David Brooks strides to his Victorian pulpit, head held high, to deliver his Good News about the vibrancy of American business. His sermon is called, The Commercial Republic. It’s about as apt as the Bishop of London exclaiming the virtues of private companies while the City burns to a cinder. The louder reality knocks, the louder Bobo cheers for big bidness. It’s as if he never stopped managing the Op-Ed page in the Wall Street Journal.
We are in the midst of the most corrupt period in Wall Street’s history. Longstanding industries such as Big Auto are nearly bankrupt. Private equity’s predatory business model now dominates the economy. It allows only a few good men to reap rewards, while all others stand in line to file their wage and hour law grievances or to be bused home to third-world company-owned apartments where workers of every age sleep corner to corner.
Even for a pundit who thinks it’s 1909, not 2009, Bobo’s choice of Walt Whitman seems particularly vulgar:
Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.
The America Whitman "got right" was in 1871. He was writing shortly after the Civil War, when the nation, like now, needed to “bind its wounds.” The great railroads had just driven their “golden spike” into lines stretching from sea to shining sea. At the same time, they were perfecting the raising of capital through shares, perfecting early litigation techniques to limit their liability to injured passengers, and agreeing on secret deals with John D. Rockefeller, which meant that his oil went to market for free, paid for by excess charges unknowingly paid by his competitors.
Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas as we were decimating the buffalo in order to decimate the Red Man. After “we” had freed the black man only to condemn him to another hundred years of economic and social slavery. And before the Gilded Age and the excesses of the oil, mining, steel, meatpacking and manufacturing combines that would batter generations of men, women and children into early graves. Perhaps Bobo is trying to imitate Whitman’s post-war optimism. Perhaps the "America" he speaks for and that Whitman "got right" don’t represent all or the most important parts of America.
“America will never be Europe,” shouts Bobo, continuing a running theme in a kind of Freedom Fry rage. He means that he hopes our government will never work for its people half as hard as it works for its corporations. America’s “extreme business energy” is too virtuous to remain checked for long by the clock stoppers of our current, uniquely “non-commercial” government and its technocratic regulators. The Bush administration’s incompetents and self-dealing profiteers, on the other hand, were virtuous and eminently qualified to run government.
Bobo’s misdirected keening to the contrary, it is not our boundless "business energy" that haunts America. It is lawless behavior in the board room and the White House, aided and abetted by pundits like Brooks and “news” as defined by Roger Ailes. It is the detritus that lawless excess leaves in its wake, like the broken bodies that litter London’s streets in Hogarth’s Gin Lane.
For the wealthy, reading Brooks is like gumming toast dipped in warm milk. For those not living on Wall Street bonuses or family trust funds, it’s like gurgling an Epsom Salts cocktail after eating a box of chocolates. The occasional witty nougat is never enough to make up for the bitter draught and the wrenching ending. It is a relief when it’s over.