Do I Actually Agree With David Brooks?

That’s what Reihan Salam of The American Scene claims here, in a very smart and dense post that I will attempt to respond to at least in part.

First of all, an admission: I actually have a soft spot for Brooks. I heard him speak at Brown when I was a student there, and he entertained an audience of several hundred with a fast-paced talk combining social observations with information gleaned from meaty, contemporary sociology and political science. After the talk, I thought Brooks was perhaps better suited to this freer format, in which his pop culture references took the back seat to his obviously considerable grasp of history and contemporary work.

It was fun to see that Brooks missed the fact that the young pop stars he held up as evidence of moral failure were actually married, striving themselves to live out a "traditional" ideal. But I didn’t point this out just for laughs. Rather, the youthful marriages of people like Pink and Avril Lavigne, or even Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, are just as powerful of a cultural influence on young women as the lyrics of songs, if not more so. Fairly tale weddings and virgin brides are still very much held up as the gold standard in a country where millions of school children sit through abstinence-only education, but 95 percent of us have premarital sex anyhow. Young women are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s tough to read a column like Brooks’ because young men are hardly ever subject to this same hand-wringing about sexual values. Boys will be boys, right?

Reihan suggests I devalue non-market labor ("homemaking") by seeing progress in women’s emancipation from responsibility for the domestic sphere. He describes one of my favorite political philosophers, Susan Moller Okin as a "maternalist" who just wanted to see women’s domestic labor better appreciated in the public sphere. This I have to take issue with. Okin believed passionately in the idea of two-income families, meaning two adults engaged with the public marketplace and equally dividing domestic responsibilities. In her wonderful Justice, Gender, and the Family, Okin suggests a number of practical ways to incentivize work for women, such as high quality government child care, health care, and the like. But for women who persist in choosing a "traditional" stay-at-home role, Okin proposes mandatory 50/50 income sharing, in two separate bank accounts, between a working spouse and a stay-at-home spouse. She endorses such a radical intervention into the "private sphere" because she accepts that domestic labor is not and likely never will be as highly valued as marketplace labor. This is because an individual divorced from the market economy will have a very hard time gaining political or cultural influence in our profit-driven system.

So while I might agree with David Brooks that stable homes are good for kids, gay marriage should be legal, and our society doesn’t do enough to support families, I think I’ll continue to disagree with his method of lighting a fire. Angry women, decades of dating, and premarital sex don’t scare me. I don’t think they are evidence of cultural malaise. Rather, they’re signs of progress: Young people today are waiting longer and preparing themselves better to make some very tough decisions about who to love, when to reproduce, and what to do with their lives. 

10 thoughts on “Do I Actually Agree With David Brooks?

  1. Reihan

    Susan Moller Okin is definitely not a maternalist — “maternalism” refers to a specific American intellectual movement that dates from the 1900s to the 1930s. I see that I didn’t separate this into two paragraphs, which was a mistake: I should have made clear that SMO, a left-of-center baby boomer originally from New Zealand, didn’t share the worldview of WASP Smith alumnae from the turn-of-the-century! This is my fault, and it’s because I was rushing to write the post. My apologies.

    Also, it’s not a matter of “just” wanting one thing or the other. Another person to consider is Margaret Jane Radin. Again, I doubt she’d want to be conscripted to an argument about devaluing household production, but the idea of “contested commodities” certainly applies to the privileging of some kinds of work over others — particularly when that work is racially or sexually coded.

  2. Reihan

    And incidentally, why exactly would we assume that DB “missed this fact”? Perhaps it’s not salient? That very young people from backgrounds that are not cultural capital-rich marry young is no surprise — they also divorce young. Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson both hail from backgrounds that are, in cultural-educational terms certainly, are fairly described as working-class or lower-middle-class. And as Garance Franke-Ruta and others have noted, these are groups that have a far stronger tendency towards marrying young and divorcing young, with attendant family economic insecurity that leads people, particularly self-identified religious believers, to embrace right-wing politics that *claim* to address “the crisis of the family.*

    I think we should recognize that it’s at least possible that David Brooks was being quite deliberate in his choices.

  3. BF

    I agree that they are “signs of progress,” and I think DB wouldn’t necessarily disagree. DB was simply pointing out that this might create new challenges for some young women. I still don’t understand why this “it’s healthier in the end” line of reasoning means there’s nothing more to say. Do you really mean that increased autonomy and more equal career prospects (which are good things) doesn’t create any new anxiety? For me and for a lot of people I know, my early and mid-20s have been characterized by frustrating professional ennui (what should I do with my life, etc.) coupled with difficulty new people outside of work (an unintended byproduct of my pursuit of a fulfilling career, good according to you). This might seem like a trifling matter compared with the barriers women faced 30 or 40 years ago, but does it mean nothing? DB drew no conclusions, which is why his column sounded like a “these poor single women” tangent, but I think this is what he was getting at.

  4. figleaf

    Ok, so now it’s time to run-not-walk to your nearest big-box bookstore and skim the first chapter or two of “For Her Own Good” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. (I’d say go ahead and buy the book too, but you can get the gist from a quick skim.)

    Anyway, in the first chapter in particular the authors nicely dismantle various permutations of the domestic vs. public work for women. Their first big point is that the industrial revolution made redundant most of women’s domestic contribution (making cloth and clothing, making soap and bread, brewing beer and cider, processing and preserving food for later consumption, also candles, medicines, schooling children, nursing and often primary-caregiving for the injured and ill, and so on. In other words industrialization disrupted women’s economy far more than it affected the majority of men who (after all) remained farmers until well into the 20th Century.

    And here’s the trick: feminists at the time thought it was just great — their perception was that ridding women of that private baseline, biological-life-depends-on-it (uncompensated) labor would free women to enter the public world of (compensated) ideas and actions in the market.

    Ehrenreich and English strongly argue that what kept women from fulfilling that potential was a) a culture of “masculinism,” (as clearly distinct from patriarchy) where men deliberately moved to keep women out and b) “domesticity” which, again distinct from patriarchy) asserted a romantic pull on women’s sequestration in the household. (For the record, they hold that real, live capital-P patriarchy died in the industrial revolution to be replaced by the far emptier, far less legitimate, and far more misogynistic “masculinism” they define elsewhere in the chapter.)

    Anyway, despite strong Marxian (if not Marxist) overtones (most of the original essays in the collection were written in the 1970s after all) it’s an excellent resource for further conversation with Salam.

    Fun stuff.


  5. Klein's tiny left nut


    I don’t think anyone would suggest that creating a life is not anxiety provoking. The sense that there are abundant choices, but that each choice in turn precludes another, is daunting and can induce a kind of paralysis at times. I object to Brooks because I think he wants you to retreat from the challenge and turn back to a traditional role that is incredibly limiting.


    I also suggest “The Hearts of Men” and “Re-Making Love” by Ehrenreich. She has an incredibly sharp mind and is a skilled writer and polemicist.

    Lastly, Susan Moeller Okin was my political phiolsophy teacher as an undergrad many years ago (a scary number really) and she was a terrific and tough women. Not a maternalist by a long shot I would say.

  6. BF

    I didn’t get that sense at all, which is why I thought Dana was so far off. I think it’s a problem that Brooks didn’t draw any conclusions in the column because it leaves his readers to assume their own. I don’t think any regular DB readers could reasonably think that he wants to turn back the clock and send women back to the home (or even to go back to marry younger), though it’s understandable for those who assume that because he wrote for the National Review and the WSJ and is generally known as conservative, he is a reflexive traditionalist. If it was, say, Bill O’Reilly writing the column, that is what I would assume.

  7. Klein's Tiny Left Nut


    I’m supposed to be billing, or I’d fight to get behind the Times Seclect wall, but I think Brooks has run a series of columns over the years arguing that women should marry young, have children early, get them to a certain age and then return to the work place. It’s a very unrealistic view of how the working world works in most arenas.

    I think Brooks tends to present right wing ideology with a human face because he is seemingly very benign. He is bright enough, articulate, entertaining, low key, amused by much of popular culture, and never seems blood thirsty. But again, I think if you read his oeuvre with any care, you will find a pretty hard right wing world view underneath it all, and one that doesn’t really embrace feminism and is uncomfortable with female sexuality.

  8. BF

    He has run articles on the on marriage over the years, and he does think that marriage, generally, is a good thing. He thinks there’s a risk for people who intend to marry later not marrying at all, and because they don’t think as much about marriage, they are less likely to take their relationships seriously.

    Here’s some dates columns from a very cursory ProQuest search on marriage. I didn’t find anything regarding a claim that he wants women to leave work and return to careers, but, as I said, it was a cursory search.

    Nov 22, 2003
    May 1, 2004
    Jan 18, 2007

    Now, granted, he thinks long-term monogamy is a good thing, but I don’t see anything that would make him “hard right.” He has made some wacky and demonstrably false observations about America (like, for example, his last book), but I really do think there are critical and substantive differences between him and the real “hard right.” I think that he is, at the very least, worth taking seriously.

    Reihan hit most of the points I think are relevant, so I won’t go on to much. He understands that during periods of social transition, there are trade-offs worth thinking about. This is very different from urging America to return to God and away from those pervert liberals. This is, after all, a man who has declared the culture wars over. He is conservative, but he’s someone who (I think) is interested in good-faith discussion and has demonstrated that he is willing to take liberals seriously and critique some dominant conservative views.

    Anyways, and somewhat ironically, I really need to run. My partner and I are celebrating eight years of unwed bliss together this weekend.

  9. Klein's Tiny Left Nut


    Congratulations on your contributions to America’s decline. See you in hell.

    Seriously, I think you’re not giving Brooks his due as a sexist. I found his critique of Linda Hirschman’s piece in the Prospect offensive, but I know there is much more. Here is a sample:

    “Her third mistake is to not even grapple with the fact that men and women are wired differently. The Larry Summers flap produced an outpouring of work on the neurological differences between men and women. I’d especially recommend ”The Inequality Taboo” by Charles Murray in Commentary and a debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the online magazine Edge.

    One of the findings of this research is that men are more interested in things and abstract rules while women are more interested in people. (You can come up with your own Darwinian explanation as to why.)”

    I always find these kinds of biological explanations troubling. And Charles Murray is a P-I-G pig.

    Need to run too. The kid is getting out of the Harry Potter movie. Time to be all wholeseome and domestic.

  10. klein's tiny left nut


    Another example of DB and his view of the lives women should lead from January 2005:

    “But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.

    For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30′s, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

    Several years hence, she seeks to re-enter the labor force. She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for (two decades earlier). Nonetheless, she finds a job, works for 15 years or so, then spends her final 20 years in retirement.

    This is not necessarily the sequence she would choose if she were starting from scratch. For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70.

    This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous.”

    I believe this is the one that really caught my eye — “make a greater effort to marry young and have children.” That’s our Mr. Broks. Enter the workforce when you’re 35. Thats the path to success.

    I’m sorry about being obsessive about this, but Brooks always strikes me as the most insidious of right wingers because of his human face.


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