I can barely bring myself to write this, nor give my friend the tribute he deserves. Earlier today, I got the devastating news of the sudden passing of Michael Brooks.
I first got to know Michael in 2013, when Jacobin was just getting on its feet and Michael was working at the Majority Report. The Majority Report’s host Sam Seder told me that he had first met Michael the year before. Michael had roots in New York City, but spent his formative years in Western Massachusetts and was returning to the city and looking for a job.
Sam needed a producer, met Michael for a drink, and was “immediately struck by his intelligence and his sense of humor and decided to hire him despite his ominous warning that he’s ‘not great with details.’”
That might not have been the best trait for a producer, but Sam found someone with a special talent for commentary and comedy. Before long, Michael became something of a co-host on the Majority Report, helming the broadcast most Thursdays.
It was confusing to me at first. I would be invited onto an outlet that at the time I regarded as progressive but in a liberal way, and have a host ask me about everything from Grenada’s New Jewel Movement to the decline of the South African Communist Party to why the Meidner Plan didn’t end up working in Sweden.
I don’t remember exactly how Michael politically identified at the time, but I do know that he was more intellectually curious than most socialists I’ve met. Michael was fascinated by the world and by the movements people built to change it. He was hungry to cultivate a milieu of people who were both politically committed and loved life.
We’d go out for drinks – at first for beers before we confessed to each other that we both actually never cared much for beer and preferred gin with lots of fruit in it – and chat for hours. At some point, I’d ask him to do some of the impressions his viewers loved like “right-wing Mandela” and “Nation of Islam Obama.” I also got some private ones, like his very good Indian accent (I spent time in 2019 and 2020 trying to teach him some subtle regional differences).
Michael wasn’t afraid of controversy – he was happy to give an outlet to guests who criticized the Left’s less productive pieties. But he wasn’t a shock jock either. Michael could “get away” with controversies because of how he mixed his comedy with earnestness. He truly cared about improving the lives of working people, fighting all forms of oppression, and about international solidarity. There was no contradiction between his criticisms of left-wing “race reductionism” and the fact he went out of his way to platform black and brown leftists new to the media scene.
Sam Seder captured Michael’s skills as a performer when he spoke to me earlier today:
I have worked with a lot of great broadcast hosts and some of the most talented comedians in the country, and what was unique about Michael was not just his intelligence and insight into politics, particularly foreign politics, but his ability to do genuinely brilliant political comedy. I need less than one hand to count how many people I’ve come across who had Michael’s skill in crafting a funny impression or character that was not only a vehicle for political satire but satirical in its essence. It was an amazing and genuinely unique talent that made coming into work each day for me fun.
In recent years, Michael’s politics shifted into a more confident socialism. He never lost his humanism, his spirituality, or abandoned his silent meditation retreats, which made him stand out in the sometimes soulless landscape of political discourse. But he married the warmth he brought from these endeavors with a sharp analysis that recognized the centrality of class and the need for organization. The interplay between these perspectives was behind his vision of the Left: one which could speak plainly to the aspirations of working people but never lose its grander ambitions to change the world.
Branching out from his work at The Majority Report, Michael started building The Michael Brooks Show (TMBS) in 2017. It quickly became an important voice on the Left, reaching almost 130,000 YouTube subscribers and hosting luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Adolph Reed. TMBS was a radicalizing force for huge numbers of mostly young people who were rightly contemptuous of the political establishment but only beginning to discover alternatives. In this way, Michael, much more so than Jacobin, reached out to an audience that did not come from the traditional left – but who soon discovered they believed in its values.
Michael and I had started brainstorming a Jacobin YouTube channel together shortly before Trump’s election, though our plans only started to come to fruition early this year. At first, you could say there was a material incentive behind the partnership for him. Back in 2016, having a foot in another platform would give him some independence from the already-established Majority Report – much as he loved Sam and the show. However, by 2020, TMBS was growing at a breakneck speed and he was both financially secure for the first time and overburdened with work.
I asked him why he still wanted to go forward and his answer was simple: he wanted to help build institutions that would last. Michael believed in harnessing the abilities of large numbers of people, in developing them as protagonists for a greater project, rather than relying on a handful of talented individuals.
So this April we launched Weekends his show with his friend Ana Kasparian, and we were slated to launch a weeknight broadcast called The Jacobin Show, which would be hosted by Michael but feature regular guests from the Jacobin team and beyond. He hoped to train his colleagues, and show regulars, into a stable that could take over from him within a year and a half. We also had plans to build a studio after the pandemic ended, too, offering a space for both TMBS and Jacobin broadcasts and for movement use.
This dream of a vibrant community nurturing left media was fundamental to Michael’s work. Not because he aspired to be an “influencer” with a large individual platform, but because he knew how important it was to build the kind of bonds that you can’t have political action without. It would be easy to attract passive consumers behind a “product,” far harder to help foster real change.
Victor Serge once said – in a line I recently discussed with Michael – that “the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history.” Now that he’s gone, that sounds almost wooden. Michael sought to make the world rather than be made by it, that much is true, but I’ll remember more than his politics. I’ll remember someone who was deeply human; someone who made an impact in those parts of life which politics never quite solves. He was all these things, and he was also an ambitious winner, someone who wanted to take on our callous rulers, and help build a just world, one where accidents of birth don’t condemn millions to misery.
This loss still feels so surreal. I’ll forever miss Michael, for his incredible friendship and his Bill Clinton impression.