The March 7 Newsweek (NewsBeast) features an article titled "David Brooks Wants to Be Friends," but there's more bridge-burning than friend-making in this interview with James Atlas. Of course, he came up in Washington through conservative opinion journalism from the National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and The Weekly Standard, but "something has changed." Conservatives are now more uncivil. Well, either that -- or his paychecks are now signed by PBS, NPR, and The New York Times:
But Brooks insists that something has changed in the past decade. Political discourse had grown coarse, he laments. Gone is the civilized era when “you had liberals and conservatives instead of Republicans and Democrats,” a time “before the parties devolved into teams,” each espousing its own “values” in voices grown increasingly shrill. For a high-profile journalist, he seems eager to keep his head down—it’s not a posture easy to maintain when he’s on TV every Friday night and his byline appears twice a week on the op-ed page of The New York Times.
“One of the toughest things about being a columnist is that people hate you,” he said. Hate is perhaps too strong a word; it’s not a sentiment Brooks tends to evoke in people. On the contrary, his balanced views are seen as strengths, not weaknesses.
Atlas and his Newsweek editors seem to think there's no reason for conflict when a former conservative decides to start defending the liberal media instead of criticizing them. In 2000, Newsweek sought out one David Brooks to deny conservatives had a liberal media-bias problem: ""The movement consciousness is based on the idea that we are a band of brave, beleaguered souls under perpetual assault from the liberal mainstream media. These people detest McCain because liberals don't hate him."
In 2009, NPR All Things Considered anchor Robert Siegel asked Brooks if he, as a moderate, was comfortable with Obama: “Are you getting more or less comfortable or more or less moderate?” Brooks replied candidly: “I'm getting less comfortable. I don't know about my gross ideological disposition these days.” In all of his media appearances, Brooks is allegedly there to provide conservative balance, but he doesn't define himself as anything:
“What’s interesting about David is the part that’s not on the right or the left,” says the liberal author Paul Berman. “He’s a social critic, with a talent for wry, fond criticism of the American bourgeoisie.” But he lacks “a kind of indignation,” Berman notes. He’s insufficiently shrill for Fox News, talk radio, and the conservative welfare state promoted by Washington think tanks—what the writer Andrew Sullivan refers to as “the financial-industrial complex.”
Atlas never talks to actual conservatives in this piece -- a sure sign you're reading the liberal media. Instead, the royal "we" of conservatism is handed off to Andrew Sullivan, the gay-rights activist who's voted for Democrats in the last two elections and stood out in 2008 for making the bizarre claim that Sarah Palin's newest child isn't actually hers. (But then, Newsweek has picked up Sullivan's blog, despite journalistic embarrassments like this. That should stop them from ever complaining about "birthers" again.) It continued:
“He’s in a very tough spot, like a lot of people on the right,” Sullivan observes. “We’ve all had to grapple with some difficult events, like the catastrophe of Iraq and the fiscal crisis, the seeds of which were planted in the Bush administration. David isn’t institutionally bound to the party line. He has to prove to the right that he’s not a New York Times liberal and to the New York Times liberals that he’s not a certified neocon. So why not go study neuroscience?”
There’s no denying that Brooks has fewer conservative friends than he once did. Their main complaint is that he has become too outspoken about the stridency of the Republican Party. He notoriously called Sarah Palin “a joke” (“I regret that now,” he says), and he no longer supports the war in Iraq, positions that have earned him enmity among many on the right. Brooks himself claims to be beyond such distinctions, and identifies himself as a Hamiltonian conservative—meaning that he believes in both strong government and individual liberty. He’s jettisoned “the Milton Friedman idea: that if you get government [to go] away you’ll have spontaneous order.” As for his old conservative colleagues, “I’m not one of the gang anymore. They’re not as much a part of my social life as they once were.”
Atlas just flat gets this one wrong. He blatantly ignores Brooks carrying the banner of McCain in 2000 as he suggested the conservative GOP base was the "Death Star." More egregiously, he blatantly ignores Brooks gushing effusively over Barack Obama, that he has the "same strain of pessimistic optimism" as Lincoln and Martin Luther King, not to mention his "untroubled self-confidence" (or his being impressed by Obama's "perfectly creased pant," a strange new qualification for national office).
His attention seems elsewhere. In Brooks’s view, Washington is obsessed with superficialities. “Our explanation of why we live the way we do is all on the surface,” he says. “Our policies have been shaped by shallow views of human nature. In Iraq, we tried to change the society without understanding it and got it wrong.” He’s openly derisive about the culture of Washington: “This is the most emotionally avoidant city in America.”
Brooks has always been more of a public intellectual than a pundit, driven by genuine curiosity about human beings and the world. The journalist Reihan Salam, Brooks’s first assistant at the Times, recalls his former employer as “an unusual, thoughtful guy, eager to listen. He wasn’t always scanning the room for the most famous person.” The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose research Brooks draws upon in The Social Animal, also praises him as “a great listener. He was there [in Damasio’s lab at USC] to learn.”
Writing The Social Animal has been an exhilarating journey. “The scientists I’ve spent the last three years talking to are truth seekers, unlike people [in Washington].