The author of the acclaimed bestseller Bobos in Paradise, which hilariously described the upscale American culture, takes a witty look at how being American shapes us, and how America's suburban civilization will shape the world's future.
Take a look at Americans in their natural habitat. You see suburban guys at Home Depot doing that special manly, waddling walk that American men do in the presence of large amounts of lumber; super-efficient ubermoms who chair school auctions, organize the PTA, and weigh less than their children; workaholic corporate types boarding airplanes while talking on their cell phones in a sort of panic because they know that when the door closes they have to turn their precious phone off and it will be like somebody stepped on their trachea.
Looking at all this, you might come to the conclusion that we Americans are not the most profound people on earth. Indeed, there are millions around the world who regard us as the great bimbos of the globe: hardworking and fun, but also materialistic and spiritually shallow.
They've got a point. As you drive through the sprawling suburbs or eat in the suburban chain restaurants (which if they merged would be called Chili's Olive Garden Hard Rock Outback Cantina), questions do occur. Are we really as shallow as we look? Is there anything that unites us across the divides of politics, race, class, and geography? What does it mean to be American?
Well, mentality matters, and sometimes mentality is all that matters. As diverse as we are, as complacent as we sometimes seem, Americans are united by a common mentality, which we have inherited from our ancestors and pass on, sometimes unreflectingly, to our kids.
We are united by future-mindedness. We see the present from the vantage point of the future. We are tantalized, at every second of every day, by the awareness of grand possibilities ahead of us, by the bounty we can realize just over the next ridge.
This mentality leads us to work feverishly hard, move more than any other people on earth, switch jobs, switch religions. It makes us anxious and optimistic, manic and discombobulating.
Even in the superficiality of modern suburban life, there is some deeper impulse still throbbing in the heart of average Americans. That impulse is the subject of this book.
For readers who are feeling glum about America and its place in the world, or those who despairingly look at our culture's cookie cutter, strip mall consumerism and flash-bang glitter, Brooks (Bobos in Paradise) offers a balm with his latest pseudo-sociological treatise. More a way to look at what he sees as America's problems (e.g., our thirst for enormous gas guzzlers and super-sized soft drinks) with optimism than a series of suggestions of how to fix them, this book by the New York Times op-ed columnist tells readers it's okay to consume, consume, consume so long as they look toward the future while doing so. At times playful and sarcastic (though less funny than intended), the book jumps from statistical analysis to cultural observation to defense of Bush's foreign policy, all without much of a mooring in essential context or factual citation. This is deceptive optimism; one long essay insisting our society's problems are not so big, provided we talk about them in the right way. While engagingly written and insightful at points, Brooks's affirmation is unlikely to resound with anyone outside the conservative choir, and even less likely to spark change or even a desire for change. Still, it's nice to feel loved if not by the rest of the world, than at least by this author.