The Cost of David Brooks' Anglophilia and Thatchermania

I can't let today's column by David Brooks on "The Vigorous Virtues" of Margaret Thatcher pass without giving him what he deserves.
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MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) ? David Brooks, Columnist, New York Times, appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington D.C., Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) ? David Brooks, Columnist, New York Times, appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington D.C., Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

I can't let today's column by David Brooks on "The Vigorous Virtues" of Margaret Thatcher pass without giving him what he deserves.

I stopped writing about Brooks in 2008, when it had become clear, even somewhat to him, that the bloom was off the rose of his beguilingly sinuous, serpentine, sometimes hilariously entertaining commentary, which brilliantly chronicled the social mores and foibles, especially of feckless liberals, but really of all of Brooks' upper-middle class readership, which can't resist reading about itself even when it's being tweaked a bit.

"The Organization Kid," a brilliant piece, published in The Atlantic a few months before 9/11 that summoned directionless Ivy League colleges to strengthen their students' character and moral coordinates, brought him to the enthusiastic attention of conservatives at Yale who had him up to teach in 2002 and at whose behest he is there again this semester teaching a course on "Humility." ("The Organization Kid" is on his syllabus.)

The worm in this pudding is that, at least in his journalism, Brooks has a habit of deploying pointillist satire, vivid imagery, and nearly compulsive joking to change the subject and shift attention from premises that he's contradicting or betraying. He's entertaining precisely because he's as good as Houdini at escaping American conservatives' inability to reconcile their yearning for ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to the casino-finance capitalism that's dissolving Republican sovereignty and even virtues before our very eyes. One of Brooks' first employers out of college, William F. Buckley, committed his National Review to stand "athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'", only to discover, rather late in life that a lot of what conservatives were trying to thwart was coming from themselves.

(Don't get me started on the equivalent folly of the left, I already have the body scars to show for it, in Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, just e-published by Norton, which, by the way, Brooks loved, as he told me in 1990.)

The best answers to our quandaries are civic-republican, and I'd like to think that Brooks is groping his way toward them. By 2008, after all, even he had to acknowledge that the Alan Greenspan-"free market" meltdown and the Sarah Palin candidacy capped a decade in which -- thanks to these and the Iraq War, Katrina disasters, the slower-motion food-industry, Republican corruption, and countless other scandals -- conservatives just couldn't keep on blaming liberals, liberals, liberals, because liberals' feckless reactions to the disasters were mainly just that -- reactive, not causal, even when sneakingly complicit.

Throughout that decade of misplaced bromides and blame, Brooks' columns, brilliant at focusing on those liberal defaults, had been wrong in substance. Not just a little wrong. Not just "difference of opinion" wrong. They'd been thunderously, belly-flop wrong, in case after case -- so much so that after 2008, Brooks fled increasingly to Malcolm Gladwellesque popularizations of social sciences (Brooks' book, The Social Animal was a belly flop in that mode) and then to the classics, which he studied as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and, to his credit, has kept dipping into and is now presuming to teach in a course at Yale on the centrality of "humility" in the formation of character, with a syllabus developed with help from his conservative allies there.

I will have occasion to survey Brooks' decade of follies and our susceptibility to them, but Brooks' Thatcher musings today -- harmless sentimental blather, prompted by his encounters with her as a worshipful young conservative reporter in the 1980s -- reminds me of his embarrassing "Britain is Working," published a week before the vast scandals involving Rupert Murdoch's publications' phone-hacking and influence peddling among government officials, many of them Thatcher's conservative legatees.

Brooks, the grandson of a kosher butcher who has, he said in a talk at Aspen last summer, a "very conflicted relationship to Judaism," was besotted in youth with a compensatory, nose-pressed-to-the-glass Anglophilia. He named his two childhood turtles Gladstone and Disraeli. He attended Manhattan's tony Episcopal Grace Church School. So you expect a bit of myopia about things British, but not "Britain is Working" from the pen of an intelligent journalist:

"Usually when I travel from Washington to Britain I move from less gloom to more gloom," he wrote, "But this time the mood is reversed. The British political system is basically functional while the American system is not." Crediting Thatcher with having tackled the British welfare state, Brooks opined that the present conservative leader "Prime Minister David Cameron is a skilled politician who dominates the scene.... By balancing his agenda, by conveying a sense of momentum... he's remained popular.

"Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture," wrote Brooks.

"It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.... [But] the plusses outweigh the minuses. The big newspapers still set the agenda, not cable TV or talk radio.

"British leaders and pundits know their counterparts better. They are less likely to get away with distortions and factual howlers... The British press also do an amazing job of policing corruption. The media go into a frenzy at the merest whiff of malfeasance."

Every columnist has his bloopers, but Brooks is almost deranged in his wishful thinking here. Anthony Barnett, the founder of Britain's spirited website "openDemocracy," commenting on the scandals, noted more soberly that demands "to have the Augean stables of British power swept clean" by the political class pretend "that the cattle themselves can clear away thirty years of their own deposits." Barnett showed how a new British political class including journalists and media owners had replaced a Victorian class that, for all its own elitist faults, had been un-bribable and impeccable in performing its duties as it understood them. Where does that leave Brooks' rosy assessment?

Testifying before Parliament, Murdoch called his moment of contrition "the most humble day of my life." Perhaps he should be featured in Brooks' "humility" course, alongside Brooks' column "Britain is Working" and 40 or 50 other columns I'll be parsing in another venue.

Humility isn't only about contrition, of course. It is sometimes a condition accompanied by the acrid taste of fear in one's mouth as one summons enough courage to face daunting odds in a battle one has chosen out of principle as well as calculation. Some of the writers and leaders who are on Brooks' syllabus embraced and transcended that fear, and he's right to present them as exemplars for whom humility proved indispensable to the formation of character and leadership. But David Brooks' dozens of columns like today's on "The Vigorous Virtues" of Thatcher and "Britain is Working" only reinforce the canard that when it comes to leading, those who can, do, and those can't, teach about it.

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