Sunday, August 14

Try David Brooks Today. Now YOU Can Nod Off In Your Bowl Of Soup Just Like Your Favorite Rock Stars, But Without Dangerous Narcotics.

World O'Crap's cosmically amusing Ultimate Wingnut Challenge has entered the critical stage. A couple days ago it was necessary for me to plead against the wholesale elimination of the "Conservative Thinker" Team. It was a close-run thing, and even so David Brooks was almost voted off the Island as an individual.

It's a conundrum, all right. Who is the biggest wingnut? The slaveringly unhinged self-promoter or the simply unhinged drooler? It seems that the "Thinker" team faces an uphill battle: their Oxford shirt and bowtie uniforms are not as marketable to today's hip-hop demographic; the eschewing of trash-talking for the subtler pleasures of middlebrow obfuscation, and a more ecumenical approach to religious bigotry, just don't put the meat in the seats. Brooks, especially, finds himself in the position of one of Marge Schott's pet Negroes of the 1970s, not allowed to grow his Afro out more than 2-1/2 inches, sideburns no longer than the bottom of the earlobe, only one religious medal around the neck, and that tucked discreetly inside the undershirt. Sure, those are mostly self-imposed restrictions, and without them David Brooks would be wearing Frank Gorshin's old Joker suit while peddling books of his funny captions to pictures of 70s hairdos on late-night teevee like James Lileks instead of dressing up in William Safir(e)'s moth-eaten purple mantle for appearances on News Hour. Brooks' inner wingnut should not be underestimated just because for him taking a paragraph to say "Islamofascist" is preferable to incontinent blurting.

So I've come to approach Brooks' recent columns in a slightly different frame of mind, and if I may say so, it doesn't make him anymore entertaining. Take last Wednesday's "All Cultures Are Not Created Equal". Please. In it Brooks urges imaginary students to undertake an imaginary course of study: Cultural Geography.

Mind you, that's not because Cultural Geography doesn't exist, but because what Brooks limns with his golden Sharpie is something else: explaining the inherent superiority of Western white people by adopting the trappings of science.

Oh but now I'm behaving like a culture thug:
This is the line of inquiry that is now impolite to pursue. The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful. There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist. The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history - resources and brain chemistry - because that's what they can measure and count.

Of course, this is the David Brooks who informed us that "conservatives" were superior to their liberal brethren because of their deep and abiding devotion to an intellectual tradition, so once again it's befuddling to note how that tradition has managed to miss the most basic truth of the scientific method and its two centuries of dominance: Science is not materialist out of an assumption that the material is all that exists. Science is materialist because that's the only way we can know we know something to the limitations of our knowing anything whatever. And that dominance has continued because of results, not because of the quirks of history and social control by which, say, modern Christianity maintains its place.

I've watched this over thirty years now and I have to confess a grudging admiration. It really is all but impossible to tell whether this is actual willful ignorance or very accomplished lying. Does Brooks actually believe these are "intelligent questions", or that they are somehow repressed by an academic elite? Anyone with a passing familiarity of the sciences, hard or soft, knows that this is simply not the case. What Brooks repeats here is nothing more than the superstition-trumps-science argument of the Biblical literalists repackaged for the upscale market: we can simply will away millions of pieces of evidence which have been constantly debated since the days of Malinowski and Bloomfield, and can return to the gentlemanly armchair pursuits of The Golden Bough and dust-choked Classicism because the political program of Bobo and his ilk would fare so much better if we did.

And check out the standard of proof:
Not long ago, people said that globalization and the revolution in communications technology would bring us all together. But the opposite is true. People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones. Old national identities and behavior patterns are proving surprisingly durable. People are moving into self-segregating communities with people like themselves, and building invisible and sometimes visible barriers to keep strangers out.

Pay no attention to that strawman in the opening sentence. This is the First Axiom of Wingnut Science, high and low: history began five years ago, or ten, or sixty, but no more than that. America stands outside history's currents apart from the mystic chords which connect her to her "Judeo Christian" heritage and whatever Greek and Roman ideas it chooses to co-opt, once again because ignoring unpleasant realities is vital to making the argument work. Bobo makes his bones with that silly sidewalk sociology, yet we're supposed to believe he stumbled upon it in some sort of plastic bubble. The American suburbanites of his sloppy sketches, with their gas-guzzling bottomless consumerism and vague awareness of the rest of the planet are somehow inerrant in their slightest whim and unfailing in their selection of what wind to blow with this week. We can unearth the socio-geographic explanation for why the cultural backwater of Islam denies rights to women, because after all we gave them the right to vote in 1920, not to mention the fact that they control their own reproductive systems so long as the choose a pharmacist who agrees with them. We can lecture the world about freedom, because we get around to solving the murder of civil rights workers within four decades, tops. Surely we can discover the hidden geographical and cultural forces which drove us to the very pinnacle of human perfection, and why it is those same forces prevent us from providing health care to one-third of our Hispanics or granting same-sex partners the right to marry, not to mention how it is that those same cultural-geographic forces wouldn't have worked if we'd left the land in the hands of the people who were here first.

Look, I'm a threadbare woodsman with a rusted axe in the groves of academe, but I find it a little hard to believe that this stuff can even find much purchase outside the strictures of science, no matter how often you name-check Max Weber. I'm not sure I think Brooks is the nuttiest of wingnuts, but I hope this little masquerade will be seen in the broad light of day.

7 comments:

Neil Shakespeare said...

Oh God, Riley, please don't make me read Brooks anymore. Or Tierney. Can you believe Tierney praising the "misunderstood" drug: crystal meth? I can't believe the NYT didn't fire him for that, much less printed it. Jesus. I wish he'd stayed up there with the polar bears. Good place a methhead. And if he could take Brooks with him. Then maybe the two of them could write a co-column about the cultural significance of the growing problem of polar bear meth addiction. ("It's a GOOD thing!")

Hokie said...

Mind you, that's not because Cultural Geography doesn't exist, but because what Brooks limns with his golden Sharpie is something else: explaining the inherent superiority of Western white people by adopting the trappings of science.

Hooray for The Bell Curve!

Seb at Sadly, No! put it as well as anyone: the reason Brooks can't find many people doing "cultural geography" is that the way he defines it, it's non-biological anthropology.

jackd said...

My first question on reading your excerpts was, "Did Brooks read Guns, Germs, and Steel and disagree, but not have the cojones to say so directly?"

Now I've read the whole column, right down to where he invokes Thomas Sowell, among others, as "People...[who] have given us an inkling of how to think about this stuff."

Sweet jumpin' jeebus, Thomas Sowell? Sowell's only suited to teach us how to think by counterexample. If Brooks read GG&S then he didn't understand it. And it ain't that hard.

Texas Jaye said...

You will get no deep comments about our Mr. Brooks from me. Bart Simpson will have to do. Brooks does the physcially impossible--he sucks and blows at the same time.

Pepper said...

I created a David Broks voodoo doll after he said that the flood of "experts" was what was hurting the liberal cause in politics. He listed some sample groups of "experts" ... and at the top of the list were NOW and NARAL. So by "experts" he meant "women."

I'm glad you are pointing out his inner virulence. I don't think he's bright enough to realize what he's doing (ex: "eighteenth-century Englightenment"), but he's poisonous, and reading him gets my heart rate up instead of making me go to sleep.

Chris Clarke said...

Brooks is right. Which is why Daniel Boorstin's career went nowhere and his books don't sell.

Stan Wen said...

I have to say I've only been reading David Brooks for a few months -- he is the worst "journalist" I've ever seen. He's like that opinionated drunk guy who wants to tell you all his pet theories at a party and has not a shred of proof to back up his fantastical assertions. He flits from uncritical hagiographies of McCain to unfounded attacks on Barack Obama to attacks on atheism and science, relying on that same old dusty tome of lore called "Made-up Crap" as a reference. What a punk. If that's all you need to be an opinion-piece writer for the NYT, I'm working too hard for my money.