What Michael Brooks Meant to Me

Michael Brooks was one of the funniest, most intellectually curious human beings I’ve ever known. He was also deeply committed to creating a better world.

Michael Brooks (1983–2020) wanted to live up to every ounce of his personal potential, and he wanted to live in a society where no one would be blocked by poverty and inequality from flourishing to the fullest extent of their potential.

I met Michael Brooks at a conference in Boise, Idaho in 2018. At the time, we both had book contracts with the same publisher. In the following months, I was lucky enough to read and comment on many, many drafts of what became his excellent book, Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right. Five days after getting the awful phone call from a mutual friend telling me that he was dead, I still keep wanting to call Against the Web Michael’s “first book.”

The conference was organized by our mutual editor, Doug Lain. “Responding to Peterson: An Intervention in Lieu of a Debate” came together after Jordan Peterson pulled out of a planned appearance on Doug’s podcast — and then told Joe Rogan that the reason he hadn’t debated any Marxists was that none of us wanted to talk to him.

At one point in my remarks, I playfully mentioned a passage in Peterson’s book, Maps of Meaning, that begs for a Freudian analysis. Michael interjected with a comment that was both cockily confident and slyly self-deprecating. The implication was, basically, “Oh, I don’t traffic in this fancy intellectual stuff. I just do fun stuff like dunk on reactionaries.”

He pulled that kind of thing a lot. Our mutual friend Bhaskar Sunkara texted me earlier this week to remind me of a moment when we were both in-studio guests on the Michael Brooks Show and Michael told us not to bring “that nerd shit” to his show, and I just about died laughing. But anyone who regularly listened to TMBS or any of Michael’s other shows doesn’t need me to tell them that all the “oh, I’m just an entertaining podcaster” stuff was a schtick.

Michael was without a doubt the funniest human being I’ve ever met, but he was also one of the most intensely intellectually curious. When I got to know him well enough that I’d regularly crash on his couch after a day of working on one of our many joint projects, I’d always note the open books scattered around his apartment. When he took an interest in some scholar like Harvey J. Kaye or Richard Wolff and started making them regulars on his show, he would methodically go back and read every word of their bibliography. He could speak knowledgeably about everything from Buddhist spirituality to the history of the South African Communist movement to the labor theory of value.

Episode for episode, and even segment for segment, TMBS had more intellectual heft than most leftist shows where no one even tries to crack a joke. However, much as he may have teased me on-air about my logic nerdery, the weekly “Debunk” segments where I tried to carefully take apart right-wing and centrist arguments were entirely his idea.

In the Q&A at the end of my Peterson talk, Michael asked a sharp and perceptive question about the internal contradictions of Peterson’s brand of conservative thought. He also threw in a Kermit the Frog–like impression of Professor Peterson himself that had the audience in stitches. The dynamic that you can see between us in a hundred TMBS segments later on was already well established. At that point, I’d known him for one whole day.

On the first day of the conference, Doug took the two of us out for afternoon drinks. Michael talked about politics and our upcoming books while Doug mostly listened. I got some sense of how smart and insightful Michael could be, and he liked whatever he saw in me enough to say, “Hey, brother, I should have you on my show.” But I’ve always thought our friendship started a few minutes later when we were walking back to the conference, and I told a joke at his expense that would have offended a lesser man. Michael tipped his head back and laughed like I’d said the funniest thing he’d ever heard. I can’t take too much pride in that since anyone who watched TMBS knows he laughed like that a lot. I loved seeing it so much that just remembering the moment makes me sick with grief all over again.

There was a tempest-in-a-teapot controversy that week about a video that Doug had made about Marxism and the limits of intersectional analysis. Michael and I both thought the criticisms were misguided. My reaction was to earnestly explain the point to anyone who would listen. Michael’s reaction was to develop, just for the two of us, a comedy bit as elaborate as any that he ever shared with the world. I wouldn’t divulge the details under torture, but in broad outlines I’ll say that he was doing an impression of Doug doing a version of the video that would have actually justified the backlash. He must have come up to me twenty or thirty times that weekend to share updated and expanded versions of the bit while I laughed like a maniac. Later he went as far as to record an MP3 of himself doing the bit and set it to exactly the sort of background music Doug used in his videos. The time and effort he put into developing that routine didn’t serve any function except for making two of his friends laugh, but for Michael that was more than enough to justify the effort.

As funny as he could be, some of my best memories of Michael are of (almost) completely earnest conversations. I remember in particular a night when I was at my parent’s cottage in northern Michigan and he called me from his apartment in Brooklyn. I sat on the porch, looking at the dark woods across the street and drinking a beer while, after the usual twenty minutes or so of talking about our lives and probably longer than that talking about The Sopranos, he spent hours intensely talking through the “cosmopolitan socialist” political and cultural synthesis he was developing for Against the Web.

I’ll write another piece in a few days or a week, when I’m feeling a little more like myself, laying out some of Michael’s vision of socialist politics. For now, I just want to make a first stab, however inadequate it’s inevitably going to be, at capturing what my friendship and political and professional collaboration with Michael meant to me.

In one of his TMBS “Think Tank” segments with Matt Lech and Dave Griscom, Michael argued that the Left should rethink its approach to ambition and the pursuit of personal excellence. We’re often distrustful of that kind of talk, if only because we’re so used to hearing it weaponized by reactionaries who want to blame economic inequality on poor and working-class people not trying harder to rise through the economic hierarchy. Michael grew up in rough financial circumstances himself, and he had a sophisticated understanding of the workings of capitalism, so he saw through that nonsense better than most, but he didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The pursuit of personal excellence is important, and it will be even in an advanced socialist society where we’ve eliminated economic scarcity. We want people to strive to write beautiful novels and win basketball tournaments and develop vaccines that will save millions of lives. More prosaically, Michael knew how politically self-defeating it would be to cede that territory to the Right.

Sometimes he would joke about judging the quality of human beings by whether they were TMBS patrons, but when he threw around words like “brand” that would make other socialists squeamish, he wasn’t entirely joking. He was always looking for new shows to create, new articles to write, new and better ways to put more Michael-ness into the world. This wasn’t shallow careerism. For one thing, he was every bit as passionate about promoting the careers of his friends and political allies as he was when striving on his own behalf. For another, he never let his ambition guide the content of his work.

The video he made with Vic Vaiana about the rise of the “shower posse” in Michael Manley’s Jamaica was excellent and accessible. You could show that video to your apolitical brother-in-law who enjoys gangster movies, and he’d like it even if he didn’t realize how much he was learning about US imperialism and socialist movements in the Global South. But you don’t pick the history of Jamaican radicalism as a topic when you’re hunting for easy ways to expand your audience. (You probably don’t bring on a philosophy professor to break apart arguments every week either.)

He was also smart enough to know that his pursuit of personal excellence in his media career wasn’t in tension with his deep emotional investment in the political project served by that career. He wanted to live up to every ounce of his personal potential, and he wanted to live in a society where no one would be blocked by poverty and inequality from flourishing to the fullest extent of their potential.

Last year Michael was commissioned to write a piece in Esquire. They ended up deciding not to run it, but I’d read several drafts by the time that happened. In it, he talked about times when his family faced eviction growing up. He talked about seeing his mom buy groceries with a Bridge Card and picking up on the social stigma surrounding the use of what were still popularly known as “food stamps.” He cared deeply about creating a world where no one had to have those experiences. He wanted everyone to have housing and food and health care and far more control over their lives on and off the job.

In what may have been the last piece of unpublished writing he ever did (more on that soon), he talked about wanting to be “more mindful” of his speech, “even in critique.” But, especially in the context of intra-left debates, he was already deeply mindful. He enjoyed mocking dangerous reactionaries, but when he was critiquing people who shared his drive for a better world, he always went out of his way to think deeply about what those who disagreed with him might be getting right and to try to integrate it into his analysis.

Michael was only thirty-six when he died. He accomplished remarkable things in the time he had, but he hadn’t even begun to reach his full potential.

He was in better shape than most of our friends — certainly in better shape than me. He ran. He ate healthy food. They’re now saying he died of a blood clot in his throat.

When someone as widely loved as Michael dies that young and in such a senseless and unpredictable way it’s all too easy for us to collectively turn him into a plaster saint, two-dimensional and dully perfect. I want to resist that because I’m interested in keeping alive the memory of the flawed, funny, and wonderfully human person I had the honor of getting so close to in his final years. So I’ll mention one more detail about our friendship.

When I first started making regular trips from my home in New Jersey to Brooklyn to meet up with him, he always suggested a particular Italian restaurant. Michael being Michael, he was almost always at least a few minutes late. Months later when I started doing writing sessions with him in his apartment, I realized that the restaurant he always suggested was literally next door to the building where he lived. That’s such an alpha move that I burst out laughing every time I think about it. And that makes his loss hurt that much more.

Knowing Michael Brooks, collaborating with him, and being his friend shaped me in more ways than I could hope to communicate here. Our professional collaboration benefited me in such obvious ways that not highlighting this fact would feel grotesquely ungrateful and dwelling on it would feel self-aggrandizing. I was one of the biggest beneficiaries of his bottomless generosity in boosting his friend’s careers. On a less obvious level, his attitude toward ambition and personal excellence rubbed off on me more than a little bit in the last couple of years. I’ll never be anything like what he was, but after the last couple of years I’m a lot more Michael Brooks–ish about getting my writing and commentary out into the world than I ever used to be, and I’m glad I am.

Michael’s political instincts influenced me in all sorts of large and small ways, some of which I probably couldn’t begin to reconstruct. We didn’t always agree, but I learned to lean hard on his intuition, and I’ll be worse off without it. And getting to experience his personal warmth and humor on such a regular basis enriched my life more than I could say. Typing these words feels cheesy, but they have the benefit of being true:

I loved Michael Brooks like a brother. The world is a dimmer place without him.