February 3, 2012 · 5 Comments
By Marie Burns:
New York Times columnist David Brooks seems to be reeling from the negative reactions to his column on Tuesday, which was titled “The Great Divorce.” Brooks feigns a certain sang froid about the constant drubbings he takes from a phalanx of regular and occasional critics, but this time he apparently went into the dark closet where he keeps his Krugman voodoo doll and good Republican cloth coat. Tim Mak of Politico writes that “A New York Times staffer told Politico that Brooks was ‘too swamped to comment’ on the reaction to his column.”
I have not remarked on “The Great Divorce,” primarily because Brooks based his column on a book I have not read and do not intend to read. The book is titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Its author is Charles Murray, who is most famous for co-writing The Bell Curve, another book that manipulates statistics to divide Americans; in that case, into smart people – the “cognitive elite” – and dumbkovs. An important premise of Bell Curve was that white people are inherently smarter than black people. It is no wonder then that Murray does not concern himself in his current pile of statistical chicanery with anyone whose ancestors did not come to these shores from Northern Europe. In order for Brooks to claim, as he did at the outset of his column, that Murray’s book was likely the most important book of the year, Brooks had to omit the full title. As economist Brad DeLong asks, “How can a book that explicitly leaves out Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Amerindians, African-Americans, people of mixed race, and Arab-Americans possibly describe ‘the most important trends in American society’?” A rhetorical question, to be sure.
Murray, who works for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, is an apologist for what he considers his “class” or “tribe” of nice white people, and Brooks did his duty carrying water for the tribal leaders. To get away with the subterfuge that income inequality is all the result of dumb white people behaving like dumb black people, Murray had to resort to statistical trickery. Jonathan Chait writes, “Reader Jacques Distler pointed out to me that it relies on census data, which only asks households if they earn more than $100,000 a year. Since all the change in income inequality has come within households earning well over that mark, the census data is not going to capture the rise in income inequality.” That is, Murray’s central statistical analysis is totally without merit, so it goes without saying that his forays into “explaining” why most white Americans have not grabbed the brass ring is nothing more than another right-wing attempt to blame the victims for the egregious behavior of the victimizers.
Brooks is always all over the blame-the-victims theme. It is the central premise of much of his writing. In his New York Times column today, Brooks takes his theme to previously-unscaled heights of absurdity. Ever agile, Our Mister Brooks, in his capacity as President of the Status Quotarians, today advises the disaffected that we are going about the revolution in all the wrong ways. In “How to Fight the Man” (yes, that’s really the title of his column – particularly outrageous when you recall that he devoted his previous column to pretending the originators of the idiom “the man” are people who don’t matter), Brooks informs us that the best course of a revolutionary is surrender to authority: “Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.” That’s right. If you’re not happy with the way things are, join a group of nice, like-minded sheep. I’m not sure why Brooks did not recommend the Rotary Club or the Daughters of the American Revolution.
As his proof of the impossibility of individual effort, Brooks trots out a young man who rejected organized religion. The man, whose name is Jefferson Bethke, posted an anti-orthodoxy YouTube video that garnered some 18 million hits. The popularity of Bethke’s rant inspired a few of the brainwashed brainwashers – you know, folks like Brooks – to browbeat him into admissions that he was not a qualified theologian and his intuition had no merit. Brooks patiently advises us lesser mortals that “Unless your name is Nietzsche, [thinking for yourself is] probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.”
Let’s just stipulate that this premise is nonsense. Every single one of us – whether or not we commit it to paper or video – has a worldview which we constantly employ to navigate our daily lives. Those few who do not have a worldview are probably insane. The rest of us have learned more or less how the world works and what to expect from others. When we receive new information, we evaluate and, if warranted, we apply it. Our worldviews are not perfect (and neither was Nietzsche’s – he was one messed-up dude), sometimes they fail us and require adjustment, but nonetheless, they are the aggregation of the codes by which we conduct ourselves. It would be fair to say that conservatives like Brooks are more willing than are liberals to develop worldviews that conform to the status quo. Brooks is a mouthpiece for the right, not just because the Charles Murrays of the world tell him how to think, but because he wants to think like Charles Murray-style know-it-alls.
Brooks advises would-be revolutionaries to “Give yourself a label.” I guess he means “anarchist” or “Marxist.” Funny, no mention of “Occupy.” Brooks also assumes that aspirational revolutionaries are all college students. He advises them to go to the library and read Thoreau and Maritain. Young Thoreau’s idea of revolution was to go sit in a cabin a few miles outside of town so that when he got hungry he could stroll into town and allow doting gentleladies to feed him. That would work. Maritain’s overarching idea of revolution was to convert to Roman Catholicism. Neither one of these bright lights, I should add, followed Brooks’ idea of joining a club of like-minded revolutionaries, though fans of Newt Gingrich will be glad to know Maritain corresponded with American radical thinker Saul Alinsky. Alinsky famously did not join any clubs, either, but he had some very good advice on how to organize people around ideas. Unlike Brooks, Alinsky did not imagine that a college education was a prerequisite to revolution. Many progressives, however, admired his methodology, and the Occupy movements are among those who have embraced some of his methods.
The last few years have seen the rise of two popular movements: the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. To narrow these movements down to their central raisons d’être (since both movements are diverse, I’ll admit that is a bit unfair), the Tea Party’s cri de couer is “I want mine,” and the Occupy goal is “We want our fair share.” Most of the Tea Party crowd took Brooks’ advice and joined a club of like-minded malcontents. Funding that club and directing their activities were civic-minded fellows like Dick Armey and the Koch brothers. At the direction of these leaders, Tea Party members put great effort into electing representatives pledged to working against the interests of their rank-and-file supporters. Occupy, on the other hand, has no truly identifiable leaders, there isn’t much of a club, funding comes mostly form small donations, and – against all odds and herculean establishment efforts to stop them – they have turned the national conversation against Brooks’ Status Quotarians.
By any measure of Brooksio ad Absurdum, his thesis today hits a high mark. Still, there might be one goodhearted naif out there who would consider Brooks an “authority” whose advice was worth taking. (Yes, I suspect even Candide would know better.) Do not do it. Do not knuckle under to “the authorities.” Do not rely on “institutions” to lead the revolution. Authorities and institutions are the entities a revolution attempts to rout. Why do you think “the authorities” arrested very few screaming, gun-toting Tea Party gangsters, but pepper-sprayed, roughed up and/or cuffed thousands of Occupy protesters? Obviously, the authorities know which movement poses an actual threat to their vaunted institutions. Brooks knows it, too, but he hopes some of his readers are as gullible and malleable as young Jefferson Bethke. If anything, Brooks’ column is an endorsement of Stockholm Syndrome. Only Brooks could have the audacity to declare that the best way to radically alter a system is to embrace it and those who perpetuate it.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com