David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden edition: Part Three
I once directed the Broadway and film actor Richard Kiley in a narration session for a NOVA series I’d just produced (with colleagues). We were doing two hour long programs that day, and Kiely wasn’t in his first youth, and so when he started to flag just a bit about two thirds of the way through the second script, I asked him if he needed a break.
“No!” he said.
“I can smell the oats in the stable.”
Me too, here, after this long tour through what has mostly been a litany of garden-variety David Brooks foibles: bad writing, errors, sleight of hand, a tendency to misread his sources and mislead his audiences. So far, we’ve built the foundation of the indictment in part one and part two.
Now, let’s seal the deal.
Here’s the mystery. Brooks is sloppy, a lazy reader (third tier sources and all the rest) and an incurious reporter.
But one thing he is not, is stupid.
He’s smart. He has skillz too. It’s not easy to write smooth-reading, plausible seeming 850 word packets of pop sociology and political comment two or three times a week.
However banal his writing may be, however wrong he routinely is; however much he shackles his critical faculties in the service of the role he’s created for himself — the conservative that does not offend the Upper West Side — he knows what he’s doing. Here, at this sorry end of a seemingly happy little essay, he makes the turn to claim a conclusion that is both foolish and touched with evil.
It turns out, though you could not have guessed it from the dog’s breakfast of mutterings about protocols that have come before, that what Brooks is trying to say here is that poor people have it coming — and there is neither the possibility, nor necessarily the opportunity, to do anything about the plight of those less fortunate than he and thee.
He gets there in two slippery steps.
Firs, he writes:
What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).
Leave aside the pure nonsense here – the recycled line that China lacks daring consumers. There are many things China may lack today — but a healthy appetite for material goods and the new, new thing are not among them. (For a view of China and its economic/political prospects informed by expertise, experience, and inquiry, start with this exemplary piece by someone who remembers how to be a journalist, James Fallows).
The real tell here is that economic success follows social behavior, with a rather stratified view of what counts: you need dear leaders, and you need followers, perhaps loyal enough to remember that we’ve always been at war with Microsoft Google.
So far, for all of the silliness in that short passage, Brooks’ reasoning is somewhere between banal and benign. But there’s a sting to come, born of his deliberately vague description of the cultural secrets of economic succcess. He goes on to write that
…a protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.
Now we’re down to the short strokes.
All of Brooks’ misdirection; his multiple incoherent descriptions of the so-called protocol economy; all the thumb-sucking about food courts and steel and drugs — the whole mess comes down to this.
The reason that there is inequality here at home, Brooks tells us, the reason that there is a divide between rich and poor nations is all down to bad families and nasty bribery habits.
Pay no attention to the data behind the curtain that suggests that inequality is constructed, a political failure as much as an economic one, for to peer to deeply into the actual numbers might furrow the unwrinkled brow. And never forget that scumbags screwing the middle class are, if they exist at all, mere bad apples, and not systematic threats to economic prosperity.
Best of all: relax. We’re alright, jack. We, the elites who read The New York Times have the cultural right stuff. In the inequality rodeo, we sit on top of the bull till the bell rings. Let the clowns risk the horns.
Most important: look at the last critical move Brooks make: “It’s very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.”
Brooks is careful here — he is canny when he needs to be. He never mentions genes or any claim of biological determinism. But his message is that poor folk are poor for reasons that are inherent to their circumstances, to their culture, to qualities beyond individual choice. And hence there is no escape: you just can’t teach those shiftless losers the protocols they need to rise above themselves.
I’m being careful here. Brooks never mentions race and what is presented here is not a racist argument. Rather, it’s about class, ethnicity and history.
But at the same time, the same mental move that underlies racism is in play here: Brooks is saying that some groups of people suffer from an inherent stain, an almost ineradicable vein of culture that determines the fate of the individuals within that group. Brooks may say that he’s making nothing like the pseudobiological claim of the social Darwinist, the eugenicist — but an cultural inheritance of inequality that is “very hard” comes out at the same practial destination: you can’t fix culture, so the poor are stuck — and that’s just the way it is.
I hope I don’t have to go on here at any more length to point out the nonsense here. Let me just say that the same has been said often enough before, and yet, somehow, plenty of folks deemed unfit to prosper have somehow had (e.g.) the temerity to succeed.
But I do want to leave you with a thought as to why Brooks would play in this most dangeous — and wretched — sandbox.
Why would such a nice-seeming man want to reach such a conclusion, to the point where he has to twist what he knows, or avoid it altogether, to make his way to that destination?
Because, at least it seems to me, Brooks is the nice guy voice of the GOP/thug fantasy that government action is never better than useless.
If Brooks can persuade you that the economy is so different nowadays that all you thought you knew is wrong, and that this new picture depicts one in which winners and losers are pre-determined, then you can’t begin to support government action to address the seeming causes of inequality. After all, any such effort must founder on the underlying reality of good cultures and bad, worthy folks and the shiftless.
And if you don’t read carefully, he is smooth enough to slip in all the errors, the omissions, the failures of logic and fact needed to present such a conclusion, not as the heir to blood-and-soil nastiness that it is, but as yet one more classic Brooks account of the good news about the way we live now.
And that, my friends, is what makes him so damn dangerous.
*I just can’t stand to go on, so I’m going to leave to the reader the pleasure of dissecting every morsel of dumb out of this coda to Brooks’ column. To burnish his deep thought credentials, he backs off his channeling of Kipling to leave us with this pearl: “Economic change is fomenting intellectual change. When the economy was about stuff, economics resembled physics. When it’s about ideas, economics comes to resemble psychology.” I count at least three major errors here and four epic banalities. You?
Image: John Ferneley, “Sir John Thorold’s Bay Hunters With Their Groom in a Stable.”