Friday, March 26, 2004

David Brooks Is A Hack

Only this time it’s not just me saying it. Somebody got paid to research and write a whole story detailing the history of David Brooks’ hackdom.
Brooks is operating in a long tradition of public intellectualism. Like William Whyte, another child of Philadelphia's western suburbs fascinated with the interplay of money and manners among his contemporaries, Brooks is a journalist who works on sociological turf. But Whyte, who was an editor for Fortune in the 1950s, observed how people lived, inferred trends, considered what they meant, and then came up with grand conclusions about the direction of the country. When, in 1954, he wanted to find out which consumers were trendsetters, he went into Overbrook Park and surveyed 4,948 homes -- all inhabited by real people. Brooks, by way of contrast, draws caricatures. Whether out of sloppiness or laziness, the examples he conjures to illustrate well-founded premises are often unfounded, undermining the very points he's trying to make.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not that anything will come of this other than an oh so brief snarky satisfaction, but lately pleasures are so few and far between. So my is off to Mr. Issenberg who has done an almost too-thorough job of invalidating Mr. Brooks, even going so far as to confront the man himself.
I called brooks to see if i was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. "I didn't see it when I was there, but it's true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn," he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. "That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end? " he replied, his voice trailing away. "That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20."

I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being "too pedantic," of "taking all of this too literally," of "taking a joke and distorting it." "That's totally unethical," he said.

Satire has its purpose, but assuming it's on the mark, Brooks should be able to adduce real-world examples that are true. I asked him how I was supposed to tell what was comedy and what was sociology. "Generally, I rely on intelligent readers to know -- and I think that at the Atlantic Monthly, every intelligent reader can tell what the difference is," he replied. "I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They're both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places," he said. "You've obviously come at this from a perspective. I don't think if you went to the two places you wouldn't detect a cultural difference."

As soon as read this it hit me. This is where that “whaa??” feeling comes from after reading one of Brooks’ pieces. The man is trying to write satire and failing miserably. And since the satire part doesn’t register, the whole piece ends up looking like badly researched writing. Or at least selectively researched. Brooks is so hopelessly trapped in his red state-blue state dichotomy that any research he does has to be massaged to fit into that thesis. So if he finds something that doesn’t fit he either discards it or glosses over it. Satire right?


Good satire doesn’t generalize. Good satire is very specific and focused. Good satire doesn’t fall back on gross oversimplifications. Somehow I think that Brooks knows this and only calls it “satire” to weasel out of uncomfortable explanations.

Satirist or not Brooks sure put the “suffer” in “insufferable.”
I asked him about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. "This is dishonest research. You're not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter," he said. "Is this how you're going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do 'em, I know 'em, how one starts, but it's just something you'll mature beyond."

Mature beyond what exactly? Beyond the grind of carefully researching a piece for clarity and nuance?

I must admit that despite my glee I have almost a sour taste in my mouth as I reread the piece. Punching holes in Brooks’ work while fun, is too easy. And this is because that Brooks isn’t concerned about being honest or accurate. His job is to perpetuate stereotypes about red states and blue states, Old Europe and the U.S., and Kerry and Bush. His work is propaganda in satire drag. Bad satire drag. Brooks’ satire doesn’t even shave its legs.

Anyway, just for fun I dug up my old posts documenting the crimes of David Brooks. Enjoy.

Bobo ventures out fearfully to the ballgame

I almost agree with Bobo

Bobo makes me throw up

Bobo condemns free exercise of Democracy

Bobo channels Nooners

UPDATE: I see via Wonkette that Sasha Issenberg is a Mr. and not a Miss. so the post has been adjusted accordingly. Oops!

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