jimsleeper.com » What David Brooks and his editors are missing

What David Brooks and his editors are missing

By Jim Sleeper – March 16, 2010, TPMCafe

Jonathan Chait’s New Republic, post today, “David Brooks At His David Brooksiest” takes to a new level my own not-so-quiet campaign to wake up Brooks’ enablers and fans:

“Today, David Brooks has written the platonic ideal of a David Brooks column,” Chait observes. “It… captures the major elements so perfectly that it almost feels as if every previous David Brooks column has been an homage to this one.” Chait disrupts Brooks’ familiar tap-dance from facile sociology to partisan skullduggery by calling out his every insidious move.
Funny thing: In 2008 I wrote, “Occasionally people ask me why I’m so hard on [Brooks], who some find insightful and others so irrelevant they can’t understand why I get angry at all. At last, I’ve found a way to explain it. It’s all there in his column of today, “The Culture of Debt.” … [which] captures everything that is wrong with this man and his ideas — and maybe with readers who believe him.”

Why do we still have to do this? In 2004, in the Washington Monthly, Nicholas Confessore eviscerated Brooks’ opportunism forever, I thought. Last month, the blogger driftglass assailed him brilliantly, though viciously. Why aren’t any of us getting through?

One reason is that Brooks goes down well with some liberal readers of upper-middling intelligence who want – no, crave – to be beguiled out of their uneasy consciences.

They’ve done a bit too well by our liberal-capitalist dispensation to have any serious intention of attacking its deepening injustices and absurdities; but they can’t defend it wholeheartedly, either. So they grasp at moralistic, symbolic gestures – against racism, sexism and homophobia — that leave the fundamentals unchanged and so wind up dividing women from women, blacks from blacks, etc., without wholly erasing the old divisions between women and men and blacks and whites.

The consumer-marketing regimen that the left once thought patriarchal and racist has turned out being happy to shuffle our racial and libidinal decks while promoting the equal-opportunity degradation we feel rising all around us. I’ve argued this at length in Salmagundi, noting there that Brooks has these liberals’ number: Go to pp 125-126 there.

What he does is sidle up to the formerly leftist liberal moralists, purring, “C’mon, you know that you love your unearned income and your real estate and that you love circulating commodities more than ideas. And (wink, tickle), it’s okay!” He gives them absolution, jollying them back into the arms of the mother capitalist church. (That’s my way of characterizing his message, but there are some delicious excerpts from Brooks himself, in his role as high priest of the Bobos, in the Salmagundi pages linked above.)

Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor told Jesus that while some would follow him for love of God, most just want some bread and solace from the church. Brooks is similarly jesuitical and charmingly Mephistophelean. It’s a character flaw that’s been with us throughout history, and, to be fully honest, some of us resent Brooks especially because we’ve resisted similar temptations in ourselves.

What about the gate-keepers who empower him? Well, maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Editors and producers shrug that they’re only responding to Brooks’ obvious popularity – a column of his on Obama last Friday was the second-most widely e-mailed of the Times’ articles – and therefore to what’s profitable.

Not only that, upscale editors and producers are precisely the kind of liberals whose number Brooks has, the ones to whom he sidles up, purring his absolutions. The writer George Packer never revealed more about himself than when he wrote almost meltingly about Brooks, like one monkey grooming another in the Chattering Classes Zoo. He seemed intent on helping Brooks complete a make-over for polite society after years of defending the indefensible in the ways we critics had described (and which driftglass does summarize, however viciously). (I suspect that my column on Packer’s grooming delayed Brooks’ redemption, as perhaps Chait’s post will again now.)

What Brooks’ editors and fans get wrong isn’t their desire to find a good conservative; we all need smart, honorable conservatives to keep liberals and the left honest, and if you don’t understand why, you can read me on George Orwell here.

The objection to Brooks by Confessore, Chait, me, and others isn’t a left-versus-right complaint. It’s our civic-republican desire to draw an all-important if subtle distinction between integrity and opportunism, between honesty and sophistry. Any opportunistic, sophistical speaker will note pridefully that he sometimes agrees with the right, sometimes with the left, and he’ll ask you to believe that this confirms his honesty.

In an honest person, it might do that. But it also might be the strategy of a person who really only craves to be thought well of in public.

You wouldn’t expect uneasy corporate liberals at the New York Times to see this, since their reason for being is to circulate ideas as commodities, for profit as well as for public interest — just what Brooks does well and gives them absolution for doing.

Nor would you really expect even most editors and producers in the not-for profit but still corporate and nervously liberal sector to grasp the difference between Brooks’ pirouetting and, say, Mark Shields’ elemental, bedrock honesty. I do wonder how Shields, on “The News Hour,” and E.J. Dionne, on “All Things Considered,” can stand being opposite Brooks. But then, it’s not entirely up to them.

Again, the problem isn’t that Brooks is more “conservative” than they but that he’s a chameleon: He poses as a cuddly conservative, but he’s a sophist, beneath whose mask breathes a neo-con whose sinuous dishonesty makes him uniquely culpable in a lot of American deaths, devastation, and degradation.

If there is bedrock below this poor man’s posturing, it’s neo-conservatism at its hoariest and most embarrassing, but that’s a story for another time, one I’ve sketched briefly here in the past.

Brooks’ instinctual neo-conservatism, a harvest of pessimism and ressentiment, generates his compulsive and sophistical geniality for protective coloration. And his disguise is the real reason Brooks bears so much moral responsibility for the Iraq war, for the administration that blundered in response to Katrina, and for the economic and social meltdown he has been seeding ever since he began writing at the Wall Street Journal around 1990.

If I could believe that we’ve only been watching David Brooks grow up slowly in public, that would be one thing — a reminder, perhaps, that mass-media columnists really should be older and wiser before they’re given licenses to commit punditry.

But Chait’s column today reminds us that Brooks has not been growing up. He’s just been growing wider while playing the same increasingly tiresome game, a neo-conservative in sophist’s clothing. That makes him as horrifying a creature to contemplate as the montage that accompanies driftglass’ merciless post and that flashes increasingly before my eyes whenever I see him on the News Hour or hear him on PBS or read him in the New York Times.