Yesterday I listened to David Brook’s interview at the Aspen Ideas festival back on July 1 in which the New York Times columnist revealed that his son had entered the Israeli army. Friends had pointed out to me the audience’s reaction– some were evidently aghast. Interviewer Katie Couric looked gobsmacked.
“What is it like to be David Brooks’s kid?” someone asks from the audience at about 52:00. “We could call them,” Brooks quips, then says he’s enjoyed fatherhood more than anything else he’s done, and tells the ages of his children, three of them, “so far.”
Couric: What’s your 23-year-old doing?
Brooks: He’s joining the Israeli army, he’s in Israel.
There’s a sort of gasp from the audience. A couple of people make surprised harrumphing noises. Couric freezes, then says, “Really– well that must make you pretty nervous…”
Brooks, arms folded:
He believed in the cause and knew he needed one hard thing to complete his trip to full adulthood. And he was right, and I appreciated his wisdom about himself, and he’s one to do that and he believes in serving Israel.
As William McGowan points out here, there was no shortage of smart journalists at Aspen—not to mention Richard Haass of the CFR and Jane Harman of the Wilson Center —and none of them got this factrino into print till Haaretz broke the news in Hebrew in September, two months later. At which time we jumped all over it, averring that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the public editor of the Times said that the son’s service is an “extreme” case and ought to have been disclosed by the Times.
But no one says anything about it coming out of Aspen.
McGowan thinks people were quiet because the non-Jewish members of the audience didn’t want to be accused of anti Semitism “for even sensing that Brooks’ disclosure had significance” and because a “kind of post patriotic, post national sensibility that regards questions of ‘allegiance to country’ as kind of quaint.” I see it as an emperor’s new clothes moment.We all know that dual loyalty is inherent in the idea of the Jewish people and the Jewish nation and the Israel lobby; well here it is before our eyes, and everyone is stunned then turns away. The blinding flash of the obvious, as Lawrence Wilkerson said of the Walt and Mearsheimer book. And let’s not forget, Brooks pushed the Iraq war.
I must say that Brooks is thoroughly charming in the interview: full of cracks and self-loathing, dwelling on how many people hate him and how easily their views affect his self-esteem, and doling out thoughtful parenting advice. But I was also struck by his romance about community. He runs down Washington, DC, where he lives, as a place where people ask “What do you do?” as the first question, as opposed to small towns where that question never comes up and people judge you by your character. He praises those small communities for their “moral ecology,” for valuing cohesion and stability over mobility and achievement. He makes snarky comments about Aspen and Vail. This small-town conservatism comes off as a bit cheap to me (who lives in one of those places). It’s clear that Brooks doesn’t want to live in one of these towns he praises. Because he values ambition too much. And as he acknowledges, he likes the Establishment. Which is why he disparages his late mentor William F. Buckley Jr. and Rand Paul as anti-Establishment figures, and praises Hillary Clinton to the skies. Brooks belittles the fact that he meets every six weeks with the president, along with other columnists, but he wouldn’t want it any other way. (I bet he whispered, Baghdad, to George W. Bush.)
As for Israel, Brooks seems to love its “moral ecology,” the Jewish part anyway. A day before the Aspen interview, the three Israeli teens had been discovered dead on the West Bank; and Brooks says that all of Israeli society, from West Bank settlers to Tel Aviv sophisticates (Jewish anyway), pulls together in a crisis. He obviously approves of his first son’s choice. Brooks once confessed himself “gooey-eyed” about Israel, which he has visited more than a dozen times.
Back in September a friend said that Israel was Brooks’s chief source of meaning. I see that in this interview. He’s self-loathing about ambition and achievement, the forces that have animated his life, seems to regard them as selfish and shallow. A lot of the jokes he told in Aspen were at the expense of his own work, but Israel seems to be his idea of a small town: a community in which he can locate his need for unity because it’s Jewish (unlike an American community with few Jews where he wouldn’t be able to plug in), the place where his son can grow up and do a hard thing (enforcing a colonial occupation, arresting children in their homes in the middle of the night).
I’ve always liked Brooks because he’s actually interested in meaning and he’s such a clear writer. He should drop the piety about Burke and little American towns and write more openly about Israel.