June 16, 2005

Column 2005-6-16 Commentary

Having figured out how to solve the problem of AIDS in Africa, Brooks apparently considers his job there done, and today he abandons his excellent African adventure to return to doing what he does best: bashing liberal elites for everything he can possibly think of that's wrong with America. Today's episode features liberal elites being blamed for the decline of middle-class culture in America. How do we know that middle-class culture in America has declined? Well, back in the fifties and early sixties, Time and Newsweek used to do big pieces on topics like Abstract Expressionism, Hemingway, or "theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr." Now, Time does cover stories on Jesus. Clearly, middle-class culture has declined, right? Well, if one assumes that all of middle-class culture is found in Time and Newsweek, then yes. Otherwise, you might have to consider the possibility that middle-class culture simply migrated somewhere else. Where did it go? Personally, I have no idea, but then again, I'm not being paid sizable sums to write about my cultural studies on the editorial page of the New York Times.

There is a similar phenomenon at work when Brooks places the death of middle-class culture in the mid-sixties (and I'm being generous here: try to reconcile "Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America" with " Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's"). How does Brooks come to this conclusion? Well, middle-brow culture existed prior to the mid-sixties. It doesn't exist today. Therefore, it was killed in the mid-sixties. And that's the whole argument. No studies are cited. No attempt is made to show that the cultural content of Time and Newsweek started to change in the mid-sixties. Brooks seems to have trouble telling the difference between saying something and proving that what you just said is correct.

Of course, this kind of confusion is only to be expected in a column where Brooks can't even stick with a consistent definition of his topic. What is "middlebrow culture"? Well, it's "really high-toned popular culture". But Time and Newsweek were writing articles "pitched at middle-class people . . . who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite." That sounds more like these people wanted to move away from popular culture and towards the elite culture of the East Coast. Doesn't Brooks even have an editor who could gently suggest that his column is completely self-contradictory?

Naturally, Brooks blames this problem on liberal elites. On the one hand, he quotes Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald attacking middlebrow culture, suggesting that intellectuals did their best to destroy it. There are two points to be made here: first of all, two people do not a movement make, and secondly, who are these guys anyway? On the other hand, Brooks also blames vague changes in pop culture: "It was no longer character-oriented; it was personality-oriented," whatever that means. Well, what it really means, of course, is that those bad liberals who created sixties pop culture destroyed the middlebrow culture with their selfishness. What's really amazing, though, is that Brooks absolves the media of all responsibility, asserting "it's not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial)." Really? The media has no responsibility for the content it puts out? Actually, to a certain extent this is true: the media -- and, in fact, all (or almost all) producers of cultural material -- is simply trying to make money by following the rules of the free market, something which you'd think that conservatives would appreciate. And this leads us to what is probably the real reason for the decline of middlebrow culture: the rise of television. The kind of middlebrow culture Brooks describes -- reading great books, going to see great art, discussing opera -- is in many ways incompatible with television. As television took over national culture, and began reaching towards the lowest common denominator (because people are more likely to watch something stupid than something that they can't understand), the death of Brooks's middlebrow culture was probably inevitable. Brooks would never so much as mention that this might be one of the reasons for the end of middlebrow culture because this is a story of market forces at work rather than liberal elites oppressing the common people, but that's hardly unexpected (here's another potential theory that Brooks would rather die than discuss: the decline of the middle class and the rise of income inequality in America over the last 30-plus years of conservative rule bears some responsibility for the death of middlebrow culture).

What's really strange about this column, though, is the fact that it was written by a man who routinely sneers at intellectuals and high culture in his columns. He has, in the past, derided the "university-town wing" of the Democratic party while extolling "Patio Man", who has left the inner-ring suburbs for the exurbs partly because he is uncomfortable with the cosmopolitan nature of the former (e.g., theaters that have the temerity to show foreign films). He praises red states where people (who are implicitly regarded as Real Americans) prefer hunting and NASCAR to book-learnin', don't think Woody Allen is funny, and eat meatloaf instead of "sun-dried-tomato concotions" (even if these characterizations aren't entirely correct). His various pseudo-analyses of the divides between Democratic and Republican voters inevitably leave intellectuals on the Democratic, and therefore wrong, side, and often take many of the defining traits of the Democratic voter base from its academic component. He is fond of attacking the lack of "intellectual diversity" in academia. And yet he writes that "artists and intellectuals have less authority [now]" as if he thinks this state of affairs is regrettable. If artists and intellectuals had any authority in society, not only would George Bush not be president, David Brooks wouldn't have a spot on the NYT editorial page, as it would have been given to someone who could actually think instead. Brooks knows this, and is an expert at promoting backlash anti-intellectualism among the ordinary people whose lack of respect for the culture he encourages them to denounce helps further the interests of the Republican party. And now he is complaining that these same people aren't interested in high culture? If irony wasn't already dead, Brooks just killed it.

On the other hand, the whole column could just be a not-very-subtle hint to Time and Newsweek that they need to raise the tone of their coverage, perhaps by publishing a piece by David Brooks, the foremost public intellectual of our time. After all, there has to be some reason for all those references to Time and Newsweek.