Our old pal Alex Pareene has it right, of course: The New York Times, despite its pose as the one universal press outlet of humankind, ultimately is for a very narrowly defined class of East Coast rich people.
This helps explain why the paper’s coverage can, at its very worst, reflect that class’s chauvinistic cluelessness about the world as it exists beyond their own interests and, more broadly, that class’s singular habit of just kind of assuming that an outdated God’s-eye perspective on the rest of the world represents all there is or could ever be to know about it. Still, at least in its news-reporting operation, there does seem to be a requirement that the paper’s coverage attempt to engage with external reality, even if only in the form of a still photograph of that reality taken six weeks ago through a 52nd-story window. The paper’s politics reporters cannot just invent a battleground state—It’s all going to come down to Ohiowa!—and then blame its imaginary voters for the results of the 2016 election. The NFL reporters can’t decide that Tom Brady has died, and then be like Tom Brady’s brutal murder encapsulates all that is wrong with toxic sports culture today. When a news reporter at the Times just decides all on his own that there are tobacco fields in a part of West Virginia where there are no tobacco fields, it’s a damn scandal! People lose their jobs over it.
It’s no secret that the standards are very different in the opinion section, where Bret Stephens can be like “The 12-follower doofuses who call me Little Lord Wetbutt on Twitter are the modern-day equivalent of the masterminds of the Holocaust” and nobody in a position of editorial leadership seems to question whether a statement so simply, baldly absurd and factually inaccurate might not belong in the paper of record. When Stephens published a column last week likening a little-known George Washington University associate professor to fucking Joseph Goebbels for cracking a harmless bedbug joke at Stephens’s expense, it was clear that Stephens’s grave moral concern for our degraded 21st century discourse is totally fake and made up. But the George Washington University associate professor is not. He exists. He isn’t Joseph Goebbels, as we’ve already discussed, but he is a real guy who really did crack a harmless bedbug joke at Stephens’s expense on Twitter! That’s almost nothing, but still something. Stephens was, at least, overreacting preposterously to a thing that actually happened.
David Brooks, in contrast, is doing something different. His latest column, “And Now, a Word From a Fanatic,” published Thursday evening online and in Friday’s print edition, breaks new ground for the Times. It does not describe a fake relationship to reality in the way that Stephens did in comparing himself, the butt of a rude tweet, to a victim of a historic genocide. It describes a completely fake reality with no relationship to anything.
What Brooks wrote is, only and entirely, a first-person self-description of some character—“one of those fanatics on the alt-right and the alt-left, the ones who make online forums so vicious, the ones who cancel and call out, the minority of online posters who fill the air with hate.” It is Brooks ventriloquizing the voice of “one of those radicals whose rage is intertwined with psychological fragility, whose anger at real wrongs is corrupted by my existential panic about myself.” It is a person that David Brooks dreamed up inside his mind, with an at best glancing and entirely coincidental relationship to anyone who has ever existed in reality. And that’s it! He doesn’t even argue against this guy. He just creates him. And then the column is over. It is, I can tell you, good as hell.
David Brooks does not know any “fanatics on the alt-right and the alt-left,” naturally, and not least because the “alt-left” is not a thing that exists. He just has an idea of what such a person might be like. You will not be surprised to learn that this idea contains all the traits that Brooks has spent his career assigning to the people he dislikes. This idea escaped the hermetic micro-universe of his mind, a world of pure imagination, and went ahead and got itself published in an actual newspaper read by actual human beings. The result is like something a disembodied brain in a jar would write if you exposed it to a single Dril tweet and then, 2,500 years later, gave it access to Microsoft Word.
To know anything about me you have to understand the chaos at the core of my innermost being. I was raised without coherent moral frameworks. I was raised amid social fragmentation and division, the permanent flux of liquid modernity.
This is a deeply insane document! I have a strong impulse to blockquote it here in its entirety, but I’m afraid you will sue me when your nervous system melts, and I know I will be liable. Below are some passages. I feel it would be a disservice to Brooks’s avant-garde experiment in mind-travel to annotate it to anything in actual reality. I am simply showing you this ocean. Swim in it as you wish.
Adults in my life have not been trustworthy. Friends have not been trustworthy. Women reject me. I passed through school unseen. You have no idea how ill equipped I am to deal with my pain. I was raised in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life.
When I was younger my eyes pleaded: Tell me what adulthood and manhood are supposed to look like! All you said was, “You can be anything you want to be!” How does that help? You told me I was special, but the world goes on as if I don’t exist.
(Imagine thinking anyone on the internet doesn’t know what manhood looks like. Probably the most common use of the internet involves seeing various manhoods.)
Politics provides the Manichaean binaries I can’t find anywhere else, and so I make everything political. Own the libs! Smash the racist right!
This is free jazz.
Catastrophizing is my mind-set.
Ornette Coleman shit, man. I dig it extremely.
I need leaders and spokesmen who will never show uncertainty. I want leaders who tell simple blame stories. It’s the bankers! It’s the immigrants!
It would be ludicrous to engage with these passages in anything like good faith. But here it is worth noting that the false moral equivalence David Brooks is setting up, here in the pages of the premier print news outlet in the country, contrasts blaming society’s ills on desperate Latino immigrants hazarding incomprehensible danger and risk in pursuit of an opportunity to earn a living in safety with blaming society’s ills on the infinitely rich and unaccountable class of capitalists who literally own the bulk of America’s corrupted economy. It is further worth noting that this comparison is of tremendous use to one of those two groups, which group is notably not the one presently being rounded up into concentration camps by the United States government.
My moral system is simple, too. Up is evil and down is good. People above me on the status hierarchy are venal, while those of us in my group are victims of their corruption. The existence of any hierarchy itself is prima facie proof of injustice.
What I like here is how Brooks takes one idea, which the vast majority of ordinary Americans will recognize as broadly and inarguably true—the upper echelons of society are filled with thieves and vampires who are systematically fucking over everybody else—and then surrounds it with childish absurdities about opposing literally all hierarchies. It would defeat the purpose of this hilariously dishonest exercise if his target Times readers recognized in this some of the ideas they briefly had the courage to consider back in college, before they took up their inherited seats at the feast. It is very important to have these ideas be the positions of an imaginary frothing internet moron. Otherwise how can you, the reader, congratulate yourself for not sharing them?
Did you really think you could raise me on gourmet coffee and yoga pants and I wouldn’t find a way to rebel against your relativism and materialism?
And yet … somehow it’s not working. Somehow politics doesn’t fill my soul, bring me peace or end my existential anxiety. I have helped create a harsh world in which vulnerability is impossible and without vulnerability there can be no relationship.
When David Brooks starts in on the coddled youths, traditionally it has been safe to assume that he is griping in a passive aggressive way about some poor underling who overheated the water for his chamomile tea; if this is unfair, it is because Brooks has in the past been willing to promote underlings to the newly-opened position of “spouse.” But here it’s important to keep in mind that Dave is creating this person out of pure brain. He could just as easily decide that this fictitious, imaginary internet fanatic has been poisoned not by nurture and tolerance, not by yoga pants or ignorance of what a dick looks like, but by something spookier. Like carbon monoxide.
Then he could end the column by recommending that his readers purchase convenient plug-in carbon monoxide detectors for their homes. This would be more useful than a description of what David Brooks imagines the people calling him Ass Munch McGee on Twitter must be like, deep down. Maybe that would undermine the point. To be honest I have never really understood abstract art.