fallows on brooks

James Fallows is unhappy with a David Brooks column about China that says things like this: “Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.” Or this: “Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships.” Or this, the thesis of the column: “The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.”

Fallows replies, surely with some justification, “This is the kind of thing you can say only if you have not the slightest inkling of how completely different a billion-plus people can be from one another. . . . The very most obvious thing about today’s China is how internally varied and contradictory it is, how many opposite things various of its people want, how likely-to-be-false any generalization is.”

Okay, fair enough. But what he calls, mockingly, Brooks’s “pensées“ are in Brooks’s view the results of a great deal of research into cultural difference. “These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern.” He then names one such experimenter, Richard Nisbett. So Brooks is claiming here to be a reporter rather than a penseur. So if Fallows is going to refute Brooks he needs to address the terms on which Brooks is writing: He needs to say that there is no such research, or there is but it’s mistaken, or there is better research than what Brooks quotes, or Brooks has cited the right research but has misunderstood it.

The experiments Brooks refers to do seem to be painting with a very broad brush indeed, and I’m skeptical about the usefulness of such comprehensive categories: individualist/collectivist, Western/Asian, individuals/contexts. But I’d like to have more substantive ground for my skepticism than what Fallows offers.