In the time since I last discussed David Brooks, a lot has changed. Brooks’ main identifying trait as a “thinker” has always been that he maintained the same bland pretense of evenhandedness no matter what he was discussing—a trait well-adapted, perhaps, to a world we could at least pretend was sane. The zeitgeist has shifted, and that world no longer exists. If we’re all going to get nuked tomorrow by a reality TV star, should we still spend most of our time hand-wringing about civility? When your personal brand is premised on being the sane guy, and all around you is going mad, do you go mad too?
Lord knows the Times’ other commentators are starting to show signs of losing it. A recent headline claimed that Hillary Clinton’s debate strategy consisted of something called “reverse gaslighting.” Nicholas Kristoff argued that all men recognize Trump’s squinty facial expression because “we practice it at age 13 in the hope that it will impress girls,” and Ross Douthat wrote a column comparing Trump to the Sex Pistols. What about Brooks? Let’s look at two of his recent articles and see if we detect any signs of strain.
It should come as no surprise that extrajudicial murder doesn’t strike Brooks as a good enough reason for people to act displeased with the status quo. In the much-mocked “Uses of Patriotism,” he addresses high school athletes who protesting the National Anthem: “I’m going to try to persuade you that what you’re doing is extremely counterproductive.”
Already, he is in a tricky spot. Brooks’ readership consists of 5 million NPR liberals, all 200 Republicans who saw Hamilton, and one high school athlete who started reading his column by accident. Brooks’ rhetorical hold on this reader is hanging by a thread, so the next sentence is make or break.
“When Europeans first settled this continent they had two big thoughts.” Annnnnd he’s lost him. This is obviously the worst possible way to try winning over an idealistic young person caught up in the urgency of the present historical moment, but what strikes me is that he thinks he’s getting on their level by using one-syllable words like “big” and “thoughts.” He probably nodded sagely at his computer screen for having the rhetorical acumen not to write “they subscribed to a brace of ideological imperatives.”
The two big thoughts he’s talking about were basically American exceptionalism and Puritan self-loathing: “God had called them to create a good and just society on this continent… they were screwing it up.” These settlers had the perfect recipe for a belief system—one inaccurate idea, plus one idea that’s a huge buzzkill—and sure enough, “By 1776, this fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism had become the country’s civic religion.”
Furthermore, “Over the centuries this civic religion fired a fervent desire for change.” Here in the real world, people’s desire for change is usually fired by bad stuff they experience, and not by ideological constructs and ontological frameworks, but Brooks would rather embrace extreme Derridean relativism than admit Black Lives Matter is right about something. “This American creed gave people a sense of purpose and a high ideal to live up to.” You know what else would have given people an ideal to live up to, would be…any set of ideals. He’s basically saying that this set of ideals is the best one for Americans to follow because it does a good job at being the category of thing that it is.
“Whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.” This is a weasel phrase, because for most of history African Americans have had a…different sort of time from everyone else. But you can’t technically disagree that they were part of the same story, since they were sometimes in the same place at the same time and talked to each other about stuff. Black-white relations may not have been good, per se, but they conformed to the Aristotelian unities. Brooks thinks that being part of the same story proves you’re civically cohesive because he doesn’t actually know what a story is. In an actual story, like a book or something, some of the people are terrible, hate each other’s guts or die at the end. A Brooksian story starts out “the story I would like to tell is about Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism,” and the narrative arc is that people debate about them bloodlessly for hundreds of years with no clear resolution. David Brooks’ “stories” are different from the story of blacks in America because the worst thing that can happen to you is that an Ivy League graduate writes a book arguing that your premises are flawed. David Brooks doesn’t read real works of literature, but if he did, his takeaway would be “Oedipus, Laius, the Sphinx, all the people the Sphinx killed for answering riddles incorrectly, and all the people who died of the plague may have had their differences, but ultimately, they all believed in an ethos that emphasized the uniqueness of Theban identity.”
Anyway, we used to be patriotic, but we’re not anymore because of Ta-Nehisi Coates, globalism and the fact that “schools no longer teach American history.” Refusing to sing the anthem just makes things worse: “If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story.” Was that…a threat? Brooks seems to be trying to set up the world’s most ineffectual protection racket, darkly hinting that he and his Beltway pundit friends will have their assistants cancel their plans to engage in direct action on behalf of racial solidarity.
“People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms. You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism.” Now he’s just blaming the athletes for a random potpourri of stuff that’s already happened. All like “if this continues, Portlandia will become unfunny, and people’s landlords will start devising spurious reasons to keep their security deposits when they move out.” The upshot of this argument is that not protesting is a more effective form of protest than actually protesting would be: “When you stand and sing the national anthem… you’re singing a radical song about a radical place.”
If racial injustice doesn’t hit home for Brooks, there’s one issue that might: Conservatives doing politics in a way that’s not moderate enough. In “The Age of Reaction,” he takes them on.
“In the normal telling, history is driven by visionaries and revolutionaries.” What is this “normal” telling? History isn’t like hummus, where there’s a plain version and a bunch of fancy kinds with extra flavors added. “If you studied history in school you probably plowed through book after book about this revolution or that one — the American Revolution or the French, the industrial revolution or the information one.” Is he talking about high school? What school has a history curriculum that involves reading a stack of books about the internet? But Brooks tries to get his point across by sheer force of repetition: “In the normal telling of the past, events are driven by revolutionaries.” You’re probably dumb enough to believe that. Well, you’re wrong for thinking there is only one type of thing that affects history. “Today, as the Columbia political theorist Mark Lilla points out in his compelling new book, ‘The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction,’ reactionaries are in the saddle.” Given that Brooks apparently thinks every other history book only talks about revolutionaries, my faith that he has actually read this book could not be lower, but let’s proceed.
“Reactionaries, whether angry white Trumpians, European nationalists, radical Islamists or left-wing anti-globalists, are loud, self-confident and on the march.” You knew he couldn’t let this slide without implying that leftists are like ISIS for thinking it’s bad to have your job outsourced to Bangladesh. Actually, your suspicions that Brooks is conflating dissimilar entities should have been piqued in the first paragraph, when he implied that the French Revolution and the Information Revolution were the same type of thing because they have the same word in their name. In the French Revolution, thousands of starving peasants teamed up with philosophers to overthrow feudalism, behead all the rich people and rename the months after food (??);* In the Information Revolution, some dorks in turtlenecks invented apps that made it so you don’t have to use a card catalogue.
*No one ever actually made me read a stack of books on this topic.
But the impact of reaction can be just as extreme. Brooks says that reactionaries think things are getting worse, and they’re more likely to rise up when things actually are getting worse, but that’s not all. The real problem right now is our crumbling belief systems. “First there was moderate religiosity, the belief that God is ultimately in control….This was the mind-set that made Martin Luther King Jr. fundamentally optimistic, even in temporarily dark times.” Shout-out to moderation, the true secret sauce to Martin Luther King’s success. David Brook’s real agenda whenever he talks about history is to find a way to define everything good as moderate, and everything bad as extremist. If he likes turkey sandwiches, he’d describe the act of domesticating the turkey as the hallmark of a profoundly moderate worldview. “Then there was humanism, the belief that people are learning more and more, inventing more and more, and so history is a steady accumulation of good things.” What kind of definition of humanism is this? That’s like defining photography as the belief that people are taking more and more photographs.
“As humanism and moderate religion have withered, gloom has pervaded that national mind.” Its hard to see how it could be otherwise once you’ve defined both humanism and moderate religion as ~feeling vaguely optimistic about things~, but okay.
“It doesn’t matter how much living standards rise or the poverty rate falls, it makes you seem smart and woke to be alarmed and hypercritical.” David Brooks just found out about “woke,” and he’s already mad that the criteria for identifying it aren’t fair. All like “Actually, I think you’ll find that citing a book about sociology can be a real ‘mic drop’ moment and a clapback. Also, the decline of our civic institutions has created a misleading dynamic whereby when people say something is ‘insanely good,’ they actually mean it’s bad.”
“The paranoid style of conspiracy-mongering has become the lingua franca of the internet.” This is one of the worst sentences I have ever read. I think he wanted to do a spinoff on the well-known phase “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but it doesn’t make any sense because conspiracy theories are already paranoid by definition. And the second part of the sentence is like Brooks mad libs. He has a million variations on this sentence format, like his claim that “Trump was unabashedly masculine, the lingua franca of pro wrestling.” Lingua franca refers to a common language people share, but he appears to think it just means “ubiquitous” or “quality I’m insecure about not having.” I think we can agree that frog memes, not paranoia, are the lingua franca of the internet, but the first David Brooks frog meme hot take is surely only days away, so let’s not borrow trouble.
Another book to prove Brooks’ point that people are too pessimistic is Arthur Herman’s “The Idea of Decline in Western History.” “[Herman writes that] ‘The sowing of despair and self-doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance.’” Haha, this guy did not just try to bash the “everything is getting worse” trope by claiming that it’s a new thing. “If only people could realize that society is getting better and better, like they used to back in the good old days!”
“The best weapon against the reactionary is not bubbly, blind optimism. It is, frankly, temperamental conservatism.” Surprise, surprise. It’s not like he was going to say the best weapon against the reactionary is anarcho-syndicalism, lesbian separatist communes and worshipping the great god Pan. I think by “temperamental” he means the kind where your temperament inherently abhors extremism, not the kind where an opera diva smashes a priceless vase against a marble mantelpiece because she just found out her younger rival is getting the starring role in La Traviata.
“It is the belief that, thanks to the general spread of market freedom and cultural pluralism, our society is becoming stumblingly but gradually richer, more just and more creative.” This is the guy who said having a bunch of different cultures around would cause “ethnic jostling” and “Balkanization,” but okay. I guess having economic inequality increase by 500 percent in 30 years is just one of our comical stumbles. I think he should have gone with a metaphor where progress is a mountain path and we’re making slow progress because the path is hard and steep, not because we’re just inexplicably stumbling all the time. They say writers are supposed to visualize their metaphors, and if you visualize this one, you realize that stumbling a lot while you’re walking is usually a sign of something bad, like a neurological disorder. We could probably be going a lot faster if we eased off on the bootleg corn liquor (which I’ve decided represents neoliberalism).
“But economic and technological dynamism needs to be balanced by cultural cohesion.” Shout-out to dynamism, Brooks’ favorite word. I think he’s using it even more often since his divorce, but I will leave it to the psychologists to explain why.
“It’s stupid and impossible to turn back the clock. But history is a repository of wise cultures.” Beautiful. That reminds me of the famous Stephen Daedelus quote “History is a repository of wise cultures I am trying to learn from in order to ameliorate economic stagnation.”
“Each historic culture — Ming dynasty China, medieval Germany, Victorian England — contained some piece of wisdom and had its own strengths and weaknesses.” Oh, I’m sure there’s just SO MUCH we could learn from MEDIEVAL GERMANY to make our civilization better. He just picked the middle ages because it would have been weird to claim to admire nineteenth or early- to mid-twentieth century Germany. Was Germany in the middle ages even a country, or just a collection of fiefdoms engaged in continuous warfare? Didn’t Germany, like, become a country and then immediately start trying to invade the entire rest of the continent? He also named Victorian England because they were dynamic but repressed, and Ming China because it’s the only era of China that has a famous vase named after it.
“The conservative looks fondly to the past not as a paradise to return to but as a treasure trove of experience to borrow from.”
“The global pluralistic marketplace is a permanently revolutionary force. If you don’t balance it with the communal, humanistic and spiritual countercultures from the past then the people, naked, will try to reject it altogether. They’ll succumb to the angry extremism of reaction and discard progress whole cloth.” …what? I think there must have been an earlier draft where he explained why the people are naked, but then he changed the order of the sentences around or something. This does have the makings of a metaphor: one where the marketplace is a force, the force is on the opposite end of a seesaw from spiritual countercultures, spiritual countercultures are stuck in the top position because they weigh less than the global pluralistic marketplace (who is sitting at the bottom, taunting them), progress is a piece of cloth that the people could use to cover their nudity, the people are too distracted by observing the spiritual countercultures’ plight to bother putting it on, and the Angry Extremism of Reaction is a guy trying to persuade them to just throw the cloth away because this is obviously an anything-goes playground. Well, if that’s what you had in mind, David Brooks, you failed to make yourself clear.
Anyway, I think it’s evident from the above that David Brooks is slowly losing his mind, but he’s doing it so subtly that he will still remain employed for many decades to come.