God loves all pundits equally, but I do not. I hold special chambers of my heart open for David Brooks of the New York Times. I have forgotten dozens of mathematical tricks in my long life, but I will never forget the face (or the words) of our greatest natural comedian. Brooks is America’s most clueless pundit, which makes him one of the most unintentionally funny men to ever live.
Don’t get me wrong: he campaigns for terrible policies. But we must recognize distinctions, as the common drunk said to the meth-smoker.
Although Brooks stans for right-wing ideas, there is a difference between him and a real lich king like Bret Stephens. Stephens is a lizard-brained cynic; an amoral spider-souled operator without a shred of shame. If a totalitarian regime dedicated to sensual massage came to power, Stephens would jump aboard that train lickety-split. There would be no hesitation; that’s the sign of the far-seeing sharpie.
Brooks is not a hustler, and I love him for it. I doubt he could hold down any other trade. And now Brooks has reached a new height. In a remarkable pair of recent columns, Brooks managed to misread modern politics in a particularly grotesque way.
Let’s take the two pieces in question: June 7’s “The Problem With Wokeness” and June 4’s “How to Repair the National Marriage.”
This is the part of the feature where I would normally detail, by excruciating citation, just how broken the odd inner world of David Brooks is. But we’re dealing with two columns here, so what the theologians call a “synoptic reading” and what the YouTube celebs call an “Abridged Summary” will have to suffice.
In his wokeness feature, Brooks suggests that being aware of injustice prevents you from correcting that injustice. He doesn’t give good reasons for why this should be so. He seems to land on the side of “Adopting an extreme position equals nobody will listen to you equals pessimism equals no change.” Here’s an incredible sequence of sentences:
In an older frame of mind, you try to perceive the size of a problem objectively, and then you propose a solution, which might either be radical or moderate, conservative or liberal. You were judged primarily by the nature of your proposal. ... There is no measure or moderation to wokeness. It’s always good to be more woke. It’s always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. To point to any mitigating factors in the environment is to be naïve, childish, a co-opted part of the status quo.
I need to point out what is amazing about this. Brooks is a member of the right. Trump-era conservatives live in a world without context. They don’t care if the president is a hypocrite, or if Trump has used the c-word, or if the White House changes positions.
Why would it bother them? It’s context, and context is irrelevant. In the right-wing mind, there is never any larger story, beyond what aggrieves them in the present moment. Why do foreigners dislike us? “They hate our freedom.” Why are the ocean levels rising? “Dunno. Obama?” Why are workers striking? “They must be spoiled.” Why does Black Lives Matter protest the police? “They’re just troublemakers.”
And Brooks is the king of no-context. In Brooks’ fantasy world, there is no economic power. There is no history. All that matters are performative culture displays. Because Brooks’ life is free from oppression, he believes oppression does not exist. In those rare moments when it does exist, it is practiced by liberal agitators and crafty postmodern academics.
But the wokeness column is an appetizer for Brooks’ most bizarre screed, where he compares American political infighting to a marriage. It’s breathtaking:
Listening to people argue about politics these days is like overhearing people in a restaurant who are in a bad marriage. They’re always trying to use disagreements to establish superiority. It’s not merely, “We’re different.” It’s, “I’m better.”
Brooks is writing from an alien world. In the mind palace of David Brooks, both parties are always equally at fault. It doesn’t occur to Brooks that Ike-and-Tina style marriages could happen, where one partner is legitimately violent and insane. The man loves his facile analogies. He’s prepared to ride this marriage-as-nation horse until it drops dead. Which it does, several paragraphs in:
When you read these books in the context of today’s political tribalism, you’re reminded that we’ve had relational tears between groups in this country since the beginning. Overcoming tribalism means rising up and taking care of problems that weren’t addressed at the founding and certainly not during Reconstruction.
Here’s a question for Brooks. Why weren’t these problems “addressed” during the founding and Reconstruction? Was that just a forgetful hiccup in the marriage? Or could it be that these oversights were literally the result of power being used?
“Hey hon, remember that part of our marriage where I said you were Muslim for eight years?”
“Hey hon, remember that time I got paid to deny climate change and doomed our entire family?”
Imagine being the kind of man who thinks David Hogg and the NRA are on equal footing. Imagine thinking that the Koch Brothers and Mother Jones have the same kind of power. Imagine thinking that college kids could bully the military-industrial complex.
It’s difficult to overstate how much of a nihilist Brooks is. In the Brooksverse, there are no objective political facts. Just endless norm-shepherding and tone policing. There are no eternal truths, no toxic institutions, no coercion. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a larger world outside of David Brooks.
Can you conceive of Brooks trying to write a poem? Can you picture him reading Yeats?
“All too often, we focus on the Second Coming, and the appointed hour coming round at last.”
“I’ve been noticing in my conversations with friends that falcon cannot hear falconer. But has the falcon considered maybe that the falconer might have some good points, and if he’s calling the falcon it’s for a good reason?”
“Is lacking passionate intensity a problem? Some people would say yes, but those folks are indignant desert birds.”
“Is it possible our center can’t hold because the rough beast is being disrespected? Experts have differing opinions.”
“Right now America is divided into two groups, which I’ll call the lion body and the head of a man.”
“In the old days, we had a common purpose: Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. But after twenty centuries of stony sleep, we’re napping again.”
A question to ponder: In the Brooksverse, in all of these sensible worlds, how is progress made? How do things change?
The answer is, simply, they don’t. Brooks has one standard: himself. There’s roughly ten thousand pages of Brooksiana and most of it is about how rich people behaviors are better for you than poor people behaviors. What makes these behaviors better? They are practiced by David Brooks, and the comfort of Brooks is the only measure that matters. The man lives in a dream. No wonder he hates the woke.