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21 December 2001

Our current howler (part II): Our Mr. Brooks

Synopsis: On the right, stupidity is now de rigeur. Why, they’ve even dragged David Brooks into it!

David Brooks, Atlantic Monthly, 12/01

The "blue-red" thesis is so utterly silly that—in these latter days of the Rush Limbaugh Right—it was a movement just waiting to happen. In fact, there are always "red" and "blue" states in our White House elections; last year was much like every other. And to continue stating what is merely obvious, many "blue" states vote 49 percent "red," and many "red" states vote 49 percent "blue," suggesting that they may not be two different critters. (Indeed, Florida, which is technically "red," may have voted the opposite color. Ditto New Mexico, technically "blue.") If your state gives 51 percent to Bush; and my state gives 51 percent to Gore; does that mean that we live in two warring nations? In the addled world of the Limbaugh Right, that’s exactly what such facts seem to say.

Since we have red and blue states in every election, how did this idiot theory get started? We think you know what happened. In this past election, the red states were bunched all close together, and a few of our better-known total incompetents came up with a thrilling new thesis. We were "two different Americas," these sages said, simply transfixed by that big swatch of red.

At any rate, it’s no surprise to see Andrew Sullivan spouting this pitiful palaver (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/01). But incredibly, even David Brooks is now up to his eyes in the mess. There it sat, on Atlantic’s cover. "ARE WE REALLY ONE COUNTRY?" the big red text said. And the cover promised us something profound: "A report from ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ America."

It’s incredible that someone as bright as Brooks could be involved in such risible nonsense. Surely this means that our thesis is accurate—on the right, sheer stupidity is now de rigeur, the fruit of a decade of unchallenged power. How else could they possibly drag a guy as bright as Brooks into this utterly yowling mess? Presumably Brooks didn’t write the synopsis. But just so you’ll know, here it is:

ATLANTIC MONTHLY: The electoral map of the 2000 presidential race became famous: big blocks of red (denoting states that went for Bush) stretched across the heartland, with brackets of blue (denoting states for Gore) along the coasts. Our Blue America correspondent has repeatedly ventured into Red territory. He asks the question—after September 11, a pressing one—Do our differences effectively split us into two nations, or are they cracks in a still-united whole?

Incredibly, the Atlantic is so committed to sheer, complete nonsense that it even drug 9/11 in. Where else but in the camp of the Coming Conservative Crackup could people come up with a question like this one? Ninety-five percent of the public supports the war, so Atlantic starts thinking that we may be two nations! Surely a Crackup is coming on fast when nonsense like that calls for toasts.

But let’s put 9/11 to the side, and marvel at Brooks’ article. First, of course, the most laughable fact—he didn’t even visit "Red America." Brooks, who lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, visited Franklin County, PA, hoping to gander at local yokels. Franklin County is Brooks’ "Red America." Until, that is, he says this:

BROOKS: Franklin County is in a Red part of a Blue state; overall, Pennsylvania went for Gore.

Exactly! According to that useless election map, Franklin County, Pennsylvania is blue! So why in the world does Atlantic’s synopsis tie Brooks’ piece to that meaningless map, and why in the world did Brooks say this, just a few paragraphs earlier:

BROOKS: Over the past several months, my interest piqued by those stark blocks of color on the election-night maps, I have every now and then left my home in Montgomery County, Maryland and driven sixty-five miles northwest to Franklin County, in south-central Pennsylvania...Franklin County is Red America.

But Franklin County is not "Red America," if we’re going by those "election-night maps." The sheer stupidity of Atlantic’s whole thesis is blown up by this part of its piece. Why then did the article remain, except for sheer love of sheer nonsense?

Reading on through Brooks’ piece, we learn what he’s really addressing. He isn’t talking about "red" and "blue;" he’s talking about rural and urban. In the second paragraph of his piece, he defines the "America" he wanted to study when he went to the wilds of PA:

BROOKS: The place I’m talking about goes by different names. Some call it America. Others call it Middle America. It has also come to be known as Red America…People in Red America tends to live on farms or small cities far away from the coasts. Things are different there.

Dude, you’re discussing "exurban" America. If Brooks (and his editors) had just told us that, readers would have known what this piece was about—and almost surely would have known not to read it.

After all, who would want to read David Brooks expounding on rural America? He sounds like a visitor from K-PAX throughout—although in his own mind, he fancies Thoreau:

HENRY THOREAU (1854): I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

DAVID BROOKS (2001): I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is, to see how people there live, and to gauge how different their lives are from those in my part of America.

Still a great sentence so many years later! But what did Brooks learn when he went to the wilds? In truth, it sounds like Brooks had never before journeyed more than ten blocks from a Starbucks. Throughout the piece, he is simply amazed by facts almost everyone knows. At one point, for example, he says this:

BROOKS: Red America makes social distinctions that Blue America doesn’t. For example, in Red America there seems to be a distinction between those fiercely independent people who live in the hills and people who live in the valleys.

If you’ve seen Deliverance, you know that. But Brooks is completely kerflubbled:

BROOKS (continuing directly): I got to see a bit of the distinct and, to me, exotic hill culture when a hill dweller asked me why I thought hunting for squirrel and rabbit had gone out of fashion. I thought maybe it was just more fun to hunt something bigger. But he said, "McDonald’s. It’s cheaper to get a hamburger at McDonald’s than it is to go out and get it yourself."

We think we heard that one first in City Slickers. Or maybe it was Ernest Scared Stupid.

Anyway, it isn’t like Brooks doesn’t play along with the ludicrous "two nations" theory. Early on, he reveals his fears. Brooks finds himself troubled about the great differences between Red and Blue America:

BROOKS: These differences are so many and so stark that they lead to some pretty troubling questions. Are Americans any longer a common people? Do we have one national conversation and one national culture? Are we loyal to the same institutions and the same values? How do people on one side of the divide view those on the other?

It’s heavy stuff. But what are the "differences" to which he refers? Here is the end of his preceding paragraph. No, we aren’t making this up:

BROOKS: [B]lacks and Hispanics in Red America are more traditionalist than blacks and Hispanics in Blue America, just as their white counterparts are. For example, the Pew Research Center recently found that 45 percent of minority members in Red states agree with the statement "AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral behavior," but only 31 percent of minority members in the Blue states do. Similarly, 40 percent of minorities in Red states believe that school boards should have the right to fire homosexual teachers, but only 21 percent of minorities in Blue states do.

That was the end of the paragraph. Incredibly, those were the only stated "differences" which led to Brooks’ "troubling questions." Amazing, isn’t it? In red states, 45 percent of blacks think AIDS may be God’s punishment; in blue states, it’s only 31. Based on utter trivia like this, Brooks starts raising "troubling questions" as to whether we’re still one nation.

It isn’t hard to see why Atlantic Monthly would churn out an insulting mess like this—its editor is, of course, Michael Kelly. Only Kelly! Only Kelly could get pointless conversations with squirrel hunters conflated with Bush versus Gore. But how in the world did David Brooks get tangled up in this yowling mess? It must be that, in the world of the talk-show right, stupidity is now a stern rite of passage. And that surely points to a Coming Crackup. We’ll explain all—but first, Mr. H.

Next: Don’t tell Sean Hannity that 9/11 is our fault. Unless you’re a well-known conservative.