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David Brooks, His "Higher Pleasures" and the Kids in Jail

I always find it amazing that whether it be in the bedroom or the den, “conservatives” like Brooks so often want to use the law to enforce their own perception of what is morally correct, what are “satisfying pleasures” and what they deem “lesser pleasures.”


Left Margin

David Brooks couldn’t just give up on marijuana and stop using it onDavid Brooks couldn’t just give up on marijuana and stop using it on his own; it had to be a group experience. He says, “We all sort of moved away from it,” and it “just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.” That was mainly “because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents,” wrote the New York Times columnist in response to the vote decriminalizing cannabis use by the voters of Colorado. He doesn’t give any other examples with respect to “our clique” but his own embarrassing moment was a real corker. “I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class,” he wrote. “I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser.”

Not a good show. What did he expect was going to happen? Hardly an auspicious beginning for a budding public philosopher (or, as pundits have taken to calling themselves: “thought leaders.”)

So David Brooks inhaled. Apparently quite a few times. And he didn’t go to jail. And now he allows that locking people up for having a little weed in their possession is “excessive.”

“The Brooks column is particularly infuriating because in just a few hundred words it perfectly captures why marijuana needs to be legalized,” wrote Matt Taibbi in the Rolling Stone. “Here's this grasping, status-obsessed yuppie who first admits that that he smoked an illegal drug without consequence in his youth, then turns around and tells us, as a graying and bespectacled post-adult, that it would be best if the drug remained illegal for the masses.”

Taibbi continued, “Would David Brooks feel the same way about drug laws if he was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans arrested in weed-related incidents every year (it was over 700,000 people in 2012)? If he'd been prevented from getting a student loan or getting a state job because of such a bust? If he'd lost a professional license, or had his property seized, or even had a child taken away from him?”

Frankly, I found most of the reporting and commentary on the recent case of the kid that got off easy after killing four people while DUI missed the point. I wasn’t as concerned with the sentence the young man got as with the hardly even mentioned larger implication of the case (?). If “affuelza” can be argued as a justification for lenient sentences after breaking the law then what about the millions of people behind bars – some for life – for infractions far less severe than intoxication manslaughter? If being rich means special privilege (what? when?) before the bar, what about the disproportionately black and brown and largely working class youth languishing behind bars?

Nicole Flatow, deputy editor of ThinkProgress Justice, got this right when it comes to marijuana: “People are jailed, fired, and barred from voting for marijuana,” she wrote last week. “Under federal law and the laws of most states, marijuana possession, distribution, conspiracy, and other related offenses are crimes. They carry jail time. They go on your criminal record. They carry all of the collateral consequences that accompany a host of other crimes in this country, including as a barrier to employment and voting, revocation of professional licenses, loss of educational financial aid, lost access to public benefits and food stamps, and can even bar the adoption of a child. This New York City art teacher is fighting for his job back. These teens died in jail. And while Colorado and Washington just made history with their legalization measures, arrest and punishment for drug crimes including marijuana has increased exponentially over the past 40 years, changing the course of countless lives.”

“Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana” continued Flatow. “Brooks smoked pot. Heads of state have smoked pot. To many in America’s privileged class, their marijuana phase is just a blip in their life history, which did nothing to obstruct their life path or career aspirations. They are not the ones who suffer from marijuana criminalization. If you’re black in America, you’re four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, even though all races use marijuana at the same rate. In some states, the disparity is as high as 8 to 1. The overwhelming majority of these arrests are for possession. If you’re poor and black, or if you live in a particular inner city neighborhood, your arrest is a near certainty. Take New York. In 2011, the New York Police Department stopped thousands of young black men under the city’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program. And the number one reason for arrest as a result of these stops was marijuana, even though marijuana is decriminalized in New York.”

Although Brooks goes so far as to say that he doesn’t have “any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time,” he opposes letting go of cannabis prohibition laws.


“But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?” Brooks asks. “What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”

I always find it amazing that whether it be in the bedroom or the den, “conservatives” like Brooks so often want to use the law to enforce their own perception of what is morally correct, what are “satisfying pleasures” and what they deem “lesser pleasures.”

I’m sure there are many people out there thinking it might have been better if Brooks had not stopped at the sitting-around-giggling stage of his early pot experimentation. If he hadn’t he might not come off so often as self-righteous and, well, priggish. He might more often spare Times readers what Michelle Goldberg described in The Nation as his “wistful, self-satisfied moralism.” (As in: “We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”).

____________________ Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of
Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at