Friday, June 14, 2013


David Brooks has published a new column about how we were all better people back in the good old days when we were more religious. I have to admit I'm having trouble getting past Brooks's first anecdote, the key point of which I've highlighted below:
About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, though the family had happily paid for Judd's two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.

His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.

Judd took the train to the university, arrived at the station at 10:30 and by 12:15 had found a job washing dishes at the cafeteria of the Y.M.C.A. He did that job every day of his first year, rising at 6 each morning, not having his first college date until the last week of the school year.

Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963. The anecdote is small, but it illustrates a few things. First, that, in those days, it was possible to work your way through college doing dishes. More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.
But how does this anecdote illustrate that? If that's what Judd's father really believed, wouldn't he, instead of encouraging his son to wash dishes to pay for college, have encouraged him not to go to college at all, and to save his soul by being a humble dishwasher for the rest of his life?

In any case, Judd didn't avoid the "morally perilous" -- he became a doctor, a twenty-year member of Congress, and the keynote speaker at the 1960 Republican convention. He was a prominent anti-communist, and he lived long enough to get a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. A life like that might give a guy a swelled head, don't you think? And thus subject him to moral peril?


Brooks goes on to express nostalgia for a bygone era when we were skeptical about the worth of success. He even gives a shout-out to Depression-era lefty proletarian fiction. But mostly it's religion that's kept us on the righteous path, in his view:
It wasn't as if Americans renounced worldly success (this is America!), but there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man's hierarchy, the artist's hierarchy, the intellectual's hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.

Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.

As a result, people are less ambivalent about commerce....
Um, you know where they really don't feel any ambivalence about commerce? In the red states, where they denounce liberals as capitalism-bashers and howl at Barack Obama ("You didn't build that!") for challenging the notion of entrepreneur-as-Randian-demigod.

Now, which are the most religious states in America? And which are the least religious? And how do those rankings line up with the success of that unabashed champion of commerce Mitt Romney?

Mr. Gallup, may I have the envelope, please?

The ten most religious states in America all voted for Mr. Bain Capital. Only one of the ten least religious states (Alaska) voted for him.

And, of course, Rick Perry, probably the most God-bothering governor in America, spends much of his time rubbing other states' noses in the economic success that his state has achieved as a result of high oil prices and a shredded social contract.


Brooks used to think it was perfectly OK that people craved the trappings of wealth -- or maybe he just said that because it was an easy way to bash Democrats who engage in "class warfare":
Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we're just pre-rich.

Americans read magazines for people more affluent than they are (W, Cigar Aficionado, The New Yorker, Robb Report, Town and Country) because they think that someday they could be that guy with the tastefully appointed horse farm. Democratic politicians proposing to take from the rich are just bashing the dreams of our imminent selves.
He also seemed to think that rich people don't really lose their moral bearings -- or maybe he thought that was true only outside the decadent big cities:
Most successful people, like Lincoln, also have a core faith in the moral power of hard work.

... many of the hard-working people who make up the ranks of the gradually successful are flamboyance vacuums. Often they are far more interested in working and making money than in consuming and spending money. According to research that Thomas J. Stanley did for his book "The Millionaire Next Door," written with William D. Danko, 70 percent of millionaires have their shoes resoled and repaired rather than replaced, and the average millionaire spends about $140 on a pair of shoes, which doesn't get you Guccis. After Visa and MasterCard, the most common credit cards in the millionaire's wallets are charge cards for Sears and J.C. Penney . In that 1996 study, Stanley and Danko reported that the typical millionaire paid $399 for his most expensive suit and $24,800 for his or her most recent car or truck, which is only $3,800 more than what the average American spent.

In other words, they shop the way most Americans shop....
In this, as in so many respects, people who live in Manhattan or Los Angeles or San Francisco or even Dallas have to keep reminding themselves that their experience is not typical. In most places in America, there are no massive concentrations of rich people and hence no Madison Avenue boutiques, no fine art galleries, no personal shoppers. There is just the country club, and certain social pressures to be just this affluent, to prove you are a success, and no more so.
What happened?

Did we decadent city folk burn down the churches all these Millionaires Next Door used to attend? I don't remember doing that myself, but maybe I was drunk on atheism.


Victor said...

Ah, Bobo moralizing again.

The sun must have risen in the East again.

Thank you for reading him, and summarizing his idiocy.

But I'll be happy to let you know, Steven, you don't do that on account of me - 'cause frankly I don't give a shit what opinion that insipid hack has got twice a week.

Now, if you do it for shit's and giggles, than by all means, please do so.
I learn more from one of your take-downs, that I have in all of Bobo's columns and TV and radio appearances, combined.

Steve M. said...

His nonsense is my Everest. I debunk it because it's there.

Greg said...

My version of cosmic justice would be for Brooks to be stuck in a hardass professor's classroom indefinitely, getting C- paper after C- paper sent back to him for his half-baked bullshit. Maybe eventually he'd get off it...or maybe he'd just blame "liberal academia" forever.

BK said...

Wasn't B rooks just complaining last fall that the problem with Americaa is that no one wants an ordinary working class job any more?

I wanted to slap him. First, why didn't he want to take one of these wonderful working class jobs?

Second, what working class jobs?

Third, no one can live on a working class job, because of republican anti unionism and Walmart.

Fourth, SHUT UP.

Linkmeister said...

Rather than Mr. Judd assuming that that low-end job was ennobling, I submit that perhaps he took the dishwashing job because there were no CEO jobs available when he arrived in Lincoln, NE.

Examinator said...

Perhaps he's using the fine paper used in bibles to roll his joints AGAIN!
Seriously though he's simply thrashing around like a drowning person looking for a straw to save his woeful prejudices.
MR Brooks
Perhaps you should read a bit wider ...might I suggest more behavioral psychology.

Examinator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rugosa said...

So rich people who don't enjoy their wealth - what's the point of just having it sit somewhere earning more money, while you live like someone on SSI disability? - are somehow moral arbitreurs? (is that a word?) Did I just get stupider by reading Brooks?

Examinator said...

Unlike you I found Brooks' article most instructive,not in the way he intended but more in the righties (read their spin factory) .
The analogy has some key clues.... he's trying to firstly associate Christian religiosity with ABSOLUTE moral good largely because it has Both built useful hierarchies ,read entrenched prejudices (see the Patriarchal notion that Authoritative Father knows best ( meh!) and that religiosity is a well worn comfort zone.(it's “ the opium of the masses” , all purpose answer to everything)
I'll skip over the fact that most other belief structure share most of the same values at least at the individual level... i.e. the golden rule.
The second part is a little more subtle in that they deliberately confuse ( redefine) well used but fundamentally misunderstood terms like 'Conservatism' with conservative as in moderate, reserved, non risky or non threatening. Which clearly the political context isn't rather its to maintain the status quo in which the non threatening part depends on where you are in the hierarchy.
By linking by association Capitalism ( read Neo Capitalism) with Conservatism and (Christian) religiosity... the first two are sanitised by the association with the falsely asserted moral imperatives, And thereby making disagreement with this unholy trinity unChristian/ unAmerican and morally indefensible.

By Brooks' logic there could be a hierarchy of 'pride' in toilet cleaners , executioners or Galley slaves!? ''What my dad does at work' days at school or work visits would take on a new meaning! My mind explodes with the possibilities ( especially the reality shows or comedy sketch shows) i.e. “what's this button for?” ….. Oops...”sorry about hat Joe” …Then there's the award shows and who would be a presenter?... “This year's galley slave is..... “
The notion that a (below) minimum wage casual (part time) dishwasher or any other like job ( or find one) then could afford to live let alone pay tuition , books etc is utterly preposterous. Unless the student took out oppressive student loans. As for find a post graduation job to repay those loans is something else again.
Brooks and his ilk don't seem to grasp the fundamental problem is the current version of Neo-capitalism, the conditions for it to survive and the consequences there after.
I'd go as far as to suggest his version of the "American" myth culture is THE at the root of the problem.... the love of excess money and power of those who have it.
What America DOESN'T need is another layer of fantasy driving public information down further to fit some NEVER WAS nostalgic era.

Everest? I'm surprised I didn't think it was possible to stack BS that high! but I live and learn. it adds new meaning to the 200 plus lives lost up there.

CWolf said...

I would like you and all other bloggers to stop writing about Brooks.
His thoughts and his writing are banal and does not deserve the attention.

Monty said...

80% agree with Unknown above, but 20% agree with Steve M's compulsion to pick low hanging fruit and then stomp it to mush.

If Brooks' pathetic banality was restricted to a blog instead the NY Times...well, never mind. There are worse things than being a pathetic, pedestrian pseudo-intellectual. But not many.

Would it be wrong of me to say that I want Brooks' job? I could use the money. Just tell me who I have to blow.

Buford said...

So Steve, there always have been accidents and death on the slopes of Everest. Reading Brooks is as painful as a broken leg, as useful as a broken neck, and makes sense if you are on morphine...I would choose a different sport but I know you like a good challenge...

Never Ben Better said...

"Steve M's compulsion to pick low hanging fruit and then stomp it to mush."

Oh, GAWD, Monty, thank you for that, and I'm sure the furrows dug by the cat startled into fleeing my lap will eventually heal, if the blood loss doesn't get me first.

Steve M. said...

Yeah, Brooks only writes for the most influential newspaper in America, pens #1 bestselling books, and bamboozles PBS and NPR totebaggers into thinking he's the "nice" right-winger, when he's not hobnobbing with the swells at Aspen or Davos. Gosh, why would anyone bother to write about a guy with such limited cultural influence?

Examinator said...

I would agree that Brooks's brook babbles on in banalities and BS ( hows that for alliteration "off the cuff"). However, Steve makes a fair point.

Notwithstanding : This is a PUBLIC site and there are 'righties' (sic what ever that REALLY means...{WETRM} see my reasoning why I dispute it's OVER simplification. A consistent argument of mine) read this site.I would also point out in rational hind site ( I also take the point of the critics ), that the best way to get those 'righties' to entrench further is to EITHER;

Ignore their easy reading/ thinking conformational mouth pieces as the critics here suggest.

Or attack them with vitriol (of which I'm guilty at times)and there by attack THREATEN the 'righties' self image of and their place in the the world , as they see it..

Which by the way, 'Lefties'(WETRM) actually do either method. ( this includes me … to my shame). Such vitriolic humor is often seen as the equivalent of 'YOU RIGHTIES ARE DUMB ASSED' and their mental process of that is “These Elitist Latte drinking elitists are telling us that our thoughts and feelings are shit and therefore so are we ”. Even Chomsky ( anybody want to dispute that he is America's (worlds?) MOST PUBLIC and best informed REAL LEFT intellectual?) says they have genuine fears concerns,( albeit their method of expressing them is colored/ influenced by self serving interest groups- My conclusion).

Any good teacher/ counsellor/ ethical marketeer (nearly an oxymoron) will tell you that the best way to change minds is to first show you understand them and patiently explain the differences... educate not brow beat.

That's fine in theory but, and there in lies the problem America is a land of extremes in religion ideology money and therefore politics.
Brooks has a point about things are different than say 60 years ago ( post WW2 and in theory The “hay days” the 'righties' hanker after... 'happy days' scenario). What he's clearly missing are the context
e.g.. Wage differences were VERY Different , one might say closer. Then the Boss received UP TO 40 times more than the man producing the product today try 2-3000 time.
Back in the 50-60's there was full employment for those who wanted to work save the minorities like black Americans, disabled and anyone who didn't fit a stereotype. Oh yes social and financial mobility was even less than today.
Education was relatively cheap and luxuries were exactly that not like today ' essentials' sic.

There was no real Off shoring to increase profits at the expense of domestic jobs. i.e. Ford, GM set up in other countries to service those markets.

Consumerism was relatively self sustaining UNDER THOSE CRITERIA!

Examinator said...

Part 2
People had jobs that were functional i.e. a night watchman was that … today they are 'security personnel' and need qualifications ( by a profiteer) . Bosses were bosses now they have a myriad of titles from CEO to President with a wage to demand (associative wording to POTUS ) often greater than POTUS.
Then Vice presidents in one company there was one of those whose duties included stationery! (paper clips etc. ) “Vice president” for Hesus sake? And of course there a salary to match the title rather than the task!
Then there's the 'experts like read any one with hierarchical title, including 'our Journalists for XxX ' as opposed to any one who is objectively knowledgeable on the topic i.e. an old Nobel Physicist is an expert on the effects of nicotine or AGW how? Even Columnists were different look at some of the real greats... Brooks for a Pulitzer? Then again they like Doctorates are for SPECIFIC topics not over all.

Let's not forget technology. It's easy for the likes of some experts particularly those who are young and haven't actually seen the truth or those who need the fantasy of the never was I their older age to be mislead by populist motives. Brooks is paid to get readers not be scientifically erudite. The Media is not there to inform but to sell advertising.

Have said all that for context I have to say his is Steve's site to do as he pleases and he needs readers.

The western readers are being trained to scan issues not read 'contracts' or details. Get a 50's /60's serious news paper and compare with today. Today if it isn't short and punchy it usually doesn't get read and rarely carefully. **Hence I doubt if (m)any will read this or comment on but in case there is the odd analysis nut like me.... This will also be on my blog.
I'll finish with the observation that the problem with he 'lefties' is that they fight on too many fronts (divided and conquered) as opposed to choosing their fights i.e. IMPORTANT ori Seminal/ Foundation topics and beat them. Fire arm Argument is a point in fact and we should be exposing the extremist originators ( Self serving interests). get the generals not the cannon fodder. To me that is that leftie- rightie are both part of the same continuum the difference is in degree not us V them. The target should be EXTREMISM AT EITHER END .

CWolf said...

...Yeah, Brooks only writes for the most influential newspaper in America,...
...And I'm sure that along with Steve and a number of other professionals who feel obliged, that both his fans read all his columns, books, etc. and have small Brooks Altars in their bedrooms.