Friday, July 17, 2015

Reading David Brooks While Thinking

In my newly-minted tradition of giving the New York Times a much-deserved skewering, I offer the following rewrite of David Brooks' July 17 column, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” 

Again, I’m more or less rewriting large parts of Mr. Brooks' column word for word, but just making a few critical substitutions in order to shift the perspective a little bit.

Dear David Brooks,

Your last column has been an education for me. There has been a powerful depth of cluelessness on the white side of the conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.

Your column, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” is a shockingly tone deaf contribution to this public education. It’s a mind-blowing account of white privilege and obliviousness. Every conscientious American should read it.

There is a pervasive presumptuousness to your column—the elemental privilege of living in a white body in America. Outside anywhere, you must realize, white men control almost everything that matters--most of all the fate of their bodies--which are less frequently commandeered by rapists and police officers than their black and/or female counterparts.

Written as a letter to Mr. Coates, you improbably try to compare your experience to his. The disturbing challenge of your column is your inability to appreciate the experiences of anyone who isn’t a middle-aged white man and their inability to dream the “American Dream” in the same way. Your ancestors chose to come here. For you, slavery is just a chapter in a grade school text book.


I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the baffling, blundering nature of your words fully sinks in. But I have to ask: Am I displaying my absence of cluelessness if I disagree? Is it my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Do I have standing to call you out on your bullshit?

And if I have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy's decision to commit a crime perfectly adequate, notwithstanding the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is still a myth of equality. There's still maybe one Lincoln to every 100 Jefferson Davises, at least when it's a matter of life and death. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of your America, and that's why you don't see it.

In your flippant dismissal of the tone of anger some people adopt to describe the myth of the American dream, you accept the dream itself as a given. But a dream sullied is not a lie (to you), because it's not sullied for you in the first place. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy continues to be more accessible to you than anyone else, even in 2015. By accepting the uniform availability of the dream under a cloud of excessive delusion, you reveal the depth of your privilege and ignorance.

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. So why didn't you just remain silent, then?

Who the hell knows.

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