A voice of conscience for the times

If the writings of American journalist David Brooks were a type of cereal, it would be full of fibre, plain as cardboard, packed with vitamins and be rather dry to the taste, even after splashes of milk.

Brooks, 53, prefers clarity and sincerity to padding and flourishes, which makes the divorced father of three a very divisive writer. Readers know exactly where he stands, and either like or loathe his views.

Last month, he unleashed a Twitterstorm when he wrote his New York Times column as an open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic journal. Coates has just published a book on the AfricanAmerican experience titled Between The World And Me.

After congratulating Coates, Brooks accused him of rejecting the American dream. "My ancestors," Brooks added, "chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life... For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise."

Coates, he charged, saw the United States as a place where "it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage". He then wondered how Coates could admit to looking on at the falling twin towers of the World Trade Center during 9/11 with a "cold heart" and call the firefighters and policemen who died in them "menaces to nature".

Brooks then wondered aloud if he would be a white supremacist if he disagreed with, and stood up to, Coates' view that any black person in the US was fated to have his body broken.

Many who read his column took that to mean that Brooks was asserting that being white was might.

But a more careful reading of that open letter will show that what Brooks actually meant was he could not accept the past enslavement of blacks as the cause, or even justification perhaps, of high crime rates among them. "I think you distort American history," was Brooks' bottomline to Coates' book.

The Twitterverse raged for a few days over his comments, but has since died down.

Born in Toronto, Canada, to American parents stationed there, Brooks is an alumnus of the University of Chicago.

He became a columnist for The New York Times in 2003, after editorial and reporting stints at The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the radio station National Public Radio.

Since 2013, he has also taught a course on philosophical humanity twice a week at Yale University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'A voice of conscience for the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe