Probing the holes in the Brooksian travel guide of Red America

textAnyone who writes in the New York Times editorial pages with the label “conservative” stamped on his forhead is going to take his lumps, even if he is the culturally progressive kind of conservative (pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights) who would be welcomed in such a heady locale. So it’s no surprise that lots of folks are taking closer looks at David Brooks these days. This tends to happen when one betrays his class, even to a tiny degree.

I really enjoyed “Bobos in Paradise” and was especially struck — no surprise — by his emphasis on the moral and religious elements of his thesis. For those who do not know the book, the term “Bobos” is shorthand for “bourgeois bohemians.” This is the new American elite. With a yin-yang worldview — part ’60s idealism, part ’80s work ethic — it dominates academia, politics, pop culture and even business.

And where are they in terms of faith? They yearn for depth, but find it hard to commit to any truth that judges them. Brooks observes:

“Can you have freedom as well as roots? Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teachings are wrong? Can you establish ritual and order in your life if you are driven by an inner imperative to experiment constantly with new things? … The Bobos are trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.”

Now, Philadelphia magazine has dissected Brooks, in an attempt to show that he tends to play loose with his facts. The name of the article, of course, would have to be “Boo-Boos in Paradise.”

I am not sure that all of the arrows hit the mark. For example, reporter Sasha Issenberg knocks Brooks for saying that the Bobo elites in Blue State America are more literate than down-home folks in Red-State America. Truth is, the folks who research libraries and literacy have found that 20 of the nation’s 30 most bookish cities are in Red States. Well, of course they are. This fits in with the trend toward what Brooks calls “Latte Towns,” in which progressive cities and, especially, university towns serve as liberating islands of NPR-PBS culture in a vast, dangerous sea of Home Depots and sanctuaries full of Southern Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans and lots of other people who say the Nicene Creed without meditating on Postmodernism.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that Issenberg ends with this analysis of the role that Brooks plays for many of his East Coast-elite readers. Sure enough, Jesus shows up.

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 lawn-abandoned 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.

Yes, there are parts of the map that are inhabitated by dragons. Be careful out there.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Hal Duston

    Patrick Belton over at OxBlog found it.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    This piece is mostly right on the mark, and Brooks is nowhere more disingenuous than in his charge that the author is taking a “joke” literally. Some “joke” — that book has prompted more media focus on the so-called “culture war” than anything Rush Limbaugh could have dreamed of. Indeed, Brooks may be the most influential demagogue outside of the White House. (I don’t think he merits the term “conservative,” since his business is manufacturing shiny new visions of division.)

    The one place where Issenberg goes most off track is here: “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.””

    She goes to describe Barone’s work as “inaccessible” and “academic.” But Barone is simply a blander, more centrist version of Brooks, and hardly scholarly. I had the misfortune of sharing a dinner table with him at which he tried to explain to me that due to the greatness of the Founders, there was no “real” anti-Semitism to speak of in America. Having been called “kike” every day for about seven years of my childhood, I had to disagree. But as Brooks would have it, the real question would be: Was that town I grew up in Red, or Blue?

    Issenberg notes the prevalence of dollar stores in Brooks’ own, allegedly Blue Montgomery County, where “we have illegal aliens.” And where do the illegal aliens live, Brooks? Where do they shop?

    Brooks is no racist, but there’s an underlying assumption of whiteness to his characterizations. Take the church example — probably one of the greatest concentrations of churches in America exists in the bluest of blue towns, New York City. Brooklyn, I’ve heard, holds the record, but my own travels suggest that it could surely be challenged by East L.A., the Southside of Chicago, and Washington, D.C. east of 14th St.

    Brooks and Barone are simplifiers. Conservatives and liberals, believers and secularists, should unite in their rejection of this lightweight junk.