Focus on Talbot: A Book Review by Dan Watson

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I’m not exactly sure what I think about The Second Mountain, the well-publicized book by David Brooks, except for these two things: the section on “Community Building” is important and certainly applicable to Talbot County, and I would urge people to read the whole thought-provoking volume.

On the one hand, Brooks develops some clear and very compelling theses that run through the entire work. First, individuals quite naturally undergo two phases in a healthy adult life. The first is focused on career, family, building one’s identity & success in the world. Then, usually around midlife, one goes into a valley. Often he/she experiences setbacks, difficulties or loss of satisfaction with one’s situation, leading to a re-evaluation of values and life goals. Then comes the second phase, inward looking as to values but focused outward towards relationships and community-building.

This idea is hardly a revelation, but Brooks articulates it well. I made reference to it a few weeks ago, when pointing out the benefits that flow to our community and local institutions from the coincidence that Talbot has a disproportionately large number of folks over 55 who are climbing that second mountain, including many with substantial resources.

Zooming out, Brooks contends persuasively that the maladies of our society arise from “hyper-individualism,” a deep-seated ideology we’ve internalized that every man (and woman) is independent and stands alone in their pursuit of happiness. That world-view has been taken to an extreme, yielding loneliness, isolation, a consumer-driven ethos, tribalism and an epidemic of suicide. Its counter—the way to build a healthy world–is not a leftist collectivism he contends, but “relationalism,” a way of valuing our interconnections. (You will believe me when I say Brooks articulates all this enormously better than I can summarize!)

The Marlboro Man may be handsome and tall in the saddle, but he’s unhappy and ultimately dysfunctional. A society of Marlboro men and women just doesn’t work.

On the other hand, I found the book, for me, a little uncomfortable. It is not really a socio-political work, the kind of thing I expected. To my surprise, the book is largely a very personal, revelatory story of Brooks’ own personal evolution as a man, dealing largely with his psychological journey, his successes and failures with loving relationships, his (interesting) mixed religious roots and a transformation of religious beliefs. The discomfort was mine: I don’t read books of this sort, just not my thing. Jeeze, he was writing all about love, and intimacy, and vulnerabilities and such–things that are central to my life too, but not ones I usually talk about with strangers. I felt a bit like a voyeur—which tells you more about me than Brooks.

The book is structured in five parts, each one of which could stand alone. He first presents the “two mountain” theme, then expounds on vocation and career, on marriage, on philosophy and faith, finally bringing it all together in “building community.” It does not take much reading between the lines to tease out from these pages Brooks’ biography, some of it expressed directly, some just hinted at, all of it pretty intimate and revealing.

Many of my conservative friends here in Talbot and elsewhere would not dream of reading anything by Brooks because he is, after all, a political turncoat. He knew Milton Friedman intimately and was a protégé of William Buckley. He wrote for the National Review (after a youth reading leftist works with enthusiasm, as he tells us). Articulate, extremely well read, and publicly personable (if not privately so, as he also tells us), Brooks is particularly well known since the early 90’s as “the conservative voice” on the PBS News Hour, a bookend with Mark Shields on the left.

But, though his intellectual foundation and conservative credentials were both rock-solid and main-stream in the Reagan era, Brooks did not follow the conservative political evolution of the last two decades, and not at all the metamorphosis of the Republican Party that he was once identified with. His distain for Donald Trump and this administration could not be greater, and he makes no secret of that. Consequently, he is vilified by many on the right, surprisingly admired by many on the left in spite of espousing traditional conservative political and economic principles.

The Second Mountain delivers two things. First, what I was looking for: a clear discussion of root causes of many of society’s ills (hyper-individualism) and a strategy for countering them (what he calls “relationalism”). What I did not expect was the personal story, a vivid backdrop to understanding who this pundit fellow is and the personal worldview that now envelops his political and economic positions.

I’d urge you to read this thought-provoking book; take from it what’s of interest to you.

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

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