U.S. Intellectual History Blog

David Brooks & the Culture of Repeating Nonsense

David Brooks is a special kind of stupid. How can we describe it? It is a skilled stupidity, really; Brooks, more than any other conservative posing as not-completely-delusional and/or shameless, is extremely talented at transforming thoughtless middle-class biases into what thoughtless middle-class people then take to be wisdom. The evil brilliance of this, of course, is that they then walk away from the experience of reading a Brooks column feeling satisfied that david brooks reallywhat do you know!, they are even smarter than they assumed. Because David Brooks agrees with them. And David Brooks is a Thoughtful Person. And reasonable!

I wish I possessed the special power to articulate exactly how his only profundity lies in how amazingly good he is as at being amazingly wrong, but so many others have done it so well and I myself find that my brain somehow stalls, aches, and nearly shuts down altogether in frustration as it tries to process both the inanity and frightening power of Brooks’ masterly oeuvre of nonsense.

I do have something to say, however, about Brooks’ latest masterpiece. In a column entitled “The Nature of Poverty,” where he recycles nearly every lazy assumption and distortion about “the culture of poverty” that the Right has been spouting for half a centuryhalf a century folks, that’s half of 100 years of this stuff! – he ends, after explaining that poverty is not really about money but “relationships,” with this gem: “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.”

 Apparently, Brooks has never heard of Albert K. Cohen. In 1955, he wrote a book called Delinquent Boys, which explained deviant behavior in the working class as the product of social failure.[1] Simply put, working-class boys lacked the cultural resources to compete in a middle-class world – Brooks puts this somewhat differently, writing that Freddie Gray “was not on the path to upward mobility” – and thus when they experienced failure and harsh rejection from the middle class, they lashed out by adopting a set of values and attitudes antithetical to those of the middle class authority figures who had unthinkingly shamed them. According to Cohen, delinquent boys understood both that they were being rejected and that their families, as well, were looked down upon by the broader society. Yet of course, it appears that Brooks does not think the affluent bear any responsibility for failing to contribute to the “series of intricate interactions” that produce people with “future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” After all, we already know that he thinks the middle class has super superb awesome amazing values. So Cohen will not do.

However, perhaps Brooks has also never heard of Walter B. Miller, who would probably be more to his liking. Miller did not think the middle class was at all to blame for the conditions in poor neighborhoods – rather, he believed that the poor lived in an insular culture particular to themselves. “In the case of ‘gang’ delinquency,” Miller wrote, “the cultural system which exerts the most direct influence on behavior is that of the lower-class community.”[2] Moreover Miller, unlike Brooks (who conveniently just skips over the entire causation question) had an explanation for how lower-class culture got that way. Lower-class culture, Miller argued, “is a distinctive tradition many centuries old with an integrity of its own,” and it was rooted in the traits and lifestyles of European peasants and rural African Americans. Yet this is an explanation, of course, that cannot be blamed on postmodernism, consumerism, gangster rap, or anything else that post-dated the European peasantry, so I’m not sure it would be to Brooks’ liking either.

What if there was someone who just simply explained that, although not having good jobs is a problem (which even Brooks reluctantly admits), the sickness at the heart of American poverty is really a sickness of the soul. Maybe if someone only argued that “even more basic,” than the material sufferings of poverty is how “this poverty twists and deforms the spirit. The American poor are pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in Suburbia.”[3] Oh wait, someone did – his name was Michael Harrington, and he was a socialist. Now this, I know Brooks can use – after all, he loves little more than selectively quoting figures associated with the left to validate his Wisdom of The Ages dribble.

So ok – I’m going to take a breath now from six paragraphs of caustic sarcasm to explain why all of this is important. It is not simply that David Brooks does not know what he is talking about, and cannot be bothered to do even the most minimal amount of research, historical or otherwise, when blessing us with his sublime blathering. (That’s not sarcasm, but an accurate description.) Rather, what is telling about his “call” for a “thinker” that can explain to us all why poverty is really the fault of all those messed up poor people is that this is actually what social scientists, public intellectuals, and pundits have been telling us for, again, fifty years. This is not original thinking but rather a set of memes that are recycled over and over again, their proponents always claiming they are pushing against “received wisdom” when in fact, it is the received wisdom. Of course, telling affluent people that their prejudices actually make them worthy of the admiration of a daring super-jerk ubermensch like Steve Jobs is a move conservatives are extremely, extremely skilled at making. What David Brooks is asking for, then, is not a new thinker to discover or explain anything, but someone to fabricate or manipulate evidence (because he’s too lazy to do it himself) to validate his pernicious beliefs. I mean, really man – at least Daniel Patrick Moynihan had some (bad) graphs in his report.

Finally, there’s one more takeaway from the history of recycling the lie of the culture of poverty – and that is the diversity of the participants. The idea appears in various forms, with sometimes trivial and sometimes substantial differences, but at the core always rests an analysis of poverty that turns our attention away from the economic system that keeps it alive. Indeed, back in March one of the Times resident liberals, Nicholas Kristoff, wrote one of the traditional liberal celebrations of the Moynihan Report. In fact, Brooks “analysis” is so ingrained in the American imagination that aspects of it even seduced the likes of Michael Harrington, one of the most well-known leftist thinkers (and not even an ambiguous New Leftism, but an old fashioned socialist leftism) in the post-war period. His most widely read book, The Other America, was so popular it even got him invited to the White House to advise the liberals on how to combat poverty.[4] And when an idea with very little empirical or historical evidence is appealing to such a broad sweep of the political spectrum, we might want to start thinking about what the bigger tent or tents are that are bringing such a motley group together.

[1] Cohen, Albert K., Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang (Glencoe: The Free Press,1955/61).

[2] Walter B. Miller, “Lower-class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” Journal of Social Issues, Volume 14, Issue 3 (1958), 5, second quote 19.

[3] Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1962/69/81/93), 2.

[4] Not coincidentally, it was also the only book he ever wrote where he did not discuss socialism.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is, to my mind, part of the seduction of the libertarian mindset. It begins by telling successful people that they alone are responsible for their success, this feeds the ego and feels so good. The other side of this coin is that people who are less successful are then necessarily responsible for their lack of success. By making this an individual failing it allows for the culture of poverty nonsense to linger while downplaying or denying the role of systemic failures that create and keep people in poverty. Capitalism and the worship of the “free” market. Racism and the belief that some people are better or more deserving than others. These and other problems that are built in to our system do more to perpetuate inequality and poverty that drug use, lack of ambition, or anything else the culture of poverty people can come up with. Thanks for the post.

    • Yes for sure Bryn, and thanks for the comment. The funny thing is that there was a push against “individual failure causes poverty” around the Progressive era, and the earliest people articulating some kind of idea like the modern culture of poverty actually argue explicitly against that idea. But, they didn’t have a solid critique of capitalism, and when the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement set it, that made it really easy for more conservative folks to take the basics of those ideas and run with them — giving us today’s modern version of “blame their poor for their own poverty.” The best of intentions, but poorly executed, led to a massive backfire.

    • UGH, good question. Because, I’m afraid, he represents the textures & tones of how a lot of Americans think. I know a lot of people who think David Brooks is smart and thoughtful. That’s a problem, politically speaking and otherwise, I think. So, unfortunately, his mindset and logic must both be understood, and responded to. We don’t pick our own opponents, I’m afraid.

  2. Since you can spot Brooks’ stupidity so readily, what’s the 1,000 word column you would write on the nature of poverty? No footnotes.
    Is it that the rich take more than their fair share?

    • Yes they do, but I would summarize it as neoliberalism & racism, in a nutshell.

      The racism aspect also, ironically, ends up impacting the white poor as well. Tropes originally used to otherize and blame the black poor are now being applied to the white poor. I suppose, in this one regard, we can credit conservatives with being consistent.

  3. This is brilliant. You’re someone who actually knows the intellectual history of the social sciences & poverty!

    For years, I’ve thought that Brooks was yet another conservative who craved the intellectual prestige of a Ph.D., but was too lazy and too well rewarded where he is to bother to do the coursework and research. So he cherry-picks and dresses up old bromides in social-science-y sounding jargon and PRESTO, the already-comfortable are further comforted by his wise, wise wisdom. Your post here reveals his methods brilliantly.

    • Glad you enjoyed it!, and thanks also for the summary post back at your blog. I’m forever happy to be of service in confirming people’s suspicions about Brooks or anyone else who peddles in the culture of poverty discourse.

  4. Agreeing with the statement “This is not original thinking but rather a set of memes that are recycled over and over again, their proponents always claiming they are pushing against “received wisdom” when in fact, it is the received wisdom…”
    I’ve got to think that there’s got to be a grant somewhere for research to catalogue all the authors of these ‘recycled over and over again’ studies… Exactly what I’ve been thinking while reading the ‘theories for the causes of juvenile delinquency’ . Names and faces and demographic background of these writer/researchers…

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