Actually Existing Diversity

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I don't know if it's possible for David Brooks to get through an entire article without saying something I disagree with completely, and sure enough, his essay in the September Atlantic tacks on an off-the-cuff pitch for conscription near the end. That aside, it's one of the best pieces he's written—a sharp analysis of Americans' capacity for "drawing amazingly subtle social distinctions and then shaping their lives around them."

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  1. I just read this yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more. Brooks is actually a pretty insightful guy, the problem just lies in his conclusions most of the time — that doesn’t mean that any reader can’t benefit from his analyses leading up to that.

  2. To pick a nit:

    I know national service often implies “military service”, but that does not necessarily have to be the case. It’s the coercive sound of his statement that really bothered me.

    A more practical help, at least in urban areas, would be “metropolitan service”. Or maybe just take kids on fields trips. Take a 400-mile car trip without going on the interstates. It’s pretty appalling when you come in contact with numerous children who’s parents never took them “downtown” or even read to them. I guess they’re trying to save them from something; diversity, probably.

  3. Russ: As far as I’m concerned, any compulsory “national service” is conscription, even if you’re sentenced to AmeriCorps instead of the Marines. I’m all for giving people opportunities to widen their horizons. It’s the coercion that bugs me.

  4. I agree with you. I suppose it’s possible that his comment about making national service a “rite of passage” can be fulfilled without making it mandatory, though. Interesting article otherwise.

  5. What’s so “undiverse” about ethnically homogenous neighborhoods? Diversity has to be a diversity OF something. And to have a diverse collection of ethnic groups, you have to have discrete ethnic groups with identifiable cultures in the first place–which implies at least some degree of exclusiveness. Culture- is a way of viewing the world and organizing life, and it requires a sense of “inside” as opposed to “outside.” How are you supposed to have this if members of all ethnic groups are randomly distributed throughout every neighborhood according to their representation in the overall population?

    Why not take it a step further? We could apply a busing program to the entire world, until both China and the U.S. were 25% Chinese, 6% American, and so on.

  6. While Brooks’s article is basically correct in its assumptions, all he’s really done is nothing more than restate the old chestnut, “birds of a feather flock together.”

    What he’s missed is that nowadays, many Americans adopt cultural habits from foreign sources, and roll them into their own lives. A quick trip to any supermarket will reveal an entire assortment of Uncle Ben’s Rice Bowls in just about every flavor of Chinese food imaginable. Does anyone here remember when frozen dinner meant Salisbury Steak? Music, clothing, and the arts are similarly cross-pollinated.

    I know Chinese food is a weak argument, sorry, but I think there’s a case to be made that America is what I’ve heard called “polycultural.” (The term seems to stem from a conservative backlash against the idea of “multiculturalism.”) In other words, we might flock, but we borrow enough from other cultures that the “baseline” for American culture is still quite mixed.

  7. To quote the piece: “The United States might be a diverse nation when considered as a whole, but block by block and institution by institution it is a relatively homogeneous nation.”

    So I don’t think Brooks would disagree with you, Kevin. Viewed from one angle, this is a very rich diversity indeed. It’s just that a lot of people prefer to stay within their fairly homogenous patches. (Which is their right, of course.)

  8. Brooks’ light treatment of Bobos as consumers of houses and neighborhoods and lifestyles underscores the flaccid logic of ‘diversity’ as something for whitefolks to consume. His analysis cannot stand the scrutiny of class or race. Americans without the mobility to buy new homes anywhere they like are not self-segregating, they are immobile and stuck in the same old neighborhoods with the same old racial segregation free markets do nothing to change.

  9. Cobb, you clearly didn’t read his article or understand it. He specifically was making a counterpoint to your observation. Middle-class and upper middle-class blacks also tend to congregate in predominantly black neighborhoods. Of course, that could be racism. (At some level, preferring to live with your own racial group becomes racism.) Furthermore, he notes that evidence shows that new suburbs, starting out well integrated, develop particular ethnic and racial identities, whether white, black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever. All this at the middle-class and upper middle-class level, where people can afford to move.

    If it were merely a case of the poor being unable to move from ethnically homogenous neighborhoods (which poor immigrants still choose to move into, rather than to poor neighborhoods of different ethnic flavors), that would be one thing. However, he notes that it’s not just that– that people with a choice seem to do likewise. What that means is worth further discussion, of course. It can even be taken as a sign of deeper racism (or wishing to live with “people like us”) if one wants to be negative.

  10. Brooks is a moron. Really.

    If only he, himself, would walk around a bit and see what people are up to.

    Perhaps Hovig John Heghinian could be his tour gide.

  11. Doesn’t seem to me that there’s any contradiction at all between what Brooks wrote and what Hovig John Heghinian wrote.

  12. What boggles the mind is that Brooks ignores what his own magazine wrote about on a similar issue about a year and a half ago– namely that even if people want 1 or 2 out of 6 of their neighbors to be like them, when you model this in a simulation, this will cause clusterings that cause communities to look very segregated.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/04/rauch.htm

    As the author of the previous Atlantic article said, “these ‘people’ would be perfectly happy to be in the minority; they want only to avoid being completely alone. Each would no doubt regard itself as a model of tolerance and, noticing the formation of color clusters, might conclude that a lot of other agents must be racists.”

    Incidently, though, the place where the black pentecostal minister lives side by side with the asian cook and cardiovascular surgeon sounds a lot like the central square area of Cambridge, MA.

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