I Owe a Lot to Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks’s quiet acts of interpersonal graciousness were inseparable from his loftiest political aspirations. His untimely death leaves an enormous hole in our lives and on the Left that will never be filled.

Michael Brooks and Meagan Day at the "Class Warfare: The Future of Left Politics" conference hosted by Harvard for Bernie in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 28th, 2020.

The first time I ever heard of Michael Brooks was when I heard directly from him. I’d been writing for Jacobin part-time for only a few months, and nobody was paying much attention to what I had to say. Except for, apparently, Michael. Would I come on his show to talk about an article I’d written?

I was anxious: it was the first time I’d been asked to publicly discuss my political writing. I considered trying to weasel out of it, reasoning that everything I had to say was already in the article itself. That was the point of the whole exercise, to include a limited number of words and ideas and by definition exclude all the rest. I thought I’d said my piece.

Michael thought otherwise. On air, he put me instantly at ease, and guided me steadily through a conversation about my article that touched on the most substantial and insoluble questions beneath the surface of what I’d written. Afterwards, he sent me a note of thanks and encouragement. And then he invited me back over and over until, without having noticed the shift, I wasn’t anxious anymore, and had begun to look forward to his invitations to talk about not only the content but the political implications of my writing.

Whatever confidence I have now that my ideas deserve a hearing, I owe a great deal of it to Michael Brooks.

Michael paid close attention to who said what on the Left. He scoured the discourse for challenging new ideas, refreshing new perspectives, and new people who he could see had started to work something out. Those were the only prerequisites for an invitation to appear on his show — not notoriety and pedigree, not an enormous Twitter following, but mental acquisitiveness and political commitment. As for who possessed these attributes, he relied on his instincts. Michael often invited novice writers to talk with him, so long as they had written something that raised or worked through a compelling question.

Michael found questions irresistible. In his relentless pursuit of the answers to questions that other people might find remotely relevant or insufficiently urgent, he developed an encyclopedic, autodidactic knowledge of the history of global movements against exploitation and oppression, which made him uniquely adept at discussing international current affairs. His global political coverage was unparalleled, and his passing constitutes a serious blow to the project of left internationalism. There’s no better proof of his internationalist commitment than the astonishing fact that one of the first statements mourning his death came from former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

I’ve sometimes wondered why, as Bhaskar Sunkara mentions in his remembrance, Michael was able to “get away” with challenging political orthodoxies, running his hands along the third rail without being electrocuted. I think it’s because it was always evident that his interest in contentious subject matter wasn’t prurient, and his criticism, however rigorous, wasn’t vengeful.

A rarity among those leftist commentators who frequently alight on controversial topics, Michael wasn’t looking to settle scores. His attraction was to the real contradictions that animate our controversies, the ones that slip from view as we enter our fifth or tenth sparring match with an opponent who approaches those contradictions differently than we do.

Political media is quick to bring out people’s ugliness, but I never saw Michael be ugly. In fact, he was unfailingly supportive. For example, I have here in front of me a message Michael sent me in March. Bernie Sanders had yet to end his presidential campaign, and socialists were battling with liberals on a daily basis. On this day in March, Michael messaged me for reasons I don’t recall to tell me to stay safe and healthy, and that he appreciated me. That was it. I don’t remember why. And in fact I think my inability to identify what prompted this message provides a window into his personality and motivations. He didn’t text me to gossip or commiserate. He texted me to stiffen my spine.

Michael wanted a confident Left. Many of us do. But he understood better than most that the Left is made up of people. If the Left is to win, its people must summon the courage to try ambitious things, and that courage requires routine reinforcement from comrades and friends. His quiet acts of interpersonal graciousness were then inseparable from his loftiest political aspirations. He had the same encouraging relationship with his regular viewers, many of whose lives were transformed by Michael in profound ways. Notably, he helped many get up the nerve to cross the threshold from political despair to political action.

Earlier this year at a panel on the Bernie Sanders campaign and the future of class struggle, Michael introduced me to another of the panelists: Dr Cornel West, one of his personal heroes and mine. During some downtime before the panel, he made his introduction ostentatiously, saying, “Dr West, do you read Meagan Day?” West, to my enormous surprise, said he did and offered up compliments, which Michael must have anticipated.

As I blushed, Michael beamed. His wasn’t the pride of a career maneuverer; he was genuinely happy that he had engineered a scenario to communicate to me that my contributions are valued, especially since he knew I’d recently been put through the wringer. Michael was generous like that. But it’s not as if he wanted nothing in return. On the contrary, he expected all of us, sufficiently affirmed and emboldened, to get to work radically altering our obscenely unequal and undemocratic society. He only wanted the world.

Michael Brooks will be badly missed. He can’t be replaced. Nobody had his intellectual curiosity or his ecumenical affection for all those who, like him, had abundant respect for questions. Moving forward without him seems a daunting prospect. But it’s our responsibility now to put the confidence he instilled in us to proper use, by building a Left that can win — and, like he did, proceeding in that project with graciousness, humor, and good will toward one another.