I read three articles last night about David Brooks: one by Martin Longman and two by Matt Bruenig: one more recent (Why Not Shame David Brooks for Divorcing?) and another that I want to focus on, On Civility. I didn’t know that Brooks had divorced a couple of years ago. And it isn’t the point it. No one actually thinks that people they know should suffer through bad marriages. And no one pretends to know what David Brooks has really gone through in life. I’m sure he’s like everyone with his good days and bad days and secret horrors.
The problem is that David Brooks has made a career of telling vast classes of poor people that if only they would act more like middle and upper class people — people like him — then they wouldn’t be poor. The one core principle of David Brooks is that economic inequality is due to cultural inequality. His is the more intellectual sounding version of, “If those kids would just pull their pants up, everything would be fine!” Or if you want to go back five decades, “If those kids would just cut their hair!” Although Brooks would never admit it, it is poor shaming. People like Brooks never want to admit that their success has anything to do with luck.
Bruenig’s argument in the earlier article is that it is uncivil to shame David Brooks. He’s a human being. He has feelings. But he and his conservative colleagues Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat are never attacked for their incivility toward the nameless poor. In fact, all three men are held up as “moderates” because they are for things like paternity leave. But that is all part of the underlying philosophy that people aren’t poor because of their situations in life and social factors that have working against them long before they were even born. No, it is because they don’t have those middle class mores.
This is also the beat that uber-racist Charles Murray has been on for years. When he isn’t telling us people are poor because they are stupid, he is telling us that they are poor because of their cultures. This is the state of sociology in the conservative world. Correlation does not imply causation, unless that correlation can be used to justify the same old policies you always want — namely those that continue to enrich your social class at the expense of others’.
But the situation is worse than even Bruenig indicates. The truth is not just that we can’t be uncivil to David Brooks because he’s an actual man. I don’t know David Brooks. For all I know, he’s a computer program — the newest version of CleverBot. The truth is, because of my “colorful” life, people have had no problem being uncivil to me — in much more intimate circumstances than David Brooks has to put up with. The truth is that we can’t be uncivil to David Brooks because he is one of society’s winners. And to attack him would be to attack the whole society.
On the other side of it, attacking the poor is to protect the whole society. It is a way of saying that the society is great. The problem is that these poor people just can’t get it together. It’s like Singapore, which is generally thought the cleanest city in the world. Yet it still has rats. That’s what the poor are to these apologists for the perfection that is the American economic system.
The argument of these social conservatives is that people are poor because they don’t stay married and get a good education. But David Brooks is now divorced. What’s more, he isn’t that educated — as you can tell by the depth of writing. But he must be moral and educated enough — he’s rich! I have a PhD in physics, I am divorced, and I am poor. Aha! That must be related. David Brooks only has a Bachelor of Arts, is divorced, and is rich. Aha! That must not mean a thing.