August 11, 2005

Column 2005-8-11 Commentary

(Update below)

Brooks's last two columns had reasonable moments, but in his latest column, Brooks falls back to his usual level. In it, he attempts to create the field of "cultural geography", which seems to simply be the study of cultures and why they are different. "Study why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries, why certain cultures embrace technology and economic growth and others resist them" Brooks says to the hypothetical "18-year-old kid with a really big brain" whom he seems to think reads his column regularly in the search for any advice he can get from one of the greatest morons -- or rather, public intellectuals -- of our time. Frankly, this doesn't sound quite as revolutionary or interesting as Brooks seems to think it is. For instance, take the question about the persistence of certain national traits. It seems pretty obvious that insofar as traits do persist, they do so because the vast majority of people in any given nation were born there and inherited those traits from their parents, or, if not from their parents, then from other children and the parents of these other children, in the same way that the children of immigrants learn to speak the language of their new country without an accent. In fact, one might as well ask why certain nations keep speaking the same language for centuries. Of course, they don't: languages evolve over time, and the same is likely true for national traits. Before Brooks's question about why certain cultures reject economic growth and technology can be answered, he's going to have to give some examples of such cultures that aren't extreme religious groups engaged in a blanket rejection of modernity. Otherwise, the question doesn't seem to be worth asking. And finally, Brooks wants to know why people cluster. Luckily, I can answer that one too: because human beings are gregarious animals, and they are gregarious because they evolved from other gregarious animals. Presumably, what Brooks really wants to ask is why people cluster with other like-minded people, but I feel that this question practically answers itself. After all, this is not exactly a new phenomenon. Consider the Amish, or the Mormons, or the early Puritans. Artist colonies, such as Greenwich Village or the Left Bank, form another not particularly recent example. The human tendency to band together against those that are different is as old as humanity. So too are the two outsider responses: forming one's own group or assimilating. Modern technology makes it easier to find like-minded people and to form a group with them, et voila.

Brooks doesn't actually try to answer these questions right away, though: first, he reinforces his conservative credentials by attacking "the gospel of multiculturalism". Incidentally, most of Brooks's columns these days seem to have an attack on some conservative bugaboo -- the academy, Europe, multiculturalism, etc. -- shoehorned in for no particular reason. One has to wonder if Brooks's handlers are perhaps worried about his devotion to the movement and are making sure that he toes the party line. Whatever may be the reason, Brooks makes his usual sweeping assertions without providing a shred of proof, and then, having apparently convinced the Party bosses that he's not backsliding, is free to continue with his column and this gem of a statement: "But none of this helps explain a crucial feature of our time: while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and the widening cultural differences are leading us into a period of conflict, inequality and segmentation." First of all, I defy Brooks to identify any period of human history that could not be described as one of "conflict, inequality, and segmentation." In fact, one could easily argue that this period of human history has considerably less conflict than some quite recent ones, e.g. the Cold War. It's hard to argue that there is more inequality now than there has been before, and as for segmentation, it's unclear if segmentation enforced by distance is any better or worse than a more voluntary sort. Secondly, I would like to quibble with Brooks's claim that "cultures are diverging". In fact, I'd argue that at no point in human history have all the world's cultures ever been as similar as they are now. I'll try to avoid sounding too much like Thomas Friedman, but if I can see in a New York Times (no link, as the article is too old to be available for free) photograph of the interior of the Beijing (or possibly Shanghai) subway system the exact same IPod ad campaign that is visible in the T here in Boston, then it seems to me that cultural differences are not exactly widening. Perhaps in the United States the cultural difference between, say, Massachusetts and Mississippi is wider than it used to be (though I'm not sure about that), but Brooks is talking about a global phenomenon. All in all, this sentence definitely qualifies as one of the stupidest Brooks has ever written. It's a signal achievement, and I feel proud to have been associated with it, albeit only distantly.

Naturally, Brooks can't keep up this level of idiocy throughout the column, but he's clearly trying hard and produces some quite respectable work. For instance, we find that "People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones." And yet "Old national identities and behavior patterns are proving surprisingly durable." There would seem to be a contradiction between these two statements. The first suggests that people are abandoning old cultures for new, while the second asserts that those old cultures are actually not much damaged. But Brooks doesn't seem to see any conflict between these sentences: in fact, he presents them back to back, and appears to think that both provide evidence for his assertion that globalization and technology are not "bringing us together." Next, Brooks redefines "globalized" to mean "economically integrated". Now, while economic integration is certainly part of any definition of globalization, there's a lot more to globalization than that. There's the little matter of the root word, "global", for instance. Why does Brooks redefine "globalized" in this fashion? So he can say "We in America have been "globalized" (meaning economically integrated) for centuries . . . ." If economically integrated is what he means, then why the hell doesn't he just say so?

Brooks goes on to point out, in a tone of wonder, that there are lots of American subcultures and fewer cultural unifiers, even though America is so economically integrated. Actually, Brooks points out that the mass media market is heavily segmented, which is not really the same thing. For example, the advent of cable means that the television market is highly segmented, with channels for practically anything, but it's not as if there is no overlap at all between people who watch ESPN and those who watch the Cartoon Network. And, of course, mass media segmentation is a function of economic integration (and better technology). Again using television as an example, cable only works because the more esoteric channels can be pumped into almost every house in the country, meaning that the pool of possible viewers is large enough that even if only a small fraction actually want to watch the channel there are still enough viewers that the channel is viable. And what makes this wide pool of potential viewers possible is, obviously, economic integration.

So Brooks strikes out with his first example of something that future cultural geographers could ponder. His next is just very obvious: liberals tend to move to liberal places (for some reason, Brooks says "crunchy" instead of liberal: I suspect it's supposed to be an insult, but it's just too obscure to qualify), and conservatives to conservative places. Golly gee, whyever could this be? Moving right along before the impulse to bang my head against my desk becomes too strong, we find that people don't all work on farms or factories any more. Which is true, but the reasons for that are well-documented and have little to do with culture. This is followed by yet another blindingly obvious observation: military and civilian cultures diverge. This is also an awful example, since it has nothing to do with the cultural changes of globalization and everything to do with the fact that the United States has a volunteer army, which places the risk of dying in a war entirely on one segment of the population. Next comes another reference to political polarization, except that the geographic component has been removed. In fact, there isn't a geographic component to either of the last two examples, or to the mass media example, for that matter. Which really reduces Brooks to saying that some Americans live differently from others. If Brooks really thinks that this is an important trend that needs to be examined, he's stupider than even I thought.

Next, Brooks attempts to globalize his phenomenon. Here, he does a better job, painting a picture of anti-globalization advocates and the extremely religious -- ranging from the simply "orthodox" to Islamist terrorists -- banding together to form their own groups. But, again, there's nothing really complicated here. Modern technology allows people to choose to follow any ideology or religion they like and to get together with other people who make the same choices. Two hundred, one hundred, or even fifty years ago this was impossible, or at least very, very difficult. But today the world is full of highly literate people who control wealth that was unthinkable for most of human history. Their literacy means that they are not restricted to the beliefs they were brought up with. Their wealth allows them to communicate with others almost anywhere in the world instantly and travel almost anywhere in the world in a few days. Given all this, it would be surprising only if we did not see this kind of clustering of like-minded people.

Having spent most of the column bumbling about, Brooks finally shows why he thinks this "cultural geography" is significant. "Transnational dreams are faltering" he says, referring to European integration and, inexplicably, Arab unity. I'm pretty sure that Arab unity has been dead for a couple of decades at least. The United Arab Republic ended in 1961, and the Arab League is much closer to the Organization of America States than the E.U., so it seems that the dream of Arab unity passed the faltering stage some time ago. Of course, what Brooks really cares about here is attacking the E.U. This is fairly typical, as is the swipe at Europeans for not working more and Canadians for not having more babies (I guess that Brooks felt that if he kept piling on the Europeans, people would start to think that he has something against Europe or something). Admittedly, he phrases these in neutral language -- fertility rates and work hours are "diverging" -- but Brooks has spent enough time talking about how low fertility rates and insufficient work hours will be the death of Europe that it's pretty clear that he expects future cultural geographers to spend a lot of time analyzing just why the United States is so much better than Europe and Canada. And finally we have this: "Global inequality widens as some nations with certain cultural traits prosper and others with other traits don't." Perhaps Brooks's earlier attack on "the gospel of multiculturalism" was also intended to cover himself against the inevitable backlash of people wondering if it's just a coincidence that in this analysis the countries with bad cultural traits tend not to be those inhabited by white people, and that this means that the non-white people are entirely responsible for their problems. On the other hand, Brooks said in his denunciation of multiculturalism that "there are a certain number of close-minded thugs . . . who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist . . . ." And since imputing that whether or not nations prosper is entirely dependent on their cultural traits and has nothing to do with history is certainly not intelligent, it appears that he has no outs at all on this one.

Finally, Brooks tosses away any shreds of credibility he retains by citing noted psuedoscientist and moron Samuel Huntington as one of the people that potential cultural geographers should emulate. Huntington is the man who once said that South Africa was more content than France in the early 1960's, using some ginned-up formula that took statistics like the number of telephones per capita and turned them into a "satisfaction index". If you're not sure just how satisfied South Africa was during the early '60's, look it up. You could start by googling "sharpeville massacre". And just last year Huntington published a book in which he claimed that Latino immigration was undermining the Anglo-Saxon character of the United States and that Mexican values, such as laziness (okay, he didn't actually say that, but he did say "lack of ambition" and "acceptance of poverty") are incompatible with the proud Anglo-Saxon ideals that have made the United States what it is today. Brooks finishes his column with one last appeal to the youths: "If you are 18 and you've got that big brain, the whole field of cultural geography is waiting for you." All I can say is that if the eighteen-year-olds Brooks is addressing can't figure out that a field which is supported by Brooks and where Samuel Huntington is a figure to emulate is not something that they want to be associated with, they can't have that big of a brain after all.

Update: Courtesy of Sadly, No! we find that Brooks is even less revolutionary than we thought. A google search for "cultural geography" gives about 202,000 hits, the first one of which is to the Journal of Cultural Geography. So, um, it seems that this field is a little more established than Brooks thinks. Especially when one realizes that cultural geography bears more than a passing resemblance to anthropology. Could this column be Brooks's stupidest ever? Well, we're too lazy to go back and compare it to all his others, but in the true Brooksian tradition, we say yes it is, evidence and research be damned.