Kinsley on Brooks

I don’t want to seem as if I started a blog solely to rant about David Brooks, but Michael Kinsley’s very clever review (“Suburban Thrall,” The New York Times, 23 May 2004) of Brooks’s new book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense warrants a few remarks. First, Kinsley points out how easily liberals have been duped by Brooks:

For several years, in the world of political journalism, David Brooks has been every liberal’s favorite conservative. This is not just because he throws us a bone of agreement every now and then. Even the most poisonous propagandist (i.e., Bill O’Reilly) knows that trick. Brooks goes farther. In his writing and on television, he actually seems reasonable. More than that, he seems cuddly. He gives the impression of being open to persuasion. Like the elderly Jewish lady who thinks someone must be Jewish because “he’s so nice,” liberals suspect that a writer as amiable as Brooks must be a liberal at heart. Some conservatives think so too.

There is a prize for being the liberals’ favorite conservative, and Brooks has claimed it: a column in The New York Times.

Lay off, Kinsley. I admit it: I thought that he seemed cuddly too. I was excited by the New York Times column. I am five posts into this thing and already I’m airing opinions this easily lampooned.

The problem that I am having with Brooks it that the humor serves to weaken, or at least confuse the critical faculty. I don’t know how to read Brooks. Is he a political humorist like P.J. O’Rourke or Al Franken? But I don’t have trouble reading O’Rourke and Franken: they are sure to be clear about when they are interjecting a joke or two and when they are making a serious point. Is he a sociologist who employs a snappy commercial shorthand instead of the dry phrasing of academia? But Brooks seems to want an undue amount of hyperbolic license to make his case, to the point where his exaggerations becomes simply misleading.

Citing Sasha Issenberg’s fact checking of Brooks (“Boo-Boos in Paradise,” Philadelphia Magazine April 2004; to be filed right next to Thomas Frank’s essay and my earlier post), Kinsley spends some time on the essential unseriousness of Brooks’s analyses: “Brooks does not let the sociology get in the way of the shtick, and he wields a mean shoehorn when he needs the theory to fit the joke.” This is a more genial version of Frank’s criticisms, which recognized the insidiousness of Brooks’s under the radar take on class in America:

The tools being used are the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology. The “two Americas” commentators showed no interest in examining the mysterious inversion of the nation’s politics in any systematic way. Their aim was simply to bolster the stereotypes using whatever tools were at hand …

Even if his chosen style makes a muddle of it, Brooks is correct to point out the deep divides separating Americans. As his structuring metaphors of consumerism call out, much of this has to do with materialist factors. Here is Kinsley’s attempt to make sense:

… our defining — and uniting — characteristics as Americans, according to Brooks, are that we’d rather leave than fight, and we’re always thinking about the future instead of dwelling on the past. That means the enormous gulfs in values, aspirations, understanding of the world and food preferences he outlines so wittily in the first part of “On Paradise Drive” don’t turn Americans against one another … We all prosper in our various cultural cul-de-sacs (or as Brooks puts it, much better: “Everybody can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus”), and we don’t trouble ourselves about what the folks in the next cul-de-sac might be up to.

I bookmark this phenomena because I will have a lot more to write about it in some future posts on micro-fame and the technological changes that drive and structure it.

Okay, now I’ll lay off Brooks for a while.