Boo-Boos in Paradise
Wayne-bred David Brooks is the public intellectual of the moment. But our writer found out he doesn't check his facts
By Sasha Issenberg
A few years ago, journalist david brooks wrote a celebrated article for the Atlantic Monthly, "One Nation, Slightly Divisible," in which he examined the country's cultural split in the aftermath of the 2000 election, contrasting the red states that went for Bush and the blue ones for Gore. To see the vast nation whose condition he diagnosed, Brooks compared two counties: Maryland's Montgomery (Blue), where he himself lives, and Pennsylvania's Franklin (a Red county in a Blue state). "I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is," Brooks wrote of his leisurely northward drive to see the other America across "the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters." Franklin County was a place where "no blue New York Times delivery bags dot driveways on Sunday mornings ... [where] people don't complain that Woody Allen isn't as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny," he wrote. "In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing."
Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called "status detail," those telling symbols -- the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles -- that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism's most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.
There's just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to Amazon.com sales data, one of Goodwin's strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That's probably not, however, QVC country. "I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country," says Doug Rose, the network's vice president of merchandising and brand development. "Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas." Rose's standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code -- Beverly Hills, 90210 -- covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk "the myth that they're all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day."
"Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors," Brooks wrote. "When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens." Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.
"We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books," Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America's most literate cities doesn't necessarily agree. Among the study's criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.
"Very few of us," Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, "could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country." He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series's highest-rated television markets -- three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)
Brooks could be dismissed as little more than a snarky punch-line artist, except that he postures as a public intellectual -- and has been received as one.
It's hard, in fact, to think of many American thinkers more influential at this moment than Brooks. His 2000 book Bobos in Paradise heralded the rise of a new upper class that mixed '60s-style liberalism with '80s-style conspicuous consumption; celebrated by reviewers, it quickly became a best-seller. Brooks wrote that his hometown, Wayne, was emblematic of the "Upscale Suburban Hippiedom" that was the natural habitat of these "bourgeois bohemians." Like "yuppie" and "metrosexual," Brooks's "bobo" entered the language as a successful coinage of pop sociology. It shows up in magazine articles and casual conversations, and the book itself is footnoted in dozens of books on American society and consumer culture, and cited in a college history textbook.
On the publication of Bobos, New York Times critic Walter Goodman lumped Brooks with William H. Whyte Jr., author of The Organization Man, and David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd, as a practitioner of "sociological journalism." (In the introduction to Bobos, Brooks invoked Whyte -- plus Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith -- as predecessors.) In 2001, the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, held a panel discussion in which real-life scholars pondered the bobo. When, in 2001, Richard Posner ranked the 100 highest-profile public intellectuals, Brooks came in 85th, just behind Marshall McLuhan at 82nd, and ahead of Garry Wills, Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Mead.
Following the success of Bobos, Brooks -- who was then writing for the Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek and appearing on pbs and NPR -- was offered the Times column, formalizing his position as the in-house conservative pundit of liberal America. In his column, Brooks writes mostly about affairs of state, but with the same approach -- a cultural analysis grounded in social observation -- that made Bobos such a success. This summer, Bobos will get a sibling when Brooks publishes On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.
Brooks is operating in a long tradition of public intellectualism. Like William Whyte, another child of Philadelphia's western suburbs fascinated with the interplay of money and manners among his contemporaries, Brooks is a journalist who works on sociological turf. But Whyte, who was an editor for Fortune in the 1950s, observed how people lived, inferred trends, considered what they meant, and then came up with grand conclusions about the direction of the country. When, in 1954, he wanted to find out which consumers were trend-setters, he went into Overbrook Park and surveyed 4,948 homes -- all inhabited by real people. Brooks, by way of contrast, draws caricatures. Whether out of sloppiness or laziness, the examples he conjures to illustrate well-founded premises are often unfounded, undermining the very points he's trying to make.
In January, I made my own trip to Franklin County, 175 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with a simple goal: I wanted to see where David Brooks comes up with this stuff. One of the first places I passed was Greencastle Coffee Roasters, which has more than 200 kinds of coffee, and a well-stocked South Asian grocery in the back with a product range hard to find in some large coastal cities: 20-pound bags of jasmine rice, cans of Thai fermented mustard greens, a freezer with lemongrass stalks and kaffir-lime leaves. The owner, Charles Rake, told me that there was, until a few years back, a Thai restaurant in Chambersburg, run by a woman who now does catering. "She's the best Thai cook I know on Planet Earth," Rake said. "And I've been to Thailand."
I stopped at Blockbuster, where the dvd of Annie Hall was checked out. I went to the counter to see how Scott, the clerk, thought it compared to Allen's other work. "It's funny," said Scott. "What's the funny one? Yeah, Annie Hall, that's the one where he dates everyone -- it's funny."
"In Montgomery County we have Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers. In Franklin County they have Dollar General and Value City, along with a plethora of secondhand stores," Brooks wrote. In fact, while Franklin has 14 stores with the word "dollar" in their name -- plus one Value City -- Montgomery County, Maryland, has 34, including one that's within walking distance of an Anthropologie in Rockville.
As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. "On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu -- steak au jus, 'slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever -- I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's," he wrote. "I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and 'seafood delight' trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it."
Taking Brooks's cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The "Steak and Lobster" combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. "Most of our checks are over $20," said Becka, my waitress. "There are a lot of ways to spend over $20."
The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts "turn-of-the-century elegance." I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn's proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks's article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. "For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart," Sandy said. "He said he just wanted scrambled eggs."
I looked at another of Brooks's more celebrated articles, an August 2002 piece in the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard in which he discerned a new American archetype he dubbed "Patio Man." Patio Man, in Brooks's description, "walks into a Home Depot or Lowe's or one of the other mega hardware complexes and his eyes are glistening with a faraway missionary zeal, like one of those old prophets gazing into the promised land. His lips are parted and twitching slightly." Patio Man, Brooks wrote, lives in one of the new Sprinkler Cities, "the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new-style American dream."
Brooks illuminated Patio Man's world with vivid portraiture, telling details, and clever observations about American culture. ("All major choices of consumer durables these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.") Brooks's suggestion that Patio Man's brethren would become the basis of a coming Republican majority found many friends. Slate identified him as a "new sociological icon." The New York Times Magazine 2002 "Year in Ideas" issue cited Patio Man in its encapsulation of "Post-Soccer-Mom Nomenclature."
Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured. He describes the ladies of Sprinkler City as "trim Jennifer Aniston women [who] wear capris and sleeveless tops and look great owing to their many hours of sweat and exercise at Spa Lady." That chain of women's gyms has three locations -- all in New Jersey, far from any Sprinkler City. "The roads," Brooks writes, "have been given names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue." There are no Entrepreneur Avenues anywhere in the country, according to the business-directory database Referenceusa, and only two Innovation Boulevards -- in non-Sprinkler cities Fort Wayne, Indiana, and State College, Pennsylvania. There is also an Innovation Boulevard in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The basic premises of Brooks's articles aren't necessarily wrong. His Red/Blue article was anchored in the research of political analyst Michael Barone, who in a June 2001 article in National Journal delineated a country split evenly in two: "One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic." Brooks's Patio Man article was a pop translation of a February 2002 paper by University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey, who wrote that 2000 Census figures showed growth of "the New Sunbelt."
Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it. Barone relies on election returns and public-opinion data as the basis for his research; Frey looks to the census. But Brooks takes their findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy. So Brooks takes Barone's vote-counting in a two-sided election and says the country is split between Anthropologie and Dollar General. Then he takes Frey's demographic studies and says Sprinkler Cities are marked by their Home Depots. At this point, Frey was already working on a paper called "Three Americas" which argued for a tripartite model for understanding the nation: the Melting Pot (populous, immigrant-heavy states like New Jersey, Texas, Illinois); the Heartland (rural, without much population growth); and the New Sunbelt. If one really believes that the New Sunbelt and its Sprinkler Cities mark a culturally distinct region (as Brooks does), Frey suggests, one can't also believe that the country is rather evenly split into two culturally distinct factions (as Brooks does).
There are salient cultural divides in the United States -- and, in fact, different values and practices among residents of Montgomery and Franklin counties -- but consumer life is the place where they are most rapidly converging. In this regard, Brooks would have been better off relying on the newest generation of elitist truism -- tongue-in-cheek laments about the proliferation of ubiquitous chain espresso bars and bookstores. Last fall, Pottery Barn opened stores in Huntsville, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, and the New York Times has introduced home delivery in Colorado Springs. It likely won't be long before Franklin County gets both; yoga classes have already arrived.
Most of Brooks's own ideas are clichés borrowed from popular culture. His Franklin County dispatch included a riff on the differences between "indoor guys" and "outdoor guys," a divide handled with more nuance by the characters on Home Improvement. Outdoor guys have "wraparound NASCAR sunglasses, maybe a napa auto parts cap, and a haircut in a short wedge up front but flowing down over their shoulders in the back -- a cut that is known as the mullet," Brooks writes, before getting to their "thing against sleeves," their well-ventilated armpit hair, and the way ripped sleeves hang over bad to the bone tattoos. This is a clever homage to the fieldwork of comic/sociologist Jeff Foxworthy, whose 1989 study You Might Be a Redneck If ... included: "You own more than three shirts with the sleeves cut off."
I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. "I didn't see it when I was there, but it's true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn," he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. "That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end ... " he replied, his voice trailing away. "That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20."
I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being "too pedantic," of "taking all of this too literally," of "taking a joke and distorting it." "That's totally unethical," he said.
Satire has its purpose, but assuming it's on the mark, Brooks should be able to adduce real-world examples that are true. I asked him how I was supposed to tell what was comedy and what was sociology. "Generally, I rely on intelligent readers to know -- and I think that at the Atlantic Monthly, every intelligent reader can tell what the difference is," he replied. "I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They're both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places," he said. "You've obviously come at this from a perspective. I don't think if you went to the two places you wouldn't detect a cultural difference."
I asked him about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. "This is dishonest research. You're not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter," he said. "Is this how you're going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do 'em, I know 'em, how one starts, but it's just something you'll mature beyond."
I shared with him some more of my research, and asked how he made his observations. On NASCAR name recognition: "My experience going around to people that I know in urban metro areas is a lot of them can't name five NASCAR ... but that's a joke." On Spa Lady locations: "I think that's the type of place where people would get the joke and get the reference." On whether Blue Americans read more books: "That would be interesting, but one goes by one's life experiences."
"What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people," Brooks explained. "In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn't ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there's a pang of recognition."
By holding himself to a rings-true standard, Brooks acknowledges that all he does is present his readers with the familiar and ask them to recognize it. Why, then, has his particular brand of stereotype-peddling met with such success? In recent years, American journalism has reacted to the excesses of New Journalism -- narcissism, impressionism, preening subjectivity -- by adopting the trappings of scholarship. Trend pieces, once a bastion of three-examples-and-out superficiality, now strive for the authority of dissertations. Former Times editor Howell Raines famously defended page-one placement for a piece examining Britney Spears's flailing career by describing it as a "sophisticated exegesis of sociological phenomenon." The headline writer's favorite word is "deconstructing." (Last year, the Toronto Star deconstructed a sausage.) Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes an era when readers looked to academia for such insights:
"You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we're missing; this is a gap," Florida says. "Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era? It's the failure of social science to be relevant enough to do it."
This culture shift has rewarded Brooks, who translates echt nerd appearance (glasses, toothy grin, blue blazer) and intellectual bearing into journalistic credibility, which allows him to take amusing dinner-party chatter -- Was that map an electoral-college breakdown or a marketing plan for Mighty Aphrodite? -- and sell it to editors as well-argued wisdom on American society. Brooks satisfies the features desk's appetite for scholarly authority in much the same way that Jayson Blair fed the newsroom's compulsion for scoops.
There's even a Brooksian explanation for why he has become so popular with the East Coast media elite. Blue Americans have heard so much about Red America, and they've always wanted to see it. But Blue Americans don't take vacations to places like Galveston and Dubuque. They like to watch TV shows like The Simpsons and Roseanne, where Red America is mocked by either cartoon characters or Red Americans themselves, so Blue Americans don't need to feel guilty of condescension. Blue Americans are above redneck jokes, but they will listen if a sociologist attests to the high density of lawnbound-appliances-per-capita in flyover country. They need someone to show them how the other half lives, because there is nothing like sympathy for backwardness to feed elitism. A wrong turn in Red America can be dangerous: They might accidentally find Jesus or be hit by an 18-wheeler. It seems reasonable to seek out a smart-looking fellow who seems to know the way and has a witty line at every point. Blue Americans always travel with a guide. b
Originally published in Philadelphia magazine, April 2004