Posted tagged ‘Culture and its discontents’

David Brooks and the Anatomy of Fail: Part One — Norwegian Olympic follies/All Hail Our Nordic Overlords edition.

March 2, 2010

As readers of this blog know at too great length, Megan McArdle gives me the pip, and her willed and complacent foolishness evoke tsunamis of verbiage from me until the moment passes.

But, as a number of readers have pointed out and as I have come to realize, this is something akin to  bringing a buffalo gun to take out a prairie dog.  McArdle may be always wrong, and she may possess a fairly large megaphone, but she is so transparent in her errors, and she is simply not a good enough writer to do much more, IMHO, than preach to a pretty homogenous choir.  She does harm, I think, but her capacity to do much more damage than she already does, or to influence anyone who actually does things that matter in public policy, seems to me to be pretty minimal.

Not so more sophisticated, more literate and more canny purveyors of pop social science in defense of pre-ordained conclusions. David Brooks is the poster child — think post office walls, perhaps — for the gang of those who commit crimes against public discourse by stealth.  So while I’m sure I won’t be able to resist taking the odd whack at McArdle’s work in the future, I’m trying to discipline myself to concentrate on more consequential folly.

So:  David Brooks is a master of a deceptively powerful persona, one designed to slip past both his editors’ and his readers’ critical judgment that would immediately recognize the hollowness of his argument more baldly presented (McArdle-style).  He is the cheerful nerd, the policy wonk who reads the sociology or neuroscience or psychology  literature so you don’t have to.

He uses that material to fuel his Deep Thoughts, thus forming himself into the man who can take the minutiae of academic research and turn them into (seeming) insight into the grand questions of how we do — or ought to –live now.  Most dangerously, those insights then become prescriptive, strongly worded hints about what we ought to do to better these lives, our society.

There is nothing wrong with such an approach, honestly done.  Brooks claims, among others, Jane Jacobs as an intellectual and professional predecessor.*  Jacobs, famously, compelled the entire field of urban planning to rethink itself from an uncredentialled and wholly outsider position.  But the reality, as documented in this perfect take-down of his most famous work, (h/t Aimai, correcting a momentary lapse of judgment on DougJ’s part over at Balloon Juice.) is that for Brooks to claim Jacobs’ mantle as a public intellectual is as much of a travesty as, say,  this artist asserting a claim to the title King of Pop.

You can see the puddle-deep quality of Brooks work on display more or less in any column.  Today’s (March 2, 2010) is accurately summarized by Brad over at Sadly No:  “This horrific tale of a guy who cut off his own toes while fleeing from the Nazis demonstrates why the Norse won nine gold medals at this year’s Olympics.”

In slightly more detail — Brooks retells the story of a heroic and ghastly ordeal by a man who was betrayed at the start of an underground mission into occupied Norway, lost all of his companions, and endured all kinds of horrors before finally escaping to Sweden with the help of a number of people along the way.

Brooks lays out this history (omitting one crucial detail, about which more below) as a meditation on why little Norway, won the same number of gold medals in the Vancouver Olympics as did the US, despite being home to just one sixtieth the population of its rival.

For Brooks, the lesson is clear:

…there also is an interesting form of social capital on display. It’s a mixture of softness and hardness. [Jan] Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience.

And the money line:

That’s a cultural cocktail** bound to produce achievement in many spheres.

Brooks is talking “culture” a lot these days.  It’s an interesting word — and in Brooks work, it serves as a coded signal of real and dangerous import.

In Brook’s hands, this is what “culture” seem to mean:   a phenomenon that, while not inherently as indivisible and untransferable as traits fixed genetically through particular evolutionary heritages — that shibboleth of the cruder right-wing “let ’em starve” brigade — is nearly so.  Its tangled complex of history, social cohesion, and shared, often unexamined, assumptions, images and traditions belongs to cohesive units or groups, and does not travel readily or well.

In other words, culture is so site-and-ethnic affiliation/nationality -specific that those unblessed with the right parents, the right accidents of birth location, the right commitments to agreed narratives just don’t have what it takes.  For what?  For Olympic gold, for anti-Nazi courage, for economic development, for whatever Brooks wants to assert is the birthright of the English-speaking democracies and their mostly European cousins (some East Asians…hell, perhaps a South Asian or too may also apply).***

Think I’m asserting too much on the basis of one column that might be better explained as the lazy and unconsidered output of a guy chafing at the workload of two 850 word distilled packages of wisdom a week, and decided to nurse his post-Olympic hangover whilst turning in a gimme like this one, most of which is just a gloss of something like this Wikipedia article? (Run-on sentences, much? — ed.)

Well, I’ll concede that Occham’s razor does suggest that sloth and intellectual indolence is always a good guess with Brooks, but as the next post in this series will detail, this kind of seemingly innocuous musing is part of a larger campaign Brooks is championing to assert that the status quo of class and wealth and power turns on nothing more malign than the mere facts of culture as he uses the term.

It’s nonsense, of course, vapidity of Olympian quality.  For Brooks, the heroic behavior of those Norwegians who took Balsruud in and transported him by sled across the top of some of the most hostile country in Europe is all you need to know that Norwegian culture is capable of great things.

Then what of this:

This mission was compromised when he and his fellow soldiers, seeking a trusted resistance contact, accidentally made contact with an unaligned civilian shopkeeper of the same name as their contact who betrayed them to the Germans.

That is, this valiant “culture,” this national character that mothers heroes, also produced some son-of-a-bitch who traded the lives of twelve Norwegians to the Nazi occupiers for whatever reason — fear, conviction, greed, something.

I’m not trying to suggest, of course, that one should read in one shabby and deadly act decades ago some deep truth of the inherent treachery and fascist leanings of the Norwegian character.

I’m just pointing out that Brooks can’t know what he claims: that another set of acts in the same context are more meaningful than this one…or that any cheap and cheerful fairy tale of human goodness (or evil) is a meaningful measure of social capacity, or a reasonable explanation for why Norway bests the US on so many measures of social outcomes.

Toe amputation + heroism in wartime = Olympic gold (never mind the missing terms in the equation) may get the punters to cheer.  But look what it also does:  Brooks’ fairy tale is part of his larger argument that we have the society, in his view, that our “culture” affords us; Norway has theirs; poorer nations have their culture too, and suffer for it, and we may weep for them — or cheer the plucky Norways of the world.  But that’s all.  If culture is destiny, as Brooks has argued elsewhere, then that’s the best we can do.

More to come on exactly that point, as Brooks explains why brown people just have to tolerate their lousy lot in life — and its likely perpetuation in the new (information) world order.

*See, e.g., this line from the Publisher’s Weekly review of Brooks’ best known book, Bobos in Paradise:

“Drawing on diverse examples–from an analysis of the New York Times’ marriage pages, the sociological writings of Vance Packard, Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte and such films as The Graduate.”

**Could there be a more awkward and obviously pig-ignorant formulation that “cultural cocktail?  As if you just could just ask Bryan Brown to shake up a bit of Nordic mythology, high pain thresholds, village cohesion and a twist of  reindeer jerky, pour it out into martini glasses decorated with wolverine urine crystals frozen into pure fjord water, drink it down, and then go slaughter Nazis with your bare hands.

***I’ll be talking about this more in my next Brooks post, but here’s a taste of his claim in this area:  “It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.”

Image:  Hiroshige, “Evening Snow on Mount Hira” from Eight Views of Ōmi c. 1834.