David Brooks as a 'communitarian'

The influential conservative columnist, on tour promoting his new book, explains how his study of neuroscience made him more aware that humans are 'hooked in' to one another.

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Columnist David Brooks

The influential conservative columnist, on tour promoting his new book, explains how his study of neuroscience made him more aware that humans are 'hooked in' to one another.

As a preacher I am somewhat offended when, at the door, following a sermon I felt to be brilliant, someone says, “I like your tie,” or “Got a haircut, huh?”

I thought of this when David Brooks came onto the stage at Town Hall Seattle earlier this week (March 21). All I could think was, “Gee, he’s short.” Brooks, it turns out, is 5’ 6”. I had him pegged for a 6’ 2” East Coast patrician. Turns out he’s short and was born in Toronto. Oh well.

Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times as well as a frequent commentator on NPR and on "NewsHour" on public television, was here to talk about his new book, The Social Animal.

Besides being short, Brooks is also quite funny. He could have considered standup comedy if other things hadn’t panned out for him. But other things did pan out, and quite well. His influence on our national conversation is substantial and growing.

In this famously liberal town of Seattle, people were lined up around the block waiting to get in to Town Hall to hear a Republican and self-identified conservative.

Brooks spoke of his fascination with the research of neuroscientists, research that suggests that we are not the singularly rational and calculating creatures that the Enlightenment suggested we are or should be. Recent findings in the burgeoning field of neuroscience suggests, according to Brooks, that we are by nature deeply hooked in to others and to our environment. Children who don’t get hooked in at an early age to their mothers, as the primal relationship, labor at a lifelong deficit, lacking some very basic capacities for functioning as human beings.

But Brooks is interested most of all in what this says about us as a society. In a finely balanced presentation he argued that it suggests that both of the recent revolutions in American society — the revolutions of the '60s and the '80s — were misguided. The first sought to set us free from restraint and from social bonds and habits. The second sought to free the market from restraint and also to free us, economically, from any responsibility to one other.

Neither got it right. And both have something to do with a society where today there is a deep disconnect between the social nature of human beings and our public policies.

Asked how his study of the findings of modern neuroscience had changed him as a person, Brooks replied, “I am more of a communitarian.” Neither the expressive individualism of the '60s nor the Social Darwinist individualism of the '80s got that we are in this together, that we are designed for relationship. Whether it's individual self-fulfillment or individual economic success, neither turns out to be successful or fulfilling. 

We are social animals, exquisitely prepared by biology and nurturing to live in complex relationship. 

What’s the old story of the kids on the treasure hunt? Their map sends them hither and yon until finally returning them to their own backyard, where the treasure is to be found. Here, in relationship, is our treasure to be found.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.