David Brooks has a hammer -- a shelf of sociology books he half-understands -- so he thinks everything is a nail. His nail is the tiresome notion that "social capital," or the lack thereof, explains everything in the universe involving human beings. Here he is aiming that hammer at Edward Snowden, and, by extension, at Snowden's entire generation:
From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.We've read about Snowden's girlfriend. We know he managed to hold down high-paying jobs, which means he wasn't holed up in Mom's basement railing against the world. He worked with leakees who lived on multiple continents for several months. Sorry, this guy is not the Underground Man.
According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother's house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it's just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age....
And Snowden's generation? As Pew noted in January, 18-to-29-year-olds are, by a significant margin, the most likely to say they "trust the government in Washington to do the right thing always or most of the time."
There may be a subgroup of distrustful Millennial dudes, but the generation as a whole is not alienated from the institution of government. If anything, it's the rest of us, the oldsters, who are alienated. (And remember, the young are the ones who've been most supportive of Barack Obama and other Democrats in recent years. Interest in libertarianism, at least among the young, could be explained in part by Obama's failure to live up to his promise.)
And on the subject of this generation's overall socialization, I'll say that for the past twenty-plus years I've lived a couple of avenues over from a popular bar strip for twentysomethings, and I can assure you that young people generally still like interpersonal engagement -- a lot. It's true that now they spend much of their time checking their phones, but they do this in large groups. And, of course, their parents have pretty much the same phone habits. The young (and not-so-young) are still social, and are also digital-social.
Snowden is just who he is. He is not the representative man of our times.