October 10, 2007

David Brooks, still not too bright

Well, after almost a year of no Brooks, it turns out that he's still a moron. Though I have to give him some credit for sticking to observing social trends rather than using them to draw extremely tenuous inferences about politics. And there is at least some data present, and 2 whole references. Though I must admit to skepticism about this data point:

"People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same."

What qualifies as becoming financially independent? Are 30-year-olds equally unlikely to have done all of those 4 things, or is just one skewing the data? And how about the 30-year-olds of 1960? Without this information it's unclear just how much this information actually tells us.

One problem (a common Brooks problem) is that his language is extremely general -- there is no suggestion that the "odyssey years" are only for the college educated -- yet something like this:

"The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for."

Suggests that the "odyssey years" he is describing apply only to the children of the upper middle class and up. And while we're here, this paragraph would seem to conflict with one of Brooks's main definitions of the "odyssey years", that people in them are "delaying permanent employment." Well, one reason for that might be that permanent employment is hard to find these days, as Brooks makes abundantly clear in that paragraph i quoted above. For the poor, of course, permanent employment has always been difficult to find.

The main problem with this article, though, is that Brooks ignores or largely ignores at least two extremely important factors. The first one, which he at least acknowledges, is that the education level of women is rising. More educated women have fewer children, generally by having them later. This in turn pushes back the age of marriage (note that in 1960, the median age of first marriage was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women: now it's 27.5 and 25.5). And since people get married later, they have more time in which they are not burdened by family responsibilities. Instead, they can try different careers, because they don't need to worry about the impact quitting their job has on their kids, or move around without having to discuss each movement with a spouse, etc., etc., etc. This is especially true for those from families in the upper middle and upper classes, as they are in no danger of serious financial problems. (In this vein, it's probably worth noting that the 30-year-olds in 1960 grew up during the Great Depression and WWII, which might have influenced their outlook to a certain extent).

Then there is the question of financial independence. First, consider this chart. Note that the average salary of a 25-34 year old male with a bachelor's degree has been roughly the same since 1980, and the average salary of a 25-34 year old female with a bachelor's degree has been roughly the same since 1990, with variations in both cases of about 10% max. Meanwhile, the cost of college has risen considerably: from 1992-2002, 40% at private colleges and 33% at public universities (ok, I'm not entirely certain if i trust wsws.org, but this isn't exactly a controversial point). So naturally people in their twenties are becoming more financially dependent on their parents to pay off increasingly burdensome college loans. Strangely, Brooks doesn't mention this phenomenon at all.

Instead, Brooks prefers to concentrate on some nebulous "spirit of fluidity" that is apparently suffusing these times, which leads him to some unfortunate writing. For instance, what does this mean: "Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself." As far as i can tell, the first sentence tells nobody anything they didn't already know (wow, childhood is different from adulthood!), and the second one is pretty much meaningless ("everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself"? please). Sometimes i think that part of Brooks's problem is that this format is too short for him. Here, he wants to explore not only changes in the behavior of young adults from 1960-2007, but also the causes of those changes. This requires more than a few-hundred-word column. But mostly, i think that he's just not that bright.

October 24, 2006

Google-bomb the election!

Yes, I'm a lazy bastard who should post more often. However, for now you're going to have to be satisfied with this attempt at google-bombing (via digby) taken from here. It is, literally, the least I could do.

-AZ-Sen: Jon Kyl

--AZ-01: Rick Renzi

--AZ-05: J.D. Hayworth

--CA-04: John Doolittle

--CA-11: Richard Pombo

--CA-50: Brian Bilbray

--CO-04: Marilyn Musgrave

--CO-05: Doug Lamborn

--CO-07: Rick O'Donnell

--CT-04: Christopher Shays

--FL-13: Vernon Buchanan

--FL-16: Joe Negron

--FL-22: Clay Shaw

--ID-01: Bill Sali

--IL-06: Peter Roskam

--IL-10: Mark Kirk

--IL-14: Dennis Hastert

--IN-02: Chris Chocola

--IN-08: John Hostettler

--IA-01: Mike Whalen

--KS-02: Jim Ryun

--KY-03: Anne Northup

--KY-04: Geoff Davis

--MD-Sen: Michael Steele

--MN-01: Gil Gutknecht

--MN-06: Michele Bachmann

--MO-Sen: Jim Talent

--MT-Sen: Conrad Burns

--NV-03: Jon Porter

--NH-02: Charlie Bass

--NJ-07: Mike Ferguson

--NM-01: Heather Wilson

--NY-03: Peter King

--NY-20: John Sweeney

--NY-26: Tom Reynolds

--NY-29: Randy Kuhl

--NC-08: Robin Hayes

--NC-11: Charles Taylor

--OH-01: Steve Chabot

--OH-02: Jean Schmidt

--OH-15: Deborah Pryce

--OH-18: Joy Padgett

--PA-04: Melissa Hart

--PA-07: Curt Weldon

--PA-08: Mike Fitzpatrick

--PA-10: Don Sherwood

--RI-Sen: Lincoln Chafee

--TN-Sen: Bob Corker

--VA-Sen: George Allen

--VA-10: Frank Wolf

--WA-Sen: Mike McGavick

--WA-08: Dave Reichert

June 17, 2006

Special non-Brooks edition: SusanG at Daily Kos

I may be throwing in more non-Brooksiana as I get back on track with this thing: Brooks is just not easy to read on a regular basis. Back when I started, I was used to reading Brooks on a regular basis, in newspapers at home or online. But since I stopped updating this website, I have also stopped reading Brooks: I only see the print Times when I'm at home and Brooks's online columns are behind a pay wall. So it appears that over the last 9 months I've lost my Brooks tolerance: I read two deeply stupid Brooks columns and simply lose my desire to read any more. So I'll be taking this slowly as my ability to tolerate Brooks slowly builds back to its old levels. In the meantime, there is certainly no shortage of stupidity on the web, and today's effort, which has been bothering me ever since I read it, comes from SusanG at Daily Kos, and is entitled "Money is to Liberals as Sex is to Conservatives".

SusanG's hypothesis is that, well, liberals respond to money the way that conservatives respond to sex, that both groups are being stupid, and that there's nothing whatsoever wrong with liberal figures making lots of money. How does SusanG know that there's nothing wrong? Well, that part is not really explained. "I trust them, you see, to use their time and money wisely," she says, referring to various liberal bloggers who are making serious money now. " Liberals can handle money and its accompanying temptation, I'm certain." Why is she certain? Because liberals are perfect and infallible, I guess. Maybe SusanG looked into Kos's eyes and read his soul. At any rate, this line of reasoning should immediately dismissed as profoundly opposed to liberalism (and comes laden with hypocrisy given all the liberal mockery of the Bush administration's declarations that we should just trust them to do the right thing when confronted with questions about the Iraq war or their phone surveillance program), which ought to recognize that anyone, even a liberal, can be corrupted by power. And make no mistake, power is the real question here, not money or sex, and the failure to recognise that is the biggest problem with SusanG's screed.

SusanG doesn't try to actually determine why conservatives are so worried about people having sex outside of a traditional marriage, which is a shame because such an analysis actually reinforces her analogy (though it rather damages her conclusion). Conservatives are often anti-sex because of their religion: Christianity, as they see it, forbids such goings-on. But why should they care about other people doing things they are opposed to? "Because they are outrageous busybodies" is not an acceptable answer. What it comes down to is a question of power: deeply religious Christians believe that all power should lie with God and, of course, God's representatives on earth. By violating God's rules for conduct, including sexual conduct, people are aggregating to themselves power that should belong to God, and this misappropriation of power is deeply dangerous (since power that is not controlled by God will naturally fall to Satan). Thus what seems to outsiders to be a very disproportianate reaction to the idea of gay people having sex follows naturally from a philosophy about the proper distribution of power in society.

On the other hand, the liberal political philosophy holds that power should be equally distributed among the people. Recognizing the practical difficulties of doing this, however, it eschews the easy libertarian answer of simply taking power away from the government with the idea that the people will somehow get hold of it and instead opts for a twofold program of making the government more responsive to the people and then giving more power to the government. For liberals, then, a dangerous imbalance in the distribution of power in society occurs when an individual acquires far more power than other individuals, and the government is given power in order to prevent that. In the real world, this amounts to higher taxes on the rich, with the money being spent on programs to help the poor. Conservatives decry this is as redistributionist, but that is exactly the point: while conservatives only see money as money, liberals see it as power, and are attempting to ensure that the power is equally distributed. That is why liberals are wary of activists who become wealthy: they begin to acquire power for themselves and so have a tendency to lose sight of the goal of power for the people. It's certainly true that this wariness can be taken to extremes: as SusanG says, "But too often in progressive circles, an individual living anywhere above the federal poverty guideline is dismissed as "selling out" or being co-opted." (although, to be fair, SusanG is also exaggerating here). However, to attack these fears as baseless and worse, motivated by a belief on the part of the criticizer that given money, the criticizer would be unable to handle it and succumb to all his worse impulses betrays a lack of understanding that would make David Brooks proud. And to say "The fact is, money is a tool. In and of itself, it is absolutely neutral" is almost inexcusably foolish. Does SusanG also think that guns don't kill people, people kill people? If she can't see that this is ridiculously naive and facile, one wonders just what qualifies her to be a front page diarist at Daily Kos. It's important to remember that idiocy is not confined to one side of the political spectrum or to the "old media": anyone can be a moron if they work at it hard enough, and while SusanG is not in Brooks's class yet, she's clearly trying.

June 13, 2006

God, Brooks drives me crazy

Brooks's latest column is all about how the brains of males and females are fundamentally different, as seen through the prism of their different literary choices, and that therefore feminism is wrong. However, what drives me crazy about this column is not its idiotic premise but the combination of Brooks's fundamental dishonesty and complete inability to construct an argument that makes sense. So for today's piece, I'm going to completely ignore the question of whether or not feminism is wrong -- or, more specifically, whether teaching girly books to boys is driving them away from education -- and focus purely on the basic dishonesties and idiocies of Brooks's argument.

Brooks starts off by talking about how airport bookstores are divided between men's and women's sections, leading nicely to a segue into how 400 accomplished women and 500 accomplished men in Britain were asked what their favorite novels were. The men's list was topped by The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse-Five, while the women preferred Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Handmaid's Tale, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Beloved. First of all, Brooks claims that the two lists diverge "starkly". Of course, it helps that he provides twice as many books from the women's list as the men's. Three titles is hardly enough to establish a pattern, and one wonders what the next few books on the men's list were, and for that matter on the women's list as well. Of course, since Brooks fails to mention where this study of the favorite books of accomplished people was published, it's impossible to check. (Brooks also claims that the books on the women's list are better than those on the men's list, a contention that a) largely a matter of taste (has he ever read "Middlemarch"?); and b) would seem to undercut the whole point of his column, inasmuch as he is, I suppose, an accomplished man, or at any rate the kind of guy who could easily end up in a survey like this, but would not be putting up stereotypically male novels). It would also be nice to know what kind of criteria define the people on this list and how they were chosen, not to mention how many novels each was allowed to select and whether the mentioned works won out by large or small margins (and if they form a large or small percentage of the total number of selections) but this kind of detail, which would allow us to evaluate just how accurate this list actually is as a basis for sociological criticism, is clearly not something that Brooks would even think of offering.

Having given us a datum that is essentially meaningless and possibly cherry-picked, Brooks then presents several explanations: "It could be men are insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature. Or, it could be that the part of the brain where men experience negative emotion, the amygdala, is not well connected to the part of the brain where verbal processing happens, whereas the part of the brain where women experience negative emotion, the cerebral cortex, is well connected. It could be that women are better at processing emotion through words." Somehow, Brooks fails to mention any social explanations, even though there are two obvious ones. All the novels given by women are by women authors, but it hardly seems unusual that "accomplished" women would see prominent female authors as potential role models and also be attracted to novels featuring female characters in a society where sexism has hardly been eliminated (note, for example, that 100 fewer accomplished women than men were interviewed for this survey). Again, it would also be nice to know what these women are accomplished at, how old they are, etc., etc., to determine the likelihood of this explanation: if they're female athletes, for instance, we would probably dismiss it. It also seems rather likely that social pressures would tend to force women to give a list of "womanly" books as their favorites. I'm not even going to comment on potential explanations for the male list, as three works is far too small a sample size.

Brooks follows up with this: "Over the past two decades, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that male and female brains work differently. Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. Men and women hear and smell differently (women are much more sensitive). Boys and girls process colors differently (young girls enjoy an array of red, green and orange crayons whereas young boys generally stick to black, gray and blue). Men and women experience risk differently (men enjoy it more)." Now, the first sentence here may well be true, but there is absolutely no way to tell from the rest of the paragraph. "Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men": this is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Differences in hearing and smelling may well exist, but it's unclear what connection this has to intellectual/emotional questions. Boys and girls may well process colors differently, but again, what is the connection to questions of intellect and emotion, and why should I believe that young girls enjoying bright, girlish colors while boys prefer sober, manly ones has nothing to do with social conditioning? And finally, with the amazing revelation that men enjoy risk more, something which is certainly strongly connected to social conditioning, we have essentially abandoned any pretence of presenting evidence that the brains of men and women are structured differently. There is, in fact, exactly one piece of real evidence in this entire article: "Women who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which leads to high male hormone secretions, are more likely to choose violent stories than other women." And even this doesn't tell us much: how much more likely? Is it significant? Can we have a citation? This being a rhetorical question, of course: this is a Brooks column, after all.

Next, watch this rhetorical sleight of hand: we start one paragraph with "It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture." Then suddenly we move to "This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls." Note how the "could" in the first sentence has been dropped: all of a sudden, this conclusion is no longer questionable, and we wonder instead why teachers are so reluctant to use this obvious fact. The problem, according to Brooks, is that "there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls" and "resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers" (as well as an obligatory shoutout to Larry Summers). This may be true, but there's no way to know: Brooks presents no data to suggest that such is the case, or even that the findings of brain researchers have direct classroom applicability. Essentially, he is asserting that genetics forces men and women to have fundamentally different tastes in literature based on his survey of airport bookstores, a survey of 900 people in England, and one scientific result from an uncited paper.
And it gets worse. "Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways." Brooks tantalizes us with the suggestion that teaching different works of literature to boys and girls has been tried. Did it work? If not, why not? These questions are obvious ones to explore, but apparently they never occurred to Brooks.

Having made his contempt for the idea of supporting one's argument with data very clear, Brooks goes suddenly changes topics. "Young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrificed recess for test prep." Where is the connection between what books males are wired to prefer and the absence or presence of recess? Luckily, the next sentence makes it all clear: "Many are told in a thousand subtle ways they are not really good students." What this means is that Brooks is not really worried about whether schools are considering innate genetic preference for certain types of books: he is afraid that feminism has taken over the public schools. When he is unable to prevent his real worries from emerging, the result is even more intellectual incoherence than usual. Brooks manages to wrench himself back to the topic at hand by complaining about "new-wave young adult problem novels". Personally, I'm not a fan of these either. But Brooks makes no attempt to really address them, dismissing them by saying that they "all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives." This is nice and cutting, but hardly counts as evidence: Brooks can't even supply one measly title. It's also worth noting that this attempt to get back on track just further amplifies the incoherence, as Brooks begins the paragraph complaining about a lack of recess and therefore elementary schools, while he ends by bemoaning education at the middle school level or above (unless Brooks's high school had recess: that might explain a lot, actually).

Now we move beyond school: "It shouldn't be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women." So says Brooks. (Note that he doesn't say whether this refers to fiction, books, or all reading, but for the sake of simplicity I'll assume that it does mean that young men don't read much fiction any more.) I say, what about video games and computers? I have, admittedly, no evidence (which puts me on par with Brooks), but it seems to me that there is a good chance that consumer electronics take up far more of the average young man's time than they did in 1992. Meanwhile, that young women don't play video games is practically a truism, and although the computer=nerd=not womanly equation is no longer really true, using computers a lot is still considered more of a male thing. And, of course, gender roles have always pushed boys away from reading books, as anyone who was a bookish boy can probably testify. There is further bad news: "men are drifting away from occupations that involve reading and school." Well, make that occupation, as Brooks only mentions teaching: "Men now make up a smaller share of teachers than at any time in the past 40 years." This particular piece of data is relatively meaningless: what we really want to know is a trend. After all, if the percentage of teachers who are male has been essentially constant over the past 40 years with just one dip now, it is impossible to infer anything (I could look it up, but I'm not the one who's worried about this, Brooks is).

Next, we bring up one Dr. Leonard Sax and his book Why Gender Matters. Incidentally, this brings us to the root of the column: Brooks read Sax's book and decided to write a column about it. Most likely, the various facts presented here without citations are simply blindly copied from the book. Sax is a "family physician and psychologist from Maryland", strangely enough, rather than a neuroscientist and brain expert, as one would expect from Brooks's talking up of "brain studies". Someone has probably debunked him somewhere, but I'm too lazy to check. Sax is apparently also big on single-sex schools: they'd be separate but equal! Well, his actual argument (according to Brooks) is that they would allow students to break free from gender stereotypes. This may be the case, but it seems a little strange given that his reading recommendations for boys appear to be dictated strictly by gender stereotypes.

Those reading recommendations propose that boys (presumably in high school) be given more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer, and Twain. I imagine that many high-school age boys would disagree. It's also worth noting that my parents made me read all these AND Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, and I somehow managed to enjoy all of them (well, not Middlemarch so much, or Hemingway either). It's a wonder my poor male brain didn't melt down. Also, Tolstoy seems a little out of place here: Anna Karenina, for instance, is all about relationships and emotions and all of those touchy-feely things that boys hate, and so is War and Peace, really, though there is a war going on in the background. It's also worth noting that my ultra-progressive public high school in the People's Republic of Cambridge had me read the Iliad (or possibly the Odyssey: it was freshman year), The Stranger, and also Moby-Dick (which probably should be in there instead of Tolstoy). Brooks's head would probably explode. Anyway, I enjoyed those books, but I don't recall the other boys in my classes giving hosannas of praise for their long-awaited deliverance from the tyranny of Pride and Prejudice to the sweet embrace of the poetry of the ancient Greeks and 800-page novels about a man chasing a whale.

Also, there is more to school than reading fiction, as I recall. There is, for starters, math and science and history and foreign languages, none of which involve reading fiction (except for foreign languages, but there the books that are read are dictated by readability more than anything else). Perhaps there are significant male-female differences here too, but if so, it would be nice if Brooks mentions them: it seems a bit much to believe that boys are being driven from schools in droves simply because they find the fiction assigned in English class boring. Even English class also contains writing, grammar, and reading non-fiction and poetry. And, while Brooks probably doesn't remember high school that well, I only graduated six years ago, and I can assure him that most of the class, male and female, thought that all the assigned books were boring, with Jane Eyre bringing the exact same amount of revulsion, with essentially the same gender breakdown, as The Return of the Native or Native Son. This last is, of course, of no evidentiary value -- anecdotes of my high school experience are not data points -- but Brooks has this unfortunate tendency to drag others down to his level.

Finally, Brooks finishes up with a jab at feminism and "consciousness-raising". The connection between feminism and consciousness-raising and the schools has not been established, making the value of this last paragraph somewhat questionable, but at least it confirms what we earlier surmised: Brooks's main concern is attacking feminism, not providing an objective study of how different brain types in different genders affect preferences in literature. One can only wonder why Brooks neglected to attack multiculturalism and the teachers union in an effort to hit for the conservative bemoaning-the-state-of-modern-education cycle.

It could be argued that I'm not being entirely fair to Brooks here. After all, he only has a 900-word column: how can he fit in all the details, citations, and statistics that I demand? The answer is, of course, that if he can't fit them in, he should drop the points that require their support. He could then replace the lost claims with more details about his other claims, or simply allow his columns to shrink, possibly to haiku form, in which case there's a slight chance they might be worth reading. But I doubt it.

June 11, 2006

Aaaaand . . . We're Back!

Lately, there's been an upsurge of popular demand -- ok, so it was only one person, but it was not my mother and one person is about 50% of my readers -- for more DBIAM. Intrigued by the idea that someone actually wanted more from this website, I took advantage of an idle moment to read Brooks's latest column and see if I could recapture the fervor of the early days. Well, let's just say that I have been forcibly reminded of just why I thought Ted's idea of starting this website was so brilliant. I don't know if it would be correct to say that this column plumbs new depths for Brooks -- as I believe I've mentioned before here, such is probably not possible, or at least not until Brooks throws off all restraint and begins openly calling for all true patriots to begin purging liberals -- but it's pretty damn low.

Brooks begins by saying that, as we all learned from the stories we were brought up on -- Brooks has apparently taken to heart those posters that say "Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten" -- evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. He then laments that in Iraq such is not the case: instead, the insurgents are winning precisely because they're so savage. Leaving aside Brooks's willingness to base his interpretation of world politics on the stories his parents told him when he was a child (and the fact that, while evil does contain the seeds of its own destruction, it often manages to be victorious for quite a while anyway, even in children's stories), there's another obvious story here that fits all the facts. In this story, a group of powerful people decide that the U.S. needs to invade Iraq. They have a number of different reasons -- some want to do it to help out Israel, some because of the oil, some because they think that the U.S. needs a bigger presence in the Middle East, some simply because they believe that a show of force is necessary to remind the world who's boss, and some because they are so stupid and naive that they think that democracy can imposed at the point of the gun and that once so imposed it will spread across the Middle East like, well, like something, but NOT like a bunch of falling dominoes, ok? We do NOT want to hear the d word, got it? Not to mention the one who is desperate to do something better than his daddy. Oh, and the ruler of Iraq is a bad guy who the American public is already conditioned to hate from the first Gulf War. And when 9/11 happens, they see their chance, and using a combination of lies, insinuations, and creative stretching of the truth, make many Americans believe that Saddam was at the very least involved with, if not directly responsible for, 9/11, and that he's getting ready to do it again, only with nukes. Alas for them, the same arrogance and overconfidence that creates a mindset that believes in American empire and lying to the public to make the case for war (not to mention causing the deaths of innocent civilians and American soldiers for no good reason) proves to be their downfall: after an initially victorious stage, it becomes clear that preparations for anything beyond the invasion were essentially nonexistent and that they were wrong in almost all of their assumptions about the war and its aftermath, and their project of creating a peaceful, democratic, and America- and Israel-loving Iraq that sells cheap oil collapses into civil war between religious and ethnic militias.

In this story, the vicious insurgency is the natural consequence of the American invasion. The hubris of the invaders leads them to believe that the Iraqis will become approximately the only country in history not to form some sort of resistance movement when invaded. Their incompetence leads them to completely ignore this possibility and Iraq's ethnic and religious fault lines, making the situation even worse. And their lies and rhetoric compound the error: conflating the war on Iraq with the so-called war on terror, they invite Iraqis to see Al Qaeda as friends and natural allies; larding their speeches with words like "crusade", they give ammunition the jihadis can use to claim that the war in Iraq is a war against all Muslims, further radicalising the population; telling the American people that the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months" and "The Iraqi people . . . view us as their hoped-for liberators" sets up the subsequent collapse of support for the war when, as any idiot could have predicted, both of these claims are demonstrated to be entirely false. The war, conceived in lies, error, and dreams of empire, is evil, no matter the good motives of some of its supporters, and it's pretty clear that in this case, evil does indeed contain the seeds of its own destruction.

But back to Brooks, whose despair over a three-year insurgency ignores the story of Sleeping Beauty, whose curse could not be defeated for a hundred years. Even worse, though, he apparently believes that if Jesus, Mother Teresa, and Ghandi had been running the United States and its military over the past few years, they could not have compiled as spotless a record as the Bush administration, and that all of the savagery in Iraq is due to the insurgents. "The defining feature of their violence is not merely that they murder, but that they torture those they are about to kill." Let's see, I remember reading something about Aba, or Abo, or Abu, Abu something. It's on the tip of my toungue . . . nope, it's gone. "Videos of such acts are posted on the Internet or sold in the markets of towns like Haditha." Because Americans would never dream of doing any such thing. "Far from motivating most Americans to fight harder, cruelty on this scale is unnerving. Most Americans simply want to get away." Except for the Americans at Haditha, or Hamandiya, or Ishaqi, or, most likely, a number of other occurences that we haven't yet heard about and may never hear about. Of course, the various Iraqi militias are considerably more vicious and bloodthirsty than the Americans -- Saddam didn't exactly encourage a brotherhood of man in Iraq -- but for Brooks to say "Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game" is breathtakingly naive. After a while, the constant IED's and ambushes start to wear on you. You start to wonder if you're really fighting for the Iraqi people: they don't seem to be too grateful, do they? Plus, as Brooks says, the insurgents are filled with "blood madness." They're barely human, right? Completely crazy, anyway. The only thing they understand is force. We're hear to bring civilization, and by God, we're going to bring it, no matter how many of them we have to kill. Apparently, Brooks never read "Heart of Darkness" in high school (though his trouble with fairy tales suggests that Joseph Conrad may be a bit beyond his intellectual level).

Brooks follows up with some muddled thinking: "The insurgents' second great advantage is that they seem able to create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent." As evidence, he points out that every civilian is a possible suicide bomber. The connection between these two things is tenuous at best. Perhaps he means that one has to become a barbarian in order to survive? But then he spends two paragraphs discussing how most American soldiers are not becoming barbarians. In the end, it appears that this sentence sounds good but means nothing: a Brooks special.

And then we return to Brooks-land, where the United States bears no responsibility for anything bad that happens anywhere: "Similarly, in our debates at home we are searching for ways to exercise enough power to defeat the insurgents while still behaving in accordance with our national conscience. We are seeking a sweet spot that satisfies both the demands of power and of principle. But it could be that given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create, that sweet spot no longer exists." Circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create! Is the man mad? The circumstances are as follows: for years, Iraq has been ruled by members of an ethnic-religious minority, the Sunni Arabs. Not just under Saddam, either (whose regime the U.S. may have had a hand in installing and certainly propped up for years as a counterweight to Iran): the British installed a Sunni king and worked closely with the Sunnis when they ruled Iraq, and prior to that the Sunnis had been treated preferentially by the Ottomans. However, under Saddam, the oppression of Shiites and Kurds became worse, especially following the abortive Shiite rebellion immediately after the Gulf War. In the meanwhile, fundamentalist Islam gained steadily in Iraq, just as it has done throughout the Arab world, partly due to the discrediting of secular alternatives (through association with autocratic rulers sustained by Western powers: see, e.g., the modern history of Iran) and partly because it was encouraged by Saddam who hoped to use the anti-Western inclinations of fundamentalist Islam to prop up his regime and move the focus of popular discontent from him to the U.S. Then the United States invaded and overthrew Saddam and, symbolically (especially in a highly tribal society like Iraq) the Sunni Arabs. It was fairly clear that the new Iraq would not have nearly as big a place for the Sunni Arabs in it as the old one, and the Americans did nothing to dispel the impression, dissolving the Iraqi Army and allowing Shiites to move forward with hard-line deBaathification plans. American rhetoric also fueled Sunni paranoia about a war against Islam (furthering the radicalisation of the Sunni population and the legitimitisation of the jihadis as on par with the nationalist resistance in what was once one of the most secular countries in the Middle East), and the Americans did little to prevent Shiite militias from enacting reprisals against Sunnis for the long list of Saddam's crimes, or, really, to keep order and provide security, instead forcing people to turn to militias for defence. The result is a vicious and bloody sectarian conflict, and while we are certainly not responsible for the viciousness and bloody-mindedness (or not all of it), we do bear considerable responsibility for "the circumstances". But, again, as we know, the United States models its foreign policy on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, so clearly it cannot possibly be at fault for any of the bloodshed currently happening in Iraq, and it certainly cannot be the case that we are not winning because the war as it was conceived by the Bush administration was not winnable.

Finally, Brooks offers definitive proof that he is living in his own world with this: "The insurgents' third malicious advantage is that they have no agenda. . . All they have to do is destroy . . . ." This is only defensible because Brooks mashes the jihadis, Iraqi nationalists, and Shiite militias into one all-encompassing insurgency, and then claims that it has no overarching goal. Well, duh. However, each of the groups has an agenda, and at the moment, the agendas of the various Sunni insurgencies are the same: force the Americans to withdraw, which is best done by attacking them constantly and creating as much chaos as possible to make it clear that the Americans and the government they have installed will never be able to fully control Iraq. This involves lots of destruction, yes, but to claim that it's meaningless destruction is simply foolish and betrays a deep lack of understanding. "Every day they spread mayhem is a victory" Brooks writes, and this is true not because they are nihilists who rejoice in destruction, but because the spread of mayhem shows that the Americans are failing.

To this point, Brooks has been content to paint the Iraqis as blood-lust crazed savages while ignoring everything bad the U.S. has done in this war, including starting it. In other words, this is basically par for the course for Brooks. In the last paragraph, though, Brooks takes his game to a whole new level. "And so the hunger to leave Iraq grows. A dissenting minority is furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity. And the terrorists no doubt look at our qualms not as a sign of virtue but of weakness, and as evidence that savagery will lead to victory again and again." Remember, only six paragraphs above Brooks wrote "Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game." And "Indeed, the people who are most furious about what happened at Haditha are those marines who have been in similarly awful circumstances but who have not snapped, and who fear that their heroic restraint will be tainted or overshadowed by comrades who behave despicably." So, apparently, among those who are "willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority" and who are too weak to prove to the terrorists that savagery will not lead to victory are the U.S. Marines and Brooks himself. Of course, all the evidence suggests that the "decent Iraqi majority" is more than happy to be betrayed, and would not appreciate it if the Americans started to imitate the ethnic militias they are supposed to be controlling. But these are mere quibbles compared to what is really beyond the pale here, Brooks's suggestion that Americans who are unhappy about, say, Abu Ghraib or Haditha are seeking only to maintain a "parlor purity". I sincerely hope that the "dissenting minority" that Brooks speaks of is indeed a minority, and a tiny one at that, since it would be uncomfortable to live in a country with many people who believe that an opposition to torturing prisoners and massacring civilians is merely a veneer of high-mindedness. Of course, we can easily measure the size of this minority: it happens, not-so-coincidentally, to coincide with the fraction of the population that still supports Bush, about 1/3 of the country. I suppose that this is a large enough group that it deserves to have its views heard on the editorial page of the New York Times, though you'd like to believe that the Times would be willing to draw the line at its columnists suggesting, no matter how carefully, that what the U.S. really needs to do to win in Iraq is be more savage. But if you're naive enough to believe that, you're probably naive enough to believe that the media is actually liberal, or that David Brooks is a sensible conservative with worthwhile opinions, and if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

PS: I will try to update regularly over the summer, when I should be less busy, but I make no promises.

September 27, 2005

Column 2005-9-25 Commentary

In his latest column, Brooks inexplicably lays the blame for the increasing gap between those with a college education and those without on the colleges. "The most damning indictment of our university system is that these poorer kids are graduating from high school in greater numbers. It's when they get to college that they begin failing and dropping out. " So says Brooks, despite the fact that a few minutes (ok, maybe more than a few minutes in his case) of thought should make the gaping hole in his argument perfectly clear. According to Brooks, these poor kids graduate from high school with essentially the same education as their more affluent peers: the problem is that colleges just don't treat them right somehow. The obvious rejoinder to this is that most poorer kids receive worse, often far worse, elementary and high school educations than the better-off, and that colleges simply expose these differences. At any rate, it should be obvious that some fault lies with the poor quality of public schools where most poor children receive what education they get. For example, we know this, from Bob Herbert via the Daily Howler: “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students." Will these children catch up to their wealthier peers? What do you think? And even if they don't catch up, a good number of these kids will graduate from high school, as we know from Brooks's (admittedly unsourced) claims. Even assuming that these kids remain only three years behind, it's no wonder that new college students who can barely read at a high school level are "failing and dropping out" in a college with any type of standards. And yet Brooks refuses even to acknowledge the possibility that the pre-college preparation of these poor children may be at fault: indeed, he explicitly states that "Crucial life paths are set at age 18 . . . ." Ok, so even Brooks can't completely ignore what's staring him in the face: he gives the necessity of being "academically prepared, psychologically prepared and culturally prepared for college" a throwaway line at the end of the column. But he, and "Thomas Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education", the only person whose work is cited in this column and so presumably the source for the whole thing, appear to be blaming colleges for failing to compensate for the abysmal performance of the lower levels of the public school system. Could colleges do more to help lower-income students? Yes, of course. But to concentrate on what they could do, while ignoring the far more pervasive and damaging problems with the public schools, is sheer idiocy. As such, is it any surprise that Brooks is embracing it?

September 24, 2005

Column 2005-9-22 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks gives advice to the Democratic party. He feels the Democrats need to stop being angry and attacking Bush and concentrate more on wonky policy proposals. The fact that approximately nobody else thinks this -- and that, in fact, this is directly opposed to the successful strategies employed by the Republican party over the past few years -- forces one to wonder once again what Democrats would be stupid enough to take Brooks's advice on the direction of the party. Brooks is inspired to tell the Democratic party what it should do with itself by two speeches by prominent Democrats, Kerry and Edwards. (I urge readers to read both speeches and judge for themselves, btw.) According to Brooks, each speaker is responding to Hurricane Katrina in the only way they know how: Kerry with borderline-incoherent Bush-bashing, and Edwards with important policy recommendations. More fundamentally, according to Brooks, these two speeches represent an important divide in the Democratic party, between those who only care about attacking Bush and those who actually want to govern. Incidentally, Edwards's speech mentions Brooks favorably and Kerry's doesn't mention him at all. But I'm sure that this had absolutely no effect on Brooks's analysis.

If this strikes you as rather simplistic, that's because you're smarter than Brooks. "Edwards is not so obsessed with power struggles" Brooks writes, and indeed, therein lies the rub. Kerry is currently a politician who is ramping up for the 2006 elections, which will largely be run as a referendum on Bush and his policies. His speech is a highly political speech. Edwards, by contrast, will not be involved in those elections, or strongly involved in politics at all until 2007 at the earliest. Instead, he has plunged into the world of policy, and while he makes some attacks on Bush, the focus of his speech is on programs for dealing with poverty. There's not much partisan politics in it, but that's because, as even Brooks is forced to admit, Edwards is not a politician at the moment. The fact is that these two speeches complement each other. An effective Democratic party requires both the the political and the policy components, and to suggest that these two speeches are actually representative of two divergent strands of thought in the party is very simple-minded. It is also worth noting that the Democrats are not currently in the majority, and so the policy side will inevitably be smaller than the political side, especially in the current political environment where any Democratic proposal is essentially DOA.

Having explained why Brooks is wrong in general, let us examine how he gets the details wrong. Specifically, Brooks's analysis of Kerry's speech completely twists its meaning. Kerry begins his speech by saying "And that's what I've come to talk with you about today. The incompetence of Katrina's response is not reserved to a hurricane. There's an enormous gap between Americans' daily expectations and government's daily performance. And the gap is growing between the enduring strength of the American people -- their values, their spirit, their imagination, their ingenuity, and their willingness to serve and sacrifice -- and the shocking weakness of the American government in contending with our country's urgent challenges. On the Gulf Coast during the last two weeks, the depth and breadth of that gap has been exposed for all to see and we have to address it now before it is obscured again by hurricane force spin and deception." It should be clear to the meanest intelligence -- which, apparently, Brooks has yet to achieve -- that Kerry intends to talk about how the incompetence of the response to Katrina is not a fluke, but in fact is a function of the incompetence of the Bush administration as a whole, and that is indeed what he does. "There are many interesting issues raised by Katrina, but for Senator Ahab it all goes back to the great white monster, Bush" says Brooks. While he gets points for the metaphor, Bush is, after all, the president, and what is more a president who has consistently run on a promise to make America safer. When his administration badly bungles the response to a major natural disaster, that's an extremely interesting issue. To a politician, it might well be the most interesting issue: Bush's response, most notably putting his political point man, Karl Rove, in charge of the Gulf Coast reconstruction effort, certainly suggests that Bush thinks so. "Bush and his crew should have known the levees were weak. Bush and his crew should have known thousands of people would be trapped" Brooks paraphrases sarcastically, adding with a parenthetical sneer "(Did I miss Kerry's own warnings on these subjects?)" To which, again, the obvious response is that Bush is the president (not Kerry, who does not have access to all the information Bush can, or should, get from various agencies attached to his administration). And, furthermore, Bush is claims to be the security president, and a hurricane taking out New Orleans was rated one of the three catastrophes most likely to strike the United States. Someone in the administration probably should have known about the status of the levees. Somebody probably should have anticipated that people would have been unable to get out and made contingency plans to evacuate them. But, of course, nobody did. However, anyone can make mistakes. And the DHS is a new agency (even though the decision to fold FEMA into the DHS was made by Bush), so it's believable that even a consistently competent administration could foul this up. Which is why it is necessary for Kerry to point out that the administration, and the Republican party, have been, in fact, consistently incompetent. Brooks dismisses this with "Porn movies have less repetition than this," but in fact the repetition (of facts mentioned in other speeches, not this speech, so it's not even a very good metaphor) is exactly the point: when all the stupidities, incompetences, and corruptions are listed side-by-side, they can not be dismissed as isolated instances but must be regarded as part of a pattern. Brooks wonders disdainfully why Kerry continues to drag out the old "anti-Bush jabs", "DeLay jibes", and "Wolfowitz attacks": "Doesn't this guy ever get bored?" But, of course, Wolfowitz was spectacularly wrong about Iraq. Tom DeLay is entirely corrupt: hell, Brooks even wrote a column about it (see the archives). And Bush has screwed up so many things it's not even funny any more. Sometimes it's good to keep reminding people of the facts. Brooks concludes that "this is not a normal speech designed to persuade or inform, but a primitive rite designed to channel group outrage." He is, of course, wrong: the speech is intended to persuade people that Bush's record indicated that he is a bad president. Judging by recent poll numbers, people are starting to get the message: perhaps this is why Brooks is attacking the messenger.

Finally, the most inexplicable part of this column is that Brooks seems to think that Edwards's speech represents a less partisan, more centrist wing of the Democratic party. This strongly suggests that Brooks didn't actually read Edwards's speech. In the speech, Edwards praises the New Deal and points out that the War on Poverty, though it had some faults, was quite successful. He says "If you work full-time, you shouldn't have to raise your children in poverty." He wants to raise the minimum wage to at least $7.50 an hour and "give [workers] back a real right to organize." He proposes offering workers money they can use for down payments on houses, expanding the EITC to help families save, and subsidizing housing for poor people so they can move into better neighborhoods. Edwards also wants to give everyone their first year of college free. And how will he pay for it? Largely by raising taxes on the rich: repealing the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1% and changing the Alternative Minimum Tax so that it applies to only to the rich, as it was originally designed to. Now, this program certainly doesn't go nearly far enough, in my opinion. For one thing, Edwards barely mentions health care and is vague on just how a "real right to organize" would be achieved. Furthermore, why just one year of college? Why not four years for free? There are other shortcomings, but the fact remains that Edwards wants to raise taxes on the rich to pay for programs to lift the poor out of poverty. If that's not liberalism, I don't know what is. And if Brooks thinks the Democratic party is ever going to return to "Clintonian centrism", he is much mistaken. "Bush may end up changing the Democratic Party more than his own." Brooks opines. Well, that may not be true: Bush has had a major effect on his own party as well. But if Edwards will come to define the right wing of the Democratic party, Bush may have accomplished one good thing after all.