March 28, 2004
Issenbergs typically entertaining, elegant critique of David Brooks
(I get to call it typical because I graded his confident, intelligent and meticulous
writing quite often when he was a student here) is already getting some justified
positive attention from webloggers.
One of the best
features of Issenbergs article is his coverage of Brooks reaction
to the piece. Issenberg finds that most of Brooks characterizations of
red and blue America, or anything else, are based on stereotypes rather than
reportage, inference rather than data, cliches rather than research. Brooks
protests that this is a pedantic objection, that Issenberg doesnt get
the joke, or is being too literal. (And tosses in to boot a condescending jab
about whether this is how Issenberg wants to start his career.)
I think Brooks
would have a point were he another kind of writer, or inclined to claim a different
kind of authority for his work. If Bobos hadnt been sold and framed
as a work of popular sociology, but instead merely as witty, personal social
observation in the style of Will Rogers or Roy Blount Jrbasically as a
folklorist of the professional classesthen Brooks would be entirely justified
in putting on his best Foghorn Leghorn voice and saying, Its a joke,
But as Issenberg
observes, thats not the weight class Brooks tries to fight in. He wants
to be the latest in a line of popular sociologists diagnosing the American condition.
Issenberg perhaps overstresses the untarnished respectability of that lineage:
theres a few quacks, cranks and lightweights scattered in there. Is Brooks
the latest such lightweight? I think Issenberg makes a good case that he is.
This is not to
say that there isnt some truth in what Brooks has to say, but the odd
thing is that the truthfulness of his writing has to do less with how we now
live than how we think about how we live (and more, how others live). Its
not that you cant buy a $20 meal in Franklin County, but that the professional
classes of Blue America think that you cant. Red and Blue America works
not just because its backed by some sociological data (not collected by
Brooks) but because once named, we all recognized its stereotypes and their
correspondence to mostly private, mostly interior kinds of social discourses
in contemporary American life--a point Issenberg makes astutely in his article.
When professional middle-class urbanites talk amongst themselves about gun controlwhich
they mostly favorthey often lard up their conversations with references
to gun racks on pickup trucks and other visions of the rural Other, and it works
in the other direction too.
If Brooks can ask Issenberg if this is how he wants to start a career (seems a pretty good start to me) then I think Issenberg and others are justified in asking Brooks if this is how he wants to sustain one, by feeding us back our stereotypes and acting as if he has accomplished something simply because many of us nod in recognition. If Brooks would like to move beyond that to showing us something we alreadyand often incorrectlythink we know about ourselves and our fellow Americans, hell probably have to get serious about those trips to look for $20 dinners. Or he can hang up the sociologists hat and settle into the role of observer and witticistbut even there, we often most treasure and remember the observers who do something more than hold up a mirror to our confirmed prejudices.