Fisking David Brooks

I don’t want to make a habit of this, as I’m not all that comfortable with showing my snarkier side on such a dignified forum, but sometimes I can’t resist. A colleague (Bob at the B-log, actually) on the Anthro-l listserv forwarded this article by David Brooks, "All Cultures Are Not Equal". Now, of course, David Brooks is about as big a schmuck as you can get without time and space collapsing inward on itself around him, and normally I would give him the lack of attention he deserves, but since this piece touches on so many issues of anthropological import — and since Brooks takes so much credit on himself for thinking up ideas that either a) have been around forever and on which a large body of research exists, or b) are entirely wrong — I’ve decided to give Brooks a good old-fashioned fisking. Here goes:

Let’s say you are an 18-year-old kid with a really big brain. You’re trying to figure out which field of study you should devote your life to, so you can understand the forces that will be shaping history for decades to come.

Go into the field that barely exists: cultural geography. Study why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries, why certain cultures embrace technology and economic growth and others resist them.

With the exception of Brooks’ clear non-recognition of the particularity of what “economic growth” means — he thinks cultural geographers study why people aren’t more like David Brooks, because anyone who isn’t like David Brooks is clearly deficient
— this is a description of what we call “social science”. Brooks is only about a century-and-a-half behind the curve here — and that would be funny, if it weren’t so sad.
He honestly thinks he’s onto something….

This is the line of inquiry that is now impolite to pursue.

Yes, yes, “impolite”. So impolite that one can hardly get published in this field, let alone read! Which is precisely why Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, an examination of issues related to “why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries, why certain cultures embrace technology and economic growth and others resist them” is only the 38th best-selling book on Amazon. 6 years after it’s publication!

There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist.

You gotta admit, for a schmuck he’s damn funny!

The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history – resources and brain chemistry – because that’s what they can measure and count.

When really, it’s the unmeasurable quality of David Brooks-ness that drives history — all societies tend towards David Brooks-ness, unless they’re too stupid to see how good it is for them, in which case they become Muslim extremists.

But none of this helps explain a crucial feature of our time: while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and the widening cultural differences are leading us into a period of conflict, inequality and segmentation.

Wow, nobody has ever thought of this before! Thanks, David Brooks!

People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones.

Those bastards! Why can’t they just be content with becoming worker-drones and take their damn Soma! What the hell is freedom for if they’re just going to use it to be different?

The music, news, magazine and television markets have all segmented, so there are fewer cultural unifiers like Life magazine or Walter Cronkite.

This is a brand new phenomenon, and thank God for David Brooks to point it out to us. For most of America history, unifiers like Life Magazine and Walter Cronkite have allowed Blacks, Asians, Jews, Irish, Italians, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and Euro-Americans to live in a state of harmonic bliss.

Not long ago, many people worked on farms or in factories, so they had similar lifestyles. But now the economy rewards specialization, so workplaces and lifestyles diverge.

Oh my god — why didn’t Émile Durkheim, who made a so-called career at the turn of the 20th century out of the study of social differentiation, notice this? Why has nobody been studying this process for the last century?! Why must this field only “barely exist” today?

Islamic extremists reject the modern cultures of Europe…

How dare they?

In a much different and less violent way, some American Jews have moved to Hebron and become hyper-Zionists.

Amazing, these Jewish people — rejecting modern European culture (which has always been so good to them, too!) and adopting an ideology invented in 1896 by highly assimilated European Jews in Basel, Switzerland.

From Rome to Oregon, antiglobalization types create their own subcultures.

And that’s not what freedom’s for, dammit!

The members of these and many other groups didn’t inherit their identities. They took advantage of modernity, affluence and freedom to become practitioners of a do-it-yourself tribalism. They are part of a great reshuffling of identities…

Hey, he’s almost right about something. If only someone like Benedict
Anderson
had thought along these lines 22 years ago…

Meanwhile, transnational dreams like European unification and Arab unity falter, and behavior patterns across nations diverge.

Yeah, why can’t people live according to David Brooks’ transnational dreams?

People like Max Weber, Edward Banfield, Samuel Huntington, Lawrence Harrison and Thomas Sowell have given us an inkling of how to think about this stuff, but for the most part, this is open ground.

Mainly because in the century since Weber’s major work was published, it has been virtually ignored by the damn liberals. It’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve developed conservative thinkers who could turn their mind to these problems. Unfortunately, the conservative thinkers were all busy, so Sam Huntington and Thomas Sowell have taken on these issues instead.

If you are 18 and you’ve got that big brain, the whole field of cultural geography is waiting for you.

And if you have a small brain and not much idea about culture or geography, the New York Times would like to interview you as a potential op-ed columnist.

4 thoughts on “Fisking David Brooks

  1. Re GGS: the whole point of that book was that Diamond purposely *ignores* cultural geography and focuses on geography, period. He takes such a long view that cultural particularities are ultimately irrelevant to his explanatory framework. So the popularity of GGS actually supports Brooks’s “impolite” point, though I’m sure there are plenty of other examples that would disprove it. (Victor Davis Hanson, perhaps?)

  2. I read that piece yesterday and was puzzled by the absence of reference to anything that I know about culural geography. I mean, it’s like he stuck the two words together, decided he liked the impression it left, and decided to pepper his comments with it.

    Today I read this post and begin to see why.

    I’ve never paid attention to Brooks before. I hardly know the names of any two NYT editorial writers, so Brooks has no history, and no reason to be regarded suspiciously. Oneman’s shredder doesn’t give me all that much to go on, but hey, I get the idea that Brooks is not admired for his cogency, which explains the puzzlement I felt yesterday.

    What I want to know now is why the matter of cultural geography is being taken up by anthropologists but not by cultural geographers. Are they all away on holiday? An absence of online discussion among geographers suggests that one could be excused for thinking that it’s a field that hardly exists. Enough so that one might appropriate the term for oneself.

  3. I read tons of cultural geography when I took an “ANthropology of Landscape” class some years ago. Interestingly, little of it resembled what I’d read in my “Intro to Cultural Geography” class some years before that — so I gather that the term, like “anthropology” and basically any of the social sciences, covers a wide variety of topics, united more by perspective than by research agenda. Brooks could have picked any social science — all of them deal with issues related to his ” why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries” (Annalles school, anyone?) but cultural geography has the bonus, for Brooks, of being obscure enough that he could project his fantasies about his culture being the bestest culture ever, without most people being any the wiser.

    As for Brooks, he is famously disengaged from the real world. Case in point is a report on a visit he made to a “blue-state” town in PA some time back. Brooks’ point was that blue-staters are all elite latte-huffing snobs, supported by the “fact” that in this town he couldn’t find a meal under $20. In response, several locals of the town wrote with lists of places he could get a cheap meal in town — and noting that Brooks seemed to have eaten the *only* place in town where a meal *over* $20 could be found. (Reporting from memory — some details, like the price, might be off.)

  4. I gather that the term, like “anthropology” and basically any of the social sciences, covers a wide variety of topics, united more by perspective than by research agenda.

    That’s more or less right. Cultural geography runs the gamut from Carl Sauer to the farthest-out postmodernists the discipline has.

    As for why there aren’t more geographers in the blogosphere, I wish I knew.

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