Poor David Brooks

David Brooks in the NYT:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible.

Brooks is being skewered online for some unconsciously condescending things he said in the column, but he is not making a bad point. The upper classes have their own set of tribal markers that they use to build their sense of belonging and distinguish us from them. But Brooks misses something essential.

The trappings of the upper class do not make you upper class. Drinking the right wine or doing yoga does not make you financially secure. I think one of the causes of unrest among young people nowadays is the fact that they have spent years drinking the right wines and watching the right TV shows (don’t those precious assholes love their TV shows) and pursuing the right degrees but they have nothing to show for it but a pile of college debt. They are trying to figure out what went wrong, blame other people, and vote Sanders.

Meanwhile there are plenty of people in blue collar industries who are millionaires (someone owns that welding shop, recycling company, or used car lot, and trust me, he does not resemble David Brooks) and many more who are skilled laborers earning a decent wage. What is really tearing up blue collar America is the same thing that is tearing up those wannabe white collar kids above: the upcoming generation wants financial security but does not remember how to achieve it. They fail to develop marketable skills, show up for work and do what they are told, get married before having kids, and stay married.

Brooks looks at the blue collar types and images they want to be like him, but they really don’t, not any more than he wants to move to Wisconsin, get a job in a machine shop, and spend his weekends deer hunting and ice fishing. Present David Brooks with a CNC machine and he will be as lost and fearful as his sandwich eschewing friend. If the machinist in Wisconsin resents the David Brooks tribe, it is because David Brooks presumes to tell the machinist that he has the wrong pastimes, watches the wrong TV, laughs at the wrong jokes, dares to shop at Piggly Wiggly instead of Trader Joe’s, etc.

Which is why you got Trump.

On a personal note: these sort of class discussions always remind me of my dad. He was a great mixer and equally at home among the factory labor as among his economic peers, having been the son of a factory worker himself. He was acutely aware of the advantage he gained by going to college, but hated manifestations of laziness. He had horrible taste in pretty much everything. I’d like to think I inherited a little of that from him (the lack of class consciousness not the horrible taste) but maybe I just have other peculiar loyalties and experiences.

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10 comments

  1. Reading the quote you offered from Brooks, it sounds like he’s merely spent too much time in New York City, or maybe hobnobbing with the “jet set.” I live in the Midwest, and I question how many educated, white-collar people here even know who David Foster Wallace is, or what “barre” and “intersectionality” mean (what DO they mean??). Society has always had cultural codes that are influenced by education and economic achievement. I don’t think it’s anything peculiar to this moment in human history.

  2. His manner categorisation is often used, but I’m not sure it paints an accurate picture. Consider that, for example, Spain currently has the highest percentage of educated people in all its history; substantially more than in the mid 20th century. However, the political divide is in essence the same as always.

    1. correction: His manner [OF] categorisation

    2. It would be interesting to compare the current divide to the US historical norm.

      1. My guess is it’s more or less the same. Issues may change on the surface, but sectarian loyalty is much more stable. A decent argument could be made that the Royalists during the French revolution morphed into the Vichy regime supporters and more recently into Le Pen supporters.

      2. An argument that tends to devolve into reductio ad hitlerum, so I am wary of it.

      3. Except there’s no reduction in what I said. I’m talking about a specific manner of thinking and what proportion of the population it represents. The Royalists, the Vichy regime and Le Pen supporters all believe in a systems of aristocracy instead of merit.

      4. The conviction that your own tribe has the innate right to rule over others is so common that it is almost meaningless as a common denominator. You may as well call David Brook’s crowd Nazis because they believe in their own superiority.
        And every tribe thinks that it has earned the right to rule, that its superiority is in fact a matter of merit.

      5. The conviction is one thing, enforcing that conviction is the line people people should not cross. That’s the difference between authoritarianism and a free society.

      6. P.S. you might find this interesting: https://thinkingclearly.co/2017/07/12/randomness-as-seen-by-nassim-taleb/ there’s a section that talks about the *lecturing* phenomena you mentioned in your last Trump post.

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