Jim Sleeper: David Brooks ... A Columnist Who Doesn't Know Himself or His Country





[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and a writer on American civic culture and politics, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997). ]

Here he goes again. In 2004, David Brooks told us that John Kerry had "a brain of sculpted marshmallow," and he never missed a chance to ridicule Kerry with some variation of George Wallace's old barb about liberal "pointy headed professors who can't park their bicycles straight."

Brooks tells us now that Al Gore is a "radical technological determinist" whose book The Assault on Reason "reminds us that whatever the effects of our homogenizing mass culture, it is still possible for exceedingly strange individuals to rise to the top…. While most politicians react to people, Gore reacts to machines…"

Always and everywhere, such insulting cheap shots are the fallback strategy of someone whose own worldview, left or right, is crumbling: When George Orwell reported in Homage to Catalonia in 1937 that the Spanish Civil War wasn't what the Anglo-American left wanted to believe, The Daily Worker's David Brooks, one Harry Pollitt, called him a "disillusioned little middle class boy."

Among conservatives, the fallback position now involves blaming liberals in similar terms, inflating their shortcomings and hypocrisies to lend a false integrity and coherence to conservative lies. Liberals like Gore make easy targets, having done well by a system whose deepening inequities they don't fundamentally challenge but don't wholeheartedly defend. They tend to have a weakness for moralistic, symbolic gestures (moralism about racial preferences, hope for technological fixes) that don't seriously address the problems.

Say, then, if you will, that Gore is a pointy-headed autodidact, a political stumblebum, a naif. But then consider the people his attackers champion. And begin to suspect that there's something that Brooks doesn't understand about the ways a republic needs more public reason and even a little "strangeness" like Kerry's or Gore's -- more than like, say, Rudy Giuliani's.

Throughout 2004, Brooks did never give us a metaphor analogous to "sculpted marshmallow" to describe the brain of either of the two "exceedingly strange" men he was helping to keep the presidency and vice presidency, to which they'd risen in the strangest election imaginable. Yet only a year after their (and Brooks') 2004 victory, as the Iraq venture went from bad to worse, he told The Nation's Ayal Press that, ""Sometimes in my dark moments I think [Bush is] 'The Manchurian Candidate' designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in."

Isn't that a little strange? Brooks thinks Al Gore is stranger. He is annoyed by "the chilliness and sterility of [Gore's] worldview," which "allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood, or just face-to-face contact. [Gore] sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium – as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life."

Sure, and George W. Bush is the regular kind of guy whom every other all-American guy would like to have a beer with. And "family, friendship, neighborhood," etc. are for regular guys like Brooks' "patio man." But think a minute about how Bush "sees society" from a triple-riveted podium, before triple-vetted audiences of triple-"enlisted" listeners. Contrast that "public mass exercise" with Eric Pooley's unforgettable account of Al Gore's recent national speaking tour with his "global warming" show.

The more you think about it, the more David Brooks himself begins to look a little strange.

From Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson on, the American Republic has always relied critically on the strangeness of autodidacts, eccentrics, bounders, blowhards, and more. Consider most American inventors and entrepreneurs. Even in the 1980s, Bill Gates said that Japan's booming economy wouldn't bury us, because we're far less aristocratic or regimented. Here, he said, "three guys in a garage" really can re- invent our communications and cultural networks.

I thought Brooks knew that. But our "patio man" is too busy trying to ingratiate and insinuate himself into a civic culture he doesn't understand. Gore's enthusiasm for new science and technology is bumptious, sometimes misguided: "Has Al Gore ever actually looked at the Internet?" Brooks taunts, in full denial that Gore's experience of Internet interactivity comes from his experience as an investor, advisor, and Google board member, not to mention 16 years in "face-to-face" contact with ordinary Americans while in Congress. Brooks, by contrast, has inhabited only the communications world – and not as an entrepreneur, like, say, Ned Lamont.

What matters here a widely-shared, growing misapprehension, which Republicans cultivate, that public reasoning is less important to a republic than "family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact." Actually each has its vital role, but neo-conservatives have been subverting the place of public reason with a beguiling sophistry that appeals to unreasonable impulses, as Brooks does by insulting Kerry and Gore.

Al Gore's struggle, like that of Barack Obama and other decent candidates, puts flesh on Griel Marcus's understanding that the ideals of America are "too big to live up to and too big to escape." The country's genius and the strength rest on a paradox: Its classical liberalism and free markets rely on civic-republican virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and free markets themselves can't fully nurture or enforce, because they have to honor the autonomy -- the "strangeness" -- of free individuals.

The conservative truth here, which its propagandists harp on at liberals' expense, is that if enough free individuals are going to rise above their narrower interests at times and "find themselves" more fully by giving to the whole, their inclination to do that will have to be nurtured intensely somehow, not by the state – or, heaven help us, a state religion – but by "family, friendship, neighborhood, or just face-to-face contact."

But the liberal side of the paradox reminds us that, no matter what autonomous individuals do in private, a republic has to induce and equip them defend their private preferences through reasoned arguments and bargaining that address the needs of others who may disagree but still want the republic to cohere.

Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes that define this country when he wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

How might the worst happen? "History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces," wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee. Hence Ben Franklin's answer in 1787 to a bystander outside Independence Hall who asked what kind of government was being formed: "A republic, if you can keep it." Unreason and impulse are the default logics of human history; republican freedom is a fragile, if world-historical gain. It requires cultivation and nurture.

Al Gore's argument in "The Assault on Reason" is that we are being brought gently into something less by sound-bite savants like David Brooks, who argue that the cornucopia of consumption is liberating. Gore argues that radio and television, owned as they are by conglomerates driven to emphasize entertainment and diversion over reason, have weakened the citizenry and strengthened the sophists. He hopes that Internet interactivity will keep the big guys from cornering the marketplace of ideas.

And, yes, he is more than a bit wishful in saying this. Just how wishful Gore is depends on Americans who are determined to be free, not brought low "by gradual paces" with the help of soothsayers like Bush and Brooks, who tell them they're free while serving powers that are encroaching on their freedom.

John Adams wasn't blaming only government when he warned that, "[w]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society."

The point was that you don't strengthen freedom by handing the people over from their elected officials to their paymasters; the polity has to remain sovereign over the economy. What does this mean, exactly? The liberal state empowers corporate entities and investors who can tyrannize and degrade people in daily life, even if not ostensibly in public politics (although it doesn't take them long to invade the latter, as well.)

Gore avoids a dramatic answer, although he does slam "corporate consolidation and control" of the electronic media (including, he warns, the Internet). This makes him a fat target for the Brookses, but Gore is defending the same Lockean, entrepreneurial capitalism conservatives champion under the name of "free markets." He's challenging them to admit that vast economic engines, bought and sold anomically at the click of a broker's mouse, have few of the entrepreneur's virtues, and less of the ordinary citizen's regard for a republic in which we sometimes transcend our own private interests.

The Republican conservative strategy, and David Brooks' very modus operandus as a columnist, was sketched very well in Thucydides' account of the Mytilene debate, during which Diotodus convinces Athenians not to fall for the smears which vulcan orators like Brooks lay on candidates like Kerry and Gore. Diodotus warns Athenians not to trust a speaker who,

knowing that he cannot make a good speech in a bad cause, … tries to frighten his opponents and his hearers by some good-sized pieces of misrepresentation. … The good citizen, instead of trying to terrify the opposition, ought to prove his case in fair argument. And… when a man's advice is not taken, he should not even be disgraced, far less penalized. [If instead the losing candidate is treated respectfully, even when his advice is rejected,] speakers will be less likely to pursue further honors by speaking against their own convictions in order to make themselves popular; and unsuccessful speakers, too, will not struggle to win over the people by the same acts of flattery….

[Instead] a state of affairs has been reached where a good proposal honestly put forward is just as suspect as something thoroughly bad, and the result is that just as the speaker who advocates some monstrous measure has to win over the people by deceiving them, so also a man with good advice to give has to tell lies if he expects to be believed. And because of this refinement in intellectuality, the state is put into a unique position; it is only she to whom no one can ever do a good turn openly and without deception. For if one openly performs a patriotic action, the reward for one's pains is to be thought to have made something oneself on the side. ….

Thucydides and other classical authors are big hits with conservative pedagogues whom Brooks has praised for training American youth for war and imperial management. But any honest reading of Thucydides, like any honest reading of Al Gore's humbler book, would confront today's Republicans and their apologists with a mirror of their own betrayal of the American republic. Brooks knows this. Lately he has made gestures in the direction of a political makeover, praising Obama's deliberative mind. (Three years ago, he'd have called it "sculpted marshmallow.") But the specter of a revived Al Gore prompts a certain desperation (and perhaps guilt) that drives Brooks and other Republicans back to old habits and fears. If Obama looks better to them by comparison, that's only a fringe benefit, but let's take it.

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