In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times describes the structural barriers that have been created that separate the rich from the rest of us and prevent the poor from making progress. He starts out reasonably enough.
Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents. Since 1996, education expenditures among the affluent have increased by almost 300 percent, while education spending among every other group is basically flat.
The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.
But Brooks fancies himself as some kind of cultural anthropologist with a keen, instinctive eye for social factors that do not require any, you know, study or research. Brooks thinks that he knows of deeper reasons than these economic factors and those are the ‘informal social barriers’ that separate the rich from the rest. Like his fellow columnist Tom Friedman, Brooks invariably comes a cropper when he tries to illustrate his point with a homely anecdote that purports to show that he moves around with ordinary people and thus knows what life is like for them.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
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.
What? Apart from the fact that we usually speak of a high school ‘diploma’ and not a ‘degree’, is it now the case that knowing the names of Italian food items and ‘barre techniques’ (whatever the hell that is) are the new signifiers of being educated? Since I don’t know any of those terms and have never read David Foster Wallace either, that rules me out too. I am perfectly happy with that state if it means that I do not belong to the same grouping as people like Brooks.
This column reminded people of other times when Brooks wrote similar howlers, such as ordinary people who frequent the salad bar at Applebee’s restaurants or that it was impossible to spend as much as $20 for a meal in rural Franklin County. It was quickly pointed out that Applebee’s do not have salad bars and that there were many restaurants in Franklin County (even the very Red Lobster that Brooks claimed to have visited during his ‘research’) where the costs of a single entrée easily exceeded $20.
Bets are now being taken on Twitter as to whether Brooks’ friend (and indeed the entire story) is made up, much like the taxi drivers around the world who keep giving his fellow columnist Tom Friedman the exact pithy quotes he needs to illustrate whatever banal point he is trying to make. Matt Taibbi, Friedman’s nemesis, hilariously lampoons Friedman in a review of his latest book, which Taibbi starts by quoting a favorable review that appeared in the same newspaper that Friedman writes for.
“The folksiness will irk some critics … But criticizing Friedman for humanizing and boiling down big topics is like complaining that Mick Jagger used sex to sell songs: It is what he does well.” –John Micklethwait, review of Thank You for Being Late, in The New York Times
With apologies to Mr. Micklethwait, the hands that typed these lines implying Thomas Friedman is a Mick Jagger of letters should be chopped off and mailed to the singer’s doorstep in penance. Mick Jagger could excite the world in one note, while Thomas Friedman needs 461 pages to say, “Shit happens.” Joan of Arc and Charles Manson had more in common.
Thomas Friedman was once a man of great influence. His columns were must-reads for every senator and congressperson. He helped spread the globalization gospel and push us into war in Iraq. But he’s destined now to be more famous as a literary figure.
No modern writer has been lampooned more. Hundreds if not thousands of man-hours have been spent teaching robots to produce automated Friedman-prose, in what collectively is a half-vicious, half-loving tribute to a man who raised bad writing to the level of an art form.
We will remember Friedman for interviewing 76 percent of the world’s taxi drivers, for predicting “the next six months will be critical” on 14 occasions over two and a half years (birthing the neologism, “the Friedman unit”), and for his unmatched, God-given ability to write nonsensical metaphors, like his classic “rule of holes”: “When you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”
Friedman’s great anti-gift is his ability to use many words when only a few are necessary. He became famous as a newspaper columnist for taking simple one-sentence observations like, “Wow, everyone has a cell phone these days,” and blowing them out into furious 850-word trash-fires of mismatched imagery and circular argument.
Friedman’s popularity among intellectuals is inexplicable to me. Pretty much every year, one of his numerous books would be nominated as the common reading text for first year students at my university. I would make it my mission, as a member of that committee, to ensure that the book was not chosen and I am proud to say that I succeeded every time. A faculty colleague also once complained that students nowadays were so ignorant of current affairs that they did not even read Friedman’s columns. When I said that this was evidence that students had sound judgment, he was shocked.
Getting back to Brooks, in this column he is merely recycling and dumbing down the ideas that E. D. Hirsch popularized three decades ago in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. I think that the sandwich incident that Brooks writes about likely did happen in its essentials but that Brooks was misreading his friend’s expression, seeing something that was not there. I too would have preferred Mexican food to Italian sandwiches, though I do not know either language and simply ask what the menu items mean. And not knowing what menu items were would hardly cause someone’s face to ‘freeze up’ in anxiety unless Brooks is known to be such a cultural snob that his friends know that he values ‘rarefied information’ of this type and are fearful of revealing their ignorance to him and risk ending up in one of his columns. Maybe Brooks should have taken her to the salad bar at Applebee’s.
Columnists like Brooks and Friedman live in the world of the very wealthy that have their own cultural markers but want to act like they are just common folk and thus have the pulse of ordinary people so that they can pontificate on what is best for everyone, which conveniently happens to be the best for themselves. That is why they keep sprinkling these anecdotes around, not realizing that they are actually strewing banana peels that cause their own embarrassing downfalls.