I made a promise to myself, a few years ago, to stop writing about David Brooks. I’d worn myself out reading his columns, thinking about where I disagree and why, wondering where he’s coming from, what his point is, how his fellow Republicans are reading his pieces and whether they figure he’s just another liberal anyway, whether the effect of his columns—while pretending to represent a Republican giving serious consideration to more liberal ideas—really only persuades on-the-fence liberals to vote Republican, while at the same time it persuades more conservative Republicans that Brooks (with whom they disagree strongly) is really at heart a Democrat. Today I guess we’d say he’s trolling . . . trolling somebody, I’m not sure who. Maybe what he writes more or less constitutes a sort of affinity fraud: you get suckered into reading him because when you look at his opening paragraph, you feel, just for a second, like this is something you ought to be considering.
But that’s not very charitable, and it didn’t feel pleasant to keep rising to the bait.
A few months ago I read a piece by Sonya Chung that seemed to say some of what I thought on the subject, because she’d taken the time to really think about what she believed and to articulate it carefully. She starts out saying she mostly kind of likes what Brooks writes—a lot more than I do—largely because he isn’t partisan—which I would disagree with, or at least say if he’s trying not to be partisan, he’s failing. David Brooks has always been a Republican, rightwing, conservative partisan, identified with the movement to put conservative Republicans in office. If you listen to him on the radio, that becomes so clear that you can barely read his New York Times pieces again. All the nuance, presumably carefully edited into the text over many hours of revision, floats out the window. His goal is, period, to get Republicans elected, to praise Republicans and talk up Democrats’ flaws. Chung goes on to say that Brooks’s columns “don’t make [her] wince”: something I myself haven’t been able to say for several years.
Chung’s piece sets Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (in the context of Brooks’s negative interpretation of that book) against Brooks’s own recent book, The Road to Character. She goes on to illustrate how Brooks’s criticism of Coates’ book negates the virtues he calls for in his own, ending with a call for continuing civility. Near the end she says:
As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action — in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.”
He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects — to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly provides “the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life…is what gets transmitted…The message is the person…”
The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons — away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now.
The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy.
Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise.
Read the whole thing. Not believing in the value of the subject matter, I couldn’t have put the effort in myself, but I’m glad she did.