May 29, 2005

Column 2005-5-29 Commentary

Today's Brooks column is mostly just confusing. He presents a pseudo-Marxist view of a new kind of class war in modern America, one between the educated and the uneducated (it's actually framed as a manifesto delivered by the ghost of Karl Marx, but I'm just going to pretend that never happened), which has some merit as it is undoubtedly true that one of the great divides between the upper middle and upper classes and everybody else is the former's high education level. However, the confusing part is that it seems unlikely that Brooks would actually believe such an analysis. He himself states that "I don't belive in incessant class struggle," making it initially unclear just what the point of the column is. Furthermore, and predictably, Brooks's Marxism isn't very good: a real Marxist would not define classes by their education level, but regard the difference in education as a facet of the class struggle. To a Marxist (or possibly a neo-Marxist), education is simply a tool the capitalists can wield against the proletariat to preserve their power, a tool that is even more powerful in a post-industrial economy. In reality, Brooks's use of the class struggle metaphor simply cloaks his anti-Marxism. In Brooks's world, economics never significantly impacts people's lives: what's important is not money but culture, and in this column Brooks picks out one particular part of culture, education, as the difference between classes.

Much of the column is as incoherent as its central idea. The second paragraph discusses the distressingly small number of poor people who attend top colleges, even as financial aid plans get more and more generous. The third paragraph alludes to the increasing income gap between rich (fine, "educated elites") and poor. And in the next paragraph Brooks writes :"Members of the educated elites are more and more likely to marry each other, which the experts call assortative mating, but which is really a ceaseless effort to refortify class solidarity and magnify social isolation." Now, this is pretty clearly a joke. Not necessarily a good joke (though Brooks has done much worse), but a joke nonetheless. The whole paragraph, in fact, is not meant to be taken seriously. What are we to make of this juxtaposition? It gets even worse in the next paragraph, when Brooks begins with "The educated elites are the first elites in all of history to work longer hours per year than the exploited masses, so voracious is their greed for second homes," a clear joke, and follows with a serious social critique, "They congregate in exclusive communities walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices, then congratulate themselves for sending their children to public schools." It's hard to tell whether Brooks is trying to draw attention to some serious issues with the occasional joke thrown in or simply feels that his pseudo-Marxist joke column needs a couple of serious observations to give it a real revolutionary flavor.

Similarly, Brooks speaks of the elites sending "their children off to Penn, Wisconsin and Berkeley, bastions of privilege for the children of the professional class." Penn, ok, though one wonders why he didn't choose, say, Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Princeton, in fact, would make a lot more sense, given that Penn is located in Philadelphia, a city which is not exactly a bastion of privelege, while Princeton is in an affluent suburb. Berkeley, though it is a public university and located in a city, is also barely acceptable. But (with apologies to any readers who are from or went there) Wisconsin? Is he kidding? UW-Madison is a bastion of privilege for the children of the professional class? Brooks, educated at the University of Chicago and deeply ashamed of the fact that he didn't go to Yale, surely did not select these universities at random, and once again we can only assume that he deliberately introduced this contradiction in order to encourage the readers not to take his column, or at least this part of it, very seriously.

Passing lightly over the obligatory digs at highly-educated liberals, we finally come to the end of the incoherency, signaling that we are about to arrive at what Brooks thinks is the real problem: nobody's doing anything about the failing school system. Oh, excuse me, that would require that Brooks actually face up to the fact that the steady decline of public school systems over the past 30 years is connected to the country's steady drift to the right over the same time period. Actually, failing public schools get only one sentence: the real problem, naturally, is the imposition of "a public morality that affords maximum sexual opportunity for [the upper classes] and guarantees maximum domestic chaos for those lower down." "Family structures have disintegrated for the oppressed masses," and that's what keeping them down. As we probably should have suspected from the first, Brooks is not really interested in education. What really bugs Brooks, as is the case with many of today's conservatives, is the sixties. Just as conservatives often think that everything that Bush has screwed up is actually the fault of Clinton, they have a tendency to believe that everything that's wrong today is the result of the sixties. In this case, the sexual revolution and feminism are blamed for destroying America's families, which in turn makes it less likely that poor children will graduate from high school, much less move on to college.

This ridiculously simplistic analysis is riddled with holes. To blame all the problems faced by poor children living in single-parent households on the fact that they have only one parent is ridiculous. The fact that the education level of the parent is likely to be low is also a problem. A poor family is less likely to be able to afford to purchase supplemental materials, or even just books, to encourage the child to study or simply to read. Poor children are, presumably, more likely to get a job in high school. And that leaves out the poor quality of schools in poor areas and the effect of racism on poor black children. But the biggest problem with Brooks's claims is that they rely on a mythical idea of an America in which all families had two parents, with a father who worked and a mother who stayed at home and took care of the kids. In reality, while America approached this ideal in the fifties, that was the only time in which the country has come even close. The fact is that the fifties were an extremely unusual decade, one in which the divorce rate fell for the first time in a century while marriage and fertility rates zoomed upward. Comparing family patterns in the fifties to any other decade is likely a pointless endeavor, so it's no surprise that Brooks does exactly that. He cites two statistics (with no source mentioned, naturally): in 1960, 75% of poor families were headed by a married couple, and now only a third are. Clearly, poor families are melting down, right? Well, interestingly enough, in 1960 one-third of all children lived in poverty. In 2000, that figure had been cut approximately in half, to 16.3%. In 1940, 10% of all children did not live with either birth parent. That figure is 4% today. In fact, in 1900 20% of all children were raised in orphanages. The percentage of children living in a two-parent household has been fairly steady at about 70% for the last few decades, and the number of married-with-children households has been steadily increasing since hitting a low in the 1980's. In 1957, there were more than twice as many births to 15-19 year old women than in 1983. In fact, unwed motherhood increased most sharply between 1940 and 1958, when it tripled. It leveled off from 1960-1976 before starting to increase again. Really, the very idea that teen pregnancy is a problem is a new development. It used to be the case that if a teenage girl got pregnant, she would simply marry the baby's father and they would both drop out of school. Only when it became necessary to graduate from high school and possibly even go to college to get a good job did teenage pregnancy become a problem. Brooks says that "Poor children are less likely to live with both biological parents, hence, less likely to graduate from high school," but poor children have never been likely to graduate from high school: it's simply that the consequences of not doing so have recently become more severe. And the connection between being part of a single-parent household and dropping out of school is important only in that a child from a single-parent household is far more likely to be poor than one from a two-parent household. Drop-out rates are 19% overall, and 13% for children from 2-parent families: the differences is almost certainly largely due to the effects of poverty. Additionally, it should be noted that half of all marriages in the fifties ended in divorce, mostly due to men leaving marriages, and that this phenomenon provided one of the major impetuses behind the birth of feminism.

Brooks tries hard to mask his anti-feminist, anti-sixties ideology behind a facade of toungue-in-cheek pseudo-Marxist rhetoric and concern for education, but that's clearly what's driving this column. His disdain for Marxism leads him to reject the idea that economic status can have a significant impact on one's life, and his dislike of the sixties counterculture causes him to fetishize the culture of the fifties and its most visible (if least real: 2 million married couples lived separately in the fifties, two million more wives worked outside the home than at the peak of WWII, and more people say that their marriages are happy today) component, the happy two-parent family, leading naturally to the conclusion that the sixties caused single-parent families and that single-parent families are responsible for everything that's wrong with life today. Put that way, it sounds, and indeed is, ridiculous: how could a columnist in a prestigious newspaper waste his space making such an argument? Sadly, in a column full of internal contradictions, written by an author who doesn't believe half of it and presented as if it came from the ghost of Karl Marx (and didn't Safire corner the market on columns from ghosts with his conversations with the ghost of Richard Nixon?), it doesn't stand out.

May 26, 2005

Column 2005-5-26 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks says that it would be great if evangelicals and liberals got together to fight poverty, and I agree. Of course, it would also be great if somebody gave me $10000 tomorrow, and I have no reason to expect that any such thing will happen. But apparently Brooks seems to think that such an evangelical-liberal alliance is going to happen soon. He believes that evangelicals are moving away from the culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage and are concentrating instead on trying to help the poor both here and abroad, and that since liberals are the only other group that is "really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them," they will naturally side with evangelicals on these issues. And again, this would be an extremely positive development, and one that is certainly not inconsistent with evangelical traditions, but I'm just not convinced that it's going to happen, and Brooks offers no firm evidence to change my mind.

He talks up Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life" and pastor of a California megachurch, presenting him as a new breed of evangelical leader more interested in fighting poverty in Africa than gays at home, but doesn't really make the case that Warren is actually more significant in the evangelical community than, say, James Dobson. He briefly mentions a couple of other names in an attempt to show that Warren isn't just a lone crusader, including Chuck Colson, convicted Watergate felon turned evangelical leader, who is "deeply involved in Sudan", and Richard Cizik, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, who is apparently "drawing up a service agenda that goes way beyond the normal turf of Christian conservatives," but these examples are even weaker than Warren's. He makes much of alliances between evangelicals and liberal NGO's in Africa, but, really, Africa is an extreme case. It's fairly easy to work together on the ground to provide basic necessities to people living in abject poverty while ignoring political beliefs the others have that may clash with your own, since in a country where average lifespans are around 40 years issues like abortion and gay marriage tend to fade from the apocalyptic significance they can assume in the U.S. Brooks claims that evangelicals are embarrassed by the leaders they have at the moment, but this claim is not believable until they get new leaders, or at the very least abandon the old ones. Brooks also asserts that evangelicals are starting to be more influenced by Catholic doctrines about the necessity of good works (which is slightly strange, as one of the basic ideas of Protestantism is that only faith is sufficient for someone to be saved), but simultaneously the Catholic Church has been adopting an ever-harder line on culture war issues and elevating the prominence of groups like Opus Dei which are not particularly interested in fighting poverty. Essentially, Brooks collects some circumstantial evidence, combines it with platitudes like "I see the historical rift healing between those who emphasized personal and social morality," and calls it a column. While I would be happy if evangelicals do decide that "you don't have to convert people; sometimes you can just work with them," I'm dubious about the chances of this actually happening. After all, missionary work is an important component of evangelical Christianity. Brooks does present one piece of hard evidence that such a cooperation may be possible on the legislative level: the Aspire Act, co-sponsored by Senators Jon Corzine and Rick Santorum. However, this act was first introduced in 2002 and got exactly nowhere: not exactly an auspicious omen for the new era of evangelical-liberal cooperation.

But the interesting thing about this column is not that it's an exercise in wishful thinking, it's that it's an exercise in profoundly liberal wishful thinking. If evangelicals were actually to decide that they really cared about ending poverty more than fighting culture wars, that would be a huge victory for the Democratic party and liberals. The entire Republican economic agenda would be knocked down at one fell swoop. A huge wedge would be driven between the evangelical wing of the Republican party and those Republicans who prefer to preach the gospel of laissez-faire economics and small government, and such a divide would be guaranteed to help the Democrats even if the evangelicals don't vote Democratic. And any real anti-poverty program would almost certainly increase the political participation of the poor, which would likely further benefit the Democrats. In short, the creation of the kind of alliance that Brooks describes would be a political earthquake that would likely destroy the Republican party as we know it. And after experiencing a shiver of pure bliss at the thought, liberal readers must wonder why on earth Brooks, who is nothing if not a Republican hack, is writing about such a thing, and writing about it so positively. Does he really think that it's inevitable and is using this column as preparation for a move to the winning team? Is he simply trying to warn his fellow Republicans, and simply deploying a stiff upper lip even as his heart breaks at the thought of his beloved party going down the drain? Both these theories are possible, but unlikely: instead, what's probably going on here is a whitewash. Evangelicals have started to scare people, especially moderates who voted for Bush out of a desire to kill terrorists, not because they wanted a theocracy. On issues like Terri Schiavo and stem cell research (not to mention the whole fight against activist judges), evangelicals, or at least their most prominent leaders -- Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, &co. -- have been adopting extremely radical positions that most Americans find foreign and scary, and the leaders of the Republican party, from Bush on down, have been jumping to conform to these positions. Naturally, this puts the Republican party in a poor light and contributes to steadily falling approval ratings for Bush and the Republican party in general. This presents the Republican party with a quandary: how to retain the loyalty of those who don't want a party that is in thrall to religious nutjobs while remaining in thrall to those same religious nutjobs (or, rather, appearing to remain in thrall to those same religious nutjobs by occasionally giving them symbolic victories on a very big stage and campaigning on their hot-button issues)? Well, one good way is to say that the old religious nutjobs are outmoded relics: the party is actually built on kindler, gentler (and cooler) religious nutjobs, who fight hunger and AIDS in Africa and hang out with Bono. If you say this loud enough and often enough, people may come to think of the Dobsons, Falwells, and Robertsons as being radical leaders with no influence on the Republican party. And what better place to disseminate this bit of propaganda than on the Times editorial page via David Brooks, noted observer of trends in red-state America?

May 22, 2005

Column 2005-5-22 Commentary

5-23 Update: I find that I am forced to apologize for misjudging Brooks's column. I assumed that the column was so laughable because Brooks was a moron: instead, Brooks was in full partisan hack mode. Most of the column was really just window dressing, with the important part being the paragraph where Brooks delineated the compromise position. This compromise would allow votes on Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, and William Pryor, the three most objectionable of Bush's nominees, in return for a couple of still objectionable but not as much so nominees being dropped and everybody promising to be good (the Democrats say that they won't filibuster judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances, and the Republicans promise not to invoke the nuclear option). This was important because the main goal of the column, in hindsight, was to establish this as a reasonable compromise, which it is not. It's a pure giveaway to the Republicans, who get to put in three truly awful judicial nominees and receive leeway to nominate further equally bad nominees (sure, the Democrats can filibuster in "extraordinary circumstances", but it's unlikely that any further nominees will be worse than Owens, Brown, or Pryor, so this gives the Republicans the ability to scream that the Democrats are violating their part of the agreement on any future judicial filibuster). Additionally, the Republicans aren't forced to go through with the unpopular nuclear option. In return, the Republicans give up a mere two nominees and promise not to use the nuclear option, a promise which is not particularly valuable since the Democrats have promised not to make its use necessary. A reasonable compromise would have shot down Owens and Brown at the very least and possibly involved resuscitating some of the rules, like the blue slip rule, which allowed nominees to be blocked without resorting to the filibuster. Of course, Brooks's masters were not interested in a reasonable compromise: as always, they were looking only for the appearance of reasonableness, and they appear to have found it, as this compromise has been struck. Incidentally, I am completely unsurprised to note that Lieberman appears to have been one of the key negotiators. The only hope is that Frist's masters are not satisfied (Frist was quick to note that he hadn't signed onto this compromise, and would Dobson please stop hurting him now?) and demand that Frist reject the compromise. To a certain extent, the Republican party has boxed itself in with a lot of high-flown rhetoric about the necessity to give every nominee an up-or-down vote, and Dobson+co. have invested a lot in the nuclear option, so it's still possible that Frist will decide that even this compromise is untenable. This would be the best possible outcome, as it might lose him all seven Republican Senators who negotiated the compromise, which would doom the nuclear option while allowing the Democrats to continue to filibuster Owens, Brown, and Pryor since the Republicans broke the deal first. Even Frist would seem to be sufficiently intelligent to figure thist out, but if the religious right can make him go on national TV and assert that AIDS is transmitted through tears and sweat, they may well be able to force him to lead the charge of the Lightweight Brigade and commit heroic political suicide for a mistake.

Today's Brooks column is actually one long joke (well, that's the charitable way of looking at it). Brooks is writing about the showdown in the Senate. He watches as the Senate Majority Leader, pushed by Dobson and his fellow members of the radical Christian right, leads the Republican party into an attempt to prevent the filibuster of a handful of extreme judicial nominees by declaring such a thing unconstitutional in order to circumvent the standard procedures for changing Senate rules. He observes Bill Frist obstinately reject any compromise offered by the Democrats, while proposing compromises which amount to the Democrats simply giving in. And then he blames the inability of the Senate to prevent this confrontation on the moderates. The silver lining here is that not even Brooks was able to twist the situation so as to suggest that it's entirely the fault of the Democrats, but this is still pretty laughable.

To start with, Brooks says that there are twelve moderate Senators currently trying to craft a compromise, six from each party. Brooks may not be up on his math, but the last time I checked twelve Senators do not come close to forming a majority. And presumably neither Harry Reid or Bill Frist are a member of the twelve -- the Majority and Minority leaders are generally expected to be fairly partisan -- or, for that matter, any members of the leadership on either side, so that any proposal which emerges will initially be backed only by those who devised it. Brooks sneers that "They can't just shove something through on the rough and dirty the way the partisans do," but the partisans can generally command more votes. Brooks then insinuates that the moderates are infirm of purpose by saying that "Some of the 12 felt compelled to check with their leaders and others in their parties, so nobody would feel offended or left out," but really, if there are only twelve of them, it seems that they would need to run any proposal by, at the very least, 39 Senators. Brooks further asserts that the moderates were spending too much time "looking for language that would codify every possible contingency" because "even moderates don't really trust one another." I can't speak to the degree of trust between moderates of different parties, but it seems pretty clear that the Democrats don't trust the Republican leadership at all, and since any compromise, to be a compromise, would require the Democrats to sign off on it, some fairly strong language to hold the Republicans to their would probably be required. And then comes the last unkindest cut: Brooks attacks the "gutless wonders" who were hoping for language to "protect them when the attacks start coming from the pressure groups on their own side." Of course, this ignores the fact that attacks are already coming and in at least one case have been directly endorsed by Frist himself. Furthermore, it's not as if there's just a couple of pro- and anti-filibuster groups involved: every conservative and liberal pressure group, from Focus on the Family to, has made this a priority. Anyone who bucks the leadership on either side is likely to be the focus of a staggering number of attacks, including a likely primary challenge the next time they come up for election. And it's difficult to expect people to come out and stand firmly on principle in the face of millions of dollars worth of attacks for a compromise.

Brooks ends the column by bemoaning the general ineffectiveness of moderates, and it is indeed diffficult to understand why it is that a small group of moderate Senators are unable to persuade the partisan majority of the Senators in their party and its loudest and most powerful voices to abandon a cause in which they are fervently invested. But as always in Brooks's columns, he is covering for the White House. Dick Cheney has endorsed the nuclear option, saying that he is willing to cast his tie-breaking vote in favor of it if necessary. Karl Rove has come straight out and said that all compromises will be rejected (apparently, he is the new Senate Majority Leader). The White House is clearly 100% behind the drive for the nuclear option, and to expect enough Republicans to break ranks to allow a compromise is extremely wishful thinking. If Brooks really wants a compromise, he would do much better to attack those who have the power to force one through, namely Frist and Bush. But since his real goal is to deflect the blame for the coming Senate shutdown from the Republican party and Bush, his attack on the moderates makes a certain kind of twisted sense.

May 19, 2005

Column 2005-5-19 Commentary

I'm fairly busy right now, and Brooks gets enough right in his column that I don't feel there's anything I can really sink my teeth into, so this commentary will be pretty short. Anyway, this whole Newsweek flap is fairly stupid. After all, Newsweek is hardly the first organization to report a story without accurately sourcing it. But because some Taliban used this report as an excuse for violence in Afghanistan and Afghan soldiers and police, unused to the concept of dispersing crowds peacefully, fired at protesters who were protesting against the Afghan government and the American occupation as much as against allegations that Korans had been flushed down toilets at Guantanamo, right-wingers cried "Newsweek lied, people died" and the administration did everything but demand that the editors of Newsweek appear to beg for forgiveness in sackcloth and ashes for having the temerity to publish such a story, apparently because it's obviously not credible (we will beat, rape, and kill prisoners, but we would never flush the Koran down the toilet). Naturally the left had to respond to these stupidities, and most did get the point that the right and the administration are trying to use this to further suppress the press, but some got caught up in defending Newsweek, which is too bad since they screwed up, and the veracity of the Koran-toilet allegation, which is too bad because it would be much more productive to focus on worse abuses, such as the murder of two prisoners at Bagram Air Base documented in Friday's Times. The whole thing has been completely blown out of proportion, and I don't feel like writing any more about it.

May 15, 2005

Column 2005-5-15 Commentary

Today's Brooks column is deeply frustrating, in that it makes the reader want to reach through the page, grab Brooks, and shake him until he stops being so, well, moronic. Brooks's basic thesis is that poor people vote Republican if they have an optimistic, Horatio Alger outlook on life and Democratic if they don't believe that hard work will get you ahead. Which is a reasonable jumping-off point for analysis, but Brooks doesn't even try to get off the ground, instead pronouncing this to be "the big difference" between poor voters in the two parties. Apparently, Republicans are just optimists and Democrats are just pessimists, and that's all there is to it. First of all, it appears that Brooks, as often seems to be the case, has not even read the newspaper that he appears in, which has quite recently published a series of articles on economic class in America that show that there just isn't that much social mobility in the U.S., and that there is less all the time. In fact, social mobility is lower in the U.S. than it is in Scandinavian welfare states or in Canada, and about equal to what it is in Britain and France. So it appears that the poor voters who vote Democratic are more correct here than their Republican counterparts. This might even suggest that they are less likely to be carried away by grand concepts like "land of opportunity" or "war on terror" or "ownership society" or "compassionate conservatism" and more likely to look for substance in their political parties, which would definitely move them in the direction of the Democrats.

But even this issue is a diversion from the main question, which is: Why do these people think the way they do? For example, in what way is race a factor? For it is a factor: even Brooks recognizes it when he points out that "Bush won the white working class by 23 percentage points in this past election." And this is where the frustration starts to set in, because he neglects to note that Kerry won the black vote by 77 percentage points, and presumably the black working class vote by a similar or larger number. And surveys suggest that Kerry won the Latino vote by 30 or more percentage points (and the Asian, Arab, and Native American votes by similar margins, but they are not nearly as large as the black or Latino vote). Perhaps the optimism of their attitudes is not the only difference between poor Democrats and poor Republicans. In fact, this racial difference may contribute to the difference in attitude. Would anybody be really surprised to find that blacks and Latinos are less likely to believe that "most people can get ahead with hard work," as the survey asked? But race is hardly the only factor potentially affecting whether people are optimistic about the possibility of succeeding through hard work and determination. Religion is another: Bush won born-again Protestants by a 78-22 margin, so presumably there is a good chance that the average poor Republican is an evangelical Protestant of some denomination. And it would not be shocking if evangelicals felt that, what with being saved and all, they have a good chance to succeed if they simply work hard (is it necessarily the case? I don't know, of course, but Brooks doesn't even bother to consider the possibility). Most likely, both of these factors influenced the degree of optimism in the outlook of Democratic and Republican voters. And these are well-known differences between the electoral base of Democrats and Republicans, one of which Brooks even acknowledges in his column before cluelessly sailing on to set up one of his stupid dichotomies.

Yet Brooks manages to generate more frustration as he goes on to say, with a naivete that would be charming if it didn't make the reader want to strangle him, that, amazingly enough, poor Republicans don't trust the rich and big business. Well, gee, ya think? As if every Democratic campaign ever hasn't been run at least partly on the premise that if we can only get the Republican-voting poor to realize that the Democratic party is actually the party that defends the working man from the predations of big business, the Republicans will be swept from office (and these campaigns are often lost due to the Democratic party's failure to actually defend the working man from said predations)? "If the Ownership Society . . . means putting their retirement in the hands of Wall Street, they become queasy," Brooks opines. Funny, a lot of people figured this out several months ago when polls indicated that Bush's Social Security privatization plan was deeply unpopular, or even back in the 90's when the business-friendly Republican Medicare reform plan went down in flames. "Eighty percent believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt." This is exactly the kind of thing that has progressives tearing out their hair. Books, most prominently Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, have been written to try to explain this phenomenon. But apparently Brooks has only just been exposed to these ideas, and his expression of childish wonder as he examines them is the only thing that stops the reader from hauling off and punching him in the face. Well, that and the fact that he isn't actually there.

But it is Brooks's conclusion that is most exasperatingly ridiculous, as he actually calls for the Republicans to adopt poverty-fighting programs. Has he been paying no attention at all to Republican domestic policy programs over the past few years? Does he not realize that this is the party of tax cuts for the wealthy and tougher bankruptcy laws for the poor? Did he somehow miss the budget which included cuts for Medicaid, food stamps, home heating assistance, child care and development block grants, and Head Start? Or perhaps he thinks that these programs are mostly used by the middle and upper classes? For crying out loud, in his own column he points out several times that the views on government assistance programs that are held by poor Republicans are not shared by their richer brethren. "Only 19 percent of affluent Republicans believe" that government should do more to help the needy (there's something about debt attached to this, but given the rate at which the Republicans are piling up debt, it seems unlikely that the debt part is the killer). Only 26 percent of "affluent Republicans" think that big business has too much power. And who controls the Republican party? Surprise, surprise: it's rich people and big businesses! (No, not evangelicals, or at least not in the ways that count, unless abortion and gay marriage were banned and I just missed it). Might this have something to do with Republican reluctance to pass programs intended to alleviate poverty? Just maybe? Or maybe, just maybe, the poor who vote Republican are motivated more by issues of national security, religion, and nativism than they are by their belief that the Republicans are "the party of optimistic individualism." Just a thought. But then, that's the problem, isn't it: Brooks doesn't do much thinking. Manipulation of data to obtain the results he wants, yes. Determinedly ignoring facts that don't fit his theories, of course. But actuall thought, very rarely.

But then, we shouldn't be too surprised about this. After all, the Times obviously hasn't put much thought into the composition of their editorial page (could John Tierney be any more superfluous? And how sad is it that he makes me wish Safire were still there?), and this lack of thought has obviously affected the more weak-minded members of the editorial page crew, of which Brooks is the foremost and weakest-minded. At one point, perhaps, this could have been remedied, but it's too late now: Brooks's fragile mind has been damaged beyond repair, and the only way out is to fire him.

May 12, 2005

Column 2005-5-12 Commentary

Today's Brooks column is slightly sad. He only actually wrote two-thirds or so of it, excerpting the rest from various interviews about John Bolton with random people at the State Department. And his conclusions are anti-climactic: Bolton's chances for nomination have improved because "Bolton has a professional sense of limits. He'd push his views, and push hard. But after he'd had his say, he would almost always bow to the dictates of the organization." So, basically, he'd push his wrongheaded views, which were completely unsupported by the available intelligence, as hard as possible, until the rest of the State Department sat on him, at which point he'd concede ungracefully. Sounds like just the man we need at the U.N. Or how about this piece of unqualified support from Brooks: "The speeches he gave on controversial subjects were generally cleared." Generally cleared, you say? Shouldn't ALL the speeches he gives on controversial subjects have been cleared, what with him being a fairly important guy and all? Brooks also points out that Bolton didn't cause anybody to be fired, which is another black mark against him, as it suggests that Bolton was actually fairly ineffective: he spent all his time in the State Department fighting with, well, everybody, but couldn't even get anybody fired? But all these are merely excuses: the real reason that Brooks backs Bolton is that "Often when Bolton was pushing back at his colleagues, he was trying to defend the president's policies from dissenters at State." Bolton was fighting the good fight at the State Department, "pushing back" against those traitorous career diplomats who didn't believe that Iraq had WMD's or ties to Al Qaeda, resisting those who would point out that there isn't any actual evidence that Cuba or Syria have bioweapons programs, and generally acting as the President's point man. Bolton's nomination to be Ambassador to the U.N. can probably best be regarded as a military promotion: Bolton is now graduating to a higher grade of diplomatic warfare (he's not necessary at State any more, anyway, now that Colin Powell has been discarded). Bolton is Dear Leader's man, and that's all his supporters care about. Unfortunately for them, there are some Republicans who still hold the quaint view that people should be qualified for the posts they are nominated for, so the pro-Bolton crew are forced to argue that Bolton is a good, professional man who just gets a little carried away. By contrast, the rest of us see him as a dangerous, possibly insane bully who should be kept as far away from American foreign policy as possible. But Bush has "enormous stakes" invested in Bolton, and he and Cheney are hammering away to force his nomination through. That's why the "tide is turning": Bush is burning his political capital to pressure Republican Senators to support Bolton, and so far, they're folding (although Sen. Voinovich (R-OH) has announced that he will oppose Bolton on the floor, if not in committee).

The question of whether or not Bolton should be the next ambassador to the U.N. is best addressed by going to and browsing the archives, but for those of you who are too lazy to do so, here are some interesting posts (yes, I'm being lazy, but so is Brooks, and anyway all the facts are at and there's no point in my simply transcribing them).

Bolton fiercely fought intelligence analysts when they objected to his attempts to claim that Cuba had a bioweapons program (more).

Bolton threatened the INR (the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau) when the INR disagreed with him on an analysis (more).

Bolton refused to disburse money to allies (members of the late coalition of the willing, even) if they wouldn't sign an agreement protecting U.S. forces overseas from the authority of the ICC, even though all the countries were excused, either because they were in NATO or the coalition of the willing or both, and then refused to give out the money for some months even after being overruled by higher-ups (more). I guess this is more of his professionalism.

Bolton fought and fierce and protracted battle with intelligence analysts when they refused to approve his exaggerated assertions about Syria's pursuit of unconventional weapons (more).

Bolton appears to have set up his own small intelligence bureau to produce intelligence to fit his preconceptions, similar to, though considerably smaller than, Rumsfeld's Office of Special Plans (more).

Bolton lied under oath during his confirmation hearings, claiming that he had never sought to have an intelligence official fired, when he clearly attempted to do just that on at least two occasions (more and more).

Bolton regularly harassed underlings in the State Department, sometimes for trivial reasons (more).

Bolton upset senior State Department officials to the point that Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, ordered that Bolton not be allowed to give speeches or testimony unless Armitage had personally approved it first. The immediate cause of this seems to have Bolton's speech of July 31, 2003 that nearly broke off the six-party talks with North Korea (but since, according to Brooks, Bolton always defends Bush's policies, I guess Bush must not have cared that much about the six-party talks that much after all). That speech was approved, but the person who approved it was subsequently the target of Armitage's wrath. Bolton also attempted to prevent Mohammed ElBaradei from being reappointed as the head of the IAEA, and lied about the extent of his opposition to ElBaradei under oath. (more; more on ElBaradei; more on Bolton's controversial North Korea speech).

Bolton may have used NSA intercepts to spy on State Department colleagues who disagreed with him (more).

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw specifically requested that Bolton be left out of nonproliferation negotiations with Libya, and Bolton did practically nothing about A.Q. Khan proliferation network, even though arms control was part of his job description (more).

And finally, Bolton kept important information from Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell (more).

While a president should certainly have a certain amount of leeway in his appointments, a bare minimum of qualification is important, and it's unclear if Bolton could be any less qualified for this spot. Brooks, of course, could not be less qualified for his spot, but, sadly, we're used to that by now.

May 08, 2005

Column 2005-5-8 Commentary

My first thought on reading yesterday's John Tierney column was that Tierney had set a new standard for mendacity by supposedly respectable conservative columnists writing about Social Security, beating out even Brooks's previous efforts in this regard, but then I decided to reserve judgement until Brooks got a chance to strike back. After all, Tierney has been mounting a fierce challenge to Brooks for possession of his niche as a pseudo-reasonable conservative columnist with a penchant for analyzing American culture. Two weeks ago, Tierney neatly swiped the idea of writing a column about some study suggesting that being fat wasn't as dangerous as had been thought from Brooks. Last week, Tierney wrote a column about how much better red-staters are than blue staters. And now Tierney comes out with a column in which he lies through his teeth about Social Security, thus proving that he can do everything Brooks can. Surely Brooks would not take this lying down? Somehow, I picture this whole thing as being one of those nature programs, with a guy with a British accent narrating as the two male columnists circle each other, hackles raised and teeth bared. Will the older male be able to respond to the challenge, or will he back down and be driven out? Well, with today's column, Brooks responded, serving notice that he has not yet weakened sufficiently for Tierney to supplant him. Anybody can lie about Social Security, but it takes a truly special talent to lie, smear and distort the Democratic position, AND distort the Republican position all in the same column. "You have learned well, John," Brook says, "but you are not a Jedi yet."

Brooks starts off by saying "Don't listen to them when they tell you how to be virtuous. They're faking it." Where has he drawn this lesson from? Surprisingly (or rather, unsurprisingly), not from the radical Christian right, but from the Democratic party. The Democratic party certainly has many flaws, but what's bothering Brooks is that after much rhetoric directed at Bush about making "shared sacrifices for the common good", caring for the poor, not the rich, and "imposing fiscal discipline", they are objecting when Bush calls for so-called progessive indexing of Social Security benefits. A bit of background for those of you unfamiliar with the idea of progressive indexing: it means that the benefits of the "better off" are cut, while everybody else's are preserved. The first sign that progressive indexing might not be quite as friendly as it sounds is that the "better off" are defined as all those earning more than $20,000 a year. For the average worker, earning $37,000 a year, benefits are currently scheduled to make up 36% of pre-retirement income, but under Bush's plan would be reduced to 26%. For a worker making $58,000 a year, benefits would be reduced by 13% of pre-retirement income. After that, though, cuts become less and less significant, to the point that someone making $1,000,000 would stand to lose only 1% of pre-retirement income in cuts. So the middle class would take the brunt of the cuts: benefit for the rich would also be cut, but since the rich don't need the money, it wouldn't hurt them. Furthermore, Bush's plan encourages workers to put sizable portions of their payroll taxes in private accounts, effectively borrowing against their future benefits and thus cutting those future benefits even more. The end result of this plan would be that many of those in the middle class would not even recieve Social Security checks, turning Social Security into welfare for the elderly poor, and, of course, once programs are only used by the poor, they're easy to destroy. And Social Security was not designed as a welfare program: that's why everybody, even the very rich, receives Social Security checks when they retire. Conservatives seem to have trouble understanding this, so it's worth reiterating: Social Security is an insurance program. It provides insurance against a member of the family becoming disabled and being unable to work, against a member of the family dying, and against people being unable, through bad luck or bad planning, to support themselves in their old age. It's not simply for poor people who would otherwise be eating cat food: it's also important for the middle class, who would otherwise be able to retire only if they were willing to accept a sizable decrease in their standard of living. This is why Democrats oppose so-called progressive indexing.

Brooks, of course, ignores these facts and simply lies about the whole issue, starting when he claims that Bush "has asked us to make a shared sacrifice for the common good." As the numbers suggest, this sacrifice would not actually be shared by the rich. Instead, most of the sacrificing would be done by people making from $20,000-$60,000 when they retire, people who could probably use an extra few thousand dollars a year. Even more ridiculously, Brooks says "Why should programs for children and families be strangled so Donald Trump can get bigger benefit checks?" Given the size of the checks, Trump won't even notice if they stop coming. But what's really mystifying is that Brooks suggests that Social Security benefits going to Donald Trump are being taken away from programs for children and families. Under Bush's plan, benefits taken from Trump would be given to the elderly poor. Children and families don't enter into it. Such programs are being strangled, of course, so Trump can pay smaller income tax checks, but Brooks doesn't seem to want to mention that. Brooks pretends to be flabbergasted that Democrats wouldn't jump at this chance to redistribute wealth, but most of the redistributing would be from the middle class, especially the lower middle class, to the poor, which is not exactly what the Democrats have in mind. There are proposals, largely made by Democrats, so they don't get much press, for wealth transfer down the income scale -- for instance, by reinstating the estate tax, which falls only on the very wealthy, and using it to cover part of the Social Security funding gap -- which would actually transfer significant amounts of wealth, but this is not one.

This is bad enough, but in the next paragraph, Brooks surpasses himself. First, he asserts that Bush "has made the hard choices" by "facing up to the fact that there are going to be benefit cuts". Actually, making benefit cuts is not really a very hard choice, since that is the default option: if nothing is done, benefit cuts happen. The hard choice would be to figure out some way to preserve benefits intact at currently scheduled levels by raising taxes, but naturally any such idea is anathema to Bush. Brooks then goes on to grossly insult the intelligence of his readers by asserting that in calling for cutting Social Security benefits, Bush has offended various Republican party constituencies. Supply-siders, for instance, are apparently aghast that Bush would cut Social Security benefits. Who knew that they were holding out for a tax increase on the rich to cover the funding gap? The fact is, the Republican party has always disliked Social Security and tries to eliminate it on a regular basis, only to get kicked in the teeth by the voters. Right now is one of those eliminationist periods -- if you don't believe that the Republican party really wants to get rid of Social Security, consider this excerpt from the platform of the Texas GOP: "The Party supports an orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax." -- and the whole party will back Bush until it becomes clear that phase-out is impossible, at which point the whole thing will probably be dropped, possibly because the Republicans have lost their congressional majorities.

Presumably aware that he's skating on thin ice here, Brooks goes back to bashing Democrats. First he takes the idea of shared sacrifice, a theme used by Democrats to suggest that cutting taxes in wartime is a bad idea, and twists it to suggest that Democrats should be jumping for joy at the idea of sacrificing Social Security benefits, since that will help fight terror, apparently (if your Social Security benefits are not cut, the terrorists have already won!). Then he accuses the Democrats of "
making demagogic appeals to people's narrow self-interest." The hypocrisy of this is fairly stunning -- i.e., par for the course for Brooks -- given that Bush has attempted to sell his plan by appealing to naked self-interest, reassuring the elderly that their benefits will not be cut while luring the young with visions of vast private accounts (neither group has believed him, showing that naked self-interest only goes so far). And what do these demagogic appeals consist of? Well, they appear to consist of statements of fact. Nancy Pelosi points out that the benefits of middle-class seniors will be cut, which is completely true. Representative Sander Levin says that this is the biggest benefit cut in the history of Social Security, which is probably true. It's unclear what is demagogic about this.

Brooks also attacks "sober chin-pullers", by which he means the fiscally prudent and those who are worried about deficits. Why aren't they applauding Bush's plan? Well, it might have something to do with the line of thinking espoused by noted Communist Warren Buffett, who says "There is no question that the Bush Administration is ignoring the most serious economic problems facing America and that they are more interested in ideological driven issues. The most serious fiscal issues are: the General Fund deficit, the current account / trade deficit, and health care. Why are we talking about Social Security?" By now, the "sober chin-pullers" have presumably figured out that the Social Security problem is not that big of a problem -- in fact, if growth is faster than the not-particularly-optimistic predictions we have at present assume, it may not be a problem -- and are worrying about more important issues. And Brooks finishes up by condemning moderate Democrats for not supporting means-testing of Social Security, as they supposedly have for the past 20 years. Excuse me, but didn't conservatives used to be all about balanced budgets? And small government? And states rights? I could have sworn that those were important parts of the Republican ideology is recently as, oh, 2000.

Brooks then finishes by claiming that the Democrats don't have any productive ideas, only "half-truths from the peanut gallery." This is a lie: there are Democratic plans, only since they don't stand a chance in hell of passing, given that the Democrats are in the minority, the Democrats don't get a chance to present them. Brooks then accuses the Democrats of doing nothing but opposing the Republicans, casting the issue as being between a party with a "governing mentality" and a party with an "opposition mentality". Of course, since the Republicans are governing, and the Democrats are in the opposition, it's not particularly surprising that this is the way things are. Brooks seems to have forgotten, in fact, that the current Republican majorities were created by the Republicans simply standing fast and saying no to Clinton's health care reform. No Republicans came forward with constructive ideas then, or attempted to lead: they simply opposed with all their might, and were rewarded with lasting majorities in the House and Senate. Brooks also asserts that parties with the governing mentality absorb their rivals' ideas (actually, he says good ideas, but progressive indexing is not a good idea), thus driving their rivals to the edge, and indeed, we all remember how well that worked for the Democrats in the 90's with welfare reform and a balanced budget.

So, what can we learn from this column (no, we already knew that David Brooks is a big fat liar, so that doesn't count), other than that John Tierney has no idea what he's gotten himself into in putting himself up against Brooks? Mostly, we can learn that the Republican party is desperate. They know that private accounts are a sure loser, as we can tell from Brooks not mentioning them once. They know that Democrats are standing firm against Bush's plan, which is why Brooks talks hysterically of Democrats "betraying an animating ideal." And they know that their moderates won't go along with privatization without Democratic support, which is why they are so desperately trying to attract some. Because, really, all this discussion of progressive indexing is besides the point. It's certainly an awful idea, but the centerpiece of the plan is still private accounts, and those are still phase-out by another name. Nothing has changed except that some window dressing with progressive in the title has been added in the hope of attracting Democratic support, and the fact that such support is still being withheld is driving Republicans crazy. And last but not least, we -- or at least the editorial staff of the Times -- can learn that every time they print a Brooks column, a puppy dies. Maybe that will persuade them to fire him.

May 05, 2005

Column 2005-5-5 Commentary

In this column, Brooks once again proves conclusively that he is dispatching these pieces from some other reality. In Brooks's reality, militant secularists are overrunning the country, driving anyone who dares so much as mention religion from the public sphere with hooting and catcalls. Politicians who mention God or their faith are mercilessly harassed until they crack under the pressure and publicly reject religion in speeches filled with excerpts from Bertrand Russell and Voltaire. A nation-wide, well-organized lobby of atheists constantly presses for the passage of laws banning the teaching of religion, as well as spear-heading campaigns to remove the phrase "In God we Trust" from our money and to end the practice of swearing in the President on the Bible. The occasional meek protests by evangelicals are shouted down, complete with insinuations that fundamentalist Christians are not real Americans. If this doesn't sound like America to you, congratulations: you are living in the real world (although given the way things are going, congratulations may not be in order). In the real world, which Brooks doesn't seem to have touched base with in quite some time, there are some "militant secularists", but they are far outnumbered by the hard-core fundamentalists who are fighting to turn America into a theocracy. In the real world, Pat Robertson can go on tv and claim that activist judges are the greatest threat the United States has faced in its 400-year history, proving that not only is he completely insane, he's completely ignorant of the most basic facts of American history (or perhaps he just can't subtract; after all, 2005 and 1776 are very large numbers, and Pat Robertson is not very bright). In the real world, the radical Christian right is attempting to block the teaching of evolution (and, if they can get that through, plate tectonics, the Big Bang, and then presumably practically all science), drastically reduce the power of judges and eliminate their ability to review any question having to do with religion, run roughshod over the separation of powers in order to interfere in private matters, prevent women from having access to birth control (not to mention their attempts to ban abortion and homosexuality) and eliminate the separation of church and state and the right to privacy. In the real world, politicized evangelicals are proposing to radically reshape our society and establish a Christian version of the Taliban.

The radical turn that the Christian right has taken is obvious to anyone who is paying attention to the political scene, from which we can deduce that Brooks is doing no such thing. In his column, he refers to "militant secularists" and their "bland relativism", the "smug ignorance" of one Robert Kuttner, and "the forces of selfishness and subjectivism" (since these forces are to be balanced by evangelicals, they are presumably secular). Meanwhile, the "orthodox believers" have "conviction". Sure, "we're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness" and "sometimes evangelical causes can overflow the banks defined by our founding documents." But "the evangelical tradition is deeply consistent with the American creed" (who knew that the American creed included homophobia?); plus, the evangelicals have "moral rigor" (a ridiculous statement, incidentally: the phrase "moral rigor" is meaningless, and evangelicals are not necessarily more moral than other people simply because they claim to be evangelicals, as the televangelist scandals of the 80's demonstrate) and are partly responsible for "a great wave of internal improvements that transformed the country". It seems to me that Brooks is just a tiny bit biased in favor of the evangelicals here. And yet he admits that the evangelicals have a tendency to ignore the laws in order to impose their moral vision and that they are "overflowing the boundaries of our founding documents" -- i.e., ignoring the Constitution. Meanwhile, what are those bad secularists doing? Well, uh, the ACLU is fighting the constant usage of the sacred vocabulary in the public sphere (which, of course, is not true: the ACLU attempts to prevent the public sphere from being completely overrun by the sacred vocabulary). At least Brooks doesn't descend to the claim that secularists are trying to destroy Christianity by forcing people to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", but really, can't he see what's going on here? This is, in fact, even worse than if Brooks had no idea what was going on (ok, so I was exaggerating earlier): all the facts are in front of him, yet somehow he is unable to put the pieces together.

Naturally, if this material was presented on its own, its patent absurdity would bring it down, so Brooks links everything to Lincoln, a man who "wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there." Brooks sees Lincoln as being firmly in the middle of the culture wars, where by firmly in the middle Brooks means right next to the evangelicals, though not approving wholeheartedly of everything they do. This is interesting, as Lincoln is a man who said "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." Perhaps Lincoln wanted to be more religious, but he appears to have recognized something that Brooks has not: religion is not the same thing as evangelical Christianity. (This is especially confusing because Brooks is, after all, Jewish). Evidence of Lincoln's peculiarly personal approach to religion abounds: when Lincoln first ran for office, he was dogged by charges that he was "an open scoffer at Christianity" or at least not entirely orthodox in his beliefs. He is the only president who never joined a church. Then there is his Second Inaugural Address, full of quotes like this one: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." The whole speech is suffused with the feeling that God's plan may not be exactly what anybody, even Lincoln, thinks it is, and is especially a warning to the North (and, presumably, the Radical Republicans, who were in some sense the radical Christian right of the day) not to assume that its victory in the Civil War gave it a monopoly on truth or a sudden ability to divine God's will.

Lincoln is, of course, an excellent figure for Brooks to select, only not for the reasons that Brooks thinks. Unlike today's radical Christian right, Lincoln did not automatically assume that he had all the answers or that he knew God's will. He did not claim that the Bible was literal truth and should be the highest law of the land: after all, he must have known that the Bible was being used to provide support for slavery. Furthermore, Lincoln never tried to impose his religious views on others, insisting that they should remain private. It appears, according to Allen Guelzo, whose biography of Lincoln Brooks quotes, that Lincoln was, in his own way, an intellectual who came to his moral beliefs at least in part by reading books and thinking about what he had read, something which is anathema to the Dobsons and Robertsons of the world. Consider, finally, this Lincoln quote: "The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right." It is hard to imagine the Lincoln who appears in this quote having much sympathy with today's evangelicals.

It should be noted that the only evidence Brooks gives in favor of his view of Lincoln is that Lincoln told his cabinet, when he announced his intention to, well, proclaim the Emancipation Proclamation, that he had made a vow to God that if the Union won at Antietam, Lincoln would present the decree. This is interesting as this story appears to be practically unsourced (as is his wont, Brooks doesn't source it). For instance, Brooks quotes Lincoln as saying as this meeting that "God had decided the question in favor of the slaves", but a Google search for this quote produces exactly two hits which are not quotes from this column, neither of which state a source for their quote. Google is certainly not all-knowing, and it is possible that new scholarship has revealed this hitherto unknown episode, but it is instructive to examine the timeline that most sources give for the Emancipation Proclamation, one which is rather different than Brooks's. Lincoln first broached the idea of emancipation to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of State William Seward on July 13, 1862, and presented it to the full cabinet on July 22. There was no talk of God at this meeting: instead, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, applauded the Proclamation's military value and Montgomery Blair warned of possible adverse consequences for the fall elections. Lincoln wanted to issue the Proclamation immediately, but Seward persuaded him to wait for some good military news, as otherwise "it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help." And while Lincoln's strong belief that slavery was wrong, arising at least in part from his religious beliefs, was an important motivation behind the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, it was not the only one. The Proclamation had, as Stanton recognized, considerable military value, as it struck directly at the basis of the South's economy and ensured British backing for the Union.

But of all the ways in which Brooks twists Lincoln to suit his purposes, this sentence is undoubtedly the most ridiculous: "When great leaders make daring leaps, they often feel themselves surrendering to Divine Providence, and their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth." The freethinkers, atheists, and Deists who founded this country -- Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton -- would (if they were alive) disagree, in many cases fervently. Furthermore, it is entirely possible to have faith that one is "acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth" without being religious. Brooks is merely recycling the tired old canard that atheists have no concept of morality. What would actually be accurate, or at least more accurate would be to say that "When great leaders make daring leaps, their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth." Religion can be involved, but need not be.

Finally, Robert Kuttner deserves better than to be dismissed as smugly ignorant for proposing that the culture war is now "a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism". First of all, it should be made clear that Kuttner proposed no such thing: this formulation is Brooks's. The column to which Brooks appears to be referring is here: Kuttner doesn't even refer to the culture war, a much broader phenomenon than that which he is discussing. Instead, Kuttner attacks the radicals on the far religious right who wage war against science, history, and all forms of intellectual effort when they conflict with what the radical Christians believe to be the revealed truth of the Bible. Just what Brooks feels is objectionable about this is unclear, especially since Brooks, as noted above is Jewish (and, judging from his picture, not Orthodox). As always, the only possible conclusion is that Brooks is flacking for the Republican party, doing his best to put a moderate face on the religious extremists who wield an ever-growing amount of influence over the party. Sadly for Brooks, the Republican party has long since stopped being the party of Lincoln.

May 01, 2005

Column International Worker's Day 2005 Commentary

Reading this column should give those brave souls who regularly venture forth into the wilds of David Brooks's writings a strong feeling of deja vu. Blah blah blah compromise, blah blah blah civility, blah blah blah special interest groups are bad, tied together by the insistence that both Republicans and Democrats are equally at fault: if the reader finds this familiar, it's because it is the basis of every column that Brooks writes about politics these days. I don't really feel like going over familiar ground again, and anyway I've already covered the main points of this column that need to be addressed -- the Democrats are not abusing the filibuster, the radical Christian right is the main force driving the move towards the nuclear option -- in a previous piece, so I'm just going to make a couple of key points here. First point: while civility and compromise are important in the Senate, they are important solely as tools for governing, not as ends of their own. Senators are not elected to be civil and compromise: they are elected to govern. Second point: if one party has blocked a handful of extremist court nominees using the only tool available to it and the other party is attempting to overturn years of tradition to remove that tool at the behest of a group of radical Christians who want to turn the country into a theocracy, the second party is to blame for the situation. Brooks does his best to hold up the fiction that radical leftist interest groups are pushing the Democrats just as hard as the fundies are pushing the Republicans, but the fundies keep undermining him by holding events like Justice Sunday to air their claim that the filibuster is being used against "people of faith". Who knew that the 200 or so Bush nominees who were confirmed in his first term were all atheists? And remember that in Clinton's second term the Republicans prevented 65 nominees from obtaining floor votes by various methods, all of which they eliminated as soon as Bush became president. The Democrats, by comparison, have blocked exactly ten nominees, and all of them because they would make bad judges. This last point sounds obvious, but during Clinton's second term the Republicans would often deny hearings to Clinton appointees simply because something Clinton had done -- his continuing to exist, for instance -- had annoyed them. Really, these two points are all you need to understand the fundamental dishonesties of Brooks's approach.

Finally, a historical note: at the end of the column, Brooks urges that the Senators look back to Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. Interestingly, Clay's reputation for compromises stems from his involvement in the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850, both of which were ultimately futile attempts to patch over the fundamental differences between the pro-slavery South and the anti-slavery North. I'm not sure if this is exactly the model Brooks thinks the Senate should emulate. Also, it should be noted that Clay was extremely partisan at times and waged a political war with Andrew Jackson that was easily as bitter as anything between Democrats and Republicans today.

I apologize for the general shortness of my recent posts, but life has me by the hind leg, as they say. I hope to resume regularly scheduled service shortly.