You Will Never Be Good Enough For David Brooks

I think the thing I hate most about most mainstream punditry, liberal and conservative, but especially David Brooks, is a brutal combination of two connected syndromes: complete lack of self-reflection and a relentless moving of goalposts to conform to the conventional wisdom of the week. It is what betrays most of them as being people without abiding values, and it is what underscores how little they talk with people outside a protected world. When I say “hate”, in a few cases I really mean it. David Brooks most of all: I think he now belongs in a select rank of the most noxiously sanctimonious American essayists in the country’s history. A group of people whose names are are hard for anyone but historians and literary specialists to recite, because they are so forgettable once their era passes.

The commentary is never about the “I” that is writing. So today Brooks is his usual self: the marches were very nice, you see, but they’re about the wrong thing. And also it’s the wrong time–it’s always the wrong time, strangely enough, for this kind of politics, according to Brooks, except at some point in the past that Brooks usually knows almost nothing about. (Protip hint, should he ever grow curious: there has never been a social movement in this country or any other which included everyone in all segments of society. Every “success”, like the civil rights movement, the favorite of sanctimonious pundits, had numerous enemies and was socially divisive.)

Brooks never, ever reflectively considers that if the marches are about a wrong thing, he’s been just as wrong in related ways for twice as long. Brooks is always about other people doing the wrong thing, usually in trivial ways. Which is whatever they’re doing at the moment he’s writing: there’s the goalposts moving. A modern pluralistic, dynamic, equality-seeking red white and blue nationalism? See, that’s not the marches this last weekend because, I dunno, women were wearing pink hats and had signage with the wrong message, and also, people felt good afterwards, which means it was just therapeutic. Presumably the right kind of marching leaves you feeling objective and detached but rationally confirmed in your analysis. He never anticipates what he thinks the right story is in any detail. He just sees it after the conventional wisdom has anointed it and then acts as if he saw it all along–and it is always not what the people he’s scolding did, as he sees it. There is never any concrete possibility about Brooks’ counsel, never any “here is something specific that could have happened, involving the following real people who really did or could have done something”.

There is never anything searchingly inward about Brooks: it is all, always, outward sanctimony. Which is what makes his arrogant promotion of “humility” so galling: he’s a person who may accurately understand what would be a good goal, if in the most general terms, but who absolutely violates his prescription without even sheepishly acknowledging his own shortcomings. It’s like seeing a doctor who chain-smokes his way through yelling at you about lung cancer and never once admits to the irony of his own behavior.

I guess I get annoyed by Brooks because some of what he’s saying is close enough to things I’d say that he makes me wonder if I’m just as completely wrong, or if I’m just as sanctimonious. Both are possible and deeply mortifying to me if so. If he were only more modest, more self-aware and more complicated–and I think all three are possible within the brevity of an op-ed–he might actually be worth something.

But the real kicker to today’s garbage column is this: you cannot call for a “binding idea” that calls Americans to come together and think that Trump’s “coherence” is closer to the mark than the marches. What Brooks and similar liberal and conservative pundits who are seeing the need for unity, for connection, for togetherness just can’t see is that anything which excludes pluralism, which rejects diversity, which ignores identity, which denies difference, is not going to serve as a unifying, coherent, rallying force. The marches got millions out into the streets all across this country, in many of its cities. A majority of the electorate voted against the man in the White House. Any “functioning polity” has to appeal as much to all those people as a handful of women interviewed in Niles, Michigan.

It cuts both ways, David Brooks. You can’t accomplish what you claim to want if you insist that the marches and the marchers aren’t offering the unifying rallying cry you believe must happen. And stop subcontracting what you call for to other people, like it’s their job.

You’re the guy with the ball, you’re the columnist with a valuable soapbox. There’s the goalpost: call the play, in detail. Be predictive for once, and stick to it when people do, in detail, something of what you want. Don’t wave more than half your players off the field and tell them to come back when they’ve diagrammed a play that will move the ball all the way to the endzone in a single down. What’s the call right now, David, that uses all the players on the field with their talents and inclinations? What’s the rallying cry that calls a sixty-year old conservative woman from Niles, Michigan and a lesbian Latina millennial in New York City home to an America that can stand against “brutalistic nationalism”? If you answer, “Whatever makes the woman from Niles happy, no matter what that is”, you’re not in the game with us. If you answer, “Well, actually, I guess it’s brutalistic nationalism only slightly less Trumpy”, you’re not in the game with us. You’re a drunk asshole sitting outside the stadium at a tailgate, watching on a bad-reception TV, yelling loudly after every play about how it was the wrong thing to do. The rallying cry you want has to start with the marches and add to them. It has to bring everyone who marched and everyone who cheered the marches along for the ride, not subtract them to look for someone else. Your perfectly rallied and unified American princess is not in another castle: she was out there in the streets this weekend.

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12 Responses to You Will Never Be Good Enough For David Brooks

  1. Sonya Mann says:

    > I guess I get annoyed by Brooks because some of what he’s saying is close enough to things I’d say that he makes me wonder if I’m just as completely wrong, or if I’m just as sanctimonious. Both are possible and deeply mortifying to me if so.

    same, although not re: Brooks specifically

    just in general, same

    am I just as much of an idiot as the idiots who annoy me?

  2. Larry Gonick says:

    Hi Tim! Long time, no see. Pointed to this excellent column by Lawyers, Guns, and Money. But you misused “whom” in paragraph 1. “They” are hard to name, not “them” are hard to name. Sincerely yours, the grammar police.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, Larry! Long time no see indeed, though I continue to liberally foist your work on everyone I can catch.

  4. Barry says:

    Brooks is one those ‘centrists’ whose ‘centrism’ will always come down to supporting the right/not opposing it.

  5. Fats Durston says:

    I yell at the radio whenever NPR puts him on. He’s evil.

    Every month during the Obama presidency it seemed he wrote an article lamenting American politics not quite producing the right kind of governance, a failure of especially of Democratic partisanship, and then in his imagined perfect polity basically described the Obama administration.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    This. Every single time he’d describe what he wanted from national politics, I basically said: this is like listening to someone on a dating service describe the perfect partner, then meet the perfect partner and reject them because somehow they wanted something else–and then go back and repost the ad exactly as before. Even he seemed to know it before the election started–he came this close to admitting it, but in that freaky unreflective, unaware way that he has. Like he would burst into flames if he had to admit he’d been kissing the wrong asses for years.

  7. Doug says:

    “Friends don’t let friends read David Brooks,” is what I usually say. But I thank you deeply for the full version.

    Further – “anything which excludes pluralism, which rejects diversity, which ignores identity, which denies difference, is not going to serve as a unifying, coherent, rallying force” — is most excellent.

  8. Pat says:

    I haven’t read the Brooks column, and probably won’t – but I’m not happy with yours either. You seem to be saying ‘we have the coalition we need right now, we should just continue to support them’ – but that coalition wasn’t enough people to win the election. We need to get more people on board with the democratic agenda, and that means the democratic agenda will have to change in at least some respects. I think some will have to be substantive, like switching our focus back toward the problems of the working class, and some will have to be symbolic and invitational.

    I think you are wrong when you say “anything which excludes pluralism, which rejects diversity, which ignores identity, which denies difference, is not going to serve as a unifying, coherent, rallying force”. I think that is the essence of a unifying and coherent rallying force; it needs to address problems that affect people of as many identities as possible and bring them together on that basis, rather than dividing us into subgroups. Otherwise you end up with something like the Occupy movement, marching to the four winds because no one group has convinced the others that its issue should be dealt with first. It may be tempting to say that there is no issue on which enough USians agree to justify putting it first – but Trump found one, in fact he appears to have found several. And most of them should have been democratic party priorities long before he burst on the scene.

  9. Hattie says:

    Came here via comment on Nancy Nall’s blog. I can’t bear to read Brooks ex. now & then, so this is very helpful. He sounds like my brother in law, who is always going on about how we have to reason together but just wants to control everyone.

  10. lemmy caution says:

    My 5th grader has basically memorized all of Larry Gonick’s history of the universe series.

  11. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood says:

    Brooks seems like that worst kind of centrist, the one who defines themselves by what they are not. So they are not one of those unwashed Liberals, for example. And if Liberalism moves rightward to accommodate them, they scuttle ever-rightward to protect their purity.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I think if you read back in my blog a month or so, you will see I am not saying we have the coalition we need and no more. Quite the opposite. The point here is that building the coalition we need does not involve telling everyone who is already mobilized that they’re not wanted or needed, that only the people who are not in the coalition yet really matter. It does no good at all to build a coalition that by its nature drives off some of the people already mobilized, which is what I think Brooks is doing: preferring some unattainable perfect over the already-existing good. The question really is: who could be part of a coalition for a better politics (and against Trump’s awful politics) who isn’t now, and what does it take to make common cause with them? The answer can’t be: get rid of some of the people who marched or supported the marches first. That’s at best zero-sum, likely worse than that. Are there bridges that could be built (that perhaps Hillary Clinton and her closest supporters neglected to build)? Yes, I think so. But Brooks could write more concretely about what those look like, and I think others *have* written more concretely about them.

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