David Brooks is a Stalinist

Like any other week, the opinion pages of the New York Times two weeks ago brought us another rip-roaring David Brooks piece, wherein he pontificates about moral fibers and “the Cost of Relativism.” If Americans would just get back to enforcing social norms and usher in a “moral revival,” Brooks suggests, somehow we would be better off in unstated ways. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What made that week special, however, was Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of the New Republic’s rebuttal to Brooks, in which she tore apart Brooks’ unstated assumption that “the baseline moral values of poor people… differ… from those of the rich.” It is a pleasure to read.

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However, I must admit, I have to agree with David Brooks that things like values, norms and dispositions differ among social classes.

To explain, I’ll have to refer you to a colleague of Robert Putnam’s (Brooks’ column was a sort of commentary on Putnam’s new book for an audience that will never read it), one from across the Atlantic. Like Putnam, Pierre Bourdieu was interested in inequality, and specifically how inequality manifests itself in things like taste, mannerisms and even social norms.

Both were social scientists who put forward highly influential theories of social capital. Where Putnam surveyed people about things like how often they eat dinner together, one of Bourdieu’s most famous studies examined how they respond to different kinds of artwork or what they like to eat.

The above clip illustrates quite succinctly one of his key findings: that taste is as much about drawing boundaries and displaying our class positions as it is about personal preference, if not more so. Cultural capital, the propensity to have taste and lord it over others, as Diane Keaton does in the clip, is just one of several forms of symbolic capital — such as social capital and educational capital — that we store and expend not unlike concrete, monetary-economic capital.

Class divisions have a very real impact on our perceptions, the way we express them and even our dispositions, values and lifestyles – this much I agree with David Brooks on. But I must also insist that it is David Brooks’ dominant class position that affords him his smug sense of moral superiority.

Those of us with experience in the classroom know, as the above clip illustrates, how class inequalities play out in our schools. But the problem here isn’t “culture;” it’s inequality. One of the key prerequisites to invest in symbolic capital like cultural capital (i.e., to gain an appreciation for abstract expressionism) is leisure, something in short supply across working America. And when we have leisure time, we tend to use it differently anyway. Building cultural capital (going to the museum) sounds more enticing if you have social capital (are friends with) with someone who has cultural capital (likes museums), and so on and so forth. 

At any rate, what we’re missing from this endless circular discussion about the primacy of culture over class or class over culture is how Stalinist it is to suggest that the answer to all our problems is a healthy dose of moral absolutism.

Nobody wanted a revival of moral standards more than Stalin. Under Stalin the U.S.S.R. banned abortion, made divorces more difficult to acquire and subsidized the family. His purges were as much culture war as they were a declaration of class war from on high. The Bolsheviks imposed a set of “ideals and standards” for the people to repair to, and the people were encouraged or coerced to report any of their friends and neighbors who did not meet the proletarian ideal. Everyone ended up reporting everyone else, and tons of people died. And just to be sure, the Stalinist regime went out of its way to make sure non-collectivized peasant workers starved because their ability to subsist independent of the State became cause for paranoia.

This was after World War One and a Civil War had already decimated the population, and World War Two left even more dead in its wake.

“As a result of all this violence,” as Georgi Derluguian’s mind-bending account of the rise and fall of the Soviet system describes, “no landowners or aristocrats, no capitalists or petty bourgeoisie, no autonomous intelligentsia or liberal professionals remained… the social hierarchy was drastically reduced to a semi-closed caste of cadre bureaucrats and a newly created mass who could be described as proletarian in the most fundamental sense: a social class whose livelihood was rigidly tied to wage employment.” At last a classless society – forged by the survival of the fittest and, finally, pure, moral standards. (“From the late 1950’s the Soviet Union experienced a tremendous expansion in the practice of high culture,” Derluguian notes). That’s what David Brooks wants. That’s what Vladimir Putin wants.

I always knew David Brooks was a Trojan horse for the Communists seeking to undermine American freedom, I just never knew the National Review would be in such a rush to defend him.


James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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  • Bill_Perdue

    Exactly.

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  • Yeah, it’s no wonder ‘Prosperity Gospel’ Christianity is now a thing. At least here in the U.S. With the message being, “If you’re well-off, it means God loves you. If you’ve fallen on hard times, it’s your fault because God (specifically, his mega-wealthy preacher) hasn’t been sufficiently appeased.”

    It does seem that sociopathy and selfishness are no longer seen as terrible character flaws.

  • there’s an entitlement mentality at the core of that line of thinking. it allows those who have to feel morally superior and deserving of what they have and negates any need to feel sorry for people who have fallen on hard times. It’s basically an excuse and in fact and endorsement of sociopathy. I often blame Ayn Rand but this is all over Victorian era thinking (and one that Dickens rails against because it was so common). Perhaps thinking that some people have fallen on hard times purely because of bad luck is too frightening a prospect.

  • As ever, Professor Bobo has decreed that success in life — money in the bank, a dependable career, educational opportunities — is somehow directly tied to being a ‘moral’ person (but only by his rather narrow cultural standards), and not at all the result of institutionalized advantages granted to those who are already in the “In Crowd.”

    Or as I like to say, “A poor person might steal from me because they feel they have to. A rich person will take everything I have because they want to.”

  • I’ve sometimes wondered if a portion of the absolute refusal to budge on MJ on the part of the Elite (the moneyed and the powerful, who are often both) is because if it was legal, even the poorest person could probably afford to grow a few plants in pots, thereby not giving a profit opportunity to hardly anybody.

  • David Brooks — or Professor Bobo as I prefer to term him — as ever sees society’s problem as “people not knowing how to behave”, without ever once addressing his huge blind spot, which is that American culture is designed to turn out exactly this way.

    Our economy is based on kleptocratic capitalism and our political system is devoted to protecting the wealth of those who already have far, far more than they will ever need to lead a comfortable life.

    We also have a heavily racist culture, wherein African Americans, Latinos, and Indigenous Americans (to name the top three) have been systematically disadvantaged for generations.

    We value money, but we do not value education. We value power, but we do not value ethics or accountability. We value certain rights — particularly those of the dominant culture — even when they directly abridge the civil rights of minorities, and even when the reason for the abridgment is irrational animus. We claim to value the rule of law and the duties of citizens in a democracy — yet we allow those in power to erect barriers to voting and have dispensed with accountability for those who have money and/or power.

    To use one controversial example: We have individuals vilified and all but convicted of treason outside of a court of law by powerful politicians, individuals whose ‘crimes’ consisted of letting the American people about the crimes being done to them and in their name. Meanwhile, we have clear and unambiguous evidence of war crimes, treasonous leaks, and wars launched under false pretenses — but nothing is done, no one is ever held accountable. Because obviously the crimes of the powerful live on an entirely different plain than those of ordinary people.

    Professor Bobo is of the elite class who want to scold others, to dictate to others how they should live their lives. Men like him indulged in drug use in his own youth, self-admittedly being something of a pot-head…and then sees no irony whatsoever in admonishing young people that they won’t achieve success if they ever smoke that devil weed.

    I wouldn’t call Brooks a Stalinist and his blather about the evils of ‘relativism’ are a sophomoric exercise in rhetorical pablum. I would term him a Paternalist. What he fails as ever to realize is he thinks his ‘values’ that he would want taught and enforced are just a milder version of what the right-wing authoritarians would impose by rigid orthodoxy and draconian laws.

  • My beagle is part brick. If food isn’t involved, he’s not interested. But on the up side, he considers lots of things food… like the cat, dryer lint, his own poop, etc.

  • caphillprof

    Caphillprof’s First Law: It takes a thriving middle class for a nation to have middle class values.

    Brooks always loads his arguments rather than to survey the facts and then make a decision. I will go to my grave before the MSM gives a forthright account of upper class values.

    I do know that historically the Roman Catholic Church sent its missionaries to the poorest parishes because the poorest parishes disproportionately would give to the poor.

  • Do they commit more crimes or are they more likely to be punished or punished more harshly for those crimes. The drug laws are a good example. not only are the poor more likely to get jail and the rich more likely to get sent to rehab, the sentencing guidelines (sometimes mandatory) are more harsh for the drugs that are more often used by poor people vs those more popular among the rich. In addition, crimes such as robbery are treated more harshly than “white collar crime”. How many Wall St banksters went to prison for the crimes committed in the second half of the last decade. Very few. How likely would someone get off scott free for robbing a liquor store. Not likely.

    And I think all that exactly is the point of Tolstoy and Dickens. The greed and corruption practiced by the powerful is easily dismissed because of privilege and cronyism. The poor (and in most cases event he middle class) must face the punishments handed down by the completely corrupt judges. Another good example is the corruption in our courts. Scalia regularly receives lavish vacations and trips from people with business before the court. Meanwhile many of us are not even allowed to take so much as a free pen from any vendor trying to get business from the company we work for. I’d have been fired for 1/1000th of what Thomas took (via his wife, and they tried to hide it by not reporting it as income…another violation I wouldn’t have gotten away with) even though I was never in any real position to make major decisions for that company unlike Thomas who is 1/9 of a SCOTUS vote. The standards as applied fall disproportionately on the have nots while the haves are simply assumed to be corrupt and dismissed with “well they all do it.”

  • GarySFBCN

    Funny that Brooks seems to blame the lack of norms and morality in individuals who are products of a immoral system, but not the immoral system. That poverty exists in the US is immoral. That is costs so much to go to college is immoral. That healthcare isn’t ‘socialized’ is immoral.

  • 2karmanot

    Our Cocker, Bodhi Dog thought like a cat in that regard. He had staff to open the doors or else created a diva moment on the rug.

  • emjayay

    And they aren’t known to be exceptionally bright.

  • 2karmanot

    The land of milk and honey has curdled.

  • 2karmanot

    “Is there really more crime among the poor?”” Tolstoy and Dickens certainly thought so. Their brilliant human stories of inequality overflow with Capitalism’s worst characteristic: Justice as commodity.

  • 2karmanot

    Bingo! Good one Bill—-

  • 2karmanot

    Well done! —and dare I say, very classy, cogent and witty, above all-witty! The shades of Gore Vidal and Oscar Wild might smile at this poking of the stick at poor old Brooks, whose Wonder Bread thinking soars to new heights when he slathers his moral opining with creamy peanut butter; not chunky, mind you—creamy. This sad sack of bourgeoisie passive aggression has been boring the masses for decades with his Ivy obsequiousness.
    “how inequality manifests itself in things like taste, mannerisms and even social norms.” This phrase lies at the core of any ‘Marxist’ generalizing and since that is the case here, I would point you to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle,’ wherein the concept of capitalist commercialism and its messenger, advertising, create the new realities which dictate the parameters of taste and cultural distinctions.

  • David Brooks is to sociological commentary what Ted Cruz is to theoretical physics. That is to say, one of the last people anyone sensible would bother to consult on the topic. He routinely makes sweeping generalizations drawn only from his own ignorant prejudices, and he’s happy to shoehorn anyone to make them fit his own narrow world view. I’d get a more reasoned response on the topic from my beagle.

  • emjayay

    The comments to the New Republic article are interesting for a bit until they run off the rails and go on and on.

  • The_Fixer

    As far as I am concerned, even thinking about what David Brooks has to say is a waste of perfectly good brain cells. His scribblings are a waste of good print or electrons, depending on the media, and writing about him is a similar waste.

    I get the point that you’re trying to make, James, although I think you may be stretching it a bit to bring up this comparison. Brooks’ thoughts and scribblings certainly aren’t as malicious as Stalin’s deeds. And I don’t think Brooks is conscious of any particular connection.

    It’s just typical myopic and thoughtless ramblings from one who has to constantly remind himself that he’s upper-crust. Pissing on the so-called lack of morals by poor people is just his latest way of doing it.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Here’s the only definition of Stalinism that matters: “Stalinism is the syphilis of the workers’ movement.” Leon Trotsky

  • therling

    I think Tom Tomorrow nailed it best with his “Mr. McBobo” cartoon:

  • David Brooks still has a job? People still read the NY Times? Really?

    I know a lot of low income people. Even in the corporate world I often had conversations with everyone including the lowest paid people. The idea that poor people don’t have as good morals as the rich is just not based on any kind of reality. Does Brooks even talk to the many low-wage people he meets every day? Given my experience working for people in the top quintile I would guess no. He might think he does because he exchanges a few words, but it’s bizarre watching how insular people becomes once they have a lot of money. Not everyone, obviously, but a great many. Once you have money (and by money I mean over about $200k a year) people start catering to your every whim. No, you don’t always get what you want and yes there are people who make even more but at that level what you want and what you care about matter. No one cares what poor people think or want except to avoid them with rip-off like predatory lending and fees for cashing their meager paychecks. But not having morals? Is there really more crime among the poor? Of certain kinds yes, but the petty robberies committed by poor people pale in comparison to the massive crimes like credit default swaps, auction rate bonds and a whole host of other fraudulent securities still being sold (the time bomb is ticking on those as we speak). Pretty much every low income person I’ve ever met was a decent, hardworking person. I wish I could say as much about the executives I worked for.

  • Indigo

    Spin and churn, spin and churn and suddenly . . . Stalinism!

    Poppycock and Balderdash!

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