Brooks versus Brooks

by Henry Farrell on October 5, 2007

I forgot to link to my “Bloggingheads”: with Paul Glastris of the _Washington Monthly_ a couple of days ago; one of the things that we talked about was our frustration with David Brooks’ _NYT_ columns. As Paul said, there’s a good Brooks who seems thoughtful and interesting, and a bad Brooks, who behaves, not to put too fine a point on it, like a party-line hack. To see this Jekyll-and-Hyde act in action, you can start with “today’s Brooks column”: on the failings of Republicanism.

Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds. … Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform … the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism … and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints. …To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the G.O.P. has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots.

This is all _obviously true_ – and speaks to the real insights that certain kinds of conservatism have to offer. But before we get overly congratulatory, we should go back to the distant era of June 2005 to see what David Brooks was “writing then”:

Karl Rove has his theories about what separates liberals from conservatives and I have mine. Mine include the differences between Jeffrey Sachs and George Bush. … The Bush administration has nearly doubled foreign aid, but it will not spend the amounts Sachs wants. The Bush folks, at least when it comes to Africa policy, have learned from centuries of conservative teaching – from Burke to Oakeshott to Hayek – to be skeptical of Sachsian grand plans. Conservatives emphasize that it is a fatal conceit to think we can understand complex societies, or rescue them from above with technocratic planning. …The Bush folks, like most conservatives, tend to emphasize nonmaterial causes of poverty: corrupt governments, perverse incentives, institutions that crush freedom. Conservatives appreciate the crooked timber of humanity – that human beings are not simply organisms within systems, but have minds and inclinations of their own that usually defy planners.

and so on. As I “noted then”:, the “at least when it comes to Africa policy” bit was quite weaselly given everything else that was going on at the time. Brooks-2005 gives an impression of George W. Bush and his administration as people who have learnt the lessons of conservative teaching, who are skeptical of grand plans etc, which can only be described as utterly misleading. It was as obvious then as it is now that the invasion of Iraq, the efforts to remake the Middle East from scratch etc were _not_ conservative in the Burkean sense. Yet Brooks passes over these grand initiatives in silence, telling us instead that what separates conservatives such as George W. Bush from liberals like Jeffrey Sachs is their attention to Burkean complexities. As Brooks-2007 tells us quite straightforwardly, the notion that George W. Bush and his administration are exemplars of Burkean prudence is an utter nonsense. I don’t think that there is any other reasonable explanation of Brooks’ reticence in 2005 (and indeed before and after) than a willingness to shut up for the cause. While it’s all _very nice_ that he’s coming out and saying these things now, it would obviously have been rather more _helpful_ if he had said it, say, back in 2004, when it might conceivably have helped make a difference.



Shelby 10.05.07 at 8:15 pm

Or maybe Brooks is just a slow learner.


Hidari 10.05.07 at 8:16 pm

Here’s a thought. Who are the Conservative anti-imperialists? After all, the British (and before them, other Europeans) capturing and conquering most of the world should be most unconservative…assuming that society is ‘an organism … and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.’

So Conservatives should be vociferously anti-imperialist yes? After all there is nothing more radical and ‘top down’ and anti-‘organic’ and ‘radical’ than conquering most of the world and imposing alien sociopolitical forms on it yes?

And yes I know about Adam Smith, and what (some) 18th century thinkers said. I mean after that. In the 19th and 20th centuries.


Hogan 10.05.07 at 8:41 pm

If you made a list of the reasons Bush doesn’t want to increase material aid to Africa, “too much respect for their complex web of local institutions” would not make the first hundred pages.


Dave Maier 10.05.07 at 8:52 pm

Hey, Brooks “appreciate[s] the crooked timber of humanity”! For as you know, of that material nothing straight was ever made. Damn straight (so to speak)!


John Quiggin 10.05.07 at 9:00 pm

I came on to CT just after reading Brooks, and my thought on his piece had been “now you tell us”. I’d forgotten the earlier round, though.


John Emerson 10.05.07 at 9:02 pm

First, Brooks was hired as a Republican spokesman. If he ever were to stray far from the Republican path, there would be screams of anger. Brooks knew this when he was hired; the Times was protecting its right flank. He actually got worse when he became the Times’s Republican rep, as compared to what he had been as an independent conservative.

Functionally he is only needed to shave off a smidgen of the Democrats’ moderate support by making the Republican position seem minimally palatable to a few educated non-winger independents. So he can wander off the reservaton now and then on specific issues (like “moderate” Republican Senators) as long as he shows up at crunch time, which he always does. When the chips are down he knows what to say.

Yes, I do believe that the paranoid narrative is the most reasonable in this case.


mq 10.05.07 at 9:14 pm

He actually got worse when he became the Times’s Republican rep, as compared to what he had been as an independent conservative.

Before he reached the Times, he was one of the rhetorical originators of this “national greatness” conservatism that was a precursor of the neocons. So I wouldn’t say he was good as an “independent”.

For him to be pretending to wake up to the Bush admin now is of course rather rich.


tom bach 10.05.07 at 9:39 pm

The good DB writes platitudes wrapped in banalities the bad DB spreads garlands of manure over the rusty lies with which Bush has burdened us.


jcasey 10.05.07 at 11:20 pm

Tom Bach is dead right. This line I found Hi-larious:

one of the things that we talked about was our frustration with David Brooks’ NYT columns.

Frustration would imply some kind of failed expectation. I can’t imagine what expectation one could have at this point of David Brooks. He is everything bad a pundit can be–sophistical, dishonest, and wrong.


central texas 10.06.07 at 1:45 am

“it would obviously have been rather more helpful if he had said it, say, back in 2004, when it might conceivably have helped make a difference.”

This seems to suppose that there is someone who gives a damn what Mr. Brooks says. I’ve met those who actually read MoDo, some who are willing to forget Frank Rich’s contributions to the 2000 election, but none who bother with this nattering clown. Clearly he will grace the Times until his dotage, as did Safire before him, but that is not an argument for a large readership.


geo 10.06.07 at 2:40 am

Henry: “This is all obviously true

You don’t mean it’s obviously true that, as Brooks says,”over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East”? I suspect you’d agree that the Republican Party cares no more about democracy in the Middle East than about democracy in the United States. It seems to me important to avoid passing up any opportunity to repudiate the suggestion that the Iraq invasion was anything but an unprincipled grab for strategic advantage.


P O'Neill 10.06.07 at 4:00 am

There’s also the business of his reference to Lincoln as a creedal Republican. He’s been down that road before —

In short, Republicans seem to have gone from believing that culture is nothing, to believing that culture is everything — from idealism to fatalism in the blink of an eye.

Recently, I’ve spilled a lot of ink stressing the importance of culture as we think about poverty, development and foreign affairs. But it’s dismaying to see so many Republicans veer overboard into a vulgarized version of Huntingtonist cultural determinism.

European conservatives from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott usefully remind us of the power of culture and tradition. But American conservatives — from Hamilton to Reagan — have never taken that path precisely because they believe in the power of the American creed, precisely because they have an Enlightenment faith in the power of reason to change minds.

Whether in Iraq or the barrio, history is not a prison. Culture shapes people, but cultures are changeable.

Fortunately, there is a great Republican leader who understood the balance between culture and creed: Abraham Lincoln. In this spring of Republican discontent, his approach and governing method will make a good subject for a future column.

He mustn’t see a Lincoln in the current pool of Republican presidential candidates.


david 10.06.07 at 4:38 am

He’s awful: dishonest and stupid. Your example of the good Brooks is classic dishonest stupidity — nobody who’s paying attention thinks Republicans are drawing from Burke, nobody who’s sentient thinks that Reagan was a Burkean, and the invocation of Burke (and Oakeshott) is tiresome and trite, as George Will demonstrated long ago, and Jonah Goldberg occasionally demonstrates these days.. Then we get to the bad Brooks.

There’s a dissertation worth of material on the reasons that white folks think David Brooks is reasonable and thoughtful.


rilkefan 10.06.07 at 6:39 am

Good Brooks is thoughtful and interesting – compared to what? I’ve never seen anything by him that wasn’t better than pleasant transparent hackery. Imagine what a Sebastian Holsclaw or even John Cole would do with such a platform.


rilkefan 10.06.07 at 6:42 am

… that was better … Ne jamais.


Roy Belmont 10.06.07 at 6:55 am

You don’t suppose Brooks’ slow hypocritical about-face has something to do with the American zeitgeist being increasingly seriously and suspiciously perturbed about the whole Iraq thing?
And if say he really was all up on the war as prosecuted but say not for the reasons given at the time, wouldn’t Brooks almost have to be saying what he’s saying? Given that Iraq-as-danger-to-the-world, even the world of its neighbors, is pretty much a done deal now, why waste time and resources opposing that perplexed and suspicious potential/actual readership? Agree with them, sort of.
The American people are past convincing the invasion of Iraq was a good thing.
The real political power he works with and for isn’t done yet by any means. As strange as it looks in hindsight the juggernaut of manipulation Brooks shills for has been virtually undefeated in achieving its surmisable goals, including “an unprincipled grab for strategic advantage” in both the US and the Middle East.
He’s “awful: dishonest and stupid” yet he represents the desired shape of public opinion according to the unprincipled holders of that strategic advantage. That makes his journalism significant at least, even if it remains execrable.
It’s definitely a worthwhile activity to expose and denounce his hypocrisy and dishonesty, but as John Emerson says above the paranoid narrative maps out more than reasonably now. It’s an hypocrisy in service to something, and as profoundly self-interested as David Brooks must be the purpose of his convenient and timely volte face is more aptly linked to something bigger than the Republicans – as too the Democrats illustrate they’ve learned, most of them, quite well.


Harold 10.06.07 at 7:40 am

There is no “good Brooks” only a cynical, self- and hoodlum-serving Brooks, derived not so much from Burke as from Mario Puzo.


ed 10.06.07 at 9:12 am

After The Times reopened their columnists’ vaults, I for some reason elected to bravely reread a bunch of Brooks’ old columns. I thought he was bad then, but he’s way worse with even a smidge of hindsight. He’s pretty much always been a poor man’s George F. Will, the guy who gives pseudo-intellectuals a bad name.

And speaking of Poor Man and Brooks and rereading shit, now would be as good a time as any to enjoy this.


Jacob Rus 10.06.07 at 9:40 am

On the PBS NewsHour (mp3 file) on Friday, I was surprised at the “Good Brooks”, bashing Bush’s recent torture rhetoric. His analysis was spot on, and he drove straight to the proper point, criticizing the Bush dual-standard, presenting one set of interrogation rules to the public, but using another internally.

I can’t figure out Brooks’s pattern; sometimes he roams into utter reasonableness, and other times acts as a blunt propaganda tool.


John Emerson 10.06.07 at 12:29 pm

A lot of conservatives are repositioning themselves in the expectation of (probably) a Democratic President and (possibly) a permanently weakened Republican Party. They were willing to ride the bandwagon, but not to go down with the ship. People have been saying “Bush is really a liberal” for about two years already.


Bobcat 10.06.07 at 12:37 pm

I think John Emerson has it exactly right: the bad Brooks emerged because of his hiring by the Times; if he actually thought like a Burkean conservative and (therefore) bashed the Bush administration relentlessly (see: Daniel Larison) he’d be tarred as a left-wing wacko by Rush, Hannity, et al. And then all the “conservative” Republicans would mock the Times for not even having one conservative. And for some reason, the Times actually cares about things like that. (At least, this is the impression I get after reading Chait’s book.)

Following mq’s comment, though (#7), the claim that he was ever a Burkean conservative is not obvious. He was, after all, a “national greatness” conservative before he was hired by the Times. Perhaps, though, “national greatness conservatism”, whatever that amounts to (Bill Kristol was another of its exponents) is theoretically compatible with Burkeanism.


manwithoutqualities 10.06.07 at 1:11 pm

Brookishness, v. To conflate two disciplines at a superficial level so that dinner party conversations could continue in the spurious belief that matters of moment were being discussed while the port was passed.

The journalistic imperative to constantly crank out “product” is in complicity with the dilletantish mind. It has to be admitted that Brooks is just one of many pundits (and politicians) across the ideological spectrum who have minimal conceptual grip on the political ideologies they wear as badges of honour.

It’s a sign of the times that one begins with policy and then one moves backwards trying to infer high-level principles. Brooks so easily invokes the titans “Burke to Oakeshott to Hayek” in support of a conservative idiom. These thinkers are conservative in a highly qualified and supposedly paradoxical sense: they are conservative insofar as they are defenders of liberality.
Conservatism denotes a diverse range of ideas that are:

a) historically specific;

b) indexical, and;
c) generic

a) Conservatism can be feudal, aristocratic, agrarian, ecclesiastical, papalist, monarchist, authoritarian – only tenuously united their reaction to the French Revolution.

b) Indexical conservatism means that conservatism can be relative to a context – in this sense one could be a conservative in the former Soviet Union by virtue of one wishing to preserve an existing order albeit communist.

c) Generic conservatism turns on five often overlapping features:

– scepticism, the rejection of the politics of ideals, limited government, reliance on tradition, and an organic view of the individual’s relationship to society.

In light of a-c, conservatism (as all ideologies) will not be amenable to pinning down through necessary and sufficient conditions. Furthermore, this is complicated in that there is a lot more fluidity between ideologies than is commonly acknowledged.


John Emerson 10.06.07 at 2:00 pm

I think that the problem about Brooks is that he’s obviously capable of much better stuff. However, the explanation is not favorable to Brooks. I think that he’s motivated by a combination of corruption, opportunism, conventionality, and ingrained petty resentment of liberals and Democrats. In some alternative universe there probably exists an equally conservative Brooks with all of Brooks’s good qualities, but without the corruption, resentment, etc.

But you know, an alternate universe. Like the one in which entropy is reversed and people grow younger every day.


airth10 10.06.07 at 2:21 pm

Brooks is just a babbling brook.

Like Heraclitus said, in a tortured way, brooks/rivers always contradict themselves. David Brooks is living up to this spirit, torturing us with each utterance he makes.


theod 10.06.07 at 3:18 pm

Brooks is just another hired hack in the Republican Noise Machine, for sale to the highest bidder at any point in time, yet clever enough to be in the NYT pantheon. He now recognizes that ‘change is gonna come’ so he is merely adjusting his place in line. Propaganda pays better than any semblance to the truth, so his shameless inconsistency is no vice in his mind.


Matt 10.06.07 at 3:42 pm

Have you ever _really_ learned something from Brooks, Henry? I haven’t read him much in a long time, but that’s because when I did I found him, at the best, to be a mix of banality and bullshit. So, I don’t read him anymore. If someone asks, “did you read David Brooks?” I replay, “why would I want to? He never makes you smarter and often is telling a lie of some sort.” It seems to me that the best thing one can do is not so much try to reply to his lies (since he pretty clearly doesn’t care about truth) but rather to convince people that he’s just not worth reading. The best way to do that is to not read him and explain to others why not.


mq 10.06.07 at 4:05 pm

a poor man’s George F. Will, the guy who gives pseudo-intellectuals a bad name.

a mix of banality and bullshit.

A lot of conservatives are repositioning themselves in the expectation of (probably) a Democratic President and (possibly) a permanently weakened Republican Party.

This is a good thread. Hittin’ the nail on the head.


Patrick 10.06.07 at 4:26 pm

When I read Brooks’s column (online), I googled “Brooks” and “Iraq” and “2003” and came up with a column that suggested that if we stayed the course in Iraq, democracy would flourish, unite the country and remake the Middle East. Oh, and, as they say, a pony.

I like this one from November 4, 2003 because it also has a Friedman unit in it:

Somehow, over the next six months, until the Iraqis are capable of their own defense, the Bush administration is going to have to remind us again and again that Iraq is the Battle of Midway in the war on terror, the crucial turning point where either we will crush the terrorists’ spirit or they will crush ours.
The president will have to remind us that we live in a fallen world, that we have to take morally hazardous action if we are to defeat the killers who confront us. It is our responsibility to not walk away. It is our responsibility to recognize the dark realities of human nature, while still preserving our idealistic faith in a better Middle East.

Good versus evil, with a identifiable turning point. How Burkean. I went to write a letter to the editor, and then went, “Oh, fuck it.”


jcasey 10.06.07 at 5:20 pm

Here are two golden passages from David Brooks:

Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

Only Tolstoy? And this during the 2004 election:

The coming weeks will be so tough because the essential contest — of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start — will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing.

John Kerry apparently was the “fraud with a manly bearing.”


ed 10.06.07 at 6:52 pm

A friendly reminder from that Poor Man piece, “The Continuing Declilne of David Brooks: An Amateur Anthropologist’s Analysis,” cited above:

What you probably didn’t realize is that this post is very likely anti-Semitic, at least judging by the rather broadened definition offered up by Brooks in his latest piece in the Times “Neo-Conservatives Don’t Exist, And/Or Are A Code Word For ‘The Jews’”. Due to the yeoman’s work done by Bob Somerby, Josh Marshall, and many, many, others, I am spared the task of having to explain why this is a stupid thing to say. This is just as well, as anyone who doesn’t know this without being told is probably not really worth talking to…
For in the final analysis, the sad decline of David Brooks is society’s fault – yours and mine – for tolerating this nonsense for all this time. Because when you come right down to it, we wrote that George W. Bush is “too honest”, that it’s a good thing we didn’t plan for the aftermath of the war, and we have just accused ourselves of anti-Semitism for not agreeing with Dick Cheney or something.

There’s a bunch of links in there too. If you want to read something that is as keenly relevant and precient now as it was then (i.e., the precise opposite of Brooks’ dogshit), then check it out.


Scroop Moth 10.06.07 at 9:53 pm

Brooks forgave conservatives as soon as he scolded them for their insults against temperamental conservatism by trotting out the assertion that “America is a creedal nation.” That is so depressing. As a temperamental optimist, I’ve got to think of wingnuttery as accidental. America used to be a pragmatic nation, right?


Tom Doyle 10.07.07 at 1:52 am

manwithoutqualities wrote:

Brookishness, v. To conflate two disciplines at a superficial level so that dinner party conversations could continue in the spurious belief that matters of moment were being discussed while the port was passed.

With all due respect:

1. Shouldn’t the spelling be “Brooksishness?”

2. Isn’t “Brook[s]ishness” a noun, rather than a verb?

A. Brooks (proper noun)
B. Brooksish (adjective; (e.g.) resembling or characteristic of Brooks)
C. Brooksishness (noun; (e.g.) the state or quality of being Brooksish)

Examples: fool, foolish, foolishness; child, childish, childishness.

If these observations are correct, a verb is needed to fit your definition.

Your comment is excellent, in my view.


manwithoutqualities 10.07.07 at 12:51 pm

Thanks Tom. The “s” was dropped as it sounded as if uttered by someone who had one too many glasses of port.


Martin Wisse 10.07.07 at 1:24 pm

If you think that first exceprt was good Brooks, obviously true even, boy does my respect for you drop. It has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that’s going now, it sounds smart but is semantically meaningless and all it does is fill space. It’s a distraction from what really mattters.


goatchowder 10.07.07 at 10:00 pm

John Cole knocks this one out of the park. It’s nothing to do with Burke. It’s do do with mouth-breathing morons having taken over the “GOP”:

“I will vote for Democrats and little L libertarians and isolationists until the crazy people aren’t running the GOP. The threat of higher taxes in the short term isn’t enough to keep me from voting out crazy people and voting for sane people with whom I merely disagree regarding policy. Hillarycare doesn’t scare me as much as Frank Gaffney having a line to the person with the nuclear football or Dobson and company crafting domestic policy.”


nick s 10.08.07 at 5:28 am

Harry Frankfurt’s book could have been titled On Brookshit.


manwithoutqualities 10.09.07 at 9:49 pm

Nick, you’ve coined a classic! To Brookshit – I love it.

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