April 28, 2005

Column 2005-5-28 Commentary

Today, Brooks addresses himself to a topic about which I know little: the impending demographic crisis in Russia. Due to the pressures of watching the NBA playoffs -- er, working, right, working -- I lack the time to flesh out my knowledge beyond one article in the New Yorker. On the other hand, that article in the New Yorker certainly seemed to back everything that Brooks has written here (in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Brooks read the same article and then just looked up some statistics to flesh out his column), and since there's no official Republican party line about Russian demography, there's no real incentive for Brooks to lie about this subject. Unfortunately for Brooks, he soon strays from a straight recital of the facts to foolish and obviously stupid generalizations. While it is impressive that he manages to get half of this column right, the second half is all-too-typical of Brooks's usual idiocies.

The problem is that Brooks is extremely puzzled as to how the horrible things he talks about -- the high death rates, low birth rates, low life expectancy, health care system in shambles, etc., etc. -- can be compatible with the high rate of economic growth Russia is experiencing. You can almost hear the wheels whirring as Brooks tries to figure out how it is that economic growth is not rescuing the country from its other problems. Unable, like all conservatives, to face the fact that a rising tide does not always lift all, or even most, boats, Brooks instead chooses to blame this paradox on Russia's totalitarian past. Which would be, though a nice example of a conservative blind spot, reasonable if he didn't also choose, for no apparent reason, to generalize this problem in to something he calls "Post-Totalitarian Stress Syndrome". He goes on to theorize some more about his syndrome, but there's really no point in reading it, because it's obvious that he had simply made it up and it is not applicable beyond Russia. Consider, for instance, the other states that formerly made up the Soviet bloc. They all have problems of one sort or another, but none have problems similar to Russia's. In fact, some are doing quite well: for instance, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary seem to have thrown off 40-odd years of Communist domination much more easily than Russia has. Or consider Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of which are doing considerably better than Russia despite a history that has been practically identical to Russia's over the past couple hundred years. The idea that all states recover from totalitarian regimes in the same way is patently ridiculous: Russia's problems are, for the most part, uniquely Russian.

Brooks then goes on to assert that we would be seeing something similar in Iraq, even if the insurgency were under control, which is possible but stupid. After all, the war in Chechnya is certainly not helping the mortality figures, and armed conflict is often a result of "profound social chaos". It is quite likely that there is no scenario in which the fall of Saddam Hussein would not have resulted in some sort of insurgency or civil war. But what Brooks really wants to do is predict the downfall of China. Not that he has anything in particular to base this prediction on: there are lots of old people, he says, and lots of young men without anything to do. But because of totalitarianism, China will pay a price! Or, perhaps not. After all, we do have the examples of Taiwan and South Korea, both East Asian nations that made transitions from dictatorships to democracy without too much internal conflict. Of course, China faces a very different situation, but then China also faces a very different situation than Russia did. For one thing, the problems Brooks cites have to do with a surplus of people: Russia suffers from a shortage. And then there's the fact that China's geopolitical position, culture, and history are all very different from Russia's. The only similarity between them is the rule of a totalitarian state with an ideology loosely based on Communism, and while this is an important similarity, it's a little much to say that it will trump all the differences.

It's really sad that Brooks can't get his passion for wild generalizations about culture under control even when writing about international affairs. Somehow, though, I have trouble summoning up any sympathy.