We've been seeing, hearing and reading a lot of pseudo-funny churlishness from Brooks – a lot of Brooks, period. Maybe NPR, PBS, and Times audiences have been calling in, demanding, "More David Brooks!" More likely, editors and producers think him a conservative congenial to liberals like themselves. It doesn't hurt that many conservatives think him a traitor. But could a sophist be a conservative at all? Can't we have a conservative with integrity? The latest Brooksian overkill forces that question.There is a reason why the blogosphere has great contempt for Mr. 'I understand middle America because I am smarter than them' Brooks and Tom 'dead Iraqis are fine as long as the Arabs learn a lesson' Friedman. The reason is simple. They are wrong about the big issues far more often than they a right, but they count on the collective amnesia of editors, producers and readers to ply their "wisdom."
Sophistry is clever but misleading reasoning. The conservative historian Russell Kirk described the ancient Greek Sophists as I'll shortly portray Brooks: "'realistic,' sardonic," able to pass off trickery or intimidation as righteous persuasion. They were "impelled by their passions and low interests, their illusions, even at the moment they claimed to speak as practical logicians and champions of common sense…. Sophists taught the young men of Athens… the way to material success, especially through public speaking before the assembly or in cases at law." Too few students noticed (or regretted) that Sophists led them "not to truth but to worldly success."
The alternative to sophistry isn't really pure leftism or conservatism. Demanding either would let Brooks off the hook, for no American-republican thinker with integrity can be ideologically consistent. What we need is clarity about which principles you're advancing and about your difficulties in reconciling them. Sophistry puts great intelligence and rhetorical charm at the service not of reasonable truth-seeking but of perversity and power. People like Brooks are drawn to it not intellectually but characterologically.
But what about his editors, producers, and on-air interlocutors? The most memorable portrait of Brooks' sophistic evasions is by Nicholas Confessore in 2004 in the Washington Monthly. I've occasionally sketched his evasions myself. The old saw about New York editors is that they don't think; they "do lunch," and there they learn what to think. But it is unfair. They simply don't have time to read and think about pieces like the above.