Current Affairs

We Need More People Like Michael Brooks

The late left broadcaster was a pioneer in smart, accessible, funny political media. His work is a model for us all.

It’s hard for me to accept that leftist broadcaster Michael Brooks is truly gone. He was so present and prolific; his most recent video came out on Monday. He was only 36, had just come out with an (excellent) new book and started a new show with Ana Kasparian for Jacobin. In the 24 hours I’ve had to process his death, it’s gradually been dawning on me just what a catastrophic loss to left media it is. 

Already there are moving tributes to Michael from those who knew him closely, including these from Bhaskar Sankara, Luke Savage, and Meagan Day. Everyone who knew him liked him, and the descriptors they use are consistent: kind, smart, funny, thoughtful. Meagan has a lovely anecdote about how Michael intentionally prompted Cornel West to praise Meagan’s work to make her feel good. I could repeat what others have said about Michael as a person; I had the same positive experiences with him as everyone else. But I’d like to talk about Michael’s work, what made it so good, why it was so useful for the left, and why it leaves such a tragic gap that we are going to struggle to fill.

If you weren’t familiar with Michael’s work, major news outlets like CNN and Fox have published obituaries. (But as of right now, not MSNBC, which would probably have made Michael laugh.) The best way to get to know Michael, though, is to have a look at his YouTube archives. The first things you’ll notice are that (1) his output was immense and (2) he covered an incredibly broad range of topics. In just the last three weeks, even with the pandemic making all of us sluggish and depressed and disinclined to think, Michael had covered:

This is just a selection of material that Michael covered in July. A few things should strike you about it. First, Michael’s interests were incredibly wide-ranging. Second, Michael cared about the things that matter. He was happy to bash hypocritical pundits, but he spent an equal amount of time elevating forgotten leftist heroes from around the world. Third, Michael was an internationalist. While many of us on the left get sucked into focusing primarily on U.S. politics, Michael cared just as much about what was happening in Brazil and Bolivia and Palestine and Kerala. He covered these subjects even though Americans are often less interested in the rest of the world (CNN steadily ditched most of its international coverage because it gets bad ratings.) Michael’s choice of subjects was clearly guided by a humanist sensibility that viewed every life as important. He sometimes liked to talk about trivial bullshit as much as the rest of us do (it’s fun), but he kept his main focus on the things that affect people’s lives the most.

When you watch Michael’s videos, you’ll also realize that his broad range of material did not in any way make his coverage superficial. Michael read deeply and knew what he was talking about. I just watched a video he did a couple of weeks ago about an article of mine on “right-wing populism,” and a subsequent debate I had with Glenn Greenwald. A lot of people misunderstood that article as being about the question of “free speech for fascists,” but Michael began the segment by presenting the argument of the article incredibly fairly and accurately. He had clearly read it closely and thought deeply about the issues it raised. He did not necessarily agree with everything I wrote, but he did me the courtesy of listening carefully, which is the thing a writer most hopes for. Michael was able to use my piece as the source for a rich discussion on a number of issues that it raises, raising points I didn’t think of. 

He always did that. What I most liked about Michael was his “unpretentious intellectualism.” He cared about ideas but he was always accessible. He could have long discussions on political theory but also punctuate them with absurd impressions. He took special delight in tormenting libertarian YouTube pundit Dave Rubin, mercilessly exposing Rubin as a moron. He produced material that made left ideas accessible and understandable to ordinary people, but without sacrificing any depth of thought. 

Michael’s curiosity meant he drew from everywhere. He inhaled newspapers, books, magazines. In 2018 he invited me on his show to deconstruct Charles Murray’s body of racist pseudoscience with him. I was surprised when he invited me because the article I’d written was a year old at that point. But debunking racism was still just as urgent; Michael didn’t let the 24 hour news cycle govern what he covered. If it was interesting, it was worth covering. He wanted to make sure that bad conservative arguments were systematically taken apart and addressed, not just waved away (hence his excellent recurring segment “The Debunk” with philosopher Ben Burgis). Michael also had a strong independence of mind; he was critical of certain left tendencies but was a fierce champion of social justice and had no time for “classical liberal” right-wingers. People on the left liked him even when he challenged them because it was always clear which side he was on. 

Michael has left us with an incredible archive of material, and a solid book debunking the nonsense of the so-called “intellectual dark web.” On Twitter, fans are currently posting their favorite clips of Michael, and there’s plenty for new fans to listen to and enjoy. At first, you might not see what the fuss is about. Michael is very much the “everyman.” He’s not always “polished,” he’s not a thundering demagogue, he doesn’t have a buttery-smooth radio voice. Sometimes he spends a while fumbling to find a clip. But as you listen to more of Michael, you’ll realize that the appearance of ordinariness is deceptive. He’s not hitting you with mile-a-minute talking points like Ben Shapiro because Michael is thinking about what he says before he says it, which is a rare quality in media. 

I do not just want to heap praise on a late comrade. If you did not know Michael Brooks, you might not care how much I liked him. But you should get to know the work of Michael Brooks, because he did something we need far more of on the left. I can think of no other show that has the same combination of smarts, moral conviction, and humor that Michael brought. There is a giant hole where he once stood. He produced incomparable videos deconstructing bad conservative (and sometimes, bad leftist) arguments, elevating non-Western leftist thinkers, and providing quality coverage of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This kind of material is scarce and we need more of it.

The death of Michael Brooks is not just a loss to his friends, it is a loss to the left, and it means we have to do something. We have to try our best to carry on his legacy, to look at his work, see what he managed to do, and take it as a model to build on. The world without Michael Brooks will not be the same. But Michael saw himself as part of the Left, a political tradition that is far more than any one person. That Left has to pick up his banner and carry it forward, to fight for what he fought for, to produce the kind of media he pioneered, to show each other the solidarity and kindness he showed, and to build the better world that he spent his too-brief life fighting for. 

Here’s a great conversation between Michael and Current Affairs editor Briahna Joy Gray. Here‘s a good long-form interview of Brooks by friend of the magazine Greg Belvedere.

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