Response to David Brooks’s piece

Last week, David Brooks wrote a piece about gluttony at Antoine’s, which was noted here. Though I’m sure he meant well, the reviews haven’t been good. For instance:

Democratic Underground: Bobo the nearsighted pundit!
Gawker: David Brooks: Even more boring than you imagined.
Robert Peyton on his blog, Appetites.
And finally, our own Oyster: New Orleans: Not Bobo’s world.

11 Comments so far

  1. richard (unregistered) on March 20th, 2005 @ 7:43 am

    I don’t understand all the negative responses to Brooks’ article. To me, they all read like lefty, knee-jerk reactions to Brooks as a person (not so different from right-wing knee-jerk responses to Frank Rich). But what the critics seem to have overlooked is that the article isn’t about him, it’s about America. Specifically, it’s a lament about the nation of decaf-latte-with-soy people we’ve become. Brooks cites New Orleans as a refuge from that mindset, a place where debauchery and decadence and reasonable recklessness are endorsed and encouraged. And I don’t know about y’all, but that’s exactly why I’ve spent most of my life here…

  2. Tyler (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 7:19 am

    I think Richard is dead-on here about the reaction to Brooks and about the meaning of Brooks’ article. (My god people, Brooks calls his party at Antoine’s a gaggle of middle-age Prufrocks!) The only spin on the reading of the article I’d give is that it is deeply (and to my mind) properly ambivalent about NOLA, or more specifically the French Quarter as indicative of everything that is NOLA. The FQ is a strange though moral universe. I like Richard’s phrase, ‘reasonable recklessness.’

    And having had an fat-laden 19th century-esque dinner just last October at Arnaud’s–flaming orange-peels coffee and alcohol concoctions included–served by men and women dressed alike in ill-fitting tuxedoes … such moments are made by a rich, seedy beauty. Much good grows in decay.

  3. oyster (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 9:06 am

    What’s the point of Antoine’s if you can’t get out of a “middle-aged prufrock” mindset (which Brooks oobviously failed to do)? After an “avalanche” of Antoine’s you shouldn’t be concerned about caffeine. Seriously. Something went horribly wrong to have such a thought under those circumstances.

    Sure, Bobo can blame everyone else with tongue-in-cheek about one’s dull cautiousness, but you cannot, cannot, then say: “At least have New Orleans”.

    What’s this “we”, white man? Try again, Bobo, because you missed it the first time.

  4. richard (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 9:58 am

    By focusing his ENTIRE article on the ABSURDITY and STUPIDITY of asking whether the Cafe Brulot was decaf, Brooks DID, in fact, get out of his Prufrock mindset. He’s calling himself a dork and America, a nation of dorks. I think it’s pretty straightforward.

    And I don’t think his criticisms of American culture are tongue-in-cheek at all: they’re honest, earnest, lighthearted, wistful longings for an America that’s not so sanitized. In saying, “At least we have New Orleans,” he’s holding up the city as a model of dignified decadence to be revered and cherished (because who knows how much longer we can hold out).

    As for Tyler’s comments on the uniqueness of the Quarter and its questionable relationship to the rest of the city’s values…well, that’s a topic for another post.

  5. Tyler (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 10:38 am

    I have been puzzling this out off and on all morning, and I guess that I would claim that the consistent and *insistent* misreadings of Brooks’ article must have to do with Brooks-as-conservative (or Brooks-as-dodo rather than bobo). When is the last time you read such a straight-forward criticism of the Puritanism and Moral-Majority righteousness of White House hygenics? God … for a moment I missed Nancy Reagan in a red dress, if only for the over-the-top table settings and early into the mornings state dinners. Imagine Maureen O’Dowd’s name on that column. The reaction would have been 100% the opposite of what it has been.

    So … does this have anything at all to do with the FQ, NOLA, and Southern Louisiana NOT being Brooks’ world. Well, you know, I have to say that rips me up. Not for Brooks’ sake, but for my own. I am a NOLA neophyte. For me, NOLA sits somewhere between a reality that I have visited twice, sometimes three times yearly over the past five years, and an imaginary space that allows me to articulate a different relationship to a staid life in mid-North Carolina.

    Don’t get me wrong. This is DEEPLY problematic, as they say in therapy speak. I’m not talking about the Anne Rice novelizations of a real place/space, as corrupt as those may be in their most cartoonish aspects, but rather using NOLA as a space to escape to also allows one to willfully ignore the many problems of the city. Race relations in the Quarter? Oh, surely everyone is equal: everybody is selling a purple, green, and gold version of their lives down on Bourbon, right? Influx of immimigrants trying to make their way in LA on little English, few skills, and no capital? The attendant problems of the wash of tourists that grime your city every day even while that dirty water keeps the city afloat? (And I travel into and out of NOLA like the tide myself, so I’m part of the problem, or at least symptomatic of it.) Homophobia in the Southland while living off homosexual exuberance?

    I could go on. But Brooks wasn’t writing about New Orleans. He was writing about the tyranny of the American nanny-state and its absurd mores. Good for him.

  6. oyster (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 4:51 pm

    I’m happy to be part of a lively debate on Metblogs.

    My point is that Brooks has missed the “exuberance of the feast” he celebrates, even while many, many tourists (including most of the “responsible professional class”) are able to put aside puritan social constructs while they are in N.O.. These tourists indulge, and lose themselves in dietary excesses (if not others). New Orleans is a strange, moral universe that they partake in, not merely observe.

    Yes, Brooks’ decaf question was stupid and he described this (at length) in his column. But his query was also beyond stupidity. It was incomprehensible, given the context. If Bobo can’t get outside himself at that point in an evening at Antoine’s, then anyplace that serves good food in quantity is enough of a thrill for him. There’s really nothing unique about New Orleans for him. So, I believe his Antoine’s anecdote is a self-refutation. He doesn’t need New Orleans, and he won’t always “have” this city… precisely because he failed to lose himself in it! That he realized this– intellectually, not experientially– does not redeem the truth of his argument about our sanitized culture.

    Allow me to offer an example. Say I’m a pennypincher who decides to vacation in Vegas. I go to a hotel on the strip, but spend my entire first day at the casino-sponsored “teach me a game” table, where people play risk-free with fake money. Finally, after learning blackjack, I go to the live action table. There, I lose my first hand and become so wracked with worry about losing more money (and perhaps squeezing next week’s budget) that I have to immediately leave the table. [The casino regulars are rightly disturbed by my uptight, un-carefree behavior.]

    Now, I can do all this. And I can also observe that I behaved like an uptight ninny, and that the president bears some of the blame because he’s an early-to-bed kind of guy. But one thing I cannot do is advise everyone: “at least there’s Las Vegas.” Heck, a bingo parlor down the street would have provided the same amount of thrills for me! I’m hopelessly unequipped for the city’s gambling delights and cannot properly celebrate or appreciate them.

    Yet, millions of people come each year to the alternate moral universes of Vegas and New Orleans, and (many, perhaps most) are able to shed their stultifying inhibitions while they enjoy the cities. Bobo seems exceptionally imprisoned by his own inhibitions, and while he later makes many lighthearted points about society’s regulations, I think (given the Antoine’s story) he needs special help, and would do better to look more within himself than society at large.

    **Politics doesn’t play into my criticism of Bobo, whom I almost never read. The only reason I read his column last week was because I heard from someone else that it addressed New Orleans. (As an aside, I’ll say that I’ve religiously read George Will for 15 years despite often disagreeing with him. Even Will would never have seriously inquired about decaf after seeing devil’s coffee being prepared.)

    My “tongue in cheek” description was inaccurate. Lighthearted is definitely better.

  7. oyster (unregistered) on March 21st, 2005 @ 8:50 pm

    Sorry for the double post above. And thanks to Ray for including me in the links (if you have the time please delete one of the comments above).

    Just to be clear, I understand Brooks’ point and never intentionally misread it. I object to precisely two minor points in the article, neither of which pertains to politics nor Brooks’ intended argument.

    Sure, BoBo effectively calls himself a “dork” but in my view he inadvertently exposes himself as something far …worse. Certainly, from what I read, this is not someone who can competently make a pronouncement on New Orleans’ “strange” moral universe, nor the benefits of such a place still existing in America . One of my regular conservative readers from north LA expressed shock and dismay at the bizarre decaf query, and he rarely ventures down to N.O..

    Put 100 American dorks in the same situation at Antoine’s, and at most 3 would ask something so shockingly bizarre at that point in the evening. So, Richard, yes, this was a reaction to Brooks as a person, and his ability to make an contextual assessment of my city. If my knee jerked it was as a New Orleanian, not as a lefty.

    Brooks’ litany of blame strikes me as rather weird in places, but, so be it. It’s his list. Mine would be markedly different; though that’s another discussion.

  8. Max Sparber (unregistered) on March 22nd, 2005 @ 12:08 pm

    I suspect Brooks meant that “decaf” line as a joke at the dinner party, where it was meant with hearty laughter, at which point he decided to write a column about it. But he felt silly simply saying “Look at this witty bon mot I produced,” and so turned the column into rather poor social criticism, with himself as the butt of, rather than creator of, the joke.

    The pity of it all is, the joke wasn’t that funny to begin with. I suspect the waitstaff at Antoine’s hears the decaf joke three times per night.

  9. oyster (unregistered) on March 22nd, 2005 @ 1:09 pm

    That’s a charitable reading that I hope is true. But as a serious question it gives me the chills.

  10. Robert (unregistered) on March 23rd, 2005 @ 11:09 am

    Since mine was one of the commentaries linked above on Brooks’ editorial, I thought I’d share my .02.

    I don’t have a personal dislike for David Brooks; to the contrary, I more or less like the guy. I’m not entirely certain where most people would characterize me politically, but I doubt most would call me a “lefty.”

    I understood that Brooks’ piece was about the US in general, as distinct from what he thinks New Orleans represents. I guess I just took his piece as more of the same stereotyping of what this City is.

    Look, people from New Orleans love to talk about how different things are here from everywhere else in the country, and that’s true to an extent. But I can tell you from personal experience that it is entirely possible to have a great meal, even a liquor and wine-soaked great meal in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and I’d wager just about anywhere else in the US outside of certain parts of Utah. Eating a high-fat meal and getting drunk is not unique.

    I don’t visit the Democratic Underground website, or Gawker for that matter, so I can’t really comment on their critiques. I agree with Oyster’s take.

    Thanks for linking to my dinky little website, by the way. I found this joint through my referral stats, and I like it a lot.

  11. bingo parlor (unregistered) on November 15th, 2005 @ 2:09 am

    These comments seem off base

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