David Brooks: The Thin Man Who Went Over the Mountain

Guy Fawkes

By George Cruikshank – Ainsworth, William Harrison. Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason. 1840., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10479566

As every reader knows, getting inside the head of someone else, especially a real person, carried danger even for a skilled writer of fiction. Eudora Welty did it well in her 1963 short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” She captured the mind of Medgar Evers’ killer without even knowing who he was. David Brooks, though he doesn’t see his writing as fiction, fails in an attempt to do something similar just as spectacularly as Welty succeeded. In “And Now, a Word from a Fanatic.” Brooks cannot divorce his exploration of other minds from his own political stance. Instead of providing insight into an important phenomenon of contemporary society, every line of his essay screams ‘this is David Brooks imagining.’

“I am one of those fanatics on the alt-right and the alt-left,” Brooks writes for his narrator, trying to distance his real self from his subject while also conflating two very different groups. In this, instead of helping readers understand either group, he muddies these waters by mixing the two as the same, a remnant of the bankrupt concept of journalistic balance and the whataboutism still current among right-wing pundits–like Brooks.

Brooks’ character quickly adds, “I was raised without coherent moral frameworks. I was raised amid social fragmentation and division, the permanent flux of liquid modernity.” Brooks’ additional assumption, that his narrator is young, implies that the alt-right (let’s cut out the alt-left—it’s pretty much a fiction anyhow) is a new phenomenon, one arising from social developments of a sort any good conservative should decry. That’s heavy baggage to heap on this imagined young man, making him much more powerful and original than the reality Brooks is struggling for. There’s an assumed blame here, too: those who have allowed American society to change are at fault for the situation of this narrator. Not only as the narrator sees it, but as Brooks does.

In both cases, it’s nonsense.

The ‘moral framework’ of the alt-right, simplistic and uninformed as it may be, is quite real, and most of its members were raised within it. There is little new to it, simply a rehash of ideas that have been around for centuries, all stemming from an almost Arthurian sense of loss, that better times lie in the past. From Guy Fawkes through the Luddites, through Hitler and even to Slobodan Milošević, we’ve seen people turn their personal dissatisfaction to blame for the loss of an imagined idyllic past.

Brooks, though, lays contemporary responsibility for this ages-old mindset at the feet of social media: “From the abstract vantage point of my computer screen, I see a world in which my opponents are elite oppressors and my kind are oppressed.” This world was seen, without a screen, by his narrator’s parents and grandparents, long before the home computer was even imagined. The very binary of good and evil Brooks has his narrator claim goes back, in America, to the Calvinists immigrants who flooded to the colonies—and much further back, elsewhere. “I’ve lost faith in reason,” the narrator cries, but the tradition he comes from skipped the Enlightenment and the faith in reason that movement built.

If Brooks’ narrator has lost faith in anything, it is in faith. But, as a matter of fact, he still is a believer. Faith in the past is still faith.

Thing is, the person whose mind Brooks is trying to mine, unlike Byron de La Beckwith, the killer of Medgar Evers, does not exist, is merely a phantom drawn up in Brooks’ nightmares. The truth is much more complicated—ironic, in that Brooks focuses on presenting what he sees as the simplistic reasoning of his character.

Brooks is lost, and has been for a long time. He is (as many have pointed out) the contemporary iteration of Bob Dylan’s ‘Thin Man’: “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is.” He is trying to explore and to discover, but he is only looking at himself—even when he imagines he is looking around. Perhaps he is more than the Thin Man, but is the bear of the children’s song, the one who goes over the mountain to see what he can see—and sees only the other side of the mountain.

Appropriately enough, Brooks’ most recent book is called The Second Mountain.