What is David Brooks Talking About?

David Brooks should really just stick to talking about politics instead of music, as shown in today’s New York Times column.

In it, Brooks laments the loss of a common, canonical musical tradition in America, and scorns the fragmentation of culture and the multiplying of niches, arguing, for instance, that

“Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.”

While there is certainly some truth in this–after all, a lot of so-called “indie” and “obscure” music are products of the recording industry machine designed to find previously unexplored market niches and sell to them–Brooks exaggerates this phenomenon.

Behind this veil of cultural criticism is a conservative commentary about politics: for the fragmentation in music is taken to be a reflection of the fragmentation in national unity. It is essentially a veiled criticism of multi-culturalism. The political subtext is that politics, as it is currently practiced, is a politics of division and partisanship, while the ideal politics is an appeal to national unity.

And it just so happens that it is the left and the liberals who, with their post-modern relativism they got from their grad schools, that is engendering this divide. Of course Brooks doesn’t say this directly, but just take a look at what he says about people who listen to the so-called non-mainstream music:

“People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.”

This is not a surprising comment, given Brooks’ conservative leanings, but I would argue that Brooks gets it wrong both about music and politics. Cultivating a taste for alternative and non-mainstream, non-canonical music is not, by definition, a rejection of the canon or cultural inheritance. That is a false dilemma. For it is possible, in cultivating a taste for the obscure and the marginalized, to synthesize and assimilate them into a richer, broader understanding of music.

Similarly, just because one takes opposing, radical, and previously unheard political ideas seriously does not mean that one is rejecting civic inheritance or the existent political culture. After all, isn’t the very notion of the marketplace of ideas a testament to one’s willingness to encounter resistance in a civil manner?

Brooks is mistaken in thinking that assertions of individualism, whether in the realm of culture or politics, is automatically a rejection of the community. In fact, I’d argue that neither can exist without the other.

It is really Brooks who is creating the division where there is none. And our political atmosphere is made all the more toxic by his shameless, veiled liberal-baiting tactics.

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