David Brooks Wants to Talk About Love

Love shouldn't mean submitting to a leader's dreams.


Big love, little love, what begins with love?

Like clockwork, David Brooks periodically produces a column bemoaning either Americans' unwillingness to trust our leaders or our unwillingness to embrace the Big Dreams a powerful leader would enact. I'm glad he does this: Sometimes I'm feeling a little glum about the direction the country's taking, and then Brooks comes along with a reminder that the American spirit of disobedience isn't dead. Or at least that it's alive enough to aggravate writers like Brooks.

So Brooks' latest column is a nice pick-me-up. Once you wade through the intro (sample sentence: "Recently neuroscientists have shown that the experiences of beauty and awe activate different parts of the brain"), you get to his Big Point, which is to contrast "little love" and "big love." Little love turns out to be real love: personal passions, family ties, local loyalties—most of the stuff that makes life worth living. Big love means grand projects and the abstractions that animate them. Brooks thinks the latter "is almost a foreign language" today, and being Brooks, he thinks that is bad:

In dreams begin irresponsibility.

Almost nobody speaks about the American project in the same ardent tones that were once routine.

Big love is hopeful, but today pessimism is in vogue. Big love involves a confidence that one can use power well, but today Americans are suspicious of power, have lost faith in leaders and big institutions and feel a sense of impotence in the face of big problems.

Big love involves thinking in sweeping historical terms. But today the sense that America is pursuing a noble mission in the world has been humbled by failures and passivity. The country feels more divided than unified around common purpose.

In practice, Brooks' big loves tend to crush the little ones. Someone dreams up a "noble" "sweeping" "mission" and plows a highway through your neighborhood, or tries to uplift everybody by outlawing people's pleasures, or sends your son to fight in one of those wars that Brooks is always cheering on. Afterward, it becomes less "routine" to speak about such projects with "ardor." What a coincidence.

Brooks sees things differently, but at this point I'm used to disagreeing with David Brooks. If you don't share his big love for "faith in leaders and big institutions," check out the column; it'll boost your spirits.