3. the responsibility of idiots
investigating the writing style of a bad writer
I think it’s important to start off this essay with an important note: in no way is the Op-Ed column a worthwhile barometer of the American’s current political mindset. The majority of readers are part of a small vocal minority: upper middle class adults who have the time to read past headlines. Nonetheless, it is important to critique its contributors. Op Ed pages hosted by institutions such as the NYTimes and The Wall Street Journal are branded as the intellectual discussion that reflects the state of our country. And though they are only consumed by a specific subset, that minority influences the state of American politics; they are far more dependable when it comes to voting than any other group.
This is why I turned my eye to the writing of David Brooks, one of NYTimes’s most popular Op-Ed writers. Brooks is a writer that I have personal connection to; significant people in my life often claim him to be the example of a conservative with a great writing style. Despite having the politics of a syphilitic feudal ruler, his sentences alone are supposed to lift him into high regard. So I decided to give myself a small challenge. I took four of Brooks’s recent Op-Eds and solely focused on close reading them. I ignored the political issues at play, and concentrated on his rhetoric. And what I found, consistently in his writing, was a lack of clearly defined meaning. Where a normal essaywriter would place clearly defined terms so that their arguments are clear, Brooks instead chose to use vague catchphrases.
Let’s take a cue from screenwriting, and go through a montage of idiocy: In “Trump Ignites a War Within the Church”, Brooks describes an ongoing conflict with the conservative evangelical community; he describes the Trump supporters as people “detaching from reality” as if by magic, rather than attempting to explain how Trumpism could have appeared in the church’s context. He never defines what this detachment from reality is, only plasters it onto the issue - those who have stayed within the evangelical church but criticized Trump are normal, while any of Trump’s Christian supporters are monkey-brained cultists who don’t deserve inspection.
With “The Case for Biden Optimism”, Brooks claims we should have faith in Biden due to the fact that, rather than taking part in factionalism, Biden is a moral being, a term he never defines so that it can mean anything besides the boogeymen of “The Left” or “The Alt-Right”. This concept of morality, and how it is different from the terms “leftist” and “alt-right”, is never explained. Rather than actually clarify, Brooks assumes a shared understanding between him and his reader. There’s a subtextual nod and friendly elbow - you know what I mean.
In “Children Need to Be Back in School Tomorrow”, Brooks rages at the Teacher’s Union, tossing statistic after statistic onto the page that children aren’t that in danger going to in-person school, without ever telling us what argument the Teacher’s Union has presented. Brooks presents himself as the clear and logical thinker through never representing the Teacher’s Union’s argument - he forces his reader into assuming his stance is the logical side by painting the Teacher’s Union into a cult. Brooks is the intelligent thinker and we must assume the Teacher’s Union is not, since we never even hear their side.
Coming back to Biden, in “Biden is Right to Go Big”, the solution to Democrats and Republicans bickering while Americans suffer under the weight of economic terror is to focus on making the country “restore faith in itself” - whatever the fuck that means. Brooks never deigns to tell us. It is a term that can seem appealing to the average NY Times reader. If the country has faith in itself, then we all feel good and everything bad go bye bye. Because it is never defined or made material, there is a comfort to the empty phrase. It presents the attractive bliss that comes from ignorance.
As can be seen, Brooks does not work with concepts such as “arguments” or “clearly defined terms”. His articles utilize eye catching phrases to imply meaning. “Faith in our country”, “social failure”, “moral being” etc . He avoids any actual argumentative statement, and when he picks a side, he depicts his opposition as illogical apes rather than explaining why he disagrees with them. It seems Brooks prefers to work in aesthetics rather than actual argumentative content. And it’s a smart strategy. Readers of all political backgrounds can fit their own beliefs into his phrasing. Democrat and Republican alike can feel comforted that they want the country to “restore faith in itself”, without the potential stress of actually being challenged by Brooks’s writing.
By drawing his readers in to his writing via implied meaning, rather than with actual logic, Brooks's writing works similarly to propaganda. Yet, I would not argue that he is an intentionally devious actor (or at least, not anymore). Rather, he is using a technique to grow his appeal. The vaguer the term, the wider the net of relatability. And the more people who read Brooks and come away feeling smart, the more who will buy one of his books. His vacuous technique is a sales pitch to potential customers.
Since a writer is as much a salesman as any other craftsmen, Brooks is doing the sensible thing. Rather than invest in a good product, he invests in a product that sells easily. Yet, when dealing with politics, this tactic is a major abdication of responsibility. Brooks speaks from a towering pulpit, yet his words are blind to their potential influence. And the readers of his work walk away unprovoked, with undefined terms to back up possible dangerous beliefs. For a writer who constantly worries over the lack of intellectual discussion in America, he fuels a type of thinking that never questions itself. And thinking that never questions itself only ends in a culture that devours itself.