Aug 18

Recommended reading: The Online Evisceration of David Brooks, A Cautionary Tale

Written by DJ on Monday, August 18th, 2008 at 6:09 pm
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I have followed the responses to David Brooks’ essay “Harmony and the Dream” published in the New York Times with interest ever since first reading James Fallows mercilessly picking Brooks’ theme apart. There have been others joining the “onslaught” as well since then. Elliott Ng has now compiled a nice summary of Brooks’ thesis and various responses online. It is well worth a read.

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6 Responses to “Recommended reading: The Online Evisceration of David Brooks, A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Charles Liu Says:

    Perhaps what Brooks noticed is some sort of triumphalist view. I think Brooks recognizes it as such, as he compared it with the accepted virtues of Western civilization. But that is something which also exists in most countries about themselves. And are they not inclined to have contradictions?

    As an American I can tell you our triumphalist view of America is full of contradictions. While we pride in individualism do we not have “mass conformity”? A recent example is how 9/11 shaped Americans collective mentality, and subsequent invasion of Iraq that is condoned by the silent majority. Do we really believe “liberty and justice for all”? Not when it comes to providing for ourselves at the death and deprivation of others.

    And our armed forces composition for the last 30 years tells a tale different than what our narrative of “multiculturalism” does. During Vietnam it was disproportionally black, and now it’s Hispanic. Is that not classism and “Whiteman’s privilege”?

    In that senesce I have to say at least Brooks is consistent, and place the objections along the line of rejection of China’s triumphalism over our own.

  2. FOARP Says:

    Going after someone like Brooks seems a bit silly – the man seems to have no real experience of China, or even of other countries outside the US.

  3. TommyBahamas Says:

    My thoughts exactly:

    (1) Comparing Non-Chinese: “It sometimes seems that the western blogosphere prefers to talk more about Chinese people than to Chinese people.
    “Thats the larger problem with the growing pool of China hand-esque blogs/commentators. Opinions and arguments are traded among people who are, despite what we like to tell ourselves, are remarkably similar – college educated “western” (cough cough) men from the UK/US/OZ/Canada circuit. In many ways, the “bloggers” are like the kid who already learned his lessons admonishing the kid that hasn’t.”

    (2) Comparing Chinese: Like Xiaodi, I too attended elementary school in China. But my school never emphasized Chinese-ness over all else and if anything I felt the huge regional differences between the students in my class. … even the experiences of Chinese people may not be the same — one might have a more “collective” experience and another more “individualistic” one, whatever they mean.

    (3) Need to De-tox : “To write any sensible and in-depth article about China, one needs to; 1) stop watching the TV, such as the Lou Dobb’s show in CNN, 2)live in China for a while but not in a 5-star hotel, 3) read some history books about China as written by Chinese so that you learn what they think of themself instead of what the others think of them, and 4) put yourself in their shoes.”

    (4) Blind spots: “Neither Brooks or other commentators let alone career China-bashers i.e. Fallows – understand fully the concept of collectivism in China. The Chinese people are most similar in character to Americans. (If you don’t believe me, google for academic references on this topic.) There is no one ‘Chinese’ as there is no one ‘American’ or ‘French’. The misconception is that China is one monolithic and homogeneous entity. It isn’t. It is like a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that are taught – just like all Americans – to have one single Chinese identity.”

  4. DJ Says:


    I don’t see your point. Brooks’ essay, for better or for worse, will influence a lot of people. As such, his not so insightful writing deserves a beating.

  5. FOARP Says:

    @DJ – My point is that when I read it I simply couldn’t take it seriously, and the only people who are likely to read the various responses to it are folks who, like me, spend far too much time reading China-related websites. When people compare their own culture to someone else’s, they are always assured that is themselves that have the better of it, and any commentator that feeds this conceit is 100 times more likely to be heard than someone who doesn’t. All you need to do is read the comments under any article about trans-Atlantic relations to see that the vast majority of American commenters believe that Europe is a den of immoral, cowardly, godless, crypto-communism, and that the majority of European commenters believe America to be a bankrupt, racist, crypto-fascistic bastion of ignorant gun-toting imperialism. They do so because people like Mark Stein and Noam Chomsky have made a living out of selling them exactly this kind of narrative. Now, my hope is that the majority of people put such silliness from their minds (although the prevalence of the idiotic ‘Eurabia’ theory makes me wonder) and deal with people from other cultures as people. This is not to say that there are no differences to be aware of, but that these differences are so complex that they cannot be contained in a single theory, or put down to a single ‘ism’, or even a dozen ‘isms’.


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