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?