Saturday, March 27, 2004

# Posted 7:58 AM by Patrick Belton  

PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE'S SASHA ISSENBERG ably, but a bit harshly, takes down David Brooks's red state-blue state distinction by poking holes in it.

After challenging individual assertions by Brooks about, say, Nascar, QVC, and Doris Kearns Goodwin audiences, Issenberg draws the conclusion that Brooks is feeding into prejudice under the guise of public intellectualism,
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 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.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that Issenberg can't help invoking the red state-blue state distinction even in the act of criticizing Brooks for coining it, I wonder, more broadly, whether he might perhaps discount just a bit too drastically the reliability of lived experience - the "does it ring true?" test - as a guide for an essayist: even if most Marylanders or New Jerseyans are in fact Nascar watchers, and if there are substantial coastal enclaves like Austin, Texas solidly ensconced in red America, Brooks isn't necessarily purveying stereotypes to his buying audience when he seizes onto status details, Tom Wolfe-like, to summon up the distinction between a secular, educated, suburban (and gentrifying-urban) liberal America on the one hand and a godly, more traditional America on the other. This is distinction most readers and commentators would, based on their lived and reflected-upon experience of American social reality, place more evidentiary faith in than in particular demographic points of information about the moment's sales of No Ordinary Time on Amazon.com. As, I think, they should.

Nor is this to say that considered lived experience of social reality can't contain prejudices and biases which can and should be battered down by cannonades of evidence - only to say that something like Scottish enlightenment philosopher and epistemologist Thomas Reid's notion of common sense should also guide us in steering a path between the assumptions we live by and points of information which are adduced to challenge and demolish them.

One last point before leaving the topic: Issenberg (in what I do want to acknowledge again as a witty, provocative essay) depicts Brooks as an ersatz, faux public philosopher, and quotes approvingly an academic who bemoans the tempora and mores which in the place of a public space which once had "Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith," has now given us "David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists." That, though, is clearly the fault of academics - the serious sociologists, political scientists, and ethicists whose presence in public debate the author laments - who have not risen to addressing a public audience in a creative way which captures the imagination and frames sensed realities in new ideas, language, and distinction. That pundits and reporters have seized the ground only indicates that scholars in the social sciences have in our generation been more preoccupied with academic politics and narrow disciplinary disputes than in fulfilling the role of public intellectuals (or, like Cornel West, have sought fame in the public eye without carrying with them insightful or creative ideas) - and this is a true trahison des clercs.

UPDATE: Wonkette and Easily Distracted both have takes on the piece, too.
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