David Brooks’ Manifesto

February 14, 2012   ·   3 Comments

Source: NYTX

David Brooks

By Marie Burns:

New York Times columnist David Brooks is fed up. He is fed up with “liberal economists” and “the left-wing blogosphere” spewing “crude economic determinism.” He is fed up with you Occupy noisemakers and your “populist slogans.” Most of all, he is fed up with social “disruption,” “bad values” and “bad neighborhoods.” At his wit’s end, David Brooks has determined that you people are not going to behave yourselves unless the government forces you to do so.

And so today, David Brooks has a new – or previously undisclosed – prescription for a better America:

Bourgeois Paternalism.

Let those two words sink in. Bourgeois paternalism. Now, just to be sure we understand them, let’s ask Messrs. Merriam and Webster what each of these words means. Here’s a definition of bourgeois: “marked by a concern for material interests and a tendency toward mediocrity.” And of paternalism: “the attitude or actions of a person, organization, etc., that protects people and gives them what they need but does not give them any responsibility or freedom of choice.”

That’s right. “The country … needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism,” Brooks writes in today’s column. “Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.”

In the brave new world according to Brooks, Big Brother will not just watch; he will instruct and control. Behind the conservative theology of “free markets” and “unfettered capitalism” lies the problem of how to make the little people play their proper roles as cogs in that free-market economy. Of late, the little people have not been cooperating. Brooks has been onto this failure for some time, but he seems to have found a stronger voice after reading Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In the book, Murray expounds on the stupidity and immorality of the white American underclass. In his January 31 column, Brooks called Coming Apart the most important book of the year. Brooks’ idea on how to reverse the decline of poor whites was to have the government institute “a National Service Program … that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.” This program would be the “re-education camps” that Michele Bachmann warned were on the liberal agenda. When Bachmann voiced that conspiracy theory a few years ago, those “left-wing bloggers” Brooks so disdains laughed out loud at her “paranoid, and completely untrue” charges. Ha! Most of us wondered where she got this particular crazy idea. As it turns out, it wasn’t from the left. It was coming from conservative control freaks like David Brooks.

Brooks wanted to send the riffraff to re-education camps where they could rub shoulders with their upper-class betters and learn about the vaunted “values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.” This is, of course, a hilarious “solution.” For one thing, there aren’t enough “betters” to teach the “riffraff” the joys of a future in investment banking. For another, young people would rather learn to be cool, not to be bourgeois. Nobody, of any age, says, “I want to be more like David Brooks.” Yet that was what Brooks envisioned the National Service Program doing: making people more like David Brooks.

Brooks wrote that column before all the negative reviews of Murray’s book came in. Reviews like this and this. And this one, by Ralph Richard Banks, who says that the values of rich and poor Americans are not so different. It’s just that the poor don’t have the opportunities to exercise those values. For instance, Banks writes,

Poor and working-class people, research has shown, view marriage similarly to their more affluent counterparts, but the disadvantaged are less likely to attain the level of economic stability that makes marriage both more likely and more enduring.

In response to all that incoming shrapnel, Brooks hunkered down. He is now recommending a full-time police state to handle re-education and to control the bad behavior of the underclass. The final straw for Brooks, as it so often is, came from his colleague Paul Krugman, whose column “Money and Morals,” published last Friday, took Brooks and his ilk to task. Krugman wrote,

Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals. But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money….

We should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe – and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

Krugman added some evidence to blow away the central conservative argument that “the great divide,” or “great divorce” as Brooks called it, was values-driven; that is, that the underclass failed because the poor did not share fundamental American values “like marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity.” Krugman wrote,

… some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground…. Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised? Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family…. It is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.

Krugman might as well have written, “I’m talkin’ to you, Brooks.” Because he was. Krugman often must devote his columns to blowing up aspects of Brooks’ facile mythologies and methodologies. Brooks’ retort is his column today: advocacy for a police state and a dismissal of Krugman, who – along with his “liberal economist” friends, Brooks says “stopped thinking in 1975.” (In 1975, Krugman was in his first year of a Ph.D. Program at M.I.T. where evidently his econ professors taught him to stop thinking. A very classy re-education camp.)

All children have aspirations. They want to grow up to be heroic or glamorous. Fireman, teacher, basketball star, movie idol, president. (Ever hear a child say he wanted to grow up to be an investment banker?) It is a little demoralizing when, as a young person, it dawns on you that you will not realize your unrealistic dreams. But imagine how demoralizing it is when you figure out you cannot even realize modest expectations: a home, a family, a two-week vacation trip to Canada with the dog strapped to the roof of the car? (Personally, it is my hunch that part of the reason for the bad behavior of investment bankers is that they have not realized their childhood dreams, either. After another long day on the rats’ treadmill, don’t you go home and ask yourself, “Is this all there is?”)

Brooks does not get this aspirational disconnect. Confusing cause and effect, he has decided that the “final solution” is to leave it to the “patriarchal” state to force the “disorderly,” “dysfunctional,” “irresponsible” underclass to submit to conservative values.

I of course have a better idea. We don’t need to “re-educate” the teeming masses, as Brooks originally suggested. And we most certainly do not want to establish the bourgeois paternalistic state Brooks now envisions. What is needed instead, as I argued in a recent column, is to educate the kids in the first place. We must re-establish equal access to good public education from the get-go. Brooks and Murray see the underclass as beyond help because of their lack of fundamental American values. Murray sees a Mendelian self-selection that has rendered the underclass genetically incapable of mastering the skills that are the exclusive patrimony of the “cognitive elite.” In his earlier book The Bell Curve, Murray and his co-author hypothesized that the reason black Americans failed to realize the American dream was that they were less intelligent than whites. In Coming Apart, he hypothesizes that the majority of white Americans, too, are less intelligent than are the “cognitive elite.” But as Ralph Richard Banks writes,

Murray … errs in reducing educational attainment and professional success solely to genetic endowment. Murray imagines that all smart people are born that way, and that only those (like African-Americans, according to Murray) who are genetically inferior struggle in the new brains-based economy.

Yet those members of the cognitive elite that Murray lauds certainly know better. When they have children, they devote untold hours, money, and energy into getting their children into the ‘right’ schools, and not simply the right colleges. The quest to provide their child an educational advantage goes all the way back to expensive preschool and continues through primary and secondary school…. Why spend so much money on education if, as Murray supposes, it doesn’t enhance a child’s cognitive performance? The reality that is obvious to every parent is that while nature matters, so too does nurture.

Formal education can’t do everything. Put good teachers in bad neighborhoods, and they won’t get the same broad outcomes as they would in areas where parents place more value on education. Children who go home to dysfunctional families, teenagers who have to work long hours to help the family survive, young people who see no way out of poverty – on average will not do as well. But some of them will excel. A teacher will inspire them, a parent will encourage them. They’ll like to read. They’ll think solving tough math problems is fun. They’ll meticulously dissect the frog in biology class, not butcher it. They will find their talents.

What Brooks doesn’t get and what I have yet to see precisely articulated in the criticisms of Murray’s book is this hard truth: to stay on a course to personal success, individuals need a stake in their own outcomes. Look at any overachiever and you’ll see someone who has failed as often as s/he has succeeded. The most successful individuals have failed more often than have the least successful. Slackers may fail only once. They give up then and there. Overachievers keep on failing, yet keep on keeping on. Is it because the achievers have higher moral values than others? Hell, no. Look at Steve Jobs. He was a horrible human being, by most accounts. Look at Mitt Romney. Whoever. The “cognitive elites” keep on trying because they believe they can succeed. They believe this because, among the failures, they also have experienced successes. Yet for every superstar there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans who go about their daily lives as functioning contributors to our society. Why? None of them imagines s/he is going to become a high-tech billionaire or POTUS. But what they do have is a stake in their own futures. They behave in responsible ways because the system rewards them for it, albeit in more limited ways than it has rewarded Jobs and Romney. And when the system fails these ordinary Americans, or when they fail of their own accord, they carry on. Why? Because they have hope – a hope based in experience. They know what success feels like. Those brushes with success reinforce their internalized values. Can a bourgeois paternalistic state – one that “protects people and gives them what they need but does not give them any responsibility or freedom of choice” and that promotes “ material interests and a tendency toward mediocrity” – internalize the values Brooks thinks are wanting in the underclass? Rhetorical question.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com



Readers Comments (3)

  1. PD Pepe says:

    It took me some time to figure out where Brooks was going with his message–––thought maybe it was my lack of comprehension, but then realized it was just Brooks’ social self being overly intellectual when explaining anything and using all those references from academics. I think he really needs to get out more––rub elbows with poverty, sit in the schools in those districts, go into those towns that lost their factories and see what has happened to that town and its people. Having a stake on one’s future is exactly right and in order to have that one needs to be able to have a leg up and not Give up. Thanks Marie, once again for a really good piece.

  2. alphonsegaston says:

    A coincidence–my son is reading a history of popular science and has been regaling me with some of the awful truths of the “eugenics” insanity about race and intelligence, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to the Coolidge administration and Albert Einstein (really). Somehow when I read this Brooks piece last night it came to mind. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” as my German teacher wrote on my research paper, except of course she used accent marks. (My French was much better than my German).

    Some of the ideas my son found to be almost a blueprint for the Tea Party–if we don’t eradicate the lowest elements (and the writer was referring to Southern whites), their numbers will overwhelm the lives of our grandchildren.

    I realized of course that Brooks was responding to Paul Krugman–what a Sisyphean task.

  3. StephenKMackSD says:

    Marie Burns you are an inspiration and an author of powerful,devastatingly telling analytical prose. Mr. Brooks does not stand a chance against that kind of intellectual examination, all that high minded Neo-platonic chatter reduced to a thin film of ash. Best regards from an apprentice to a master!



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