Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, March 9, 2019 4:41 pm

At long last, David Brooks starts to get it


I almost never have anything good to say about the New York Times’s David Brooks, nor should I. His whole career is built on a foundational dishonesty: He believes and says that liberals and conservatives in America are equally to blame for all our problems and that only wise moderates (such as himself, of course) can lead the country forward constructively. And because he’s a rich white guy who writes for The New York Times, people figure, well, he must know what he’s talking about. Because they wouldn’t give that job to a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, would they?

In point of fact they did, and were it not for the relentless pursuit of the blogger Driftglass, many fewer people would know about it.

Frankly, wedded as he appears to his own grift, I’d long since given up hope that Brooks was capable of learning anything, even something so simple and obvious that a lot of his intellectual and moral betters intuited it in middle school. And yet he has: In a column posted March 7, he acknowledges that, five years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s groundbreaking, Polk Award-winning essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” the meaning of the words in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address appears finally to have permeated his mental block. Lincoln said:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Much to my surprise, and very much to his credit, Brooks grapples with these words long and hard enough to arrive at some very solid conclusions:

There are a few thoughts packed into that sentence. First, there is a natural moral order to the universe. There is a way things are supposed to be — more important than economic wealth or even a person’s life.

Second, moral actions are connected to each other. If somebody tears at the moral order by drawing blood through the lash of slavery, then that wrong will have to be paid for by the blood of the sword. History has meaning. It’s not just random events.

Third, sin is anything that assaults the moral order. Slavery doesn’t merely cause pain and suffering to the slave. It is a corruption that infects the whole society. It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.

Fourth, sin travels down society through the centuries. Lincoln was saying that sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.

He goes on to acknowledge that while people of many backgrounds have suffered during the history of the English colonies and then the United States, the suffering of African slaves, Native Americans and their descendants has been uniquely awful, with uniquely awful consequences:

Slavery and the continuing pattern of discrimination aren’t only an attempt to steal labor; they are an attempt to cover over a person’s soul, a whole people’s soul.

That injury shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.

He endorses Coates’s understanding of what we need and why we need it. As Coates wrote:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

Brooks concludes:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

Do not presume that I think for one minute that this column lets Brooks off the hook.

We are “a nation coming apart at the seams” precisely because of the kinds of policies and politicians Brooks has promoted, supported, and served as an apologist for — often with staggering levels of contextual and/or intellectual dishonesty — for more than two decades. Brooks acknowledges and repents for none of that here, almost certainly because he has yet to begin the hard work of critical self-examination. (I would suggest he started by reading Driftglass, but that’s just me.) And his column offers no evidence whatever to prove that he ever will.

But, like the blind men and the elephant in the old story, he has, by touch more than sight, begun to grasp some of the contours of a problem, and a moral necessity, that he has up until now never rightly understood. As I said earlier, a lot of people not necessarily any smarter than he began to intuit those things at a much earlier age. But, frankly, that he has begun to do so now is more than that of which I ever had thought him capable, so I owe him credit where due.

Do I think this will change anything in the near term? I do not. The people in position to begin any sort of serious discussion of reparations in the policy sphere oppose reparation and consider The New York Times and its writers enemies of the people.

But Brooks’s unaccountable popularity as a “moderate” means that maybe more Americans will reconsider the idea of reparations who otherwise might not have done so. It’s a small candle amidst a lot of cursed darkness right now, but I’ll take it.

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