Our Mr. Brooks….

In the early days of television, Eve Arden played “Our Miss Brooks”– a sardonic, wise-cracking and self-aware observer of life around her.

David Brooks, our present-day “Mr. Brooks,” is a columnist for the New York Times who often produces perceptive analyses of governance and American society–and sometimes follows them with truly bizarre “meditations.”  The link is to one of the latter.

He opens the column with a broadside:

The campaign of 2016 was an education in the deep problems facing the country. Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

As Robert W. Merry put it recently in The American Conservative, “When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem.”

It has become fashionable among highly-educated and self-important writers commenting on current American schisms to sneer at “elites,” a category they themselves rather clearly inhabit. (We live in an irony-free age.)

I don’t know what “faculty lounges” Brooks has visited, but conversations among my colleagues in the halls of academia (we’re a state school–we don’t have lounges) are rarely characterized by “political correctness”–unless that category includes bitching about grading papers and the inability of students to write a grammatical sentence.

Most of Brooks’ column was devoted to the subject of alienation, which he has apparently decided is the explanation for many if not most of the ills of American society.

Alienation breeds a hysterical public conversation. Its public intellectuals are addicted to overstatement, sloppiness, pessimism, and despair. They are self-indulgent and self-lionizing prophets of doom who use formulations like “the Flight 93 election” — who speak of every problem as if it were the apocalypse.

Alienation also breeds a zero-sum mind-set — it’s us or them — and with it a tribal clannishness and desire for exclusion. As Levin notes, on the right alienation can foster a desire for purity — to exclude the foreign — and on the left it can foster a desire for conformity — to squelch differing speakers and faiths.

Here, Brooks paints with a very broad brush. Are there people who exhibit these behaviors–who are “self-indulgent and self-lionizing”? Certainly. Are there partisans who divide all of humanity into “them” and “us.” Indubitably. Do these descriptions fit all, or even most, of those on either side of the political divide? I don’t think so–and I don’t think such facile characterizations of entire groups of people advances either  public understanding or civility.

The truth is, I know some privileged people who are wonderful human beings, and I know some who are assholes. Some disadvantaged people are saintly, and some are real jerks. Humans are complicated that way.

Brooks makes several points with which it is hard to disagree: America does need a political establishment– people who have been educated to actually know something about public policy problems, people with government experience and a commitment to ethical public service.

But then he gives us this:

Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take an active role in their own self-government.

As someone who has spent the past 40 years trying–largely in vain– to encourage greater civic participation, first in City government and later in a number of voluntary organizations and  in the classroom, this paragraph made me want to strangle its author. Bromides like these join other endless Sunday sermons and pious political exhortations: We should all welcome the stranger, fight injustice, get out the vote, encourage poor people to eat better….the list of what we should do is endless; the all-important “how” is hotly contested when it isn’t totally ignored.

What Brooks is yearning for requires broad culture change, and cultures don’t change quickly or easily. They certainly aren’t changed by “devolving” social welfare programs–i.e., turning the money and rule-making authority over to the states. We’ve done that in the past, and the consequences weren’t pretty.

The great irony of Trump’s improbable election is that it has done more to prompt civic engagement (albeit not always as courteous an engagement as Brooks might like) than people like me–and Brooks– have done in half a century. We can only hope that the very real concerns that are sending people into the streets will ultimately move the civic culture toward more participation and inclusion–not to mention more self-aware punditry.

A bit more “Our Miss Brooks” and a bit less smugness.


  1. After all of the social media give and take and the many suggestions I personally am searching for the how and it is not easy.

  2. I have always had sort of a “love/hate” relationship with David Brooks and what he either pens or says. “Smugness” has always been Brooks’ Achilles Heel. I think he’s better as a guest on “Meet the Press” at times more than being a columnist. Sometimes he can really nail it but other times, not so much. What you’ve described, and I haven’t seen the article until now, is one of those other times for him it seems. I think he’s deeply conflicted right now as most “traditional” conservatives are. The are aghast at Trump but still support, I guess, people like Ryan and Mulvaney and their ideas, still being oblivious to the great pain they are their ideas will inflict on the people of this country. Hot air and hackneyed recycled ideas won’t help us as we have seen over and over an over. We need much more than that which should be pretty obvious by now.

  3. David Brooks is completely clueless about the lives of average middle class Americans. He has always lived an elite life and couldn’t even begin to understand any other life. I used to occasionally enjoy reading his column, but in the past couple years he has shown just how
    far removed from reality his views are.

  4. What can you expect from Brooks, who came to the Times from (I believe) The Weekly Standard? Like William Safire before him, he is an example of the Times effort to seem “fair and balanced.” So the paper hires a hack from the Conservative swamp, hoses him off, and says to the world, look at us: we tolerate all viewpoints. The people the paper thinks will be impressed by its impartiality will never read it.

  5. I admit I don’t even read our Mr. Brooks anymore. It always ends in disappointment; much like Susan Collins. We get our hopes up that they are actually locating a conscience, only to realize how foolish we are to fall for them over and over again. Susan always has her public and fretful indecision, and winds up voting with her party, no matter how bad the policy. I have found Mr. Brooks to be the same. The only difference seems to be in the level of smug.

  6. Mr. Brooks at least lets me read something that takes me out of my bubble, while only rarely insulting my intelligence, unlike Thomas, Krauthammer and Malkin.

  7. The income/wealth gap couldn’t possibly be the cause of the alienation; that would require a disavowal of supply-side economics, that is so dear to Speaker Ryan, David Brooks, et.al.

  8. So back to the “hows” and putting our shoes on so that we can leave our quiet, gentle, media screens and mouths, and get to work.

    Attended the W4CI presentation on “Executive Orders” on Monday, at Butler, free. There were many empty seats. That was sad to see, presentations were so interesting to hear. Still not a lot of “hows” although there was great, important history shared. Analyzing does not seem to take the place of washing the dishes.

    Just saying…….thanks, Sheila, and others.


  9. Cultural change moves at glacial speed, but I do not agree with Brooks that the culture is that far gone. Reactions to Trump’s elections, on the contrary, lead me to believe that there is a silent culture in this country that can and will if aroused (and if not suppressed by state legislatures) that will come roaring back from Trump’s edge-of-the-cliff political nonsense. Indeed it may well be that Trump has done us a favor in the long run by showing us the limits of greed which will in turn give us impetus to move the glacier along into a more democratic society along the lines of a new New Deal, a government more interested in the well-being of people than corporations. Perhaps his smash-mouth politics will ennervate us to show this predatory class he heads how to smash mouths in 2018. Time will tell.

  10. I agree w Peggy. I enjoy hearing his views on the News Hour with Mark Shields . I don’t always agree with him, but at least he can present his views in civil tone and without demeaning the opposition.

  11. I like David Brooks. I don’t read him daily. Rich conservatives with a conscience are the ones who make big donations to society. The ones with a conscience get distressed when ones like Trump have no self control. Nobody’s perfect and being conservative isn’t always bad.

  12. I really have no expectations of consistent agreement with anyone on anything but especially political analysts. On the other hand I try to read many including Brooks because his perspective is typically thought provoking and that fuels thinking way more than reading something so aligned with my thoughts that no thought is required.

    When I was growing up, a process not quite complete at 75, there was a concept in the air called professionalism. It was recognized that people with exceptional expertise could take business advantage of others but pledged not to. Doctors and Lawyers and public safety officers and Engineers for instance knew stuff or had influence in their fields beyond all their customers without that expertise so people had to trust their judgement. I didn’t take that as insulting to me personally but just a practical societal expectation.

    We lost that along the way or it was stolen (the more probable possibility IMO). Now nobody trusts anybody nor respects the accomplishments of others. Expertise is confused with authority in the power sense of the world. Authority in the sense of better educated and informed in some field has been taken away.

    It’s a huge loss to our culture.

  13. To quote Mencken a “…suspicious resemblance to nonsense” from our Mr.Brooks.

  14. I followed Mary Strinka’s link to the somewhat salacious Driftglass blogspot, and came across several references to the term: “siderism,” which I wasn’t familiar with and wasn’t exactly sure what it referred to. Googling “Siderism” led me to an essay by a Kyra Moment, whom I’m not familiar with, on a web site called Politicususa (a Liberal biased site) from last July entitled: “Both-Siderism.” I thought Moment’s essay was both interesting, insightful, and worth sharing. It also seems relevant to the discussion of Mr. Brooks’ “Both-Siderism” proclivities: http://lnr.politicususa.com/both-siderism-1272/

  15. Both siderism is identified by cognitive brain scientist George Lakoff as biconceptialism, i.e., those who are prone to framing of an issue from both sides, though not simultaneously. They decide elections, so this some third of the voting public is not to be ignored.

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