David Brooks Says

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the most recent column of David Brooks.

David Brooks says:

We are in the middle of…a dangerous level of family breakdown.

David Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites. The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids. Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

David Brooks says:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families.

David Brooks says:

It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

David Brooks is getting divorced.


  1. Brett December 18, 2013 at 11:58 am | #

    That’s pretty typical with his kind of privileged crowd. There’s always an implicit exception they make for themselves, that somehow they and their circumstances are “special” and “justified”. It’s like with privileged right-wingers opposing abortion in their states, knowing implicitly that it will never really apply to their own daughters (who can be flown or driven to other states for abortions if they need them).

  2. Gordon Lafer December 18, 2013 at 12:16 pm | #

    one of the downsides of having lived a while is that arguments you’ve already seen completely demolished in a detailed, thorough, and methodologically rigorous manner (say, the “culture of poverty” idea Brooks is recycling here) come back again as if that demolition had never taken place. Which shows you, of course, the impotence of your own work and illustrates the degree to which ideology is a function of power and class interest rather than books or genuine intellectual wondering. Re Brooks, part of me is tempted to spend no time on it except to say “see: Adolph Reed.” The other part of me feels like the right response Brooks is laid out in Woody Allen’s famous quote from Manhattan — which sometimes seems applicable to a growing list of political actors: “A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it.” I do think, though, that as the rich get richer and more and more of the country falls into hard times, one of the responses of the ruling class and their hangers-on, wannabes, flunkies, almost-kinda-made-it whatever you call Brooks, will be that we’ll see more and more of these blame-the-victim theories. Heritage and their affiliates have infinite resources to crank this shit out even while still pursuing the rest of their agenda.

  3. bystander.again December 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm | #

    “This requires bourgeois paternalism…”

    So, Sarah Brooks got fed up?

  4. Roquentin December 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm | #

    Max Weber nailed this sort of thinking a century ago in “The Protestant Work Ethic…” That the same dynamics he identified then are still just as relevant today only illustrates the quality of his analysis and research. The idea that people are poor because they have sinned, that a just God would only make those rich who were virtuous, and the constant equation of wealth with moral virtue are all hallmarks of this mindset. We on the left would do well to remember that capitalism is a religion as much as an economic system.

    Also, for an even more radical critique, Deleuze and Guattari attack the very concept of the nuclear family in Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. Even if you don’t want to follow that argument all the way to the end, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the consistency with which people on the political right hold up the family as the solution to any and all problems in a society. A large part of the argument deals with the family being necessary to create the level of repression and submission in children necessary for them to function properly in an equally repressive bourgeois society.

  5. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm | #

    Hilarious! Less really IS more!

  6. gvgray December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm | #

    david brooks reminds me of ignace lepp, the jesuit theologian who wrote the tome “atheism in our time.” of fall of a teenager from a “good” parisian family, he wrote, ” she took to wearing bluejeans and visiting existentialist cafes.” a sensibility not very different from one who could inveigh against people who live in disorganized, post modern neighborhoods, where did they dig this guy up?

    • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | #

      Oh my! You’re thinking WAY too much. Start in on that, and you’ll end up with the Wittgenstein family. At least Ludwig, the homosexual, managed to survive–and become one the world’s most influential philosophers. Saved by the liberal elites of Cambridge–most notably, Russell, of course.

  7. Malcolm Schosha December 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm | #

    The Yglesias article is, in substantial part, a personal attack on Brooks. There is nothing unusual about that in the media these days, but that part of the article’s content is meaningless in terms of real criticism. Brooks may be all wrong, or partly wrong, in his evaluation of the importance and function of a strong family life; but Yglesias could have made that point just as well without the cheap shot about Brooks’ marriage ending in failure.

    • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm | #

      That would be the same Mr. Brooks whose entire career is based on cheap shots at the poor & powerless who never get a single word into the New York Times?

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm | #

      “Brooks may be all wrong, or partly wrong, in his evaluation of the importance and function of a strong family life.”

      One of the ways that we know he’s wrong is that his own life — and the life of many other wealthy divorcees — belies it. His children, though the product of a divorce, will go to good colleges, get good jobs, and be productive members of society. The problem with poor people is not that their families aren’t intact; it’s that they’re poor. That’s Yglesias’s point, which I’d say is the exact opposite of meaningless.

      • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm | #

        Ah but Yglesias was mean to Brooks. And Brooks is the only one who matters. It would be mean to think otherwise.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | #

        Yes, poverty is the problem, and income distribution needs to be more fair in the US. But most people I know, even PhDs, think intact families are the more preferable choice, and more helpful for a good life…..which is possible even with rather little money or material success.

        But Brooks’ personal life is irrelevant to the discussion. I think I have previously explained why ad hominem arguments are bad arguments. The fact is a person’s argument could be good even if his/her personal life fails to exemplify that good. That aspect of Yglesias’ argument is just a cheap shot at Brooks that proves nothing.

        • Corey Robin December 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm | #


        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm | #

          Ad hominem arguments are bad when they’re a distraction. Indeed, they’re bad BECAUSE they’re a distraction. (Some characterize them as part of a category of “fallacies of distraction”). But in this case, the argument is anything BUT a distraction. It helps to highlight just how much divorce DOESN’T impact the future status of elite kids, even though it no doubt damages them similarly to other kids.

          And that anger you feel? It also helps surface that–the same anger that many poor people feel when rich snots like Brooks tell them it’s their own fault that they’re poor.

    • Phil Perspective December 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm | #

      Obviously, you don’t get it. Brooks has the same problem most other “elites” do. They are hypocritical dipshits. They don’t practice what they preach.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | #

        Phil, classifying someone as “elite” is not a convincing reply to an argument. In fact Yglesias’ education at the the Dalton School and Harvard looks rather elite too, at least to my working class eyes.

      • Freddie deBoer December 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm | #

        But hypocrisy, in and of itself, can never say anything of great value about the subject on which the person is hypocritical. It can tell you about their character. But then, people already have more than enough information with which to consider Brooks’s character.

        • Corey Robin December 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm | #

          I don’t think the issue here, as Yglesias lays it out so well, is hypocrisy.

          • Freddie deBoer December 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm | #

            Nor do I, really. But Phil did.

          • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm | #

            Hypocrisy would be much more clearly the issue with someone like Gingrich, who got his first divorce before anyone really heard of him, In this case, it’s more like the neighborhood Brooks chose to live in,. Gingrich was the developer.

  8. VL December 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm | #

    I just finished an article in the most recent Harper’s that is appropriate to mention here: “You Rang? Mastering the Art of Serving the Rich.” (Unfortunately behind the paywall: http://harpers.org/archive/2014/01/you-rang/)

    First, it’s hard to argue that children need organization and stability. What Brooks misses (obviously) is that both are much more readily available to families with a modicum of wealth as well as a larger community that provides public services such as education, parental leave, healthcare, etc.–services that the wealthy increasingly purchase for themselves.

    Über-wealthy families, with their staffs of dozens of servants, do indeed enjoy a very ordered existence, because it is organized entirely by said staff. Quote from the article: “Your principals will be CEOs and billionaires…but they won’t realize they need HR rules in their own house. You will have to train your families, because they don’t know what they need. You have to put the rules in place without making the principals feel you’re changing everything, and that’s an art.” One family of four in the article has a staff of 100, spread across several houses. “It’s complicated, because they’re new money and want to pretend their lives haven’t changed, so none of us can go into the house if the family’s there. The chef goes in to take the food, but it’s prepared at a separate house.” One unfortunate consequence of all this hidden care-taking is that it obscures the tremendous amount of work that needs to take place every day just to maintain a life. Instead of housewives doing the hidden work of running a home, male and female staff trained to be subservient and discreet are paid to do the hidden work–which, remaining hidden, perpetuates the myth that the wealthy live by “arduous work ethics” and are “self-disciplined” and “phenomenally productive.” (How else could their houses and gardens and bodies always be so well-maintained?)

    Brooks is not wealthy enough to have dozens of servants, but he is probably close enough to some such people as to suffer billionaire-envy. Perhaps it is no accident that he writes this in the throes of his own divorce; modern life is demanding for anyone _without_ a large staff, and I would imagine it’s much easier to get along with one’s spouse when other people are taking care of the kids, shopping, repairs, cleaning, etc. for you. Then again, the article does say that people don’t become rich by being nice, and that at least one member of the couple is usually crazy…..

  9. Gordon Lafer December 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm | #

    re: ad hominem calling attention to Brooks’ own divorce. One of the reasons that it’s important is that the whole argument on the other side, the argument Brooks is making, is itself entirely ad hominem — except that it’s ad hominem about imaginary people instead of actual individuals. Anytime anyone has tried to prove some version of the “culture of poverty” idea — that there’s a causal relationship linking economic things like poverty/unemployment/lack of health insurance/education to cultural or behavioral things like divorce, having kids young, doing drugs, single parents, etc. — they never line up statistically. There’s always too many poor people who are employed, married and not doing drugs, and too many rich people getting high and divorced who remain bourgeois. The whole thing is ungrounded in reality and therefore unprovable in statistics. It’s just a moral-imaginary way of dissing someone else’s life. So to come back to Brooks and ask “and what about you, you big fuck?” seems entirely morally and methodologically appropriate.

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm | #

      What Gordon said.

    • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm | #

      Absolutely, Gordon. The root problem with most fallacies is that they take a valid hueristic notion & treat like it’s definitive proof of something. This is easy to see with examples like false dichotomy (dichotomizing is a good way to clarify complex arguments) or the rooster fallacy (causes do generally come before effects, so that’s a good place to look for them), etc. The generic fallacy is another example: it’s generally true that the source of information is a good quality guide, but that doesn’t make 2+2=4 if Hitler said it was true.

      Ad hominem is somewhat related to the genetic fallacy in a case like this, but it’s the valid hueristic that’s in play here: when an elitist whose repeatedly blamed poverty on poor people’s divorce rate gets divorced, it’s a sure sign that something’s rotten with his argument. And, of course, as others have pointed out, there’s all sorts of evidence out there to back up this assessment & nothing, really to back up Brooks’ argument. Yglesias isn’t arguing against the man because Brooks is getting divorced, but because he’s made this argument repeatedly without serious evidence to back it up and now he’s getting divorced. That makes it clearly like a valid sort of generic argument, rather than an example of a genetic fallacy.

      • Roquentin December 19, 2013 at 9:54 am | #

        I agree completely. I also want to say that there’s a common tactic in people you argue with to say variations of this theme, “please play by the rules I dictate so that I can win.” The rules laid down by the person you’re fighting with are the furthest thing from impartial. Of course someone like Brooks wants the hypocrisy of his divorce considered below the belt in a match, because if that’s the case his arguments look a lot better. All that’s really about is herding you down the path where you lose.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 11:17 am | #

        Paul wrote:
        “Ad hominem is somewhat related to the genetic fallacy in a case like this, but it’s the valid hueristic that’s in play here: when an elitist whose repeatedly blamed poverty on poor people’s divorce rate gets divorced, it’s a sure sign that something’s rotten with his argument.”

        No. The problem with ad hominems is their irrelevance.

        There IS something wrong with Brooks’ argument, but his personal failings have nothing to do with what is wrong in his argument.

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 11:26 am | #

          Your poor reading skills and your dogmatism only serve to further undermine your argument. Roquentin is quite right. All you’re doing now is rigidly insisting that we play by your rules. Rules that protect conservative moral scolds from ever being judged the way they insist that everyone else should be judged.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 12:40 pm | #

        @Paul. You are wrong again. I do not care who’s rules you play by. That is your problem, and your choice to make, not mine.

        What I am saying is that Brooks is wrong in some important ways.

        But the part of Yglesias’ reply to Brooks that is an ad hominem is irrelivant to the rest of his argument. Also, hominem’s, in addition to being irrelevant, are frequently vicious, and so unbecoming to any person who makes a claim of supporting the side of virtue.

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm | #

          We all know your position, Malcolm. We also know that it’s vacuous, as you’ve had ample opportunity to respond to criticisms of it, but all you can do is restate it.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 1:07 pm | #

        Paul wrote: “We all know your position, Malcolm.”

        That shows considerable psychic ability on your part, Paul, because I never explained my position. I just said I think Brooks is wrong, and also said that criticising Brooks with an ad hominem achieves nothing.

        There was never any reason for me to explain how I view the issue of family breakdown.

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 1:13 pm | #

          There, you just restated your position once again. No psychic abilities needed. Just basic reading comprehension skills.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm | #

        Paul, what position do you think I have taken?

        Trying to figure out if
        1. you have any interesting insights on this, or
        2. if you are just trying to see what happens by rearranging words.

        Up to this point, all I have found out from you is that you think ad hominems are good iff they are used against someone you dislike. Nevertheless, the generally accepted view is that they are logical fallacies. As it says in the Wikipedia article: “Ad hominem reasoning is normally categorized as an informal fallacy, more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.”

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm | #

          Do you think you could *possibly* respond to my argument that logical fallacies are generally perversions of valid hueristics–and that therefore something that superficially *looks* like a fallacy actually has to be looked at critically, rather than just condemned out of hand, when its status is seriously contested? Thus far, it doesn’t even seem as if you’re even *read* that argument–or any of the others that have been made against your dogmatic position.

          You seem to think that you’re the only one who reads around here. All the rest think you’re the odd man out. Here’s your chance to prove us wrong.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm | #

        Paul, the part of Yglesias’ argument which is an ad hominem is irrelevant to the issue. Brooks’ personal failings are irrelevant. I see no reason to go beyond that.

        Yglesias goes on to make a better argument later in his article, so he did not even need the ad hominem argument.

        Also the arguments made by both Brooks and Yglesias center on which children will have opportunities for material success, which I consider a preferred indifferent (ie a convenience) not a good. I do not much care which children will grow up to have the better chance to buy a BMW.

        I do care about children having access to good schools, health care, pleasant housing, sufficient nourishing food; and, if possible, a stable family life. I think the last is more likely if government guarantees the former four.

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm | #

          So, in short, you decline to learn anything. Apparently, everyone else here already concluded that. I was simply trying to give the benefit of every possible doubt.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 3:40 pm | #

        Paul, I learn every day. That’s why I get up at 4 AM to study.

        But, you have the strange idea that I should “learn”, ie accept your version of the truth; even if every book on logic says I am right that ad hominems are logical fallacies, and that you advocating the use of them is wrong.

        • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) December 20, 2013 at 5:47 pm | #

          What you need to learn is not to accept my version of the truth. You need to learn how to engage my argument. Textbooks on *anything* are but a starting point. Why does calculus work? You won’t find the answer in calculus. You need to take a course in real analysis to learn that.

          Similarly, there’s more to argument than logic, and you’ve got to go beyond the texts of logic (into rhetoric, or better yet, cognitive science) to figure out what that “more” is all about. I tried to give a valuable bit of advice–an insight into *why* fallacies are misleading (which I’ve never seen in any book on logic, btw, it’s a cog-sci kind of insight).

          But you dogmatically assumed that you already knew everything there was to know. So you didn’t even *listen* to what I was saying. Nor did you listen to anyone else. You simply assumed that you were (a) right and (b) supremely knowledgeable, so there was no point in taking anyone else seriously.

          Is it any wonder that no one else took you seriously in return?

          That’s just basic psychology: people treat you in a manner that reflects how you treat them. It’s at least as fundamental as basic logic.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm | #

        Salve Brother Paul. You wrote:

        “You need to learn how to engage my argument……..I tried to give a valuable bit of advice–an insight into *why* fallacies are misleading (which I’ve never seen in any book on logic, btw, it’s a cog-sci kind of insight)……..So you didn’t even *listen* to what I was saying.”…….etc

        Nothing has changed. Every time I click on this blog it turns into another trip down the rabbit whole, where the rules of logic and rational thought are suspend by local decree whenever they become inconvenient to the conclusions that have drawn in advance, which is almost always.

        But thanks for sharing, yet again, your ‘more insightful than thou’ attitude.

        Corey has threatened to ban me several times and it seems likely that he will do that soon. I have enjoyed the exchanges here and I learned a lot from the discussions, although what I learned is very much at variance at what you say I should learn. I suppose you feel something similar. La vita è cosi.

        Be well.

  10. Bart December 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm | #

    Where are my gossips? Did Bobo find a younger replacement on his book tour? Did Sarah nee Jane throw his stuff on the front lawn like Will’s wife did?

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