David Brooks is a Very Concerned Man. The majority of his New York Times columns are him feigning agreement with the aims of the subject in question, but he just has Some Concerns he’d like to go over. These Concerns are almost always aimed at silencing the left and/or people of color who are too “radical” for his taste. His latest attempt to do so is one of the more vulgar examples of this habit, and one of the more incompetently executed.
In “The Uses of Patriotism” (New York Times, 9/16/16), Brooks begins, appropriately, with rank condescension:
This column is directed at all the high school football players around the country who are pulling a Kaepernick — kneeling during their pregame national anthems to protest systemic racism. I’m going to try to persuade you that what you’re doing is extremely counterproductive.
Listen up, black kids, David Brooks is here to tell you why your choice of political activism is “counterproductive.” What’s strange is that Brooks never really bothers to explain why, exactly. What follows instead is a discursive white supremacist McHistory lesson about an America defined by harsh self-criticism and noble ideals:
By 1776, this fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism had become the country’s civic religion. This civic religion was based on a moral premise — that all men are created equal — and pointed toward a vision of a promised land — a place where your family or country of origin would have no bearing on your opportunities.
Lofty rhetoric aside, one’s “country of origin and family” had tremendous bearing on one’s opportunities—or even one’s right to be recognized as a human being—a legacy which still affects us today. Which is, as Brooks may know, the entire point of the protests. The American experience means different things to different populations, and this was and remains the essence of the protest—to draw attention to these diverging narratives and the inequalities they reflect. But this is never really addressed; instead, he dismisses this line of criticism, and moves on to this patently absurd claim:
Recently, the civic religion has been under assault. Many schools no longer teach American history….
Brooks offers no link or citation for this claim, and seems to be conflating the recent right-wing outrage at colleges not requiring US History with the high school students the piece is nominally aimed at. No matter, Brooks must lament the fraying of the American fabric and will fudge the facts to fit his tale of moral panic.
Brooks’ main gripe is that we’ve become too unpatriotic, noting that the percentage of Americans who feel “extremely proud” of their country has fallen since 2003—around the time the US was invading Iraq. He pins this (as he always does) on some ineffable cultural failure rather than material reality.
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The revelation that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were a lie, two never-ending wars, an economy that crashed and bailed out the richest while leaving the poor to fend for themselves, Katrina, the rise of the incarceration state, police shootings: These aren’t what caused a dip in national pride. No, it must be a moral failing on the part of ungrateful Americans, namely, in this case, uppity blacks who have decided of late to not sit idly by while they’re gunned down with impunity.
Brooks, with a straight face, puts more blame on Ta-Nehisi Coates for a lack of black patriotism than the reality of rising inequality and pervasive racism. One could easily call it a cynical attempt at gaslighting, if one thought for a second the actual audience were the young African-Americans the piece is ostensibly for, and not the centrist elites whose white guilt Brooks ameliorates for a living.
The rest of the piece is difficult to critique, because nothing of substance is really offered. It’s a word salad of patriotic, centrist bromides in search of a point it can’t seem to find:
I hear you when you say you are unhappy with the way things are going in America. But the answer to what’s wrong in America is America — the aspirations passed down generation after generation and sung in unison week by week.
We have a crisis of solidarity. That makes it hard to solve every other problem we have. When you stand and sing the national anthem, you are building a little solidarity, and you’re singing a radical song about a radical place.
There’s no recognition of the fact that that “radical song” celebrates the killing of freed slaves who fought against a US government that had kept them in bondage. Or, indeed, that for professional football players, the ritual of standing for the national anthem has not been “passed down generation after generation,” but was instituted in 2009 around the same time that the NFL was getting a large increase in Defense Department sponsorship.
Ultimately, what Brooks is saying, or attempting to say, is that protesters need to affirmatively demonstrate their loyalty: “If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story.” The implication being that if you don’t adhere to “common rituals,” your continued oppression is justified.
Brooks engages in that favorite white concern troll pastime: evoking Martin Luther King, who led the singing of the national anthem at the March on Washington in 1963.
The fact that MLK was negotiating an entirely different political dynamic, and was being harassed and monitored by the same US government Brooks venerates, is never really addressed: Like all “but MLK did this” criticism, it’s not offered in good faith, but to muddy the waters and reduce the history of black struggle to a sanitized version of one man. Different causes and different times call for different tactics, but in the history of black activism, one can safely say that they never once called for David Brooks’ opinion.