May 29, 2005

Column 2005-5-29 Commentary

Today's Brooks column is mostly just confusing. He presents a pseudo-Marxist view of a new kind of class war in modern America, one between the educated and the uneducated (it's actually framed as a manifesto delivered by the ghost of Karl Marx, but I'm just going to pretend that never happened), which has some merit as it is undoubtedly true that one of the great divides between the upper middle and upper classes and everybody else is the former's high education level. However, the confusing part is that it seems unlikely that Brooks would actually believe such an analysis. He himself states that "I don't belive in incessant class struggle," making it initially unclear just what the point of the column is. Furthermore, and predictably, Brooks's Marxism isn't very good: a real Marxist would not define classes by their education level, but regard the difference in education as a facet of the class struggle. To a Marxist (or possibly a neo-Marxist), education is simply a tool the capitalists can wield against the proletariat to preserve their power, a tool that is even more powerful in a post-industrial economy. In reality, Brooks's use of the class struggle metaphor simply cloaks his anti-Marxism. In Brooks's world, economics never significantly impacts people's lives: what's important is not money but culture, and in this column Brooks picks out one particular part of culture, education, as the difference between classes.

Much of the column is as incoherent as its central idea. The second paragraph discusses the distressingly small number of poor people who attend top colleges, even as financial aid plans get more and more generous. The third paragraph alludes to the increasing income gap between rich (fine, "educated elites") and poor. And in the next paragraph Brooks writes :"Members of the educated elites are more and more likely to marry each other, which the experts call assortative mating, but which is really a ceaseless effort to refortify class solidarity and magnify social isolation." Now, this is pretty clearly a joke. Not necessarily a good joke (though Brooks has done much worse), but a joke nonetheless. The whole paragraph, in fact, is not meant to be taken seriously. What are we to make of this juxtaposition? It gets even worse in the next paragraph, when Brooks begins with "The educated elites are the first elites in all of history to work longer hours per year than the exploited masses, so voracious is their greed for second homes," a clear joke, and follows with a serious social critique, "They congregate in exclusive communities walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices, then congratulate themselves for sending their children to public schools." It's hard to tell whether Brooks is trying to draw attention to some serious issues with the occasional joke thrown in or simply feels that his pseudo-Marxist joke column needs a couple of serious observations to give it a real revolutionary flavor.

Similarly, Brooks speaks of the elites sending "their children off to Penn, Wisconsin and Berkeley, bastions of privilege for the children of the professional class." Penn, ok, though one wonders why he didn't choose, say, Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Princeton, in fact, would make a lot more sense, given that Penn is located in Philadelphia, a city which is not exactly a bastion of privelege, while Princeton is in an affluent suburb. Berkeley, though it is a public university and located in a city, is also barely acceptable. But (with apologies to any readers who are from or went there) Wisconsin? Is he kidding? UW-Madison is a bastion of privilege for the children of the professional class? Brooks, educated at the University of Chicago and deeply ashamed of the fact that he didn't go to Yale, surely did not select these universities at random, and once again we can only assume that he deliberately introduced this contradiction in order to encourage the readers not to take his column, or at least this part of it, very seriously.

Passing lightly over the obligatory digs at highly-educated liberals, we finally come to the end of the incoherency, signaling that we are about to arrive at what Brooks thinks is the real problem: nobody's doing anything about the failing school system. Oh, excuse me, that would require that Brooks actually face up to the fact that the steady decline of public school systems over the past 30 years is connected to the country's steady drift to the right over the same time period. Actually, failing public schools get only one sentence: the real problem, naturally, is the imposition of "a public morality that affords maximum sexual opportunity for [the upper classes] and guarantees maximum domestic chaos for those lower down." "Family structures have disintegrated for the oppressed masses," and that's what keeping them down. As we probably should have suspected from the first, Brooks is not really interested in education. What really bugs Brooks, as is the case with many of today's conservatives, is the sixties. Just as conservatives often think that everything that Bush has screwed up is actually the fault of Clinton, they have a tendency to believe that everything that's wrong today is the result of the sixties. In this case, the sexual revolution and feminism are blamed for destroying America's families, which in turn makes it less likely that poor children will graduate from high school, much less move on to college.

This ridiculously simplistic analysis is riddled with holes. To blame all the problems faced by poor children living in single-parent households on the fact that they have only one parent is ridiculous. The fact that the education level of the parent is likely to be low is also a problem. A poor family is less likely to be able to afford to purchase supplemental materials, or even just books, to encourage the child to study or simply to read. Poor children are, presumably, more likely to get a job in high school. And that leaves out the poor quality of schools in poor areas and the effect of racism on poor black children. But the biggest problem with Brooks's claims is that they rely on a mythical idea of an America in which all families had two parents, with a father who worked and a mother who stayed at home and took care of the kids. In reality, while America approached this ideal in the fifties, that was the only time in which the country has come even close. The fact is that the fifties were an extremely unusual decade, one in which the divorce rate fell for the first time in a century while marriage and fertility rates zoomed upward. Comparing family patterns in the fifties to any other decade is likely a pointless endeavor, so it's no surprise that Brooks does exactly that. He cites two statistics (with no source mentioned, naturally): in 1960, 75% of poor families were headed by a married couple, and now only a third are. Clearly, poor families are melting down, right? Well, interestingly enough, in 1960 one-third of all children lived in poverty. In 2000, that figure had been cut approximately in half, to 16.3%. In 1940, 10% of all children did not live with either birth parent. That figure is 4% today. In fact, in 1900 20% of all children were raised in orphanages. The percentage of children living in a two-parent household has been fairly steady at about 70% for the last few decades, and the number of married-with-children households has been steadily increasing since hitting a low in the 1980's. In 1957, there were more than twice as many births to 15-19 year old women than in 1983. In fact, unwed motherhood increased most sharply between 1940 and 1958, when it tripled. It leveled off from 1960-1976 before starting to increase again. Really, the very idea that teen pregnancy is a problem is a new development. It used to be the case that if a teenage girl got pregnant, she would simply marry the baby's father and they would both drop out of school. Only when it became necessary to graduate from high school and possibly even go to college to get a good job did teenage pregnancy become a problem. Brooks says that "Poor children are less likely to live with both biological parents, hence, less likely to graduate from high school," but poor children have never been likely to graduate from high school: it's simply that the consequences of not doing so have recently become more severe. And the connection between being part of a single-parent household and dropping out of school is important only in that a child from a single-parent household is far more likely to be poor than one from a two-parent household. Drop-out rates are 19% overall, and 13% for children from 2-parent families: the differences is almost certainly largely due to the effects of poverty. Additionally, it should be noted that half of all marriages in the fifties ended in divorce, mostly due to men leaving marriages, and that this phenomenon provided one of the major impetuses behind the birth of feminism.

Brooks tries hard to mask his anti-feminist, anti-sixties ideology behind a facade of toungue-in-cheek pseudo-Marxist rhetoric and concern for education, but that's clearly what's driving this column. His disdain for Marxism leads him to reject the idea that economic status can have a significant impact on one's life, and his dislike of the sixties counterculture causes him to fetishize the culture of the fifties and its most visible (if least real: 2 million married couples lived separately in the fifties, two million more wives worked outside the home than at the peak of WWII, and more people say that their marriages are happy today) component, the happy two-parent family, leading naturally to the conclusion that the sixties caused single-parent families and that single-parent families are responsible for everything that's wrong with life today. Put that way, it sounds, and indeed is, ridiculous: how could a columnist in a prestigious newspaper waste his space making such an argument? Sadly, in a column full of internal contradictions, written by an author who doesn't believe half of it and presented as if it came from the ghost of Karl Marx (and didn't Safire corner the market on columns from ghosts with his conversations with the ghost of Richard Nixon?), it doesn't stand out.