David Brooks and the Myth of Pre-Political Land

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Friday, at the New York Times, David Brooks waded into environmental history. I haven’t seen environmental historians reacting to his column, “This American Land,” which is a curiosity, since our field rarely appears on the Times Op-Ed page. We should weigh in.

Brooks observes two things worth noting. First, most presidents, he claims, experienced deep connections with nature, but the current temporary resident in the Oval Office seems satisfied driving a cart around manicured golf courses. Although I question Brooks’ characterization of most American presidents having a close connection to the natural environment (especially Ronald Reagan whom he specifically named), it’s obvious Donald Trump couldn’t care less for the land unless it could yield oil or could grow gilded hotels.

Second, and more importantly, Brooks believes that part of the solution to the nation’s deep divisions might come through the land. His final two paragraphs explain this:

These days I often ask people what percentage of our nation’s problems can be solved through policy and politics. Most people say that most of America’s problems are pre-political. What’s needed is a revival of values, fraternity and a binding American story.

I don’t know all the ways that revival of spirit can come about, but even in the age of the driverless car and Reddit, I suspect some of the answers are to be found in reconnecting with our ancient ideals and reconnecting with the land.

Like many environmental historians I suspect, I find succor in the final phrase and hope–that we might heal the nation by starting with healing the land. That’s a place where my expertise points me, a site where my professional and political instincts intersect.

But we shouldn’t be be fooled by Brooks calling us back to the land. He sees such an endeavor as pre-political. In this, his ignorance of American environmental history could hardly be greater. Questions of land have always been political; to think otherwise is simply fantasy.

In the column Brooks quotes venerable writers in the environmental tradition, such as Thoreau, Muir, and Wendell Berry, and some who appear less often in environmental history pages, like Samuel Adams, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, or Walt Whitman. This is Brooks’ style–a breezy nod toward authorities followed by a quick summation that makes him appear the insightful expert. In this column, Brooks idealizes three American types who identified with the land–The Steward, The Pioneer, The Elevated Spirit. “These types wove together to form the American mythos,” asserts Brooks.

By Messina, John, 1940-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464458) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The problem with Brooks’ reading of the environmental past is that he genuinely sees our nation’s connection to land as pre-political. This is a ludicrous proposition.

The foundational story of the nation–the dispossession of the continent from its indigenous occupants–is missing. The ways yeomanry facilitated Native dispossession and the ways it intersected with the expansion of slavery and the environmental ills of plantation agriculture occurred not for a second to Brooks. The continued environmental racism faced by farm laborers and inner city residents and Cancer Alley victims is not pre-political to be solved by “clearing brush,” just as did presidents Bush and Reagan.

Getting the president out of his electric cart and into one of those (shrinking) national monuments might be a nice gesture, but it would be an empty one and won’t heal our divisions. Brooks might begin by recognizing that “our” connection to the land is not an all-inclusive, unproblematic, ancient ideal that he suggests. Our nation’s environmental story is shot through with power and privilege, inequalities and divisions, racism and hardship. In short, it is like everything else in the American past. Anything else is another whitewashing of the past. Brooks and the Times should know better and do better.

2 thoughts on “David Brooks and the Myth of Pre-Political Land

    Steven Danver said:
    August 28, 2017 at 8:49 am

    Thanks for posting this, Adam. Yes, as with nearly everything in the Age of Trump, historians and other humanities and social science scholars need to be increasingly vocal in speaking against a society and political power structure that marginalizes expertise (by calling it elitism), in favor of the quick, pithy Tweet that reinforces the voter’s pre-programmed proclivities. It appears that Brooks, much like the venerable Gipper, has a basic disconnect between personal experience and policy. I don’t doubt for a second that Reagan had a “connection” to the natural environment. He, by all accounts, loved to spend time in a natural setting. However, his personal appreciation of nature never came close to impacting his administration’s environmental policy. It is this basic head-in-the-sand attitude – that nature will “always be there”, no matter what actions are taken that adversely impact our ecosystems – that characterized Reagan then and the vast majority of Americans today. Our wild areas cannot act as the balm Brooks would like them to if the current administration’s move to plunder them gains more traction…and that most certainly *is* a political matter.

    Gregory Cushman said:
    August 31, 2017 at 9:44 am

    And we must not forget that other American type: the Extractor (or put less kindly, the Rapist). I am currently reading John McPhee’s Annals of a Former World, and there aren’t many moments sadder in the genre of nature writing, than when McPhee and David Love, probably the most important field geologist in Wyoming state history, go to visit the isolated ranch where the latter grew up. Love’s parents combined the persona of the Pioneer, the Steward, and the Elevated Spirit (thereby ridiculing the idea of these types), but as a geologist, Love felt a professional duty to serve the Extractor, as well. Love’s abandoned childhood home had been ransacked by uranium miners–who had learned that these very sedimentary basins could be ransacked for uranium because of Love’s own discoveries. Love did the only thing he could think to do when faced with this irreparable tragedy of his own creation: he got the hell out of there.

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