The Radical Legacy of Michael Jamal Brooks

A year ago, the U.S. Left mourned the unexpected death of Michael Brooks, a progressive political commentator and host of “The Michael Brooks Show,” a weekly podcast with over 140,000 YouTube subscribers. Today, the Left has many lessons to learn from his life’s work. 

I’ll cut to the chase: Michael was the funniest man in left-wing media. Years before the irreverent “Chapo Trap House” or the salacious “Cumtown” podcasts spawned the rise of the “Dirtbag Left,” Michael’s refreshingly provocative humor stood in stark contrast to the stereotype of leftists as the uptight social equivalent of hall monitors. From his time co-hosting “The Majority Report” to launching his own show, Michael was known for his sense of humor—not to mention his iconic laughter or his impressions. However, Michael was no mere shock jock. 

Years before the modern resurgence of a Pink Tide across Latin America, Michael excelled as an international journalist. While nominally progressive shows like “Last Week Tonight” offered milquetoast centrist analyses of the Mexican and Brazilian Left, Michael provided nuanced coverage of these movements, as well as critiques of common paternalist tropes surrounding their portrayal. As his former producer Matt Lech put it to me a year ago, “We realized that if we could get enough people to stick around, we could fulfill a very important need in focusing on global politics.” 

Most notably, Michael and his team were far ahead of the curve in reporting on Operation Car Wash, a judicial coup in Brazil that led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro and temporary imprisonment of former Brazilian President Luiz “Lula” Inácio da Silva on trumped up charges. For his efforts to support the Brazilian Left’s campaign to free Lula, Michael earned a face-to-face interview with the former president alongside journalists from Brasil Wire.

“What we were doing was pushing an idea of a strong, internationalist U.S Left that could connect with movements all around the world,” said David Griscom, a former contributor to “The Michael Brooks Show” who spoke to me a year ago. He added that one of Michael’s unique skills was his ability to maintain multiple relationships and cultivate entire networks of people committed to socialism.

From anarchist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky to Lacanian firebrands like Slavoj Zizek or Leninist academics like Vijay Prashad, Michael gave his audience a variety of perspectives, some which he didn’t always agree with. In the current political climate, where social media often rewards those with more outrageous or unproductive takes, old episodes of “The Michael Brooks Show” harken back to a time when the Left seemed less petty. Michael understood that the Left needed to overcome its self-sabotaging tendencies if it wanted to win. 

For him, the key was understanding how young people could be radicalized online by the right-wing and learning how to win them over. Months before his death, Michael published “Against the Web,” a book that critiqued the Intellectual Dark Web movement of the late 2010s. In it, he analyzed figures such as Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, dismantling their talking points one-by-one on a variety of subjects. 

Although Michael never bought into the histrionics about college campuses destroying Western civilization—an idea he took joy in mocking at every opportunity—he never shied away from critiquing the Left. He particularly noted the ways toxic in-group tendencies on the Left could undercut successful class politics and drive people to the right wing. Michael held a personal mantra that he would frequently repeat, “Be ruthless to systems; be kind to people.”

Lisha Brooks, Michael’s sister, entertainment writer, and head of the Michael Brooks Legacy Project, who spoke to me soon after his death, added that he was especially concerned with the balkanizing effect of liberal identity politics, which he saw as easily weaponized by opponents to fuel infighting on the Left. 

Of note, he saw how the 2020 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders suffered a setback from rumors that Sanders had told a fellow candidate, Elizabeth Warren, that she couldn’t become president because she was a woman. “Michael was a strategist and a realist,” Lisha said. “He saw that rather than building bridges for the kind of world we want, identity politics, and all it gives rise to, destroys, rather than creates, the possibility of those bridges.”

This type of critique was distinct from economic reductionism. Rather than flatten everything to a simplistic universal perspective or treat differences between people as irreconcilable, Michael pushed the necessity of using class struggle as a tool to celebrate the different racial, national, gender-based and sexual liberation movements across the globe. In “Against the Web,” he concludes that “we should all strive to emulate the curiosity and rigor of the great Christian revolutionary intellectual Cornel West, who explores the echoes between Anton Chekhov and the blues with no interest in drawing artificial lines between cultures.”

While “The Michael Brooks Show” no longer runs regular episodes, its YouTube channel reruns old ones on a weekly basis. Lisha currently leads a venture called The Michael Brooks Legacy Project, which was made to celebrate Michael’s life. After the last episode of “The Michael Brooks Show,” Lech and Griscom started a new show called “Left Reckoning,” a spiritual successor to the work that they and Michael did together. 

What’s given me hope today is re-watching clips of Michael speaking truth to power. To date, several episodes of “The Michael Brooks Show” remain timeless primers on complex topics. Following the assault on Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, the artist Halsey briefly shared a video of Michael speaking about the necessity of Palestinian liberation, garnering millions of views. 

One of Michael’s favorite quotes was a paraphrased Pablo Neruda line, which he learned from Lula and refashioned for himself: “Those in power can kill one, two, or three roses, but they will never be able to stop the coming of spring.” Although the Left may be at a crossroads, Michael Brooks’s lifelong dedication to social justice continues to guide us toward a better future.