In remembrance of a truly excellent lunch at the Firefly Grill in Effingham, Illinois--the kind of place that David Brooks claims simply does not exist--and in mockery of Niall Ferguson's claims that the election is 50-50 and is "Fishtown vs. Belmont, Chick-Fil-A vs. quinoa", we once again the hoist from the bowels of the Internet the extremely sharp Sasha Issenberg's immortal mockery-takedown of David Brooks.
People who have never read this should read the whole thing.
And can anybody tell me why, after this, the New York Times didn't take Brooks's opinion-hole away from him and give it to Sasha? Or at least leave it blank, out of shame? I mean, no statistics plus faked anecdotes--what is the value in David Brooks here?
Sasha Issenberg (2004): Boo-Boos in Paradise:
As I made my journey [through Franklin County, PA], it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home [in Montgomery County, MD]:
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. 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.... The “Steak and Lobster” combination... 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.... 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”...
From David Brooks (2001): One Nation, Slightly Divisible:
Some of the people I met in Franklin County were just getting by. Some were in debt and couldn't afford to buy their kids the Christmas presents they wanted to. But I didn't find many who assessed their own place in society according to their income. Rather, the people I met commonly told me that although those in affluent places like Manhattan and Bethesda might make more money and have more-exciting jobs, they are the unlucky ones, because they don't get to live in Franklin County. They don't get to enjoy the beautiful green hillsides, the friendly people, the wonderful church groups and volunteer organizations. They may be nice people and all, but they are certainly not as happy as we are.
Another thing I found is that most people don't think sociologically. They don't compare themselves with faraway millionaires who appear on their TV screens. They compare themselves with their neighbors. "One of the challenges we face is that it is hard to get people to look beyond the four-state region," Lynne Woehrle, a sociologist at Wilson College, in Chambersburg, told me, referring to the cultural zone composed of the nearby rural areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. Many of the people in Franklin County view the lifestyles of the upper class in California or Seattle much the way we in Blue America might view the lifestyle of someone in Eritrea or Mongolia—or, for that matter, Butte, Montana. Such ways of life are distant and basically irrelevant, except as a source of academic interest or titillation. One man in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, told me about a friend who had recently bought a car. "He paid twenty-five thousand dollars for that car!" he exclaimed, his eyes wide with amazement. "He got it fully loaded." I didn't tell him that in Bethesda almost no one but a college kid pays as little as $25,000 for a car.
Franklin County is a world in which there is little obvious inequality, and the standard of living is reasonably comfortable. Youth-soccer teams are able to raise money for a summer trip to England; the Lowe's hardware superstore carries Laura Ashley carpets; many people have pools, although they are almost always above ground; the planning commission has to cope with an increasing number of cars in the county every year, even though the population is growing only gradually. But the sort of high-end experiences that are everywhere in Montgomery County are entirely missing here.
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. I'd go into a restaurant that looked from the outside as if it had some pretensions—maybe a "Les Desserts" glass cooler for the key-lime pie and the tapioca pudding. 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 twenty dollars. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.
No wonder people in Franklin County have no class resentment or class consciousness; where they live, they can afford just about anything that is for sale. (In Montgomery County, however—and this is one of the most striking contrasts between the two counties—almost nobody can say that. In Blue America, unless you are very, very rich, there is always, all around you, stuff for sale that you cannot afford.) And if they sought to improve their situation, they would look only to themselves. If a person wants to make more money, the feeling goes, he or she had better work hard and think like an entrepreneur.
I could barely get fifteen minutes into an interview before the local work ethic came up. Karen Jewell, who helps to oversee the continuing-education program for the local Penn State branch campus, told me, "People are very vested in what they do. There's an awareness of where they fit in the organization. They feel empowered to be agents of change."
People do work extremely hard in Franklin County—even people in supposedly dead-end jobs. You can see it in little things, such as drugstore shelves. The drugstores in Bethesda look the way Rome must have looked after a visit from the Visigoths. But in Franklin County the boxes are in perfect little rows. Shelves are fully stocked, and cans are evenly spaced. The floors are less dusty than those in a microchip-processing plant. The nail clippers on a rack by the cash register are arranged with a precision that would put the Swiss to shame.
There are few unions in Franklin County. People abhor the thought of depending on welfare; they consider themselves masters of their own economic fate. "People are really into the free market here," Bill Pukmel, formerly the editor of the weekly paper in Chambersburg, told me.
In sum, I found absolutely no evidence that a Stanley Greenberg-prompted Democratic Party (or a Pat Buchanan-led Republican Party) could mobilize white middle-class Americans on the basis of class consciousness. I found no evidence that economic differences explain much of anything about the divide between Red and Blue America.
Ted Hale, a Presbyterian minister in the western part of the county, spoke of the matter this way: "There's nowhere near as much resentment as you would expect. People have come to understand that they will struggle financially. It's part of their identity. But the economy is not their god. That's the thing some others don't understand. People value a sense of community far more than they do their portfolio." Hale, who worked at a church in East Hampton, New York, before coming to Franklin County, said that he saw a lot more economic resentment in New York...