There is deserved satisfaction in ridiculing bros.
Firing off bro-mots at the brodeo is not only great fun, it’s therapeutic — a helpful coping mechanism for professional or social environments in which the boyish and brutish dominate. When it’s not stifling or annoying, intellectual machismo feels, at the very least, comically anachronistic in our modern, enlightened circles. Like men who still wear wristwatches or take overly rustic vacations, these affectations hardly warrant female attention, let alone the respect they’re designed to command.
And so I perked up upon catching wind of a bro-themed micro-jab from the talented writer Aaron Bady directed towards journalist Doug Henwood and economist Thomas Piketty. Never above a bit of gossip, I immediately began scanning the Internet for hints of any masculinist bitchery between Henwood and Piketty.
I found nothing. Henwood’s review of Piketty’s Capital was a piece of writing so civil and genteel I donned a pince-nez to finish it. Henwood is unreserved in his admiration for Piketty’s work, even though Piketty ultimately eschews anti-capitalism in favor of reform.
Here we have a decidedly chichi French economist who wrote a massive book illuminating the very nature of wealth without the use of obscurantist language. Not only does he explicitly bemoan data-heavy dryness, he references Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, a man who once said, “Women are always true, even in the midst of their greatest falsities, because they are always influenced by some natural feeling.”
And reviewing him, in largely complimentary terms, is a journalist and writer whose post-graduate work was in poetry, currently known for his talk-radio program on KPFA, a listener-supported progressive station out of Berkeley, California.
O bro, where art thou?
Perhaps it’s my working-class, middle-American upbringing, but my bar for outlandish masculinity appears to be a bit higher than Bady’s, who goes on to clarify that the brohavior he’s observing isn’t just butch etiquette or aggro nerdery, but rather the very use of data itself.
Bady’s quips are only a small part of a troubling new trend in younger leftist circles: the reduction of feminist critique to the Fear of The Bro and His Insidious Patriarchal Methodologies. This line of thinking insinuates a sort of “men like facts and women have feelings” essentialism — something Marxist feminists like myself have fought very hard to complicate, if not outright explode.
It’s obviously a false dichotomy (one which I refuse to humor by prattling off a list of mathy women to disprove), and it’s been used to keep women away from education throughout history. Even today, it’s the pat rationalization for the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In fact, one of Piketty’s biggest critics is former World Bank Chief Economist Larry Summers, who argued during his tenure as President of Harvard that men and boys are biologically superior to women and girls in math and science. (Ironically, his major critique of Piketty’s Capital is that it fails to acknowledge how technology is to blame for the death of good blue collar jobs rather than, say, his own role in the repeal of Glass-Steagall.)
I’m hardly teetering on Lean In territory by advocating for more women in STEM, but reactionary anti-bro thinking seems to suggest that in order to be meaningful, useful, or “authentic,” research must be translated into florid memoirs of sisterhood, thereby removing all traces of bro. So why do otherwise enlightened feminists and their allies so often totter on saying outright that “math is for boys”?
I’m sympathetic to the reasoning behind it. There does exist a culture of (mostly male) quants who perceive themselves as scientific and rational, but who ham-fistedly misuse data, or worse, reverse-engineer it to support whatever ideology they espouse.
Among them are the academics and politically appointed “experts” who use this data to inflict horrifying policies around the world without scrutiny. These paternalistic figures don’t care that their work is opaque. Eventually, it will all be translated for mass consumption by elected officials.
More famous, though, is the pop quant — an entertainer who produces something digestible for a broad audience, all while giving them the impression that they’re learning unimpeachable truths. Pop quants are like celebrity intellectuals that never make you feel stupid.
While intellectuals can be intimidating, pop quants are a reassurance, flattering their readers into docility. They’re never part of any political administration, and probably have no such aspirations, as getting involved in government would immediately ruin their air of impartiality.
They come in many flavors. Liberal darling Malcolm Gladwell relies more on storytelling than numbers, but he uses them strategically with copious footnotes. Of course, his fans aren’t meant to check those footnotes or question his use of sources; the footnotes themselves are intended as scrupulousness made self-evident.
There’s the bad boys of Freakonomics, whose slug was “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” (A rogue economist, you say? Fetch my laudanum!) The latest is, of course, Ezra Klein’s Vox. Their brand is “clickbait,” and with posts like “This chart is good news for Ukraine, bad for Putin,” and “Where do profits come from?” they suggest that not only is economics easy, it’s BuzzFeed easy!
Pop quants don’t speak to you authoritatively, like the economist of a political administration. They’re not dad — they’re brothers. Maybe they did well in math class, but the impression is that they’re mostly just privy to a few simple facts you have yet to learn. They’re not “numbers men,” they’re “guys who know a little something about numbers,” and they get away with flattening, distorting, and obfuscating reality because they’re brilliantly adept at hiding their condescension behind ingratiatory populism.
The converse of these boys and their numbers is supposedly theory, or literature, or at least an emphasis on qualitative methodology like historiography or ethnography. These spaces are usually more accessible (or at least less intimidating) to our math-averse culture, especially to women. They’ve traditionally been more receptive to women in the field, and yes, they’re sometimes belittled by the (mostly male) technical set.
But since everyone and their mother is being called a “bro” these days, I think the essentialist gendering of scholarship is actually just the most recent manifestation of a larger, older problem. In Catherine Liu’s brilliant American Idyll: Anti-Intellectualism as Cultural Critique, she notes that since the nineties, anti-elitism has been the battle hymn of the most progressive academics. Online social justice culture is heavily enmeshed in the academy (whether they admit it or not), and its inheritance of anti-elitism has simply morphed into the more colloquial anti-broism.
Liu notes that, “For the most extreme academic populist, any criticism of popular culture and popular taste was associated with elitism, universalism, normative masculinity, consensus politics, liberalism, and Marxism.” Thus bro is no longer slang for a sexist man — the bro is a signifier of the elite, and the elite is now defined as anyone dealing in dry, laborious, or otherwise difficult study. Anyone challenging, criticizing, or even questioning the radical possibilities of this kind of populism is at risk of being called a bro and effectively condemned as elitist.
The natural conclusion of anti-elitism and dogmatic populism is an aversion to the very idea of expertise itself — a sort of reactionary over-correction one might generously call “radical humility.”
For example, Bady’s author quote on the New Inquiry is “Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.” His Twitter handle is Swahili slang for “white guy,” and he appears to be constantly (and somewhat understandably) recommitting himself to radical humility.
But who are these “vampires” he fears? Is it the Ezra Kleins and Matt Yglesiai of the world? Is it Marx? Piketty? Or is it merely those who might demand more of him?
Millennial sensibilities are marked by Occupy Wall Street, a political moment that had within it a significant number of people who were averse to making demands. It’s fair to say the front lines of my generation are not endangered by overconfidence in either our intellectual convictions or our expertise.
In fact, the only thing we do seem to be sure of is our condemnation of injustice and the overconfidence of our predecessors, the dick-swinging bros that came before us. While intergenerational critique is both healthy and necessary, I’d hope we could transcend the Oedipal alienation of “This Be the Verse. . .”
I don’t find the snide, knee-jerk, often hostile dismissal of male-dominated scholarship any more effective than the bros it denounces — just less confrontational. The social dynamics of anti-bro reactionaries are certainly fraught with their own toxic, often aggressive (well, usually just passive-aggressive) elements. These postmodern bros have their own heavily academic language, which feels just as inaccessible to some people as a mass of data might to others.
And if we’re going to acknowledge the human geographies of scholarship, it can’t be denied that the working class gravitates far more towards works of political economy than Foucault, privilege workshops, or post-structuralism. If we’re to factor that inconvenient observation into the gendered critique of data-oriented study, we arrive at the conclusion that most girls are just intellectually butch, and proper femininity is bourgeois and untechnical.
This is not without precedent — rarified ladies were taught French literature while country school-girls worked on their practical math. It even extends to art, where the wealthy girls embroidered decorative silk pillows, and we brosephines sewed geometric and utilitarian quilts.
The anti-bros’ emphasis on private language is also often manipulated to sycophantic ends. The performative anti-sexist is certainly capable of learning and navigating those very same grammars to his advantage. It’s many a “good leftist guy” who has done all the reading, learned all the terminology, and used it as evidence of his harmlessness.
Give me a card-carrying brocialist over one of these oily “allies” any day.
And what I call “bro” — say, the use of a cryptic sports metaphor in political debate — might be the residue of cultural dickishness, but it’s hardly intellectual patriarchy. And I just don’t think the diminutive label of “bro” should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats. Let’s not mitigate our censure with cutesy fraternal nicknames.
Much like the hipster, the bro is a blank slate. Nearly any characteristic can be conveniently attributed to the bro. Writing a book of careful and painstaking study could make one a bro, as could the evaluation of such a book by a poetry-loving Brooklyn dad on lefty radio.
It appears the only thing that could possibly insulate one from accusations of brohavior is a serious commitment to Beyonce think-pieces and thumbing one’s suspenders while sheepishly declaring, “Aw shucks, I’m just a simple country blogger.”
I probably won’t get around to reading Piketty’s Capital for quite some time. I’ve yet to finish Marx’s Capital — David Harvey’s prissy voice on his accompanying lectures became too distracting as I did Pilates. I’m a Sunday driver quant at best: I have little to no attention span, and I would much prefer to extrapolate my politics by means of interpretative dance (open weeping is encouraged, white wine will be served).
Bros certainly inhabit intellectual circles, but this recent surge in the term is so often a misapplication of feminism, one that counterintuitively genders intellect and vilifies ambitious intellectual aspirations. To invoke a decidedly macho metaphor, you’re going to want a good claw-hammer whether it’s a demolition or a construction job. And you’re certainly going to want data for any significant leftist project — Audre Lorde wasn’t denouncing math when she referred to “the master’s tools.”
Whatever the dubious populist cultural trends might suggest, radicals, especially feminist radicals, should not be eschewing quantitative scholarship. We should be engaging with it, critiquing it, and expropriating it from the broterie.