When David Brooks Knows He May Not Know Whereof He Speaks

David Brooks’ letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates is making the rounds. What I was most struck by is how nervous, how preemptively defensive and apologetic, Brooks is. For once, this preternaturally self-confident pundit has been forced to confront the possibility that he may not know whereof he speaks.

Listen to this:

I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

Or this:

If I do have standing, I find the….” [That if I have standing!]

Or this:

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change.

What to make of it? Unsuccessful attempts to disarm his critics? Maybe.

Or maybe we should pay more attention to that tone of  aggrieved and bitchy petulance which accompanies these qualifiers: “I suppose…Is my job just…is just silence…” That “just” gives the game away.

In the face of a black man reasoning his way to freedom, Brooks is rendered powerless, struck dumb (even by Brooks’ literary standards, his critique sounds incredibly flat, dispirited; he knows he’s against Coates, but he just can’t summon the necessary rhetorical fire to oppose him).

Not unlike that Guatemalan archbishop who complained about leftist land reformers in 1954 that they sent local peasants “gifted with facility with words” to the capital, where they were given opportunities “to speak in public.”


  1. zenner41 July 17, 2015 at 10:42 pm | #

    I’ve been struck by the reactions to Coates’ book (which I think is great) I’ve run across on the intertubes. A great many are what you’d expect–varying degrees of hostility, clearly masking white folks’ bad consciences: “I’m not guilty–it was those slaveholders back in the 19th century!” “Hey, we elected Obama, so why is he still bellyaching?” “Anger never solves anything. Why doesn’t he look on the bright side and give us credit for the progress we’ve made?” and so on. Not listening to a word he writes. (Presumably most if not all of them haven’t read the book at all.) It remains to be seen whether the book has a net positive effect, but I hope it will.

  2. Bill Michtom July 18, 2015 at 4:40 am | #

    Brooks arrogance and devotion to purposeful misunderstanding is always impressive.

    He says (hopefully) “In what is bound to be the most quoted passage from the book, you write that you watched the smoldering towers of 9/11 with a cold heart.” That he focuses on a phrase that will be sure to agitate the 9/11-as-ultimate-evil believers is telling. Sweet-talking hate-mongering is Brooks’ speciality.

    “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree?” Brooks displays his privilege when he puts on his socks or brushes his teeth. He is a walking monument to white privilege. Hence, he, even among other white people, has no “standing to respond,” but he doesn’t let that stop him, as he has the highly-paid, powerful NY Times platform to do just that.

    He goes on, “I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.” If Coates makes this case, Brooks hasn’t shown it, merely claimed it.

    And on, “The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past.” The so-called American dream, as Coates has been pointing out for years, explicitly excludes African Americans. See The Case for Reparations, Mr. Brooks.

    He claims the American dream “has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements,” but what unleashes those things, as it does everywhere, is oppression and the human desire to live full lives despite it. And, as Coates writes, that oppression is an integral part of United States history.

    I normally ignore Brooks because he propagates lies and excuses as a profession, but seeing that he was trying to take on Coates, I felt obligated to see what he did.

    Same w(h)ine, different bottle.

    • Michael Brown July 24, 2015 at 4:32 pm | #

      Thank you for confirming my own reading of those very same sentences, and expressing it better than I could. I really think Brooks owes us all an honest autobiography, maybe entitled “The Art of the Weasel”.

  3. Kray July 18, 2015 at 12:14 pm | #

    “Every conscientious American should read this book which distorts American History.”

    • brunssd July 25, 2015 at 8:34 am | #

      Exactly. Hoist with his own weasel-word petard.

  4. jimbales July 18, 2015 at 1:28 pm | #

    Brooks writes to Coates: “By dissolving the [American] dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.”

    In other words, Brooks accepts the fact that “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage” as the cost of preserving his dream of a better future.

    Clearly Brooks is unwilling to pay the cost required to actually achieve a better future.

    Jim Bales

  5. Nate Roberts July 18, 2015 at 1:50 pm | #
  6. brucedesertrat July 18, 2015 at 7:55 pm | #

    BooMan nailed it perfectly: Brooks is arguing that ‘whiteness’ is attainable for Coates because Browses ancestors successfully became ‘white’ http://www.boomantribune.com/story/2015/7/17/143543/041

    • Dan Knauss July 21, 2015 at 1:10 pm | #

      BooMan doesn’t say that’s what Brooks is arguing, and he isn’t. Brooks comes very close to saying what was possible for him is not possible for Coates. But then Brooks shifts into that long weird, thinly veiled attack where he rejects Coates’ view of a structurally unjust, racist, zero-sum system as an extreme exaggeration, an overly emotional construct of a traumatized mind, and something Coates cannot “literally” believe.

      That is what’s most interesting about this disingenuous “letter.” Brooks seems to admit the game is rigged against Coates and in Brooks’ own favor, but his response to this is to chide Coates for being a downer with his “excessive realism” raining on the American Dream parade. Jiminy Cricket “optimism” is the only kind of solidarity Brooks can imagine having with Coates; apparently it is the main doctrine of America’s “secular faith,” and Brooks is calling out Coates for his apostasy. Right after declaring that every evil in American history is canceled by another good, Brooks warns that Coates’ negativity may be more damaging than Jefferson Davis by “trap[ping] generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.”

      Reminds me of Babbit’s crisis of faith: Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.” Brooks wants to avoid that, and listening to Coates is not helping.

  7. brucedesertrat July 18, 2015 at 7:56 pm | #

    Damn you autocorrect! “Brookses” not “Browses”….

  8. nnyhav July 18, 2015 at 8:27 pm | #
  9. zenner41 July 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm | #

    Brooks is a puzzle to me because, as a fellow U of Chicago alumnus, I just can’t understand how he could have not learned a damned thing there. It’s a very rigorous school; you can’t graduate without having learned at least a bit. But maybe he’s forgotten everything he learned. At any rate, he doesn’t seem to understand a thing about the world around him; he just keeps smiling in his own little world, like a kid playing in the bathtub with his rubber ducky.

    • Snarki, child of Loki July 22, 2015 at 4:32 pm | #

      Oh, I think that Brooks has learned rather a lot. About how to peddle sugar-coated disingenuous lies in service to his GOP masters, that is. It seems to be quite the lucrative career, although it *does* require flushing things like “honesty” and “ethics” down the toilet.

    • Bill Wolfe (@WolfeNotes) August 3, 2015 at 9:11 pm | #

      University of Chicago is the home of market fundamentalism, Neoliberal economics and some very awful philosophy and history and law. It’s a right wing hothouse. Brooks learned a lot there.

      • zenner41 August 5, 2015 at 11:57 pm | #

        If he went to the business school, you’re right. I never had any dealings with them; I was an undergrad. If he took any courses outside the business school he would have learned something quite different, because the business school is quite atypical of the general politics of the faculty and students. At least when I was there, there were plenty of lefties.

  10. robert anderson July 21, 2015 at 2:11 am | #

    As someone who by the “dominant” culture is considered black, I find your reading of Brooks to be highly problematic. First off what do you mean by the statement that Coates is “reasoning his way to freedom”? This presupposes that he was not free to begin with and now through text has somehow assumed the same kind of privilege he appears to be arguing against. Coates assertions are part of a much larger discursive tradition that can be traced through Washington, Dunbar and DuBois. If he is “reasoning his way to freedom” he is going over ground that has been covered before him. To be honest I by and large agree with Brooks. Coates tropologizes himself synecdochally. His discursive position somehow speaks for all of “us” (whatever that means). He speaks of the black body being inscribed upon when in fact a majority of millenials inscribe themselves (hence tatoos).
    But I digress. Coates’ view of social reality seems quite disingenuous. He pontificates from the academy to the academy and somehow sees himself as making a difference.
    I would for a moment like to return to the notion of inscribing on the body which Coates has blantantly taken from feminist critical theory. There, however, there is a complete and total taking which (I believe) has not occurred in racial politics. The black body is inscribed true but also self inscribed. No one tells black youth to wear their pants significantly below the waist line (thank God my son has out grown it). And no one has told them to romanticize the thug in a discursive tradition that has existed since Tupac Shakur. This is not to by any means defend police action but the fact is law enforcement officers who encounter youth who buy into this signifying structure are placed in a situation where they act out of paranoia. And what are we to make of “wiggas” white youth who have been brought up in and subscribe to hip hop culture. Their lives can not be dismissed as cultural appropriation as this is the only culture they know. Coates speaks from a world of dualities where everything is black or white, inscribed or not inscribed, self or other. But social reality is not that simple. Unless Coates keeps his son under lock and key at some point he will date outside of his race. When he does so will he be being inscribed upon?
    Your approach to Brooks seems entirely predicated upon synecdochal evidence — one of the inherent flaws of postmodernism. You selectively pick and choose the passages that indicate a certain tentativeness in his discussion. What do you expect when he has fear of being silenced? What do you expect when he knows the now hegemonic structure of Political Correctness will not allow him to speak? You completely ignore the last two paragraphs of the essay which promotes a vision which I, as a metamodernist, completely agree. Oppositionalities will always exists but the ideals of American culture will always delimit the social. I see no need to write a letter (or a book for profit) to my son. I am black/white, he is black/white/latino. I leave it to him to make of the social what he will with the hope, no believe in a future where constructive rather than confrontative cultural conversations can occur.

  11. Thomas Leo Dumm July 21, 2015 at 8:51 am | #

    What is “excessive realism,” by the way?

    • Snarki, child of Loki July 22, 2015 at 4:33 pm | #

      What is “excessive realism,” by the way?

      Making Brooksie squirm by examining his white privilege under a bright, harsh light?

  12. Ryan Hammond September 2, 2015 at 6:41 pm | #

    If you want to get an overt condemnation of Coates, you can’t go to a libertarian like David Brooks. For that you need a full-on paleoconservative like Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, or Jack Ross. Example:

    “Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about the current moment is that a liberal left emphasizing economic issues and striving to speak to the whole country would not have to accommodate itself to social conservatism as it would have a generation ago; certainly not in an era when there are safe majorities in favor of same-sex marriage and ending the drug war as part of a larger program of criminal justice reform. And yet it is also marked by a liberal pundit class that casts every domestic policy challenge as of a piece with the most violent years of the civil rights struggle, and praising as our leading public intellectual the retrograde black nationalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who openly condemns the legacy of the civil rights movement that inspired Bernie Sanders to become a long-distance runner for social justice.”


    • Dan Knauss September 3, 2015 at 2:23 pm | #

      Coulter counts as paleo? Who is Ross? This seems pretty mild for a paleo retort, but my idea of paleocon is a post-WWII American conservative who somehow manages to retrieve a Nazi-like racism from his appreciation of high culture and tradition, regarded from a very high Protestant or Catholic perspective. Buckley represented the Yankee version and Sam Francis the less subtle Southern version in its final stages of life. (The dark racist heart of the Southern Agrarians was apparent even before the wars to G.K. Chesterton.) In the US, appeals to Christianity and tradition have invariably carried water for racists.

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