Thursday, December 02, 2004

A fish in a barrel

For a laugh, I decided to take the most recent book by self-proclaimed "comic sociologist" David Brooks (On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and always have) in the Future Tense -- and please let me know if you understand what that subtitle's supposed to mean) out of the office free pile and give it a read. I had some idea it would be awful, but not as awful as it actually is, painfully unfunny, like watching an endless rerun of Home Improvement, and filled with outrageous generalizations and spiteful barbs directed at anyone who won't march to the beat of the status quo. In the world of Brooks, if you refuse to acknowledge the inherent superiority of that which is popular, you are some kind of smug elitist who is ignorant to the ways in which he himself is an even worse conformist. If you disagree in any way with the prevailing ideological consensus (unless its to believe in something even more retrograde), you are a pretentious egghead enamored of your own phony creativity. Now, creativity is certainly an overapplied term, and it is often a cloak for some kind of frivolous consumerism when it's not serving as a prod to make one feel insecure about how "self-actualized" one is. But the creative impulse, the impulse to imagine other possibilities than that which exists is an important one, and as "American" as all the other things Brooks celebrates, such as the urge to be mediocre (in his celebration of "tranquil" suburban life lived at "par") and the refusal to confront responsibility (in the form of frequent relocation). To him, as to his successor in waiting, the marginally less nauseating Chuck Klosterman, the status quo is unassailable due to its sheer existence. What is, is inevitable, and the choices you pretend to make are fruitless, though they never come right out and say this and typically celebrate freedom of choice -- that's because they think these choices are meaningless, and that once you believe they are significant, that judgement matters in culture, you become an out-of-touch elitist. Brooks is relentless in his hip-to-be-square inversions which make decidedly, simplistically sensual things like pro-wrestling matches and stock-car races and dignified, and make challenging things like independant film seem like empty pretension. The lie is in opposing these to one another. One is pointedly devoid of intellectual content and the other isn't; Brooks wants to equate them because they both require the expenditure of time. But that doesn't make them comparable in any way, any more than meaningful and meaningless work can be compared in terms of their wages. He hates artists most of all, and sees anyone forced into a life of poverty by refusing to cooperate with corporate America and its standardization and imposing of empty work as borgeois-bohemian fakers too self-obsessed to see the joys of a really good BBQ and a great game of golf -- you know, the things that matter in life.

This kind of error defines his style: bogus equivelances (knowing NASCAR drivers is equal to knowing foreign languages or political events or history), mistaking causes for effects, thinking description constitutes analysis, the nominalistic fallacy of thinking a label defines a phenomenon, etc. -- in Marx's words, forgetting that the point is to change the world, not simply explain it. But that sort of efficacy on humankind's part is exactly what he wishes to deny. You can't change what exists, you should simply accept it and stop complaining, and make some jokes about it if that helps you, too. In true Panglossian fashion, he doesn't care about how things came to be how they are (since it doesn't matter, since it was inevitable anyway, and therefore unquestionable, as good as it can be) so he has no basis upon which to evaluate their justice, and when he wants to evaluate, he simply falls back on his prejudices that preceded his "fieldwork," such as it is -- so Blue State behavior, in his terminology, is inherently bad, false, contrived; and Red State behavior is inherently misunderstood, pure, sincere, etc. With no historical analysis, his judgments are wholly arbitrary (and extremely intrusive, unless you already agree with him, and are in the target audience, I suppose, for this book -- that is, you are a Everybody Loves Raymond-watching lawn-care obsessive living in prefab house built in last two or three years (to stereotype in his fashion).

Brooks can be summed up with an anecdote: I once was watching a TV interview with Robert Loggia, who was promoting the film Independence Day. The host had the timerity to question the film's merits, and Loggia angrily replied that the millions of people who have gone to see the movie prove that it's good. No one forced them to see it. They chose it, and millions of people can't be wrong. Then he said that therefore, "if you don't like Independence Day you're an idiot." That's basically Brooks attitude, and no amount of pointing the "smug" accusation at liberals will change the fundamental self-contented hubris of his stance.

Brooks wants to argue that to be American is to be a hopeful idealist, on a holy mission for improvement to fulfill the land's holy destiny, only to make that broad stereotype cohere, he has to remove those Americans who don't fit, namely the poor, who make a mockery of American self-righteousness and highlight the selfish greed of the exceptional Americans Brooks wants to cheerlead for. To simply delete the poor from his analysis of America, as Brooks openly admits he is doing (he says he doesn't find them very interesting), is to suggest they aren't Americans at all, they're instead a resident alien workforce, slaves in all but name, who have no prospects, whose dreams don't figure into the national drama? They suffer? So what. No one who matters pays attention to them or notices how they live anyway. Anyone critical of anything American is coyly dismissed in his wide-eyed tone, which communicates how silly he thinks such thinkers like Marx, de Toqueville, Baudrillard, Whyte, Reisman, etc., are without openly rejecting them and without his having to produce any actual arguments against their points. His tone is supposed to have done the work for him. He refuses to register the decline in happiness and satisfaction most Americans have felt, either in the rich body of (non-comic) sociology that attests to it or in the anecodotal evidence that's out there. He refuses to see relentless striving as irrefutable evidence of perpetual dissatisfaction and insecurity. He just asserts that it is a holy mission, citing a specious body of nationalist propaganda, and leaves it at that.

The only positive remark I have about the book is that he cites a work that seems truly neglected to me, Colin Campbell's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism. This is an actual argument about the development of capitalism, and it's brilliant.


  1. This book must really suck if it goaded you into saying something almost nice about Chuck Klosterman. Some doctorly advice: reading Brooks is no way to get over an illness!

  2. Which book is this? I read Bobos in Paradise and I thought it was horrid. Brooks is not even funny. A professor of mine had recommended me that book and I never forgave him for that.

    The Romantic Ethic does present a very interesting argument about the development of capitalism. Not sure of the extent of its neglect though. Many sociologists writings on consumer studies have referred to this book in some way or the other, albeit no lengthy discussion has been made.