April 4, 2004

Why does David Brooks hate America?

Brooks latest in the Times really deserves a full-bore trashing. Brooks has a way of indulging the notion of Zeitgeist in a way that - on rare occasion - actually leads to some insight. It's hard for somone from my class to read Bobos in Paradise without some sense of self-recognition. But most of the time, this willingness to eulogise whole classes of people as if they could be treated as a single person is the sort of nonsense that gives those of us trying to develop more coherent conceptions of social identity a bad name.

I have not had a lot of time to blog lately. The next chapter from Grandpa Martens has been half finished for two weeks. I don't have time to do for Brooks what he deserves. But, I will point to some particularly problematic bits:

Nor do the standard critiques of suburbia really solve the mystery of motivation -- the inability of many Americans to sit still, even when they sincerely want to simplify their lives. Americans are the hardest-working people on earth. The average American works 350 hours a year -- nearly 10 weeks -- more than the average Western European. Americans switch jobs more frequently than people from other nations. The average job tenure in the U.S. is 6.8 years, compared with more than a decade in France, Germany and Japan. What propels Americans to live so feverishly, even against their own self-interest? What energy source accounts for all this?

There is no mystery. Americans do not possess any sort of yearning or restlessness as a national characteristic. This statement is no sounder than the idea that Americans are, as a people, especially shallow or materialistic - which Brooks criticises earlier. Americans work longer because their employers are allowed to make them work longer. Americans have shorter job tenures than other people because they lose their jobs more often, because their work conditions are less protected and because American bosses give fewer raises when there isn't anyone to make them give raises. The only way to get promted from a dead end job is to quit, so in good times Americans are more likely to quit their jobs.

In short, Americans are not restless, they are insecure. I would have thought this to be a no-duh. It is the most patently obvious thing about the American work environment.

This Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, consume so feverishly, to move so much. It inspires our illimitable faith in education, our frequent born-again experiences. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of support and security.

I would like Mr Brooks to explain why my mother-in-law can't earn a dollar without having it docked from her Social Security check if the American welfare system encourages opportunity. Brooks makes a common mistake for Americans who have never been around real poverty. American welfare is a trap because it assumes that people who have jobs don't need income support, so any earnings are deducted from their income support directly. You earn a dollar, you lose a dollar from your welfare check. This sort of system can work, but only when labour laws ensure that everyone who works gets a living wage. American welfare is not spectacular in terms of security or support, but in terms of opportunity it is a failure even compared to the most overgenerous European welfare model, because of the way wage protections for people who are working have been gutted. Brooks mistakes recent efforts to take away welfare altogether with the promotion of opportunity.

Despite Brooks' archaic conception of social analysis and utter, utter lack of insight into the lives of Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, he does say a few things that have some resonance for me:

When you move through suburbia -- from the old inner-ring suburbs out through the most distant exurbs -- you see the most unexpected things: lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean megachurches, outlaw-biker subdevelopments, Orthodox shtetls with Hasidic families walking past strip malls on their way to shul. When you actually live in suburbia, you see that radically different cultural zones are emerging, usually within a few miles of one another and in places that are as architecturally interesting as a piece of aluminum siding. That's because in the age of the great dispersal, it becomes much easier to search out and congregate with people who are basically like yourself. People are less tied down to a factory, a mine or a harbor. They have more choice over which sort of neighborhood to live in. Society becomes more segmented, and everything that was once hierarchical turns granular.

This is the domestic version of my thesis in my last post on Samuel Huntington. And Brooks is, sort of, on to something here, although he's both wrong about what it is, how long its been there, and where it comes from. I await his next book so that I can pick it apart.

But read the rest of Brooks piece carefully:

Here you've got newly renovated Arts and Crafts seven-bedroom homes whose owners have developed views on beveled granite; no dinner party in this clique has gone all the way to dessert without a conversational phase on the merits and demerits of Corian countertops. Bathroom tile is their cocaine: instead of white powder, they blow their life savings on handcrafted Italian wall covering from Waterworks. [...]

You drive farther out, and suddenly you're lost in the shapeless, mostly middle-class expanse of exurbia. (The inner-ring suburbs tend to have tremendous income inequality.) Those who live out here are very likely living in the cultural shadow of golf. It's not so much the game of golf that influences manners and morals; it's the Zenlike golf ideal. The perfect human being, defined by golf, is competitive and success-oriented, yet calm and neat while casually dressed. Everything he owns looks as if it is made of titanium, from his driver to his BlackBerry to his wife's Wonderbra. He has achieved mastery over the great dragons: hurry, anxiety and disorder. [...]

You look out across this landscape, with its sprawling diversity of suburban types, and sometimes you can't help considering the possibility that we Americans may not be the most profound people on earth. You look out across the suburban landscape that is the essence of modern America, and you see the culture of Slurp & Gulps, McDonald's, Disney, breast enlargements and ''The Bachelor.'' You see a country that gave us Prozac and Viagra, paper party hats, pinball machines, commercial jingles, expensive orthodontia and Monster Truck rallies. You see a trashy consumer culture that has perfected parade floats, corporate-sponsorship deals, low-slung jeans and frosted Cocoa Puffs; a culture that finds its quintessential means of self-expression through bumper stickers (''Rehab Is for Quitters''). [...]

This is the land of Rainforest Cafe theme restaurants, Ralph Lauren WASP-fantasy fashions, Civil War re-enactors, gated communities with names like Sherwood Forest and vehicles with names like Yukon, Durango, Expedition and Mustang, as if their accountant-owners were going to chase down some cattle rustlers on the way to the Piggly Wiggly. This is the land in which people dream of the most Walter Mitty-esque personal transformations as a result of the low-carb diet, cosmetic surgery or their move to the Sun Belt.

Americans -- seemingly bland, ordinary Americans -- often have a remarkably tenuous grip on reality. [...]

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that those who ''complain of the flatness of American life have no perception of its destiny. They are not Americans.'' They don't see that ''here is man in the garden of Eden; here, the Genesis and the Exodus.'' And here, he concluded fervently, will come the final Revelation. Emerson was expressing the eschatological longing that is the essence of the American identity: the assumption that some culminating happiness is possible here, that history can be brought to a close here.

The historian Sacvan Bercovitch has observed that the United States is the example par excellence of a nation formed by collective fantasy. [...]

We members of this suburban empire still find ourselves veering off into world crises, roaring into battle with visions of progressive virtue on our side and retrograde evil on the other, waging moralistic crusades others do not understand, pushing our movie, TV and rock-star fantasies onto an ambivalent and sometimes horrified globe. [...]

Just out of reach, just beyond the next ridge, just in the farther-out suburb or with the next entrepreneurial scheme, just with the next diet plan or credit card purchase, the next true love or political hero, the next summer home or all-terrain vehicle, the next meditation technique or motivational seminar; just with the right schools, the right moral revival, the right beer and the right set of buddies; just with the next technology or after the next shopping spree -- there is this spot you can get to where all tensions will melt, all time pressures will be relieved and happiness can be realized.

If I said those things, I would be branded as anti-American. Why does Brooks hate America?

They aren't actually - for the most part - false things, at least not about that minority of Americans who are real to Brooks. Brooks is saying this: America is built on a hallucination - a delusion that ordinarily qualifes as a form of mental illness. It is the belief that the rapture is just around the corner, literally for some Americans but more figuratively for others. People moved to the suburbs because they said to themselves that having their own house would free them from their landlords, from crime and crowding, and that they would be fulfilled if only they had their own castle. It didn't happen. The new movement out of the old suburbs into the new ones is the same urge, and it will have the same consequences.

This same delusion is expressed in very different terms in the film Fight Club:

We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't.

What would you think of someone who said that their debts weren't a problem, because they were sure to win the lottery before their debts caught up with them? The illusion Brooks is praising is no different in nature.

I wasted four years of my life in American suburbia believing that if only I had a little more stock in my Schwab account, I could quit working and really live. I resent Brooks telling me that this fantasy - this delusion that took away time that I can never win back - was a good thing. I saw this sort of delusion all around me when I lived among the subjects of Brooks' analysis. Brooks believes that he is seeing some grand manifestation of the American Zeitgeist. There is no American Zeitgeist - what is going on here is quite immediate and material. It is the effect of how American society is structured, and it isn't always a blessing.

The failure to stop and think, to try to actually live in the now instead of, as Brooks puts it, having a "future-minded mentality", does immense damage to America. He doesn't do justice to the anti-sprawl advocates. This dream of a new world in the next development is their nightmare. Their vision is of urbanisation spreading like a forest fire: an expanding fringe of brightness and activity enclosing an ever larger area of decay and destruction. Brooks' complaints about the decline of the inner suburbs are identical to complaints about the inner cities in the 50's and 60's.

Brooks' exurbias have a seedy side. The exurbs are more than a little like Potemkin villiages. They thrive on the backs of a lot of unseen labour - factories and farms whose workers live very different lives, construction workers who can't live in the houses they build or shop in the malls they pave, the people who make their food and scan their groceries. That population lives very differently. Brooks pays them only the slightest bit of attention, when he talks about someone who has "left behind that exorbitant mortgage, that long commute, all those weird people who watch 'My Daughter Is a Slut' on daytime TV talk shows." They don't wear Land's End clothes. They don't fit in his Zeigeist, but they are just as real and just as important.

Posted 2004/04/04 21:47 (Sun) | TrackBack

EverythingsRuined has also had a go at Brooks, kicking at slightly different soft spots:


For an old pundit-hater like myself it's lovely to see such fast and public revenge.

Posted by: Ray at April 5, 2004 15:20

I'm interested by how much of the Potemkin-village belief in suburban cleanliness and redemption we ?inherited? from Victorian England - an idea I seem to share with Neal Stephenson, so doubtless passé. Supporting details in Donald Olsen's The Growth of Victorian London, for instance; my summary; it's also available through some of the online private libraries.

I'm looking for a thoughtful history of the ideal of the US lawn.

Posted by: clew at April 6, 2004 2:43

Thanks for posting this. I feel like one of those average over-worked Americans, but I would add that many of us now are working under a cloud of fear that jobs in our industries are disappearing to foreign countries. Many of us are working hard at this moment to ramp up people on these foreign sites, and we must smile pleasantly and do our jobs despite the fear/ we live under. I think that many foreigners may view us simply as spoiled children who have nothing better to do than complain.

Posted by: Imogene at April 23, 2004 1:02
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