David Brooks and the Limits of Elite Punditocracy
I can’t remember the exact moment when I first “got” Bruce Springsteen. It was probably the summer on 1999, right after I graduated from UVa. I recall picking up Live 1975-1985 at the now closed Circuit City out on Rt. 29 in Charlottesville. I brought the cd’s home and proceeded to sit on the roof outside my room at 3 University Circle with a bottle of Jim Beam and a two liter of Coke, lost for hours in the tales of “shut down strangers and hot rod angels”. It was as if I’d found the person who had make sense of things I never could.
So it was with great interest that I read David Brooks’s latest op-ed in the New York Times as he talked about the two types of education we have – academic and emotional – and how his experience first hearing the Boss back in February 1975 shaped the latter for him.
I followed Springsteen into his world. Once again, it wasn’t the explicit characters that mattered most. Springsteen sings about teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law. These stories don’t directly touch my life, and as far as I know he’s never written a song about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night.
What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.
So much of how music makes you feel and helps you make sense of your life can be traced, I think, to how heavily you associate with it. As a middle class black kid with a family that more or less looked like this, I have to admit that I never got NWA in the same way a black kid from Watts might have. At some point, that bothered me. A lot. When I was coming of age in the late 80s/early 90s, there was a distinctly militant bent to a lot of hip hop and other aspects of “black culture” in general. Public Enemy unapologetically fought the power. Naughty By Nature told people who’d never been to the ghetto to stay the fuck out of the ghetto. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X burned up movie screens, giving an entire new generation of black people a sense of empowerment they’d never experienced.
Me? I wasn’t a hood rat. My family belonged to a country club. My sister was in law school at the University of Virginia. I played soccer and took tennis lessons. I listened to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington with my grandfather in his room in our house. Needless to say, I didn’t feel authentically black in the way that blackness was being presented to America at large. Being black was dangerous, seductive, powerful. I was none of those things.
Nor was I very much into Pearl Jam or Nirvana, the two groups that spoke to the “white experience” of teen self-loathing and rejection of authority. I liked myself! My dad was the principal of my high school. Authority was all around me and, at the time, I didn’t feel the need to question it because I didn’t feel oppressed by it. It was what it was; something to be observed that generally left you alone if you didn’t provoke it.
So musically, I was adrift for a long time before finding Springsteen. And what I discovered in his work were things I did know and did see and did experience. Many of my relatives worked for DuPont, which shuttered a major factory in my hometown of Martinsville, VA, when I was growing up. I’ve seen first hand the devastation those closings can have on an entire community. As I got older, my relationship with my father deteriorated for a variety of reasons, and so, as many young men have done, I pulled away to gain a certain sense of independence to live my own life, not one that had been imagined for me by someone else. I saw friends, talented friends, set their horizons so low because of where we’d come from; a fading blue collar town in the south side of Virginia that offered little in the way of opportunities outside of a factory job or joining the military. I knew I had to get out while I was still young.
What does all of this have to do with David Brooks? A lot, actually. I highlighted the section in his column because I think it says something about how skewed American political commentary really is. David Brooks is an elite (in every way) pundit who mixes his musings on politics with dollops of random cultural observations. I’m fully prepared to believe that he knows what he’s talking about when he’s writing about Bobo’s, but I raise my eyebrows a bit when Brooks and people of his ilk start talking about things like the “real America” or some other such nonsense. In fact, the perception of a place like my hometown would dovetail nicely with the imagery found in a Sarah Palin speech. But, of course, my hometown is much more complicated than any caricature and it bothers me that these people claim to know what they’re talking about when, in fact, they don’t.
Just as being from New York or rural Georgia gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so spending time in Springsteen’s universe inculcates its own preconscious viewpoint.
It does, but I wonder how much Brooks actually hears what’s being said. Springsteen’s best known work, 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., is perhaps the most depressing album ever to spawn seven top-10 singles. The title track is a screed about the plight of a Vietnam vet who comes home to find his life turned upside down (and was famously misunderstood by Ronald Reagan). “Glory Days” is about reliving the past because the present holds little promise. “My Hometown” catalogs the downfall of a small American town, the very towns that folks like Palin and Glenn Beck (and, to a lesser extent, Brooks) are happy to exploit when it comes time to get votes but seemingly don’t give a shit about any other time of the year.
If you’re where I’m from, it’s impossible to hear these songs and miss their intended meaning. I’m not saying that makes me better than David Brooks. Far from it. But how can people who get millions of dollars in speaking fees, who live in mansions in Connecticut and attend exclusive parties inside the Beltway claim that not having a universal health care system because of fears (stirred up by them) of socialism is what’s good for middle America? How can they let their own daughters make a considered decision about the merits of child birth while at the same time cutting funding for abortions, thereby restricting access for the people most likely to need it, the residents of small towns who have little means and money of their own? How can they advocate for cuts to the capital gains tax or estate tax, which affect only the most wealthy Americans, while having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to vote to extend unemployment benefits in the stimulus plan?
I fear Mr. Brooks, while enjoying the quality of the craftsmanship of Springsteen’s work, misses the point of what he’s listening to. The assumption behind many of the Boss’ songs is that the little guy can’t win. From “Badlands”:
“Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.
At the end of the day, David Brooks is firmly in the corner of the kings of society. And that’s fine. I just wish there were other voices out there to tell him he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
I mean, does David Brooks actually remember who Springsteen himself endorsed for president last year?