David Brooks, that defier of Burkean intellectual entropy and deflating sack of philosophical wind, believes the problems with the poor in America are simple: they aren’t rich, and they don’t live like the rich. Nailed it, Brooks! Now that you’ve solved that mystery, who’s up for some cocktails and antiquated, conservative British thinker circle-jerkery?
This week in Brooks’s “Mildly Classist Studies in Weak Correlative Inferences” book club is Charle’s Murray’s Coming Apart. Murray’s tale of two Americas begins in the 60s, when men were men, and women would let you squeeze their nips without too much complaining. Oh, and Caddy Eldorados were cheap, too! Apparently, during this utopian time in American history, the sweaty unwashed lived nearly on top of the soaped and powdered, and what’s more, neither group (the lows and the highs) misbehaved:
Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.
Unfortunately, this gallant time was not to last, and since the 60s the “American tribes” have inamicably divorced. Case in point: Manhattan, that isle of center-stage dreams and backalley bildungsromans. Apparently, in the 60s utopia, the rich and poor lived together on Manhattan Island, but now everything south of 96th Street is available only to the upper crust. And this class segregation is not local to Manhattan, Murray argues in his book; rather,
…there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.
But worse than this limited class mobility is the corresponding decline in the good behavior of the lower classes! Without their betters to lead by example, the pauper’s rabble engages in all sorts of misbehaviors:
Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.
Oh, and did I mention that Murray’s data comes largely from white Americans? As Brooks notes, this is where Murray shines, because dealing with race only serves to obfuscate and complicate. Nothing like making generalizations about all Americans based on a group of white guys.
At this point, however, you’re probably looking at your “How to Write an Essay by David Brooks” rubric and wondering “where’s the not-so-subtle politically centrist statement”? Don’t worry, it’s right here:
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
Don’t you see?! The cultural elites have more values than the rabble! Poor people hate God because they’re poor and God never answers their prayers when they ask for a new screen door for their trailer or for Becky to not get pregnant (it was only the one time, Jesus! Please!). Conversely, rich people love God because they’re rich and all their clothes fit really well and they haven’t eaten at McDonald’s unironically since that one birthday party that they were forced to attend because the butler’s son had cancer or something.
As Brooks goes on to explain, it’s unfair to say that “the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite” because the elites are too moralistic to do something like that! The truth, according to Brooks, is that
… members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.
Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.
That’s right, folks: while poor people are busy breeding, Winthrop and Eleanor are attending their Latin reading club while Mimsy and Poppy toil away in the financial sector, creating derivative products that the undisciplined, pomo “poorballs” will see as a gateway to their American dream (three flat-screen TVs, an iPhone, a mirror above the bed, and a used Range Rover).
But Brooks is never one to proselytize or allow his words to remain wind! No, Brooks is a man of action, a man of plans: according to Brooks, the solution is a National Service Program that would force the unlotioned K-Marters into contact with the L’Occitaned bluebloods.
Yes, Brooks, you’ve solved the problem. As soon as poor people stop being so Goddamn poor all the time we’ll return to those halcyon days where Ellen from stenography would just go see “Dr. Mitchell” on Saturday, and then keep her mouth shut if she knew what was good for her.