The Myth of the Two Americas

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A devastating takedown of David Brooks.

[Via Romenesko.]

NEXT: Ya Illah

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  1. Jesse Walker,

    Thankyou for sharing an insightful article.

  2. I’m in Lancaster, PA, roughly halfway from Philly to Chamerbsurg and about as “Red” as you can get, and here we have a wide variety of ethnic restaurants and groceries; a burgeoning immigrant population, not nearly all of which is legal; a visibly high per-capita rate of riding mowers; the primary QVC fulfillment facility; and more NASCAR fans than you can shake a Mark Martin ballcap at.

    Make of that what you will.

  3. “You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we’re missing; this is a gap,” Florida says. “Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era?”

    Bravo! We don’t need no steenking (thank you, O’Ruthless) intellectuals.

  4. Devastating? It sounded more like my anecdote can beat up your anecdote.

  5. It sounded more like my anecdote can beat up your anecdote.

    A more accurate phrase would be “my anecdotes undermine your sweeping generalizations.” Especially if you add a “your popularizations of other people’s academic work distort the researchers’ conclusions” and wrap it up with a “you can be entertaining and sometimes insightful, but you’re basically trading in misleading stereotypes.”

  6. Great article. I’ve been complaining recently, without nearly the clarity of Issenberg’s piece, about the Michael Moorification of social commentary. Popular comics and writers get to say all sorts of things that are are at best gross generalizations and at worst demonstrable falsehoods, and just appeal to someone like Galbraith or Chomsky so that everyone will nod.

    It is marketed as an ‘accessible’ sociology, but is really, as Issemberg pointed out, just a way to reinforce prejudice.

    That’s my take, but I’m just some dumbass from Red KY.

  7. Good article but the entire Blue/Red state dichotomy springs from our winner-take-all electoral college system that disguises the breakdown in viewpoints within each state. A state will show up reliably Blue or Red if 50%+ of the state votes that way. Most consistent states have something like a 55/45 split so finding lots of Blue people in a Red state or vice versa isn’t surprising.

    I sometimes wonder if a lot of the anger one sees in politics doesn’t spring from those people who live in areas where they are consistently a political minority. Must be very frustrating.

  8. Right on, Jesse. And I’ll add, “picky, picky, picky.”

  9. I’ve never liked the “Red States vs. Blue States” stereotypes. It’s an effort to divide us. In fact most Americans seem to have a lot in common, even if we don’t all agree on politics. To the extent that we do differ from one another, if you actually look at people rather than stereotypes, it turns out that we’re all individuals running a gamut of personalities and lifestyles.

    I’m reminded of my wedding last summer, when my best friend from Wisconsin (a network administrator at Harley Davidson) brought his girlfriend. She had multiple earrings in each ear, a low-cut dress, and a very thick Midwest accent. My midwestern relatives all thought her appearance was kind of funny, in a good way (including my Buchanan-voting uncle who works for an oil company, evades taxes, and believes that modern medicine is a sham). My conservative in-laws, all from either coastal cities or DC, were scandalized.

    I dare anybody here to try to reconcile that scenario with the red/blue stereotypes.

  10. Gadfly –
    “Bravo! We don’t need no steenking (thank you, O’Ruthless) intellectuals.”

    Aren’t you against “stinking books” in favour of folk wisdom ? What happened here ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I might add that everybody should have at least one Buchanan-voting uncle who evades taxes and thinks modern medicine is a sham. It makes life more interesting. Plus, he’s a really nice guy as long as you don’t talk politics.

  12. Dave Straub,

    I ate at a very interesting “colonial” restaurant in Gettysburg about four years ago; excellent meal and entertainment (18th century ballads). The meal with my wife was approximately $200.

  13. thoreau,

    He appears to be like my le Pen-voting cousin. ๐Ÿ™‚ Does he smoke one hundred cigarettes a day? ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Yeah, never liked the whole blue-red divide. I’m damn blue. Immigrant family, grew up in Southern California (granted, it was in conservative OC), Muslim family strongly pro-gun control, abortion and ACLU type civil liberties. My family moved to NC for under a year and I adored it there. My best friends in college were Southern good ol’ boys, one of whom grew up in BFE Texas, was home-schooled and had a Confederate flag hanging on the wall of his room. Turns out beer, sports and women are enough to unite us. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Jose, it’s more than just his anecdote. The writer actually went to the locations of Brooks’ anecdotes and showed that he was W.R.O.N.G.

  15. thoreau-
    Sounds like my dad’s best friend (basically an uncle). He’s a tad to the right of Ann Coulter, racist like you wouldn’t believe (especially against Arabs, did I mention he’s my dad’s best friend from Egypt) and continually tries to prove the IRS is illegal. Plus, he’s a wierd bastard. Your uncle wouldn’t happen to be balding and named Amr, would he? ๐Ÿ™‚ And yes JB, he smokes.

    The bonus was the commentary in Arabic on my high school graduation. People say funny ass shit in public when they don’t think anyone but their friends can understand them.

  16. [recreating eaten comment from memoire]

    On my recent and famous Blogging Across America tour I found tons and tons of evidence for Brooks’ overall idea. Not that I needed evidence for what I already knew.

    If you pay me I can find several counter-counter-examples for each counter-example provided in the article.

  17. Isn’t this whole blue state/red state going to get turned on its head this November? Traditionally red has represented the challenger and blue the incumbent. Of course, if you are of the belief that Bush stole the election….

  18. Shouldn’t the Dem states be the RED states?

  19. JB: You’ll get gouged deeply in Gettysburg, which is one of the primary tourist attractions of the Mid-Atlantic region, and also home to a fairly posh liberal arts college.

    I’m sure your dinner was excellent, as are many in PA; I hope it was worth $200.

  20. Good article but the entire Blue/Red state dichotomy springs from our winner-take-all electoral college system that disguises the breakdown in viewpoints within each state.

    To be fair, both Brooks and Issenberg were looking at the electoral map on the county level. Franklin County, after all, is a Red district in a Blue state.

  21. Dave Straub,

    The restaurant had a bvery nice wine selection, and the food was excellent; the restaurant is in an old colonial home. It was a genuinely enjoyable day; I was able to run up little round-top like the men from the 20th Maine and eat an excellent meal.

  22. JB-

    How much of the $200 tab was wine? One thing my wife and I have noticed, being that neither of us drinks alcohol (for reasons of our own, no moralizing involved here), is that we can dine at fairly nice restaurants from time to time on our measly income. The alcohol is a large part of the tab at most places, and by opting out of that part our options widen considerably.

  23. thoreau,

    Likely half. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. thoreau:
    “She had multiple earrings in each ear, a low-cut dress, and a very thick Midwest accent.”

    That’s my ol’ lady!

  25. I live in Rockville, MD, an area that used to be the hillbilly section of MoCo (Celera came in, mapped the genome, and suddenly we’re all edubacted or something). Red Montgomery County, as it were, used to start around East-West Highway in Bethesda, later maybe Montrose Avenue in “North Bethesday”, now I guess Shady Grove rd. between Rockville and Gaithersberg, but just up 355 there are Home Depots, Wal-Marts and rifle shops, and while you can get an overpriced mocha at the Borders in Germantown, it’ll likely be served to ya by a woman as loud as she is ridiculously overweight.

    Cross the Metro tracks and head east, you’ll find Wheaton and Laurel, where it’s downright redneck. Brooks never crossed East-West when making his observations, one suspects.

    Also, Chambersburg, PA was once home to Red Feather, the finest microbrew the Mid-Atlantic has ever produced, bar none.

  26. Red/Blue are media-created faux-identities along the lines of “Baby-Boomers” and “Gen-X” to provide a simplistic shorthand for stories.

    Duh! Yawn

  27. “Cross the Metro tracks and head east, you’ll find Wheaton and Laurel, where it’s downright redneck.”

    Maybe in a few spots it still is, but most of those towns are heavily populated by ‘ethnic’ types these days (unless the rednecks have all moved back in in the few years since I moved west).

  28. “Maybe in a few spots it still is, but most of those towns are heavily populated by ‘ethnic’ types these days (unless the rednecks have all moved back in in the few years since I moved west).”

    Taking the missus to some doctor appointment off 198 by Cherry Hill; while waiting went into Safeway on Rt. 1 near Laurel Lakes for paper plates that she needed. I work from home so am enthusiastically ill-dressed and unkempt during the day. Staff, entirely caucasian, was completely friendly and helpful; in the air Lee Greenwood could be heard playing.

    Tell me where that could happen in bluestate America?

    Wheaton you could be right, seems a little like Koreatown along Georgia Ave by Viers Mill, but we only go to the Lotte supermarket…

  29. So, there really isn’t North and South America?

  30. Christ… this has to be the most blinkered and simpleminded attempt at an expose I’ve yet found on Hit and Run. Rather than mount a broad critique of Brooks’s fundamental (and not really too complex) premise, Issenberg just flails away at trivial differences and inconsistencies of epiphenomena, in that hallmark sophomoric/overly-literal style of petty regional-lifestyle mags. Devastating as usual, Jesse

  31. I think this article is terrific. I have been a fan of Brooks, and I realize that one reason is that he puts forward stereotypes of the way we think the world should be and legitimizes them with a sociological sheen. What is particularly striking to me is that I’ve lived in red areas in Tennessee and Florida and so I know from experience that his generalizations are untrue, but I guess my desire to wallow in preconceived notions overcame reality.

    The one definite difference between red and blue country is the much more prominent public role given to Christianity in red areas. But Christians can like Thai food or novels as much as the next person.

  32. wtf?

    lets hit on a conservative?

    just don’t get the devastating part of this…

    my anecdotes beats your anecdote, even if im wildly misconstruing your point…

    NYC is a land of high-prices, crazily liberal democrats, etc

    but you can find extremely conservative people there, who live cheaply…

    and you don’t even have to go to the outer boroughs, just hell’s kitchen or the bowery or harlem

    try reading NYT or new yorker and see an article about staten island… they treat it like hicksville… just a community of 600k within spitting distance of lower manhattan, with most people working in manhattan… but they’re a bunch of rubes!!!

    right

    the new left that’s slumming at reason until they can work in the “quality” media like mother jones or the nation should really just leave.. you’re boring and kind of destroying the whole point of the magazine

  33. Yeah. Get some real men in here. Like Dale Dribble.

  34. “the new left that’s slumming at reason until they can work in the “quality” media like mother jones or the nation should really just leave.. you’re boring and kind of destroying the whole point of the magazine”

    That’s a keeper.

    The man’s name is also Dale Gribble.

  35. A little-known fact: The point of Reason is never to criticize anyone who happens to be a conservative. Anyone who does criticize a conservative is really a leftist who wants to work for The Nation.

    Another little-known fact: The Nation is a high-paying and influential “quality” magazine. The media world is filled with people working lower-status jobs in hopes that they can join The Nation someday.

    Yet another little-known fact: When I responded earlier to Jose’s claim that Issenberg’s article amounted to “my anecdote can beat up your anecdote,” I did not actually intend for anyone to read my arguments and, if they disagreed with them, explain why. The proper response to my comments is simply to repeat the “my anecdote” line, because that is how intellectual disputes are won: through mind-numbing repetitition.

    A final little-known fact: While a six-word blog post can be boring, a 145-word comment about how boring that post is could never be boring.

  36. Jesse Walker-

    Wow, that post exceeds even my customary standards of sarcasm. Lest you think that’s a complaint (or perhaps even sarcasm), let me assure you that I like sarcasm a LOT. Good work!

  37. “Wheaton you could be right, seems a little like Koreatown along Georgia Ave by Viers Mill, but we only go to the Lotte supermarket…”

    Go hang out around the Wheaton Metro stop tonight and see if you can find any rednecks at all. I bet you can’t, except maybe for a cop or a bus driver.

  38. Cross the Metro tracks and head east, you’ll find Wheaton and Laurel, where it’s downright redneck. Brooks never crossed East-West when making his observations, one suspects.

    Even weirder, head into Frederick County, which is fairly solidly red-state country, and you’ll find pockets of blue-state liberalism as strong as anything in the Bay Area.

  39. this has to be the most blinkered and simpleminded attempt at an expose I’ve yet found on Hit and Run. Rather than mount a broad critique of Brooks’s fundamental (and not really too complex) premise, Issenberg just flails away at trivial differences and inconsistencies of epiphenomena, in that hallmark sophomoric/overly-literal style of petty regional-lifestyle mags.

    Brooks’ stature rests on his reputation as a close observer of American society. Pointing out major errors in his observations surely undercuts that pose.

    Perhaps that would be “overly literal” if it stopped there, but if you’d read the whole article — and I strongly suspect that you didn’t — you’d find that it also looks at the ways Brooks misinterprets academic research and runs roughshod over contradictions. And while I’m generally sympathetic to writers whose jokes are mistaken for earnest commentary, in this case I think Issenberg’s inquiries are perfectly legitimate: We know they’re jokes, but good jokes — like good journalism — require a foundation of truth. I distinctly remember reading the comic opening to Brooks’ famous article “Patio Man” and thinking to myself, “This guy is onto something, but he sure is getting a lot of details wrong. Mike Judge would have done a much better job.”

  40. Jesse,

    If H&R posters were a Boy Band, you would be the outgoing one that stays a little longer to sign autographs and I would collect as many of your trading cards as I could.

  41. “This guy is onto something, but he sure is getting a lot of details wrong. Mike Judge would have done a much better job.”

    This is a little unfair because the two work in different media. Judge hasn’t written any books that I know of, and maybe it’s possible Brooks could do a good cartoon show.

    Personally, I think Brooks overstates his cases and he gets on a roll without often contemplating that there could be multiple ways of looking at things. He takes sides which kind of hurts his objectivity and the humor. Perhaps Judge is better in that regard.

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