March 28, 2004

Category Error

Sasha Issenberg’s 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 and mostly positive attention from webloggers.

One of the best features of Issenberg’s 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 doesn’t 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 hadn’t 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 Jr—basically as a folklorist of the professional classes—then Brooks would be entirely justified in putting on his best Foghorn Leghorn voice and saying, “It’s a joke, son”.

But as Issenberg observes, that’s 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: there’s 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 isn’t 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). It’s not that you can’t buy a $20 meal in Franklin County, but that the professional classes of Blue America think that you can’t. Red and Blue America works not just because it’s 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 control—which they mostly favor—they 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 already—and often incorrectly—think we know about ourselves and our fellow Americans, he’ll probably have to get serious about those trips to look for $20 dinners. Or he can hang up the sociologist’s hat and settle into the role of observer and witticist—but even there, we often most treasure and remember the observers who do something more than hold up a mirror to our confirmed prejudices.