Our Mr. Brooks, foolish fool
When David Brooks insinuated that critics of neoconservatism are anti-Semitic full-mooners in his column last Tuesday, he didn't mean to say anything of the kind. He was only kidding! He's a neo-comedian.
That's the only explanation offered by the Times Op-Ed pundit in a memo he sent to the paper's "public editor" Daniel Okrent -- which showed up yesterday on the indispensable Romenesko Web site.
That Brooks column featured his usual whine about the decline of reason in American politics, the extremism on all sides, the lack of civility, the frightening polarization, etc., etc. (for which he bears no small responsibility as a former editor of the Weekly Standard, etc.).
But he quickly veered off onto his own uncivil, polarizing and rather extreme tangent -- by suggesting that critics of Bush administration foreign policy who mention the influence of neoconservative ideology are actually targeting Jews. Only foreign journalists and other "unhinged" observers could possibly believe that the neocons have any such power, he wrote, before remarking: "In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish') travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another." And, he concluded: "Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged."
Having analyzed a fair sampling of Brooks' output since he joined the Times last year, I sighed when I read this particular smear of slime on my way home from France. Meanwhile, my colleagues Josh Marshall, Bob Somerby, Eric Alterman and Dan Kennedy, among others, swiftly and capably took up the unpleasant chore of assessing it and its author.
Today it's impossible to resist commenting on his response to his critics. "For what it's worth," he now says, "that neo being short for Jewish was meant as a joke. Nothing more. Most of the people who get labeled as Neocons are Jewish, so I was just sort of playing off that."
Perhaps nobody except Brooks knew of his neo-comic aspirations. Certainly few of his critics understood that when he tarred his friends' critics as anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, he only meant to be funny. On the Times Op-Ed page, the most serious kind of accusation falls within the category of shtick.
Brooks still insists that he meant no insult to those of us who disagree with neoconservative ideas. He was aiming at a far smaller group -- the subset of conspiracy theorists who regard Jewishness as "a handy explanation for everything." Who are these people? Where are they? What do they do? His column mentioned only Le Monde and Wesley Clark by name, lumping them in promiscuously with the unhinged full-mooners.
But now Brooks says only that while he doesn't know how big a "subset" of the neocon critics deserve to be described as anti-Semitic crazies, "judging from my email it is out there." He was just kidding. His entire column was a joke based on some wacky e-mails and a bizarre Web site.
"I was careful not to say that Bush or neocon critics are anti-Semitic," Brooks continues. "I was careful not to say all conspiracy theorists are anti-Semitic." Such cute, "joking" formulations make him a truly worthy successor to William Safire, the aging master of innuendo. (Safire used to "joke" occasionally about the Clintons and their staff being indicted.)
Yet Brooks seems to realize that he imputed anti-Semitism to anyone who discusses neoconservative influence in Washington, even if he doesn't quite have the guts to admit it. In the final lines of his memo to Okrent, he writes: "I am still on the learning curve here, and I do realize that mixture of a crack with a serious accusation was incredibly stupid on my part. Please do pass along to readers that I'm aware of how foolish I was to write the column in the way I did."
Surely his Times editors will be moved by that pleading confession. (Okrent already gave him a free pass.) But Brooks still owes Wesley Clark an apology.
[10:30 a.m. PST, Jan. 9, 2004]