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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brooks on "The Commercial Republic", citing Walt Whitman

Catching up the paper from earlier this week. Once again, I find David Brooks, although a bit smug and high handed, worth posting.

His column in Tuesday's paper was on the US as "the commercial republic":

Over the centuries, the United States has been most conspicuous for one trait: manic energy. Americans work longer hours than any other people. We switch jobs more frequently, move more often, earn more and consume more.

This energy was first aroused by abundance, by the tantalizing sense that dazzling wealth was available just over the next hill. But it has also been sustained by a popular culture that celebrates commercial ambition. From Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, through Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale, up until Donald Trump and Jim Cramer, popular figures have always emerged to champion the American gospel of success, encouraging middle-class people to strive, risk and make money.

Brooks, after a handful of paragraphs of historical context, goes on to say:

In short, the United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It's addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature.

The U.S. is in one of those pauses today. It has been odd, over the past six months, not to have the gospel of success as part of the normal background music of life...That part of American culture that stokes ambition and encourages risk has gone silent.

We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended. The public culture is dominated by one downbeat story after another as members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.

It was the closing paragraph that caught my attention:

Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, "Democratic Vistas." He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country's "extreme business energy," its "almost maniacal appetite for wealth." He knew that the country's dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.

I got to seek out this Whitman essay. In fact, I should get a collection of his writing..sad to say, I don't recall ever reading anything by him! That esp inexcusable now that we are residents of the borough of Brookyln...

I'm curious if/how Whitman believes the creative and democratic elements of society can thrive in what is, as Brooks has written, a decidedly commercial republic. I'd like to find out if Whitman was in fact as sanguine about that maniacal appetite for wealth as Brooks makes him out to have been..

In fact, a google search on "whitman democratic vistas" comes up with a link to what looks to be the full text of "Democratic Vistas" as well as the Amazon page for a collection titled "Democratic Vistas and Other Papers"; interestingly, the "product description" on the Amazon page (quite commercial, that) seems to directly contradict Brooks:

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) contributed to the greatest prose of American letters with Democratic Vistas, now considered a classic discussion of the theory of democracy and its possibilities. In this essay he protests the unrestrained materialism, greed, corruption and spiritual failure of what, two years later, Mark Twain would label "The Gilded Age." Whitman criticizes America for its "mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry" that mask an underlying "dry and flat Sahara" of soul. He calls for a new kind of literature to revive the American population: "Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does."

This is indicative of what bothers me about Brooks: he'll come with an erudite, reasonable-sounding essay, but then put in a subtle, disingenuous twist to make the conservative viewpoint seem more reasonable than it deserves to be..

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