David Brooks’ disappointing response to Charlie Hebdo


For the most part, I appreciate the writing of David Brooks and often find myself in agreement with him. His latest piece, however, is disappointing on several levels. In “I am not Charlie Hebdo” Brooks argues that Americans are essentially hypocritical for being outraged at the killing of the Charlie Hebdo twelve, but tolerant of the restrictions on our own free speech at home:

As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

He goes on to posit the reaction of University administrators should the cartoonists have appeared on a major university campus:

If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Brooks goes on to give examples of restrictions on free speech at home:

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

The rest of the article is a convoluted attempt to make distinctions between those at the “adult table”–who should be afforded respect and attention–and those at the “kiddie table”–who should be ignored or tolerated:

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Of course, as Aaron Barlow points out at Slate, Brooks assumes that he’s a part of the adult table. He summarizes Brooks as follows:

Let’s look a little at what Brooks is saying: The adults, the assumption goes, are the ones who are right, who know what they are doing. They are the elite, the people who should be making the decisions. That the kids sometimes make fun of them is simply something that comes with the territory. It should be tolerated–but not encouraged.

What’s frustrating is Brooks’ choice of examples of the stifling of free speech: the de-recognition of campus groups at Vanderbilt, a guy who got fired for teaching the Catholic view of homosexuality, and a guy who got fired for tweeting against the NRA.


Earth to David Brooks: these are apples and oranges.

After such a lengthy and, frankly smug, ramble about the “kids” and the “adults” it’s startling that Brooks’ examples at the beginning should essentially be such minor examples–examples that fall more into the “kids” than the “adults” category.

A reminder:

  • the de-recognition of campus groups at Vanderbilt
  • a guy who got fired for teaching the Catholic view of homosexuality
  • a guy who got fired for tweeting against the NRA

Two of these is absurd and one of these is disappointing but hardly the same thing as cold blooded murder. Brooks is overplaying his hand, he’s trying to pull off a cultural bluff, and he needs to desists before he makes life more difficult for confessional Christians than it already is.

2 Replies to “David Brooks’ disappointing response to Charlie Hebdo”

  1. Thanks, Jeff, good thoughts as always. But I think you might be misreading Brooks. His point regarding the kids and the adult table had to do with the manner and type of speech of folks like Chatkie Hebdo. We are not Charlie Hebdo because most of us don’t engage in that type of offensive, rude, shock-jock commentary. I’d stop reading your blog if you did it. So you’re not Charlie Hebdo.
    Regarding the hypocrisy, he simply states that perhaps this is a teachable moment regarding our typical speech codes. He’s right. He’s not making the Vanderbilt bigotry on par with terrorist murder, but he’s saying that the hypocrisy is obvious. He doesn’t try to say more than that.
    It’s laudabke that the editors of Charlie Hebdo were brave enough to risk death for their right to speak. But the sort of speech they chose– mocking religion– is enough to make me say I am not Charlie Hebdo. Yet I would fight for a world where one is free to express himself without fear of being attacked. On the university campus, we are trying to shame that world out of existence. No, there are no attacks, and murder is not a weapon. But the folks who shut down civil speech in the name of lock/step bigotry and then announce “I am Charlie Hebdo” are hypocrites. Brooks is right about that.

    Liked by 1 person

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