Tuesday, August 12, 2008


David Brooks is playing amateur sociologist again today -- alas. He's in his comfy chair and he sees a clash of civilizations in the making, based on what he saw during the opening ceremony of the Olympics:

The world can be divided in many ways -- rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian -- but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality....

... individualistic societies have tended to do better economically....

But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.

The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation....

... surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one -- drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding. We've seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present -- a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China's miraculous growth....

I'll grant that he's on to something here, but is he implying that any display of group precision is "collectivist," and therefore alien to Western thinking? Um, that would include a lot of stuff that really seems 100% American, wouldn't it?

The Rockettes?

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir?

The Blue Angels?

The wave?

The hokey pokey?

Competitive cheerleading?

Synchronized headbanging?

All of that is inconsistent with Western individualism?

(Wait -- the band in the last link is from Sweden. I take that one back.)

Oh, and haven't other powerful Western countries occasionally gotten into the synchronization thing?

I don't mean to dismiss this out of hand. It's certainly worth examining. I just think Westerners are a bit more responsive to notions of collective behavior than Brooks -- clearly under the sway of the right's exaltation of the individual -- gives us credit for. Even America has Social Security and Medicare and unions, and someday it may even have universal health coverage. We like home runs, but we can also turn the 6-4-3 double play. We're not all lone wolves.


ALSO: See James Fallows on what Brooks doesn't get about China, and about people.


AND: Via phleabo in comments, here's detailed information on the studies Brooks cited -- and sometimes mis-cited. Not surprisingly, the scientific studies don't reveal the stark contrast Brooks talks about, and sometimes the scientists seem to be straining to make the data fit their theses. And then Brooks sometimes garbles those results.

No comments: