essay on David Brooks from 2019

Unbeknownst to me, David Brooks recently wrote a book—The Second Mountain—about something of a midlife crisis and his ensuing search for ethics and morality in its context. I will not pretend to have read it; I have no time to read such a book and imagine it would be an excruciating experience given how consistently unbearable his 400-word columns are. Nonetheless I read a review by David Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker that I think found the book pretty loosely substantiated and suggested Brooks is apparently close to self-identifying as a Christian—it was sort of hard to tell from the tone of the essay. In any event, what I already knew was that Brooks recently got divorced and married his research assistant, 23 years his junior—I am fairly certain alleged war criminal and proven Iraq war cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg was one of his groomsmen, along with a host of other similarly useless, socially parasitic older-middle-aged men. 

It’s hard to see what Brooks is going through ‘spiritually’ as much other than a justification of an extremely run-of-the-mill midlife crisis—except with any serious clarity of judgment, someone who had existed in such an inexplicable position as Brooks would experience a more turbulent moral reckoning than he undergoes now. Underlying this process is the fact that like many other mainstream ‘conservatives,’ Brooks feels essentially forced out of conservatism in the Trump era, neglecting the obvious fact that Trump is the inevitable end product of everything he’s championed his entire career. It doesn’t really matter. Brooks obfuscates, and has a seemingly unique talent, if one can call it that, for twisting what should be the pangs of a guilt-stricken moral compass into abstract platitudes about moral fiber & fortitude.

Indeed these vaguely moralistic columns are clearly Brooks’ hallmark, and what seems to endless infuriate myself and other masochists who compulsively read his imbecilic drivel (I don’t do it so much anymore; I’m quitting) is a uselessly vague ‘ethics’ coupled with zero structural knowledge of anything he’s talking about. Brooks couldn’t be just a fifty-five year old piece of shit who’s been consistently wrong his entire career, perhaps latently detests himself, and decided to leave his wife and marry a younger woman (and become a Christian, which I won’t even get into)—instead he’s a man on a quest, a man of spirit, on an ethically regenerative cleanse—or so he says.

This repackaged vacuousness is what is so odious and pathetic and ultimately infuriating about Brooks, as he remains, inexplicably, at the top of the media status quo, and is paid presumably six figures a year, and granted innumerable speaking spots, to churn out this garbage. The man is boring, interminably boring, he has nothing to say, his prose is cartoonishly bad. (Reflecting on this sentiment, I suddenly suppose that these qualities ultimately make him an ideal contemporary media personality. After all, he is not exactly an ‘outlier’ at the paper of record, as the editorial board is almost exclusively staffed by politically obtuse, tepid, mediocre writers almost indistinguishable from one another in content and form. So not much to say there, no point in expecting more from them now).

To leave off I return to the last Brooks column I read, written just after Biden announced, which felt like a sigh of relief from Brooks and was expressed as a paean to Biden, who, according to Brooks, is not just a good candidate, but a good guy. Biden’s harassment of women, the racism expressed in his opposition to busing, ‘leadership’ on the 1994 crime bill, and comment that Obama was a ‘clean’ black man, certainly others—very basic barometers for what might constitute decency, separate even from his atrocious neoliberal policies that Brooks naturally supports—remain uninterrogated. Which gets at the heart of the absence of Brooks’ commentary: Joe is good because Joe is vaguely an everyman; an everyman is some sort of decent meaningless abstraction of person, culturally and politically in the ‘center’—also an uninterrogated concept—further conversation not needed. For Brooks (and so many others, but most platonically and emptily, probably Brooks) Joe Biden exists as a generalized personality on a bland, mainstream cultural/media landscape, and that’s enough for Brooks to write an entire column in defense or even praise of the ‘morality’ of this position.

Indeed, Brooks does not even try to reconcile his signature social critique, the breakdown of social bonds, the vague accusation of ‘tribalism’ we so often hear from the impotent center, with any structural consideration of the period in which he declares social breakdown has been happening. It’s a matter of personal, individual morals, of character.

So Brooks meanders through life with this platitudinous perspective, perpetually unable to understand what’s really happening, perceiving politics on a day-by-day basis and constitutionally unable to reflect on his position in the media ecosystem. 

All this said—I went into that Biden column with a sort of seething fury—and yet I was left at the end feeling less angry than profoundly sad. The intense pressure and presence of Brooks’ worldview, its utter emptiness, hit me hard and I thought: this is how this man actually sees the world? This is what he thinks will fix things?

It is sad—Brooks is perhaps most of all a deeply sad character—and yet from his wholly undeserved position he continues to produce this insufferable pablum. What is one to do?

They’ll never learn

That Kamala Harris was chosen as Biden’s VP last week was not so much news as antinews. The absurdity of the Democratic convention is barely worth commenting on. The unbelievable strangeness and surreality of this moment is self-evident—but one thing struck me more than anything else watching the assemblage behind Biden (& Co) over the last week: these are all losers.

It’s a convention of losers: the losers who failed to remove Trump by shouting “Russia!”; the losers who failed to impeach him; losers who worked for Trump until they didn’t; losers who were forced out of the GOP because Trumpism left no room for their “respectable conservatism”—which just so happened to presage and create Trump; losers whose era of superficially progressive identity politics is long over. That’s what the Democratic Party is (manifested more than anything in its convention, held virtually): a big tent of losers.

So what makes one think they’re going to win?

It seems in the last week or so we (societal, media we) have collectively reevaluated this assumption—or at least have maybe begun to (or, well, maybe not)—in the face of Trump & Co’s increasingly brazen attempts to steal the election, coupled with that recent poll which showed Biden, despite the pandemic and literally everything else, polling merely four points above Trump. Or maybe it’s the fact that déjà vu is finally setting in and people are thinking: “wait, haven’t we done all this before?” I will self-centeredly note that I personally have consistently been extremely skeptical about Biden’s chances (do we not have any context?—can we not remember what happened merely 4 years ago, not to mention the world-shattering events of the last 4 months?) and am on record saying so.

For the briefest of moments in 2016, immediately after HRC’s loss, I thought the blatant delegitimization of the Democrats’ neoliberal program would be impossible for the “party” and their adjoining media apparatus not to face. How wrong I was; here we are, nearly four years later, doing it all over again.

They (the Democrats, et. al.) cannot do otherwise. It’s not in their DNA. We all know this, and we all know why: they are a confluence of corporate interests, contractually, constitutionally obligated to do as they do. (Which is what, exactly, if they perpetually lose? To play impotent foil to the Republicans, to keep the illusion of mass democratic participation alive?) This suggests, one might say, the impossible conceit of the Bernie program, the futility of “turning the party left,” and the ongoing impotence of the “progressive” (meaningless word, let’s discard it) attempt to shift the party; it cannot shift. They can only be what they are.

This is not an argument to vote or not vote, but frankly, this clown-show is not worth paying much attention to. They are marching off again, proudly ignorant as the Republicans, oblivious as ever.

“Consider the Greenland Shark” (Katherine Rundell)

“In​ 1606 a devastating pestilence swept through London; the dying were boarded up in their homes with their families, and a decree went out that the theatres, the bear-baiting yards and the brothels be closed. It was then that Shakespeare wrote one of his very few references to the plague, catching at our precarity: ‘The dead man’s knell/Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives/Expire before the flowers in their caps/Dying or ere they sicken.’ As he wrote, a Greenland shark who is still alive today swam untroubled through the waters of the northern seas. Its parents would have been old enough to have lived alongside Dante; its great-great-grandparents alongside Julius Caesar. For thousands of years Greenland sharks have swum in silence, as above them the world has burned, rebuilt, burned again.”

read in the London Review of Books

hottest year