Thursday, July 13, 2017

On Sandwichfail, Hipsters, and Foodie Privilege: Why Liberals Quibble with the Wrong Part of David Brooks' Essay

David Brooks, a conservative, talks about culture and class in How We Are Ruining America - The New York Times. The liberal internet is generally ignoring the parts about class—thereby showing class continues to be the US's last taboo—and focusing on this paragraph:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Alyssa Rosenberg has one of the nicer liberal responses in How good manners would have saved David Brooks from his deli disaster. She, like many others, thinks Brooks should have educated the friend rather than going somewhere else. Her take is what's expected from an American who is able to talk about going on vacation in Vietnam. Foodie culture is all about being the recommender, the discoverer, the one who is able to do the equivalent of calling "First!" on a culinary experience, and fellow foodies are delighted at the opportunity to be second because they know they'll share the new cuisine with their own friends.

For the rich and for adventurous members of the working class, finding and sharing new foods is a delight. What Brooks gets right is that this attitude is promoted in universities, and especially in expensive private universities, the finishing schools of the rich. But it's not limited to universities, of course—as a young man, my Dad traveled the world in the Merchant Marine and loved eating what the locals ate. Science fiction fans, perhaps because they tend to be university grads, have delighted in new cuisines for as long as there've been fans. People who live in major cities tend to take new cuisines for granted and look forward to the chance to try something new.

But people from limited backgrounds can feel like their ignorance is a reason for embarrassment. I don't know if David Simon based this scene in The Wire on something he experienced, but it rings true:



Some writers agree about the upper class's cultural barriers in ‘It’s Not the Fault of the Sandwich Shop’: Readers Debate David Brooks’s Column - The New York Times.

What the people who say Brooks should've educated his friend miss is that would put Brooks in the position of being the educator rather than the friend. People who assume everyone is like them would insist on eating at the gourmet shop and would show off their knowledge, and it's entirely possible that their guest would end up enjoying it.

But those of us who don't think all people are alike know this isn't the only possibility. The guest might be forced to pretend to be happy. Considerate people try to read the situation: is it better to push to go to the place that seems to make someone uncomfortable, or is it better to find an option that both of you like?

Brooks and his friend went for Mexican. There's an odd assumption from some people that this was condescending. I have to wonder if they associate Mexican food with working class food—the only information about class that's clear in Brook's anecdote is that the first choice was a gourmet sandwich shop.

I'd prefer Mexican.

PS. I'm sidestepping Brooks' class analysis here—as a socialist, I agree it's facile. I'm simply agreeing that there are cultural obstacles which richer people want to deny or downplay because the alternative is to acknowledge that they think their culture is better than that of the working class.