David Brooks read Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me. His response to Coates is quite possibly the most Brooksian thing I’ve ever read.
I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.
In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.
This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.
Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.
Keep in mind that he actually read the book, and a few paragaphs before he argues that he was distorting American history, he wrote this:
There is a pervasive physicality to your memoir — the elemental vulnerability of living in a black body in America. Outside African-American nightclubs, you write, “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.”
That’s right. Brooks has had it explained to him that blacks in America have a legitimate fear of being raped, beaten, and jailed, and his first reaction is to make excuses: what about the American dream, he whines. Americans are supposed to forget about the past and dream about tomorrow, he whimpers. How can he argue that Coates distorts history when his position is that we should abandon history, forget about the legacy of slavery, just pretend we’re all starting at the same place in a race to the future?
This “American dream” is a lie. It’s propaganda spawned in the Gilded Age, when plutocrats wanted warm bodies to throw into the bonfires of foreign wars. It’s a lie that was whipped into a fervent froth in the 1950s, when we were told to consume, to feed the capitalist beast, or the Communists would eat us. The apotheosis of the American dream were the suburban communities that metastasized at that time…communities built from white flight, communities that were often sundown towns, communities that would rise up in outrage at the idea of desegregation. It is a lie that the already comfortable tell themselves, and try to pawn off on the rest of us. Apparently, our reality is too excessive for a sinecured apologist for the American right.
We have always known this, even if Brooks’ education was deeply deficient. Perhaps Brooks can reject Coates for being too deeply black, not part of what Brooks considers true America, but America knows itself, even if it’s wealthy have succombed to a total loss of long-term memory. Read the great American authors of the past century or so. These Famous White Men had no illusions about the American Dream: Twain. Steinbeck. Lewis. Sinclair.
A privileged acolyte of William F. Buckley who writes for the New York Times (and apparently, will never ever lose his job no matter who out of touch he gets), is the only kind of person who can babble about the American dream and still get published. That’s the only dream that gets to survive: the dreams of the wealthy, born on third base, and expecting to get a home run because they’ve made sure the other team is starved and sick and unable to get any help. And don’t you worry, there’s a policeman poised to arrest the catcher if he dares to interfere with Mr Brooks’ glorious victory.
One more point I have to make, because it’s representative of how conservatives have managed to hang on to their cushy incomes without getting lined up against the wall: “Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change.” Notice the instinctive call for white solidarity? Let’s all of us white people stand together against these black people who simply don’t appreciate our white values and our shining white dreams!
I am the son of a mechanic and laborer, the grandchild of farmers and seasonal farm workers. I will not stand in solidarity with a pampered right wing champion of Republican privilege; I will not be seduced by the promise of having an underclass I can kick and blame for the struggles of poor white people and the middle class. The enemy is you, Mr Brooks, and all your chums at the country club, and on Wall Street, and on K street.
I do think Brooks deserves an award for his efforts, though. I propose a monument: a giant ear, made of tin, and painted an arsenical white. That’s all. Just an ear. It definitely doesn’t have to be connected to a brain.