Friday, March 9, 2018


If David Brooks’s most recent New York Times column were a student paper to be graded, I’d be tempted to write, repeatedly, in the margins: WHAT ?

Brooks is trying to exercise empathy, to understand “student mobbists,” as he calls them, though his condescending choice of the word “mobbists” suggests that he’s bound to fail. He acknowledges that he grew up in a different time from today’s college students — in the 1980s, when, he says,

we all wanted basically the same things. For example, though America was plagued by economic divides we all wanted a society in which social mobility and equal opportunity were the rule. Though America is plagued by racism, we all wanted more integration and less bigotry, a place where talent and character mattered more than skin color and prejudice.
Yes, the 1980s, when everyone wanted (basically) the same things. Really? Brooks might read, as a start, a 2017 Washington Post article: “How the Reagan administration stoked fears of anti-white racism”:
More than any other modern U.S. president, it was Ronald Reagan who cultivated the concept of so-called reverse discrimination, which emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against affirmative action in public schooling as court-ordered busing grew throughout the country.
In the 1980s, Brooks says, “sophisticated people” saw themselves as “mistake theorists,” who “believe that the world is complicated and most of our troubles are caused by error and incompetence, not by malice or evil intent.” But discrimination against people of color, against women, against LGBQT people, in education, employment, housing, suffrage, then or now, cannot be explained as a matter of “error and incompetence,” as if it’s the result of hiring careless help. Brooks might consider, say, Martin Luther King Jr.’s call not for fewer errors and greater competence (a technocrat’s solution) but for “a true revolution of values.”

And consider Brooks’s account of how thinking about color has changed:
The idea for decades was that racial justice would come when we reduced individual bigotry — the goal was colorblind individualism. . . .

Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure. . . .

Progress is less about understanding and liking each other and more about smashing structures that others defend.
But was there ever a time when the barriers to racial justice were not understood as structural ones? Was there ever a civil-rights movement that was not determined the dismantle the structures that enforced segregation and inequality? Brooks’s model of racial justice as a matter of “liking each other” reminds me of a familiar self-exoneration: “I’m not prejudiced. I treat everyone the same.” Yes, perhaps you do, but you do so having benefited mightily from systemic inequalities. “Liking each other” is not enough. King again: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

I share, to some extent, Brooks’s wariness about chants and groupthink and the equating of an individual mind with one or more cultural categories. But his picture of recent American history is ludicrously misleading and shamelessly self-serving. What is this guy doing in The New York Times? WHAT ?

A related post
David Brooks and SNOOTs

[“Structural economic structures”: I think the Times needs to add a colon after structural. The King passages are from “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, April 4, 1967.]

comments: 12

Fresca said...

The EIGHTIES?!?!?!
A time we were united in ideals?

Brooks never struck me as particularly smart, but this is delusional thinking.

The first counter-example that popped into my head was that I knew folks in that era who were hiding refugees from El Salvador in church basement sanctuaries to escape Reagan-supported terrorist in their country!!!

How bout how Reagan never even mentioned AIDS for years, even while his Hollywood friend Rock Hudson died of it?
The blood of thousands who could have been saved by early medical research is on his hands.

There are many more examples of how American were NOT all pulling for the same things, but you covered enough.

Fresca said...

P.S. Today's students remind me of ACT UP "mobbists":
Their lives were/are on the line.
Of course they're not always reasonable.

We hear the same thing about MeToo and heard the same thing during the Civil Rights era:
pushing too hard, blah blah blah...
I do want the rule of law and all that, but who have calls for reason and moderation served?

Go, kids! I say. Be unreasonable.

Michael Leddy said...

The letter from Birmingham Jail has something to say about going slow.

It didn’t occur to me until I read your comment just how tone-deaf Brooks sounds in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Granted, he’s writing about college students. But still.

Fresca said...

I didn't read his column, so I admit I was charging at the red cape here, and I can't address what he said about students. I just had to jump in and say having lived through the '80s, I KNOW we weren't all on the same page. Ha.

Thanks for the reminder of the Birmingham jail letter.
I'm just putting something together about Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address...
Fun times!
(Not ^ entirely ironic.)

Michael Leddy said...

And were “we” ever on the same page?

If you want more David Brooks entertainment, look back at the column in which he takes a friend with “only a high school degree” to a “gourmet sandwich shop.”

Fresca said...

Thanks, but I can't stomach Brooks, or his crafted, curated cuisine. :)

Ha, right--never on the same page (cf Jefferson).

Thanks for posting about all this.

Michael Leddy said...

I have to work harder not to notice his columns. Because when I do....

Fresca said...

I wonder what his thinking sounds like?
[ungenerous but unspoken ideas here]

OK, and now I am going to let this go, for now.
Maybe go watch some... Abbott and Costello? :)

Michael Leddy said...

Like well-shod feet padding gently on thick carpeting. He was missing from the PBS news tonight. Maybe he got lost in the carpet.

Chris said...

This is the same David Brooks who recently wrote "So if you want to stop school shootings it's not enough just to vent and march. It's necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war." I think he needs to get out more.

Michael Leddy said...

I missed that one too. Just appalling.

Fresca said...

"lost in the carpet"