Osita Nwanevu Almost Gets It

I’ve been thinking about David Brooks’s sandwich gaffe.

A few weeks ago, Brooks wrote a column arguing that subtle cultural codes–what novelists call “manners”–were a bigger drag on social mobility than so-called structural barriers. As an illustration now made notorious by an orgy of viral snark, Brooks offered a visit to a bourgie sandwich shop as an example:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Liberals had a field day. What a joke! How condescending! What a trite and tone-deaf anecdote!

Osita Nwanevu, at Slate, had a smarter take. He pointed out that this is the point intersectionalists have been making for years about race and gender:

The concept of intersectionality, which Brooks dismisses in his column as an empty cultural signifier no more meaningful than a membership at a barre studio, is partially rooted in the idea that class can erect invisible barriers to mobility and respect similar to—and in fact linked to—the barriers imposed by race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other components of individual identity … Social justice warriors thus have no difficulty incorporating the discomfort working-class people feel in unfamiliar situations into their broader analyses of how society leaves them behind.

Hmmm … In my experience, social justice warriors usually bring up the subject of class to explain how poor white men can still have privilege. As in: “Hey white doodz, just because you lack class privilege doesn’t mean you don’t have race and gender privilege, okay? *drops mic*.” That’s a valid argument, but not exactly what Nwanevu has in mind here.

Still, the larger point stands. If Brooks cares so much about class-based microaggressions, why not other microaggressions? Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a Tumblr-style version of Brooks’s anecdote:

Listen up, white people!

I know you think it’s totally cool and OK and not at all problematic to take friends out to eat wherever you feel like, because you absolutely need your soppressata or pomodoro or whatever high-class shit you want for lunch, and you just can’t imagine why people wouldn’t be delighted to bask in your hip white foodie taste. But let me tell you, this way you get about your food, this is straight-up white supremacist bullshit, and it is Not Fine. And pretending like it is–like you just want to go out and get an innocent bite to eat–that is some deeply ignorant liberal bullshit there, and I’m calling you on it.

I’m not even talking about cultural appropriation. Because I know how you get when you hear those words. I’m talking about stuff you think is totally mainstream (gotta love that word, “mainstream”), when you go bringing friends to some Eurocentric sandwich shop where the whole menu’s in Italian (read: white-centric) and the breads are some kind of organic hand-peeled-oat stuff (read: white-privilege) and anything not from Europe is advertised as “exotic” or some colonial bullshit like that, and even the water bottles are done up like little signifiers of capitalist status anxiety, and the whole place is basically a giant exercise in code-switching for anyone who didn’t grow up in the radiant gated epicenter of postcolonial race-segregated America …

I’m not saying I don’t have my own shit to work on. I’m not saying I’m immune to this stuff. In a racist society No One is immune. But you really need to hear this. Pulling a move like that, taking people to a place like that, it is NOT innocent. It is NOT harmless. And I don’t want to hear some kind of white-fragility whining about universality and intentionality and all that kind of liberal-tears shit. If you think ignorance is an excuse, if you need to come at the people fighting this fight and ask them to explain why that kind of colonial bougie foodie-culture is wrong and evil in eight thousand ways, if you’re going to lay that burden on marginalized people along with everything else they’re carrying, well, all I can say is you really need to unpack why you feel that way. Because when you pretend like a sandwich shop is just a sandwich shop–when you can’t even see the codes written there, codes that for a lot of people are powerful triggers of personal and historical trauma–that’s the pathology of privilege, right there. That’s aggression, dominance, power, dehumanization. That’s an act of implicit violence, and you need to deal with it.

If David Brooks had written something like that … well, all I can say is, it will be a delightful day when David Brooks writes that column. But is there any doubt that if this had popped up on Medium under a pseudonym, a conservative who read it would start foaming at the mouth with alarmist rants about totalitarian snowflakes? And that a centrist liberal who saw it would either stay conspicuously silent or pen a hesitant and fretful defense of Western humanism? And that an intersectional leftist responding to the piece would applaud its bravery and relevance, or make criticisms not of the argument itself but of the writer’s presumed identity? And that an alt-leftist reading the piece would denounce it for putting trendy virtue signaling ahead of collective class interests?

And yet this little pastiche of mine makes essentially the same argument as the Brooks column, with only a slight shift in subject matter and a major shift in a style. So what makes David Brooks a moral exemplar to conservatives and a convenient punching bag for leftists?

In his column, Nwanevu looks for the answer in Brooks’s past writings. He makes a good case. I’d point to three aspects of the sandwich anecdote itself:

  1. Topic. Brooks wrote about class instead of race, which these days, thanks to Trump, reads as “putting the desires of poor, bigoted whites ahead of the needs of minorities.” Not good.
  2. Voice. Brooks wrote his piece in a confessional mode: I exercised my privilege in a clueless fashion, I later came to regret it, now I’m reflecting on the experience, etc. etc. … In lefty culture, this is a big no-no, because it comes across as a form of humblebragging. Let me show you how much privilege I have by fretting about my treatment of those with less privilege. Yerk. The accepted protocol–even for upper-class whites–is to call out other privileged people and then tag on a reminder that you’re working on your own biases, too.
  3. Style. Brooks eschews the left’s academic jargon, even blithely dismisses it as an empty class marker. But what really stands out is the highminded earnestness of his style, as if he’s stroking his chin or adjusting his spectacles after every line. The favored rhetorical style on the social-justice left, by contrast (in online circles, anyway) is a kind of impassioned tongue-lashing, equal parts anger and scathing contempt–a mashup of spoken-word feminism, Black Power sermons, and the drawling, acerbic wit of gay TV characters, with perhaps an occasional dash of the voluble dudespeak associated with David Foster Wallace. The original aim of these various rhetorical modes, I think, was to embody alternatives to the self-important detachment of WASP culture–which arrogantly assumes that personal opinions can be legitimately recast as dispassionate social analysis–and so Brooks’s adoption of the dry culture-critic style makes him an irresistible target.

I don’t think the importance of that last point can be understated. It’s hard not to see this clash itself as a triumph of cultural style over structural substance. Everyone agrees that Americans are trussed and trammeled and tangled in shifting webs of norms and fashions. But efforts to escape or resist those webs inevitably become norms and fashions of their own.

Brooks’s studied impersonation of a sociologist makes him the perfect foil for people who see the whole post-Enlightenment intellectual tradition as an elaborate sham. Leftists are justifiably leery of the stuffy pseudo-objectivity of conservative scolds. But in response, they’ve settled on a slangy, hyperpersonal style that often makes them sound like snotty teenagers giving hell to their parents. That style has itself become a powerful shibboleth in certain circles, and frankly, I don’t think it can ever be more. The rhetorical modes of the twenty-first century Left are well-suited for dressing down pompous authority figures. But what happens when you’re the one in authority?

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