Thursday, July 13, 2017

In his first draft, he took her to Red Lobster for chipped beef

David Brooks has gotten a lot of attention for this passage from a recent column:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Surprisingly few of the commenters, however, have picked up on the overwhelming sense of déjà vu in the anecdote. One of Brooks early successes was an essay analyzing class differences in America based on things like where we ate and shopped. It was a hugely popular and influential piece, slightly marred by the fact that many of the most memorable illustrating examples were not true.

 Sasha Issenberg did the definitive take down.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.

“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America’s most literate cities doesn’t necessarily agree. Among the study’s criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.

“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series’s highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, ’slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ’seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”

Issenberg's expose got plenty of attention and you might expect Brooks to shy away from dubious anecdotes about the dining habits of “the lower 80 percent.” We might even use this as a jumping off point for a critique of Brooks's character (a man who teaches a course entitled “humility” kind of opens himself up for that sort of thing), but that would be a rather petty exercise of questionable value.

The important question is not "what kind of man is David Brooks?" But "why does someone like David Brooks do so well in 21st-century American journalism?"

David Brooks has a long history of distorting events, omitting pertinent details, making convenient mistakes, and sometimes simply making shit up. The New York Times knew about all this when they hired him, but it didn't particularly bother them because David Brooks was and is the ideal conservative columnist for the paper.

This is because Brooks, better than anyone else, addresses the fundamental paradox of the New York Times political identity, that of a basically liberal paper with a legacy of class bigotry going back at least to the 19th century. Brooks writes thoughtful, literate, often elegant columns that let the readers feel bad, but in a good way, a way that never uncomfortably challenges deeply held beliefs.

There is something almost cute about Brooks' apparent belief that a mishmash of Food Network reruns and lifestyle porn constitute some kind of impenetrable cultural code. It's a bit like listening to second-graders who are convinced they've fooled the grownups when they speak in pig Latin. For the target audience, however, it is a nearly ideal message. It perfectly balances liberal guilt with a sense of class superiority.

To be fair, there are valid points here (as there are with almost all of Brooks' columns) -- Inequality and a lack of mobility are massive problems and the imbalance in education expenditure greatly exacerbates the issues. (I'm a bit more skeptical about the zoning explanation.) – though it's worth noting that the drivers of the great compression (highly progressive taxes, stronger social safety nets, substantial government investment in education, infrastructure and research) don't make much of an appearance.

Brooks is not some soulless hack like Bret Stephens, He is an intelligent, interesting, and in all probability, generally sincere writer. He is also a deeply flawed one, and those flaws and the way his employers react to them, are often highly informative.

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