Turns out, I made a small but significant error in yesterday’s post, which has been corrected. David Brooks’s latest column in The New York Times is not “The Golden Age of Bailing,” but this one, “How We Are Ruining America,” from July 11th.
In that latest column, Brooks takes a serious look at the various ways the upper class tries to exclude the lower classes from participating fully in American life. The seriousness with which Brooks approaches the topic is part of the problem. Over lunch one day years ago, a professor of mine, John Frayne, told me I was one of the most sober individuals he’d ever met. That is true; my personality is a sober one. Yet, I’m fond of laughing and telling a good joke, and I love many people and things. It is also true that the sobriety of my personality doesn’t even come close to the sobriety that David Brooks possesses. I’ve read many of his columns, yet never once has he told me what he loves, what he’s passionate about, what brings him lasting happiness. On the contrary, every line he writes tells us what he finds worthy of complaint, what’s lousy about the country he surveys each week, what particular shade of gloom his soul happens to be taking on that day.
Such men are called, at worst, misanthropes; at best, they might be called curmudgeons. Since I don’t know Brooks personally, my judgment about him inclines to the latter rather than the former. But I expect more than moroseness out of my national columnists. Even George Will, whose bitterness and cynicism about Donald Trump has corroded his writing persona, spent decades telling us not only what was wrong about American life and politics, but also what he found right about it: the joy of baseball, the hard work behind the rocker lifestyle of Bruce Springsteen, and so on. Brooks could stand a few lessons from Will, or from Peggy Noonan, who has never descended to cynicism in any of her work.
But what really got Twitter’s ire up yesterday as they read Brooks’s column on class in America was this passage:
“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicolo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”
Brooks was raked over the coals of every social network out here for his condescension; and I, too, joined in the ridicule, tweeting that I doubted whether Brooks actually has a friend with only a high school degree (I really do doubt whether he does), and opining that his smug moralizing disguises his sadness at realizing that people know how to be happy without him.
You may criticize me for these views if you like, but I wish to go a bit further with them. If examining and breaking down the barriers imposed by the upper classes means so much to Brooks, why did he not break some of those barriers down for his friend? In other words, why not take that friend into the shop, explain what one or two of those sandwich types are, and invite her to try one? That is what friends have done for me on several occasions when I was invited to try completely unfamiliar foods like sushi or cuisines like Indian. Brooks doesn’t do that, though, and his neglect of what seems like an obvious course of courteous action makes a lot of people think that, indeed, Brooks doesn’t have such a friend, and wouldn’t know how to treat her if he did. It makes me think that his look at class in America is just another thinly-disguised insult of the upper class hurled at the deplorables.
I hope I’m wrong. I’d like to think Brooks’s motives are better-intentioned than that. But he leaves me uncertain. Historically, we have not liked to think of ourselves as a class-defined society, not like Britain is, anyway, even though we’ve always had very rich and very poor among us. The difference between the US and Britain (as we see it) is that various people have been able to move into a higher class more easily, based upon not just inheritance but talent, whether it’s the talent of making a physical thing and selling it, or simply the talent for making money in the stock market.
I’ve met a few rich people in my life. I know there are mean ones out there, ones who, as Brooks points out, take delight in making the transition to a more pleasant life difficult for those who aspire to it. But the rich people I’ve met have been kind. They have worked very hard for their money. They have a social conscience that manifests itself not only in gifts of money but works of charity. And they are not above sharing the social life they lead, and teaching others how to participate in it with them fully, as J.D. Vance was taught the social graces when he entered Yale Law School and embarked upon his career.
The classes in America are more fluid than they appear to be from New York. One can find snobs everywhere, of course, including snobs who aren’t even well-to-do, let alone rich. But friendships can and do exist among people on many levels of society. One of the bonds of such friendships is created by our willingness to accept relationships on the level at which they’re offered. We can create another bond by being willing to introduce–gently–an unfamiliar activity to someone we like, provided they are willing to receive it. This is the way we’ve been forming relationships for thousands of years. The connections are not based on how much money we have, how many degrees we possess, or how many senators we can count on our family tree. They are based on a genuine regard for each other, and on the bold courage involved in trying to take those relationships as far as they can go.