March 01, 2005

Column 2005-3-1 Commentary

My first reaction on reading this column was relief: since I'm fairly busy this week, it was a good thing that Brooks had chosen today to write about couples not having joint bank accounts any more, a trivial topic to end all trivial topics. Incidentally, I really can't see how on earth Brooks manages to justify his wasting a column on this issue. Kristof has been writing about genocide in Darfur, Krugman about Social Security, Herbert about torture, and Friedman about the Middle East. Even Maureen Dowd has gotten into the act: her last two columns have been incisive attacks on Bush. And here we have Brooks with a column about how lots of couples have separate checking accounts. Apparently, Brooks didn't watch enough Sesame Street when he was a child. "One of these things is not like the others . . . ." I'll give you a hint: it's the one nobody cares about.

However, this column is not as completely trivial as, for instance, Brooks's recent column about how he can't get season tickets to the Washington Nationals because he's not as famous as Robert Novak. There are two points to be made about this column. The first one concerns the way Brooks frames the issue: it's about the communalism of the home vs. the individualism of everything else. Given that the Republican party has spent the last twenty-five years or so trying to dismantle all vestiges of communalism in our society and holding up individualism, in the form of free-market capitalism, as the greatest good, for Brooks to complain about "the powerful force of individualism" destroying "the communal ethos of the home" seems a little bit hypocritical to me. Brooks attacks the foremost symbol of communalism in our society, Social Security -- promoting personal accounts to replace it -- endorses Bush's call for an "ownership society" and constantly promotes personal responsibility, and then claims to be shocked that these things are being logically extended to family finances? Please. If he's worried about how nobody's sharing anymore, perhaps we can start with sharing the risks of retirement, or even (gasp!) sharing medical expenses.

A glimpse at the more important point here can be gained from looking at the examples that Brooks cites in this column. He starts out by discussing "Family Happiness", a Tolstoy novella narrated by a young woman who comes to realize that domestic happiness consists of sacrifices for her husband and children. Later, he mentions a Texas woman who is happy to have separate accounts, and sneers that he's not sure whether she was "talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership." In the first case, a woman comes to realize that true happiness comes from sacrifice: in the second, we have a woman who is, Brooks implies, a bad wife because she enjoys having a checking account all to herself. Similarly, a theme of sacrifice runs throughout the piece: true marital happiness, Brooks says, comes from sacrifice and saying farewell "farewell to the world of me, me, me." And this is all fine and dandy, except that, as Brooks's two examples illustrate, it is almost always women who are expected to make the sacrifices, giving up their careers and independence to become wives and mothers and not much else. Is he really glorifying marriage as it was in Tolstoy's time and holding that up as an example to be emulated? It is possible, of course, that Brooks honestly didn't think of any of this when he wrote the column, though given that Brooks believes that women need to marry earlier and have more children (thus sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the race -- I mean, nation), I'm disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, we must be fair. Brooks may not realize that he's endorsing a sexist worldview that's a throwback to the Victorian era, but that is what he is doing nonetheless, and it should be pointed out.

Since this commentary is so short, I'm going to fill in the extra space with a fearless prediction: Brooks will write a column in defense of Larry Summers within the space of his next three columns. In fact, I'm surprised he hasn't done it yet: this is exactly the kind of cultural topic that I would expect Brooks to sound off on, explaining how women are wrong to be upset over the suggestion, backed by no evidence at all and made by somebody who knows nothing about the topic, that they aren't as good at math and science as men. Obviously, they need to get married and have some kids. And they better not even think of having their own checking account.