The search is over. David Brooks wrote the worst human take possible after Parkland. The bottom has been reached, and only Brooks could have written it.
If you’ve never read Brooks, congrats. He’s an incredibly influential columnist who believes that your restaurant choices have more power than the Bank of America. May God strike me down if I’m telling a lie.
What did Brooks argue after Parkland? That the NRA needed more respect. Which is another way of saying, do nothing.
Brooks starts off in classic Brooks fashion: Begin by stating the blandest truism imaginable.
This has been an emotional week.
I’m a human! See how upset I am!
If you’ve watched Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, you’ll know every magic trick has three parts: the pledge, the turn, the prestige.
Brooks is clumsy like a cruise-ship con artist, but the analogy still works.
First, The Pledge. In a magic trick, The Pledge is when the magician shows you something ordinary. In Brooks’ piece, it’s him pretending to share ordinary human emotion:
We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage.
Then comes The Turn, where the magician turns the ordinary into something extraordinary. In Brooks’ piece, he turns empathy into a springboard for his culture-war make-believe:
The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die. Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided.
See how that works? See the quick lapse into the passive moral voice? Brooks went from “empathy” to his fake pretending-to-be-a-scientist voice in a single paragraph. Amazing.
Every far-right pundit plays this game. For instance, last week Eric Posner and Glen Weyl published an article where they argued for a proposal that would effectively bring back indentured servitude.
Here’s how they justify their argument for cheap basement labor: “The only way to end this politically charged debate is to think carefully about benefits and costs as well as politics and perceptions.”
Brooks, on the other hand, barely bothers to mask his contempt. He just hand-waves away any sense of outrage, of compassion, of rationality, and goes straight into fake professor mode. Like he always does. That’s the Brooks Turn. This is how far-right politics disguised as scholarship works.
Now here’s Brooks completing The Turn—carefully offloading the responsibility for the outrage on anybody who wants change:
The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.
“If you don’t want your children to die, you’re a snob.”
Let me get something out of the way. I’ve spent almost my entire life in Red States. My family are from Red States. Most of my friends are from Red States, their parents were from Red States. Almost every human being I know is from a Red State. I am a bonafide expert about the Red States in a way that Brooks will never be. For twenty years, Brooks has been peddling this story of two gigantic Red and Blue tribes hating each other. I’m here to tell you it’s utter bullshit. It’s a con, used to stoke division and fear. Brooks takes the positions of the one percent, ascribes them to Red States, and then makes the Red States his rhetorical pawn. He uses Red America to argue that his reactionary positions are in fact middle-of-the-road commonsense positions.
There he goes again:
So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.
Hi David! Longtime resident of “Red America” here! You’re full of it!
There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.
No. No. No. There are sacred things in the world. Wanting people to not get shot is not a football in your make-believe culture war. It is absolutely a moral point and it is absolutely worth fighting over and getting angry over and shouting over.
Brooks goes on to stan for his favorite new astroturfing project, Better Angels:
So I’ve been thinking about a group that’s in the trust and respect business. Better Angels is a nonprofit led by David Lapp, David Blankenhorn and a prominent family therapist, Bill Doherty. The team members travel from town to town finding members of the Red and Blue Tribes and bringing them together for long, humbling conversations.
Here’s what Brooks doesn’t tell you about his friends “in the trust and respect business.” The Institute for American Values was founded in 1987 by money from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Harry Bradley was one of the founders of the ultra-right John Birch Society. As Wikipedia puts it, the IAV has “been critical of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth.” The Center for Media and Democracy describes the Bradley Foundation as “one of America’s largest right-wing foundations.”
According to People for the American Way, the Bradley Foundation funded Charles “Bell Curve” Murray and Dinesh D’Souza. Apparently, that’s who Brooks thinks ought to speak. Not the surviving students of Parkland.
Brooks burbles on for a bit, about how unfair it is that he and his far-right friends are judged for their inhumane policies, and can’t you guys come together and admit we’re right?. There are a few keepers:
The discussions reveal other sensitivities. Some Blues didn’t want to enter a venue that had a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on the wall. To Reds that was a neutral flag from American history, but to Blues it carried all sorts of nasty associations. Reds were offended by the lawn signs that said, “Hate Has No Home Here.” The implication: Hate has no home in my house, but it does in yours.
That’s funny. I could have sworn I saw the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Snake” Flag at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. I guess that’s one-hundred-percent the same thing as the anodyne “Hate Has No Home Here” sign.
Hey David, I’ve seen those signs you mention. You know where I saw those signs? Red America. Yes, David! In Texas and in Georgia! Kind of puts a huge, gaping hole in your tidy fable, doesn’t it? Maybe you shouldn’t use my friends and neighbors as pawns in your personal psychodrama.
But that’s just a build-up to the Brooks equivalent of a Triple Lutz.
“This is not a civility organization,” Blankenhorn told Lawson.
Better Angels is aiming to build a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage in the political system.
This kills me. “How they engage in the political system.” Jesus wept. That is what the children of Parkland are doing right now, David.
The survivors of Parkland are everything Brooks says he wants in a citizenry. I’ve been reading Brooks for a long time, and he is not a serious man. And the teenagers of Parkland demonstrate why nobody should ever take Brooks at face value ever again.
The young men and women of Florida are a refutation of everything Brooks has ever said, written, or thought about the Organization Kid.
As I write, the Parkland survivors are engaged in the practices of good citizens and good human beings. They are the best of us. If you ever needed evidence of the blinding power of ideology, there it is, in official New York Times columnist David Brooks.
I’m not kidding. Go back and read that blockquote above. Better Angels doesn’t to have to build anything. The Parkland survivors are literally a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage with the political system and Brooks doesn’t care, or can’t see it, or doesn’t want to see it.
The Better Angels of our nature already exist: they come from Parkland.
At the end of Brooks’ column, we come at last to The Prestige. The part of the trick where the magician brings the object back. And sure enough, here is Brooks, steering his leaking oil tanker of a point back into harbor. You ready for it? Here it is:
We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.
That’s it, folks. That’s Brooks’ big idea. This is why he earns the big bucks. It’s why President Obama, for reasons passing understanding, read him. Before we can even discuss not shooting our kids, we need to give the AR-15 more respect. He subsumes righteous human indignation into a pat little universe of tribal stories. That is Brooks.
How dare he.
This is Brooks at his most transparent and disingenous. Preaching to a crowd that would not have him, dividing people unnecessarily, to sell a product that nobody wants to buy. I’ve read probably forty Brooks columns over the past year, and this is so stupefyingly bad I need to invent a new language to categorize it. Not just dimwitted, but aggressively, insultingly dumb. I don’t know if he’s trying to make peace, or de-fang the potent opposition to the NRA. With Brooks, who can tell?
Forget for a moment that “Red” and “Blue” America are marketing terms invented by political parties. Forget for a moment that gun control has—let me emphasize this—POPULAR APPEAL. Forget every flimsy and unwarranted assumption in his column. Forget that Brooks has spent a lifetime pulling this parlor trick.
See, I don’t know how much clearer I can make this: the political system is a nonviolent way of fighting over goals. When there is great power, like the gun lobby, you cannot reason with it. You have to battle it. The reason any of this is happening is because Brooks’ fetishized “normal politics” do not exist in a world where plutocrats run everything, and lazy thinkers have lifetime tenure in the New York Times editorial page. Is Brooks deliberately wicked, or just oblivious? Does it matter?