David Brooks, “Boo-boos in Paradise,” and American public intellectuals

I like David Brooks’ pop sociology analysis of the suburbs in Bobos in Paradise but a piece in Philadelphia suggests Brooks got some of his facts wrong:

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism’s most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to Amazon.com sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

But this isn’t the main complaint of this arguement: rather, the main problem is that Brooks is considered a public intellectual and his words have a lot of weight:

On the publication of Bobos, New York Times critic Walter Goodman lumped Brooks with William H. Whyte Jr., author of The Organization Man, and David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd, as a practitioner of “sociological journalism.” (In the introduction to Bobos, Brooks invoked Whyte — plus Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith — as predecessors.) In 2001, the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, held a panel discussion in which real-life scholars pondered the bobo. When, in 2001, Richard Posner ranked the 100 highest-profile public intellectuals, Brooks came in 85th, just behind Marshall McLuhan at 82nd, and ahead of Garry Wills, Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Mead.

Ironically, Richard Florida is granted the final academic say regarding needing more serious public intellectuals:

Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes an era when readers looked to academia for such insights:

“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? It’s the failure of social science to be relevant enough to do it.”

Here is what I take away from this: this writer is worried that Brooks (and other New Journalists) are influencing public opinion and possibly public policy more through impressionistic writing than facts and correctly interpreting data.

This could make for an interesting discussion involving things like the role of columnists and opinion-makers (facts or zeitgeists?), why social scientists and sociologists aren’t seen as public intellectuals, and who should guide public policy anyway. It is interesting to note that the American Sociological Association (ASA) gave David Brooks the Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues Award in 2011. I assume the ASA didn’t just give the award because Brooks discusses sociological research or is of the same political/social persuasion as sociologists.

By the way, having read a lot of David Brooks and Tom Wolfe, I wonder how many commentators would suggest these two are engaging in similar techniques.

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