red and white flag stripes with human silhouettes
Screenshot of cover graphic for the "What if We're the Problem Here?" NYT essay

What’s Wrong With America Right Now?

What’s wrong with America right now?

Everywhere I go, I encounter this question.

Pop culture’s biggest current hit, Barbie, has one answer: patriarchy.

Tim Urban’s recent book, What’s Our Problem?, has a different one: lower order thinking. 

And David Brooks’ recent column for the New York Times offers yet another take: meritocracy.

I have found all three of these sources helpful and credible in trying to understand our polarized era, but I want to focus on Brooks’ argument. As I write about at length in White Picket Fences, I am a card-carrying member of the meritocracy, so I want to pay particular attention to critiques that point out how my social group contributes to society’s problems. 

Brooks identifies two problems that his social class has perpetuated:  

One, he writes:

“We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement.”

And two:

“We also change the moral norms in ways that suit ourselves, never mind the cost to others.” 

Assuming for a minute that he’s right (I don’t have space here to explain why I think he is), what would it look like to build a social order that values more than academic achievement? And what would it look like to uphold moral norms that especially serve those who are most vulnerable? (Brooks gives the example of marriage, but he could also write about any moral norms around faithfulness to one another in the midst of illness, injury, and aging.) 

What’s wrong with America right now? The more I’m willing to say, “I am,” or “We are,” the more I have responsibility and opportunity to be a part of the solution. 

David Brooks’ Essay: What if We’re the Problem Here?

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