David Brooks: Still a Movement Conservative…

…just one that has been prettied up. I’ve written many times that nothing in movement conservatism makes sense except in the light of creationism (with apologies to geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky). And NY Times columnist David Brooks’ pedigree is all movement conservative, his best efforts to pass (a topically relevant term) as a moderate notwithstanding. David Zweig chronicles how Brooks has misused and misinterpreted a key study in his new book (boldface mine):

One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong….

So it was that I came across video of a lecture he had given at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, where he stated:

“In 1950 the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors “Are you a very important person?” And in 1950, 12 percent of high school seniors said yes. They asked the same question again in 2006; this time it wasn’t 12 percent, it was 80 percent.”

…The thing I keep wondering is how did Brooks get nearly every detail of this passage wrong? He said Gallup did the polls, when they were actually done by academics. He merged a data set from 1948 and 1954 into 1950. He said the second data set was from 2005, when it was from 1989 (to me, the most damning and damaging inaccuracy). He said it was high school seniors, when it was 9th graders. And he said 80 percent answered true, when that was only so for boys. Can one accidentally get this many details wrong?

So the question is, if it wasn’t an accident, why would Brooks deliberately falsify nearly every detail in a passage of his book, let alone one that is a cornerstone of the book’s PR campaign? If you Google David Brooks and “Gallup” a vast scroll of media mentions of this erroneous passage appears. Brooks is a very talented writer, and whether you agree with him or not, he’s highly skilled at expressing ideas in compressed, digestible bites. After all, that is his job as an op-ed columnist. As I dug into the case, I watched the Aspen video again, while also 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.

As his publicist suggested, he may be right about the general trend. So why did he feel the need to gild the lily? Why couldn’t he have referenced the paper using the correct statistics?

Here’s a hint as to a possible answer:

In addition to his factual errors, it’s worth noting that Newsom and Archer challenge Brooks’s interpretation of their paper…

The question I keep wondering, and what I think perhaps is most relevant with Brooks, is why? Why would someone with this level of prestige and influence be so woefully sloppy in his reportage — or worse? Imagine yourself for a moment as an op-ed writer for the most influential newspaper in the world; you get paid huge sums of money for a string of bestselling books, you entertain and enlighten live crowds at your lectures, you get paid to spout your opinions on TV. I don’t know what it would do to my head if I had the level of influence that Brooks has as a writer and cultural commentator.

Some of it’s careerism and money. But, as driftglass puts it, Brooks has an ongoing project to “bludgeon the fuck out of American history” so as 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.”

In other words, Brooks has a preconceived answer and he simply distorts facts to get there.

Same as it ever was.

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3 Responses to David Brooks: Still a Movement Conservative…

  1. AndrewD says:

    Mark Lieberman at Language Log does a good job of questioning Brooks here
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=19531

  2. His radio inflection sounds a bit like James Woods. However, I’m always disappointed to discover it’s nothing more than the bloviating, babbling Brooks.

  3. Chris G says:

    From Sasha Issenberg’s “Boo-Boos in Paradise”:

    “[I called Brooks and] 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.” ”

    Yup, intellectual honesty is just something you’ll have to mature beyond. Just one of the things you’ll need to work out on the road to character, kid.

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