We Know Less Than We Think We Do: Why David Brooks Is Not a Pariah But a Harbinger of Hope

August 13, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 23 13 min read

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“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…We cannot be free until they are free.”

–James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew James”

As of this writing, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is in its third day under a state of emergency, following protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the police shooting that injured 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. In radio interviews, Ferguson residents expressed unsurprising frustration and fatigue: “I’m fed up with it. I’m tired of it;” “When it’s all over with and said and done, we still have to live here.” Referring to the chaos that breaks out when citizens try to congregate peacefully, one man said, “I think next year, you’re going to see the exact same thing. And that’s sad.”

People who know me will tell you I’m not an optimist. The glass is usually half empty; the worst case scenario looms; I don’t hold my breath. At this moment, it’s particularly easy to feel this way — helpless, pessimistic — about race in America.

Which is why I am surprised to find myself rooting for — eagerly awaiting — something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”

It’s been a month since Brooks wrote, in a direct address to Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi 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.

Brooks’s column, along with the voluminous online indignance that ensued, disturbed me; but I am more essayist than journalist by temperament, and so my response has been slow to form, relative to the news cycle. I am tempted to conclude, It’s too late, that ship has sailed (helplessness, pessimism). But then I think: “when it’s all overwith and said and done, we still have to live here.”

In other words, a plea for a mea culpa from Brooks is not just about words published on July 17; it’s also about something persistent and fundamental in how non-black people, conservative and liberal alike — who don’t have to live in Ferguson, when it’s all said and done — engage with black lives, and black deaths, in America.

I am a left-of-left liberal who also happens to respect David Brooks’s pragmatism, his intellectual agility, and his clarity and economy as a writer. I appreciate his presence on NPR and PBS. I understand why liberal news outlets foster Brooks’s ubiquity: for all his alleged smugness, he praises and critiques policies and politicians equally on both the Left and the Right. Where he sometimes oversimplifies ideas, he eschews oversimplification of partisan packaging. I disagree with him frequently, but his commentaries don’t make me wince or shout. A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria.

This summer, in succession and by coincidence, I read both Brooks’s collective biography The Road to Character and Coates’s epistolary essay Between the World and Me. I found both compelling. The day after I finished reading the latter, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” was published.

Between the World and Me — a 150-page essay-letter from Coates to his teenage son, which describes a self-deluding white America that has relied, is relying, and will continue to rely on “defiling and plunder,” on “breaking[ing] the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation” for its peace and prosperity — has earned Coates an endorsement from Toni Morrison as this generation’s James Baldwin.

Brooks responded to the book with considered duplicity — the ultimate effect of which was to demonstrate precisely what drives Coates to conclude that

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct…sometimes it is insidious…

and to impress upon his son Samori that

my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic — an orc, troll, or gorgon.

Coates also invokes Solzhenitsyn — “’To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law’” — and then applies these words to the myth of the American Dream. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates reiterates — through memory, historical survey, recaps of police killings of African Americans — that the Dream is a myth because it is available only to “Dreamers,” i.e. those who (knowingly or not) buy into the White “syndicate.”

This is the foundation of the Dream — its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.

(This last aside — in case it’s not clear out of context — is Coates’s impersonation of a Dreamer.)

Brooks’s rebuttal focuses too on the American Dream, which he is eager to defend.

I think you distort American history…Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

In other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.

As preamble to his hard pivot toward refutation, Brooks approaches then dismisses the crucial act of listening-and-hearing, with a rhetorical structure that is ever the enemy of authentic conciliation: I verb x, but… We’ve all been in these arguments with our loved ones: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being unreasonable. I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was right and you were wrong. 

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…

Brooks, of course, does not have to do any such thing.

But he does ask. And what’s more, his questions are disingenuous: “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?” The questions are disingenuous because he has already answered them for himself (no, no, yes), as evidenced by the publication of the column. The divestment of power by asking before negating is mere performance.

All this said, I do not wish nor intend to demonize Brooks; others have done the job thoroughly. Rather, I propose that his column was not an irredeemable offense, but a concrete opportunity.

What Brooks has done is common, not extreme nor “fantastical;” no tobacco has been spat. Maybe I should just say nothing and let it sink in BUT is more often than not how a well-meaning majority person responds — liberal and conservative alike — when an unsettling truth about the foundations of her worldview and day-to-day well-being is presented.

The need to reframe and control — to redline discussions on American whiteness and the enduring structures of racialized injustice, especially when the discussion is not conceived from a majority point-of-view — simply exemplifies the predictable expression of white cultural power in the everywhere/everyday ways that Coates describes throughout Between the World and Me. Coates’s Dreamer dissects, double-talks, and reframes because she can; and because she cannot abide the constriction and instability she experiences within this non-majority-centered conception of reality; and because it’s too awful to imagine that it’s really that bad, now, today, in 2015; and because, Jesus, what if it is that bad?

No, no, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t. You’re distorting it. Or, as Brooks suggests, your realism is excessive.

If we can recognize that David Brooks is neither troll, nor gorgon, nor orc; that he is enacting what is enacted all the time, every day, by more non-monstrous people than we care to acknowledge; if we can quiet the Twitter indignation and see Brooks’s response for the utterly commonplace expression that it is, then we can see, possibly, the opportunity here. One worth rooting for.

To those who feel that too much ink is spilled by and about Brooks already: the essence of the opportunity is in Brooks’s very ubiquity. He is a privileged public figure, with significant cultural power. He has a platform among elites across the political spectrum.

He has also just written a thoughtful book about self-inventory and moral depth — a book that seeks to foreground a moral logic in which

Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility, and learning…

The Road to Character is lucid and well-organized, as you’d expect. Each chapter profiles an individual whose “U-shaped” journey through trial, failure, and personal moral development Brooks admires: Dorothy Day, George Marshall, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, and others. I found The Road to Character persuasive, and I believe it’s a book I will return to for insight on how to live, and how admirable individuals have struggled for that insight.

I also found it earnest. Road originally caught my attention because it is a personal book. In interviews, Brooks has discussed his impetus for writing it: how, in mid-life, he found himself more professionally successful than he ever imagined, but at the same time not very happy. He writes in the introduction:

Years pass, and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom. Not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth…

In the second-person “you” we hear an anxious intimacy, a simmering melancholy — the feeling of Brooks revealing to us, and to himself, that he has skin in the game. And then, he makes the inevitable shift to first-person:

I wrote [this book] to save my soul.

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness…I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.

I’ve also become aware that like many people these days I’ve lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose…

I’ve discovered that…it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve…you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else.

Notice the pivot back to second-person; the anxiety of a deeper self-revelation returns. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly that this effects in the reader, though perhaps something related: a point of connection in hearing this confession that being a well-paid Know-It-All is a problem with real stakes, a road to isolation and emptiness.

The Road to Character returns over and over to two core virtues. The first is recognition of one’s own brokenness. The profiled figures are all “acutely aware of their own weaknesses,” participants in the Kantian tradition of humanity as “crooked timber.” They also face down those weaknesses, work tirelessly at seeing themselves clearly and at getting better. In this manner, these individuals ultimately influenced human history and culture, far beyond themselves.

By successfully confronting sin and weakness, we have a chance to play our own role in the great moral drama…we have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world.

Closely related is a second core virtue, which Brooks depicts as troublingly absent in American culture today: humility.

We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. But that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character…

In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.

“My favorite definition [of humility],” Brooks has said, “is radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.” Other-centeredness. Herein lies the hardest work for Brooks and Coates’s Dreamers.

As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action — in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.”

He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects — to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly  provides “the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life…is what gets transmitted…The message is the person…”

The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons — away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now.

The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy.

Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise.

So it’s not so much a retraction as a revision that we need. The column is Brooks’s honorably shitty draft — his stumble backward from revelations about “what he’s paid to do,” a lack of integration between his moral aspirations and his habit of sending pithy, fast-finger bytes to print. He writes in Road:

We have the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite…We know less than we think we do.

Old habits die hard. A person of character faces down those habits when it matters. We need Brooks to model the humility and courage he admires and articulates. And we need the process of individual transformation to have consequence beyond the individual.

None of this is easy. It’s messy and perilous — U-shaped, in Brooks’s words, not linearly ascending, and the U’s descent can be deep. A revision usually means more revision to come. There are not many people I would exhort to such public self-inventory. But the characters in Road light the way — with their willingness to fail, get better, fail again, re-examine what they think they know, then ultimately step into the greater moral drama that requires them.

I started with the notion of optimism. I’ll finish with a word about hope.

Note that I have thus far used words like await, anticipate, root for, opportunity, and desire. Like “love” and “friend,” “hope” has lost its power and concreteness. Hope has become wimpy and puling and dishonest — the opiate of old church ladies, the toothless promise of an upstart young black senator’s presidential campaign slogan, a million years ago.

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law,” Coates writes.

It is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children…you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Coates’s rejection of spiritual redemption for the pillaging of black lives is a hard pill to swallow; it is also the strongest thread of Coates’s message to his son. But there are moments when Coates doesn’t seem to swallow the pill fully himself; where he expresses something like an inability, and a kind of awe in the presence of the very spiritual depths — I’ll call this hope — that he denies. Recalling his visit to Dr. Mabel Jones — whose son, Coates’s classmate at Howard, was killed senselessly by the police — he writes:

As she talked of the church…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life.

In Dr. Jones’s face, Coates sees “the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you” and compares it to the faces of civil rights activists in photos from ’60s sit-ins:

They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real.

I wouldn’t over-read these moments as actual ambivalence on Coates’s part about his materialist reality, but they do belie, in my reading, a deep fatigue. Hope — of the real, exceptional kind that Coates witnessed in Mabel Jones — is neither wimpy nor toothless. Hope may be the hardest work there is.

And yet still, the watching world expects hope from its victims. It’s terrible what’s happened to your sons, your brothers, your sisters, your community; but surely there is HOPE? Even if, say, you don’t buy the premise that today’s American Dream is a white dream built on black bodies, you might at the least recognize that we who are not black — and we liberals may be guiltiest of this — have built our sense of hope on black hope.

In the wake of death after death permitted by unbridled ignorance, negligence, and a heritage of hate (and let us not forget that these are only the cases that break into mainstream media), we who absorb this violence indirectly have become accustomed to witnessing, and perhaps now implicitly demand, the hope that rises up from ashes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching deliverance through nonviolence, members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston preaching forgiveness, President Obama reconciling his white grandmother’s racism with his own black body and incanting amazing grace; the displays of dignity by grieving mothers and widows, like Mabel Jones.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects that role for himself and his son, when Eric Garner’s mother will not forgive the police officers who killed her son, when some residents of Ferguson say they’re fed up with protesting, they are saying to the Dreamers: you’ve lived off of our bodies, now you want us to supply you with hope? That’s enough; that’s too much.

“Excessive” is an apt word for this moment, but it’s been poorly applied. What is excessive is for a white person to suggest that Coates should have a more hopeful assessment of American history and his son’s reality.

We must shift the burden of hope elsewhere.

Dear David Brooks: I hope that I have not failed to express myself as earnestly as you have. I hope there is enough humility in my words to convey something meaningful. I hope you hear in these words not petty attack but respectful exhortation. I hope the news cycle does not trump the moral adventure. I hope you know that I, and many who read Between the World and Me and “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” are on the side of real and truthful hope.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.