David Brooks is the Worst

If I hadn’t graduated from Rice a year early, my commencement speaker would have been New York Times columnist David Brooks. I dodged a bullet. Brooks’s op-ed today is the worst newspaper column I have ever read.

The past week’s NSA surveillance revelations have been shocking, on one level, and not at all surprising, on another; I’ve been sorting through a lot of opinions and talking to friends with different viewpoints. But maybe we can all take a moment to agree that David Brooks is the worst.

In his column today, Brooks vents out all his intensely personal loathing for Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee and contractor who leaked out details of the U.S. government’s spying on Verizon phone network data and emails, chatlogs, video-chats, and other information from Facebook, Google, Skype, Yahoo!, and Apple users worldwide.

As a quick recap: the Verizon phone records, handed over by government demand and officially sanctioned by a kangaroo court appointed specially to approve such demands, disclose to the NSA all Verizon business (not cell or home) phone users’ call data, except for the actual recorded conversations. (Callers’ names are not disclosed, but given the other information provided, and the existence of Google, they’re easy to find.) Meanwhile, the NSA has direct access to the servers of all the internet companies listed above and more, allegedly without their permission, but insists it only spies on non-citizens of the United States.

Assuming you believe the government when it says it’s not spying on U.S. citizens (and do you? really?), the alleged warrantless entry into American servers might be criminal, and both programs are incredibly broad and terrifying, given that the public was never given a chance to approve or even debate them. Nobody asked us.

But set aside my opinions and listen to David Brooks’s opinion of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

David Brooks

While contemplating Brooks’s highly punchable face.

“[Snowden] betrayed honesty and integrity.” This said about a man who revealed dishonesty and deceit in others, and who has so far not been dishonest himself.

“[Snowden] made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.” Of course, the same is true of whistleblowers everywhere, from Enron to doctors who believe their patients may commit acts of violence to the soldiers who point out how much sexual assault there is in the U.S. military.

“He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries.” Translation: “Why would you ever turn against somebody who gave you a lot of money? You should be thankful and do whatever they say.”

“He betrayed the cause of open government.” He did this by opening up the government to inspection. Brooks does have a point here, though, because Brooks is saying that the Obama administration will only become more secretive after these leaks. That’s true. But it’s not Snowden’s fault if our government responds by behaving even worse. It’s our government’s.

“He betrayed the privacy of us all.” Here Brooks is arguing that now the government’s going to have to secretly spy on the world’s emails without oversight some other way. (Obviously that’s the only option.)

“He betrayed the Constitution.” The ultimate irony: David Brooks really thinks that Snowden “betrayed the Constitution” by exposing a secret government practice exempt by collusion from constitutionally-mandated checks and balances, unaccountable to the people at large, and almost certainly entailing violations, intended or not, of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In other words, Snowden betrayed the Constitution by pointing out that somebody else was betraying it.

And then there’s Brooks’s description of Snowden, his analysis of why Snowden leaked the information he did:

“…he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments. If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.”

Snowden himself said that he acted out because he was worried about constitutional transgressions and angry that nobody was accountable, and because he saw that it’s only our government’s goodwill that keeps its machinery from being used to build an authoritarian police state. David Brooks says Snowden acted because he’s 29 but hasn’t married or had children, and because he doesn’t feel loyal to his family, country, or church.

Reading David Brooks, you get no idea of what Snowden said or found. You get the idea that an entitled bum who doesn’t know what loyalty is because he doesn’t have kids or a house of worship unilaterally decided to leak some government secrets for kicks. The government, in Brooks’s telling, had nothing to do with it.

Indeed, reading Brooks, you get a portrait of a guy who undermined privacy, honesty, integrity, open governance, and the Constitution. How? The guy revealed that our government is undermining privacy, honesty, integrity, open governance, and the Constitution. The column is all upside-down and opposites, which is understandable, since David Brooks has an ass where his head should be.



Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

5 responses to “David Brooks is the Worst

  1. Caitlin Miller

    Well done sir.

  2. It’s worth noting that the FISA court judges have a measure of political independence — they’re appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for seven-year terms. Not sure what this says about claims that it’s a kangaroo court.

  3. Patricia

    The constitution is all about standing up to governments who are using their power for tyranny. That is basically its whole deal! But then, I’m a childless 20-something so I probably know fuck all.

  4. Alex,
    Though FISA court purports to be an independent oversight authority, it does not behave that way in practice. In 2012, the court received 1856 surveillance requests and approved 1855 of them without revision. In fact, over 2010-2012, that record is 5179/5180, or 99.98%.


  5. Judge Richard Posner argues that “The correct inference is that the Justice Department is too conservative in seeking warrants. The analogy is to a person who has never missed a plane in his life because he contrives always to arrive at the airport eight hours before the scheduled departure time. The effect of our legalistic culture is to cause law enforcement agen- cies, notably the FBI, to avoid not only violating the law but also steering so close to the wind that they might be accused, albeit groundlessly, of violating the law or of being “insensitive” to values that inform the law, even when those values have not been enacted into law.”


    Somehow I doubt his explanation, given the government tendency to overreach on surveillance, but I don’t have the evidence to pick one interpretation or the other.

    (The article that comes from is an interesting defense of state surveillance; for a direct counterpoint, try this one from Daniel Solove: http://ssrn.com/abstract=990030)

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