He must know better

January 10, 2014

I wrote a comment to David Brooks’s column today about developments in conservative thinking that got me thinking.

I pointed out what looks to me like a contradiction in a conservative view that worries about the breakdown of the family and then advocates relocation of the unemployed;  isn’t that going to fracture families, and family structure (especially with regard to extended families), further?  There are even studies that show the negative and unintended consequences of rehousing poor people and disrupting their familial and economic networks in the process.

David Brooks spends time prowling the literature and halls of social science.  If he’s spent that much time in the company of social science thinking, why doesn’t he see the contradiction in this conservative relocation idea?

I’m not going to argue “cornpone ‘pinions,” the idea I am familiar with from Mark Twain that one picks up the perspective of the people one spends time with.  I’m going to go with the sententia that it’s all just words, what my friend Elinor would say is someone “just talking.”

I think people who don’t anchor their thinking in enough experience can miss the import of what they are talking about.  Scientists test their hypotheses, and in so doing, they develop their sense of what actually goes on in the petri dish.  The viruses may not have gotten the memo that they are supposed to behave in a certain way humans have thought they might.

I think I’ve read that David Brooks styles himself a man of ideas.  Therein, in my most humble opinion, lies the problem.  Ideas need not just reality checks, but commitment to their consequences.  I think good teachers may take a piece of education theory — an idea — and then notice the reality of how it works out when it is implemented in practice.  I don’t see how a person does this kind of thing as a person of purely of ideas.  Perhaps some people of ideas maybe draw on experiences they had before they took to becoming an observer.

David Brooks is a keen observer of the life that he knows.  He’s also often really funny when he describes it and interprets it — and insightful.  (“Trenchant” is a word that comes to mind.)  He’s got good skills and tools, not to mention talent — including, of course, in communication — he just seems to reserve them for the contexts he is willing to inhabit.  I wonder what he would write if he actually experienced contexts that have no such voice.  I’m not talking about reporting or tourism or slumming, I’m talking about really taking in a situation in the first person, not because that is somehow a morally admirable thing to do, but because a person who does, actually is privy to something different from a person who doesn’t, and will experience cognitive dissonance if they try to play fast and loose with how things actually work in reality if they themselves have something at stake (including at emotional stake) in the situation, if their money and their mouth are in the same place.  I think Margaret Mead said something about how a very young child knows more about their culture than an anthropologist ever will.

Something like that.

I don’t know what exactly David Brooks has experienced and not experienced.  Some of us never write directly about things we know from experience, for example out of concern for compromising someone else’s privacy.  So I don’t want to be misunderstanding him.  I certainly don’t like it when people do that to me.  But what I’ve written is what I see from this remove.  And, in case it isn’t clear from the way I’ve written it, my intentions are kind (it’s hard for me to get that across the great cyber divide sometimes, sometimes it’s even hard for me to get that across face to face, if I forget to smile, for instance — I get so caught up in trying to communicate the content, I give the packaging short shrift).


7 Responses to “He must know better”

  1. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    I see no contradiction at all, Diana. I think you may be reading something in to Mr. Brooks’ column he never intended.

    For a very long time, working-class families have migrated to where the work was. Think of all the farm families that moved to cities so the farmer could earn more working in a factory. Did that “break up” families ? How about Southern black people moving north for the same reason ? Any problem there ?

    My own grandfather married my grandmother in a place where there was not enough factory work — a suburb of Scranton, Pennsylvania. So he took a train to Michigan, scouted around until he got an assembly line position at the Fisher body plant in Flint, Michigan. Then, after he had saved enough money, he sent it to his wife who came to join him with the children.

    Normal people can do those simple things, whether they are “working-class” or not. Are you sure you are not confusing poor or working-class families with low-grade or “low-class” people ?

    These people are the real social problems and sadly, by the inner constitution of their being. Cannot seem to plan anything, or stick to the plan after it is made. If your conceptual vocabulary “liberals out” the whole idea of low-grade or marginally competent people, then that is the problem in your understanding of attendant conditions or situations ! Those people care little for liberty as we understand it and really need socialism, but that is no excuse to force it on us all.

    People generally dislike moving. But it is a necessary thing in a free-market economy. Workers must go where the work is, be they executives or ordinary workers. I am reminded of an old Life magazine editorial : “FULL EMPLOYMENT MEANS FULL MOBILITY.” The editorial quoted a Canadian political leader addressing a labor group. His point was that abnormal need for agricultural equipment (after the war) had now been met so there would need to be some layoffs. But then he said, “You have got to move out. There are new plants opening up all over the west.”

    I do not particularly like living in New Jersey, with all the snow and other problems I never saw growing up in California. As a student at UCLA, I never needed anything more than a light jacket year around. Compare that to the University of Minnesota, where it gets so cold there must be heated tunnels between class buildings ! There is even a heated pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi river. But California was getting crowded and jobs were in the East .. .. ..

    –Jeff in New Jersey

    • Diana Moses Says:

      My point is not that people don’t move for jobs or that people don’t survive it, it’s that it increases obstacles and decreases supports — and those effects can reach a critical mass in general or when a new stressor occurs, and then there’s trouble, of the sort conservatives tend to focus on as it is. I do think the migrations North, into cities, or out to suburbs created difficulties. I also suspect it contributed to our sense now that we pay professionals for services, like geriatric care management or childcare or respite care, that used to be undertaken by extended-family members. And that equivalent to “sweat equity” in a home (“sweat services” in a family?) that we’ve lost, we wind up paying for through taxes when people can’t afford the costs themselves for the commercial services. We had a lawyer for a time who made a big deal over how most couples don’t realize the value of a stay-at-home spouse, in terms of what it would cost to replace what they do (the context was life insurance). This is similar, in terms of a lack of awareness of informal arrangements and what it would cost to duplicate them commercially, but about extended family as well.

  2. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    I am sure that all your points are valid as far as they go, Diana. Surely there has been great diminution of the value and importance of extended families in the lives of many Americans. It used to be they were an all-purpose social support system (and in some cases a social control system — it is said that the famous “Hatfield-McCoy” feud began when a young man from one family brought to the “patriarch” a girl from the other family he wanted to marry, and was met with disapproval).

    My points are much simpler: High mobility is necessary for American efficiency overall. Men must go where they are needed and their wives must go with them. Less than five of the people in my high school graduating class still live in the two towns served by the entire high school. All others, including myself, have “decamped.” Yet this is a desirable residential town — far larger in population now than when I was in school there. Leaving was not like “getting away from Appalachia.” I have made Internet contact with some of the girls I knew in school. Though still all in the western states, only one is in the same town.

    Of course there is a certain amount of stress and disruption in moving a family. The children must adjust to a new school. The father must find a new job and make new professional contacts. The mother must find new friends and join new women’s groups.

    My point is simply that normal people can cope with this, and that any families that cannot cope probably have some defects or troubles deep down — in other words, not being up to the standard of “normal people.”

    There are places in Europe where most people still live and die in the same village. There are some advantages to that, as every family knows every other, and its history. But they have no American standard of living !

    I vote for the American system.

    –Jeff in New Jersey

    • Diana Moses Says:

      I disagree that it’s just about new social contacts and such. I got hammered by the chicken pox when my older son was in preschool and my younger son was an infant. (It was going around the preschool, but Jonas had already had it before he became part of our family). My mother came up (by train from NJ) the next day, but in the meantime, I had Jordan in a baby carrier on the floor next to my bed — it was not a good situation — until Willy could get home. If my parents and we had lived closer, it would have been easier, if we had lived farther apart it would have been worse. The roles were reversed when my dad was in and out of the hospital during his final illness (and I had no one to undertake my role here in my absence) and my parents needed help. Proximity makes a difference.

  3. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    Apparently you were in a special condition of need for the support of relatives not immediate. But large groups cannot move coast to coast. Only nuclear families.

    Most do well enough, and there are other sources of support, such as through religion and other social relationships.

    A few years after my father engineered a major move for our family, he consented to having his own mother, then living alone, come and live nearby in the same community. My mother always disliked her, but in general she was more of an asset than a liability. She was not financially dependent. She supported herself by building up a babysitting business all on her own.

    • Diana Moses Says:

      I think there are plenty of individuals and families who have needed each other’s support and not had it because of living too far apart from each other. I don’t think I’m unique, I’ve met plenty of other people with tales to tell, and my sense from grief groups, as a widow, is that extended family is key.

  4. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    You are right enough that the passing of extended families immediately available is certainly a social loss. Time was, there were no adoption agencies, foster homes, or social workers. Simply not needed. If a widow with young children died, the “extended” relatives got together and it was decided which families would take in which children.

    There might be some negotiation as to division of movable property but in general, nineteenth-century Americans understood this system so well it was matter of fact to them — a basic social and moral obligation.

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