Friday, May 01, 2015


In today's column, David Brooks looks at troubled urban enclaves like Freddie Gray's Baltimore and, naturally, blames the residents' failures to learn self-discipline:
The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded....

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty.... the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.
That was predictable, and if that were the worst thing about the column, it would be just another day at the office for Brooks. What's worse is that Brooks drags in David Simon, creator of The Wire, as a witness on his behalf, even though Simon's words don't in any way buttress Brooks's argument, as is obvious to anyone who can read.

Brooks writes:
In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens -- when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres -- in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.
But in the interview, Simon doesn't say that the disappearance of well-crafted "informal guardrails" has left poor Baltimoreans incapable of self-guidance. What Simon says is that the rules for interactions with cops were absurd in the past, although they were knowable:
A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn't like somebody who's looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.
Brooks wants you to regard the old rules as benign and nurturing. According to Simon, the rules might have been codified and everyone might have known the code, but the code was preposterous:
In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfucker in the 80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If the cop came up to clear your corner and you're moving off the corner, and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfucker, you're not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfucker, that’s within the realm of general complaint. But the word “asshole” -- that’s how ornate the code was -- asshole had a personal connotation. You call a cop an asshole, you're going hard into the wagon in Baltimore.
And Simon doesn't even claim to know for certain whether these absurd rules still apply:
At least it used to be that way. Who knows if those gradations or nuances have survived the cumulative brutalities of the drug war. I actually don’t know if anything resembling a code even exists now.
(Before we proceed, let's recall how Brooks describes what's happening now: "Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted." Does the old system that Simon describes seem to you like a set of "norms that middle-class people take for granted"?)

What's happening now, according to Simon, is not a lack of guidance. What's happening is total war:
For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in that story the Sun published last year about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There's no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees -- and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.
Allow me to quote the Sun story again:
Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones -- jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles -- head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement....
That's not a lack of "guardrails." It's not "harshness." It's armed occupation. It's sadism and brutality. And it wasn't benign in the past. It was just less awful. Why can't Brooks read Simon's words and grasp what they actually mean?


Victor said...

Bobo, is Bobo.

When he reads something, anything, everything, he believes that it reinforces whatever position it is that he holds on the subject.

He then takes a couple of lines out and puts them in his column, and says the writer agrees with him.
Then, he throws in a strawman or two, and finally, he burns the strawman(men) to the ground by using whatever he pilfered from better and smarter writers, and his own twisted-to-fit point-of-view.
Another column!!
But a genius with "humility..."

"The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded...."

The reason it exploded, Bobo - you dumbass! - was partly the Nixon/Carter/Reagan Recession, and the rest of the responsibility for that explosion, was that that was when our blessed corporations started moving jobs down to the union-less South as a temporary stopping-off point, before they shipped them overseas.
In the 70's and 80's, a lot of textile and manufacturing jobs - many of them in all sorts of sized cities - moved from the North to the South.
And then, to India, China, Pakistan, etc...

This really isn't too hard to understand.
But, you probably can't see it through your coating of "humility."

Bob Roth said...

"Post derp, ergo propter derp." Charles Pierce

I don't recall what Mr. P was going on about when he came up with that. It might well have been something Brooks vomited.

cityspiders said...

"Why can't Brooks read Simon's words and grasp what they actually mean?"

He's not paid to. He doesn't want to, either, but that's a side issue.

JamTheCat said...

David Brooks wants to think of himself as the next William F. Buckley when he hasn't the intellectual capacity or ability to reason like Buckley had. I never liked Buckley, but at least I understood where he was coming from. All Brooks can do is equal Buckley's ability to be a condescending jerk.

Girard Bent said...

Simon is right. The existence of some sort of code, even a nonsensical one is a benefit. It means that you can plan strategies for getting through the day. If the cops are beating down everyone who can't flawlessly recite "The Jabberwocky", then you can decide to learn it, no matter how unfair that might be.
No working code means it gets harder to find a strategy. No matter how much a crazy code made your life suck, no code at all makes it suck even more.
Brooks chooses to believe there's a code, a good code, because there's always been one for him. Not a point of view supported by any evidence.

Yastreblyansky said...

Wonderful. I find that his reading of actual conservative Robert Samuelson is pretty spectacularly off as well.

retiredeng said...

David Brooks is the 21st century equivalent of Marie Antoinette. Clueless about the lesser classes.

Never Ben Better said...

Whenever I encounter a clueless child of privilege spouting off about personal responsibility, bootstraps, moral decay, et bloody cetera, to explain what's wrong with Those People, I wish said yammerhead could be plunked down, dark-skinned but still his/her white-privileged self inside, into one of the communities being tsk-tsked over, and forced to survive there on minimum wage -- oh, say for a month. Assuming they live that long.

andrewlong said...

Then there's his "analysis" of the nature of poverty today. It's true, the poverty rate has fluctuated and not risen much in the past 30 years. But the total number of people in poverty has nearly doubled, from around 27 million in 1980 to 45.3 million in 2013.

For the federal anti-poverty programs that still exist--and they have been egregiously squeezed and strained by good ole Bipartisan Welfare Reform--that is necessarily going to look like "spending has exploded."

Harvey Boulay said...

Here in Philadelphia, you can go to an "author event" at the FREE Library of Philadelphia with David Brooks on May 5 at 7:30 p.m. for a $35 ticket. Only those with sufficient moral character need consider.

Ellis Weiner said...

Brooks, in his professional capacity as an apologist for Republicans and "conservatives," believes in something called "human nature." He believes--or he pretends to--that human nature is fixed and knowable, and that social science brings us new truths about it every day.

By recognizing these truths, Brooks says, we can solve problems such as poverty, racism, and crime. But we have to go back to the old, tried-and-true morality. We are so bamboozled and deracinated by modernity, we have lost sight of what it takes to make a good, just society.

In other words, Brooks is retailing capitalist bullshit, that "regretfully" blames the victims of plutocracy and its rigged system for the wrongheaded behaviors that cause their misery.

It's no longer enough for Brooks to sugar-coat the crimes and depravities of Republicans and their policies. Now he's become a lay preacher, using the gospel of pop sociology to chastise the 99% and summon them--i.e., us--to repent and be saved via "morality" and "values."

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing David Brooks to publish a book on "character" with a straight face.