While Paul Fussell’s Class uncovered something like six distinct classes in its hilarious and self-referentially ironic analysis of the American class system, David Brooks (NYT 09/11/04) can only seem to come up with two:
“There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don’t shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.”
One almost blushes with shame at the prospect of taking this kind of comment seriously, or for that matter, as political satire. After all, there have got to be more than two sorts of people, more than a few frumpily dressed Republicans, and an abundance of ultra-chic and polished democrats (Metrosexuals anyone?). But the Gray Lady saw fit to offer its author the space for two columns each week and so we can only assume that there must be something to exercise the synapses of the readers of the nation’s “paper of record.” What this something might be, however, is anyone’s guess.
Our best guess is that this is shtick for a very wonkish evening at one of the many exclusive Washington-insider comedy clubs (also called “think tanks”). Unlike funny comedy routines, but quite like op-eds in Saturday editions of the newspaper, this one, with its detailed by-the-numbers analysis of the ever more polarized electorate, completely lacks the self-referential irony that would call into question the very sort of superficial quantitative analysis it engages in. In other words, much like an argument in reverse, the logic of the joke–jokes have their own perverse logic–demands that the purposely specious demographic analysis in the op-ed show itself to be absurd and its excogitator a political hack. For its fairly obvious that the analysis of political donations does not in the least support the obviously silly and besides the point conclusion that liberals wax prosodical whilst conservatives enumerate.
But we have nothing of the sort here, as the author fancies himself an exception that proves the rule (rather than the absurdity of the rule), a class-traitor, a paragraph man who sides with the numerate conservatives:
“It should be added that not everybody fits predictably into the political camp indicated by a profession. I myself am thinking of founding the Class Traitors Association, made up of conservative writers, liberal accountants and other people so filled with self-loathing that they ally politically with social and cultural rivals.”
So the joke seems to rest on the claim that the absurd paragraph/numerate dichotomy, despite its apparent support on the numbers, does not perfectly represent the divided electorate. But two things in particular militate against Brooks’ own attempt at self-referential irony. First, his paragraph work eschews the kind of nuance one would expect of paragraph people:
“Why have the class alignments shaken out as they have? There are a couple of theories. First there is the intellectual affiliation theory. Numerate people take comfort in the false clarity that numbers imply, and so also admire Bush’s speaking style. Paragraph people, meanwhile, relate to the postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry’s Iraq policy.”
And second, the content-free quantitative analysis that leads him to that conclusion demonstrates that he’s not really a paragraph man at all, but rather a numbers man with a phony mustache and glasses. And never mind the simplified straw man evident in the reference to the “post-Cartesian, [and what does that mean? Empiricist? Kantian? Logical Positivist?], deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity” of Kerry’s Iraq policy, which doesn’t warrant comment (but watch us comment anyway) by us paragraph people who like the clarity of evidence and sound arguments, or their subversion in our jokes, rather than the mono-directional opacity of the uninterpreted data of political commitment.