The next time you’re tempted to take David Brooks and his moral posturing seriously, I suggest you read his “My $120,000 Vacation,” an appalling article that should serve as a reminder of just how huge a phony Mr. Brooks really is.
Spending a week as part of a “luxury travel” group, Brooks manages to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he gets to sample and enjoy the self-indulgence:
The caviar in Russia was really nice. So was the beautiful hotel pool in Morocco, the sweet staff at every stop and the little cubes of Turkish delight. And yes, over the course of the three days at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, I did drink both bottles of champagne.
On the other hand, he gets to feel superior to his fellow travelers, and to the tour guides, because, unlike Brooks, they don’t appreciate the cultural and historical wonders to which they’re being exposed. At the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (Russia), for example, the group views Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, but alas, it is a missed aesthetic opportunity so far as Brooks is concerned:
The painting is a masterpiece, emotionally gripping and morally complex. But on this tour, we talked about none of its meanings. The guide did not tell the story. There was no time to really pause before the passion. The painting was just another notable thing to notice on the way to a dozen more notable things. It left no mark.
In the ruins of Ephesus, Brooks laments at some length the tour members' (and the tour guide's) failure to properly meditate on the city’s history and on “how to live and what really lasts”:
Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Roman world and its ruins are grand and well preserved. It was also one of the most decadent cities in the world, with brothels, grasping merchants, a desperate money scramble, sorcerers and soothsayers. Into this city walked two men who would alter the course of history, St. John and, later, St. Paul.
Paul must have been regarded as an extreme religious crank, preaching a life of poverty and love. His antimaterialistic and anti-achievement message was diametrically opposed to the prevailing ethos of classical Rome, with its emphasis on wealth, power and grandeur. ‘‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,’’ Paul would write, ‘‘If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. ... Love never fails.’’
It would have been nice to stand amid these ruins reading Paul, or to talk about how to reconcile material happiness with spiritual joy as we were on the very spot where Paul preached, where the ethos of Athens met the ethos of Jerusalem. But our guide never really told us Paul’s story. He spent most of his time instead taking us through the royal palaces, with the grand chambers, frescoes and meeting halls. He gave us those material facts about the place that tour guides specialize in (who built what when), but which no one remembers because they don’t really have anything to do with us emotionally. The Ephesus visit was an occasion to have a good discussion about how to live and what really lasts. But if anybody was thinking such thoughts, they went unexpressed.
Brooks does not say what kept him from expressing such thoughts, given that he was certainly thinking them. He may simply be shy, or perhaps he was being polite, not wanting to embarrass the philistines whose company he was keeping (on assignment, of course, and on someone else’s dime); or maybe he just felt it was better to keep quiet so that later he could write about the disturbing absence of philosophical conversation.
To some, a $120,000 vacation may seem pricey, but Brooks describes his companions as “rich but not fancy”—regular folks, really, who just happen to have $120,000 to spend on a 30-day trip. And what do they get for that kind of money? Luxury, to be sure, but also service and convenience:
When you are on the…round-the-world tour, you leave your luggage outside your hotel room in the morning and it appears in your new room in a distant city come dinnertime. The staff fills out those customs forms so you don’t have to bother writing down your name and passport number. A van takes you to a private part of the airport, where you whisk through border control and onto the tarmac, where your plane’s crew — the 15 friendliest people in the history of Great Britain — stand smiling at the foot of the stairs. The plane takes off when you are ready. The tour accomplishes in 24 days a journey that if you tried to do commercially, might take 90.
[The tour sponsors] have taken every measure to reduce your cognitive load. When you land at each new city, you’re handed an envelope with a little local currency in case you want to buy some souvenirs. There’s a squad of local greeters pointing you toward the vans so you don’t have to exercise a neuron figuring out where to go. A 757 normally accommodates some 250 passengers, so each of the 52 guests gets a big leather lounging chair. There’s champagne and superb snacks and a very cool on-flight chef. By midjourney, the guests and crew are hugging each other on boarding and exchanging gossip about their lives.
So who needs to meditate on Rembrandt or St. Paul? And who says money can’t buy happiness? “Sometimes money backfires,” acknowledges Brooks; but “for most people on this particular trip,” he reassures us, “money did not backfire. They were enthusiastic about the experiences and happy to be making new friends and traveling in this self-contained luxury caravan.” Gosh, I’m glad things worked out so well.
Brooks concludes with this pithy bit of cynicism, and may these words haunt him throughout his entire career:
Of course, we all have a responsibility to reduce inequality in our society. But maybe not every day.
We wouldn’t, after all, want our day in St. Petersburg or Ephesus or Istanbul to be spoiled by reflecting on the plight of all the people who will not earn in their entire lifetime the amount of money that Brooks’ rich but not fancy new friends spend in 30 days. It’s like Jesus said: “Love thy neighbor as thyself, but maybe not every day.”
Mr. Brooks’ most recent book is titled THE ROAD TO CHARACTER. I haven't read the book, but I assume the road he depicts therein can be traveled in style, and that it includes little cubes of Turkish delight and big leather lounging chairs, the better to ease the cognitive load—which phrase, “cognitive load,” is as good a description of David Brooks’ insufferable bull---t as any.