Reading New York Times columnist David Brooks can seem a bit like reading the biblical book of Isaiah: lovely phrases that convey an inspiring vision of a people dedicated to the salvation of the world.
In an era when right-wing populism has captured the White House and seems poised to capture France and other European governments as well, many within America’s educated classes applaud Brooks’ measured eloquence, keen insight and dignified pride in what America has accomplished.
Alas, both Isaiah and Brooks are more problematic than they seem.
Isaiah the prophet imagined a Jewish state as mighty as the horrid Assyrian and Egyptian empires (see Isaiah 19:19-25). A hundred years later—long after Isaiah’s death—his vision died as the Chaldean army destroyed Jerusalem and exiled Judah’s elite to Babylon.
Still later, someone other than Isaiah penned the inspirational vision contained in chapters 40-55 (what I refer to as 2nd Isaiah): a people who would “not grow faint or be crushed until [they had] established justice upon the earth,” who would live as “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:3, 6). This vision was articulated at a time when Israel did not even exist as a state, but only as an ethnic group subject to the rule of Persia. Indeed, 2nd Isaiah tells us, the apparent weakness of the Jewish people was an integral aspect of their mission of justice. Though “despised and held of no account . . . oppressed and afflicted,” the Jewish people would “make many righteous” (Isaiah 53: 3, 7, 11).
That’s right, the apparent weakness of the Jews would be used by YHWH to bring justice to the world.
Brooks, the genteel cheer-leader for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US-led air campaign over Libya to help Salafist rebels bring down the government of Libya, the US collaboration with neo-Nazis to carry out a coup in Ukraine, and the US partnership with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to use al-Qaeda and ISIL as mercenary forces against the government of Syria, is not a 2nd Isaiah kind of guy.
Instead, Brooks is a propagandist for the empire, though not in the brash, in-your-face style of Donald Trump. Brooks prefers a sunny imperialism wrapped in velvet, communicated without raised voice or hyperbole, pleasing to the eye, touch and ear.
Consider Brooks’ description of “America’s true myth” in his latest column, “A Return to American Greatness.”
“[It] was embraced and lived out by everybody from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan. It was wrestled with by John Winthrop and Walt Whitman. It gave America a mission in the world — to spread democracy and freedom. It gave us an attitude of welcome and graciousness, to embrace the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and to give them the scope by which to realize their powers.”
And consider Brooks’ description of the current political debate:
“Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project? Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?”
It isn’t just David Brooks; there are many like him among the Eastern Seaboard political elite. By and large, they defend the US-led empire by framing the key question this way: do we want an imperialism characterized by benevolence or brutality?
Or, to put it more baldly, do we prefer our pig with or without lipstick?
Followers of Jesus immediately recognize this is a deceptive and false choice: deceptive because there are not two kinds of empire, one benevolent and the other brutal; false because there is a non-imperial choice—the apparently weak yet surprisingly effective way of the 2nd Isaiah and Jesus.
As I see it, Brooks is almost certain to fail in his attempt to revive faith in the lipstick-smeared American myth. The lies and deceit that have accompanied the destruction of Yemen, Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Iraq are still fresh in our minds; 9/11 and the distortions and cover-up of the post-atrocity investigation are recent memories. Not so far back are the horrors the US inflicted on Central America and on Iran during the ‘80s and the US launch of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the ‘70s and ‘60s the US ravaged Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and before that Korea.
Many millions have died in these imperial wars. So long as a broad swath of America prospered, most Americans were content to ignore the empire’s brutality—sweep it under the rug, as Brooks proposes to do again.
But now we have an economy where most are losing ground while a few grow ever more obscenely rich. Now we are a society in which suicide and opiates are shortening average life expectancy. Bitterness has set in; people are not in a frame of mind to swallow sweet lies.
Yes, we in the educated classes living along the coasts may be an exception. We desperately want to believe Brooks; he makes us feel so good about ourselves. And it is flattering to think our liberal imperialism is itself the light of the world. Isn’t this why we hardly ever talk about US wars and all the deaths those wars have caused? * Isn’t this why we so obediently have started hating Russia again?
But as the surge in right-wing populism demonstrates, many in the West are increasingly impatient with the velvet façade of Brooks-style imperialism. It’s time to call a spade a spade, this populism is saying, and stop being squeamish about boldly using the full power of the empire.
So how do you think we should respond? Is this a good time to smear more lipstick on the pig? Or should we instead seriously consider the way of 2nd Isaiah?
* For further reflection on our reluctance to discuss US wars and their deadly consequences, see “No Ban! No Wall! No War?” by Richard Moser.