Monday, June 15, 2015

Lies, Damn Lies and David Brooks, Ctd.

As America's leading Brooksologist, it is always interesting (and mildly amusing) to watch the "WTF?" reaction of people who have much, much larger platforms than I do when they start to notice that, sometimes, respected New York Times columnist, Conservative though-leader, Aspen Institute speaker, morality lecturer and best-selling author, Mr. David Brooks, just sorta makes shit up:

From Salon:
The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book
Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist's new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods

Fast forward to April 2015, when I came across a review of “The Road to Character” in the New York Times Book Review. To my amazement, the same statistic from the Aspen talk, once again credited to Gallup, was paraphrased. And my obsession with the mysterious Gallup poll roared back to life.

It was one thing if Brooks made erroneous claims in a one-off lecture. It was something else entirely to put those same claims in a book. Now I had to get to the bottom of this. I wanted to fact-check the review to make sure the reviewer was accurately quoting from the book. I did a search on Google Books for part of the quote and found it. After that, I went to Barnes and Noble and looked up the passage in the actual book just to confirm it was there.

The passage from “The Road to Character” reads:
“In 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.”
Over the course of my search I discovered other iterations of the passage as well: During a 2011 appearance on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” for example, Brooks tells the same exact story, except in this telling, the second study took place not in 2005 or 2006, but in 1998.

The NYT’s review of “The Road to Character” itself picked up the pattern of changing dates, when the reviewer noted that the passage in question was similar to one in an earlier Brooks book, “The Social Animal,” only it was written with “with slightly different dates.”

The passage from “The Social Animal” reads:
“In 1950 a personality test asked teenagers if they considered themselves an important person. Twelve percent said yes. By the late 1980s, 80 percent said yes.”
Somehow, between the publication of “The Social Animal” in 2011 and the publication of “The Road to Character” in 2015, a study that originally occurred, by Brooks’s telling, in “the late 1980s” became one that occurred nearly 20 years later. (Amazingly, to the New York Times reviewer, the late 1980s and 2005 are only “slightly different dates.” And how was any difference in dates for the same citation, no matter how “slight,” not problematic to the Times reviewer?)

What began as a simple fact check of a Gallup poll, was devolving into a morass...
Longtime readers will undoubtedly hear in this Salon piece strong echoes of Sasha Issenberg's remarkably similar, April, 2004 May, 2006* examination of Mr. Brooks' bad habit of making shit up:
Boo-Boos in Paradise

BY SASHA ISSENBERG | April, 2004 MAY 15, 2006

... Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism's most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.

There's just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false...

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.

“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America's most literate cities doesn't necessarily agree. Among the study's criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.

“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series's highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)

Brooks could be dismissed as little more than a snarky punch-line artist, except that he postures as a public intellectual — and has been received as one...

I looked at another of Brooks's more celebrated articles, an August 2002 piece in the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard in which he discerned a new American archetype he dubbed “Patio Man.” Patio Man, in Brooks's description, “walks into a Home Depot or Lowe's or one of the other mega hardware complexes and his eyes are glistening with a faraway missionary zeal, like one of those old prophets gazing into the promised land. His lips are parted and twitching slightly.” Patio Man, Brooks wrote, lives in one of the new Sprinkler Cities, “the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new-style American dream.”

Brooks illuminated Patio Man's world with vivid portraiture, telling details, and clever observations about American culture. (“All major choices of consumer durables these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.”) Brooks's suggestion that Patio Man's brethren would become the basis of a coming Republican majority found many friends. Slate identified him as a “new sociological icon.” The New York Times Magazine 2002 “Year in Ideas” issue cited Patio Man in its encapsulation of “Post-Soccer-Mom Nomenclature.”

Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured...
Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it...
And how did America's foremost voice of humility and morality react to being called on the carpet by some lesser being for making shit up?

Just as you would expect: peevish denial, Ann Coulter-grade "Jebus, it was just a fucking joke!" spin and attacks on the integrity and maturity of the reporter:
I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn't see it when I was there, but it's true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”

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 about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. “This is dishonest research. You're not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter,” he said. “Is this how you're going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do 'em, I know 'em, how one starts, but it's just something you'll mature beyond.”
See, Mr. Brooks has been making a princely living by making shit up for a long, long time.

And once you start to notice it, if you stay on that beat for awhile, you also start to notice that all of his merry little fictions about Red Lobster and 1950s teenagers and Ronald Reagan and Dubya's crackpot economic schemes and austerity and the Dirty Hippies and Penn State and income inequality and climate change and Centrism and the Iraq War and on and on and on and on are all in-harness together, all pulling in the same direction.

They are all lies engineered to accomplish the same goal: to bludgeon the fuck out of American history as it has actually been lived during Mr. Brooks' entire adult life in the service of what I refer to as Mr. Brooks' Great Project.  To wit:  
...a long-term project to completely rewrite the history of American Conservatism: to flense it of all of the Conservative social, political  economic and foreign policy debacles that make Mr. Brooks wince and repackage the whole era as a fairy tale of noble Whigs being led through treacherous hippie country by the humble David Brooks.
And he is getting away with it too.

Right before our very eyes.

*Corrected per information provided by the Philadelphia Magazine.


bowtiejack said...

Yeah, I was reading Zweig's article and that exact phrase "making shit up" floated to the top of my mind.

Then I read further and Zweig wrote:

". . . referencing other lectures Brooks gave. Every time, he spoke with pith and humor; the audiences laughed and cheered along with his jokes and likably nebbishy demeanor. The guy knows what works."

"The guy knows what works." Yes, i thought. So did Goebbels.

bowtiejack said...

On further reflection about David Brooks' relationship with facts, perhaps it is more correct to view him as a creative artist, say a maker of stained glass windows.

He takes the little shards of individual facts he finds laying around, and cuts and polishes and shapes them until he can assemble them into a larger, more appealing piece which tells an interesting story, even as the original stained glass windows educated those illiterate medieval peasants. And to the same ends, I might add.

Bob M said...

The Salon Piece was interesting - however he does seem puzzled that now David Brooks is making things up and making them the core of his argument. Readers of this blog are well aware that Brooks Always has done this. This is not new for him. at all.

Unknown said...

@Robert Muir

Yes, someone in the comments section of that article pointed out Driftglass has been tracking Bobo's mendacity for a long time.

W. Hackwhacker said...

You ARE "America's leading Brooksologist", and we thank for your service! Love you man!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

David Brooks put up a column about the TPP today. He told some lies about NAFTA.

Bobo agrees with Our President and the GOP leadership on the TPP. Do you think he's right, driftglass?

Chan Kobun said...

And once again, known troll ifthethunder and its obsession with dragging everything everywhere off-topic because Don't You Understand That The Negro Is Trying To Destroy Us, Everyone? rears its ugly head.

And nobody cares because when you try to drag things off-topic, you are a troll and do not deserve to be acknowledged as otherwise.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

The TPP will further cement corporate control of the USA. Unelected tribunals composed of corporate lawyers will be able to override any law that corporations think impede their profits.

Ready for the abolition of food safety laws? Welcome to "The Jungle", we got fun and games!

Ready to see cigarette ads forced back onto TV again?

Ready to see the corporate rich get so much more power that our only earthly hope of deliverance will be the Russian-Chinese Alliance?

I feel like a citizen of the Federation that has seen it metamorphose in the space of a few decades into the Terran Empire, and now have to hope the Klingons and Romulans can deliver us.

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