Michael Brooks Was a True Internationalist

Michael Brooks believed that every person, regardless of where they were born or where they lived, was worthy of fundamental human respect — and his dream was to create a more just world, not only for Americans, but for every working person on Earth.

Michael Brooks knew that we’re all connected — politically, yes, but also spiritually and morally.

I first met Michael Brooks in the spring of 2018. I had just released a book, and our mutual friend Christy Thornton suggested I speak with Michael and see if he’d be interested in interviewing me on his show. Much to my surprise — and excitement — he agreed. I went on the Michael Brooks Show (I admit I had never listened before) and was immediately impressed with Michael’s perspicacity. The questions he asked made clear that, unlike some other interviewers with whom I had experience, he had read the book and was actually interested in some of its more arcane subjects, such as Weimar-era socialism, the US national security state, and the struggle between social scientists who favored quantitative approaches and those who embraced qualitative approaches.

I didn’t expect to hear from Michael afterward — after all, I was just some random guest he interviewed one time — but he must have liked something about me, and soon he invited me on TMBS again to talk about US foreign affairs. Our intellectual conversations quickly developed into a friendship. Whenever I visited New York City, I hung out with Michael, and he quickly entered into my text rotation. If I had a thought about foreign affairs, I’d text Michael; if I came up with some dumb joke, I’d text Michael.

And he was literally the only person in my life with whom I had regular phone conversations. The first time he asked me to chat on the phone, I thought it was for TMBS. I went to my office, closed the door, made sure there was no noise, and picked up when he called. About fifteen minutes into the conversation — I believe we were talking about internal left-wing politics — I asked if we were recording. No, Michael responded — he just wanted to catch up and see how I was doing. I was surprised — millennials don’t talk on the phone — and a bit embarrassed I had assumed we’d only chat if it was recorded. We’d have many phone conversations over the next couple of years about US foreign policy, the Left, and what I believe was his true passion, the history of radical liberationist politics abroad.

I’d like to emphasize this last point. Michael, more than most other thinkers I know, was a student and promoter of left-wing internationalism. He was a humanist in the truest sense of the word. For Michael, every person, regardless of where they were born, or where they lived, or their race, gender, or economic status, was worthy of fundamental human respect. It was for this reason that Michael made sure TMBS, unlike any other US-based show of which I’m aware, devoted itself to investigating, and, frankly, just making Americans aware of, the histories and politics of other places, particularly those in the Global South.

TMBS was the only show where one could listen to informed disquisitions about the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the places so often ignored, and even forgotten, by those of us who live in the imperial metropole. What other podcast sells a sweatshirt with an image of Thomas Sankara and his beautiful quote, “the enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance”? What other show sells a shirt with an image of the globe and a list of Los Angeles, New York, São Paulo, and Palestine?

In our personal conversations, we’d regularly talk about figures like Toussaint Louverture, Benito Juárez, Patrice Lumumba, Jacobo Árbenz, and Kwame Nkrumah. Michael was always dedicated to learning about the histories of the places shaped, and often destroyed, by the country of his birth. But he wanted to do so on their own terms, never viewing the histories and politics of foreign countries as functions of the United States. He did more than most any other figure in US media to popularize the plight of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, making hundreds of thousands of Americans and people the world over aware of Lula’s unjust imprisonment.

Michael was a true internationalist. What makes his passing so awful is that, in the last months of his life, we had extensive conversations about how he wanted to take some time to live abroad. He probably wanted to move to Latin America, a region for which Michael had particular passion; he mentioned Costa Rica often. One of the many tragic things is that he was unable to do so.

Michael is also unable to see to completion the many, many projects with which he was involved. It remains to the rest of us in this inchoate US left, a left so long removed from power, to realize Michael’s dream of creating a more just world, not only for Americans but for every working person on Earth. Too often, the conversations we on the US left have are confined to our own nation. What Michael did on TMBS, and what he personally wanted, was to expand the American left’s imagination to include every person suffering in the world under the triple horrors of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Michael knew — he understood — that we’re all connected — politically, yes, but also spiritually and morally.

Before concluding, I must mention one more thing. In the last months of his life, Michael and I had many conversations about the ways the Left has tended to devour itself with internecine fighting that does little but help those in power. Michael was, like many of us, becoming increasingly exhausted with the sniping; unlike many of us, he was searching for a more productive and comradely way to engage with others to unify the Left and build a better world. Michael wanted us on the Left to be able to forgive one another for past mistakes, to recognize that all human beings are able to grow, change, and evolve over time.

Michael was just beginning to take notes for a book project that would have addressed this subject, and he happened to send me these notes the night before he passed away. I’d like to share here a lightly edited version of how he concluded these notes (don’t worry, Michael always let me edit his stuff as I saw fit):

I’m writing this with great clarity and great fear. I feel in the last few years I’ve finally reached some form of adulthood, through serious inner work, as a minor public figure. But today’s culture feels like living in an episode of Black Mirror. I’m deeply imperfect and have made many mistakes. We all need to start owning our mistakes in order to achieve actual transformation. Regeneration, not destruction.

Regeneration, not destruction. No one could have said it better. Rest in power, Michael — you will not be forgotten.

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Daniel Bessner is the Pyle Associate Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington; a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

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