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david brooks misreads history

Although I have sometimes criticized the views of New York Times columnist David Brooks, I have also praised them. In his latest article there is again much to praise, but also some to deplore.

First, the praiseworthy. His statement that many people at elite schools have helped “move society to more aggressively pursue social and racial justice” is true. The following also contains some truth: “the Democrats dominate society’s culture generators: the elite universities, the elite media, the entertainment industry, the big tech companies, the thriving elite places like Manhattan, San Francisco and Los Angeles.” And there should be little disagreement with his words that “Democrats would be wise to accept the fact that they have immense social and cultural power, and accept the responsibilities that entails by adopting what I’d call a Whole Nation Progressivism.”

Earlier this year on this LA Progressive site I wrote that “the U. S. needs a new populist progressivism. It will not so much pit the poor against the rich, but a broad rainbow coalition (including well-meaning Whites) and the common good against White special entitlement and special interests.” This coalition would include “well-meaning . . . people, whatever their color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or place of birth.” In addition, we “do not all have to think alike. Diversity of opinion should be as welcome as diversity of ethnic groups and religious beliefs–or non-beliefs.”

Where Brooks goes wrong, however, is where he writes, “Unfortunately, a tacit ideology—sometimes called wokeness—has been grafted on to” the pursuit of racial and social justice.

Such a view does not oppose Brooks’ statement that “Democrats need a positive moral vision that would start by rejecting the idea that we are locked into incessant conflict along class, cultural, racial and ideological lines . . . the us/them thinking, exaggerating the malevolence of the other half of the country, relying on crude essentialist stereotypes to categorize yourself and others.” (In 2010 President Obama also rejected us/them stereotyping.) Nor would a true progressive oppose Brooks’ wish for tolerance and a unity “based on a recognition of the complex humanity of each person” and the need for “racial, economic and ideological integration,” and against separatism.

Where Brooks goes wrong, however, is where he writes, “Unfortunately, a tacit ideology—sometimes called wokeness—has been grafted on to” the pursuit of racial and social justice. The Cambridge dictionary defines wokeness as “a state of being awareespecially of socialproblems such as racism and inequality.” There is nothing wrong, but indeed much right, about awareness of such blots in our American history. We should all be awoke, and deeply sorry, for such ugly American stains.

But instead of acknowledging these blemishes, as he previously has, Brooks accepts the reactionary view of wokeness. As Sam Leith wrote in the conservative British The Spectator last year, “we have been reading an awful lot about ‘wokeness’ recently. Nobody, I notice, seems to be much in favour of it. In fact, the sharpest pens of the right seem to stab at more or less nothing else these days. Stab, stab, stab, they go.” But Leith points our that the “woke” view originally pointed out that “a social set-up that systematically gives some people a raw deal doesn’t always make it obvious that it’s doing so,” and “we get used to it,” and need to be awakened. 

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And it is not only the Right that is now attacking wokeness, even some moderate Democrats are. Take for example James Carville, a former leading adviser to Bill Clinton. On the PBS NewsHour, analyzing Democratic losses on 2 November, 2021, he said “what went wrong is this stupid wokeness.” As examples he cited “the police lunacy” and advocating the removal of “Lincoln's name off of schools.” He added, “some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something.”

A few days later Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who on most Fridays appears on the NewsHour with Brooks, stated that for Carville to “say those things basically to the base of the Democratic Party is really unfortunate.” In the discussion between Capehart and Gary Abernathy, acting as Brooks’ conservative substitute, a major difference between progressive and more conservative thinking was revealed. The former wants us to acknowledge the full extent of our racism, past and present, and be ashamed of it, while the latter wants us maybe to half-acknowledge it, but minimize any present white guilt for it.

Abernathy’s words were, “I think what happens is with the wokeness . . . we have to create villains. We have to demonize. To lift up one set of people means we have to demonize another set of people.” A progressive might ask, “Were all the whites who lynched African-Americans and then for decades denied them the vote, not villains?” Of course, they were. They were wrong. They committed villainous acts.

That does not mean that all of us whites today need feel guilty for what earlier whites did, but we should acknowledge and feel ashamed of it. And we should recognize, awaken, to all the racism that continues to exist in our society.

Besides Brooks’ comments on wokeness, there are other less serious points one could challenge. Regarding the Democrats’ dominance of “society’s culture generators,” one could ask, “How about Fox News, the Internet (including Facebook), many newspapers (especially in small towns), southern schools, and conservative school boards?” Democrats may permeate “society’s culture generators,” but dominate?

Finally, one big question for Brooks, “How do progressives best help bring about the “vision of unity, unity, unity” that he urges upon them? Besides writing that they should not be elitists looking down on common folk and they should not try “to impose their values on everyone else,” he has almost no other advice.

walter moss

Walter Moss

The central question of how to better unite our country around the “moral vision” he believes we need is left unanswered. Tolerance, empathy, respect, and even love for our fellow citizens are all desirable and needed, but they don’t give any practical advice on how to overcome all the racism and ugly Trumpian values that have seeped into the American body politic.

Walter G. Moss