David Brooks Agonistes, Outsourced to Mr. Charles Pierce

I was going to go all, “Look! David Brooks has written an inadvertent autobiography” in this, his latest and perhaps strangest column.

There are some in the Twitterverse who think that the piece, titled “The Thought Leader,” is actually triple-secret irony, with Brooks — that famously introspective savant — fully aware of the self-parody/indictment.

Me? I think Brooks has the self-knowledge of a capybara, and that he is (or was, until this morning’s point-and-laugh-fest) blissfully, almost heroically gifted with false consciousness, of such total potency as to blind him to the utter vacuum that lies at the core of his life and work.  It takes a special sort of man to surf past salad bars at Applebees to a self-appointed role as the always-wrong philosopher king of American public discourse.


Anyway, despite the end of term slough of despond/mountain of unchecked papers on which I descend/ascend,* I was all set to do a line by line fisking — until I reflected that in this vale of tears we are yet blessed by the FSM with the existence of Charles Pierce.

He does not disappoint.  Admittedly Brooks’ catastrophe of a column is an astonishingly target rich environment — but Pierce rises to the challenge of swatting each and every offering.

For example: here’s Brooks’ lede:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

If that’s Brooks’ serve, see in awe Pierce’s return, an untouchable backhand down the line:

Actually, most little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wishing they weren’t slaves, and wishing they weren’t chasing sheep across a rocky hillside, and hoping they wouldn’t be dead of cholera before they were 15. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of not catching the Black Plague. Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens. Who was left to herd the goats, I ask you.  And something can’t be both a phrase and a paragon, not even If You Capitalize It. Any little boy or girl in ancient Athens could have told you that.

It goes on from there.  It’s not pretty.   Read the whole thing.  Then lie back and grin.

*Just to show I can butcher metaphors with the best of them…

Image: Thomas Eakins, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900.

82 replies
  1. 1
    scav says:

    What a gorgeous painting. I both thank you for it and hold the whift of context you have saddled it with against you.

  2. 2
    Amir Khalid says:

    Why do you hate capybaras?

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    The world needs ditch diggers, too. And seamstresses. We can’t all be archdruids and ranger generals, you know.

  4. 4

    When I read the heading, my first thought was that Brooks must lurk at BJ a lot to write an entire column dedicated to JSF.

  5. 5
    handsmile says:

    Tom Levenson:

    Using that magnificent portrait to illustrate a post about Bobo is so unfair to the painting. (It receives far greater justice as the cover illustration to the NYRB paperback edition of John Williams’s superb novel, Stoner.)

    And with all due respect, you have to do a better job with artists’ names: Eakins! (Mary Cassatt and Aelbert Cuyp were other recent victims.) (so sayeth this art historian)

    And now back to the preferred sport of capturing capybaras….

  6. 6
    Cacti says:

    Speaking of the annals of right wing thought…

    Pat Buchanan posts a love letter to Vladimir Putin on Townhall, declaring him to be “one of us” because he hates teh gayz!

  7. 7
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    So, he’s basically called Putin a Nazi, has he?

    Imagine that!

  8. 8
    Cervantes says:

    I think you meant “antidote.”

  9. 9

    David Brooks seems to be a bit off his game. His two columns last were worse than usual. He was yearning for dictatorship in one and in the second column there was some gibberish about mechanized intelligence. Perhaps the divorce proceedings have been rough on Bobo.

  10. 10
    Narcissus says:

    Jesus, that is some column. I’m gonna go have a drink.

  11. 11
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    DougJ has hacked Brooks’ computer! That explains much…

  12. 12
    max says:

    @Cacti: Pat Buchanan posts a love letter to Vladimir Putin on Townhall, declaring him to be “one of us” because he hates teh gayz!

    Yep. That’s Buchanan reflecting the conservative superego (such as it is). The conservative is busy going REAL AMERICA FUCK YEAH, so they’re backing the local neo-nazis against the Ukrainian leader and hoping for a) WWIII and b) that they could have an American Putin. (Whether or not the Putin they perceive is anything like the Putin they want.)

    @schrodinger’s cat: When I read the heading, my first thought was that Brooks must lurk at BJ a lot to write an entire column dedicated to JSF.

    That was merely the Thought Leader successfully Thought Leading.

    [‘Brooks was so entranced he wrote an entire column while sitting in front of his bathroom mirror, naked.’]

  13. 13
    Tom Levenson says:

    @handsmile: sometimes great art has to serve a sordid purpose. It is a beautiful painting — and you can take it either as a picture of establishment pomposity or as the kind of actual grace-in-thought from which Brooks is forever barred.

    Thanks re Eakins. Tired, etc…but I agree, important to get it right.

    I hear roast capybara is delicious.


    There is one in every crowd, isn’t there?

  14. 14
    handsmile says:

    Further to my comment (#5) above, you might wish to click onto this link for “Ivan Albright” for more appropriate portrait images of Mr. Brooks.


    ETA: TL (#13): Indeed, how art must suffer for the sins of humanity. This Eakins portrait is in the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection – the American Wing – for those besieging the urban hellhole for the holiday season (or thereafter).

  15. 15

    @Villago Delenda Est: That’s a good working theory!

  16. 16
    Cassidy says:

    OT: I just wanted to announce that despite our various front pager’s, Mandalay’s, Kc’s, Fuckstick’s, and the Texas Chickenshit’s (sorry if I missed anyone) conspiracy addled pronouncements about the death of all the holy baby jeebus freedom in America, today is the same as yesterday and the NSA did not, I repeat, did not subjugate everyone in the middle of the night.

    I wasn’t sure if anyone knew that, so I figured a PSA would be useful.

  17. 17
    Yatsuno says:

    @Tom Levenson: Capybara defence league on Line One for you Mr Levenson.

    At the hospital waiting to get called back. Not really sure why I had to hurry here when it’s just a half hour before my report time. Gotta love modern medicine.

  18. 18
    Snarki, child of Loki says:

    What I want to know is: who stole all the mirrors out of Bobo’s house?

  19. 19
    Judge Crater says:

    A very bizarre column. Is it a cry for help or an angry retort? He’s dismissive, but of whom? Who does he really hold in such low esteem? Himself? The world?

    But, basically who cares. The man, as far as we can tell, and his ideas amount to little. If this is his obituary it is as vapid as his career.

  20. 20
    fuckwit says:

    I think it is no accident that the briliant and esteemed Mr. Pierce is Irish-American.

    The Irish have a unique way of noticing, and piercing (hah!) with satire, the balloon of unselfconscious privilege. I think it may have to do with that 500 years of oppression by the particularly unselfconscious and pompous British aristocracy.

    We are lucky to have Mr. Pierce around. And we can only hope that Bobo’s bizarre column was something of a retirement notice. It’s well past time.

  21. 21
    scav says:

    @max: Do you know who else painted himself naked in front of a mirror in the shower?

    and what is it with the gooper gravy train substituting paintings to their mandatory pencils when tin-can rattling?! Is the pretext of writing a book (now even a children’s book) too highbrow elitist for them? Even Zimm has gone direct to paint-smearing!

  22. 22
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Tom Levenson: I hear roast capybara is delicious.

    They make gorgeous shoes out of the skin. Not joking.

  23. 23
    Cacti says:

    I just realized it’s December 17.

    Happy Saturnalia, everyone!

    Solstice is the reason for the season.

  24. 24


    Put Saturn back into Saturnalia….

  25. 25
    danielx says:

    Clearly time for another Brooksian road trip to see how teh poors are surviving. Suggested title for resulting book:

    A Douchebag At Large: David Brooks Views America

  26. 26
    Suffern ACE says:

    I can only guess what prompted Brooks to write this. But it is about the strangest piece of punditry to ever be published in a major US newspaper. What the hell do I care what the life of a pundit is like?

    My guess is that he’s swiping at Ezra or Nate or someone like that. Someone much younger than he has taken his place at the table. (Yeah! You’ll grow old and die in obcurity someday too!). Jeebus.

    ETA: I mean seriously. It’s like a film critic going to see a movie then writing a review that consists of nothing but 1/2 of a conversation that they had with the person sitting next to them about where to buy the best muffins.

  27. 27
    slippytoad says:

    @Suffern ACE: Oh, probably his insufferable need to feel like he matters, which he doesn’t.

    I almost can’t read even a takedown of one of Brooks’ columns, just because it reminds me once again that this pinhead intellect is being paid by one of the biggest newspapers to shart in his drawers.

  28. 28
    handsmile says:


    [Glad to see your nym here, because neglected to write earlier…]

    All best wishes and hopeful thoughts are winging westward through the snow to you on today’s procedure. I’m looking forward to reading your pain-medication-addled comments in the hours and days ahead. Skoal!

  29. 29
    cmorenc says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Following hard on Brooks’ observation about what Little boys and girls in ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence grew up wanting to become, is this even more priceless jewel of oblivious drivel:

    The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler.

    “Yacht to yacht concept peddler” !!! Wouldn’t you naturally assume this sort of creatively over-the-top line came from Pierce’s parody of Brooks, and not from Brooks himself? Does Brooks not leave a printout of his columns in a drawer overnight before a final proofreading before submission – obviously not, or else he’s even more stupendously oblivious than I heretofore thought.

  30. 30
    Commenting at Balloon Juice since 1937 says:

    Maybe Brooks joined a 12 step program and needs to apologize to everyone for everything.

  31. 31
    Belafon says:

    We complain about Conservatives having no empathy, but I think Brooks article points to the true symptom: They have reverse empathy. Brook, like Bush, Cheney, Boehner, and any other conservative, sits around imagining that other people think about how great it must be to be them.

  32. 32
    shelly says:

    What a gorgeous painting. I

    Even the background. All that rich, textured gold.

  33. 33
    Keith G says:

    Having done extensive research work in Greek city state politics and culture many moons ago, I would submit that very few boys (Greek society was so sexually segregated and females lives were so prescriptive that who knows what girls were able to envision – though I imagine that they probably dreamed of being an aristocratic woman with several slaves in service) dreamed of being philosophers. Philosophers as often as not either lived in wandering penury or they served at the pleasure, and on the dime, of wealthy aristocrats.

    No, Athenian boys like most other boys, dreamed of being a respected warrior, and or an athletic champion, or a great orator and civic leader, a skilled hunter or even an acclaimed actor.

    Whenever I see Brooks introduced as a ‘public thinker’, it seems to me that the word ‘attempted’ needs to be added to the intro.

  34. 34
    Chris J says:

    It’s got to be parody. Or some incarnation of Poe’s Law.

  35. 35
    Lyrebird says:

    @Yatsuno: Glad your wit’s ready for all of this! Sending thoughts and wishes of supremely skilled, top-of-their-game medical folks and a speedy & full recovery!

  36. 36
    piratedan says:

    am so glad Senor Self-Important could descend to bestow upon us mere mortals his innermost thoughts. Let us hope his head is one of the first on the pikeheads

  37. 37
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Commenting at Balloon Juice since 1937:

    The only apology from Brooks I’ll entertain is a Captain Needa apology.

  38. 38
    Cervantes says:

    @Tom Levenson: Oh, I should hope so. Life without laughter would hardly be worth the trouble.

    By the way, re your “flash mob” post, I tried to supply a link to the choir and their upcoming North American tour but WP was not having any of it. I’ll try again now (i.e., in 60 seconds) but I do not have high hopes.

  39. 39
    catclub says:

    @Certified Mutant Enemy: Whenever I see ‘Put Christ back in Christmas” I retort ‘Put Thor back in Thursday’.

  40. 40
    PJ says:

    @fuckwit: they get it from their parents, who, with pleasure, pierce the unselfconscious privilege (and aspirations) of their children.

  41. 41
    Roger Moore says:


    Pat Buchanan posts a love letter to Vladimir Putin on Townhall, declaring him to be “one of us” because he hates teh gayz!

    Well, he couldn’t very well say that Putin is one of them because they secretly want to be dominated by thuggish former members of the secret police, now could he?

  42. 42
    Roger Moore says:

    @Commenting at Balloon Juice since 1937:

    Maybe Brooks joined a 12 step program and needs to apologize to everyone for everything.

    Then he should come right out and apologize, not vaguely allude to himself.

  43. 43
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Cervantes: North American tour, huh? Boston on the list?

    Also too: agree re need to laugh. It’s the anecdote to a multitude of ailments.

  44. 44
    the Conster says:

    Weirdly the NYT commenters mostly seem to think he’s on to something, as opposed to on something. Maybe the rest of the readers are still recovering from their gob being smacked and are formulating their responses which, really, can only be “…the fuck?”

  45. 45
    boatboy_srq says:

    Whenever I see Brooks introduced as a ‘public thinker’, it seems to me that the word ‘attempted’ needs to be added to the intro.

    I’m waiting for said “introductions” to morph into announcements of his being left to his [presumed] private thoughts.

  46. 46
    nastybrutishntall says:

    Brooks is mad as hell, and he can’t take himself anymore.

  47. 47
    smintheus says:

    For me, this was the cringiest line in Brooks’ self-portrait:

    The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity.

  48. 48
    DougJ says:

    A deeply unfunny piece but it showed more introspection than usual.

  49. 49
    hoodie says:

    I can’t decide whether Brooks’ column is a cry for help or the unveiling of his new schtick. He may be ditching armchair ombudsman for the everyman (now that even Patio Man knows that Applebee’s doesn’t have a salad bar), and is replacing it with navel-gazing prophet of decline, i.e., “all future commentary is vacuous because I plagiarized it before you did, and was quite well compensated for my efforts, even though it left me profoundly unfulfilled in my modest Cleveland Park abode. I’ll update you on my misery when I return from Davos. Fuck, Davos again?!”

  50. 50
    Mike in NC says:

    BoBo has been hitting that fortified eggnog a little too hard.

  51. 51
    pat says:

    I’m getting a 404 page can not be found, both with this link and Charles’. Did not want to actually read it all, but I thought the comments might be interesting.

  52. 52
    Churchlady320 says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Thank you! It is for the ditch diggers and seamstresses, the auto workers, and the field hands, the people who clean your hotel room and the welders who keep things from falling down that we need to keep pressing for ways to sustain them. Thought Leaders? He pays scant attention to the wisdom of these people he dismisses, people who understand life through and through. They are the ones to whom we should be listening. Not to David. To them.

  53. 53
    TaMara (BHF) says:

    @Amir Khalid: I should have known I’d arrive late and someone smart would beat me to it. Glad it was you.

  54. 54
    catclub says:

    @smintheus: I read your comment and decided he thinks he is psychoanalyzing Barack Obama. [Everybody else does.] That he is actually describing himself just makes it goofier.

  55. 55
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    How long until we lose dear David Brooks to an auto-erotic asphyxiation mishap?

  56. 56
    MattF says:

    I think this is all about that move from Bethesda to Cleveland Park. I’m guessing that, somehow, it didn’t work out the way David expected.

  57. 57
    JustRuss says:

    Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens.

    Amongst the many, many, reasons I love Charlie Pierce is his introducing me to the word spalpeen. Originally, and appropriately, in reference to Rand Paul.

  58. 58
    EconWatcher says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Who got the $4 million house in Cleveland Park in the divorce proceedings? Didn’t they just buy it last year? Not usually what you do when you think your marriage is on the rocks. Inquiring minds want to know what happened.

  59. 59
    EconWatcher says:


    I’ll add that I know all too well how much divorce sucks, and I have some sympathy for almost anyone going through it. But almost. Almost is the key word.

  60. 60
    burnspbesq says:


  61. 61
    J says:

    ‘Paragon’ (I suppose he meant ‘paradigm’) is funny. I’d give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and say it was a slip of the pen or the fault of copy-editing at the Times, but there have been a suspiciously large number of errors like it in the Brooks oeuvre. In one column, newly returned from Britain, where he had been able to rub shoulders with his right-wing British counterparts, he called something a ‘damp squid’ instead of a ‘damp squib’ (‘squib’ = ‘firecracker’, more common in Br. English). Squid, unlike squibs, are at their best when damp!

  62. 62
    Paul in KY says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: You know that’s a compliment when Der Pat compares whomever to a Nazi.

  63. 63
    Paul in KY says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader: Hopefully tomorrow.

  64. 64
    pat says:

    OK, so now I’m getting that annoying “you have read your 10 free articles….” I thought if it was a link, it didn’t count.

    Ah well, I really don’t want to read Brooks anyway.

  65. 65
    Petorado says:

    @EconWatcher: That would explain why Brooks seems to be engaged in tortured introspection rather than his usual finger-pointing. Maybe with a failed marriage on his hands he can no longer sit on his high horse and claim his life is what it is because of his superior morality.

  66. 66
    Gex says:

    PZ Myers took a swipe at this too, before deferring to Charles Pierce.

    @pat: You’d think they’d be willing to give the propaganda away free. It doesn’t work if no one has access to it.

  67. 67
    Anoniminous says:

    Eakins is one of my favorite painters. I stood in front of the Gross Clinic for over two hours when it was hanging in Thomas Jefferson University. (See here for a description.)

  68. 68
    Anoniminous says:


    Good luck on the op!

    Re: Topic Post

    What the hell did I just read?

    Has Bobo-baby developed self-awareness?

  69. 69
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: We may never know the real truth.

  70. 70
    kc says:

    That’s a nice portrait of Colbert!

  71. 71
    Gene108 says:

    @Paul in KY:

    I somehow think the Nazi’s are less popular in Russia than here.

    I could be wrong of course.

  72. 72
    Rex Everything says:

    I agree with him and everything, but Jesus, Charles Pierce is one sorry-ass hack. I love how he tries to pass off the meaningless Cobain groove he stumbles into as clever. And that “Moral Hazard the dog” garbage—dude, it goes nowhere; throw it out! At least Brooks can structure a column.

  73. 73
    Suffern ACE says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: hmmm. Perhaps she left him for a younger thought leader.

  74. 74
    Just One More Canuck says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader: not soon enough

  75. 75
    Cervantes says:

    @Rex Everything: Charlie’s a good guy but I agree with you about his “Moral Hazard” schtick.

  76. 76
    fuckwit says:

    @PJ: Hmm, you know, I’ve seen that. I’ve noticed a few Irish parents seem way, WAY less indulgent and more disciplined about child-raising, particularly with regards to politeness and respect for other people.

  77. 77
    chrome agnomen says:

    if brooks would go into an extended angst-ridden couple of friedman units worth of columns, ending in a plunge from his roof into a dry pool, why i might start reading his stuff now, just to revel in the display. and he would be setting a fine example for many others i could name.

  78. 78
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    In any Charlie Pierce column about David Brooks, I always always know that Moral Hazard is going to lick his ballls, and I always always giggle. Today’s CP offering did not disappoint.

  79. 79
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Pronoun ambiguity. Moral Hazard licks his own balls, not David Brooks’ balls or Charlies Pierce’s balls.

  80. 80
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Villago Delenda Est

    DougJ has hacked Brooks’ computer!

    DougJ called him predictable.

  81. 81
    Ramalama says:

    I love the word spalpeens and have Charlie Pierce to thank for that (and BJ for pointing me in his direction time and again).

  82. 82
    Paul in KY says:

    @Gene108: Putin might not take it as a compliment, but it was meant as a compliment if der Grossenfuhrer said it.

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