Spiking the Football with David Brooks

What kind of politics writer can't even use a sports metaphor properly? Most of them, actually.
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The secret to effective fatuity is staying hydrated.

Screencap via CharlieRose.com. Brooks/Lin photoshop by Sorry Your Heinous.

Those of us who write thousands of words a week in order to make hundreds of dollars will always have some sort of Hatorade-saturated issue or other with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who writes hundreds of words a week and makes millions of dollars a year either despite or specifically because he has more or less no idea what he's talking about. This is doubly impressive because of the way in which Brooks, who is both the opposite of a public intellectual and vexingly one of our best-known public intellectuals, manages to be incorrect and avuncularly over-certain across the entire range of American interests. Whether he's bringing a spork to a gunfight in his argument with Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman about economics or making up names for new and salient types of imaginary rich people in books for finance dads or riffing oddly on Jeremy Lin, religion and sports six minutes before his deadline, Brooks brings a hilariously evenhanded bias to his work. He is dedicated to consensus and reasonable-ness, which is admittedly a better quality in an op-ed columnist than being dedicated to chaos and murder. But he also does not live in the world as it actually exists—his is a world of Interesting New Studies and butter-soft leather furniture—which gives him some amusingly/saddeningly skewed ideas as to what consensus and reasonable-ness actually are.

Brooks is generally informed in the same way that someone who reads both the abstracts of think-tank white papers and Politico is informed, but also absolutely and fantastically cosseted and privilege-bound in a way that would barely have been imaginable even a couple of generations ago. He is the sort of wealthy person who has very detailed ideas about a mostly imagined American Yeomanry; he is a wealthy person with a very easy job and some not-very-unique ideas about "saving" public schools and making businesses More Competitive; he is sad that Some Are Not Comfortable With How Complicated The World Is, which is a nice way of saying he thinks we should get rid of Social Security; he comes up with piquant new names for narrow-to-nonexistent tranches of an already vanishingly small American elite, to and for the delight of that elite. If he has ever talked with an actual contemporary human being at any time, it is not necessarily evident in his work. So of course this is the guy to talk to about ESPN.

To be fair, Brooks's World Wide Leader moment is not the main thrust of his most recent column, most of which is typically Brooks-ian in providing a sane, hugely distanced gloss on Some Surprising New Polls and the poll-tested semi-fact that many Americans like/approve-of President Obama despite not necessarily liking or approving of his policies. There are many places to go from there, with the most helpful and least Brooks-ian being an explanation of how and why those policies are and aren't understood and the massively easier and more Brooks-ian being a riff on political tone and style. Just as surely as Maureen Dowd would respond to this same challenge by writing about Obama's gray hairs or his suit and then dust off a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy joke, Brooks takes the latter route. It runs all the way, for some reason, to Bristol.

The secret to [Obama's] popularity through hard times is that he is not melodramatic, sensitive, vulnerable and changeable. Instead, he is self-disciplined, traditional and a bit formal. He is willing, with drones and other mechanisms, to use lethal force. Normally, presidents look weak during periods of economic stagnation, overwhelmed by events. But Obama has displayed a kind of ESPN masculinity: postfeminist in his values, but also thoroughly traditional in style—hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent.

This seems like a throwaway, if also and admittedly a very weird one; the headline on the piece is "The ESPN Man," but Brooks doesn't write his own headlines and that is the only mention of the WWL in the piece. Which is probably a good thing, if only because someone who defines "ESPN masculinity" as "a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence" or as he did in the quoted bit above really shouldn't be told about such reticent postfeminist restraint-exercisers as Colin Cowherd or Skip Bayless or Chris Berman. This is leaving aside the idea that there is a vision of manliness that involves healthcare policy, which would seem to be the place to leave that idea. Very far aside. Near the garbage can. Just... yeah, there. That's great.

As Elspeth Reeve points out at the Atlantic Wire, Brooks's comparison fits within political journalism's broader continuum of dumb sports-y metaphorizing. And that, beyond Brooks's self-defeating tendency to taxonomize everything and stick a MAN on the end of it—his last book is partially an examination of Davos Man, which is just not at all a person or thing that exists—probably explains this particular Bristolward reach. I guess. But it doesn't quite explain how and why it was so doomed, and is so off.

It's astonishing, given the evident latitude afforded to columnists like Brooks and given how actually interesting the non-electoral aspects of governing a totally insane and ungovernable and wonderful nation like ours actually is, how dull and poor and lifeless most political opinion writing is. That general grinding insipidity—that no one is trying to write beautifully or distinctively, or apparently think in a direction beyond the know-nothing knowingness of "savvy" or glib contrarian provocation—goes a long way towards explaining the consistent presence of oof-y sports appropriations in this sort of piece. Of course it's difficult to incorporate a part of the actual human discourse as we live in it into something so formalized, routinized and wildly artificial.

But, more than it just being lousy writing, there is a distinct and depressing sense of distance that comes with reading all these dialed-in, spiritually be-khaki'ed D.C. types writing themselves in circles about Obama "spiking the football" or "punting" or whatever. It's not just that these sports metaphor is often the only living image in a waste of off-brand snark and to-be-sure equivocation and flatlined evenhandedness, although that is indeed a bummer. It's that the inevitably and invariably off-key sports stuff brings home just how far from regular human idiom the elite political conversation is pitched; this one thing that can be talked about, more or less well, by people all across the spectrum of class and race and lived experience and political and sexual orientation is somehow thoroughly beyond so many who write about politics. Horserace politics writing is not any more interesting or searching than the average knocked-out-on-deadline AP game story, but that aspect of it—certainly much more than anything on the vexing and fascinating process of actual governing, or on how our actual discourse turns such that something like marriage equality can go in a decade from a political impossibility to a fait accompli—mostly dominates the field. To use a sports metaphor of my own, the people who write about politics seem to be the sort of people who talk a lot about Wins and RBIs, because that's what matters. This isn't just a boring conversation, it's a supremely proscribed and narrow one.

That David Brooks doesn't know who or what ESPN even is, finally, is probably David Brooks's fault and definitely his choice. That President Obama actually reads and respects a hapless, overprivileged foof like David Brooks and that he's far from alone in that, is the real pity. That and the apparent fact that Brooks, in researching his column, did not somehow happen to spend a few minutes watching John Kruk. That might've been good for him.


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