David Brooks vs. the World

DAVID BROOKS vs. THE WORLD….Oh hell, someone has to defend David Brooks. Why not me? Here’s an excerpt from Sasha Issenberg’s much blogged Philadelphia magazine takedown on Brooks:

Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it….Brooks takes their findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Brooks is hardly alone in thinking this. In fact, it’s practically gospel among anyone who markets products of any kind to consumers of any kind. “You Are Where You Live” is the slogan of Claritas’ widely-used PRIZM market segmentation system, and it’s no joke. People spend billions of dollars based on the results of market segmentation like this, and they do it because it works. Your intuition (and Brooks’ thesis) are correct: people in different parts of the country really are different.

(Care to find out what kind person you probably are? Go here and type in your ZIP code. Yeah, yeah, I know, they sure have you pegged wrong, don’t they? Sure they do. Then go ahead and type in the ZIP code of your aunt in Peoria and see the difference.)

Look, I don’t know if Brooks played fast and loose with the facts in Franklin County, PA, or not. But surely it’s noncontroversial that, say, the average resident of the midwest really does have different values and different interests than urban coastal dwellers? And that popular magazine writers frequently overplay those differences in an effort to write engaging copy? This strikes me as something less than shocking.

So while it may be true that Brooks sometimes strains too hard to make his points, I suspect Issenberg is straining just as hard. After all, even in strongly Red counties you’ll find plenty of liberals and and in strongly Blue counties you’ll find plenty of conservatives. (Go to a party here in heavily Republican Orange County, for example, and four out of ten people you meet will nonetheless be Democrats. And every one of us will make the same lame joke about how happy we are to finally meet another one.)

If Brooks’ generalizations are wrong, that’s fine. Skewer away. But finding exceptions to Brooks’ generalizations is both trivial and pedantic, especially when Issenberg admits multiple times that Brooks really does have a point. I’ve been pretty unimpressed with Brooks’ New York Times columns so far, but this time I have a feeling I’m on his side: Issenberg just didn’t get the joke. Lighten up.