David Brooks Almost Gets It

He’s right that elites should be sensitive to how their privilege alienates the working class. Here’s what he’s still missing.

David Brooks
David Brooks speaks on Oct. 19, 2014, in New York City.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for the New Yorker

David Brooks’ New York Times column on the upper-middle class has been the butt of many jokes this week. It’s a piece on social mobility that starts by acknowledging that upper-middle-class Americans support a number of policies, like zoning restrictions, that deepen inequality and that they spend their time and money in ways that do the same.

Brooks’ analysis here, which is informed by a book on the upper-middle class called Dream Hoarders that’s been making the rounds in elite circles, has been criticized by, among other people, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, who argues that centering discussions about inequality around Americans in the top 20 percent of the income distribution misguidedly ignores the runaway gains in wealth that have accrued specifically to the top 1 percent of Americans.

But the bulk of the criticism aimed at the column has been directed at Brooks’ analysis of the “informal social barriers” that he argues are actually more important than the structural and policy hurdles he and Dream Hoarders author Richard Reeves identify. He begins this analysis with an already infamous anecdote:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.

Here, Brooks takes decades’ worth of sociological work on cultural capital and flattens those ideas with a panini press. This has been his meal ticket for nearly 20 years. It is obviously true that cultural signifiers both divide and stratify Americans, often by class. But Brooks has long demonstrated poor command of those signifiers and the overall cultural landscape. In a 2004 piece for Philadelphia magazine, for instance, Sasha Issenberg masterfully debunked Brooks’ 2001 essay “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” in which Brooks described stark cultural differences he had supposedly discovered exploring his own predominantly Democratic and upper-middle-class Montgomery County, Maryland, and the red, less affluent Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Issenberg wrote that as he retraced Brooks’ journey, “It became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home.” Brooks claimed that retail in Franklin County was dominated by dollar stores and secondhand stores rather than the upscale shopping near his neighborhood. But Issenberg found that Montgomery County had more than a dozen more dollar stores. Brooks claimed that he couldn’t find a way to spend more than $20 on a Franklin County restaurant meal, even at Red Lobster. Issenberg easily found a steak-and-lobster combo at a Franklin County Red Lobster for $28.75. In response to a fact-checking call, Brooks berated Issenberg for dishonesty.

Issenberg noted in his piece that the differences in consumption Brooks often fixated on had diminished significantly given the expansion of “blue” retail chains like Saks Fifth Avenue and Anthropologie into new areas. Here in 2017, it seems intuitively true that the lines dividing American cultures are even blurrier. Technology and consolidation have made signifiers and cultural touchstones that a generation ago would have been deeply segregated by class, geography, or race more broadly familiar and accessible. More information than one could conceivably want about Italian food, ballet, or David Foster Wallace can be summoned within seconds by the vast majority of Americans. This does not, of course, mean that social mobility no longer depends, in part, on cultural capital. But it’s a particularly odd time to suggest that cultural capital matters more than structural inequality. In truth, cultural capital has probably never mattered less.

Brooks’ soppressata story has nevertheless drawn a few impassioned responses from right-leaning writers taken by his insight. Brooks, the Resurgent’s Erick Erickson said, was “admitting to being part of an elite class that has a harder time relating to those outside the class.” Erickson added, “I wonder how many people are snarking at Brooks to avoid grappling with his point.” Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle tweeted, “So I look at the folks making fun of Brooks, and think ‘how many of you have taken a genuine working class person to lunch?’ ” The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher related a similar restaurant experience to Brooks. “I can’t remember what, exactly, was on the menu that was so intimidating to my guest, but it never occurred to me that anything on that menu was weird,” he wrote. “Mind you, I was raised in a working-class cultural environment, but I’ve been out of it culturally for so long that I’ve lost the ability to perceive how trivial words and things like soppressata and Pomodoro are, to some people, fingers pointing at them telling them they are lesser.”

Dreher’s post also articulated a fascinating solution to the overall problem. “[P]eople like me, and most likely people like you,” he wrote, “need to become a lot more aware of the privileges that our cultural formation grants us.” What he and Brooks seem to implicitly call for is a kind of class-based political correctness: a sensitivity toward the ways subtle interactions or even mere words can alienate the underprivileged and a willingness to self-censor to avoid perpetrating small slights—slights we might as well call microaggressions—against working-class acquaintances.

On this front, the student activists and academics whom conservatives routinely assail are way ahead of Brooks and the rest. The concept of intersectionality, which Brooks dismisses in his column as an empty cultural signifier no more meaningful than a membership at a barre studio, is partially rooted in the idea that class can erect invisible barriers to mobility and respect similar to—and in fact linked to—the barriers imposed by race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other components of individual identity. “The idea of intersectionality implies that we cannot understand the lives of poor White single mothers or gay Black men by examining only one dimension of their lives—class, gender, race, or sexuality,” sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer wrote in a 2009 paper. “Indeed, we must explore their lives in their full complexity, examining how these various dimensions come together and structure their existence.” Social justice warriors thus have no difficulty incorporating the discomfort working-class people feel in unfamiliar situations into their broader analyses of how society leaves them behind.

Conservatives, on the other hand, generally deride the current generation of student activists for insisting that certain small, often unintentional slights can alienate, say, racial minorities. Insisting this, they argue, perpetuates an idiotic sense of victimhood. “[T]his movement does not emerge from a place of confidence and strength,” Brooks wrote in a column on campus politics in May 2016. “It emerges from a place of anxiety, lostness, and fragility. It is distorted by that soil. Movements that grant themselves the status of victim lack both the confidence to lead change and the ability to converse with others.” Conservatives such as Dreher have been less kind. In a post last year, Dreher mocked students who appeared in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece about campus politics at Oberlin. “The sense of entitlement among these students is simply off-the-charts,” he wrote. “One girl named Megan, a Bronx native who ‘identifies as Afro-Latinx,’ expresses her exhaustion after the living hell that is life at Oberlin.” In the piece, Megan explains that her feelings stemmed largely from her activism in the wake of the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in nearby Cleveland and the controversy surrounding a month of racist vandalism in 2013 that saw swastikas and fliers carrying messages like “CELEBRATE NIGGER HISTORY! PUT A BONE IN YOUR NOSE AND… ROLL AROUND IN SHIT” posted around campus. It is thus easier, one surmises, for Dreher to imagine someone being triggered by fancy salami than it is for him to imagine a black student being alienated or hurt to the point of exhaustion by open bigotry and the killing of a black child by police.

This is the way the political correctness discourse works. Conservative writers are happy to suggest—rightly—that coastal elites should be habitually engaged in the checking of their own class privilege and mindful always about the ways in which their preferences, and culture, and language can create environments hostile to the less affluent. But it is evidently absurd to suggest that people should similarly attune themselves to other forms of privilege and nonclass barriers. This is driven home by another sandwich story, from Oberlin no less, that made the rounds two years ago. In November 2015, five students—four of whom hailed from China, Japan, and Vietnam—told the Oberlin Review that limp imitations of dishes like Vietnam’s banh mi sandwich at one campus dining hall were disappointingly inauthentic despite being presented as traditional. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” one asked. Another suggested that Oberlin’s dining provider, Bon Appétit—which is granted lucrative contracts at Oberlin and other institutions based partially on its ability to provide “authentic” and “global” cuisine—do more research to avoid cultural food taboos. Japanese student Mai Miyagaki told the Review that cultural student groups might be willing to collaborate with dining employees to devise improved versions of the dishes they had attempted. “Overall, I think we—including myself—can always learn more about how to admit that we don’t know everything about every culture in the world,” she said, “and have a ‘We’re still trying to learn more’ kind of attitude.”

The collective aneurysm these comments provoked across the media—an orgy of straw man argumentation in which it was suggested students had argued that cultures can never meet or change—is interesting to examine in the wake of Brooks’ latest, in which we are told that his lunch date was so unsettled by unfamiliar meats that they chose an alternative location where she could feel more at home. Was it really so outrageous, in retrospect, for these foreign students to suggest that Bon Appétit trying to pass off shoddy versions of dishes they knew and loved had made them feel like outsiders?

Naturally, the answer from conservatives such as Dreher at the time was a resounding yes. The whole episode, he wrote, was a “titty-baby tantrumfest.” “Will the day ever come,” he asked, “when a college administrator tells students, ‘No, you stupid twits. Grow up!’? Ever?”

Should we respond to the very real class anxieties Brooks describes in the same way? Should we deride the less affluent for, as Brooks suggests, needing safe spaces away from elite fixations like bourgeois breads and David Brooks columns? Should we mock Dreher for writing, sincerely, that “the soppressata sandwich is a condensed symbol—shorthand for an entire worldview,” the way that conservatives routinely mock campus paper missives on cultural appropriation? Of course not. We can be better than that. We ought to understand and acknowledge the full range of obstacles that can render people outsiders even if conservatives won’t.