of professional success? Plenty of people go into professions (gee, like academia) precisely because they derive personal satisfaction from such work. Does that mean personal relationships don’t matter? Of course not. But along a similar line, even the research Brooks cites looks at a range of interpersonal connections that go way beyond marriage, including group activities and having dinner with friends.
The point that Brooks ends with is that governments should focus less on generating prosperity and more on making their constituents happier. This is an interesting point to make given Brooks’ earlier point that growing inequality hasn’t led to greater unhappiness. What if, for example, the state focused less on improving the material conditions of its richest citizens and directed tax revenue back into urban districts? It makes you wonder just whose happiness these sociologists are measuring.
Speaking of the social sciences, Brooks uses it in extremely uncritical fashion here: “If the relationship between money and well-being is complicated, the correspondence between personal relationships and happiness is not.” Actually, I think the correlation between personal relationships and satisfaction is worth some consideration. Could it be that our culture (of which his column is a part) places such a high premium on marriage that other forms of interpersonal connection seem unsatisfying by comparison? Of course not–this is “the age of research”! The facts speak for themselves, or at least they seem to naturalize constructed social realities, and they give dudes like Brooks the appearance of empirical imprimatur when they dispense conservative canards, like the one that says a woman can either choose work or home, but never both.