Sunday, August 06, 2006

At Long Last Have You No Decency David Brooks?

David Brooks is a lightweight whom I typically ignore. Other progressive bloggers critique his sophomoric punditry and infantile analysis with enthusiasm. Until Friday, I considered attacking Brooks akin to abusing the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Standing on an overcrowded A-Train with malfunctioning air conditioning, I read Brooks’ column "Bye-Bye Bootstraps" while commuting to Manhattan from Brooklyn. Brooks had the temerity to suggest that a “Wal-Mart leisure class” was emerging in America. One wonders how my fellow passengers suffering from the heat as we commuted to our jobs would’ve responded to this soft minded propagandist of America’s plutocracy.

The New York Times recently did a piece about how some people out of work were taking advantage of their free time. Brooks cleverly exploited quotes from these individuals to suggest that today’s work ethic belongs to the hard working wealthy. Even worse, Brooks’ perverts the word “dignity” to claim it as the property of elites:

“Once upon a time, middle-class men would have defined their dignity by their ability to work hard, provide for their family and live as self-reliant members of society. But these fellows, to judge by their quotations, define their dignity the same way the subjects of Thorstein Veblen’s ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ defined theirs.

They define their dignity by the loftiness of their thinking. They define their dignity not by their achievement, but by their personal enlightenment, their autonomy, by their distance from anything dishonorably menial or compulsory.”
You see what he’s doing? Brooks is hijacking the egalitarian concept of dignity. Dignity is a virtue that no single economic class, race, religion or nationality can lay claim to as his or her own. Dignity belongs to all of us. As Robert Fuller has written so persuasively, dignity is a universal right. Brooks has twisted dignity into a virtue belonging to the wealthy.

Obviously he hopes to justify the status of today’s mega wealthy by implying elites possess superior dignity. The wealthy are hard working souls driven to achievement while those lazy people working at Wal-Mart just don’t have the same dignity of ambition. This man is a jerk.

I immediately thought of my good friend known by some in the blogosphere as ”Breaking Ranks.” She is a driven person down on her luck professionally without steady work. I could think of no one more qualified to refute the garbage inside David Brooks’ column.

She did not disappoint. My friend is a gentle soul but Brooks’ column provoked her into posting a diary on Daily Kos entitled, "F*** YOU DAVID BROOKS AND NYT." Her title made me laugh. In nearly twenty years of friendship from our days as undergraduate classmates, I don’t recall her ever dropping an F-bomb. For her to even have “F” followed by three asterisks was a big deal. Brooks may be a mediocre scribe but he managed to provoke the most gentle and civil of souls.

Her post was a tour de force and a must read. It should’ve made the recommended list at Daily Kos but didn’t. A talented writer she got to the point quickly:

“I've been limping around in agony for three weeks. An ingrown toenail got seriously infected, and the only thing Neosporin seems to be doing is preventing it from getting worse. Why haven't I gone to a podiatrist? I don't have any health insurance. Thus this NYT article by David Brooks makes me want to scream with rage.

I haven't worked regularly since 2003. Nothing is going into Social Security for me, and it's likely that I will be a renter (or possibly a homeless person) until the day I die. I've never held a full-time job that made use of my education and talents, much less enabled me to pursue my dreams. I haven't been to the movies in over three years, and I don't conspicuously consume at Wal-Mart or anywhere else. I handwash all my clothes, and I'm down to one pair of pants.

Yep, I'm sooo sure this is what Veblen had in mind when he described the Leisure Class. My take on the dignity of my condition diverges considerably from Brooks' mean-spirited screed as well.

So forgive the INAPPROPRIATE CAPS - I'm officially PISSED THE HELL OFF!”
Alas, David Brooks enjoys a veneer of respectability. The New York Times is discredited from the Judith Miller fiasco and other transgressions. However, the gray lady remains a powerful forum and Brooks is a frequent commentator on the inside the beltway talking circuit. Consequently, he has the ability to shape the terms of debate and discussion that influences political discourse. Those who control the terms of debate rule the day in politics.

Since Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964, conservatives have managed to define the social safety net as evil and taxes on wealth as immoral. With ruthless skill conservatives have promoted an ethos in America that rewards wealth over work and hyper individualism over community values.

These people realize their reign of indecency may be coming to an end if the terms of debate are not altered before November. Enter David Brooks at stage right with his mean spirited diatribe sullying the dignity and virtues of hard working people. Our corporatist policies that reward wealth over work can be justified because in Brooks’ view the wealthy are the only people who are truly working.

During his weekly appearance with Mark Shields on the PBS News Hour, Brooks even criticized the attempt to raise the minimum wage because it would only help “teenagers.” Mark Shields promptly corrected him and noted that minimum wage earners are the primary earners in forty percent of households.

Sadly, abstract columns by David Brooks and others that justify class warfare from the top are not effectively refuted. Media Matters is terrific at exposing disinformation and falsehoods but this sort of diatribe often survives and eventually becomes an accepted part of the lexicon. It sounds absurd yet given Republican success at manipulating language it’s not hard to imagine liberals soon having to defend that regular working people have dignity too.

My friend did a beautiful job in responding to Brooks. More is needed however. I urge anyone reading this posting to write to the New York Times and demand that Brooks recant and apologize to millions of working Americans. This should be done in a respectful tone without profanity. Blogosphere etiquette will be ineffective. Instead, please utilize civil assertiveness to persuade the New York Times editorial board that David Brooks has created a firestorm with his indecency.

One aspect of the New York Times I always appreciated is the diversity of their columnists. Columnists for the Wall Street Journal are nothing but a total echo chamber for corporate fascism. At least the New York Times tries to promote a diversity of views with their columnists. Nevertheless, David Brooks’ column on Friday requires a heavy volume response from the working people of this country. I can think of no better place to start then the netroots.

To submit a letter to the New York Times click here.
I'm thrilled to report this posting was linked on The Nation's website in their important articles and newsfeeds section from the afternoon of Sunday, August 6th until late afternoon on Monday, August 7th. Why this happened I don't know but I'm gratified by the recognition and hope it results in many letters to the New York Times editorial board.

Also, I cross posted this topic on Daily Kos and the comments both favorable and otherwise make for interesting reading. Click here to review them.


Feemus said...

Great post--as you say, Brooks is almost too easy a target, but he is just so toxic.

And his example of the "proletariat"? An electrical engineer who used to make "six-figures"!

Anonymous said...

Watching Brooks on the Lehrer report, as animated as his personality allows, led me to think he really does believe the nonsense he spouts. Out here in middle America you will find many who would agree with him — while they're in Wal-Mart buying cheap stuff made by Chinese serfs in the last great Communist dictatorship. Yet, I suspect the percentage of the total population that actually pays attention to Brooks and the assorted other Beltway figures is in the upper single digits, at best in the lowest double digits. I may be naive, but I have some faith left that when the majority of the population finally reacts, the oligarchs and the theocrats will be firmly rejected.

Manifest Dignity said...

I'm swearing a few more times just for you. :-)

Bob Higgins said...


The nation picked this piece up because it is right up their alley, and effectively and passionately written.

It is also a heroic piece in the sense that it attacks an ogreish prick and supports a friend who has been directly and ogreifically abused by the prick in question.

(I just wanted to try out ogreish and ogreifically, I'm better now.)

Good job Rob, you deserve the accolades. Go out and fart in public.


Anonymous said...

There's something about Brooks that makes me want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But each time he opens his mouth, I lose all needless sympathy. He's a younger, facetiously self-effacing version of Broder, I think.

Go Intrepid Liberal!

Deirdre Helfferich said...

This (Brooks' attack on the working class) sounds to me like just more spurious "welfare queen" mythologizing, only this time it's Wal-Mart shoppers and store clerks. Same wolf in a different herbivore's clothing. "Wal-Mart leisure class," my eye. People who say things like this have no idea what working to stay alive means. They obviously think of working as working to get well off, or get wealthier—work as luxury, not work as survival. Trying to get enough to eat is an abstraction, a matter of mild hunger pangs before dinner time, not a hollow painful feeling in the midsection and the shakes because you've been living on bad free coffee and one meal a day of cheap yellow onions, bacon grease, and potatoes or old cabbage for too many weeks. I've been there, and it's not fun. Working crap jobs because you're desperate to stay off the street is not "leisure."

Such incredible ignorant arrogance!

Good response, Rob.

scootmandubious said...

This is as good a time as any to commend you on an excellent blog. Your comments on Brooks are on the money.

I think it is too easy for the journalistic 'elite,' if you will, to be so wrapped in a bubble that they have no conception about the quality of life for those of us that they talk down to. The 'connection' becomes non-existent.

If it were not for Frank Rich and, to a much lesser degree, Maureen Dowd, I would not bother with the Times much at all.

By the way, one of the best parts of this essay is your recommendation to e-mail the Times.

For years I sent out an e-mail-based newsfeed on glbt issues, before blogging became the way to go. Every article would be accompanied by links to contact the news services referred to in the stories I distributed and commented upon.

The reason for doing this is obvious. Oft-times with blogs and accompanying comments, we pretty much preach to the converted. The value in getting letters to the editor printed is incredibly powerful. It also gives us the opportunity to win some hearts and minds.

Sorry for such a long post, but I appreciate your good work.

jay lassiter said...

This exapmle of an ingrown toenail turning someone world asunder is NOT UNCOMMON...

My heart goes out to her.. Rob, get me her address so i can send her some homemade cookies or something.

also...can you recommend me on MLW??

Anonymous said...

Whichever way one feels about this article, I cannot believe for a minute that 40%!! of households have someone making $5.35 per hour as the principle wage earner... NFW!! Did I miss something here??

Christian_Left said...

I really liked this post. We should be standing in solidarity with the working poor, the unemployed, and the underemployed--not attacking them. Part of me wonders if David Brooks's ridiculous arguments may be generating a (laudable) backlash. I can't imagine that he is persuading anyone, other than perhaps a narrow group of elites who want to make themselves feel better about their good fortune. But thank you, anyway, for bringing up these important issues, which are so central to our moral and political future.

High Power Rocketry said...

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No Blood for Hubris said...



Needs to lose his job.

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

Brooks... The epitomy of an elitist yet so minimilized in his role that he merits not even a tremor. A despicable waste of paper his words.