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“The Waters of Lethe,” Thomas Benjamin Kennington. The river of forgetfulness and oblivion.

One reason I think people find David Brooks insightful is because he delivers a Gish Gallup of abstractions in such quick succession that if the reader isn’t willing to consider what he’s saying for thirty seconds—or is unfamiliar with what he’s written in the past, silently slinking between ideological channels so as to pretend he’s been on the right side of history forever—it seems like he has a point. Add to it that he repeats a lot of myths, which is the subject of his newest column (“A Return to National Greatness,” New York Times, 2/3/17), though ironically his positing of how the Trump/Bannon myth of American greatness caught hold is itself riddled with myths conservatives repeat amongst themselves.

Part of what makes a myth powerful is that is repeated often enough that it becomes ingrained in the culture, regardless of its truth. As a result, even when the myth is repeated without any evidence to support it, it often goes unchallenged because it conforms with what’s considered common knowledge. Brooks illustrates that here:

[The American myth has] been bruised by an educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism. It’s been bruised by an intellectual culture that can’t imagine providence. It’s been bruised by people on the left who are uncomfortable with patriotism and people on the right who are uncomfortable with the federal government that is necessary to lead our project.

One is the idea the left is uncomfortable with patriotism, the other that multiculturalism is bad, or at least useless, or is ruining education, or something. Both of these are pretty standard fodder of the right: the left hates the military and therefore hates America, and multiculturalism is a failed experiment that ought to be abandoned.

Brooks has to leave patriotism undefined, because giving it anything like its approximate meaning would show he’s wrong. The “humiliations of Iraq and the financial crisis,” which he refers to in the following paragraph, were both vehemently denounced and protested by the left. Brooks, though, regularly questioned the patriotism of anyone who didn’t give full-throated support to Bush’s invasion and destruction of Iraq, and has since never recognized his role in aiding the deception of the American people. Here’s what he wrote about Iraq when he worked for The Weekly Standard way back in the day:

In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion–that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed–but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis.

Emphasis mine. Brooks was mocking people who were weighing the decision of whether or not to go to war, comparing them to exasperated pearl-clutchers. He goes on:

But those who actually have to lead and protect, and actually have to build one step on another, have to bring some questions to a close. Bush gave Saddam time to disarm. Saddam did not. Hence, the issue of whether to disarm him forcibly is settled. The French and the Germans and the domestic critics may keep debating, which is their luxury, but the people who actually make the decisions have moved on to more practical concerns

Know why leftists protested the Iraq War and the bank bailouts, and why they continue to protest in the wake of Trump’s inauguration? Because they cannot stand the idea of someone as divisive, cruel, unprepared, unqualified, uninterested, and spiteful lead their nation into the toilet by tempestuous Tweet. This might be difficult to grasp by those on the right, that the left can be patriotic, especially since many on the right identify their patriotism through unblinking devotion to militarism and the left is often critical of military ventures—in this case, one Brooks happens to agree was “humiliating” (a weird word to choose, since it only conjures the idea that it makes America blush bashfully, not that it was and continues to be horrendous for all the people killed or knew people who were killed or were displaced and, well, you get the idea), even though Brooks whole-heartedly endorsed that war and thought little of anyone who questioned its merits.

As for his complaints about the lack of “real” American history being taught (whatever “real” American history is; apparently multiculturalism isn’t part of it) with “shapeless” multiculturalism in its stead, he either doesn’t know what multiculturalism is or is completely unaware that he makes these statements in the very same column:

The true American myth is dynamic and universal — embracing strangers and seizing possibilities.


Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project?

Emphasis mine again.

It’s these kind of contradictions that demand Brooks better explain the meanings of the abstract terms he uses. On the one hand, a main reason the Trump/Bannon worldview has caught on with those in the heartland is because of multiculturalism in history education. Forget the endless string of useless wars, or the decimation of labor unions, or the sacrifice of American workers to the maw of neoliberalism, or continued tax cuts for the rich, or the ceding of ever more power to multinational corporations. Nope. It’s teaching kids in school that it’s people other than whites have a history in America. That’s the reason for Trump.

And so David Brooks gets swallowed by his own myth of a myth. I, too, find the fascistic myth perpetuated by Trump and Bannon to be frightening and destructive. But a second, lesser unfortunate result of their ascendance is that people like Brooks will continue to learn nothing from their own blunders, and their perspective will not be changed. Brooks can never have the America he wants back, because he’s never understood the America he’s lived in.