David Brooks, op-ed writer for the New York Times and commentator on PBS NewsHour is of a rare and threatened breed: moderate conservatives. He admires Barack Obama and John McCain; he supports gay marriage as well as military intervention in Iraq. He is a man with views everyone can agree and disagree with.
The subject and title of his speech on Mar. 29th was “What is an American?” He spoke to a nearly full Kraushaar Auditorium.
Brooks began his talk by asserting that Americans are in fact statistical outliers. On average Americans work, eat, marry, reproduce, divorce, buy, and donate to charity more than people in comparable countries. The United States is a nation of immigrants who came expecting a land in which dreams of prosperity could be fulfilled.
According to Brooks, this attitude has shaped our national character of ambition, for better or for worse. He uses the term “moral materialism,” which to some could simply be a justification of consumerism while to others could mean that Americans constantly strive for a higher standard of living.
Brooks has a knack for making one proud to be an American, but the pragmatism of some of his views is questionable. Even if Americans are exceptional (which is an extraordinary claim no matter how statistically unique we are), we cannot afford to continue consuming resources as we are.
At the end of his speech Brooks depicted a parable of moral materialism: after describing a landscape of the All-American monuments known as big-box stores, he delivers his punch line by imagining an American who buys condoms in super-sized boxes at Costco or Sam’s Club. With this tongue-in-cheek fable Brooks reveals his soft-spot for idealism. His vision of a better America includes many admirable and necessary things like bipartisan cooperation and social equality but it also appears to maintain our current rate of consumption.
Like it or not Americans must consider themselves citizens of planet Earth, along with every other living human being. One characteristic of Americans Brooks identifies is the habit of looking at the present from the future, but his rhetoric raises the question: from how far in the future? His optimism suggests Brooks doesn’t view the present from a future without fossil fuels. Perhaps Americans find themselves more exceptional than even the most optimistic of us care to admit.