Culture » December 27, 2010
The Babbitt of the Bobos
Is David Brooks America’s most misguided pundit?
The beauty of Brooks’ brand of valentines to the American knowledge elite is that you never have to say you’re sorry—or mean much of what you said in the first place.
No matter how many times I espy New York Times columnist David Brooks patiently explaining the deeply antipopulist, economically astute and mildly amusing features of the American character, I somehow always picture him in a straw boater and a striped jacket, affecting the jaunty mien of Harold Hill, the charming-huckster protagonist of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. That’s because, like Hill, Brooks keeps up a steady, wisecracking patter meant to lull his eager auditors into a state of calm reassurance about the social order surrounding them. There’s really just one salient difference: Hill was drumming up civic enthusiasm for the blandishments of school band class; and Brooks is pitching the stalwart myth of pseudomeritocratic worth, a system by which all just rewards spontaneously waft upward to the talented knowledge elite.
Brooks staked his claim as new millennial social seer with his breakout 2000 bestseller, Bobos in Paradise, which purported to gently mock the bohemian pretensions of the new American power elite. (These were, in Brooks’ waggish telling, the “Bobos”–a lazy conflation of “bourgeois” and “bohemian” that Brooks claimed was a signature new formation on the American social landscape, even though bohemians have always been drawn from the ranks of the bourgeoisie, and rarely harbor any serious ambition to forsake their socioeconomic birthrights.)
But as with many works of pseudomeritocratic propaganda, Brooks’ labored puckishness proved on closer inspection to be the sincerest form of flattery. For all its consumer excesses, the Bobo class was, in his account, brilliantly adaptive and surprisingly resourceful. Instead of lurching into cataclysmic hedonism, Brooks’ affluent Bobos embarked on rigorous regimes of physical and spiritual self-improvement, practicing an enlightened “Modernism for the shareholders” and possessing a “Midas touch in reverse,” whereby everything they touch “turns to soul.”
Behind Brooks’ gentle scoffing at the Bobo vogue for distressed furniture and overpriced cave-aged cheese at Whole Foods, was a tacit bid to extort a very old kind of social deference on behalf of this allegedly new social class–provided, of course, that its members summoned forth the right sort of nationalist fettle. In the book’s closing pages, Brooks exhorted the feckless Bobo class to step up to the bar of history and claim its proper role of stage-managing the world-defining American civilizing mission. Sounding very much like his own imperialist hero Theodore Roosevelt, Brooks fretted:
We may become a nation that enjoys the comforts of private and local life but that has lost any sense of … a unique historical mission. The fear is not that America will decline because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.
Christopher Lasch, a keen critic of Theodore Roosevelt’s brand of imperial adventurism, astutely dubbed it “the moral and intellectual rehabilitation of the ruling class”–and that is very plainly what Brooks had in mind in his bid to marshal the home-happy Bobo elite into a gauzy ethos of national service. But of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate how deeply misguided this reckless conflation of ruling-class rehabilitation and national mission can be. Following the spirit of the Brooksian playbook to a tee, the United States became mired in a disastrous and illegal imperial mission in Iraq–a project that Brooks enthusiastically cheer-led from his perches at The Weekly Standard, the New York Times and “All Things Considered.” And of course the whole rickety debt-based fantasia that permitted countless Bobo homeowners to leverage out their mortgages into upscale kitchen upgrades has collapsed into a smoldering ruin.
But the beauty of Brooks’ brand of valentines to the American knowledge elite is that you never have to say you’re sorry–or mean much of what you said in the first place. Aligning one’s pundit brand with the credentialed smart set means automatically, in these United States anyway, that one is on the right side of history.
The hollowness of the “comic sociology” Brooks sought to perpetrate in Bobos was exposed the following year, when he composed a faux-anthropological cover story for the Atlantic, exploring the mysterious hinterland sensibilities of “Red America”–i.e., the virtuous right-leaning voting districts and states that went into the George W. Bush column during the hard-fought 2000 election–in Franklin County, Penn.
Brooks strung together plausible-sounding tossed-off observations about the shopping mores and cultural sensibilities of the place, all of which allegedly shored up the big-picture thesis of the piece: that Red and Blue America faced off against unfordable culture divides, which translated into abiding class segregation as well. The only problem is that very few of the telling details Brooks crammed into the piece proved to be, you know, true.
When Philadelphia magazine writer Sasha Isenberg ran a litany of contradictory facts by Brooks for his sharply critical 2004 anatomy of both Brooks’s research and mystifying popular acclaim, the young reporter got a sober lecture from Mr. Comic Sociology for his trouble. “This is dishonest research. You’re not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter,” Brooks chided his interlocutor. “Is this how you’re going to start your career?”
Brooks well understands that the way to confidently pilot one’s career upward is to play shamelessly to the broad-as-a-barn cultural prejudices of an elite readership rather than challenge its sensibilities with empirical findings. But there’s no doubt, in pure terms of career ambition, that Brooks had the best of this particular argument. Not long after the unhappy Atlantic episode, he was elevated to the plum perch as the lead conservative columnist for the Times–and from there, he was off and running with all sorts of similar grab-and-go generalizations about the deep-seated cultural determination of everything, from the rancorous mood of Major League Baseball playoffs to the course of global development policy and foreign aid.
Lately, Brooks has even taken the stunningly obtuse view that money itself plays merely a nominal role in determining American elections and policy outcomes more broadly. In an October 2010 column he airily dismissed worries over the explosion of political campaign cash as so much “primitive mythology” summoned up by members of Washington’s self-interested political elite. He writes:
In the end … money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties. It probably helps in local legislative races where name recognition is low. It probably helps challengers get established. But these days, federal races are oversaturated. Every federal candidate in a close race has plenty of money, and the marginal utility of each new dollar is zero.
Leave aside that the overall tally of cash expenditures in the 2010 campaign cycle topped $5 billion–the largest-ever outlay of campaign money in a midterm contest, and, amazingly, a sum that outstrips the amount spent during the 2004 presidential cycle. That is, in other words, a shitload of primitive mythology, even in a political process as systematically hostile to reason as our own tends to be.
Also leave aside that the counter-examples Brooks has cherry picked from 2010 to make the case for the nugatory impact of campaign spending–the primary upsets of GOP favorites Mike Castle in Delaware and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska–actually involved cases where the better-financed candidates were saving the campaign treasuries they had amassed for the general election. This they did in the tactically mistaken belief that their primary challengers were not a serious threat, and so actually argues on behalf of, rather than against, the proposition that spending advantages often account for decisive swings in elections.
Of course, both major parties and their electoral standard bearers frenetically spend mountains of cash on either side of a campaign, and only one side gets to claim victory at the end. That doesn’t mean that funders of campaigns are not getting anything for their money however. Quite the contrary, they are setting up incumbent lawmakers, again on either side of the partisan aisle, for a career in which they spend an enormous number of their waking hours raising funds for the next campaign cycle. And they are, of course, able to put the touch on these skittish cash-junkies whenever there’s a notional legislative reform effort in play on Capitol Hill.
To gaze out on such a policy landscape and declare money to be a virtual dead letter in American politics is to confess, in essence, that one is too lazy to be bothered to think seriously about it.
But the shtick has worn threadbare as Brooks has turned his culture-bound pundit gaze on things of actual material import, as the course of events since 2008 has mercilessly forced him to do. On a dumbfounding appearance on George Stephanopoulos’s This Week in late 2008, Brooks was holding forth on the prospect of government bailouts for U.S. auto manufacturers, a policy that he of course opposed as a defilement of sainted free-market principle. Bailing out automakers would unconscionably introduce “politics” into industrial policy (since, you know, unregulated market activity had done so much to secure our collective economic stability), and this would be a bootless prospect indeed, compared to the existing federal bailout of financial institutions to the tune of $100 billion and more. “That’s a public utility,” he airily proclaimed. When another panel member pressed him on this outlandish claim, he just shrugged. “It’s a metaphor,” he wheedled, with the same condescending affect that came across in his churlish exchange with Isenberg.
Well, not so fucking much, actually. This particular government-supported metaphor drove millions of homes into foreclosure, destabilized global credit markets and helped plunge manufacturing enterprises like the auto industry past the brink of economic viability. To call this the handiwork of a public utility is akin to awarding a peace prize to Benito Mussolini.
Not surprisingly, the Brooksian machinery of cultural determinism sours noticeably when it becomes engaged with questions of poverty and global development. In the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, Brooks took to his column to mount one of his favorite hobbyhorses: the notion that the ultimate arbiter of fortunes in squalid, poverty-wracked nations such as Haiti, a longtime U.S. protectorate that has witnessed violent political coup after violent political coup ever since Western powers resolved to isolate it from the global community following its successful slave rebellion is–wait for it–the mystical force of culture.
The startling body count in the wake of the Haiti quake, Brooks wrote, arose from “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. … Responsibility is not often internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years… We’re supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”
There are few things as distasteful as an opportunistic pundit seizing upon the wrenching spectacle of mass death for the sake of scoring points in a self-congratulatory sidebar to the culture wars. Voodoo may be a fatalistic and not-entirely-rational belief system, but it at least addresses its believers in the actual circumstances of their lives and reserves a decent interval of genuine mourning for the dead.
One can only fantasize about the retributions its deities would arrange for their counterparts in the David Brooks pantheon of household gods–his Patio Men, Organization Kids, and all the mythical, meritocratic Bobos suffering from Status-Income Disorder. These superstitious pasteboard inventions are, much like the syncretic African divinities who populate Voodoo forms of worship, bywords for capricious market forces that have ultimately proven no less impersonally deranging in the wholesomely progress-promoting cultures of Paradise Drive than they have in the slums of Port-au-Prince. But this exurban Götterdämmerung, pleasing as it may be to contemplate, shall never come to pass–there are just too many prestige editorial operations too heavily invested in the career of David Brooks for his chirpy pronouncements on the fitness of robust market ideology to meet with any serious challenge. Failing that, though, one might have at least hoped that Brooks could have packed up his smug market cosmology just this once and given the Haitian fallen what their own native faith at least guaranteed them–a humble and respectful silence.
This essay was adapted from Rich People Things, © Chris Lehmann, and is only available at OR Books (New York), www.orbooks.com.
Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.