Another exciting episode of ‘Adventures With Ordinary People’ by David Brooks

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.


  1. Siobhan says

    Wasn’t there a parody of Brooks’ food truck story floating around? It mentioned taking Brooks to a Mexican truck but all the items listed were loanwords from Nahuatl (the language family used in the Aztec Empire).

  2. says

    As a possible counterpoint, I posted a piece from Robert Paul Wolff last year [stderr] -- in which he does a financial analysis of the affects of redlining across a pair of otherwise equal families.

  3. says

    PS -- “informal barriers” my ass. Is he completely unaware of what can happen to poor people who go into neighborhoods where they don’t belong? First off, in some places where are literally gated communities, but in others, you get a bunch of military-armed cops stopping you and asking you what you’re doing (or maybe shooting you) George Zimmerman was only the tip of an iceberg of shit.

    Friedman is not popular with intellectuals. He’s popular with pseudointellectuals; the same sort of establishment drones who thought William Buckley was speaking for them -- a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.

  4. Matt G says

    I can’t count the number of times Brooks has started a sentence “I call it the…” to name some Deep Insight he has into issue X, Y or Z. What a buffoon. The best part of his columns is the comments section, in which his readers demonstrate that they are far smarter than he is.

  5. rojmiller says

    Isn’t the telling point that he didn’t first ask her what type of food she wanted to eat?

  6. Mano Singham says

    Matt G @#4,

    To illustrate your point, here is one comment on Brooks’ post:

    Recently I took a friend with doctoral degree to lunch. Insensitively I led him into a McDonalds. Suddenly I saw his face freeze up as he was confronted with menu items like “Hamburger” and “Fries” and ingredients like ketchup, mustard and a sesame seed bun. I quickly asked him if he wanted to go somewhere else and he anxiously nodded yes and we ate gluten free vegan Thai.

  7. Owlmirror says

    ‘barre techniques’ (whatever the hell that is)

    If you care — “barre” is French for “bar”, and when used in English, usually refers rather specifically to the wooden bar or railing on a mirrored wall used in ballet studios by ballet students for stretching and other exercises.

    There’s much that could be unpacked about him using the phrase “barre techniques” rather than “ballet exercise techniques”, and the various assumptions involved in thinking that knowledge of such exercises would be equally significant to everyone in a particular social class.

  8. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    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.

    What? I can’t speak to NYC or SanFran, but while the West Hills is a wealthy neighbourhood that feeds into a good high school, and while there are a number of elementary schools that are struggling, Portland specifically and Oregon generally has a rather unpredictable distribution of “good high schools”. Oregon City (one prominent suburb of Portland), for instance, has a well-respected high school that draws in the children of many migrant workers … and has one of the best girls’ basketball programs in the nation to boot*1. Rex Putnam is another school drawing on very diverse neighbourhoods, including comfortable suburban homes of economically secure (though not always well-off) families and also including high-density, boxy apartment complexes mass produced in the 1970s. Jefferson was known both for having a largely poor district and for poor performance for quite a long time, but has been much better for more than a decade, IIRC.

    Moreover, I can’t imagine what he means when he says that “construction rules” keep Portland schools economically-segregated. Is he discussing rules the school district uses to decide when and where to build new schools? Is he intending to mean “building codes”? (In which case, why not just say “building codes”?) Oregon has had serious problems with academic fairness because of reliance on local property taxes to fund schools for many decades. However, that crisis was confronted quite a long time ago now -- probably two decades -- and as I understand it funding is more even per pupil in Oregon than in many states.

    See, for example, this map. The mouseover function allows you point to a district and get a graph of the distribution of all districts in that state by per-pupil expenditures. It then superimposes a line to indicate the location of that particular district in the distribution. Look at the distribution for Oregon: it is very tightly compacted. Though no doubt Lake Oswego spends more per pupil than Estacada or Hillsboro, the right tail isn’t made up of wealthy pockets like Lake Oswego. The massive per-pupil expenditures occur only in very, very rural areas and I imagine that they might include transportation costs and/or costs for building many small schools and missing out on economies of scale. Now run your cursor over other states and you’ll see that the distributions are not packed as tightly in most other states. Even a state that appears homogenous like New York actually has a much more loosely packed distribution. It only appears homogenous because the whole state spends more than the national average on K-12 education, but how much more varies quite widely. We don’t have standard deviations or other measures of compactness for an objective measure, but many states can be seen quite obviously to have less equitable resource distribution than Oregon does. This doesn’t speak directly to a school-to-school comparison within the PPSD, but is emblematic of how Oregon has attempted to tackle concerns over educational fairness, and it is Oregon’s particular focus on educational fairness that supports my thesis that we should be surprised to find higher-than-average economic segregation in Portland’s schools, much less to not only find it, but find that this segregation is created and maintained through “housing and construction rules”.

    Oregon has paid quite a bit of attention to educational fairness in the last three to four decades, and though I’m not living in the city anymore and can’t speak to specific school-to-school comparisons over the last few years, I’d be quite surprised if what Brooks had to say was remotely true.

    He’s just talking out of his ass again, and it seems likely to me that he’s citing specific cities more to sound truthy than because of actual data. I’d be surprised if even once-accurate, long out of date, now half-remembered data could be responsible for Brooks’ characterization.

    You want problems getting a fair education? Go to states like Louisiana where far more than the average number of students is attending a private school AND state per pupil expenditures are below the national average. This type of distribution presents a reason for an initial suspicion that education is being stratified by income more sharply. Why not complain about that, Brooks? Oh, because then You’d be complaining about the heartland and not coastal urban populations.

    Fuck you and your made up data, Brooks.
    *1: Two caveats, First: I haven’t been paying attention to the program since being in Canada, so it might have fallen in the last 7-8 years. Just for fun, I checked to see if they won the Oregon state championship again this year. They didn’t. They finished second to Southridge, another school in the Portland suburbs, though Southridge is to the west Portland and not, like Oregon City, to the south. Second: although they do have an exceptional BBall program, they actively recruit families to move students with promising basketball abilities into their district. Just because they have a great program doesn’t mean the children of migrant workers have equal access to it.

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I wanted this to be separate, because FUCK YOU, DAVID BROOKS. In another quoted section, Brooks asserts:

    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

    Look, I’ve never heard of David Foster Wallace, or if I have, I’ve completely forgotten the person. I don’t listen to any podcasts at all, took ballet for maybe as much as 6 months when I was less than 8 years old, know very little about wine and have never done Pilates. I feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, at least as Brooks is defining them.

    But more to the point, gender norms and intersectionality? I’d be willing to bet that Brooks doesn’t even fucking understand intersectionality, much less has the capacity to independently identify any significant percentage of locally operant gender norms.

    You, Brooks, have the “right attitudes” towards intersectionality? Don’t make me puke.

  10. Holms says

    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?

    No, those are markers not of education but wealth. Oh, and of living in a highly gentrified area.

  11. Dunc says

    I’d be willing to bet that Brooks doesn’t even fucking understand intersectionality

    Lol. Brooks doesn’t understand anything. He’s just throwing out buzzwords.

  12. Jo Seyton says

    To shift from the general hate on Brooks (which is well-deserved) -- you had an implicit question:

    ” ‘barre techniques’ (whatever the hell that is) ”

    Exercises at the barre are a part of ballet training. It’s a wooden bar the runs along a wall at about waist height to give you something to hold on to as you practice various movements. I have heard of some exercise classes picking this up (in much the same way such classes pick up anything, for example, pole dancing), so perhaps that is what he is talking about.

    And -- I suppose that I am part of this ‘elite’ group because I took ballet in my younger days.

    Administrative note -- I tried logging in with my regular account and was unable to. I am Eric Riley, not Jo Seyton (a made up name for the yahoo account I just used). When I tried logging in, nothing happened. When I tried entering my usual (gmail) account, I got the warning that I was a possible imposter and should log in (which I could not). So something is up with the login process.

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