It's all the hippies' fault

David Brooks says the counterculture explains Wall Street greed. The man is a glutton for punishment

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 13, 2012 6:15PM (EDT)

David Brooks           (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Any decent hack should be able to pummel David Brooks with ease whenever he decides to share his nostalgic longing for those wonderful days when a "racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network" -- his words, not mine! -- nevertheless did the right thing by the United States because it was infused with a real sense of "leadership" and "responsibility." But I've now read his latest offering, "Why Our Elites Stink," and I find myself stupefyingly paralyzed. Where to begin? What's the point in eviscerating something that is already so full of holes?

Should I launch my attack on his assertion that our elites deserve their status and riches because they simply work harder than poor people -- "They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room." Or do I start raining bombs down on his notion that today's financial sector greed and corruption is rooted in a kind of '60s hangover -- "Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else." Or do I just go straight for the jugular in his final lament: his regret at the passing of the dominance of WASP elites, who may have been "insular and struggled with intimacy, but ... did believe in restraint, reticence and service."

Choices, choices. OK, the "work harder" thing is just ridiculous. David Brooks needs to spend an hour or two picking strawberries or cleaning toilets or busing tables and then come back to us and try to repeat, with a straight face, his theory that hours spent driving kids to piano lessons constitute the overcoming of daunting hardship. As for "restraint and reticence," well, I just wish Brooks would emulate his imaginary WASPs and choose what words he wants to share with us a little more carefully -- and sparingly.

But the counterculture thing? The implied blame-the-'60s scapegoating for the lax morality of today's politicians and financiers? That's worth taking on, because Brooks isn't the only one making such a claim. It's the ultimate culture war jujitsu move. Wall Street greed -- it's the hippies' fault!

Let's grant Brooks this much: There is a thread that connects the counterculture upheaval of the '60s with contemporary Wall Street irresponsibility. But it's not what he thinks. Forget about the hippies trying to stick it to the man. The key transformative events of the '60s and '70s that broke down male WASP hegemony -- the civil rights struggle, the full flowering of feminism, the emergence of the environmental movement -- provoked real change in America, and a fierce counter-reaction, both cultural and political.

But it's that counter-reaction that is responsible for much of what upsets David Brooks today, and not some ludicrous identification between contemporary derivatives traders and flower children. The political map of the country changed. The enfranchisement of southern African-Americans through the Voting Rights Act ended up realigning both political parties along strictly partisan lines. The successful rise to power of the new, conservative Republican Party, which saw itself as a vehicle for resisting cultural change and executing business-friendly deregulatory economic policies, is directly responsible for where we are today. So yeah, the '60s are to blame, if you figure that Ronald Reagan got elected by positioning himself as the anti-counterculture hero. The president who told Americans that government was the problem did more to undermine elite attitudes pertaining to leadership and responsibility than any feminist or civil rights activist.

The great puzzle of David Brooks is that the man is too smart not to understand this. That era of WASP leadership that he longs for so lovingly presided over a country riddled with vast and unacceptable inequality. It might have been nice in Groton where "you were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed." But it was a bit rougher for African-Americans in the deep South, or women prevented from aspiring to any job higher than a secretary, or gays still locked in the closet.

The even greater puzzle is that after all that landmark progressive change embodied by civil rights activism and feminism and all the rest we now live in a time when purely economic inequality and social stratification is greater than it has been in a century. But it's stupid to blame that on the triumph of countercultural values. It's the reaction to the turmoil -- the counter-reformation, if you will -- that's to blame. Returning to an age of reticence and restraint isn't going to turn back the clock. Pushing for another wave of transformative change is the only way forward.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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