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Sasha Issinberg: Boo-Boos in Paradise

Sasha Issinberg:

Boo-Boos in Paradise | Philadelphia Magazine Articles: In January, I made my own trip to Franklin County, 175 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with a simple goal: I wanted to see where David Brooks comes up with this stuff. One of the first places I passed was Greencastle Coffee Roasters, which has more than 200 kinds of coffee, and a well-stocked South Asian grocery in the back…. I stopped at Blockbuster, where the dvd of Annie Hall was checked out. I went to the counter to see how Scott, the clerk, thought it compared to Allen's other work. “It's funny,” said Scott….

In Montgomery County we have Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers. In Franklin County they have Dollar General and Value City, along with a plethora of secondhand stores,

Brooks wrote. In fact, while Franklin has 14 stores with the word “dollar” in their name — plus one Value City — Montgomery County, Maryland, has 34, including one that's within walking distance of an Anthropologie in Rockville. As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, 'slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's,” he wrote. “I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and 'seafood delight' trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

Taking Brooks's cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.” The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn's proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks's article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”…

Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured. He describes the ladies of Sprinkler City as “trim Jennifer Aniston women [who] wear capris and sleeveless tops and look great owing to their many hours of sweat and exercise at Spa Lady.” That chain of women's gyms has three locations — all in New Jersey, far from any Sprinkler City. “The roads,” Brooks writes, “have been given names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue.” There are no Entrepreneur Avenues anywhere in the country, according to the business-directory database Referenceusa, and only two Innovation Boulevards — in non-Sprinkler cities Fort Wayne, Indiana, and State College, Pennsylvania. There is also an Innovation Boulevard in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The basic premises of Brooks's articles aren't necessarily wrong…. Brooks's Patio Man article was a pop translation of a February 2002 paper by University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey…. Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it…. There are salient cultural divides in the United States… but consumer life is the place where they are most rapidly converging…. Pottery Barn opened stores in Huntsville, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, and the New York Times has introduced home delivery in Colorado Springs. It likely won't be long before Franklin County gets both; yoga classes have already arrived….

I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That's totally unethical,” he said…. I asked him how I was supposed to tell what was comedy and what was sociology. “Generally, I rely on intelligent readers to know — and I think that at the Atlantic Monthly, every intelligent reader can tell what the difference is,” he replied. “I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They're both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places,” he said. “You've obviously come at this from a perspective. I don't think if you went to the two places you wouldn't detect a cultural difference.”…

I shared with him some more of my research, and asked how he made his observations. On NASCAR name recognition: “My experience going around to people that I know in urban metro areas is a lot of them can't name five NASCAR … but that's a joke.” On Spa Lady locations: “I think that's the type of place where people would get the joke and get the reference.” On whether Blue Americans read more books: “That would be interesting, but one goes by one's life experiences.”… “In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn't ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there's a pang of recognition.”

By holding himself to a rings-true standard, Brooks acknowledges that all he does is present his readers with the familiar and ask them to recognize it. Why, then, has his particular brand of stereotype-peddling met with such success?… “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.”

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