Friday, November 19, 2010

David Brooks Knows The Internet Happened, Right?

David Brooks laments the loss of the American middle-brow, and the resulting demise of Newsweek and other magazines that could show the rubes in flyover country how to aspire to New Yorkiness.. But he completely and utterly misdiagnoses what went wrong:
These magazines also inflamed a million imaginations. Smart boys and girls got a glimpse of a wider world. The implication was that their current lives were insufficient, but they could read about John Foster Dulles or Georgia O’Keeffe and gain access to a higher realm that they might someday join.

About a generation ago, this earnest self-improvement ethic came under attack. People no longer believed that there was such a thing as a common culture that all educated Americans should study and know. The new ethos valued hipness, not class.

Moreover, the self-esteem hurricanes blew across the landscape. You don’t have to read or listen to boring stuff to possess character. You are wonderful just the way you are.

I won't deny the influence of the cults of hipsterdom and self esteem here, but Brooks is being remarkably obtuse. They're not the reason that smart boys and girls don't read Newsweek anymore. (Believe it or not, I had my own subscription when I was in high school, waaaaaay back in the 1980s.) What happened is that the Internet happened. I've written about this a million times.

Want to know about politics? Well, a smart kid can read Brooks' own New York Times online, every day, the way I never could in the 1980s. Want to learn about or listen to opera? (Brooks laments that Albuquerque kids no longer get much national opera coverage.) You can watch the best opera in the world live on the Metropolitan Opera's website. Want to know more about literature, avant garde dance, indie bands, politics, foreign affairs, fashion? There's no end to the possibilities! Brooks is wrong to suggest there's no audience for this stuff anymore, even if he's right that it's fragmented. The truth is that more people have more access to the high- and middle-brow culture than ever did during his Golden Age. Newsweek hasn't suffered because people stopped caring about self-improvement. It suffered because there were faster, better, more direct ways to do it. Brooks sometimes sounds like a doctor who only knows how to diagnose one disease; it doesn't matter at all what the symptoms actually are.

1 comment:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think the internet doesn't count for Brooks because anyone can decide on content, rather than a select group of arbiters of culture.

Now, the result may be praised or derided, depending on your point of view: when reality TV "stars" rather than authors or artists are the most common cultural touchstone, it's enough to bring out the curmudgeon in all of us. But Brooks' own language ("inadequate"; "higher") betrays his real concern: the loss, not of a common culture, but of an explicitly top-down common culture.

Frankly, I'd rather have us all sharing references to Homer rather than to Jersey Shore, too. But Brooks is being disingenuous about it. The only question is whether he knows or not.