The author of the acclaimed bestseller Bobos in Paradise, which hilariously described the upscale American culture, takes a witty look at how being American shapes us, and how America's suburban civilization will shape the world's future.
Take a look at Americans in their natural habitat. You see suburban guys at Home Depot doing that special manly, waddling walk that American men do in the presence of large amounts of lumber; super-efficient ubermoms who chair school auctions, organize the PTA, and weigh less than their children; workaholic corporate types boarding airplanes while talking on their cell phones in a sort of panic because they know that when the door closes they have to turn their precious phone off and it will be like somebody stepped on their trachea.
Looking at all this, you might come to the conclusion that we Americans are not the most profound people on earth. Indeed, there are millions around the world who regard us as the great bimbos of the globe: hardworking and fun, but also materialistic and spiritually shallow.
They've got a point. As you drive through the sprawling suburbs or eat in the suburban chain restaurants (which if they merged would be called Chili's Olive Garden Hard Rock Outback Cantina), questions do occur. Are we really as shallow as we look? Is there anything that unites us across the divides of politics, race, class, and geography? What does it mean to be American?
Well, mentality matters, and sometimes mentality is all that matters. As diverse as we are, as complacent as we sometimes seem, Americans are united by a common mentality, which we have inherited from our ancestors and pass on, sometimes unreflectingly, to our kids.
We are united by future-mindedness. We see the present from the vantage point of the future. We are tantalized, at every second of every day, by the awareness of grand possibilities ahead of us, by the bounty we can realize just over the next ridge.
This mentality leads us to work feverishly hard, move more than any other people on earth, switch jobs, switch religions. It makes us anxious and optimistic, manic and discombobulating.
Even in the superficiality of modern suburban life, there is some deeper impulse still throbbing in the heart of average Americans. That impulse is the subject of this book.
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Simon & Schuster
June 02, 2004
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Excerpt from On Paradise Drive by David Brooks
The Great Dispersal
Let's take a drive.
Let's start downtown in one of those urban bohemian neighborhoods, and then let's drive through the inner-ring suburbs and on to the outer suburbs and the exurbs and the small towns and beyond. Let's take a glimpse at how Americans really live at the start of the twenty-first century in their everyday, ordinary lives.
As we go, we'll find some patterns that are intriguing but probably not that important. For example, did you know that 28 percent of Americans consider themselves attractive (a figure I consider slightly high) but only 11 percent of Americans consider themselves sexy Did you know that 39 percent of eleven-and twelve-year-olds say that Chinese food is their favorite food, while only 9 percent say American food is Did you know that a quarter of all women have considered breast-augmentation surgery, which is kind of depressing, and so have 3 percent of all men, which is horrifying.
But we'll find other patterns that are probably more important. For one thing, we are living in the age of the great dispersal. As Witold Rybczynski has observed, the American population continues to decentralize faster than any other society in history. In 1950 only 23 percent of Americans lived in suburbia, but now most do, and today's suburbs are sprawling out faster and faster and farther and farther, so in the past few years, many exurban places have broken free from the gravitational pull of the cities and now float in a new space far beyond them.
Americans are still moving from the Northeast and the Midwest down to the South and the Southwest. But the really interesting movements are outward from cities. The people who were in move out, and the people who were out move farther out, into the suburbs of suburbia. For example, the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh declined by 8 percent over the past two decades, but as people moved away, the amount of developed land in the Pittsburgh area increased by 43 percent. The city of Atlanta saw its population grow by twenty-three thousand over the last decade, but the surrounding suburbs grew by 1.1 million.
The geography of work has been turned upside down. Jobs used to be concentrated downtown, in office buildings, stores, and urban-manufacturing zones. But 90 percent of the office space built in America in the 1990s was built in suburbia, and most of it in far-flung office parks along the interstates. The sprawling suburbs now account for more office space than the inner cities in every metro area in the country except Chicago and New York. In the Bay Area, for example, there are five times more companies headquartered in Santa Clara County than in San Francisco.
That means we have a huge mass of people who not only don't live in the cities, they don't commute to the cities, go to movies in the cities, eat in the cities, or have any significant contact with urban life. They are neither rural, nor urban, nor residents of a bedroom community. They are charting a new way of living.