Brooking Dissent: The To-Do Over David Brooks
Why does this matter? Because such small things actually serve a much larger purpose as cultural markers or signifiers. To be a member of the American credentialed class is to accept the importance of such markers even if doing that has become an unconscious reflex.
I’m well aware that the food behaviors mentioned above stand outside the range of what’s acceptable to many people with similar educational attainment or household income. Believe me, over the years I’ve heard from more than a few people on each subject, some of whom mistakenly believe that The Raw and the Cooked is just an album title
You might, then, imagine my surprise at the dust raised by this past Tuesday’s column from David Brooks in The New York Times. Somewhat uncharacteristically, I stumbled across the to-do on Twitter where @asymetricinfo was trading comments after linking to a lengthier post by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.
And, really, all Brooks did was point out an uncomfortable truth.
He was, in fact, writing about Dream Hoarders, a new book from Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. I’d heard an interview with Reeves a few weeks back and on the basis of that added the title to my list of must-get-tos.
I’ll only refer to the interview since I’ve yet to read the book. Reeves argues that the problem with inequality in America is that the top quintile builds structural barriers that ensure their continued place in that stratum. Brooks reports all that.
Then he gets all Brooks-y. That’s my term for when he brings his personal-intended-as-reasonable slant to whatever issue is at hand.
This time he does it by telling the tale of taking a friend with only a high school education to lunch at an upscale deli. The confusion she experiences serves, for Brooks, as an eye-opener on what he argues really drives inequality–knowing the proper social cues.
Predictably, writers with a market orientation (Dreher, McArdle and others) jumped at this beyond-economics interpretation of an economic phenomenon. In the words of McArdle (you can see for yourself in selected tweets from her that you can link to at the end of this post), “What I tell you three times is true: class isn’t income. Class isn’t income. Class isn’t income.” In fact, she wonders when the Left lost touch with Marx.
On the other side, Garet Williams at Vox, David Covucci at the Daily Dot and others ridicule the idea that a simple sandwich can be put up for so much blame. More often than not they interpret Brooks’ anecdote as condescending toward his friend. Here’s Covucci with a sentiment echoed in countless comments and other articles:
Sandwiches, actually, are the great divider, a classist institution that mocks the destitute from on high, chortling as the meager and undereducated struggle to comprehend their existence.
I wonder why this has to be an either/or conversation. Why can’t people enjoying their privileges be erecting structural and cultural barriers to maintain that privilege? And why should there be a presumption that if everyone were able to, or helped to, join over-hyped consumer experiences that we’d be on a road to reform?
Those are just my initial questions given that a) I haven’t yet read Reeves and b) what I’m dealing with is a surfeit of anecdote. When all else fails, I turn to the data. Let’s.
The 2015 median household income in the United States was $55, 755 according to the American Community Survey. The top quintile starts at $117,002. The median HHI for the NY Times is $167K. At The American Conservative “21% [of readers] have a toutal (sic) HHI greater than $100K. Vox Media reports 41% of readers are at that same level. The Daily Dot doesn’t publish numbers.
Nonetheless, we can safely assume that the writers and readers of these pubs are most decidedly in the top quarter of the income distribution. This is really a discussion among elites about elite privilege. We’ve encountered that before.
In my most recent post I wrote about how an eminent sociologist explored the rift in thinking between adherents of the Tea Party Movement and her peer group. Last year I suggested that there was much to be gained from thinking in terms of both Weberian/Parsonian structural functionalism and the symbolic interactionism of Mead and Blumer. For those missing Marx, as McArdle seems to on some level, let’s not forget Bourdieu on social capital, which is really what’s being hoarded here.
This Brooks contretemps reminds me of all of that. The right-leaning crowd wants to be absolved of responsibility for helping create the structural issues. Those on the left want to be absolved of behaving in ways that entrench their position at the expense of others.
Me? I fear nothing can change as long as both sides remain rooted in denial of those absolute desires.
Here are just a few of the dozens of tweets from Megan McArdle on Tuesday. They give a flavor of this discussion. Click on the image to see four that caught my attention