Backward, oh backward…

An immigrant family works at home, in 1909, but do they work hard enough for David Brooks? from http://ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/cigaretterollers.jpg

Do you supposed David Brooks’ wristwatch runs counter-clockwise? His column in today’s New York Times, “The Limits of Policy,” certainly seems to try to set the clock  back on our understanding of ethnicity and economic equity. The teaser, “How ethnicity swamps politics,” says it all…With amazingly essentialist logic, Brooks tells us that public policy (in which  he includes here everything from public education spending to health care provisions) has “only marginal effects on how we live.” Instead, he says, it is “ethnic, regional and social differences” that bring about drastic differentials in life expectancy and economic standing among  American communities.

Putting aside the circular logic here (tell me again: why shouldn’t we keep striving for better policies?) and convenient breaches in logic altogether (Brooks reports that Asian-Americans do well even in “struggling parts of the country,” but also that “the region you live in makes a gigantic difference in how you will live”), he builds his case on utterly uncritical thinking about how people experience such differences.  He works from the idea that  “cultural attitudes,” “child-rearing practices, ”  and “work ethics” variously foster or limit a given community’s level of health and education. But historians and social scientists have long shown that peoples’ “attitudes,”  “practices,” and “ethics” are not easily distinguished from what they feel to be practical necessity,  and they certainly do not derive in any inevitable way from ethnic identity.

Brandishing crude and selective social analysis,  Brooks appears to cherish cultural pluralism (recommending policies that “fortify emotional bonds” within communities), even while he is attributing poorer communities’ economic marginality to their regrettable value systems.  A quick trip to 1909, anyone?  But Brooks is not entirely lost in century-old social ideas. After all, he commends government efforts to provide basic “economic and physical security” to at-risk communities, as something necessary for the creation of a “culture of achievement” in those communities.  But note: that security is not sufficient in Brooks’ outlook.  Offer a struggling people  security, he adds, and you’ll  only see their achievements increase “if you’re lucky.”

Hackles raised yet?  Upset? Brooks closes with the advice that “we should probably calm down” about “most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously” since they can make little positive difference in the lives of struggling minorities and other impoverished communities around the nation.  Sadly, that one is a timeless American idea.