Tom Ross: Times columnist offers hope on July Fourth

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It didn't take David Brooks long on Sunday night to figure out how to win over a Steamboat audience -- he poked fun at Vail and Aspen.

"I brought my family to Colorado to find the real America," the New York Times columnist deadpanned. "I began the trip in Vail and we're ending up in Aspen."

That crack was greeted by loud laughter, but Brooks (take a deep breath, he writes for the Times and he's a self-described conservative) had serious matters on his mind.

Brooks told an overflow crowd at Centennial Hall in downtown Steamboat that Americans are not as divided as are their politicians, and the nation will be in good hands with the emergence of a generation of well-grounded young adults.

Brooks opened the 2005 Seminars at Steamboat series. In addition to his regular column for the Times, he is an author and a commentator on PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer." Belle Sawhill introduced him as a keen observer of the values, lifestyles and foibles of Americans.

Perhaps it's a sign of how widespread intellectual malnutrition is in Steamboat, that people showed up an hour early to get prime seats to hear a newspaper guy speak. But those early birds turned out to be the wise ones -- they heard a speech that entertained and affirmed that Americans, as increasingly diverse as they are, share a work ethic that will pull them through the challenges of the first half of this century.

Centennial Hall was so packed Sunday night that "hizzoner" the mayor of Denver had to perch on a step. I'm not certain of this, but I think Mayor John Hickenlooper's foot may have fallen asleep during Brooks' talk, because he got up early in the speech and moved off somewhere.

I felt almost guilty passing on Steamboat's Ranch Rodeo to go indoors Sunday evening and take in a lecture. After all, if we can't attend a rodeo, aren't we supposed to spend the build-up to Independence Day watching stock cars bang into one another?

I guess packing into the City Council chambers and picking up some wisdom from a member of the "Eastern elite" was a good alternative.

Besides, Brooks packs a wicked sense of humor. He and his family had spent the preceding week doing the "City Slicker" tour at Latigo Ranch outside Kremmling.

He went on during his talk to skewer a wide range of American subcultures, including uber moms who stage the video production of the delivery of their own children, and dads who pretend to have intellectual discussions at Home Depot about their choice for a new barbecue grill.

Despite their many peculiarities, individual Americans are reshaping the country's future to a greater degree than are politicians, Brooks told his audience.

"Spontaneous social trends that millions of people take on, on their own -- that's what really drives our society," Brook said.

And one of the biggest trends in American society, Brooks thinks, is one he calls "The Great Dispersal."

Americans are moving out of urban centers to suburban cities in great numbers. Soon, Mesa, Ariz., will be more populous than Atlanta, Ga., he predicted.

"We're becoming segmented," Brooks said. "People cluster naturally, and we're really good at finding people like ourselves."

Despite the segmentation of our society, Brooks finds ample reason for optimism. The supposed culture war in America isn't real, Brooks said. If you ask in-depth questions of people in both blue and red states where they stand on the toughest issues, from abortion to gay marriage, one finds there is a huge immovable middle where people are able to find common ground, he said.

The same is true of the "policy wonks" toiling in Washington, D.C., think tanks, Brooks said. Professionals who have worked for Republican and Democratic administrations are almost always able to reach a compromise, he said.

Americans work harder than their European and Japanese counterparts, Brooks said, and he can't accept that people bound together by that work ethic will fail to work their way out of the looming debt posed by entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

"The work ethic in red and blue America is incredibly strong," he said.

Brooks takes great encouragement from the wholesomeness and industriousness of Americans younger than 30. Crime rates, promiscuity, drug use and unwanted pregnancy rates are all declining, he said.

"When all of the indicators are going in the right direction, you can't have a culture war," he concluded.

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