The Best They Have To Offer
The institutionalists have some news: this world and this system that benefit them are just fine. It's your perception of reality that is the problem.
Couple of notes before we get going: this Sunday, January 15th, at 8pm eastern will be the 2023 premiere of the Bourbon Talk Political Livestream Q&A. Watch here and respond to this post or email me to get your questions in.
Also, this coming Tuesday is the release of my new book THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF POWER, PARANOIA, AND THE COMING CRISIS. Next week I’ll have some exclusive content here on DISPATCHES FROM A COLLAPSING STATE for subscribers, including a sneak peek at the book, some commentary on the writing process, as well as some frank discussion from me regarding the book, its release, and what I want to do moving forward to act on this information. This book was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career and I just can’t wait for you to read it.
Possibly the name and the individual who most comes to mind when you hear the word “mainstream.” Brooks is a headshakingly powerful and influential columnist and personality despite a track record of wrong opinions and public failings. This is the person who claimed American troops would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, after all, a mistake that was not only embarassing but contributed to an environment that led to an illegal war, dangerous destabilization, untold numbers of death, and arguably the decline of the American Empire.
As of late, Brooks has been stumbling a bit. That decline, to which he contributed to, has left him rather befuddled. His articles and columns have largely felt like pointless throat-clearing and a whole lot of shrugging. He has been paid an outrageous sum of money - he is reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars, for the record - to tell everyone who reads the defining newspaper of the country that he really has no idea what’s going on.
Well, worry not. Because Brooks is back and it seems he’s found his answer in his recent, delightlyfully insulting Atlantic article “Despite Everything You Think You Know, America is On the Right Track.”
And the good news is that there is no problem.
Okay, that’s not correct or fair.
There is most definitely a problem. And it’s you.
Before we dive in, I must note that Brooks is famous and wealthy for a reason. He is the voice of the liberal establishment, which is quite different from what you have been told “liberal” is supposed to mean. In this regard, his work is about moving the project of capitalism and neoliberalism forward without much in the way of interruption or challenge. The tack he has chosen here is to that end.
And it’s a familiar one. We are living in the best time period in the history of the world. Things have “never been better,” and so we should probably just shut up and thank our lucky stars we weren’t born during feudalism and wedded to a lord or drafted into a brutal and bloody war over god knows what.
The media, which Brooks is singling out as the organ that got us to this wayward state, is programmed for “if it bleeds it leads” content, meaning we are being fed ugliness and pessimism like a bunch of good little piggies, and that has naturally warped our perception of the world.
As opposed to, I don’t know, an actual and accurate feeling that things are not working and are getting worse almost by the day.
Here Brooks almost makes a point. The angry Republican Party does contain wealthy and affluent white people. And they do believe the country is on the verge of destruction. But it isn’t because Tucker Carlson tells them as much. In fact, if Carlson wasn’t peddling what they already believe and feel back to them, he wouldn’t have the influence he does. They enter into that relationship already believing these things, it just so happens that Carlson (more on this in future articles) is quite good at loading them up and pointing in certain directions.
But what you’ll find in this article is that the issue of race is skirted around almost completely, and class, not surprisingly, is relegated to a lecturing weapon to shame us into feeling guilty for feeling cynical. At no point does Brooks address white supremacy as a motivating factor, changing demographics and economics as flashpoints, or the very real, very upsetting feeling that invisible forces that are programmed and controlled by people and algorithms we don’t know or understand control our fates.
And, you’ll notice, it’s never asked if the relationship between the unhappy masses and their consumption of media is because they’re unhappy or if the media they’re consuming makes them unhappy.
Because that question destroys any semblance of authority.
Jumping forward, Brooks compares our moment to the 1890s as a means of saying that American history is full of these moments of pessimism. Which, you can’t blame him. It’s true. To understand who we are and how we’ve arrived here, you honestly have to have more context and information than we’re often given.
It’s a good exercise.
But people like Brooks do this lazily. The backbone of the argument they make is that America is special. That it has always been special. That it’s more than a made-up country with made-up traditions and made-up character. It had to be something inherent in America and Americans that got us here, which is literally nothing more than a fairytale that allows Brooks and others to shine their own shoes and sleep better at night.
If we were to actually do this, to go back to the 1890s and think about the pessimism of that moment, we would have to have a conversation about what happened following that moment. In order for corporations and robber barons to be put in their place, people had to form progressive clubs and movements. The government had to step in and represent those citizens as they attacked monopolies and trusts. Then, down the road, you reach World War I and a total capitalist apocalypse that caused untold suffering and eventually led to World War II. And that’s not even addressing the horrors of eugenics, the completely barbarous and awful mistreatment of people of color, women, and the individual experience of oppression and suffering.
In other words, it is conventional history that leaves out all the particulars in order to tell another story.
A story that has no purpose beyond telling you to sit down, shut up, and quit complaining.
It needs said quickly that Brooks is far from original. This argument is the one that is continually marched out to try and defend the status quo. You have phones, TVs, streaming channels, all these dazzling toys and luxuries. Would you rather not have them? How could you possibly say things aren’t getting better?
This is based in an age-old argument I spent a surprising amount of time wrestling with in my research for THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM. It’s the myth of progress, or rather, the lie that everything we have is because “Western Civilization” prevailed. Any other arrangement, any other reality, any other world that doesn’t look like this one, that would not have featured the suffering of people of color, indigenous populations, women, the poor, would have been absolutely terrible and devoid of the gadgets and goods we all sort of enjoy.
And, for the record, Brooks’s argument here isn’t for you. It’s not really telling you anything. Because that’s not what these articles are about. They are signals and discussions among the middle and upper classes - the professional managerial class and the leading thinkers and leaders - and it’s all gussied up to traffic the same idea: you’re not the problem. It’s the masses who won’t just enjoy their toys and leave you alone.
But that doesn’t mean the future isn’t going to be brighter than the present, or that America is in decline. The pessimists miss an underlying truth - a society can get a lot wrong if it gets the big thing right. And that big thing is this: If a society is good at unlocking creativity, at nurturing the abilities of its people, then its ills can be surmounted
Ah. Here we go. Some more of this grade-a bullshit we’ve all come to expect. Like all of these screeds it all comes down to businesses just getting to do what they need to do. This is another part of the myth of progress: the invention that is going to solve our problems, that is going to deal with all of our pressing issues, is being worked on in a place you don’t know about by people you don’t know and if you’ll just hang on, if you’ll just let this play out, if you’ll just let all this exploitation and suffering get worse, it’ll pay off. Promise.
This has never been true and it has been a lie that’s been peddled since there was a “Western Civilization.” But what’s more, Brooks is completely barreling past so much here. Waiting on this innovation doesn’t even get into the human suffering and oppression that’s taking place. He doesn’t even begin to get into that because it doesn’t matter. All that does matter is that this whole ballgame keeps getting played the exact same way.
But also, this country doesn’t nurture the abilities of its people. That would be a working meritocracy, which it isn’t. This is a captured state that incubates the wealthy and powerful from the moment they draw their first breath and uses captured laws and captured economics to make sure they continue to get richer and richer despite their mistakes. This is society that actively, and by intention, hampers creativity by the underclasses because it might threaten the wealth classes.
Oh. For the love of god.
I have read a lot of these bullshit articles and I have to tell you, this is some lazy and insipid reasoning. And even if we were to treat it as serious thought - which it isn’t - and even if we don’t get caught up in the fact that Brooks makes MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to crap this out - and he does - let’s just point out for a second that this idea is ridiculous if you remember that Americans are working longer and being exploited more because of quiet means like the Internet and expectations to “go above and beyond.”
David. If you read this. Part of the problem is that not everyone is like you. They’re not paid millions to just sit down and post articles that are only published because they have DAVID BROOKS in the byline. Their existences are not defined by an overwhelming amount of free time and space to pontificate and consider.
Those luxuries? Those are a result of toil. Of other people’s suffering and work. Most people don’t have time, much less time to be creative, which requires inspiration and energy and space. Most people are just trying to live.
And here we come to the crux of it all.
Donald Trump was the problem. The totality of the problem. And the Republican Party is in the middle of a meltdown brought on by him. But we’re figuring it out. And we’re moving forward. Because the economy is functioning. And that’s the matter here. That we still allow businesses to continue unabated and nothing structural needs to change, Trump or otherwise, because the system, as it is tuned, works.
We just need to reconsider our frustration. We need to put our suffering and discontent into David Brooks’s lens. From his luxury abode to his luxury job to his luxury habits to his luxury relationships. It looks good from there. The Big Picture. The Big Purpose. Which is to keep David Brooks’s life humming along just as it should.
You’ll notice something small in here. Insignificant, really.
“People and movements rise up, and things change.”
A throwaway line in a throwaway column full of throwaway ideas. I’m sure something will happen. There’s no specificity. No energy. Because of course there isn’t. Brooks isn’t particularly concerned with how things change or what they become as long as the central core of this world continues uninterrupted.
And he is right. People and movements do rise up. And things do change. And I remain hopelessly optimistic that things are about to change for the better. But it’s because the people are going to do something about it. Not the businesses. Not the “innovators” that Brooks turns to like a religious man turning to his relics. This worldview and this mindset is as tied to the problem as anything, and it discounts the people, their experiences, and the actual conditions that led us to this point.
Luckily, it is all so transparent and, luckily, it is all falling apart.
Thank you for laying this out. Articles like his always make me queasy, in a way I can't put my finger on. But this nails on the head: they want you to think there's no other way.
I often wonder: does David Brooks get his marching orders from somewhere? Or did he rise to the top because he's uniquely good at sensing how the powerful feel & translating it into columns? These themes and ideas parroted around think tanks and columnists and Big Thinkers don't happen spontaneously. So how does it happen?
I completely agree about David Brooks. He has become a maddening waste of time.