Thursday, May 02, 2019

Ezra Klein's 2019 Reboot of "The Arena" With David Brooks Is Exactly What You Would Expect

The following is from Rod Serling's introduction to the paperback edition of Patterns from 1957.  For those of you doing the math, that's 62 years ago.  I have added emphasis indicating where you should read the text aloud in the voice of Rod Serling, because that's just more fun for everyone!
(To practice your Serling-voice, I've embedded video of Mike Wallace's famous 1959 Serling interview which is also full of goodness, including a story of the Right's coordinated efforts to lean hard on sponsors to censor any hint of "liberal" subject matter long before the internet existed.)
Sometimes television is faced with a problem where it is physically impossible to substitute an idea.

Last year I was faced with such a problem when I wrote a script called The Arena, which was done on Studio One. In this case, I was dealing with a political story where much of the physical action took place on the floor of the United States Senate.

One of the edicts that comes down from the Mount Sinai of Advertisers Row is that at no time in a political drama must a speech or character be equated with an existing political party or current political problems. Some of these problems, however, are now so hoary with age and so meaningless in modern, context that they are stamped as acceptable. Slavery, for example, can now be talked about without blushing. Suffrage is another issue that need make no one wince. The treatment of the lunatic in chains and dungeons can no longer be considered controversial.

But The Arena took place in 1956, and no juggling of events can alter this fact. So, on the floor of the United States Senate (at least on Studio One), I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.

So, on television in April of 1956, several million viewers got a definitive picture of television’s concept of politics and the way the government is run. They were treated to an incredible display on the floor of the United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk. 

There were long and impassioned defenses of the principles involved in Bill H. R. 107803906, but the salient features of the bill were conveniently shoved off into a corner of a side-of-the-mouth sotto voce, so that at no time could an audience have any idea what they were about. In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive...
Unbidden, this passage came to mind after I had made it past all the advertisements and was about five minutes deep into Ezra Klein's interview with Mr. David Brooks, "The disillusionment of David Brooks".

And I confess, I did not make it all the way to the end.

But I tried so hard, kids.  Really I did.  I calmed myself.  I recited the Litany Against Fear Bullshit.  I made it past the little joke about Mr. Brooks hoping one day to hear one of his students say that they wanted to become an accountant but their parents insisted on them majoring in Art History.

I even put a little dab of Vicks VapoRub under my nose to get me past the nearly-overwhelming reek of myopic of privilege coming off this interview.

But I failed to make it to the end.

However, along the way, as I recited the Litany to keep my sanity ("Beltway Both Siderist Bullshit is the mind-killer.  Beltway Both Siderist Bullshit is the little-death that brings total capitulation...") I did pick up a few nuggets which may be of interest to future historians who will definitely wonder how a creature such as David Brooks could possibly have been real (See, "In Search of Historic Bobo...")

First, I learned that the rules for "interviewing" Mr. Brooks are pretty much the same as approaching any unpredictable and potentially dangerous animal in the wild.  Make no sudden movements.  Be flattering and agreeable.  Keep your voice even, calm and boring.  Do not bring up any subjects which may cause Mr. Brooks to rear up and charge (unlikely) or scamper back into the brush.

And so the interview was very genteel.   After all, we're all media professionals here.  And we're all big enough to admit we make mistakes sometimes.  Hey, we're even generous enough of spirit to recognize that sometimes the Little People out there in the world who don't have jobs-for-life at major media companies can get kind of, well,  frustrated when they see that many people who do have jobs-for-life in the media are not only immune to criticism, but keep rising professionally no matter how many times and how spectacularly they fuck up.

We recognize it, but of course since no one is ever going to actually do anything about it, or even let the Little People in on the dirty little secrets behind why the "Always wrong all the time" fuck-ups have impenetrable career-armor, we'll just move along to happier subjects.

Such as gingerly skirting around the very deep, very real wounds that have been inflicted on our country by Republicans.  That might make Mr. Brooks uncomfortable enough fake a broken wing and run in circles killdeer fashion until he could safely exit the area. Instead Messers Klein and Brooks chose to speak in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk about nonspecific groups of "people" who join various "tribes".

This was the point at which Rod Serling's commentary about The Arena elbowed its way out of my long-term memory and onto the page.

Furthermore, according to Mr, Brooks, all tribes are formed for equally brutish reasons -- fear, narcissism and ego.  All tribes are equally bad.  And all tribes are equally the enemy of "community".   Which is exactly what you would expect the Pope of the High and Holy Church of Both Sides Do It to say.

I also noticed that the word "suddenly" was used quite a lot.

Keep in mind that Mr. Brooks has spent the last 30 years being paid very handsomely to pretend that he had the inside dope on what was really going on inside his Republican party.  But now Mr, Brooks would very much like you to buy his book based at least in part on the same scam every other Never Trumper is using to sell their books of 90-Second, Microwavable Political Enlightenment.

For example, according to Mr. Brooks, he "suddenly" discovered in 2013 that the Conservatism now being practiced by his fellow Conservatives was "suddenly"no longer the Conservatism he had been championing his whole professional life.  Which is hilarious given that one year later...
The big Republican accomplishment is that they have detoxified their brand. Four years ago they seemed scary and extreme to a lot of people. They no longer seem that way. The wins in purple states like North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado are clear indications that the party can at least gain a hearing among swing voters. And if the G.O.P. presents a reasonable candidate (and this year’s crop was very good), then Republicans can win anywhere. I think we’ve left the Sarah Palin phase and entered the Tom Cotton phase. 
--  David Brooks, November 5, 2014.
Mr. Brooks also spoke of his evangelical friends who "suddenly" discovered in 2016 that pretty much all the evangelicals who were not one of David Brooks' personal friends were exactly the sort of medieval, bible-humping Christopath thugs that many of us on the Left had been writing about for decades.  (Mr. Klein added to the pity-party by confessing to also being shocked to "suddenly" find out in 2016 that virtually all evangelicals were exactly as I described them 14 years ago.)

So given how rich, deep and detailed the critique of the Republican party from the Left has been over the past 40 years, how the fuck did Mr. Brooks -- who, over the course of just this one interview, name-dropped the authors of and quotes from more than a dozen books -- manage to miss all of it?

And considering how comprehensively he blew it, who is Mr. Brooks reading and listening to now to help him back-fill his abysmal ignorance of American politics and American Conservatism?

Tyler Cowen.  Andrew Sullivan.  Michael Gerson.  Peter Wehner.

The same Conservatives he was reading and listening to 20 years ago.



Of course, after some gentle prompting, Mr. Brooks allowed as how, if you're someone who lives on the edge of financial ruin (you know, one of the nearly 80% of Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck) all of this Journey of Self Discovery talk by a staggeringly privileged , middle-aged white guy who successfully scammed The New York Times and PBS and NPR and Yale and NBC and The Aspen Institute and Oprah into underwriting his midlife crisis may ring a little hollow.  But everyone else should buy his book about the amazing journey that led him from the Dark Days of 2013... right back to ...

...The Centrist Ideal of National Greatness...

...The Centrist promise of Party No. 3...

...The Centrist Pablum Solver Caucus...

...The Centrist promise of yet another Third Party!...

...That Centrist Bastion of No Labels!...

...The crack-addict-level compulsion to grab anything -- literally anything at all, from hot goat yoga to magic angel crystals -- that will save me from admitting that the Left has been right about the Right all along...

The Niskanen Center for the Study of the Awesomeness of  Centrism!

After that there was was a short discussion of Culture and Economics in which Mr. Klein very gently suggested that the idea of Socialism as a remedy for the soul-and-community destroying effects of Capitalism (which Mr. Brooks himself had identified) was not entirely without merit.

Mr. Brooks bristled at this suggestion. Because Socialism sucks!  Sure Mr. Brooks is cool with all kinds of Liberal-sounding redistributive social-programs, but Socialism itself (says Mr. Brooks) deals with the Material World and merely substitutes the excesses of the State for the excesses of the Market.

You see, Mr. Brooks contends (from his place at the very apex of wealthy, elite privilege) the problems facing our world are primarily spiritual, and not political or economic at all.  Therefor only Spiritual solutions can save us.

Spiritual solutions which normally retail for $28.00, but are now available to Amazon Prime customers for only $19.36!

Not a literal transcript from the interview:
Klein:  OK, but isn't the history of religion full of savagery and tribalism and slaughter?

Brooks:  Sure, but only because religions are "groups" of "people".
After that I started to lose consciousnesses, but I vaguely remember some back-and-forth about growing up Jewish,  the Book of Exodus, the Beatitudes and other suchlike matters which you are free to listen to on your own time.

And then I stopped listening, because my heart was suddenly brimming with this little prayer:
Oh Lord, when my days are at an end and I stand before Osiris, Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, to be tried for my words and deeds, please make sure Osiris uses the Ezra Klein Standard, and does not ask me a single question of any consequence about anything I said or did during my time on Earth.

Behold, a Tip Jar!


Bruce.desertrat said...

Somoen should sidle up to Mr Brooks an whisper in his ear "The community IS a tribe", then swiftly run away to avoid being covered with the fine mist of Mr. Brooks' brain as it esplod... ah who am I kidding....His brins is fully and completely hardened against the levels of cognitive dissonance that would render a normal human to a gibbering mound of flesh rending it's garments.

Robt said...

The reward from reading this post.

The surprise debut of Bible Bastard.

As foretold in the book of the Liberal Corn Arts
Chapter and verse.

SteveG said...

What a fantastic interview with Rod Serling.

rapier said...

I can't wait until we hear from Brooks what it means when the 1000th robot car gets taken out. That's when the corporations are probably going to decide some blood is in order. Where will Brooks be then. I think we can guess.

Robt said...

Over at the salad side bar.

Many people Jr. said,

(in response to Steven Moore's joke on Obama).

What a day it would be to see a black woman like kamala Harris kick a wealthy white man out of public housing as the first thing she does.

But only does it to help the wealthy white guy pull himself up from his bootstraps he stole. You know, breaking dependency on other peoples money. Like every business under capitalism.

Meremark said...

Compliments on and forced vaccination of the real Wallace (not Chris) and Serling on-air mentoring McLuhan and Warhol, rare stem-cell video to be uniformly presidential-alerted into every phone screen and VR google at this time, on this day and hereafter semi-regular monthly booster dosage, PSA for pixelholics recovery: drifty gigadittoes.

I liked the kinescope of Serling. I saw the original broadcast but I didn't understand so I forgot it. It's just natural to forget things our minds don't understand, like, it never stood as chisled neurons in mental idea at first viewing; I hardly can drop a thing I never held. What a blessing in a second chance when my mental grasp is stronger.

But, drifty, I just want to say sometimes -- today, for instance, reading your work lifts me to heights I surely haven't felt since Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, shit, biffyyears ago, fifteen years after Serling spoke.
You style it differently, (episodically), than Hunter's gonzo one-offs, so what?, it is the unapologetic pride in doing the work that feels uplifting, conspiriting.

Come for the poli-tick, stay for the English. or, vice versa

You might lift your tax bracket with a Hate Brooks title. and paid-appearances tour. (OhIcantstop: Fear & Loathing In D.F.Brooks Times )

Ebon Krieg said...

We have a lot of blame to go around. If you don't see it then we should pack it in and go home.

I will NEVER vote Republican...

I will maybe vote for Democrats.

Do you see the distinction?

In the last 40 years democrats have become the republicans and nobody became the democrats. The Republicans have become that which we hate unless we are rich fucks (which is why democrats became haters of rich fucks.) and we go on in circles.

rapier said...

A little late to this but Salon has an interview that is a sort of wide ranging discussion about among other things the influence of Reformed Christians in the Conservative universe. Most people are not familiar what Reformed Christianity is. If I say it is based upon Calvinism it may barely ring a bell either. You will just have to study this stuff and one should because it is not the same as the Fundamentalism of say Baptists that you may be familiar with.

At any rate the author being interviewed mentioned Brooks among the fellow travelers with this branch of Chirstianism that is so powerfully effecting our politics and culture. For some reason I have never associated Brooks with the Christian Right but now that he mentions it it makes perfect sense.

The odd thing about Brooks is that one can never quite pin down where he is coming from beyond some gauzy anodyne world that never was and will never be. Insubstantial in a way as far as its source. I think this association of Brooks with Calvinism is a way to place him, beyond that gauzy Republicanism.