David Brooks Stands Athwart History Yelling 'BOTH SIDES!'
New York Times columnist David Brooks has once again plumbed the zeitgeist and found it should agree more with the last reasonable man, David Brooks. His latest column, "The First-Person Ravings of an Internet Extremist Person, as Accurately Imagined by Me, David Brooks," is a howl about all the fanaticism and bad-faith arguments you find on the internet, as distilled through the muddy centrism of America's muddiest centrist. Behold!
I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.
I am one of those fanatics on the alt-right and the alt-left, the ones who make online forums so vicious, the ones who cancel and call out, the minority of online posters who fill the air with hate. I'm one of those radicals whose rage is intertwined with psychological fragility, whose anger at real wrongs is corrupted by my existential panic about myself.
See what he did there? He is getting inside the psyche of an internet troll, and to David Brooks, internet trolls come in two voices: the Angry Far Left and the Angry Far Right, and both are TERRIBLE. And they're also roughly equivalent, because in the keen analytical mind of David Brooks, there's not a heck of a lot of difference between people who are angry about racism and sexism, and people who want to create a white homeland where women finally know their place. They're all so angry and excessive!
The whole thing goes along like that, nearly 900 words of stream-of-kvetchiness on the many sins of internet discourse. There's no civility, no logic online, only inchoate rage, and only the grossest partisan polarization. O What A Sad Pass Our National Discourse Has Come To!
Brooks's observations on the failings of online discourse aren't especially deep; most of what he gripes about was true back in the '90s when we were still dialing up to gab in chat rooms. But this little rant isn't your typical ol' fuddy duddy just got on Twitter for the first time column, because Brooks insists on explaining why online communication (or non-communication) is so terrible. Not surprisingly, his cri de butthurt tells us more about David Brooks than online malcommunication.
Foolish rhetoricians and others who study online communities might say online discursive practices are shaped by the platforms and interfaces of online writing, and that results in discourse that lacks the social feedback of face-to-face conversation. That's why it's so often detached and ironic, yet often scathingly, painfully personal. Yes, we're oversimplifying a skosh there, but not as badly as Brooks does.
David Brooks, on the other hand, thinks people are rude online because they weren't raised right.
To know anything about me you have to understand the chaos at the core of my innermost being. I was raised without coherent moral frameworks. I was raised amid social fragmentation and division, the permanent flux of liquid modernity.
Adults in my life have not been trustworthy. Friends have not been trustworthy. Women reject me. I passed through school unseen. You have no idea how ill equipped I am to deal with my pain. I was raised in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life.
Yup. It's all back to the Great Coddling, with maybe a side dish of situational ethics and, for all we know, the end of corporal punishment. Why are people nasty online? DR. SPOCK! It's a diagnosis of American cultural dysfunction William Saroyan was already parodying in his 1939 play The Time of Your Life, where one character constantly grumbles, of everything and everyone, "No foundations, all the way down the line!"
Of course, this is cultural unbinding as diagnosed by David Brooks, so the causes of American disunity are, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. Not just all those "hooray for trying" trophies, but other, more pernicious attacks on our shared culture, like sandwiches the Common Man can't pronounce. Remember, he literally said fancy sandwiches were part of how elites are ruining America. So what's creating America's extremists, on the right and the left, with their oversimplifications and tribalism? Duh: It's Starbucks and Lululemon:
Online war is a force that gives life meaning. Hatred gives me that delicious simulacrum of power. Did you really think you could raise me on gourmet coffee and yoga pants and I wouldn't find a way to rebel against your relativism and materialism? Didn't you observe the eternal pattern — that if you try to flatten a man to the bourgeois he will rebel by becoming a fanatic?
AGAIN WITH THE LEGGINGS? Yes. Because 8channers' moms' yoga pants made them do it.
The rest is a lot of bitching about how American political discourse has become nothing more than an ugly shouting match, a sad fall from the days when cultural heroes were eloquent and thoughtful. Really, the whole thing feels at times like an exercise in finding 500 ways to say "Manichaean binaries" and illustrate why they are bad.
Thing is, even in his own time, Martin Luther King, who we're sure Brooks would admire as a paragon of noble persuasion, was the exception. His erudite, layered sermons, with all their allusions to the Bible and the classics, didn't carry much weight with people who thought calling him "Martin Luther Coon" was pretty damn clever. American politics has always had a lot more George Wallaces, Joe McCarthys and Huey P. Longs than Franklin Delano Roosevelts, and perhaps if Mr. Brooks would read a lot more Mark Twain, he'd recognize that.
Still, for all the jokes about David Brooks accidentally dropping acid or needing to be shut down until we figure out what the hell is wrong with him, the column was an ambitious bit of roleplaying in which he got to imagine the messy minds of those awful snowflakes -- on the alt-right AND the very real "alt-left" -- who will inherit the world. If they're capable of setting down their fancy coffee drinks and governing, which they are not.
They'll see. They'll all see.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.