David Brooks: Better In the Original German

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.


  1. msobel March 11, 2014 at 11:57 am | #

    This is a rare Brooks column. Usually he lies directly, this one lies by ommission, not mentioning anything the military, political leadership (which can’t by definition include Obama because Green Lantern) or corporations have done to lose American’s faith. Of course that’s Sgt Schultz for you.

  2. jonnybutter March 11, 2014 at 12:39 pm | #

    While there is so much error and ideology encoded into Brooks’ column that it would take pages to untangle it *all*, this post (of course) does a lot of work. The think is almost a damned junk sculpture! Now we need a David Brooks column about why David Brooks can’t write with Schmittian (or any other sort of) clarity, e.g. “State and politics cannot be exterminated.”

  3. Roquentin March 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm | #

    How ironic is it that he had to work a jab in at Putin, when he runs exactly the kind of government Brooks himself is arguing for in this very essay? It’s the heights of hypocrisy, but Russophobia is the rule for people like him. I’m sure he’s grinding his teeth over Ukraine and the Crimea, not that he knows much about it or even gives a damn. He’s just an old fashioned Cold Warrior with the logic “whatever hurts Moscow is good.” This is the same logic that allowed people to thinking giving weapons to the Mujhadeen/Tablin was a good idea. It’s funny, because I think Russians have a more realistic attitude towards their media after all those years of the USSR. They know right up front that it’s propaganda with a little bit of information mixed in. Far too many people here still take journalism seriously, and you can still be taught in college about naive notions like “objectivity.”

    That said, I kind of want to play devil’s advocate here and argue that the left’s fear of organization is not necessarily a good thing. I’d argue it’s one of the reasons there’s no significant challenge to neoliberalism in our current era. I don’t mean something centered around the charismatic authority (nod to Max Weber) of a strong central leader, but I can’t make myself not believe that organization and power won’t win in the end. It’s not as if power can simply be wished away, it must be harnessed and used. That isn’t Brooks’ point though and power ultimately rests with people rather than a tyrant even if they prefer to believe otherwise.

    • Harold March 11, 2014 at 7:26 pm | #

      I tend to agree with you on how the lack of organized power and control the Left has before it is hindering its goals. But then again, without even consciously realizing it, much of the Left has let itself be fractured into pet projects – “I don’t care about X, because Y is so much more important!”

      If there were some way we could join together into a caucus and decide what the absolute priorities are to combat the neoliberal and hyperconservative groups effectively, we could really do an end run around the Democratic party and start swinging the country into an (arguably) better direction.

  4. Paul Sawyer March 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm | #

    Marvelous! Chotiner’s piece is delightful from another direction, as polemic. It was Kissinger who, in his book on nuclear weapons, wrote that the acquisition of these weapons removes all constraints on the conduct of foreign policy. So Chotiner is taking issue with the good doctor as well as David Brooks. By restoring Schmitt to the hidden conversation, you of course place the ideological need for war (affirmed by Orwell’s Big Brother) at the heart of Brooks’s motivation. Thanks for this.

  5. Charles Lemos March 11, 2014 at 4:50 pm | #

    I get the joke but frankly it runs stale and is offensive to Germans. John Cleese, I had thought, put this line of mockery in his classic Fawlty Towers episode entitled simply “The Germans” that is best known for its signature line: “Don’t mention the war.” It is sound advice worth-keeping.

    I do very much enjoy your work overall and wish you continued success with your writing.

  6. Arker March 11, 2014 at 9:17 pm | #

    Excellent post, thanks for this one.

  7. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 12, 2014 at 10:06 am | #

    Look, let’s just say it bluntly. Brooks is a reactionary, following the type as analyzed by Corey in his book. By definition what Brooks wants is boss politics, backed up by wholesale state violence. The boss slaps us around, throws us up against the wall, takes our lunch (i.e., our pensions, retirement, our collective bargaing rights, our right to vote, and so on) and eats it in our shocked and exausted faces. Brooks knows this and so do huge numbers of the non-boss classes. This is why some from those classes turn elsewhere — and toward one another — in collective pursuit of their collective interests. This, too, he knows. Brooks’ problem, therefore, is with democracy and its fundamental suspicion of — and defensive antipathy to — the boss.

    It don’t get no clearer dan dat!

  8. BrianO March 17, 2014 at 5:55 am | #

    I don’t think it’s a surprise that Brooks’ work sometimes displays a Schmittian theme, as Brooks is still a neoconservative at heart, making him a direct descendant of the Straussians, who themselves were the sons of Schmitt.

  9. Vetty March 18, 2014 at 8:52 am | #

    I should first tell you that I am from Canada, and that my conservatism is of the older kind that was almost always anti-American (a trait that disappeared from mainstream Canadian conservatism in the seventies/eighties and puts me at odds with what now calls itself the Conservative Party, which is really “Republican Party Lite”).

    This immediately places me against Brooks, but what you seem to fail to realize (and this is one of the main shortcomings of “THE REACTIONARY MIND”, if I may say so) is that the American imperialistic mindset which you decry in Brooks is to be found across the entire American ideological spectrum, except maybe among paleoconservatives, if they are to be believed (and oftentimes it’s hard to do so).

    Brooks writes: “Large majorities embrace the globalization of culture and the internationalization of colleges and workplaces.” Well, I don’t care for that either. I don’t want American shows and music taking over our airwaves while certain cultural types of the liberal and even liberal-left variety scorn us for having the government finance the arts (which wouldn’t be produced at all if it were left to the market) and having quotas. I don’t want the internationalization of workplaces, where the pressure would be inevitably towards dismantling worker protection and lowering wages. I find Tom Friedman just as execrable as Brooks, if not more. As I’m sure you do as well.

    That’s the beauty of American Exceptionalism, really: when you claim to be “universal”, it only goes one way. You impose your culture, your ideas, your commerce, your way of life abroad while plugging your ears and closing your eyes to what the rest of the world is doing. You don’t translate books. You don’t screen foreign films, or you don’t screen them widely. The rest of the world is never in a conversation with you; it’s only good to receive orders and follow up on them.

    I know that your refusal to even consider the Metric system is practically a running gag by now; I don’t care if you go metric or not, but Exceptionalism is the idea that somehow the rest of the world is wrong for having adopted it, and that it MUST switch back. Like copyright laws. Because that’s the major exception to not paying attention to what’s happening abroad: when you feel threatened, or that money is not made, or that there is resistance to what you’re doing. But in the US, even those who oppose Exceptionalism work in the same paradigm: they know that it was successful, that the American poison they fight at home has been spread abroad. And that they must fight it there because they’re afraid it will come back if it had successfully been cleansed at home. And they believe that they’ve got the only antidote. Under this paradigm, the people abroad don’t get any right to decide either way.

    I can find that smug American tendency to dictate to the world in practically everything from the US. In Brooks as much as in Matt Yglesias, that liberal going ever rightward while dismissing what’s on his left, as much as in The New Inquiry or Jacobin, a name used by pampered kids who *don’t know what violence is* but think it sounds cool and badass.

    I see the tendency in The National Review and The Atlantic as much as in Salon (where I saw one article castigating us for our laws against hate speech) and The Nation. I recall an article in this last publication about how the Front National in France was “cloaking its far-right agenda with liberal rhetoric”, oblivious to the fact that calling someone a liberal in that country will give you an economic liberal, decidedly not on the Left — e.g.: a Sarkozy — which isn’t what the FN is doing). But no, the American terminology has to recast liberalism as part of the Good Side, as was done in “THE REACTIONARY MIND”‘s index: “Liberalism, see Left”. Only in America — which is exactly what I was getting at. (Look into Canada’s Liberal Party, or better still, Australia’s, and see if there’s anything Leftist about them.)

    All of these publications are looking for an excuse to meddle abroad, to impose a vision based on What is Happening in America Right Now. From experience, I can tell you that debating with Americans is a tiresome game — either they don’t care or they don’t understand what you’re trying to get at, while resenting your intruding into what they believe to be a domestic conversation — but only, ironically, among liberals (and especially the liberal-left) do I find this hypocrisy about their own belief in America’s preponderant place in the world; the neocons never have qualms about it and always allude to warships.

    Brooks’ fondness for military adventurism aside, he is right on another level. Wars do happen, and sometimes you don’t get to choose to wage them. Maybe there will be a war with China in this century, or with Russia. It is naive and utopian and so 1938 to believe that you can wish these things away because they are bad.

    • Diana March 18, 2014 at 8:01 pm | #

      Thank you for your interesting and good answer. However (and I answer as someone who has read both the Reactionary Mind and Fear, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly) I think Corey Robin is digging deeper than that. As in, Brooks is echoing something that is not American in the sense of American exceptionism, but American in the sense of the way America has taken over the flag of imperialism from Europe and is waving it in place of, say, the Kaiser, or the Holy Alliance.

      So while your thoughtful and intelligent response is much appreciated, it is too narrowly focused on the people who would have provided us with Romney’s foreign policy today re the Kremlin, had he been elected (thank God he was not) and not on the larger issue here.

      And I say this with full sympathy to your post. I have Canadian relatives; I always joke that I am descended from Tories who found the American Revolution too liberal, and fled to Canada accordingly. I have much sympathy for the Canadian position, and, in these days of really stupid conservative governments in much of the Anglosphere (Cameron and Abbott come to mind even before Harper) I agree with you. But that is not the point that Corey Robin is making.

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