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Zen Over Zinn: Avoiding Unpleasant Truths with David Brooks

By       Message Steve Breyman       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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David Brooks, 'The American Precariat'
(Image by New York Times)
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We all know people who prefer cozier psychic climes to those offered up by reality. They're ubiquitous, the place is lousy with them. They constitute what might be a solid (if hardly silent) majority in the United States today. Folks incapable of entertaining mental states much north of Miami. The insufferably faux cheery manager. The always look-on-the-bright-side friend. The "bad news' avoider. These people likely even include ourselves from time to time.

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Who doesn't want to "stay calm and carry on," or "don't worry, be happy"? What sane person prefers sour or angry moods to the buoyant? But the preference for Zen over Zinn doesn't change reality; it makes reality harder to change. And it's plain irresponsible or downright dishonest to substitute counterfeit preoccupations for unflinching analysis.

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It's not just Fox News. New York Times columnist David Brooks has made a career of helping conservatives avoid uncomfortable truths. Brooks is of course not as bad as Roger Ailes' mad stable of professional prevaricators, but he has a more prestigious perch.

His February 10 column-- "The American Precariat" --stands as a fine example of Brooks' peculiar brand of pseudo-intellectual soft right victim blaming reality dodging. Brooks sees the world through old-fashioned, moralistic and mythical American Exceptionalist lenses set in generational conflict culture war frames. Were he British, he'd sit in the House of Lords.

He's mildly perturbed (not being the type to get genuinely outraged) by the news that Americans are now less mobile, that they move less today than they did some decades ago (though the decline is not precipitous: 20% of Americans moved in 1950; 12% at present). He finds related stats for duration of tenure in a particular abode (people stayed in the same house for a mere five years in the fifties and sixties; it's up to 8.6 years today). We're "no more mobile than people in Denmark or Finland" (as if this is necessarily a bad thing; Scandinavians tend to live superior lives compared to Americans), and Brooks is worried. 

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He's honest enough (which is what distinguishes him from many pundits on the right) to examine "a few theories that offer partial explanations, but only partial ones" as to why this might be so. These "theories" include an aging population (old folks are less geographically mobile), and the relocation difficulties faced by people burdened by underwater mortgages.

Yet young people are not moving as much as they used to, Brooks tells us, and neither are renters--so that can't be it. Growing job homogeneity across regions--why move if the jobs in Pittsburgh are the same as those in Atlanta?--doesn't cut it for Brooks either.

Instead, "a big factor here is a loss of self-confidence."

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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