A homage (and critique) of Michael Brooks

He brought internationalism to the US left ecosphere but it wasn’t without shortcomings

On Monday, July 20th, we learned of the passing away of Michael Brooks, co-host of The Majority Report which was the first political podcast that I became a constant follower of. At just 36 years old, every death is a tragedy, more so when it is of such a sudden and unexpected way as a blood clot in the neck (which from what I later read, is exceedingly rare). But more tragic was this happened just as Brooks’ career was taking off. His spin-off podcast, The Michael Brooks Show (TMBS) was launched in 2018 and in just two years had become and important gathering ground of the US progressive left, even managing to bring on luminaries such as Cornell West, Slavoj Zizek, Noam Chomsky, and also land Brooks an interview with Brazil’s Lula da Silva. He had also recently published a book, Against the Web, which is to my knowledge the first counterargument to the right-wing movement known as the Intellectual Dark Web.

If the interview with Lula was the highlight of his podcasting career, there’s a good reason for it. Lula appeared to be Brook’s political hero and shaped (or was shaped by) his cosmopolitan world view which was somewhat unique among the US’s notoriously insular political commentators. For us non-Americans, US news coverage of the rest of the world is something of a running joke, from embarrassing map mistakes on cable networks to a more egregious lack of nuance when analyzing foreign affairs. If they are even covered at all. And while I consider the Majority Report’s host, Sam Seder, probably the finest commentator alive today (on any media) on US politics, Brooks brought a much needed internationalist flair to the podcast, commenting on obscure Latin American and African issues of interest to a leftist audience. Issues that simply would not have been taken up by the Majority Report’s normal coverage had he not been involved.

Is there a global left?

This is not to say that I agreed with Brooks on everything. In fact, I had some serious intellectual disagreements with his attempts to portray a “global left” fighting against neoliberal hegemony, a left which I simply do not think exists. For example, almost the entirety of Brooks’ coverage of Venezuela focused on the US imperialist aspect of it, not on Maduro’s authoritarianism and dismantling of democracy. In one segment when the country was at the peak of its recent political crisis, he claimed that “this is not the time to criticize Maduro”, scarily echoing the same right-wing arguments of not discussing gun control after a mass shooting. His coverage of Mexico was also a bit too focused on vacuous, rhetorically anti-neoliberal actions by the López Obrador government, but no substantive discussion of his grander policies, many of which betray even the most minimal standards of what a progressive leftist would demand in terms of environmentalism, women’s rights, fiscal policy, and basic truth in politics.

Perhaps the synchronicity between the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements in the Anglo-Saxon world also gave the false impression that a global left was real. In Latin America, this is certainly not the case. The vision of solidarity presented by the Pink Tide governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Brazil belied that fact that these were hardly homogenous regimes with vastly different commitments to democracy and social justice. Venezuela and Nicaragua are now full-blown dictatorships that any self-respecting leftist should fully disassociate with and not feel compelled to defend. Tellingly, Lula’s Brazil never made an effort to join the ALBA (Hugo Chavez’ anti-US bloc), keeping its association with the region’s nuttier left-wing regimes at arm’s length. In regions with such disparate levels of political and institutional development, imagining any left-wing regime is somehow an extension of Anglo-Saxon/Western progressivism is a worrying blind spot in much of the Western left. It is what causes well-intentioned Western leftists to mock anti-Maduro protesters outside Venezuelan embassies in Washington and London, assuming they are all apologists for US imperialism rather than legitimate victims of political persecution or an economy wrecked by Chavista mismanagement years before the first US sanction kicked in.

Breaking American insularity

In his defense, it is not easy to be properly versed in the political affairs of more than a handful of countries with anything resembling expertise: as a former political/economic analyst myself I know this very well and has led to constant spells of “impostor syndrome” when added a hitherto alien country to my portfolio. It is also the bane of internationalist shills like Ian Bremmer who often have embarrassing takes on countries that he has clearly never bothered to research. I would like to think that this was the main reason for these occasional lapses of judgment, but herein lies the great conundrum of US international political commentary: some coverage is probably better than no coverage. Brooks may not have gotten all the takes right, but he was talking about Lula’s unjust incarceration, Bolivia’s right-wing coup, Corbyn’s opposition to Tory rule in Britain, among other topics before anyone else was and often the only one doing so. And doing so with his characteristic passion against injustice in all its forms.

At a recent event at the Cheltenham Book Festival where I spoke about Latin American populism, I was later approached by one of the audience members who told me that she had found the discussion fascinating and was now very interested in learning more about Latin American history. Often it takes just mentioning an anecdote of a country that people had no previous knowledge of to spark people’s personal interest. Whether they end up agreeing with your take or not is, in the longer run, irrelevant. This, more than anything else, was Brooks’ great contribution to the US left ecosystem, to break it out of its insular straightjacket. To have done so with the eloquence, passion, and an unnatural gift for comedy (not least his myriad of impressions and that incomparable, borderline maniacal laugh) that he was blessed with was just a bonus.

If neoliberalism is to be defeated, the dream of a global left must become real. Michael Brooks needs to be proven right in the end.

For the record, my favorite Michael Brooks moment was his debate with the detestable Carl Benjamin (a.k.a. as Sargon of Akkad). But if anything best characterizes his gift of merging political commentary with comedy, it’s any segment involving Dave Rubin, such as this brilliantly hilarious Majority Report call.

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