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The Case for Civic Renewal

books and culture

The Case for Civic Renewal

David Brooks profiles stories of mutual aid and volunteerism. May 1, 2019
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, by David Brooks (Random House, 306 pp., $28)

At my senior prom’s after-party, in June 1968, there was a lot of discussion about whether one should try changing the world or instead focus on changing oneself. One topic remains vivid in my mind: a friend’s obsession with the mystic philosopher George Gurdjieff, who believed that we spent our lives in a “waking sleep” but could achieve a higher consciousness—“The Work”—and reach our full human potential.

Were these conversations and ideas part of a broader wave of societal change, one embracing a culture of self-absorption? New York Times columnist David Brooks makes that case in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life: “For six decades the worship of the self has been the central preoccupation of our culture—molding the self, investing in the self, expressing the self.” Those coming of age in the sixties witnessed this movement toward hyper-individualism.

Brooks urges limits on self-involved ambition and self-centeredness, which dominate contemporary society, he believes, at the expense of community and healthy “interdependence.” To counter this trend, he celebrates Americans who have “made a strong commitment to one or all of these four things: a vocation (really a calling); a spouse and family; a philosophy or faith; a community.” He critiques the excesses of 1960s politics and culture, which spawned our present narcissism. Brooks doesn’t spare himself—he confesses his own sins of pride, and his realization that fame and politics are overrated.

But The Second Mountain is less reflection than refraction. It brings to light the stories of those leaving behind the “first mountain” of individualistic ambition, having ascended a second mountain of community-mindedness, filled with “fervent commitments” to others. Brooks recounts, often in moving ways, those who shed personal ambition in favor of aiding communities. In Baltimore, Sarah Hemminger left a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University to establish Thread, a group weaving a new social fabric by linking mentors with disadvantaged children. (Brooks himself helps lead an Aspen Institute project called Weave: The Social Fabric Project, built around the same idea.)

Brooks’s examples involve the creation of new community organizations, long deficient in America’s civil society. He celebrates those who, in a celebrity-obsessed era, deserve recognition for inspiring others and helping spark a renewal of American civic life. “Community building is done by daily acts of care . . . A neighbor is not on a solitary journey through life, but is one immersed,” writes Brooks. “He sees himself as someone who has been shaped by a tradition of local behavior and place. He feels indebted to that legacy and is happy to pay off that debt. His work, family, and neighborhood lives are not in different silos . . . The neighbor doesn’t wait for someone else to address the community’s problems. He is not just a spectator.” No quarrel here—it’s been my own privilege, for the past 20 years, to help find recipients of the Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Awards, among them local leaders profiled in this book. These leaders share Brooks’s goal of moral renewal.

The first and second mountain metaphor, however, risks making it seem like one spends the first half of one’s life as a sinner, then second—if you see the light—as a saint. The reality, for many healthy, non-narcissistic people, can be a lifelong amalgam of ambition and service. Brooks’s inspirational stories also risk deemphasizing the ongoing contributions of existing institutions. Churches and synagogues rely on vestry members and trustees; nonprofits, like Meals on Wheels, depend on volunteers. The Lions Club remains the world’s largest service organization, with more than 1.4 million members. Rotary International’s network of small-business owners seeks to end polio, provide clean water, and prevent malaria.

I learned the pride and joy of such work in Brookline, Massachusetts. Its Town Meeting, an institution of citizen volunteers, has governed the community for centuries. Through my service on its public-works subcommittee, I paid close attention to street-cleaning and snow-plowing budgets, showing the town’s public-works commissioner that I cared about his job. What I’ve done is a far cry from, say, helping drug addicts turn their lives around, but it plays some part in ensuring a community’s health.

Brooks’s focus on problem-solving overlooks the importance of communities in setting healthy norms. Individuals can join the Boys and Girls Clubs or read at the local library’s children’s hour, for instance. And some people struggle to stay on Brooks’s first mountain of economic and career success while still taking time to teach Sunday School or contribute to their church’s collection basket. (Brooks praises religion, describing his own personal amalgam of Judaism and Christianity and how it has changed his life.) The Second Mountain will, one hopes, help reinvigorate America’s traditions of mutual aid and volunteerism.

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