David Brooks isn’t good at his job

TW: islamophobia, abilism, violence against protesters

Sadly, that’s the inevitable conclusion of his column yesterday, which concerns the coup in Egypt. Now, while I’ve contributed myself to the various analyses on how the now deposed President Morsi effectively alienated just about every major political bloc in Egypt, I’ve been careful to state that this was a coup and that it does present a worrisome precedent (that the Egyptian military can veto democratic elections when leaders become unpopular). President Obama seems to have attempted to skirt the issue even more than me, with his policy declarations (that if elections aren’t quickly held, there will be ramifications) treating this as something like a potential coup, dependent on whether the military inhibits or facilitates further democratic representation.

Of course, that’s a rather binary way of thinking – that this is either a democratic reboot that’s liberating Egyptians from an increasingly unrepresentative and abusive government or a coup that risks undermining the revolutionary changes still underway in Egypt. Why can’t this be both? David Brooks, often considered to be the thoughtful conservative contrarian in the United States, doesn’t challenge that presumption that the events in Egypt are either one or the other. He actually opens the piece by saying:

Those who emphasize [the democratic political] process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup. […] Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy.

His position as a writer for the New York Times, I would hope, involves either informing people of what they don’t know or challenging them on what they already hold to be true. But from its outset, this column does neither. It works with well-reported information on Egypt, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of news, and it works with that established dichotomy of what could be considered to be happening in Egypt, so it avoids much in terms of useful analysis. The only purpose of this piece seems to be to confirm conventional thought: beginning with a very simplistic understanding of the coup.

The piece continues, however, and lends Brooks’ support to all sorts of common views of Muslims. He argues that it should be anyone and everyone’s goal to “weaken political Islam, by nearly any means” without assessing why political Islam is so powerful. The politically and demographically diverse countries he lists as having proven the failures of “political Islam” include Iran – which is something of an iconic example of how corrupt, undemocratic, but secular governments in predominantly Muslim areas have made Islamist politics seem attractive.

Opposition to “political Islam” by people like Brooks has taken “nearly any means” including in this case apparent military conflict. An alternative that works with well established populist notions of justice (as assorted Islamist movements have) and often seems to the average person more committed to peaceful conduct and representative government is going to attract more supporters.

Brooks has just embodied why Western efforts to “democratize” predominantly Muslim countries has failed – because it refuses to consider what democracy, justice, or liberation necessarily include from the perspective of average people in those nations, and often uses drone strikes, occupations, and other acts of violence. With distressing frequency, it’s people like Brooks who win out in terms of what governance in the Middle East or Mali or any other part of the Islamic world should look, and not the people who live under those governments.

Not content to leave it there, Brooks searches for the cause of this mismatch between his beliefs and theirs, ultimately reducing Muslims the world over to fanatics who have no concept of objective facts outside of their own opinions. He seeks out legitimacy for this position by quoting one Muslim at a pro-Morsi rally (one Muslim to speak for a nation of ) and in more depth the analysis of Adam Garfinkle, of the The American Interest. That’s, of course, a paper that our good friend Niall Ferguson often comments at, so you should anticipate a high level of critical thought there.

In any case, those radical views are according to Brooks the only viable political voices within civilian government in Egypt and potentially the whole Muslim world. Never mind whether Egyptians elected Morsi or someone similarly distasteful to Brooks, he can declare them “outside the democratic orbit” and therefore proclaim that a coup against them is justified and also not a coup (since its illegal for the US to provide foreign aid to governments which came to power through coups). Brooks has apparently declared that all civilian politics from an ill-defined region or social group are predisposed to making “democratic deliberations impossible” since they’re inevitably Islamists who “lack the mental equipment to govern”. Yes, Brooks just said that some unclear portion of the world’s population (Islamists? Middle Easterners? Muslims?) are too stupid for democratic government.

Of course, the government Brooks is glad is gone because it “cracked down on civil society” and “arrested opposition activists” was a civilian administration and therefore falls under his criticisms, but the military interim government which has already killed peaceful protesters is only “bloated and dysfunctional” with nary a mention of those and other violent acts, since they committed them while being secular. After all, Brooks and his audience know that Islamism is “the main threat to global peace” and therefore this isn’t even about the democratic processes Egyptians should feel entitled to participation within or even their basic rights to protest – it’s actually all about Brooks having the freedom and right to live in a world without politics influenced by Islamic beliefs.


(Islamist protesters in Egypt carrying another protester who had been shot by the military in Cairo earlier today, from here.)

When it takes quite a few more words to evaluate how a columnist failed to inform their readers about the world, take another look at how to piece together information, or even quite obviously made their coverage all about them, we have a problem. David Brooks is officially no longer providing a public good, and consequently should come under review by the New York Times for whether his abilist and islamophobic coverage is something they should really pay for.

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2 thoughts on “David Brooks isn’t good at his job

  1. […] racism, racist criminalization, islamophobia It’s only been only two weeks since David Brooks’ staggering statements in the New York Times about the intelligence and “political DNA” of Egyptians (phrased vaguely enough to mean […]

  2. […] without even realizing it. More often than not, it seems like it’s well-off writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are called out by fellow White people for classism, when racism is […]

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