On the Playing Fields of Suburbia

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If you fly over Scottsdale, Arizona, and look down at the vast brown desert, here and there you see little ribbons of green fairways, with country-club communities clustered around them like reeds around ponds—tile-roofed McMansions with mouse-pad lawns and little blue dots where the backyard spas are. Along the nearby roadways you can see massive two-tier malls. In the front tier are strings of chain restaurants that, if they merged, could form Chili's Olive Garden Outback Cantina, serving enough chicken wings to fill a canyon. In the back tier a line of megastores stretches out like a parade of pachyderms: Target, Petsmart, OfficeMax, Lowe's, and Barnes & Noble. Cutting diagonally across the empty parking spaces in between are ninety-eight-pound women in aerobics outfits steering 4,000-pound SUVs (these days, the smaller the woman, the bigger the car). If a modern Pied Piper came down to round up all the kids, it would be called The Gathering of Ashleys, and hundreds of cheerful ten-year-old girls would pour out of the Gaps and Abercrombies and Wal-Marts, drawn by the piping of Britney Spears. They'd have their peach tank tops, their 2 Grrrls brand strawberry-scented spritz, and their pink backpacks, and they'd be led, mesmerized, to soccer practice.

As I looked down on this scene from the air, one question popped into my head: Is this nation really ready to fight a war? From this vantage point America's culture seems better suited to produce Temptation Island 2 contestants than soldiers who can withstand the rigors of combat. From up here we seem too affluent and comfortable to be tough-minded, too cosseted by our own peace and prosperity to endure conflict.

If one wonders about this sort of thing, it's helpful to consult the writing of the historian Victor Davis Hanson. In different guises Hanson comes down on both sides of the issue, and so is doubly illuminating.

Hanson is a Jeffersonian, contemptuous of much of the commercial American culture he sees around him. The suburban information-age man, he writes in his book The Land Was Everything (2000), lives in a world of dross—"video games, romance novels, plastic Santa Clauses, and three-pound bags of Snickers." He is a pampered and conforming creature who "depends on someone else for everything from his food to his safety."

Obsequiousness, rather than independence, is more likely to feed his family ... his entire ideology [is] no ideology at all other than the expectation of material surfeit and liberty to enjoy his gains as he sees fit.

Hanson believes that farmers and people who work with their hands are the ones who embody the virtues that make countries strong. They are independent and resilient, stewards of the land in times of peace and courageous when called to war. And Hanson matches word with deed. He lives in the same farmhouse that his family has lived in for five generations. He leads a life half cerebral (he founded the classics program at California State University at Fresno) and half muscular (he still works his farm, growing grapes, apricots, plums, and peaches, which drains his academic income and then some). Farming for him, as for most family farmers, is no easy task. He writes in The Land Was Everything,

Agriculture, I think, will always be war. At the conflict's most dramatic, during an unseasonable storm or foreclosure warning, the agrarian fight becomes real bloodletting, a brutal, horrific, yet sometimes heroic experience.

Even in normal times there are struggles with weeds and pests, family squabbles, ruinous prices, developers, and sprawl. Hanson believes that the fundamental lessons in life are learned painfully, and that farming teaches that the land is permanent and individuals are temporary. Farming, he feels, inculcates a tragic view of life: bad things happen, and character is determined by how one accepts the hand of fate.

Reading Hanson the Jeffersonian, and observing how far the nation has traveled from the heroic, struggling life he celebrates, one may despair. But Hanson is also a military historian. He has noticed that Western constitutional democracies produce incredibly lethal armies. Though individualistic and loose, these democracies are able to defeat disciplined, fanatical, and even barbarous dictatorships. They can do this, Hanson argues, because they have inherited Greek ideas: Science should not be subservient to religion, so democracies are usually technologically superior to their enemies. Citizens are entitled to private property, so democracies tend to be capitalist, and thus richer. Dissent is encouraged, so war aims and strategies are honed through argument, and junior officers can improvise. People are equal, so countrymen feel that they are all in the fight together—hence they battle with greater loyalty to one another. Hanson has explored these themes in a series of books, The Western Way of War (1989), The Soul of Battle (1999), and Carnage and Culture (2001). He is proud of how America has responded to the war against terrorism, and confident that it will triumph.

I phoned Hanson and asked him to reconcile his optimism about the current war effort with his pessimism about the state of American culture. He explained that America's institutions remain strong even if its culture is growing weak. Much as I admire Hanson, I'm not sure I was persuaded, because, as he himself emphasizes in his books, war is really a test of a nation's civilization. And yet I sense that many people share both Hanson's anxiety and his confidence. America does seem at once crass and materialistic and strong and indomitable. The problem is that we have lost the ability to explain our strength to ourselves. In the eighteenth century it was easy to see how a nation of yeoman farmers could put aside their ploughs and fight for independence. Their rugged lives prepared them for the struggle. In the nineteenth century it was easy to see how a nation of hardy pioneers could slog through a brutal civil war and then propel the nation to global pre-eminence. Even in the twentieth century it was easy to see how a population of tough factory hands and Depression-hardened workers could translate their survival skills to the battlefields of Europe. But what about now, in an age of mass affluence and office parks, an age in which so many people lead their lives in front of keyboards and video screens?

The comforting fact is that Americans have experienced this sort of cultural anxiety frequently in their history. When the agricultural economy gave way to the industrial economy, agrarians and pastoralists warned that the country was losing its soul. When Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out that the frontier was closed, cultural pessimists argued that the country was losing its pioneer vigor. And now, when brain power is replacing muscle power, we are anxious once again.

And yet America is still somehow strong enough to be the world's dominant power. Our supposedly complacent suburban nation was able to endure, and win, a forty-year struggle with communism. Though we are fat and happy, our workers are still the most productive in the world. On average, we work 350 hours a year more than the Europeans, and longer hours than even the Japanese. Though we seem credit-card crazy, somehow there is little evidence that we are actually decadent. Crime rates have dropped dramatically over the past decade. Teenage pregnancy rates are down. Alcohol consumption is down.

The only plausible explanation, I think, is that suburban life is more arduous than it appears, and provides more character-building experiences than we imagine. Sure, there's less drudgery and backbreaking labor than there was in the past, but there's also far more uncertainty, and life is far more competitive. Almost nobody grows up today assuming that he will work in the same profession, or at the same plant, as his parents. Almost nobody grows up thinking that she will work for one paternalistic organization all her life. Eighty years ago a person who grew up in a wealthy WASP family had a reasonably secure status. A person who grew up black or in an ethnic neighborhood encountered certain limits to opportunity. Those limits have been reduced, and although the field is more open, the burden on the individual is much greater. The essence of an information economy is that knowledge is not inheritable; each generation has to earn success over again.

From the archives:

"The Organization Kid" (April 2001)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks

Today's Americans face the ordeals of the meritocracy. Last year I wrote a piece for this magazine titled "The Organization Kid," about elite college students. During the reporting of that piece I developed some doubt about the quality of moral instruction on campus, but nobody would doubt that today's young people lead arduous lives. Since grade school many of them have been hitting the books, mastering skills, chasing down growth experiences. They grapple with the effects of divorce and the temptations of a media world that offers them access to excess. Yet when they get to college, their work ethic blows away that of any previous generation.

Talking with people in suburbs across America, one finds that as a nation we feel that the most pressing scarcity in life is not of money but of time. Hanson's farmers have callused hands; today's suburbanites have color-coded charts on the refrigerator indicating where each kid has to be at each moment of the week. They live in an overcommunicated world; they have to be ruthless editors in the war for their attention. They are self-disciplined, too—this is surely the most abstemious moment in American history. (The yeoman farmers hit the moonshine, whereas caffeine, a stimulant, is the drug for our age.) Moreover, these suburbanites still find time to coach Little League teams, teach Sunday school, and take their kids hunting and fishing.

True, none of this meritocratic striving is proof of moral toughness. But as the Greeks taught us, good habits produce good virtues. I've been back on college campuses since September 11, and those striving kids are now having serious debates about the war effort. They were always morally earnest; now they're directing the determination they brought to their SAT prep courses to an examination of their life courses and the possibility of public service. Kids I met six months ago who had their eyes on investment-banking jobs are now suddenly thinking about careers in the CIA or the State Department.

America is perpetually on the brink of being corrupted by its own affluence—but only on the brink. We are less shallow than we appear. If you fly over Scottsdale, Arizona, you fly over homes owned by people who slogged their way through medical school and ER duty, or negotiated the booms and crashes of the high-tech industry, or handled a management team or a lifetime of divorce cases. They look stupid puttering around the fairways in their golf shorts, but they usually have something interesting to tell about their pasts. If we could understand how the lives they have lived have inculcated the virtues we admire, I think we would begin to appreciate that this nation has achieved a paradoxical and inexplicable condition: suburban greatness.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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