Note to M—, on Brooksie

Fenster writes:

Dear M—–,

You and I have an ongoing dialogue going over David “Brooksie” Brooks.  I was once a fan, especially on his culture stuff.  Even second-rate Tom Wolfe can be excellent, and Brooks often was.  And he can still hit it out of the park every now and again.  But his Times sinecure has brought out the worst in him.   His cultural commentary was often generous in spirit but his newfound power brings out the scolding side.  And his New York City biases show, despite his professed effort to see America whole.

His latest column is Brooksie at his blinkered, New York-centric worst.  In it, he argues that his trademark earnest approach to guns–show some respect and everyone will get along!–may have been in error and that progressives may be on to something in applying their hyper-aggressive culture war tactics to the gun battle.

As always he is observant and notes some things that are inarguable.  For instance: a culture was is a kind of war and it is fought across different kinds of terrain and with different weapons.  Check.

But what he comes close to saying–no, what he actually, really says–is that the kind of scorched earth practices we have seen on campuses, and are increasingly seeing in HR departments and in the banning of YouTube videos, might profitably be employed in the battle over guns.  And that that will be a good thing since it will help seal progressive victories across the board.

Mind you, this is from one of the Times’ alleged conservatives.  Go progressives!

Brooks cites Andrew Sullivan’s observation that leftish thought control has  begun to migrate from the academy to the broader culture.  But Sullivan, another writer who can swing both ways politically, does not like the trend.  Brooksie thinks is is just capital!

Sure, he puts in one sentence so as to maintain some credibility:  dear progressives don’t be too fascistic about your tactics– it’s not sporting, and I have a reputation to protect as an echt-reasonable, intellectually serious spinmeister.  But the gist of the article is unmistakable: pathologizing the opposition on guns could be an effective strategy so why not?

So let’s be clearer about what is going on.

Brooks’s side has an inordinate amount of ordnance it can and does use in the culture wars.  His side has the commanding heights of the media, academia and conventional politics.  And we see that ordnance in use all the time.  We see social media companies happily censoring voices they do not like on the web. We see a magical “children’s crusade” after the Parkland school shooting essentially scripted, organized and funded by their progressive elders. We see companies penalizing employees who don’t fall into line on right thought and behavior.

OK.  I get that.  Politics ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes.

Let’s be honest, however, about what it is: strong arm tactics on the part of those with the whip hand.

But two can play this game, and if there is war on I expect opposition.  And given the different circumstances of the two sides, the opposition is likely to mount guerilla attacks rather than form a line.

Brooks seems to downplay or underestimate that pushback.  He’s like that Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover–if it doesn’t happen on this side of the Hudson it doesn’t really count.


And so he writes “conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power.”  Really?  What . . . .ummm . . .  does he make of Trump’s election, the very distillation of a latent cultural power that was completely overlooked east of the Hudson?

OK, he might acknowledge, Trump won and maybe the coastal people missed that.  But in the interim Trump conservatism has “self-marginalized”.   It has become a “a separatist subculture that participates in its own ostracism.”  All progressives have to do now is deliver that one big punch, one that will “cut what’s left of the conservative movement off from mainstream society.”

It’s all very apocalyptic, martial and triumphalist.  But is it remotely true?  With Trump’s approval ratings at 50%, higher than Obama’s at this time in his presidency?  And this, when he has the entire array of the establishment, including the so-called mainstream media, against him?

When the Dems have dug a hole on the tax cut and immigration, and keep on digging?

When Trump has shown himself to be an able general in the culture war what with the pounding he delivered to the NFL?

When blue collar employment and wages are on their way back not on their way down?

When Wall Street financiers fret about tariffs but gruff heads of manufacturing firms emerge from the White House to laud the president (if you can catch the momentary video of this on the nightly news)?

When Trump himself has moved to a moderate position on gun legislation?

On domestic policy at least Trump is getting more Bannonite in Bannon’s absence than he was when Bannon was present.

Both sides are moving to capture the so-called mainstream and it is still a jump ball.

To say Trump has self-marginalized a movement that is now surrounded on all sides is to evidence a truly Steinbergian boneheadedness.

That is not to say it is the other way around, and that Trump has Manhattanites on the run.  It is, as Brooks notes, a war.  It is just not a war that is anywhere near over.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to Note to M—, on Brooksie

  1. Revyen says:

    I agree with just about everything but let me make two comments here because I think you’re getting Brooke’s wrong in a two areas:

    “And so he writes “conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power.” Really? What . . . .ummm . . . does he make of Trump’s election, the very distillation of a latent cultural power that was completely overlooked east of the Hudson?”
    Trump’s victory was itself a political victory that resulted from a dejected side that was losing culturally. The ballot box became just about the only place to register a complaint. He’s entirely right that conservatives have zero cultural power. Let’s take one of Trump’s victories. The NFL issue. Conservatives turned off their TV’s but nobody on the other side has been shamed into thinking that kneeling was not ok. Even when conservatives win, rare, they don’t actually change what is “acceptable discourse”. Trump as a culture warrior is much better than nothing but it isn’t much in the long term.

    Another section I want to challenge somewhat:
    “OK, he might acknowledge, Trump won and maybe the coastal people missed that. But in the interim Trump conservatism has “self-marginalized”. It has become a “a separatist subculture that participates in its own ostracism.” All progressives have to do now is deliver that one big punch, one that will “cut what’s left of the conservative movement off from mainstream society.””
    (You gotta love the insert of “maybe” on his part here)
    I actually agree with this. The Trump movement hasn’t quite swallowed conservatism. It is a subculture of MAGA people who seem to follow him no matter where he goes. I would much prefer Trumpism (restrictionist, culture warrior, anti-interventions/realist, somewhat protectionist) as most of the smarter thinkers on the right would think of it.

    Furthermore, what Brooke’s is really getting at here is that in so doing, Trump has destroyed the last chance respectable conservatives* have of being part of a movement without feeling shame about it. That is why his sort have to constantly attack Trump and his supporters in every post and column as a disclaimer. That is how radioactive Trump, his voters and anything associated or perceived to be associated have become in their eyes. Their ideal was always a conservative movement without their icky hick voters, talk radio, Bill O’Reilly and just pundits and think tankers speaking with liberals discussing, not debating, in NPR voice why liberals should consider their POV. Trump has completely blown this apart. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all become democrats or independents within a few years.

    Unfortunately I don’t have high hopes for Trump or this culture war. He could have put the best and brightest in charge.** He is pure instinct and no intellect and has no grasp of what needs to be done. If I may be a bit flippant and rephrase Orwell: if there is hope it lies with the online trolls.

    *Defined as those conservatives liberals will allow to speak for conservatives on their platforms.
    **Bannon is a second rate Buchanan at best.


    • Fenster says:

      Thank you for your persuasive rejoinder. I agree with most of what you say in your disagreement with me. With some caveats and some wandering.

      I get your point that Brooks is onto something in saying the Trump side has no cultural power. I think that depends, though, on what you mean by “culture”. If by culture you mean the side with the megaphone then yes, Brooks’s side has “culture” and the Trump side does not.

      But culture can exist beyond the megaphone, and so the question is: is there an actual “other culture” out there, alive and kicking but with no megaphone?

      Maybe not. It is true of course that cultures can be eviscerated, and the presence of a bunch of people living alongside one another does not guarantee that they will be living in and through a vibrant common culture. Vanquished tribes can find themselves without their old gods and without a deep connection to new ones.

      And it is true–probably more true than I suggested in my post–that some of middle America seems to be experiencing this kind of anomie, this feeling of being left behind and neglected. Consider opioids.

      And so in these respects I agree with what you write. Middle America does not have the megaphone, and the fact that they are neglected has had consequences in terms of cultural despair.

      But you yourself may be overstating things. You seem to be suggesting that Trump’s election was a kind of death rattle–a kneejerk thrashing out of the “dejected” before the dying of the light. I actually think there is more life to the other side than that.

      Consider the paradoxical way the mainstream culture considers the deplorables. On the one hand the rhetoric of the mainstream is triumphalist–of course we all need to go to diversity seminars, of course doctrinal feminism is not to be questioned, or course we need to have transgender bathroom rights. The actual language used until the recent past did not admit of any reprobates or deplorables. It is as if they did not exist. That is strategic: if you ignore your enemy when you have him starving just pretend he does not exist and then he can be finished off more easily. Then the election happened.

      And then the paradoxical element was exposed: scratch a liberal of this persuasion and you immediately come to the return of the repressed: oh my god there are really people out there who don’t support transgendered bathroom rights! And so the progressive mind operates with a kind of doublethink: we are triumphant and no one questions our wisdom . . . but . . . .but watch out! There are Nazis everywhere!!!

      Well, what is it? Are progressives truly triumphant, as the megaphone rhetoric told us until recently? Or are there Nazis everywhere, as we are more likely to hear nowadays? Progressives now have this odd messaging problem since the election forced them to take stock of things in a new way. So at the moment they want to say both are true, but the messages are hard to reconcile with one another.

      As a kind of centrist–the right kind, mind you!–I think the truth lies in between. Liberalism has repressed big chunks of what was once recognized as American but its victory is nowhere near as complete as they wanted to believe. I don’t see the Old America as in its death throes yet. I think there is real culture happening.

      I agree with you that the surprise Trump election represented anger from the Old America about the fact it has been neglected. But I don’t think it is dead.

      Maybe you are right that compared to the power of the megaphone–the money, the media, the conventional political parties, the globalist yearnings of our betters–opposition is going nowhere. Could be. If the best predictor of the future is the past then sure, the guys with the money and power win. Hamilton beat Jefferson fair and square and the moneyed interests won the Civil War. But take the rise of unions at the turn of the century and after. It was a total mess, but out of the conflict arose new understandings, accords and institutions that moved things in directions that the powerful were not expecting. I think such things depend on a crisis, and what kind.


      • Revyen says:

        Right, I don’t think we necessarily disagree on the culture issue. It’s a nebulous term. I, and presumably Brooks, really meant what we call the megaphone. Nonetheless I don’t think the current cultural right can win the war. Battles yes but not the war.
        Gary North has pointed out that in any revolution there are 3 factors to focus on and most historians only focus on 1-2:
        1. Follow the confession of faith.(Your message/ideology)
        2. Follow the money.
        3. Follow the media. (Your way of communicating to followers and neutrals)

        The 68’ers (European term for the cultural revolutionaries of the 60’s) had a strong message that took liberal discourse to its extreme. As such it left the old order intellectually disabled and could only resort to “slow down, not so extreme”. In other words conservatism for the sake of conservatism. Utterly ineffectual as the likes Jonathan Chait is now complaining that he is out of step with the kids and that they need to slow down. Won’t work. Hence they could get compliant and sympathetic media and money as well.
        I would like to believe Steve Sailer’s idea that the coalition of Fringes will turn on each other as occasionally happens but at this rate that way down the line after they have torn much of what is worth conserving.

        The right actually does well on issues where the real initiative lies i.e. tax cuts, defence of Israel and a hawkish foreign policy and until now on guns(could include abortion). There are no compromises there.

        So ultimately you must start with a message that resonates. The Alt-Right’s greatest thinker, imo, Roger Devlin made a simple but crucial tactical point:
        “And in any battle, it is the aggressors’ prerogative to choose the point of attack: if they come at you by land, you do not have the option of fighting them at sea.
        Race is everything to our enemies, and it is the angle from which they have chosen to attack our entire civilization. It is also where they have achieved their greatest victories: you can see this from the way “conservative” groups feel they must parrot the language of the egalitarians just to get a hearing (see: Such well-meaning but naive friends of our civilization are in effect consenting to occupy the status of a “kept” opposition.

        The more we try to avoid confronting race directly, the more our enemies will press their advantage at precisely this point. Tactically, they are correct to do so. And they will continue until we abandon our defensive posture and turn to attack them on their own chosen ground.”

        Now conservatives, libertarians, MAGA, alt-light, Middle American Radicals,etc. don’t have to become alt-right white nationalists as such. But they must acknowledge race and defend themselves stringently. So far they are unwilling to even mention white. As long as that is the case they will lose because they can’t claim the moral high ground. As soon as that happens though the game is probably over imo. The left will have nothing because they can only suppress hatefacts because they have the perceived moral high ground:

        While there are many characters in the alt-right that are loathsome and incapable of responsible leadership they (are or could)serve an important function in baiting right wingers to acknowledge race. They perform the same historical function that the communist movement and party served to the centre left in Western Europe throughout the 20th century. The social democratic achievements would have been much less without the communists standing on the far left as vanguards, pushing, goading the respectable left in the “right” direction.” Communism for the most part was never a likely outcome but they had enabled real victories for social democrats and their followers. The alt-right will hopefully serve the same function. Until then the cultural right won’t have power and money. Most existing right wing institutions(think tanks, radio, Fox, foundations) will flip over just like they flipped over to neoconservatives in the 70’s and 80’s. So I’m not pessimistic long term necessarily. Only pessimistic in terms of how much territory is ceded in the meantime.


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