The Dangerous Revisionism of David Brooks

Sam Mellins, University of Chicago

David Brooks’ columns are usually fairly insubstantial think pieces that discuss “big ideas” without including any actual substance. Serious thinkers would do well to, and generally do, ignore them. However, his column on September 16 presented a revisionist view of American history, and specifically race in American history, that I believe is extremely dangerous, and needs to be addressed. Below is his column in red, interspersed with my annotations in grey.

This column is directed at all the high school football players around the country who are pulling a Kaepernick — kneeling during their pregame national anthems to protest systemic racism. I’m going to try to persuade you that what you’re doing is extremely counterproductive.When Europeans first settled this continent they had two big thoughts. The first was that God had called them to create a good and just society on this continent. The second was that they were screwing it up.

Any serious student of history knows that one making a claim of this magnitude must do two things. First, and most important of all, one must provide supporting evidence. A claim of this magnitude could be the basis for an entire thesis. A responsible intellectual cannot state this claim as fact in the space of two sentences.

The corollary to the responsibility to provide evidence is the responsibility to acknowledge the existence of alternate perspectives. How would the thesis that the purpose of colonization was the creation of a just society be  challenged by the fact that American Slavery is almost as old as the colonial project itself? What about the fact that the genocide perpetrated against the original inhabitants of the United States has its roots in the very beginnings of English colonization with the Pamunkey Massacre in 1623, where English colonists fatally poisoned approximately 200 Powhatan tribespeople?

The early settlers put intense moral pressure on themselves. They filled the air with angry jeremiads about how badly things were going and how much they needed to change.

This harsh self-criticism was the mainstream voice that defined American civilization. As the historian Perry Miller wrote, “Under the guise of this mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization.”

This single sentence, taken out of context, seriously misrepresents Miller’s view. Miller, who devoted his career to the study of Puritanism, certainly placed importance on the ideological convictions of the Puritans, but by no means taught that they had no other motives for colonizing. In his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, he stated, “The hope of material advantage played a tremendous part in tempting people to colonial shores and shaping their life in the new scene.” This nuance is entirely lost in Brooks’ analysis, who speaks as if the Puritans are motivated by ideology and nothing else.

By 1776, this fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism had become the country’s civic religion. This civic religion was based on a moral premise — that all men are created equal — and pointed toward a vision of a promised land — a place where your family or country of origin would have no bearing on your opportunities.

Aside from one sentence written by slave owner Thomas Jefferson, the founders by and large did not believe that all men—and certainly not all people—were created equal. The founders in no way believed in racial or sexual equality.

Jefferson himself said, in the chapter discussing African-Americans in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “In general, their [Blacks] existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection…Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior…” The Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages.” And it requires a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that the document containing the three-fifths compromise could also be the foundation for a government holding racial equality as a value.

Neither were the founders especially fond of sexual equality. John Adams, in reply to Abigail Adams’ famous request to “remember the ladies” in the formation of the new government, admonished her, “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems…We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all of our brave heroes would fight.” For Brooks, it might be revelatory to know that John Adams considered the civil equality of women so dangerous that he was willing to fight a war to prevent it.

The founders were also intensely opposed to popular democracy. James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, said that the Senate should be designed to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” noting that “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.” The son of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, noted in his biography of his father that his father was fond of saying that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” And John Adams declared “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Over the centuries this civic religion fired a fervent desire for change. Every significant American reform movement was shaped by it. Abraham Lincoln wrote, “If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not entirely unworthy of its almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country.”

While Lincoln was by far the president most sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans at his time, his public statements do not suggest that he believed in racial equality any more than the founders themselves did. In his debates with Douglass, he said, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” There is a popular, and very plausible narrative that Lincoln did in fact believe in racial equality and was at the time of the above statement simply saying what was politically expedient. But the debates with Douglass should at least give us pause when considering Lincoln’s status in the pantheon of American heroes.

Martin Luther King Jr. sang the national anthem before his “I Have a Dream” speech and then quoted the Declaration of Independence within it.

        What Brooks misses here is that this was done fundamentally in the context of protest. King was saying that the ideals contained in the Declaration are ideals that we should aspire to, but he was also saying that these ideals had never been realized. The ideals themselves, while noble, do not make the nation noble independently of its realization of the ideals. King was not saying that we should be patriotic, or honor the civic religion. He was calling on America to be what, since its founding, it had claimed to be. Moderates like Brooks tend to forget King’s extremely serious criticism of the nature of the American enterprise. Brooks and co. don’t like to mention that MLK, speaking in 1967 to a personified America, said, “Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” Moderates don’t like to talk about how in 1967, speaking at Riverside Church in New York, King said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

This American creed gave people a sense of purpose and a high ideal to live up to. It bonded them together. Whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.

Over the years, America’s civic religion was nurtured the way all religions are nurtured: by sharing moments of reverence. Americans performed the same rituals on Thanksgiving and July 4; they sang the national anthem and said the Pledge in unison; they listened to the same speeches on national occasions and argued out the great controversies of our history.

The African-American relationship to the American ideal has always been complicated. In 1852, Frederick Douglass, speaking to an all white audience, expressly contradicted Brooks’ description of the 4th of July as a ritual shared by all Americans, saying, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham…” 112 years later, Malcolm X echoed the same sentiment in stronger terms, saying, “If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they’re already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet.” To claim that all Americans, and especially all African-Americans have always viewed themselves as part of the American story and participated reverently in the civic religion is a claim that is tenuous at best.

All of this evangelizing had a big effect. As late as 2003, Americans were the most patriotic people on earth, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Recently, the civic religion has been under assault. Many schools no longer teach American history, so students never learn the facts and tenets of their creed. A globalist mentality teaches students they are citizens of the world rather than citizens of America.

Brooks cites no evidence to support these claims, but the data from the most recent survey in 2011 do show abysmally low levels of historical literacy. But there’s also the issue of false historical narratives. Texas textbooks still talk about “workers” being brought from Africa instead of slaves. We need to know history, but we need to also reevaluate existing narratives, and look for ways in which our history has been misunderstood. David Brooks’ revisionism fails to do this entirely.

Critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates have arisen, arguing that the American reality is so far from the American creed as to negate the value of the whole thing. The multiculturalist mind-set values racial, gender and ethnic identities and regards national identities as reactionary and exclusive.

There’s been a sharp decline in American patriotism. Today, only 52 percent of Americans are “extremely proud” of their country, a historical low. Among those 18 to 29, only 34 percent are extremely proud. Americans know less about their history and creed and are less likely to be fervent believers in it.

Brooks implies that there is a correlation between knowledge of American history and pride in America, that one who knows more about his country will be more loyal to it. But that is an unfounded assumption that he doesn’t try to prove. There is no reason to believe that if Americans knew their history better, they would believe that America more has more fully fulfilled its creed. Assertions like this do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

Perhaps Brooks is referring to a sort of general reverence with which most countries treat the singing of their anthem. I fail to see in what way the singing of the anthem in itself expresses gratitude or a commitment to ideals, and Brooks does not explain.

If he’s referring to the words, the anthem doesn’t discuss freedom, equality, liberty, or any other traditionally “American” values beyond a reference to “Land of the free and home of the brave.” The anthem is fundamentally about the flag, and only obliquely about the values that the flag represents. And as the Intercept recently discussed, the third verse of the Anthem, while not sung as part of the anthem that we know, expressly celebrates the death of the “hireling and slave.” This refers to American slaves recruited by the British in return for promises of freedom from their owners, who were then killed in the American defense of the “land of the free.”

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism, which erects barriers between Americans and which is the dark opposite of America’s traditional universal nationalism.

Brooks here talks about Trump as if Trump emerged from a vacuum, as if Americans existed in racial and class harmony with each other and Trump came along and messed it all up. Trump wasn’t successful because he erected barriers between Americans. Racism and Xenophobia are well entrenched in the American consciousness, and have been since before the beginning of the Trump phenomenon. In 2012, the A.P. found that anti-Black attitudes cost Obama two percentage points in the general election, equaling millions of votes lost. In June 2015, shortly after Trump began his campaign, the Pew research center found that 41% of Americans believe that immigrants are a burden on the country. Trump was successful not because he created barriers but rather because he exploited these already existing. In fact, Trump’s racist rhetoric is mostly not original, or exceptional within the Republican party. The claim with which he began his campaign, that Mexican immigrants bring “drugs,” “crime,” and “are rapists” is really quite similar to claims made by other politicians on the national level in the past several years. In June 2010, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona made the entirely false claim that immigrants in the Arizona desert were leaving beheaded bodies to be found by law enforcement, and was subsequently reelected by a margin over over ten percentage points. In February 2014, notorious racist and white supremacist Congressman Steve King of Iowa said that granting citizenship to illegal immigrants was a bad idea because, “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”  Donald Trump did not invent racist rhetoric, and Donald Trump himself is not what’s wrong with America. Trump’s racism is a symptom of a much more fundamental illness.

I hear you when you say you are unhappy with the way things are going in America. But the answer to what’s wrong in America is America — the aspirations passed down generation after generation and sung in unison week by week.

These two sentences are so fundamentally meaningless that it’s hard to know where to start. What does it mean that the answer to what’s wrong is America is America, aside from the fact that David Brooks likes to paraphrase Bill Clinton? What does it mean that the American aspirations that he speaks of—whatever they are—will, simply by being “passed down”, fix what is wrong with America?

Aspirations, much as David Brooks would like to believe otherwise, are not self-actualizing. For aspirations to become a reality, they require masses of people to become active agitators for those ideals, not just in thought but in deed.

Colin Kaepernick, in kneeling during the national anthem, is using the one public platform readily available to him as a professional athlete to draw attention to what he perceives as an issue deserving of national attention and concern. High school and college athletes, in imitating his act of protest, give themselves a voice and draw attention to the issue of American racism. What else could a high school athlete in Florida or Massachusetts do that would garner national coverage and lead to discussions of institutional racism and police brutality? I’d be curious to know what David Brooks would suggest.

We have a crisis of solidarity. That makes it hard to solve every other problem we have. When you stand and sing the national anthem, you are building a little solidarity, and you’re singing a radical song about a radical place.

We do indeed have a crisis of solidarity. It is the same crisis to which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. drew attention in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” 53 years ago. It is the crisis of the White Moderate. In King’s words: “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate…who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.” David Brooks exemplifies King’s white moderate: a believer in the ideals of equality and justice, but also a believer in the system that oppresses and denies speech to those who wish to fight to make those ideals a reality. He critiques those who attempt to make change without offering a plan for how the change they seek should be achieved.

The reason Brooks’ worldview is so dangerous is that his moderation, combined with his historical revisionism, gives rise to a fundamentally flawed imagining of America. Brooks’ America is an America where our rights were given to us at the signing of the Constitution, and have, as our republic developed, come closer and closer to realization through a presumably organic process. In Brooks’ America, King’s citation of the Declaration of Independence is more worth mentioning than the 30 times he was arrested, more worth mentioning than the thousands of young and old people who were brutalized at the hands of the America he so idolizes for demanding the racial equality that America had denied them for 250 years. Colin Kaepernick, and those who are following his lead, know, that in the words of historian Howard Zinn, liberties are not given, they are taken. They, unlike Brooks, know that any right worth having is a right worth fighting for, and if that earns them the disdain of the White Moderate, that is a price that is more than worth paying.