jimsleeper.com » David Brooks, Sophist

David Brooks, Sophist

Gail Collins tells him where to go.

Talking Points Memo Café

August 29, 2007

By Jim Sleeper | bio

Gabbing about Democrats’ pre-primary campaigning the other day on “All Things Considered,” David Brooks tried to lighten the stress he’s under while pretending to be fascinated by Iowa Dems’ opinions. He’d interviewed some in Manley, Iowa, he chortled, “because I’m so manly” –a typical Brooksian aside. 

Two days later, on PBS’ News Hour, Brooks tried to yuk it up deflecting Harold Meyerson’s observation that since markets overreact, they need to be regulated. He smirked that Congress doesn’t understand markets well enough to regulate them. Two days after that, in a column disguised as a New York Times book review, he lampooned a liberal academic for arguing that since Republican candidates hawk irrational fears and resentments, Dems should, too. The next day, Brooks was back on the News Hour, trying to put at least some wan, ironic humor on Alberto Gonzales’ demise.         

We’ve been seeing, hearing and reading a lot of pseudo-funny churlishness from Brooks – a lot of Brooks, period. Maybe NPR, PBS, and Times audiences have been calling in, demanding, “More David Brooks!”  More likely, editors and producers think him a conservative congenial to liberals like themselves. It doesn’t hurt that many conservatives think him a traitor. But could a sophist be a conservative at all? Can’t we have a conservative with integrity? The latest Brooksian overkill forces that question.

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Sophistry is clever but misleading reasoning. The conservative historian Russell Kirk described the ancient Greek Sophists as I’ll shortly portray Brooks: “‘realistic,’ sardonic,” able to pass off trickery or intimidation as righteous persuasion. They were “impelled by their passions and low interests, their illusions, even at the moment they claimed to speak as practical logicians and champions of common sense…. Sophists taught the young men of Athens… the way to material success, especially through public speaking before the assembly or in cases at law.” Too few students noticed (or regretted) that Sophists led them “not to truth but to worldly success.”

The alternative to sophistry isn’t really pure leftism or conservatism, however. Demanding either would let Brooks off the hook, for no American-republican thinker with integrity can be ideologically consistent. What we need is clarity about which principles you’re advancing and about your difficulties in reconciling them. Sophistry puts great intelligence and rhetorical charm at the service not of reasonable truth-seeking but of perversity and power. People like Brooks are drawn to it not intellectually but characterologically. The most memorable portrait of Brooks’ sophistic evasions is by Nicholas Confessore in 2004 in the Washington Monthly. I’ve occasionally sketched his evasions myself.

But what about his editors, producers, and on-air interlocutors? The old saw about New York and Washington editors is that they don’t think; they “do lunch,” and there they learn what to think. But it is unfair. They simply don’t have time to read and think about pieces like the above.

Entertainment value matters a lot, too, and you had only to watch Brooks at work in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review to know why some editors find him beguiling. Pretending to review The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Emory psychologist Drew Westen, Brooks pirouetted back and forth between cutesy and nasty, making us laugh at liberal eggheads, a riff of his that plays terrifically well with wounded neo-cons who are themselves scurrying off toward academic nunneries after abusing power. (Brooks has designs on Yale.)

Westen’s book shows that when malevolent leaders stir and stoke voters’ primal emotions to bolux their more rational reckonings with higher interests, dark fears and resentments drive their choices. He notes that Republicans have done this more skillfully (and malevolently) than Democrats.

But then Westen makes a misstep: He urges Democrats to pay Republicans back in kind, fantasizing, a moment in 2000 campaign when Gore confronts Bush: “Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors’ kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.”

Westen’s argument “raises some interesting questions,” Brooks writes, licking his chops as he prepares to do precisely what Republicans always do when threatened this way: They turn the blame on their liberal opponents’ frustrated rage and supposed viciousness and draw themselves up into a pseudo-liberal posture of arch disdain for the liberals’ own supposed fear-mongering.

Voters aren’t really as irrational as Westin claims, Brooks tells us; it’s beastly, insulting, and pathetic of Westen to claim that (as Brooks summarizes him) “Republicans have brilliant political consultants like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, who frame issues so fiendishly, they can fool the American people into voting against their own best interests.”

Brooks was on the debate team at the University of Chicago, and it shows in the “interesting questions” he claims Westen’s book raises:

“First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?”

First, you see, Brooks goes ad hominem. Then, he changes the subject or turns the charge against his opponent. In reality, there’s no contradiction in a rational academic’s studying irrationality. Brooks needs to read essays by the dread Herbert Marcuse written in Europe in the late 1930s and collected in a book called “Negations.” He may be shocked to find himself staring into a mirror. As for Emory faculty meetings, wouldn’t it be more credible to cite, say, participants on panels at the American Enterprise Institute or writers of columns like those by Brooks’ old Weekly Standard colleague William Kristol?

But Brooks the sophist has changed the subject, and Gore’s imaginary explosion has eclipsed the campaign Brooks served in 2000 and, more consequentially, in 2004, when it was “Swift-boating” John Kerry at the gutter level which Brooks excoriates Westen for commending to Democrats. On the News Hour when Swift-boating was at its peak, Brooks declined to condemn it, pleading that Kerry’s Vietnam service “happened before I was born.” In his new review, Swift-boating never appears. What appears is an imagined Gore explosion.

“is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th Century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq?”

This is sophistry at its deftest. As LBJ anticipated, Democrats lost the South because of civil rights, and Republican “economic growth” means Wall Street-driven quarterly bottom lining through which markets rule the public airwaves, with disastrous consequences for republican deliberation. More important, when Al Gore made this argument in The Assault on Reason, Brooks denounced “the chilliness and sterility of his worldview” — unlike that of Bush, who was down-to-earth and wise enough to give us the Iraq war, with the help of Brooks, who wrote column after column telling us how wrong Democrats were about whether to go to war in Iraq.

Let’s be clear, shall we? David Brooks does not believe that American voters are rational, and he has never used his rhetorical and political skills to help them become more so. On the News Hour in 2004, he announced that John Kerry had flunked “the Joshua test” by meeting Brooks’  young son Joshua and turning him off. “Anyone who can’t relate to a 10-year-old boy can’t relate to the American electorate,” Brooks opined, but if he was right, why does he disparage Westen for saying pretty much the same, with regret, not a smirk?

The question Westen’s book ought to prompt isn’t really whether voters are rational or irrational. As Marcuse wrote in 1938, the broader rationalism of a democratic socialism or republicanism that overrides markets at times to achieve common goods after rational public deliberation “is well aware of the limits of human knowledge and of rational social action, but it avoids fixing these limits too hurriedly and, above all, making capital out of them for the purpose of uncritically sanctioning established hierarchies.” The question Westen’s book should prompt is whether real leaders and opinion makers are needed to lift, not lower, people’s sights. “It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears,” D. H. Lawrence insisted. Does Brooks agree?

After a decade shrilling our little desires in our ears, Brooks denies or ignores the extent to which anyone is doing it at all, except Westen. Brooks asks,

“Finally, if voter decisions are driven by the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends, and if, as he writes, ‘a substantial minority of Americans hold authoritarian, intolerant ideologies….’, then shouldn’t we abandon this whole democracy thing? Shouldn’t we have a coup, led perhaps by the Emory psychology department, which could prevent the brutish and hate-filled from ever gaining control?”

Our college debater concludes triumphally:

“It’s rare that one comes across a book that raises so many questions. Of course it’s rare that one comes across a book that so avidly flatters the prejudices of its partisan readers.”

It’s also rare to come across a book review that so avidly flatters the prejudices of editors at the Neoconservative Damage Control Gazette which they have made of New York Times Book Review a few times too often since 2002. The sophistry of Brook’s supposedly rhetorical question – “Shouldn’t we have a coup?” – evades the record of his own apologetics for something like a coup from November, 2000 through at least 2005, when the conservative shock troops, spin machine and Bush factota whom Brooks promoted and defended won elections with Swift Boat and GWOT fear-mongering and a creeping coup of unwarranted surveillance, detention, and signing statements.

I’d love to think that if voters have turned against these measures and minions, it’s because they’ve become more rational than they were when they accepted them. But I fear that the real reason is that while success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan – in Iraq, in New Orleans, in health insurance, in market regulation.

Perhaps editors and producers are more rational than their stressed audiences. I’d ask Jim Lehrer at PBS, Ellen Weiss at NPR, and Gail Collins, Sam Tanenhaus, and Barry Gewen at the New York Times to read the essays linked above and ask how it has happened that all of them have offered their large, liberal-leaning audiences a smart, charming sophist, not a thoughtful, honest conservative or two who can contend worthily with Mark Shields, Harold Meyerson, E.J. Dionne, Ruth Marcus, Paul Krugman, and others.

Note: Westen himself has posted a substantive author’s response to Brooks’ review in the Huffington Post, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/drew-westen/dissecting-the-political-_b_62061.html