Respond to this Article June 2004

Paradise Glossed

The problem with David Brooks.

By Nicholas Confessore

A few weeks ago, as news of the torture at Abu Ghraib made its way out to the wider world, David Brooks published a column that many of his readers had probably been waiting months to see. Brooks, who joined The New York Times op-ed stable in 2003, had long been among the more cogent defenders of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But as the prison scandal reached its apogee, Brooks seemed to have had enough. "This has been a crushingly depressing period, especially for people who support the war in Iraq," he wrote. "The predictions people on my side made about the postwar world have not yet come true. The warnings others made about the fractious state of post-Saddam society have." Though he was not ready to give up on Iraq, Brooks continued:

It's not too early to begin thinking about what was clearly an intellectual failure. There was, above all, a failure to understand the consequences of our power. There was a failure to anticipate the response our power would have on the people we sought to liberate. They resent us for our power and at the same time expect us to be capable of everything. There was a failure to understand the effect our power would have on other people around the world. We were so sure that we were using our might for noble purposes, we assumed that sooner or later, everybody else would see that as well.

Not only was Brooks perhaps the first among that group of conservative thinkers who had advocated war against Iraq for nearly a decade to concede that his side had gotten things dreadfully wrong. He had also put his finger on the central failing of the war hawks--their purblind arrogance and self-delusion--with a degree of precision all the more powerful for having come from a supporter of the war.

It's instructive, though, to go back and read what Brooks had written about Iraq one month earlier, when the Shiite uprising began to build steam. "Come on people, let's get a grip," Brooks lectured:

This week, Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam. Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion! Maybe we should calm down a bit. I've spent the last few days talking with people who've spent much of their careers studying and working in this region. We're at a perilous moment in Iraqi history, but the situation is not collapsing.

Oh, good--he talked to some people. (The only Near East experts on the planet who didn't think the situation was collapsing, apparently.) Having begun his column like an overzealous junior press secretary ham-handedly spinning bad news, Brooks ended it like a second-rate talk-radio host playing tough guy. "Sadr is an enemy of civilization," he intoned. "The terrorists are enemies of civilization. They must be defeated." Well, sure.

I suspect I'm not the only one who has noticed that the quality of Brooks's Times column varies wildly from week to week. One day, he's funny, unpredictable, insightful; you read along, glad that the Times has given this man a permanent place in its pages. Three days later, he's bloviating like Michael Savage, and Maureen Dowd doesn't seem so silly anymore. But if you peruse Brooks's considerable pre-Timesian oeuvre, you'll find that the same inconsistency is evident throughout his work. There is Brooks the Journalist. And there is Brooks the Hack.

Brooks the Journalist got his start working the police beat in Chicago; today, nearly alone among those conservative pundits who habitually bash the press for its laziness and myopia, Brooks still actually ventures out into the real world to do his own reporting on what it holds. Brooks the Journalist is erudite enough to pen essays for The Public Interest but accessible enough to write columns for Newsweek. Often when reading his best work, you feel that he's perfectly explained or captured something you knew to be true but couldn't find precisely the right words for. He is a keen observer, adept at distilling his reporting into generalizations that illuminate American life. The most famous of these is, of course, the bohemian bourgeoisie, or Bobos, the upscale, older liberals who "combined the countercultural sixties and the achieving eighties into one social ethos," as Brooks put it in his bestselling book, Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Bobos was a bestseller not only because it captured the mores of middle-aged, blue-state Boomers--people who wear expedition-quality anoraks to shovel snow and spend thousands of dollars on brand-new dinner tables designed to look worn and authentic--but also because he was sympathetic to his subjects. (A wise move, as they were also his audience.) "I'm a member of this class," Brooks assured readers. "We're not so bad."

Indeed, such people enjoy reading Brooks the Journalist precisely because he is one of the few right-leaning pundits who doesn't seem to believe that liberals are evil. Though conservative, Brooks the Journalist is reflective rather than bombastic; his zingers barely singe, let alone burn. Instead of dispensing wrath on "Hannity & Colmes," Brooks offers witty aperçus on "The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer." Even the political philosophy to which Brooks has attached his name, "national-greatness conservatism"--it has something to do with building nicer libraries and resuscitating the space program--seems rather unthreatening. To put things in Brooksian terms, he's a conservative, but the kind you'd bring home to discuss politics over $17-a-pound artisanal goat cheese and organic chardonnay bottled by third-generation French peasants. It's no wonder the Times felt comfortable putting him on the op-ed page.

But there is also Brooks the Hack. Brooks the Hack spent his formative years at The Wall Street Journal's famously kooky and fact-challenged editorial page, for which he wrote "editorial features," the Journal's term for axe-grinding reportage that sidesteps the paper's famously demanding news pages and, indeed, frequently contradicts what is published there. (Though Brooks's dispatches, to be sure, ground much less than those of his colleagues.) Later, he helped launch The Weekly Standard, which played house organ to the Gingrich revolution in the days before it played house organ to the Bush administration hawks. (In between these periods, the Standard was perhaps the most trenchant and interesting political magazine in the country.) While Brooks the Journalist is honest and self-critical, Brooks the Hack is willing to carry water for his political allies. He opines that the Bush administration is "drunk on truth serum" and "exceptionally forthright" about its policies. He unsheathes the marvelous sophistry that "our government couldn't even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq--thank goodness, too, because any 'plan' hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality." (Actually, technocrats at Departments of Defense and State did hatch a pretty good plan. Alas, Brooks's fellow-travelers among the Pentagon's civilian appointees ignored it.) He insists that pro-war neoconservatives "travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another," when in fact a game of "Two Degrees of Richard Perle" would get you just about every member of this alleged neocon diaspora.

Similarly, Brooks the Hack indulges in predictable--and frequently dishonest--caricatures of Democrats. He once wrote that "upscale areas everywhere" voted for Al Gore, even though a cursory check of census data reveals that seven of the 10 richest counties in America voted for George W. Bush in 2000. When it began to look like John Kerry would carry the Democratic banner in 2004, Brooks argued that the Democrats "won't nominate a guy unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower"--this of a party whose last five nominees included a Georgia peanut farmer, a guy raised by a working-class single mom in Arkansas, and another born to Greek immigrants. Yet Brooks the Hack seems to revel in cheap shots, such as implying that the term "neocon" was anti-Semitic-- "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish'," he recently wrote in the Times.

More broadly, whereas Brooks the Journalist unfurls grand abstractions that illuminate essential truths about American life, Brooks the Hack peddles unreliable generalizations that describe the world as he and his friends wish it to be. Every pundit makes bad calls during election season, but only Brooks was of the opinion that "[t]he closest thing to a Dean resistance movement is emerging inside the Lieberman campaign," as he wrote in December 2003, when the steadfastly pro-war senator was parked in a race for fifth. When Brooks set out to describe the differences between red and blue America--by driving a whopping 65 miles from Bethesda, Md., to Franklin County, Pa.--he produced an article replete with seemingly knowing observations that turned out to be factually wrong. Brooks says few blue staters "could name even five NASCAR drivers"; but as reporter Sasha Issenberg noted in Philadelphia magazine, three of the five top markets for the Winston Cup are in blue states. Brooks says that Red America is home-shopping country, but it turns out that QVC's audiences skew towards affluent, suburban blue staters. Brooks says you can't spend more than $20 at a restaurant in Franklin County, when in fact it's possible to blow $50 on veal medallions and wild-rice pilaf at a bed-and-breakfast where Brooks himself had spent the night.

Split personality

Brooks the Journalist and Brooks the Hack are both on display in his new book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. Like Bobos, it is a work of cultural reporting, with Brooks in the role of "comic sociologist." But whereas Bobos limned the mostly liberal, mostly blue state-dwelling upper middle-class, On Paradise Drive is concerned with a lower social register and a broader geographic swath--the "moderately affluent strivers" whose peregrinations have made suburbia the demographic center of American life. Today, more people live, work, and play in the 'burbs than in urban or rural locales. And as Brooks is not the first to note, the new suburbs are also very different from the old ones. Taken as a whole, for instance, they contain more single people than families with kids. They have replaced cities as the first destination of immigrants, most of whom now skip Chinatown and move directly to the outskirts of places like Charlotte, N.C., and Lincoln, Neb.

On Paradise Drive
by David Brooks
Simon & Schuster, $25.00

What's more, Brooks argues, these suburbs are not the boring and conformist cul-de-sacs of popular repute, but places where venerable and vibrant American traditions have taken root and flourished. "The human longing for transcendence, spiritual depth, and moral cohesion has not perished in the sprawls of suburbia," he writes, "it has just taken a different form, because so many Americans live so much of their lives in the imagined land of the future." It is in the new suburbs--with their limitless physical, social, and political space--that the American penchant for decentralization and segmentation has come to full flower. In suburbia, every subculture has its geographic enclave, every niche sport a championship broadcast on ESPN 2, every hobby its own clubs, conventions, and celebrities. Hence, the 'burbs are home to white people, but also to a pastiche of American cultural, religious, and lifestyle diversity: "lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean megachurches, nuclear-free-zone subdevelopments, Orthodox shtetls with Hasidic families walking past strip malls on their way to Saturday-morning shul," as Brooks puts it. And thanks to the job mobility of the post-industrial economy, people who don't like where they live or who they live next to can simply move somewhere else, which Americans do more than any other people in the world.

This is good observational journalism, grounded in (other people's) social-science research. But then there are those abstractions. For a book about America, On Paradise Drive has very few Americans in it. For the most part, as Brooks explains early on, he prefers "to speak in parables, composites, and archetypes." And there are a lot of them, some of which will be familiar to readers of Brooks's magazine writing. There is the Ubermom, the high-achieving woman who, upon leaving the workforce for motherhood, channels her intelligence and drive into unleashing the potential for greatness possessed by each of her children. ("By the time her child is in the pre-preschool years, Ubermom is boosting her junior achiever's prephonics-acquisition skills.") There is the Organization Kid, the dutiful meritocrat who spends high school amassing "extracurriculars" and his college years trying to climb the system instead of bucking it. "One finds students applying time-quadrant techniques to maximize their mental efficiency. They read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens," he writes. "Opportunity lures them, the glorious future." Others of Brooks's composite characters lack cutesy names but are endowed with fully-realized inner lives. In an amusing section about niche magazines, Brooks describes "the perfect Cigar Aficionado reader" as someone who sips 400-year-old port, watches James Bond DVDs, and "contemplates whether it is really worth it to travel to Russia just so he can break the sound barrier in a rented MiG, or whether his time would be better spent at the Dean Martin fantasy camp for frustrated crooners."

It's easy to find yourself nodding along with On Paradise Drive, in part because Brooks is a very funny writer and in part because his composites are often wickedly acute. (I still remember playing tennis against other Organization Kids whose MBA-holding Ubermoms firmly believed they could turn little Billy into the next Andre Agassi.) I'm even willing to accept that sometimes, "One simply must tolerate imprecision of the poetic if one is to grasp the true or powerful essence of a place or people," as Brooks argues in his introduction. Ambitious journalism is perforce the work of translating on-the-ground facts into big ideas with universal import.

But it's hard work, and one is liable, if not relentlessly honest with oneself, to slight a nuanced truth in favor of a pet theory. Just ask any reporter who's ever been told to find subjects for a story on, say, what Soccer Moms are thinking these days. In practice, if you ask 10 different Soccer Moms what their opinion is of George W. Bush, you're likely to get 10 different answers. The temptation is to pick the Soccer Mom who's thinking what everyone in New York and Washington expects her to be thinking--or what the polls say she should be thinking. Or to ask a local advocacy group to provide you with just the right homeless guy you need to illustrate your story on cuts in social services budget. Or to use the same "man on the street" your buddy on the metro desk used last month, hoping readers won't notice that Fred O'Keefe of Flushing has remarkably quotable views on both the city's budget crisis and "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?"

Some reporters, of course, don't even bother. Fabulists such as Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jack Kelley each ran aground on the rocks of reality, so desperate to find telling anecdotes or characters or details that they simply invented them.

Schtick figures

Brooks could never be called a fabulist, if for no other reason that he sidesteps the problem altogether by writing about archetypes instead of real people. But there's evidence in On Paradise Drive of tension between the abstractions Brooks the Hack wants to be true and the reality Brooks the Reporter should have gotten right.

Take, for example, the suburban typology that occupies the early part of the book. You don't have to read too closely to figure out that, in Brooks's estimation, some suburbs are better expressions of the new American dream than others. On the one hand, you have the exurbs, the land of office parks, megastores, and sprawling housing developments plopped into the middle of Southwestern deserts and Florida swampland. Brooks evidently likes the exurbs. They are, he writes, "built to embody a modern version of the suburban ideal." The exurbs are populated by "Patio Man" and "Realtor Mom," people who are "infused with a sense of what you might call conservative utopianism." They live in new urbanist planned communities with sculpted driveways and perfect landscaping. They are self-effacing and pleasant. They like paninis and chain stores and golf. They moved to the exurbs because they want bigger houses, nicer neighbors, and lower crime--and also because, Brooks tells us, they are uncomfortable in the increasingly cosmopolitan inner-ring suburbs, with their immigrant group-housing and foreign-film festivals. Patio Man and Realtor Mom vote overwhelmingly Republican. "They are," Brooks writes, "wonderful people."

Rather less wonderful--at least in Brooks's telling--are those who live on the other side of the Beltway. Though he likes to decry clichés about suburban life, here's how he describes a typical resident of the more liberal inner-ring communities:

The assistant anthropology professor can stride through life knowing she was unanimously elected chairwoman of her crunchy suburb's sustainable-growth seminar. She wears the locally approved status symbols: the Tibet-motif dangly earrings, the Andrea Dworkin-inspired hairstyle, the peasant blouse, and the public-broadcasting tote bag … No wonder she feels so righteous in her beliefs.

Why not just call her a screechy dyke and be done with it? But that's not all. These crunchy suburbanites, Brooks alleges, "subtly compete to prove they have the worst lawn in the neighborhood, just to show how fervently they reject soul-destroying standards of conventional success." They don't paint their houses enough because they regard "exterior housepaint in the same way they regard makeup, as something that was probably developed using animal testing." In these places, "the chief dilemma is whether to send the kids to Antioch or Hampshire College." And so forth. These are not wonderful people. These are character sketches for a Dartmouth Review cartoon.

Then we get to the professional zones, filled with "affluent sophisticated types who disapprove of the suburbs in principle but find themselves living in one in practice." Here, he insists, "it is apparently socially acceptable to buy a luxury car so long as it comes from a country that is hostile to U.S. foreign policy." This is funny at first, and then I wondered whether Brooks actually met a single person who bought their Audi because Germany declined to join the coalition of the willing. I doubt it. (What car does Brooks drive, anyway?) Of Trader Joe's, the chain of low-priced gourmet grocery stores beloved by liberal suburbanites, Brooks writes, "Everyone knows that snack food is morally suspect, since it contributes to the obesity of the American public, but the clientele still seems to want it. So the folks behind this enterprise have managed to come up with globally concerned stomach filler that tastes virtually like sawdust ground from unendangered wood." Give me a break. Even liberals don't usually buy food that they think tastes bad, and if you look closely at the allegedly goody-goody foods that Brooks cites, you'll find that Veggie Booty and wasabi peas are not very good for you. That is why they are called junk food.

But Brooks believes that even the eating habits of liberal suburbanites are shallow and hypocritical. "When you stumble across Teriyaki Fajita Salad du Jardin, you realize it is possible to cram so many authentic indigenous cultures together that they've created something totally bogus and artificial," he writes. Not only that, but the professionals and the crunchies are provincial and out-of-touch compared to other people. They "don't know what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal," "can't tell a military officer's rank by looking at the insignia," and "don't know what a soybean looks like growing in the field." Brooks is probably right on all counts. But then again, I would guess that nearly every American who is not a Pentecostal doesn't know what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal. (Quick, what distinguishes a Catholic from an Episcopalian?) And I would love to see polling data on how many Americans, in this age of industrialized agribusiness, know what a soybean looks like growing in the field.

The point is that too often, Brooks's "archetypes" are really just old-fashioned stereotypes. It should go without saying that most people are more complicated and contradictory than stereotypes allow for. I doubt Patio Men, if they exist, are all wonderful people, but I also don't think they would turn out to be any more or less wonderful than any other group of people in America. The inner-ring suburbs, too, are rather more varied than Brooks's caricature allows. Montgomery County, Md., where Brooks lives, does have its Takoma Park neighborhood, which I strongly suspect was the model for Brooks's archetypal "crunchy suburb." But it has lots of other parts, too: upper-crust Chevy Chase, young professionals living in Silver Spring because the apartments are cheaper there than in the District, the strip-mall row of Rockville Pike, and so forth. Takoma Park is not typical of Montgomery County, but the thing is, there really is no typical Montgomery County. Average things out that way, and you only blur the reality.

Maul of America

There's some indication that even Brooks himself doesn't think much of his suburban typology. Patio Man and Realtor Mom originally made their appearance in a Weekly Standard article published shortly before the 2002 elections. That time around, Brooks elevated them to the heart of a much broader thesis. They "represent the beau ideal of Republican selfhood," he wrote in the Standard, "and are becoming the new base--the brains, heart, guts and soul of the emerging Republican party." Driven out of the inner-ring suburbs by snooty latté-sipping cosmopolitans, they were moving to the new suburbs, places like Loudoun County, Va., and Douglas County, Colo. As Brooks elaborated later in an article for Blueprint, the house journal of the Democratic Leadership Council:

With the explosion of office park people and institutions, a new culture is emerging. And people who are part of that culture tend to adopt the values of George W. Bush, regardless of the values they had in their old towns. These include order and neatness over disorder and dysfunction; achievement, sports, and competition; and a sense of responsibility and success. It's a jock culture filled with talk of college football, NASCAR, and kids' sports teams that travel. It's a culture in which seeker-sensitive mega-churches are part of the atmosphere, even if you never set foot in one. It's a culture of big-box mega-malls with parking lots as big as nuclear test sites where sprawl people gather to brag about how much they're saving by buying in bulk.

The coming political era, Brooks posited, was one of suburb v. suburb, with the Sprawl People of exurbia duking it out for dominance with the crunchies, immigrants, and professionals of the Democratic-leaning inner-ring suburbs. Because the exurbs were growing faster than the latter, and because they were pretty good at incorporating new arrivals into their orderly center-right political culture, they would win.

But like some of Brooks's other abstractions, this one just didn't hold up under close inspection. The exurbs have certainly grown faster than the inner-ring suburbs. But as political demographer Ruy Teixeira has pointed out in this magazine ("Deciphering the Democrats' Debacle," May 2003) since the former were so small to begin with, the latter are still growing much faster in absolute terms. More tellingly, as the exurbs get bigger--as they become more prosperous, get integrated into the larger metropolitan areas Teixeira calls "ideopolises," and attract more immigration--they actually tend to get more cosmopolitan and Democratic. That's why, among counties with the largest total population growth, Al Gore won nearly 3 million more votes than George W. Bush. Loudoun County may have given Bush 56 percent of the vote in 2000, but the same county gave his dad 66 percent in 1988. (Reflecting the emergence of a Democratic ideopolis, Virginia's northern suburbs have gone from overwhelmingly Republican a few decades ago to evenly split now, helping put a Democrat back in the governor's mansion.) Other states with sprawl--among them Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado--are becoming more blue, not more red.

That may be why Brooks neglects to include his theory of future Republican dominance among the pages On Paradise Drive, which is, on the whole, not a very political book. Indeed, he pretty much drops his original typology after the first few chapters, implicitly acknowledging that it wasn't very useful in the first place, and the heart of his analysis--the chapters about how Ubermom and her Organization Kid shop and live and learn--doesn't rely much on the peculiarities of the crunchy suburbs or the glories of the exurbs. By the end of the book, Brooks is much more interested in what suburbanites have in common: the "Paradise Spell" that drives our tendency to "work so hard, to consume so feverishly, to move so much." Ultimately, it's the same longing, the same desire for opportunity, success, and fulfillment, that drive both the exurban Patio Man with his military-grade Weber grill and the suburban lawyer who rips apart his kitchen to make room for a Tuscan-style culinary operations center. This is what Brooks means by living "in the future tense." And here you sense that--once again--Brooks has put his finger on something. As a friend of mine once put it, there's no Canadian Dream. But there is an American Dream, and everyone in the world knows what it is. We are the eschatological nation.

Of course, this line of thinking is neither particularly new--see Frederick Jackson Turner's enormously influential thesis, articulated slightly more than a century ago, about the effect of a permanent frontier on American culture--nor particularly conservative. Not too long ago, in his speech accepting the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Clinton reminisced about what he had learned at Georgetown from the historian Carroll Quigley: that "America was the greatest country in the history of the world because our people have always believed in two great ideas: first, that tomorrow can be better than today, and second that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so." It was a motif Clinton would come back to repeatedly during his two campaigns for the presidency--he won the suburban vote both times--and during his time in the White House. Brooks may believe that Clinton "debased the presidency and disillusioned a generation of young people," as he wrote a few years ago. But he shares with the former president a surprisingly similar sense of the essential fabric of American life.

Brooks the Journalist seems to, at any rate. But Brooks the Hack still desires to be part of a wider political movement, even one that commands embarrassing displays of intellectual obedience. And while most of On Paradise Drive is written by Brooks the Journalist, Brooks the Hack still lurks within, always threatening to overcome his better half, always clouding his vision and throwing off his aim. It's true that Brooks's conservatism leads him to smart ideas that a more liberal columnist probably wouldn't conceive. But it's also true that his hankering after movement cred accounts for most of what is dishonest and sloppy in his ideas. Eventually, Brooks will have to decide exactly who he wants to be.

Nicholas Confessore is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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