Politics & Policy

Latte Town Revisited

David Brooks was wrong.

Think of all the Twilight Zones, Star Treks, adventure novels, bad movies, and even worse liberal social science that follows a storyline something like this: Intrepid explorer/investigator/adventurer stumbles on seemingly peace-loving society where the beaches are warm, you can drink rum out of conch shells all day long, and the sultry women giggle enthusiastically at the idea of proving with gusto that Western notions of chastity and monogamy are culturally rooted and deeply subjective. We’re told the local natives don’t have words for such concepts as “hatred,” “theft,” or “envy.” Spock, Margaret Mead, Fletcher Christian–whoever–insist that this is true right up to the point where the little buggers start boiling our intrepid adventurer in oil.

The moral of such stories is actually pretty conservative: Human nature holds constant over both time and space. If you think “war” and “anger” are Western, phallocentric, meat-eating, capitalistic concepts and that boutiquey third-worlders really believe that arms are for hugging, then you should go chop down a tree-worshipper’s favorite ficus or hit on some local chieftain’s daughter and see what happens. In some cases the savages will eat your pancreas. In other cases–Margaret Mead’s for example–you’ll simply see your postmortem reputation wither on the vine.

Anyway, I bring this all up because I was recently in Burlington, Vermont. And I think I discovered that a smart guy I know was, quite simply, wrong.

I’m referring to David Brooks, the new columnist for the New York Times, old staffer at National Review and longtime senior editor at The Weekly Standard. When I was preparing to write my article, I received countless e-mails offering steep discounts on Viagra. But that’s not important right now. I also received e-mails asking me if I wanted to see Britney Spears get naughty. Again: Irrelevant to the topic at hand. But I was also told by countless e-mailers that I should read David Brooks seminal 1997 article on Burlington from The Weekly Standard. Any number of folks told me that I shouldn’t even bother writing about Burlington since “It’d been done” by Brooks (at first I thought this was some sort of grotesque porn reference, a la “Debby Does Dallas”–i.e. “David Does Burlington”–but I quickly came to my senses).

I had read the article when it came out, and I thought it was great. I read the subsequent book, Bobos In Paradise, which covered much of the same territory and I thought that was excellent too. But, now, after visiting Burlington myself I can’t help but conclude Brooks was wrong about some very fundamental things.

In his Weekly Standard article, entitled “The Rise of the Latte Town,” Brooks highlighted Burlington, Vermont as Exhibit A in what he identified as a profound transformation of American liberalism and American society in general. Brooks declared, “One of the striking things about Burlington is that it is relatively apolitical.” He noted how the bookstores downplayed overtly partisan books in favor of tomes which explained how individual citizens could help the homeless. “Bulletin boards are everywhere,” he reported, “but most of the fliers advertise rock bands, not rallies.” He saw only three political bumper stickers there: two simply said “Bernie” (a reference to Vermont’s only congressman, an Independent in the House and a socialist in his heart) and the third was a sticker for Rush–which he found on the outskirts of town on a pickup truck, so maybe the owner was an out-of-towner making a delivery.

All in all, Brooks discovered, Leftists didn’t care much about national or international politics. They wanted to be left with their expensive-but-necessary homes, cars, and clothes. “So these upscale liberals have retreated from national and urban politics and instead concentrated their energies on the local politics and small-scale activism to be found in the Latte Towns.” Moreover, while this retreat may be literal for those who voted with their feet and moved to Burlington, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, there has been a broader psychological retreat by the Left in general. “In this sense, Latte Towns represent a fundamental transformation in the American Left, the shift from the adversary culture to the alternative culture.”

Visiting Burlington in 2003 one discovers a very different Latte Town, and not just because Brooks seemed not to notice all of the drug addicts and facially pierced ne’er-do-wells. Oh, by the way, Latte Towns (Alan Ehrenhalt coined the term) are exactly what you’d think. I describe them in my forthcoming NRODT piece as one of those clever, crunchy, condescending college burgs crammed with students–and professors–with open-toed shoes and closed minds. The kids can name 50 different espresso drinks but not one reason to cut a tax, a tree, or their hair.

Anyway, Burlington is hardly the “apolitical” hamlet Brooks encountered. These days the bookstores front a lot more Noam Chomsky and Al Franken. You can still find flyers for bands–if you’re willing to peel off the ones advertising trips to Cuba. Political bumper stickers are everywhere. “Impeach Bush” is particularly popular, but my favorite was one I saw while driving along the campus of the University of Vermont: “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans.” You can also find it for sale at the “Peace & Justice Center & Store” on Church street in the heart of downtown Burlington.

So what changed? Well, some very important things have changed and others have stayed the same.

When Brooks visited Burlington, Bill Clinton was at the height of his popularity, just a couple of months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The ’90s economy was booming and for whatever reason liberals believed that, unlike the 1980s, Wall Street-generated “excess and greed” under a Democratic president were hunky-dory. If terrorists attacked, Leftists tended to blame America for forcing the delicate hands of peace-loving al Qaeda. And while most Leftists didn’t like it when we responded with force, at least President Clinton did so “proportionately” (refusing to highlight our military advantages too much, which might harm the self-esteem of backward countries and the leftists who infantilize them).

Now George W. Bush is president. And as numerous folks have noted, the Left hates George W. Bush. (See Jonathan Chait’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s debate, for example.) President Bush doesn’t mind demonstrating that when it comes to things military the third world isn’t ready for adult swim. He cuts taxes. He talks funny–and not Garrison Keilor funny or Al Franken funny either. He mentions God in a non-kitschy way without using quotation marks or a lowercase “q.” You get it. The fact is upscale and downscale liberals alike loathe the man.

And, like the savages who riot when you leave the toilet seat up, they have no problem making that known. I flatly refuse to believe that if Brooks visited Burlington today–or any other Latte Town–he would still think the locals are “apolitical.”

So that’s what has changed. What’s stayed the same are the residents of Burlington and liberals and leftists in general. When Brooks wrote about a “fundamental transformation in the American Left, the shift from the adversary culture to the alternative culture” he was half right. Yes, it’s true that the Left has been working for a very long time at creating an entirely alternate culture from the traditional one. By concentrating less on class and more on manufactured notions of one-world ethnicity–think of all that organic food, world music, and multicultural mumbojumbo–the Left is hoping to supplant traditional culture entirely. It will look much like the old culture. The buildings and language will remain intact, but the motives and priorities will have shifted. Think of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers at a civilizational level. The new multicultural entity feeds off of traditional culture aping its language and its form even as it sucks the life energy from its withering body. The final product looks just like the host body, but the similarities are only superficial. I’ve written about this project before myself.

But where Brooks is flatly wrong is this notion that the new “progressive” entity is, or ever was, “apolitical.” To believe that such people could suddenly lose interest in national or international politics would be to rewrite everything we ever knew about the psychology and ideology of the left. That Brooks mistook the natives of Burlington for apolitical professionals more interested in making their toilet flushes so weak they couldn’t sweep away a Tic-Tac than protesting a war is understandable. The Body Snatchers had already laid claim to Burlington. Since they knew Bill Clinton was one of them, they believed the plan was moving ahead as scheduled. But with the election of George Bush, the natives have reacted with a natural threat-response. They are furious and unwilling to tolerate the notion that their plans are being foiled. I suspect that Brooks’s mistake has something to do with one of his greatest strengths: his urbane niceness. I still admire David Brooks a great deal, I just wish he’d left the town screaming, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next!” like Dr. Miles J. Binnell (played by Kevin McCarthy) at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


1. My Vermont piece will be the cover of the next issue of NRODT. If you subscribe to NR Digital you’d have it Friday.

2. I don’t announce when I’m on TV much anymore, but this seems worthwhile. I’m going to be on The Daily Show on Comedy Central tonight, 11 P.M. EST.

3. Yes, yes I know I’ve been lax in filing this column lately. I’m sorry, but events larger than me–i.e. really big events–have conspired against me. My apologies.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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