Brooksing No Fools

critiquing the monologues of david brooks.

Mose the Fireman, from playbill in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, featuring F.S. Chanfrau in the character of “Mose”, 1848.

More fantastical pablum disguised as faux-brilliant revelation in David Brooks’s dialogue between Flyover Man and Urban Guy in his column last week (“Why Trump Voters Stick With Him,” New York Times, 3 October 2019).

Brooks claims to show the contours of contemporary American culture, but ends up obfuscating dynamics of power, resentment, and fraught ambiguity. Most of all, the problem is a narcissistic projection of a small sector of the baby-boom generation onto all of American society, blindly and blithely leaving out most people and their stories.

Flyover Man and Urban Guy are but two sides of the same guy: David Brooks. Here is the conflicted spokesman for the elite baby-boomer professional-managerial class, loathing who he is but also smugly pretending that he gets who he is not, desperately desiring to have his American authenticity and eat it too. Talk about a bobo in paradise. Brooks is the ultimate example of one, trapped in an echo chamber on a plane, thinking he is looking out the window when in fact he has the slider down and a mirror on it.

Brooks’s dialogue both mischaracterizes its two main actors and, worse yet, misses the voices of the vast majority of Americans. After all, Flyover Man is but one element of the Trump and Republican coalition. This group, which seems to hold fairly stable at about 30 to 35 percent of the population, is not just working-class Joes expressing resentment against the coastal elites as their access to the post-World War II ideal of a white, middle-class American standard of living disappears, it’s also a whole set of other constituents: exurban professionals—mostly men—who are threatened by the challenges to their privilege; it’s also evangelicals, voting on the one issue of abortion and interested in bringing on the apocalypse come hell or high water (note: the evangelical outcry over Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds suggests a more complicated story, but again one that is nowhere to be found in the Flyover Man routine); and it also, crucially, includes the most elite, rarified of the .00001 percent, happily zooming by Brooks in the sky and waving from their private jets as he sits in his first-class cabin with mirrors instead of windows. This group, it would appear, would rather destroy American democracy than share even a bit of their billions. In this sense, Flyover Man is part of the ground crew, if that, but he’s not even the main player in the sky show.

Moreover, even Flyover Man himself is more complicated than Brooks admits, full of ambiguities in terms of where he positions himself in relation to family and country, to those different or similar from his own lot in life. We might think of this creation Brooks has summoned into his column as a ghost not from the present, but grabbed from the nineteenth-century theater. Here’s Mose the Fireman, the tough Bowery B’hoy, spewing vitriol at the elites, roaring back to life at us from the minstrel show stereotype of working-class whiteness over 100 years ago, slipping into Brooks’ imagination from some long-distant, spectral American drama.

What is he doing here, in a twenty-first century New York Times column? He’s there because he lets Brooks get away with claiming that all of cosmopolitan America, so-called “blue” America, is Urban Guy. And who is Urban Guy? Nothing more than the dandy from the nineteenth-century stage, Mose’s nemesis, returned to strut his feathers to imagine, wrongly we all know, that he can outsmart Mose with prettified thinking and an eloquence that is in fact nothing more than condescending nonsense and a foolish putting on airs.

And when you think about it, in Brooks column, Mose/Flyover Man and the dandified Urban Guy are really two sides of the same person: Brooks himself projecting his own dim awareness of his self-absorbed elitism onto the rest of us. That’s what is worst of all about this awful column. It ignores the actual people in both flyover country and the metropoles. They aren’t Flyover Man or Urban Guy, two crusty remnants of the baby boomer imagination looking backward without knowing it to the vestiges of older American class formations from the nineteenth century; they are an emergent American majority of diverse identities: African-Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans, and younger whites mired in poverty or college debt, with depressed wages and too-expensive health care (if any access to it at all) who can’t escape the hegemony of elite baby boomers of the professional-managerial class or their twinned projections onto their working-class opposites. While Brooks blabs on in his stilted dialogue, which is really a monologue, he thinks he can look down on Flyover Man through the clouds, from his first-class cabin, but really he’s just shouting into the recirculating air onboard, hogging all the resources as the plane struggles to make it through the turbulence.

Meanwhile, Brooks renders invisible all the other voices beyond Flyover Man and Urban Guy. Zooming by, so caught up in his own projections, he doesn’t even hear them and he can’t even see them. He is completely missing their needs, concerns, mixed feelings, and American dreams.

Time to get out the way, Mr. Brooks, you old Dan Tucker, and let those other characters onstage. They need a hearing, and American politics and culture desperately needs them to be heard right now.

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