June 26, 2005

Column 2005-6-26 Commentary

Today's column represents a return to Brooks's usual shtick of writing about the differences between liberals and conservatives. In order to remove all traces of originality, Brooks chooses as his theme the decidedly shopworn idea that liberals are pie-in-the-sky idealists while conservatives are hard-headed and serious men who understand that life is stern and earnest. Inspired either by his recent trip to Africa or Jeffrey Sachs's Saturday op-ed in the Times, Brooks chooses to contrast liberal and conservative approaches to the problem of poverty in Africa, with Sachs representing the unworkable ideas of liberals and Bush the solid plans of conservatives. What's even more fascinating and revealing, though, is Brooks's full-on attack on the Enlightenment. Sachs, we are told, is "a child of the French Enlightenment." Note: the "French" Enlightenment. This and other not-so-subtle hints that Sachs is French (later on, we find that "Sachs comes across as a philosophe for our times") are a good sign that reasoned, rational discourse is not to be expected (but after all, reasoned, rational discourse is a product of the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment itself is dismissed as a time "when leading thinkers had an amazing confidence in their ability to refashion reality so that it would conform to reason." Sachs is apparently an "unreconstructed" Enlightenment thinker, a term with echoes of unreconstructed Marxism. While such attacks are only to be expected from the crazy Christian right, Brooks fancies himself a thinker, and to see him disparaging the Enlightenment in such a fashion is truly frightening, especially when one recalls that the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, even the French ones -- Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, to name three you may have heard of -- are central to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If even the supposedly thoughtful part of the Republican establishment is willing to turn on the Enlightenment (and perhaps soon its principles, such as individual rights, limited government authority, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state), the situation is even worse than it seems right now.

The rest of Brooks's column relies on misrepresenting Sachs and Bush, as can be easily seen by looking at Sachs's op-ed. " The Bush administration has nearly doubled foreign aid," Brooks says to counter Sachs's claim that the administration has abandoned Africa, but of course that represents total foreign aid. According to Sachs's piece, Bush's increase in aid to Africa consists only of a small amount of additional emergency food aid. Additionally, Sachs points out that Bush plans to offset the costs of forgiving America's portion of $1.5 billion a year of African debt by cutting other aid. Clearly, Bush is not planning to increase African aid very significantly, and as Sachs makes clear, most of what is spent goes to emergency food aid and paying for the salaries of American workers rather than actual structural investments. Using Sachs's numbers of $3 billion a year in aid and $2 per American spent on things like fighting malaria, we find that about 80% of American aid goes to emergency food aid and salaries. Both are important, of course, but they are not likely to solve Africa's problems, merely ameliorate the worst of them. Brooks hails Bush's Millenium Challenge Accounts and suggests that Sachs doesn't think much of them (they are "not dismissed by Sachs, but not heralded either.") To Brooks, the MCA's represent the conservative way of doing things, in which we learn from past mistakes, while Sachs, he sneers, merely wants to repeat the 1960's. Brooks does acknowledge that the MCA's have "been horribly executed", speaking specifically of a meeting in Mozambique where locals were frustrated by their inability to figure out what the Americans wanted in return for their aid and had thus received nothing over the past two years. What he doesn't mention, though Sachs does, is that the MCA program has disbursed almost nothing of the $10 billion it was supposed to give out over the past five years. And rather than ignoring the MCA's, the third part of Sachs's four-part program for Africa calls for them to be fixed and move toward actually giving out money.

As for the rest of Sachs's proposals, Brooks refers contempuously to "Sachsian grand ideas" and suggests that Sachs simply plans to funnel money into Africa and sit back and wait for poverty to end. In fact, Sachs says that "[f]oreign aid should be targeted to specific, measurable, achievable and bold goals." And "[t]he United States should help countries that are prepared to help themselves." He sets out four specific areas of investment in his op-ed: "growing more food, fighting disease, ensuring that children are in school and building critical infrastructure (including roads, energy services, water and sanitation)." His second point calls for quantitative goals to be set so that accountability can be enforced, and his piece is filled with specific goals to be met, such as the distribution of malaria nets, which Brooks mocks by saying "You can give people mosquito nets to prevent malaria, but they might use them instead to catch fish." Indeed they might, but not if you carefully explain to them what the nets are for and simultaneously, as Sachs proposes, help them to grow more food. And even if some do, does that mean that it's not worthwhile to give them out and save those who don't from dying from a completely preventable disease? In fact, for all of Brooks's talk of how Sachs is trying to "rescue [African societies] from above with technocratic planning" while ignoring individual Africans, it is clear from Sachs's op-ed that his plans largely work at the individual and community level and rely on giving people the opportunity to improve their own lives by distributing mosquito nets, helping them with farming techniques, or sending their children to school. Indeed, the program that Sachs describes as "[t]he only bright spot in America's policy on Africa", Bush's emergency anti-AIDS program, works in exactly this way, by distributing anti-retroviral medicines to Africans. Instead, it is Brooks, with his talk of "institutions, governance, conflict and traditions" who seems to be ignoring the people and concentrating on abstractions.

Of course, this assumes that the Bush administration has been acting in good faith and that Bush is going about the business of solving poverty in Africa as best he can according to his lights. While it is possible that such is the case, there is certainly room for plenty of skepticism. Consider the Millenium Challenge Accounts, the centerpiece of Bush's plan to help Africa. Sachs points out that "[t]he head of President Bush's Millennium Challenge Corporation [which administers the MCA's] recently resigned after failing to get the program moving." We noted earlier that the program has disbursed a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to, and that even Brooks admits that the execution was horrible and "[t]he locals had been given only the vaguest notions of what sort of projects the U.S. is willing to finance." At the very least, this makes it clear that the MCA's are not a high Bush administration priority. In fact, it's not impossible that, under the guise of encouraging good governance, the administration is hiding its poverty-fighting money behind layers of inept bureacracy and vague instructions. Sachs's charge that the administration has failed the world's poor seems a lot more credible when one considers how little it cares about its signature poverty-fighting program. Combine this with Bush's reluctance to increase aid and his plan to compensate for debt relief (the amount of which is, according to Sachs, only 6% of what is needed) by cutting aid in other areas, it certainly appears that fighting poverty to Africa is not something that is really important to the administration. Perhaps the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want to end poverty and conservatives just don't much care.

N.B.: Just as egregious is Brooks's flippant introduction: " Karl Rove has his theories about what separates liberals from conservatives and I have mine." Rove's "theory" is that liberals don't really want to fight terrorism: instead, they are all traitors who want to kill American troops. While it is too much to expect Republican party lapdog Brooks to repudiate this slur, he could at least have the common decency not to mention it.

June 23, 2005

Column 2005-6-23 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks says that we should not dismiss the Iraq war too soon: we must be sure we have sufficient information to determine whether or not the war is winnable before we pass judgement. On one level, he is, of course, correct, but on a deeper level this is a profoundly pointless statement. To some people, the complete lack of progress over the past two years strongly suggests that this war is a lost cause. To Brooks, "we don't have the evidence upon which to pass judgment on the overall trajectory of this war . . . ." Who's right? Well, it depends on how much evidence is enough. If we don't have enough evidence until the country has descended into a four-way civil war, with Kurds fighting Sunni Arabs fighting Shiite Arabs fighting Americans, then we might be in Iraq for quite a while (or, perhaps, just a few months). Alternatively, if the situation stays much the same for the next year or two or five or ten, with a Sunni Arab insurgency fighting American and to a lesser extent Iraqi troops, a government with no legitimacy among the Sunni Arabs negotiating with Sunni Arab political leaders to try to get them involved, and a steady trickle of American casualties, then in ten years Brooks and his ilk could concievably still be arguing that a breakthrough could be right around the corner and it's too soon to say whether we can win. If no standard is set, no line is drawn to say that if things get this bad, we're leaving, then it is always possible to argue that we don't yet know if we can win, right up to the point where we lose.

These philosophical considerations aside, I'd like to give you some quotes. From May 18, 2004: "No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we are about to do." From April 27, 2004: "These are the crucial months in Iraq. The events in Najaf and Falluja will largely determine whether Iraq will move toward normalcy or slide into chaos." From July 3, 2004: "This administration can adapt, and stick to a winning strategy once it finds it. . . . that makes the long-term prospects for success brighter than they appeared a few months ago." (from a column entitled "Bush's Winning Strategy"). Any guesses as to who is being quoted? Unsurprisingly, back when victory appeared more likely, as Sadr was defeated and the transfer of sovereignty was presented as the solution to our problems, Brooks was making sunny predictions. Furthermore, an overview of Brooks's columns from before then makes it clear that he thought that the insurgency would not last long (one column from September 2003 states that "the violence may not abate in Iraq until early next year"). As long as things were going his way and popular opinion was still behind the war, Brooks was more than happy to pass judgement without worrying if it was premature. But now that things are going badly, there are few prospects for improvement, and polls show that the public has turned against the war, Brooks piously urges us not rush to judgement.

Of course, Brooks is not the only conservative who has been guilty of making unsubstantiated claims about the progress of the war. Only this week Dick Cheney asserted that the insurgency was in its "last throes". Shortly afterward, General John Abizaid, the top American commander for the Middle East, completely contradicted Cheney by saying that the insurgency had not diminished over the past six months. Undaunted, Cheney went back to CNN and repeated his claim. Perhaps Brooks's column should be aimed at Cheney rather than those who are turning against the war. And this leads directly to one of the reasons that polls show "rising disenchantment with the war": the constant drumbeat of administration propaganda to the effect that the insurgents are "desperate", that we're about to win, that the transfer of sovereignty/the elections/the capture of Fallujah/the capture of Najaf is the key turning point and things will only improve from here on out led people to constantly expect victory. And things were just as bad prior to the war. Richard Perle said "A year from now I'd be surprised if there's not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush." Rumsfeld said the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." Cheney asserted "I think it will go relatively quickly... (in) weeks rather than months.” Before the war, the public was told that it would be fast and easy. Once we were well into it, the public was constantly told that we were on the verge of winning. The administration conditioned the American people to evaluate the war on a short timescale, and that is exactly what is happening.

Of course, had the public been told that the war would likely involve an American presence in Iraq for ten years at least, it would have been much less likely to support the war. Which brings us to the reason for the drop in the war's support that Brooks doesn't mention: the stated reasons for the war have been exposed as frauds. No weapons of mass destruction were found. No ties to Al Qaeda were unearthed. And the Downing Street Memo has made it very clear that Bush lied about the magnitude of the threat Iraq posed and his willingness to deal with Iraq diplomatically. As people start to realize that this was a war that didn't have to be fought, they are much less likely to support it. Which brings us to the most unforgiveable sin of this column, Brooks's use of Franklin Roosevelt's words to urge the public to stay behind Bush. Brooks quotes Roosevelt as saying "Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst, without flinching or losing heart. You must, in turn, have complete confidence that your government is keeping nothing from you except information that will help the enemy in his attempt to destroy us." This is great, except that in World War II we were fighting enemies who were a direct threat and who attacked us first, rather than diverting our attention from the real threat to go to war against an old enemy who was reinflated into a deeply dangerous monster for reasons which are still unclear. Furthermore, this quote reflects a bargain that has two sides: not only must the public trust in the government in a time of war, the government must deserve this trust. When the entrance to war is surrounded by a nimbus of lies, it's hard for the public to retain the kind of trust in government that Brooks wants. And that's really the fundamental problem here: the public is realizing that people are dead because Bush lied, and they really aren't very happy about that. Brooks can talk about the need to stay the course and how Washington had no polls in Valley Forge all he wants, but that won't change the basic facts. Plus, Washington was there with the troops at Valley Forge. Bush's Top Gun stunt doesn't quite compare.

June 19, 2005

Column 2005-6-19 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks sadly concludes that since entering the Senate, Bill Frist has lost his way. "These days he seems not so much the leader of the Senate conservatives, but someone who is playing the role" says Brooks. Frist "is behaving in ways that don't seem entirely authentic," as we can see from the Schiavo case, where Frist "did betray his medical training . . . to please a key constituency group." So far, Brooks tells us nothing we didn't already know: Frist has taken up the mantle of champion of the radical Christian right in order to bolster his chances at the presidency in 2008. It is nice to see this fact finally penetrating Brooks's thick skull, although it is also possible that the administrations has decided that Frist is a liability who must be discarded and the word has gone out to their mouthpieces (and Brooks is nothing if not an administration mouthpiece). However, it's most likely that Brooks's claim that Frist's behavior over the past few months "wasn't a case of cynical opportunism," followed by a description of Frist as apolitical and not particularly ideological until his arrival in the Senate and his rise to majority leader which makes it pretty clear that Frist is, in fact, a cynical opportunist, is simply a typical example of Brooks being a moron.

June 16, 2005

Column 2005-6-16 Commentary

Having figured out how to solve the problem of AIDS in Africa, Brooks apparently considers his job there done, and today he abandons his excellent African adventure to return to doing what he does best: bashing liberal elites for everything he can possibly think of that's wrong with America. Today's episode features liberal elites being blamed for the decline of middle-class culture in America. How do we know that middle-class culture in America has declined? Well, back in the fifties and early sixties, Time and Newsweek used to do big pieces on topics like Abstract Expressionism, Hemingway, or "theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr." Now, Time does cover stories on Jesus. Clearly, middle-class culture has declined, right? Well, if one assumes that all of middle-class culture is found in Time and Newsweek, then yes. Otherwise, you might have to consider the possibility that middle-class culture simply migrated somewhere else. Where did it go? Personally, I have no idea, but then again, I'm not being paid sizable sums to write about my cultural studies on the editorial page of the New York Times.

There is a similar phenomenon at work when Brooks places the death of middle-class culture in the mid-sixties (and I'm being generous here: try to reconcile "Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America" with " Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's"). How does Brooks come to this conclusion? Well, middle-brow culture existed prior to the mid-sixties. It doesn't exist today. Therefore, it was killed in the mid-sixties. And that's the whole argument. No studies are cited. No attempt is made to show that the cultural content of Time and Newsweek started to change in the mid-sixties. Brooks seems to have trouble telling the difference between saying something and proving that what you just said is correct.

Of course, this kind of confusion is only to be expected in a column where Brooks can't even stick with a consistent definition of his topic. What is "middlebrow culture"? Well, it's "really high-toned popular culture". But Time and Newsweek were writing articles "pitched at middle-class people . . . who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite." That sounds more like these people wanted to move away from popular culture and towards the elite culture of the East Coast. Doesn't Brooks even have an editor who could gently suggest that his column is completely self-contradictory?

Naturally, Brooks blames this problem on liberal elites. On the one hand, he quotes Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald attacking middlebrow culture, suggesting that intellectuals did their best to destroy it. There are two points to be made here: first of all, two people do not a movement make, and secondly, who are these guys anyway? On the other hand, Brooks also blames vague changes in pop culture: "It was no longer character-oriented; it was personality-oriented," whatever that means. Well, what it really means, of course, is that those bad liberals who created sixties pop culture destroyed the middlebrow culture with their selfishness. What's really amazing, though, is that Brooks absolves the media of all responsibility, asserting "it's not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial)." Really? The media has no responsibility for the content it puts out? Actually, to a certain extent this is true: the media -- and, in fact, all (or almost all) producers of cultural material -- is simply trying to make money by following the rules of the free market, something which you'd think that conservatives would appreciate. And this leads us to what is probably the real reason for the decline of middlebrow culture: the rise of television. The kind of middlebrow culture Brooks describes -- reading great books, going to see great art, discussing opera -- is in many ways incompatible with television. As television took over national culture, and began reaching towards the lowest common denominator (because people are more likely to watch something stupid than something that they can't understand), the death of Brooks's middlebrow culture was probably inevitable. Brooks would never so much as mention that this might be one of the reasons for the end of middlebrow culture because this is a story of market forces at work rather than liberal elites oppressing the common people, but that's hardly unexpected (here's another potential theory that Brooks would rather die than discuss: the decline of the middle class and the rise of income inequality in America over the last 30-plus years of conservative rule bears some responsibility for the death of middlebrow culture).

What's really strange about this column, though, is the fact that it was written by a man who routinely sneers at intellectuals and high culture in his columns. He has, in the past, derided the "university-town wing" of the Democratic party while extolling "Patio Man", who has left the inner-ring suburbs for the exurbs partly because he is uncomfortable with the cosmopolitan nature of the former (e.g., theaters that have the temerity to show foreign films). He praises red states where people (who are implicitly regarded as Real Americans) prefer hunting and NASCAR to book-learnin', don't think Woody Allen is funny, and eat meatloaf instead of "sun-dried-tomato concotions" (even if these characterizations aren't entirely correct). His various pseudo-analyses of the divides between Democratic and Republican voters inevitably leave intellectuals on the Democratic, and therefore wrong, side, and often take many of the defining traits of the Democratic voter base from its academic component. He is fond of attacking the lack of "intellectual diversity" in academia. And yet he writes that "artists and intellectuals have less authority [now]" as if he thinks this state of affairs is regrettable. If artists and intellectuals had any authority in society, not only would George Bush not be president, David Brooks wouldn't have a spot on the NYT editorial page, as it would have been given to someone who could actually think instead. Brooks knows this, and is an expert at promoting backlash anti-intellectualism among the ordinary people whose lack of respect for the culture he encourages them to denounce helps further the interests of the Republican party. And now he is complaining that these same people aren't interested in high culture? If irony wasn't already dead, Brooks just killed it.

On the other hand, the whole column could just be a not-very-subtle hint to Time and Newsweek that they need to raise the tone of their coverage, perhaps by publishing a piece by David Brooks, the foremost public intellectual of our time. After all, there has to be some reason for all those references to Time and Newsweek.

June 12, 2005

Column 2005-6-12 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks reveals the true breadth of his genius: after a mere handful of days in Africa, he has already completely analyzed the problem of AIDS in Africa and discovered the only possible solution. Applying the full power of his mighty brain, Brooks rapidly identifies the logical flaws in all previous attempts to deal with this issue and then conclusively proves that the answer is to Christianize those heathen Africans. Technical expertise, with its fancy drugs and medical science, is all very well, but the real way to beat this disease is with missionaries. Small-minded men, envious of Brooks's capabilities, will undoubtedly be skeptical of his ability to prescribe an instant solution to a vast and complicated problem which he has been studying for less than a week, but they are merely embittered by the fact that they will never rise to the heights that Brooks scales with ease. These same men, hopelessly jealous of Brooks's intellect, will then resort to the last refuge of the petty-minded: facts. They will compare AIDS prevalence rates in 34 countries of sub-Saharan Africa with the percentage of the inhabitants of those countries that are Christians, using the profoundly secularist and un-American CIA World Factbook. They will point out that of the 11 nations with the highest AIDS prevalence rates, all but three are majority Christian, and two of those that are not are 10th and 11th on the list (if you decide that religions which are described as combining elements of indigenous beliefs with Christianity are not Christian, then five countries are not majority Christian). They will also note that of the five nations with the lowest AIDS prevalence rates, not one is majority Christian. They will wonder why, if Mozambique and Benin have the same distribution of religions -- half of the people follow indigenous beliefs, 30% are Christian, and 20% Muslim -- Mozambique's prevalence rate is six times that of Benin. And then they will smile smugly and sit back, certain that they have proved that there is very little connection between religion and AIDS in Africa. Naturally, Brooks will instantly discover the two gaping holes in their argument and dismiss it as the piece of illogical claptrap it is. Firstly, of course, countries with high AIDS prevalence rates are clearly not Christian countries, and so anyone from those countries who claims to be practicing Christianity is actually engaged in some heathen religion and needs to be converted to the real Christianity as practiced in God's chosen country. Perhaps Halliburton can be given a no-bid contract to bring the American God to the heathen. And secondly, of course, anyone who would advance such an argument clearly hates America. Or, maybe, Africa. This point may actually require more thought: AIDS in Africa may be trivial, but puzzling out the twisted motives of America- (or possibly Africa-) hating leftists is a problem that could perplex even the most powerful of brains.

Well, enough sarcasm. To be fair to Brooks, he doesn't explicitly call for a wave of missionaries, but the code words -- "evil", "sanctity of life", "faiths", "faithful", "abstinent", "creed" -- are there, along with a reference to the Book of Job. Furthermore, Brooks writes "The most subtle analysis of human nature I heard came in that church made of sticks" in reference to this exceedingly subtle analysis: "They say, "It is easier for those who have been touched by God to accept when a woman says no." They talk about praying for the man who beats his H.I.V.-positive wife, and trying to bring him into the congregation. They have polygamists in their church but say God loves monogamy best." It's extremely subtle, but reading between the lines it seems to me that these people think that God (and since it's a church, the Christian God) is the best bulwark against AIDS. Of course, the first thing these people talked about was condoms and safe sex, and it took them a while to "slip out of the language of safety . . . ." In fact, it seems not unlikely that Brooks is inflating the importance of their religious "analysis of human nature" to support his pro-Christianizing thesis. Recall now that Brooks is, in fact, Jewish. Well, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt: he may be a member of Jews for Jesus.

But the most ridiculous part of the column comes as Brooks argues that condoms and economic development are insufficient to defeat AIDS. First, he says that "Surveys [what surveys, he doesn't say] . . . show that a vast majority know where they can get condoms." But clearly they aren't using them, and therefore condoms just aren't good enough. Apparently, the condoms themselves are responsible for encouraging people to use them. The idea of working harder to convince people that they need to use condoms far more often just doesn't occur to Brooks. But this is not even as ludicrous as his argument that economic development won't help fight AIDS, which runs as follows:

"We have tried economic development, but that too is necessary but insufficient. The most aggressive spreaders of the disease are relatively well off. They are miners who have sex with prostitutes and bring the disease home to their wives. They are teachers who trade grades for sex. They are sugar daddies who have sex with 14-year-old girls in exchange for cellphone time."

So the fact that the not-quite-as-desperately-poor of Africa are exploiting the desperately poor for sex means that further economic development won't be good enough to curb the spread of the disease. Sure, maybe it would allow those 14-year-old girls to have cell phones of their own, and maybe those prostitutes could get actual jobs that paid as well or better as the sex trade did (or even any jobs at all: unemployment in Mozambique, where Brooks writes this column from, is 21%, according to the CIA World Factbook), but that wouldn't have an impact. And Brooks's examples are probably not the main vectors for HIV transmission. According to that pesky CIA World Factbook, Mozambique has (or had in 2003) 428,900 cell phones for a population of 19,000,000 (and only 83,700 non-cell phones). Maybe 14-year-old girls are trading sex for cell phone time, but who are they calling? And claims about teachers trading grades for sex also seem a little exaggerated in a country where only about one-third of women are literate (CIA WF again) and only 9% of females enroll in secondary school. In fact, this paper suggests that sugar daddies are not nearly as prevalent as Brooks seems to think, and that furthermore "these findings suggest that men who are sugar daddies are not more risky than other men with nonmarital sexual partnerships." Even more significantly, this study finds that "The odds of condom use increased by 20% with each additional year of education" and that "Other studies have found a similar association, and educated populations in Africa appear to have modified their sexual behavior in response to condom promotion and other prevention campaigns related to HIV/AIDS." Maybe massive Christianization isn't necessary after all. And finally, "Male partner's income was not associated with condom use . . . ." It's only natural that Brooks would want to blame the problem on elites (and they're probably liberal elites, too), but it would behoove him to check on some facts first.

Finally, I'd like to cite a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. They compared an area of rural Zimbabwe with an AIDS prevalence rate of 15.4% with an area of rural Tanzania with an AIDS prevalence rate of 5.3%. They found that "Marriage is later, spatial mobility more common, cohabitation with marital partners less frequent, education levels are higher, and male circumcision is less common in Manicaland [in Zimbabwe]." And "Respondents in Kisesa [in Tanzania] started sex earlier and reported more sexual partners." Their conclusion: "Substantial differences exist between the contemporary sociodemographic profiles of rural Manicaland and Kisesa. However, these differences did not translate into measurable differences in the biologic or behavioral factors for which data were available and did not explain the much higher HIV prevalence found in Manicaland." Translation: Brooks is, always and forever, full of shit.

June 11, 2005

6-11-05: Special Stacy Schiff edition

Maureen Dowd is on book leave, and she can't come back too soon (I never thought I'd say that). Her first replacement, Matt Miller, had good intentions but was determined to be bipartisan if it killed him and had an unfortunate tendency to evaluate Republicans by their words rather than their deeds which, e.g., led him to assert that Republicans really do want to help the poor. Apparently massive tax cuts for the rich accompanied by deep reductions in programs that actually do help the poor (not to mention bankruptcy "reform", tort "reform", etc., etc.) are just some form of tough love. This meant that his columns often read something like "Yes, the Republicans are destroying the country, but they don't really mean it, and if the Democrats would stop being such obstructionists, we could craft a nice bipartisan compromise that would solve the problem and make everybody happy." However, compared to his successor, Stacy Schiff, Miller is a genius. Schiff combines the worst characteristics of Dowd and Brooks, mixing the former's constant flippancy with the latter's bullshit sociology based largely on anecdote. Yet Schiff might be able to overcome this were it not for the fact that she lacks Dowd's writing ability and, amazing as it sounds, Brooks's sociological acumen. Yes, she's so bad she almost makes Brooks good (but only almost, of course: such a thing is impossible). And today's column is especially egregious since it's put up against a reasonable column from Tierney. When you can't even match Tierney, you know you're in trouble.

Today's Schiff column is about the problems people have when presented with fifteen kinds of dental floss. Apparently this is a real problem, known as "analysis paralysis at the point of sale." You could have fooled me. Why Schiff feels the need to write about this is entirely unclear, but rather than attempting to plumb those murky depths, let us move on to the substance of the column. Schiff begins with an anecdote: "E. B. White claimed he knew his wife was the girl for him when she referred to dental floss as 'tooth twine.'" Now, I never knew E.B. White or his wife and I've never heard this anecdote before, so it's possible that there is some missing context, but it seems to me that this little story suggests that White was captivated by his wife's unusual word choice, an interpretation which is strongly supported by the fact that White was a writer. In other words, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the column (other than that it involves dental floss, which Schiff appears to be strangely obsessed with). And Schiff has the temerity to write "I take his point" when she clearly does nothing of the sort. But she is unfazed by the complete failure of her opening anecdote to connect to her main point and presses ahead to complain about the difficulties she experiences buying dental floss. She describes the process as "an exercise in frustration, or affluence-induced A.D.D., or option overload." I guess she must go to a much fancier drug store than I do. The CVS on the corner has three kinds of floss: unwaxed, waxed, and waxed with mint. You can also get varying amounts, and there are a couple of different brands (I always get the CVS brand, because it's the cheapest). As far as I can tell, floss is just not a very good example for her argument: it is, after all, simply a long piece of thread, and there are only so many ways to pretty it up. Toothpaste (which she does also mention), soap, or shampoo would be far superior examples. And since the only reason she starts with floss is because of the E.B. White anecdote which she obviously doesn't understand (or, even worse, in order to drag in the anecdote because of the floss connection), the beginning of the piece is calculated to make you want to tear your hair it.

The rest of the column isn't much better. Schiff asserts "We used to be one nation, undivided, under three networks, three car companies and two brands of toothpaste for all." This period lasted about 10 years. Unless Volkswagens, which I believe were reasonably popular in the sixties, were actually manufactured by G.M. and the whole German thing was just to make them appear exotic. And, of course, even if there were only three networks, there were a large number of radio stations (even larger, probably, than today when everything -- and I do mean everything -- is the same Clear Channel station). Not to mention newspapers and magazines. I have no idea what the toothpaste situation was like in the fifties and sixties, and frankly, I don't much care. Schiff then asserts that "This is a country in which 40 percent of the eligible population doesn't vote, but can be expected to maneuver its way through a sprawl of options every time it heads out for tooth twine." Because, you know, buying dental floss is approximately as momentous a decision as voting for president. Moving right along, Schiff describes the process of choosing between several product varieties as being "like a torture session with a demonic optometrist." Excuse me? What does this mean? Is she suggesting that having to read all these labels is causing an epidemic of eye strain? Does she just not like optometrists? Does she have personal experience with being tortured by a demonic optometrist to draw on? Does she have any clue what anything that she's writing actually means? (For those of you scoring at home, the answers were you're excused, nothing, i hope not, who knows, no comment, and no).

Further on, Schiff briefly mentions that there are actually good reasons for the presence of different varieties of toothpast-- "an aging population and the advent of the electric toothbrush" -- but doesn't let this stop her from engaging in further flights of fancy. "Both our refrigerators and our expectations are outsized" she opines. Apparently, she keeps her toothpaste in the fridge. And expects that she should have to choose between fifty different options. Or something. But she immediately tops this by declaring, "This is manifest destiny meets 'American Idol.'" I'm speechless. She follows with "The only thing that has not expanded proportionately is my brain capacity." No kidding.

Luckily, there's not much more of the column to wade through (or rather, to run through as fast as possible, as I can't take much more of this). "Hasn't Procter & Gamble heard about the dumbing down of America?" Schiff cries plaintively. Well, if they hadn't before, they've certainly figured it out by reading this column. One might even surmise that they're counting on it to keep people buying more expensive and fancier-looking brand name products rather than less expensive ones which are fundamentally the same. Much of the rest of the column is given over the pronouncements of some marketing guy from Harvard Business School and Paco Underhill, who probably isn't Bilbo Baggins's long-lost cousin, but should be (apparently, he studies shopping and has something called a "confusion index"). And Schiff finishes by proving conclusively that she does not understand the story she began her column with and referenced regularly throughout it, wince-inducingly writing "The market won't rest until it has located that last stalwart who isn't budging until he hears about cough-suppressing, posture-correcting, wrinkle-reducing, memory-enhancing, antioxidant dental floss. On the other hand, when he meets someone who shares that passion, he can be certain he has found precisely the girl for him." Thus ends one of the worst pieces of meaningless drivel I have read in a long time. And yet the most depressing part of the piece was not even written by Schiff. Instead, it comes below the column, and reads as follows: "Stacy Schiff, the author of "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America" and a Pulitzer Prize winner . . . ." This woman won a Pulitzer? Well, let us hope that she won it by writing well, and that she has simply decided to throw away her chance to have columns appear on the Times editorial page -- the opportunity of a lifetime -- because, well, I don't know why she would do such a thing. However, the evidence at hand suggests that if anyone is stupid enough to do it, she is.

June 09, 2005

Column 2005-6-9 Commentary

I have to admit that my first reaction upon reading today's Brooks column, in which Brooks goes to Namibia to see how AIDS treatment is going there, was to wonder what would happen when Kristof read it. Would he be flattered by this imitation? Would he go out and beat Brooks up? Would he sue Brooks for violation of copyright? It's easy to understand Brooks's motivations here: as John Tierney threatens to take over the niche of "moronic conservative columnist who occasionally tries to be funny", Brooks feels the need to expand into someone else's territory, and there really aren't that many options. He can't be Maureen Dowd for obvious reasons. Bob Herbert is too liberal. Being Paul Krugman would require actual intelligence. Frank Rich hates the Christian Right too much. That leaves only Kristof and Friedman, and presumably Brooks chose Kristof as being less likely to defend his territory, so off he goes to Africa. To be fair to Brooks, he's not copying everything that Kristof does: he's a lot more optimistic than Kristof is, though that may have something to do with the fact that he's not going anywhere nearly as dangerous as the places Kristof goes.

As for the column itself, it seemed pretty unobjectionable: Brooks does say "I came here aware of controversies about abstinence versus condoms in AIDS prevention programs, about U.S. aid versus multilateral aid, and now realize that all that nonsense is irrelevant on the ground" which sounded a little iffy, but on the other hand he asserts that "we should be redoubling our efforts," so things seem to balance out. Also, to my discredit, I don't know much about AIDS in Africa. Luckily, Jeanne d'Arc at Body and Soul does, and she can explain the problems with this column and why David Brooks is still a moron much better than I can. Having read her, I can also say that the second-to-last sentence of the column, which I skimmed over the first time I read it, stands out a lot more now. Brooks writes "Many are backed by money from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, finally doing the work they've always dreamed of doing." Could he be going to Africa in an attempt to re-establish Bush's compassionate conservative credentials? Perhaps he's even trying to counteract Kristof's columns from Darfur, with their heartrending descriptions of atrocities and calls for Bush to take action, with his own upbeat series about how Bush is curing AIDS in Africa by sheer force of will. Or maybe he just wanted a paid foreign vacation. We insinuate and strongly suggest, you decide (hey, at least we're honest about it).

June 05, 2005

Column 2005-6-5 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks asserts that "Watergate has become a modern Horatio Alger story . . . ." Apparently, Watergate is no longer about abuse of power or cover-ups: it's now the inspiring tale of a young man going from rags -- or, in Woodward's case, what Brooks apparently thinks is the modern-day equivalent, a Yale education -- to fame and fortune. Well, not really. I'm in a good mood today, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he's not being serious. If it wasn't for the recent epidemic of right-wing revisionism about Nixon and Watergate, I wouldn't have thought about it, but the attempts of people like Ben Stein, Peggy Noonan, and Pat Buchanan to elevate Nixon to a spot next to Reagan in the Republican pantheon are depressing enough to make anyone paranoid (once these worthies remember that Nixon set up the EPA, though, they'll drop him like a hot potato). The whole thing is part of Brooks's yearly column about the trials and tribulations of young people who have recently graduated from college and are realizing that the real world is very different. It's all harmless enough, I suppose. I do feel that Brooks could air his nostalgia for his lost youth somewhere besides the New York Times editorial page, but on the other hand, if he wasn't sighing for those golden days when he, like Woodward, was a struggling young reporter, he would be writing some godawful bullshit, so there's always a silver lining. This column also gets bonus stupidity points for airing Brooks's Yale envy, which is really getting sad. It's not like the man went to Podunk U. or anything: he did graduate from the University of Chicago. Of course, if he had gone to Podunk U., he'd probably spend all the time he now spends sucking up to Yale sneering at the Ivy League types who haven't made it to his empyrean heights, which wouldn't be much of an improvement. What would be a real improvement would be if he was removed from the Times editorial page altogether, but seeing as how Safire lasted for 30 years or so, I'm not holding my breath (let's see, so I'm past anger and denial: what comes next?).

June 02, 2005

Column 2005-6-2 Commentary

Today's Brooks column makes the (typically) moronic argument that because Europe is having some problems, "large swathes" of liberalism have been discredited. There are two ways to approach this piece of stupidity. One could be camly reasonable, for instance by pointing out that the U.K. boasts a far more comprehensive welfare state than the U.S. while still having relatively strong levels of economic growth compared to the U.S. (U.S. vs. U.K. [the comparison should be made to the blue line in the U.K. chart, which represents annualized quarterly growth, rather than to the green bars which are quarterly growth]) and enjoying an unemployment rate which is, in fact, lower than the U.S. rate. One could also say that just because liberals believe that we should move more towards a European model doesn't mean that we must slavishly copy that model: in fact, it would be perverse not to try to learn from European mistakes. And one could note that specific parts of the European model -- single-payer health insurance, for instance -- are still a good idea even if the model overall is flawed (for more on why American health care sucks compared to every other industrialized nation, see this great series at Angry Bear). On the other hand, prolonged exposure to Brooks makes a less reasonable approach, one in which we talk about how the failures of the American system are discrediting large swathes of conservatism, more appealing. For instance, the child poverty rate in the United States is far higher than it is in any other Western country. And the United States also has an overall poverty rate that is higher than that of any other Western country (France, the conservative bete noire, has a poverty rate that is less than half of what is in the U.S.). Or how about the awful health care system we have here, with a child mortality rate and life expectancy that are, again, higher than any other Western country has. If Brooks ever reads his own paper, he might have noticed a recent series concluding that economic mobility in the U.S. is at best the same as it is in Western Europe, and is less than that of some European welfare states. Income inequality in the United States is more comparable to that of third world countries than it is to Europe, and despite high GDP growth, real wages in the United States have been stagnant since 1960 (while real wages have continued to grow in other Western countries). In fact, one might go so far as to say that Europe has simply made different choices than the United States has, choices that restrain growth and raise unemployment but also provide a higher quality of life and ensure that fewer people fall into poverty. Of course, this would require taking a nuanced approach to the situation and moving away from the conservative fetishization of economic growth, two things that are well beyond Brooks's capabilities.

Brooks was, apparently, inspired to write this column by the rejection of the E.U. constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands. To Brooks, this means that " Western Europeans seem to be suffering a crisis of confidence," and " Right now, Europeans seem to look to the future with more fear than hope." As opposed to Americans, 60% of whom think the country is going in the wrong direction. European electorates have lost faith in the their leaders, Brooks says, while the fact that a whopping 34% of Americans think that Bush shares their priorities (and 20% think that Congress does) suggest that American leaders and the American people are comfortably on the same page. To Brooks, the defeat of the E.U. constitution shows that Europe has lost "momentum": he argues that "It is happier to live in a poor country that is moving forward . . . than it is to live in an affluent country that is looking back." I think the stupidity of this sentiment speaks for itself.

Brooks then goes on to perpetuate the usual canards about how low the standard of living in Europe is. I have no doubt that there are averaging measures that place Europe's standard of living well below that of the United States, but this is simply more of the Bill Gates walks into a bar fallacy. If you have a bar, and Bill Gates walks into it, the average worth of everyone in the bar immediately increases by a few billion dollars, but of course this doesn't improve their life at all. And given that poverty rates in Europe are less, and often considerably less, than those in the United States, it's hard to believe that these standard of living comparisons are particularly meaningful. Brooks acknowledges this when he writes that "Once it was plausible to argue that the European quality of life made up for the economic underperformance," but of course now "those arguments look more and more strained . . . ." Why exactly it's so much of a stretch to say that the average person in Europe lives as well or better than the average American is mostly unclear. Brooks says that it is "in part because demographic trends make even the current conditions unsustainable," but fails to mention what the other reasons are, most likely because they don't exist. And while demographic trends in Europe certainly don't look good now, one can hardly blame the welfare state for that, as demographic trends look bad in all Western countries. "Public spending on retirees will have to grow by a third" in Europe, Brooks asserts, but here at home Medicare spending alone is expected to quintuple in the next 75 years. Brooks is free to advocate simply cutting old people loose, but I doubt that this argument will be very popular.

Brooks then returns to the assertion that Europeans are simply fearful, arguing that most of their fears are "mutually exclusive" and that "[t]he only commonality was fear itself . . . ." What were these mutually exclusive fears, you ask? Well, according to Brooks, they were "the threat of economic liberalization" (i.e., making European economies more like the U.S.), "the threat of Turkey" (which presumably includes general worries about immigration), "the condescension of the Brussels elite", and "the prospect of a centralized European superstate" (interestingly, Brooks doesn't mention the Dutch worry that the new constitution would interfere with their policies on marijuana and gay marriage, or the common worry that the constitution was insufficiently democratic, which would seem to be one of the more important fears that voters had). Apparently, Brooks thinks it's incomphrensible that someone could worry both about the condescension of the elites and the imposition of greater economic liberalization, or that the threat of Turkey could be compatible with fear of a European superstate. To a non-moron, though, it should be obvious that all these worries flow from a general fear that the new E.U. is being constructed without regard to what the people living in it want, and their incompability is a mirage of Brooks's fevered brain.

Brooks's next argument is "the core fact is that the European model is foundering under the fact that billions of people are willing to work harder than the Europeans are." Well, naturally billions of people are willing to work harder than the Europeans are. Not coincidentally, billions of people can only dream of living a European lifestyle. Essentially, Brooks seems to be suggesting that the Europeans need to let a large fraction of their people drop into poverty (and, if the U.S. is any indication, stay there) because lots of other people are even poorer. How this would help the situation is unclear, though it would, of course, greatly help Europe's rich people, and the Republican party probably has a certain amount of fellow feeling for the wealthy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Finally, Brooks, who would presumably define himself as a conservative, finishes up by denouncing the welfare state for breeding conservatism. Yes, this does indeed make no sense. Furthermore, a little over a month ago, Brooks wrote a column in which he said that the American people were innately conservative, which was why they opposed every major program the Republican party has put forward since Bush's election. Yet, strangely enough, in a more recent column about the differences between poor Republicans and poor Democrats, Brooks noted that "Eighty percent [of poor Republicans] believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt." Given the most Democrats believe the same thing, and there are probably at least as many, if not more, poor Republicans as rich Republicans, we find that Brooks believes that the American people are conservative because they are opposed to Social Security privatization and want the government to do more to help the needy. If this doesn't convince you of Brooks's intellectual incoherence, nothing will. Perhaps the real answer here is simply that people in Western countries, Europeans and Americans, have seen unfettered capitalism and want no part of it. With the exception of some of the elites, they can see the value of a safety net, and would, miracle of miracles, rather not dismantle it on the off chance that they get lucky and become rich enough not to need it. To Brooks, Western Europe has failed, or is in the process of failing, but the people who actually live there seem to disagree, and given Brooks's track record in analyzing American society, it's far more likely that they are correct.