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Break out the fancy ham

Sure, David Brooks can come here, but why?

Photo: David Brooks sits at a table at a conference in 2019. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Who in 2021 is asking to hear from David Brooks? 

OK, don’t answer that. In-person spots for his October 27 talk at the Union Theater are sold out. The better question might be: Why is UW-Madison’s Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, overall a place where serious people do valuable work, interested in hosting an event with someone who can’t seem to maintain credibility outside the hothouse of The New York Times’ opinion section? 

When a group like the campus fascists of YAF put on an event like last week’s comical visit from Ted Cruz, you can at the very least see the point. No one actually likes or values the soup-hoarding Senator from Texas, and the event itself seemed to be less of a focus than the preceding, manufactured flip-out over campus mask rules. (Spoiler alert: UW-Madison has mask rules, and not everyone is following them.) This open trolling can be placed within a broader political strategy that makes sense in the moment: Right-wingers want to keep using Madison as a backdrop for their bullshit victim complex, as a way of justifying their ongoing purge of rights and people they consider inconvenient. In short, they’re bringing speakers like Cruz or Ben Shapiro or whoever to rub your face in it.

With Brooks, the agenda isn’t full-on inflammatory or vile, but it also isn’t about much of anything else. To his credit, he can change his mind about things, for better and for worse. Even as Times columnists go, he’s not the worst about humiliating himself or thinking way too highly of himself. He’s just sort of a bumbling, coddled goober who found himself trapped in the life of a public intellectual one day and has dutifully played along ever since. Too many people in media, politics, and the academic world keep treating him like he’s interesting, as if they don’t want to admit they made a mistake at some point. Some liberals fetishize him because they are obsessed with the idea that there are right-wingers out there that we can reason with, that such figures at least give us a handhold to pull the country back from the brink. I don’t know what more they need to see to convince them that this is a false hope.

Brooks has become synonymous with the figure of the doddering, out-of-touch columnist who enjoys a comfortable berth and squanders it on half-assed arguments. He once wrote a column based on the premise that poor people are afraid of fancy Italian ham, and that this of all things was a fault line in America’s class divide. (He also once framed a whole piece around fancy gelato flavors so… ok, whatever.) Maybe Twitter isn’t real life, but when Brooks isn’t practically begging to be Twitter’s main punching bag for the day, his opinions just aren’t that interesting. 

Perhaps Brooks’ greatest weakness is how much he loves to scold from the center, and in so doing he feeds a bogus discourse about “cultural Marxism” and the perils of wokeness. Even as Brooks warms up to very-not-conservative positions like massive public spending proposals, he leaves you with the impression that left and right present equal threats in this country. 

It’s also kind of ridiculous for UW to pick Brooks as a Public Affairs Journalist in Residence. The program has a history of much better choices, including Jamelle Bouie, now a load-bearing presence among Times opinion columnists. The world is full of talented people who have so much more to offer the field and who have never enjoyed the cushy opportunities afforded to Brooks. They will be tasked with reinventing a deeply troubled industry, if they can survive it. They’ll never get to dwell in a silly la-la land padded with gimmicky constructs like Bobos and the Composure Class and Patio Man. Brooks’ career is a luxurious anomaly that doesn’t help us find the way forward for journalism or public affairs in general. 

UW-Madison’s journalism school also has its own Center on Journalism Ethics, so it’s a bit galling for the school to host a writer who failed to disclose conflicts of interest in holding a paid position at the Facebook-funded Aspen Institute. The bio on the La Follette site promoting the event notes his position at the institute, but not this episode. Brooks has also flat-out shilled for Facebook despite its toxic role in media, political discourse, and human life in general. After these revelations, the Times had to go back and add belated disclosures to at least six of Brooks’ columns, Columbia Journalism Review‘s Tim Schwab found. There are plenty of first-year journalism students who could easily explain to you why this is a problem, and who would expect to get fired if they behaved so carelessly.

At times one almost feels sorry for Brooks, a creature of ever-retracting moderate conservatism caught between a fully authoritarian Republican Party on the right, a crumbly Democratic Party in the center, and an energized left that has no patience remaining for any of it. A “conservative intellectual” who will not bend endlessly to provide cover for white minority rule is an almost untenable paradox. Brooks is a descendant of William F. Buckley, inheriting the absurd air of puffed-up erudition but not the same level of irradiated commitment to post-Civil Rights-era backlash. He may not fully understand the game that he was brought up to play.

You wouldn’t accuse Brooks of being a dangerous thinker. The danger is in the complacency he encourages, an abiding faith that we can work through our current crises simply by practicing politics as usual and reaching politely across the aisle. If you practice a David Brooks style of politics in 2021, you are a sitting duck. That reflects as badly on the state of American society as it does on Brooks, but at this point it’s irresponsible to overlook the utter brokenness of our political landscape.

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