What an extraordinary creature is David Brooks. Sometimes I read his columns, usually when an article about them appears with a subheading of “Can you believe this shit?” – Brooks is a …what is the word for a person whose job is to have opinions about things and then write them down? An opinionist, I guess – David Brooks is a professional opinionist for the New York Times which, much to the detriment of some and at least slightly to the detriment of all, remains the single most important journalistic outlet in America, and possibly (by dint of its influence and reach if nothing else) the world. David Brooks is, in a way, powerful.
He is also terrible. His opinions are terrible, and I think his opinions are often expressed terribly, which means he’s violated two important requirements of being a professional opinionist – an occupation which, to my knowledge, has only got two requirements in the first place. I have decided to take on his column this time as a challenge to myself; I may make a project of it if this proves suitably interesting.
So! You may have heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a book about his experience as a black man, particularly as a black man living in Baltimore, that takes the form of a series of letters to his son. It is full of impassioned rage and exactly the sort of clear and incisive perspective that you read Ta-Nehisi Coates for. Naturally, David Brooks read this book and, also naturally, had an opinion on it. It is his job, after all.
The very first thing I want to talk about is the amazing absurdity of form that Brooks pulls off here; it’s really almost sublime in its cluelessness, and for that I think deserves a measure of attention. Having read a book taking the form of a black man’s letters to his son, Brooks decides to write back…in the form of a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Obviously this is terrible for many reasons, but setting aside the history of white people condescending to black people – a history that I’m sure Brooks would acknowledge might possibly exist somewhere but is never the sort of thing that he would do – how brain-meltingly ludicrous is it to read a letter from a man to his son and then respond with a letter of your own?
I can’t think of how something like this even gets into print; obviously it seems like a good idea at two in the morning when your deadline is looming (even David Brooks suffers the tyranny of deadlines), the kind of old-fashioned trick that critics sometimes do where they write a review in iambic pentameter or something, a good way to demonstrate your mastery of traditional forms of English writing like “the letter.” (Alternately, and probably equally hilarious, David Brooks maybe just thinks that letters are what we’re doing now – the hip new thing the kids are into.)
Sure it seems like a good idea at first, but how do you not look at it when you’re done and say, “Oh, wow, this seems really weird, this makes it seem like I thought he was writing to me this whole time. Better do a rewrite, otherwise I run the risk of seeming like I’m terminally self-involved.”
“Also, while I’m at it,” you might think if you were anyone but David Brooks, apparently, “I might want to nix this first paragraph.”
The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.
“It’d be awfully weird of me to frame national protest movements centered around the state murder of many black people as an education for white people.”
I mean, I’m sure it’s been an education for a lot of white people; it certainly has been for me. But it looks, I guess shall we say, a little insensitive to describe other people’s tragedies primarily according to their importance to me. I don’t know, I don’t know what the NYT style guide says about that, though I am interested to see the obituaries maybe replaced with a “Lessons I Have Learned” column.
He does seem at least a little self-aware – about halfway through the column he gives us this extraordinary gem:
I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?
But please note two important things:
1) Brooks clearly does not understand “privilege” in the context that it’s being used when we talk about people like Brooks having it. By now, this question should no longer come up, since at this point everyone who pretends they don’t know what it means is being deliberately obtuse; privilege in this sense is simply the fact that all of our identities have multiple aspects, and some of those aspects insulate us from particular problems such that we are often not aware of them, and don’t have a proper framework to talk about them. Are you displaying your privilege if you simply “disagree” with a black person? Well, that depends on what you disagree about, and how you go about doing it, and whether or not you, as Brooks says, took the time to “…sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in.”
And 2) Brooks does not even sit with it for the length of a paragraph break.
Brooks’ self-involutions actually are the heart of the column, which is both a sad and a terrible irony. The thing is bursting with praise for Coates’ writing, of course (which comes off as even more preposterous in the letter format, with Brooks quoting Coates’ own writing back at him. “[Y]ou talk about the pervasive effects of fear…” Brooks writes, as though Coates might be unfamiliar with his own fucking book.) Brooks just loves how articulate Coates is.
(White people are always surprised when black people are good writers, but it’s always a kind of qualified surprise, as though we don’t fully understand what language is actually for. We’re rarely impressed with language as a social adhesive, language as a way to show off, language as personal identity – I guarantee that if Brooks likes the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s in only the most abstract way – we’re always impressed when black writing demonstrates a mastery of the rules of language. The unspoken assertion in our fascination with this kind of pedantry is, of course: proper English is supposed to keep black people out.)
He loves the quality of it, but you get the sense that his praise is the kind of sniveling obsequy that’s preparing the way for a stern disagreement that’ll be read more as a dismissal. “Oh you write so well,” Brooks seems to say, “It was so good, so moving, so powerful,” every word leading up to the inevitable “but…”
It’s one thing to describe your experience as a black man growing up in America – this, David Brooks can abide, and even admire in its way. But it’s another thing altogether to suggest that there might be something wrong with his treasured American Dream. Here’s Brooks:
But the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.
No mention is made, of course, of whether or not David Brooks’ ancestors found the American Dream to be the thing that they’d imagined it was – certainly, I’m sure whatever they found was better than pogroms. And David Brooks is happy and successful at least, so perhaps they really did find the upward mobility that they dreamt of. We’ll never know, of course, because David Brooks hasn’t chosen to tell us. Let’s assume yes.
How, then, does the experience of David Brooks’ ancestors obviate Coates’ thesis? That thesis being: the idea of the American Dream is a fiction, built on the back of the oppression of black bodies, a fantasy meant to obscure that oppression, and something that is inextricably fraught with the legacy of that oppression even to this very day? How, you might ask, does someone believing in that dream make it not…any of those things?
The question is as mysterious as it is unanswered. The paragraph is moot, because Brooks’ actual thesis is that Coates is simply wrong on at least one count – that the American Dream is NOT fraught with the legacy of black oppression that continues to this very day. A simple solution to a complicated problem! Luckily, Brooks is here for us.
If I do have standing [you do not – ed], I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.
“Some Guy” in this case is apparently a literal straw man. Brooks doesn’t say exactly who he’s talking about, which is pretty convenient for him, because it enables him to ignore just how the legacy of lynching might have impacted Some Guy’s decision. I don’t know, did Some Guy’s father get shot by racist cops? Did Some Guy grow up in poverty because his family got redlined and shunted off somewhere that limited his education and employment opportunities? Is Some Guy the descendent of a people who were literally robbed of generational wealth for centuries, before being regularly treated in the media as one step above rabid animals?
Every individual is complex, says David Brooks, and I guess “the legacy of lynching” isn’t one of those complexities. Lots of things go into whether or not Some Guy is going to commit a crime, and apparently his portrayal in the media, the community he grew up in, his treatment by the state, and the politics of his country aren’t any of them.
Brooks doesn’t say if maybe the problem is just that Some Guy didn’t have a strong father figure growing up, but how extraordinary to think that THIS might be adequate causation when a political and cultural legacy that effects literally every corner of black life in America might not be.
Furthermore! Even if the legacy of lynching might, at some level or in some way, still possibly have an effect on black people a mere fifty years after the end of segregation, surely there’s good to celebrate, too!
I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.
A brief digression into history – David Brooks has a degree in history, I do not, so of course let’s give Brooks the benefit of the doubt – there was, indeed, exactly one Abraham Lincoln and exactly one Jefferson Davis, and it is certainly entertaining to imagine that they are antimatter opposites, and that everyone north of the Mason-Dixon line had an evil racist doppelganger south of it. Abraham Lincoln was tall and had a beard with no moustache and hated slavery; Jefferson Davis was short and had a moustache with no beard and loved slavery.
The reality, of course, was that Lincoln wasn’t the polar opposite of Jefferson Davis at all, in the sense that first of all that’s not real and is a ridiculous way to look at history, secondly in that Jefferson Davis had neither beard nor moustache, and thirdly in that Lincoln was not actively anti-slavery until he saw how emancipation might provide advantage in the war. Here’s Lincoln in a letter to Horace Greely in 1862:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Brooks might have done better to say that for every Davis there was a Thaddeus Stevens – Stevens was a Radical Republican, a member of the staunch anti-slavery faction of the US Congress – except that there plainly wasn’t a Thaddeus Stevens for every Jefferson Davis, because Davis took everyone on his side with him when he left, and if the remaining Congress had been composed of only Thaddeus Stevenses and Johns C. Fremont, then slavery would have ended in a heartbeat.
Who was it, then, who outnumbered all the Radicals? Well, surprising as it may be, it turns out that “pro slavery” and “anti slavery” is inadequate to the complexities of the Congress in the mid-19th century. Turns out, there was a bunch of white guys who, while they didn’t necessarily hate black people, didn’t really give a shit about them, either. And it turns out that the sort of person that a later revolutionary might call “the white moderate” was as damaging and detrimental to the project of ending slavery and oppression as those people who were actively supporting it.
If we were being uncharitable, we might even say that the obstinate devotion to a fantasy world of nothing but hard work and merit even in the face of a “searing”, “mind-altering account” of the personal experience of a black man living in America is exactly that sort of hindrance to actual liberty, but since we are charitable, we won’t say that.
(Another bit of history. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a non-profit organization in Harlem dedicated to helping people break the cycle of generation poverty [the causation of the legacy of lynching and slavery on the cycle of generational poverty is obviously inadequate to the complexities of individual poor people]. The KKK, also called the Ku Klux Clan, is a century-old terrorist organization that at its peak boasted six million members and chapters in every state in the union, and was responsible for murdering and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of black people [the causation of the legacy of white supremacy is obviously inadequate to the complexities of some guy deciding to put on a hood and set a cross on fire]. It’s certainly an interesting idea to imagine that there is, indeed, exactly one non-profit family development organization for every white supremacist terrorist organization, but I sure would like to see the citation for that.)
But let’s, for a minute, consider David Brooks’ preposterous calculus: there is exactly one good person for every one bad person, exactly one good organization for every bad organization, an identical amount of glory for every quantum of shame. Let’s give David Brooks the benefit of the doubt and presume this equality. What exactly are we to make of it?
Do we simply weigh good things against bad things? Do they cancel each other out in a burst of gamma rays? Well, if they do, and if there’s one evil thing for every good thing, that makes the net goodness in America zero. Everything cancels everything out, we live in a world of no morals and too many gamma rays. This seems like a weirdly nihilistic point to raise –
“Many bad things have happened in my life, as a result of systemic oppression,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Yes, but an exactly equal number of good things have happened, either to you or someone else,” responds David Brooks, “and therefore America is good.”
Well, this doesn’t seem to follow. So, maybe what Brooks means is that we have to consider the good without respect to the bad? It’s true, for example, that people are dying of horrible diseases every day, in painful and heartbreaking ways, but the hamburger I’m eating is delicious, and these things have essentially nothing to do with each other. Why not enjoy the hamburger, and not think about all the dying?
That’s all well and good, except that obviously if it’s legitimate to only think about the good without respect to the bad, it’s equally legitimate to think about the bad without respect to the good – if I’m the one who’s dying, for instance, I might be disinclined to give a shit about your hamburger.
“I’ve experienced hardships as a result of systemic oppression, which pervades my life and my community,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Yes but consider,” responds David Brooks, “somewhere, a person isn’t experiencing that, therefore America is good.”
This also doesn’t seem to follow.
Maybe Brooks is simply trying to do a little of that post-modern hocus pocus? A little of that relativistic two-step, where we say that since something can’t be all bad or all good – an individual is complex, a nation is complex – and because of that, it’s simply impossible to say whether something is good or bad.
“I have seen systemic racism, personal prejudice, and many other forms of oppression that have damaged me and my community,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Yes, but that is inadequate to the complexities of America,” says David Brooks, “so therefore America is ::waving hands helplessly in confusion emoji::”
In fact, though, even Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ahistorical connection of the American Dream to the legacy of racism and oppression on which it was built is supererogatory under these circumstances: “a dream sullied is not a lie”, says Brooks, which I suppose is a fine enough argument, it’s what Communists are always saying about the USSR, but it seems to me that it’s Brooks who’s being ahistorical when he says that the “dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide.”
There seems to be at least one glaring divide that we pointedly haven’t unified over. At the very least one key way in which some people might inhabit an America so different as to be virtually unrecognizable from the America that some other professional opinionists from the New York Times inhabit. Gosh, I hope someone writes a book about it one day.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t leave without quoting this part:
By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.
What? How can realism be excessive? Realism is the quality of being real; things are either real or not. Is Ta-Nehisi Coates being too real? It is impossible to be too real, the maximum amount of real is still just real.
Also you can’t dissolve a star with acid! What the hell is this?