Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Piss Poor Punditry: The New York Times' David Brooks, The Limits of Policy, and the Problem of "Bad Culture"

Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.
This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.

Punditry must be hard work.

I don't live under the pressure of having to write a weekly newspaper column. It must be doubly difficult when your platform is contained within the esteemed pages of The New York Times. That having been noted as a qualifier: David Brooks' May 3rd piece, The Limits of Policy was for lack of a better word, just really stupid.

Brooks begins his spiral into fallacy land by arguing that government policy has little to do with the life outcomes of different ethnic groups. Moreover, there he alludes to the life chances of Swedes in Europe in the early 20th century as compared to those in the U.S. in order to deduce a claim about the relative advantages or disadvantages of socialized medicine. No, I am not kidding. This slippery foundation--like a drunk trying to ice skate on one foot--becomes even more untenable as Brooks spins a tale of race, health disparities, and social capital.

The big question Brooks is trying to engage is: What are the limits of national policy in terms of effecting the life chances of different groups of citizens? A fair question. However, playing not so quite in the shadows of his question, is a supposition that different groups of people, ethnic groups in this case, have different "characters." Problematically, this is a line of reasoning straight out of the racialist political ideologies of the late 19th century and such tracts as The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant which detailed the paranoia of America's "old stock" in the face of increasing waves of immigrants from the "lower races" and not yet fully "white" stock of Eastern and Southern Europe.

As is common to contemporary discussions of race and social mobility, the model minority myth makes an obligatory appearance in Brooks' account. He asks: Why do Asian-Americans do so well in all regions of the country? What is their secret? By extension, why do Blacks--and Native Americans--do so poorly. Of course, for Brooks this has nothing to do with government policy. Rather, it is all a function of social capital and a crude reading of the theories offered by Robert Putnam in the much cited Bowling Alone.

These comparisons are (and have always been) specious--the model minority myth is just that, a fable that conflates a whole group of people into one category. For example, is Brooks talking about the Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, or Laotians--groups which generally do not fit that neat narrative? Or is Brooks talking about Japanese and Koreans, many of whom immigrated here as professionals with a significant amount of resources, both real and intangible, already in hand?

Ultimately, in his lamenting that government can do so little to impact life opportunities in the face of such primordial forces as ethnicity and social capital (what is really Brooks' way of saying "good" and "bad" culture) he ignores the role that government policy has played in creating systems of wealth, privilege, advantage and disadvantage.

For example, government policy both directly and indirectly created the urban ghettos in America's central cities and a two tiered system of citizenship until it was brought down by The Black Freedom Struggle in the 1960s. By extension, government support for affirmative action and a robust effort to end discrimination in federal hiring practices helped to create the Black middle and professional classes. Conversely, government programs such as the GI Bill and FHA loan programs created suburbia, as well as the wealth and prosperity enjoyed by the white middle classes of the post World War 2 period--opportunities that were by design and in practice all but closed to people of color. And most certainly, government policy created the alienation and poverty that are as common to the Native American reservations of the Southwest as they are to the mining towns of Appalachia.

In total, The Limits of Policy exposes one of the central contradictions of neo-liberal, center-Right, Conservative politics in this country. When the government policy works in your favor it is invisible, and one's successes are all one's own, the result of hard work, individualism, and "good culture." You can nurse at the succor provided by the Horatio Alger myth of rugged individualism. When government policy fails, it is because "those people" have "bad culture," somehow tied to race and blood, and that the solution is less government and not more. Your failings are all your own.

In this regard, the final paragraph of Mr. Brooks' piece is quite telling: "Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore."

Sorry Mr. Brooks. Race is how class is lived. And yes, policy has a great deal to do with that fact.


Cobb said...

There *is* good and bad culture. Enlightened self-interest doesn't work for those who decide that their best interests are culturally or racially oppositional to the powers that be.

How many black Americans really and genuinely want to be Robin Hood? Should they ever be surprised that the system keeps them out in Sherwood Forest?

chaunceydevega said...

So complicity with power determines good or bad culture? So slaves that resisted--thus the idea of a resistant slave culture in the U.S.--had "bad culture"? I would have thought that the slaveocracy had bad culture in that example?

I am pushing that angle hard as an example because we have to be careful when talking about culture and its relationship to power.

Now, more generally I get where you are coming from. I think that the ghetto underclass has its own culture just as middle class WASP America has its own culture. But, what do we make of individuals in that narrative? You know I come down hard on the ign'ts, but I also know that their god awful behavior is a personal failing facilitated by some horrible structural disadvantages.

Also, I would suggest we ought to be careful of any linkages between race, ethnicity, genetics and culture because it can go to some unproductive and horrible places.

Nevertheless, Brooks is wrong in his relating to culture to gov't and human productivity--it works both ways, and gov't can both help and hurt independent of race or ethnicity. Now, when those policies as I suggested are directly in line with benefiting one group and disadvantaging another it becomes policy and race intersecting, but not in the way Brooks has theorized.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is one of the most interesting I know. Your comments about the bad effects of lumping together stats on large groups of people is very good.
Culture is still important (not character, since character is so individual)but the fact is that the whole population is exposed to mainstream culture in the US and that will reduce it's effects.
Thanks for the good work.
P.S. Proof that even a white guy from Canada can like your blog.

chaunceydevega said...

We like you too Laurent. Good to have you.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Chauncey you help me balance my head after any amount of main stream media blitzkrieg-ing I expose myself to from day to day. I've been reading for a few weeks now and don't plan to stop.

I applaud you for showing people Mooney and Chapelle. Both are social genius! Humor being a social lubricant [isn't that widely accepted?] so come on! If we stop talking about race then we're ignoring multiple problems at once. One of my personal favorites is Artie Lang doing his joke about saying nigger during a pick up basketball game.

I don't quite understand the "Black Robin Hood" theory. May take me a few days or more reading or never. Is President Obama the greatest example of this theory? Admittedly I am white! [a fault that comes with privilege to ease it's pain] and I am considering getting an Obama tattoo for two reasons, first that he is awesome and second, [black] people wouldn't wonder if I was a closet racist!

My mom still wears her Obama hat everywhere she goes because before she had it she was [not afraid] intimidated I think by black people.

Los Angeles


Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Anon 2--I love Artie. Sad he is having so many troubles with his latest suicide attempt. His book is great btw, all his fans should read it.

On Black Robin Hood, I don't get the allusion either.

My thoughts and suggestions for you? Read, read, and then read some more.



Cobb said...

Very specifically on Robin Hood:
The same period of history that brought real defense of civil rights for black Americans also brought a counter-cultural revolution. Some who thought their parents were the devil for being racist rebelled and rejected more of America than was wrong. Their naive idea to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted was taken up by many Negroes on their way to being Black. And so there is a counter-cultural strain of Black Thought that persists today along with other sorts of hippie notions.

There are plenty of those countercultural ideas in all sorts of dysfunctional 'fight the power' politics in today's black partisans, and they have a sort of ghetto fabulous legitimacy. They are always outsiders looking at American power, and many of them fought Obama tooth and nail - like Jesse Jackson who wanted to "cut his nuts off".

They continue to be political anti-heroes and they continue to influence millions. Their province is Sherwood Forest in my metaphor for insiders and outsiders.