August 25, 2005

Column 2005-8-25 Brief Commentary

Sadly, I lack the time to discuss all the problems with Brooks's latest effort, so I'm going to focus on the big picture instead. Also, in this case the big picture is extremely important, as Brooks is unveiling what will almost certainly become a common conservative tactic as the inevitable Iraq withdrawal approaches: declaring victory at the drop of a hat. Here, Brooks declares victory because a constitution has been written, or at least "exists in people's heads and in copies annotated with handwritten notes." It is worth noting that Brooks's premise is extremely flimsy, as the constitution has not yet been adopted (and given Sunni attitudes, may well not be), and even if it is it remains to be seen just how effective it can be in a country where every major political party is associated with a heavily-armed militia and political disagreements can quickly become full-fledged battles. Furthermore, it appears that the constitution will enshrine Islam as a major part of law, trampling on women's rights, and essentially split the country in three parts. This is hardly the beacon of democracy that we were promised. But the fact is that the reason why Brooks is declaring victory here is really irrelevant: desperate conservatives will likely start declaring victory whenever anything that could be interpreted as good news appears. What is really important is to point out that unless current conditions change drastically, victory in Iraq is unachievable. The administration launched this war for no good reason, didn't prepare for it, and has now almost certainly lost it, and those such as Brooks who will assert that some event suggests otherwise need to quickly disabused of any such notion. Army Major General Joseph Taluto describes the insurgency as "intrinsic" and, as noted above, political violence exists outside of the Sunni insurgency as well. Unemployment is around 50%. Power is out in Baghdad for 20 hours a day. And Iran is vying with the U.S. to express its appreciation of the new constitution. No WMD's were found. Saddam and Osama weren't best buddies after all. Neocons once derided those who said that stability should take precedence over democracy in foreign policy: now they're willing to endorse a semi-theocracy in the likely vain hope of achieving that previously mocked goal. While there are multiple scenarios in which the U.S. could declare victory in Iraq -- a perfect Jeffersonian democracy is not a requirement -- none of them have any resemblance to the reality there. It is especially galling, then, for Brooks to write that the U.S. has succeeded in Iraq. This goes beyond moving the goalposts: Brooks is busily stringing a volleyball net across the field and looking at the football as if he's never seen it before. Since achieving what they set out to accomplish is probably impossible, the administration and its cheerleaders are likely to take any hint of good news as an opportunity to declare that current conditions are actually what they wanted all along, and they must not be allowed to do so.

August 18, 2005

David Brooks is currently following Bush's example

By taking as much of August off as possible. No word on whether he will refuse to speak to a mother who lost her son in the Iraq war as well.

Actually, I'm glad that Brooks is on vacation again, as I don't have time to deal with his idiocy right now, so I'm going to stop complaining.

August 14, 2005

Column 2005-8-24 Commentary

To my shock, I actually found myself agreeing with today's Brooks column. Brooks thinks that the best way to reduce illegal immigration is to increase legal immigration, which makes sense to me. He points out that increasing the number of border guards isn't too effective, and ridicules the idea of "beer-swilling good old boys" going out to guard the border. The one thing he doesn't address is the demand side: penalties for corporations that employ illegal immigrants. Otherwise, though, a very reasonable column that even includes an endorsement of a bill co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy. How he manages to switch from dribbling idiocy to sense in a mere three days is completely beyond me.

August 11, 2005

Column 2005-8-11 Commentary

(Update below)

Brooks's last two columns had reasonable moments, but in his latest column, Brooks falls back to his usual level. In it, he attempts to create the field of "cultural geography", which seems to simply be the study of cultures and why they are different. "Study why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries, why certain cultures embrace technology and economic growth and others resist them" Brooks says to the hypothetical "18-year-old kid with a really big brain" whom he seems to think reads his column regularly in the search for any advice he can get from one of the greatest morons -- or rather, public intellectuals -- of our time. Frankly, this doesn't sound quite as revolutionary or interesting as Brooks seems to think it is. For instance, take the question about the persistence of certain national traits. It seems pretty obvious that insofar as traits do persist, they do so because the vast majority of people in any given nation were born there and inherited those traits from their parents, or, if not from their parents, then from other children and the parents of these other children, in the same way that the children of immigrants learn to speak the language of their new country without an accent. In fact, one might as well ask why certain nations keep speaking the same language for centuries. Of course, they don't: languages evolve over time, and the same is likely true for national traits. Before Brooks's question about why certain cultures reject economic growth and technology can be answered, he's going to have to give some examples of such cultures that aren't extreme religious groups engaged in a blanket rejection of modernity. Otherwise, the question doesn't seem to be worth asking. And finally, Brooks wants to know why people cluster. Luckily, I can answer that one too: because human beings are gregarious animals, and they are gregarious because they evolved from other gregarious animals. Presumably, what Brooks really wants to ask is why people cluster with other like-minded people, but I feel that this question practically answers itself. After all, this is not exactly a new phenomenon. Consider the Amish, or the Mormons, or the early Puritans. Artist colonies, such as Greenwich Village or the Left Bank, form another not particularly recent example. The human tendency to band together against those that are different is as old as humanity. So too are the two outsider responses: forming one's own group or assimilating. Modern technology makes it easier to find like-minded people and to form a group with them, et voila.

Brooks doesn't actually try to answer these questions right away, though: first, he reinforces his conservative credentials by attacking "the gospel of multiculturalism". Incidentally, most of Brooks's columns these days seem to have an attack on some conservative bugaboo -- the academy, Europe, multiculturalism, etc. -- shoehorned in for no particular reason. One has to wonder if Brooks's handlers are perhaps worried about his devotion to the movement and are making sure that he toes the party line. Whatever may be the reason, Brooks makes his usual sweeping assertions without providing a shred of proof, and then, having apparently convinced the Party bosses that he's not backsliding, is free to continue with his column and this gem of a statement: "But none of this helps explain a crucial feature of our time: while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and the widening cultural differences are leading us into a period of conflict, inequality and segmentation." First of all, I defy Brooks to identify any period of human history that could not be described as one of "conflict, inequality, and segmentation." In fact, one could easily argue that this period of human history has considerably less conflict than some quite recent ones, e.g. the Cold War. It's hard to argue that there is more inequality now than there has been before, and as for segmentation, it's unclear if segmentation enforced by distance is any better or worse than a more voluntary sort. Secondly, I would like to quibble with Brooks's claim that "cultures are diverging". In fact, I'd argue that at no point in human history have all the world's cultures ever been as similar as they are now. I'll try to avoid sounding too much like Thomas Friedman, but if I can see in a New York Times (no link, as the article is too old to be available for free) photograph of the interior of the Beijing (or possibly Shanghai) subway system the exact same IPod ad campaign that is visible in the T here in Boston, then it seems to me that cultural differences are not exactly widening. Perhaps in the United States the cultural difference between, say, Massachusetts and Mississippi is wider than it used to be (though I'm not sure about that), but Brooks is talking about a global phenomenon. All in all, this sentence definitely qualifies as one of the stupidest Brooks has ever written. It's a signal achievement, and I feel proud to have been associated with it, albeit only distantly.

Naturally, Brooks can't keep up this level of idiocy throughout the column, but he's clearly trying hard and produces some quite respectable work. For instance, we find that "People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones." And yet "Old national identities and behavior patterns are proving surprisingly durable." There would seem to be a contradiction between these two statements. The first suggests that people are abandoning old cultures for new, while the second asserts that those old cultures are actually not much damaged. But Brooks doesn't seem to see any conflict between these sentences: in fact, he presents them back to back, and appears to think that both provide evidence for his assertion that globalization and technology are not "bringing us together." Next, Brooks redefines "globalized" to mean "economically integrated". Now, while economic integration is certainly part of any definition of globalization, there's a lot more to globalization than that. There's the little matter of the root word, "global", for instance. Why does Brooks redefine "globalized" in this fashion? So he can say "We in America have been "globalized" (meaning economically integrated) for centuries . . . ." If economically integrated is what he means, then why the hell doesn't he just say so?

Brooks goes on to point out, in a tone of wonder, that there are lots of American subcultures and fewer cultural unifiers, even though America is so economically integrated. Actually, Brooks points out that the mass media market is heavily segmented, which is not really the same thing. For example, the advent of cable means that the television market is highly segmented, with channels for practically anything, but it's not as if there is no overlap at all between people who watch ESPN and those who watch the Cartoon Network. And, of course, mass media segmentation is a function of economic integration (and better technology). Again using television as an example, cable only works because the more esoteric channels can be pumped into almost every house in the country, meaning that the pool of possible viewers is large enough that even if only a small fraction actually want to watch the channel there are still enough viewers that the channel is viable. And what makes this wide pool of potential viewers possible is, obviously, economic integration.

So Brooks strikes out with his first example of something that future cultural geographers could ponder. His next is just very obvious: liberals tend to move to liberal places (for some reason, Brooks says "crunchy" instead of liberal: I suspect it's supposed to be an insult, but it's just too obscure to qualify), and conservatives to conservative places. Golly gee, whyever could this be? Moving right along before the impulse to bang my head against my desk becomes too strong, we find that people don't all work on farms or factories any more. Which is true, but the reasons for that are well-documented and have little to do with culture. This is followed by yet another blindingly obvious observation: military and civilian cultures diverge. This is also an awful example, since it has nothing to do with the cultural changes of globalization and everything to do with the fact that the United States has a volunteer army, which places the risk of dying in a war entirely on one segment of the population. Next comes another reference to political polarization, except that the geographic component has been removed. In fact, there isn't a geographic component to either of the last two examples, or to the mass media example, for that matter. Which really reduces Brooks to saying that some Americans live differently from others. If Brooks really thinks that this is an important trend that needs to be examined, he's stupider than even I thought.

Next, Brooks attempts to globalize his phenomenon. Here, he does a better job, painting a picture of anti-globalization advocates and the extremely religious -- ranging from the simply "orthodox" to Islamist terrorists -- banding together to form their own groups. But, again, there's nothing really complicated here. Modern technology allows people to choose to follow any ideology or religion they like and to get together with other people who make the same choices. Two hundred, one hundred, or even fifty years ago this was impossible, or at least very, very difficult. But today the world is full of highly literate people who control wealth that was unthinkable for most of human history. Their literacy means that they are not restricted to the beliefs they were brought up with. Their wealth allows them to communicate with others almost anywhere in the world instantly and travel almost anywhere in the world in a few days. Given all this, it would be surprising only if we did not see this kind of clustering of like-minded people.

Having spent most of the column bumbling about, Brooks finally shows why he thinks this "cultural geography" is significant. "Transnational dreams are faltering" he says, referring to European integration and, inexplicably, Arab unity. I'm pretty sure that Arab unity has been dead for a couple of decades at least. The United Arab Republic ended in 1961, and the Arab League is much closer to the Organization of America States than the E.U., so it seems that the dream of Arab unity passed the faltering stage some time ago. Of course, what Brooks really cares about here is attacking the E.U. This is fairly typical, as is the swipe at Europeans for not working more and Canadians for not having more babies (I guess that Brooks felt that if he kept piling on the Europeans, people would start to think that he has something against Europe or something). Admittedly, he phrases these in neutral language -- fertility rates and work hours are "diverging" -- but Brooks has spent enough time talking about how low fertility rates and insufficient work hours will be the death of Europe that it's pretty clear that he expects future cultural geographers to spend a lot of time analyzing just why the United States is so much better than Europe and Canada. And finally we have this: "Global inequality widens as some nations with certain cultural traits prosper and others with other traits don't." Perhaps Brooks's earlier attack on "the gospel of multiculturalism" was also intended to cover himself against the inevitable backlash of people wondering if it's just a coincidence that in this analysis the countries with bad cultural traits tend not to be those inhabited by white people, and that this means that the non-white people are entirely responsible for their problems. On the other hand, Brooks said in his denunciation of multiculturalism that "there are a certain number of close-minded thugs . . . who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist . . . ." And since imputing that whether or not nations prosper is entirely dependent on their cultural traits and has nothing to do with history is certainly not intelligent, it appears that he has no outs at all on this one.

Finally, Brooks tosses away any shreds of credibility he retains by citing noted psuedoscientist and moron Samuel Huntington as one of the people that potential cultural geographers should emulate. Huntington is the man who once said that South Africa was more content than France in the early 1960's, using some ginned-up formula that took statistics like the number of telephones per capita and turned them into a "satisfaction index". If you're not sure just how satisfied South Africa was during the early '60's, look it up. You could start by googling "sharpeville massacre". And just last year Huntington published a book in which he claimed that Latino immigration was undermining the Anglo-Saxon character of the United States and that Mexican values, such as laziness (okay, he didn't actually say that, but he did say "lack of ambition" and "acceptance of poverty") are incompatible with the proud Anglo-Saxon ideals that have made the United States what it is today. Brooks finishes his column with one last appeal to the youths: "If you are 18 and you've got that big brain, the whole field of cultural geography is waiting for you." All I can say is that if the eighteen-year-olds Brooks is addressing can't figure out that a field which is supported by Brooks and where Samuel Huntington is a figure to emulate is not something that they want to be associated with, they can't have that big of a brain after all.

Update: Courtesy of Sadly, No! we find that Brooks is even less revolutionary than we thought. A google search for "cultural geography" gives about 202,000 hits, the first one of which is to the Journal of Cultural Geography. So, um, it seems that this field is a little more established than Brooks thinks. Especially when one realizes that cultural geography bears more than a passing resemblance to anthropology. Could this column be Brooks's stupidest ever? Well, we're too lazy to go back and compare it to all his others, but in the true Brooksian tradition, we say yes it is, evidence and research be damned.

August 07, 2005

Column 2005-8-7 Commentary

I don't know what's gotten into Brooks, but once again his column is full of actual facts, with actual sources cited. Actually, his column is practically all statistics, positive ones having to do with falls in domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., etc., etc. Of course, once he gets done with facts, the column falls apart, but it still leaves two-thirds of a reasonable column, which is well above Brooks's average. He begins with: "According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of family violence in this country has dropped by more than half since 1993. I've been trying to figure out why." However, the column leaves a distinct impression that he's really not sure. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: I was afraid he would simply give all the credit to the religious right. He then lists statistics and finally gives four "explanations" for why all these good things are happening, because he's a columnist and so not allowed to simply throw up his hands and declare that he has no idea what's going on. Sadly, his explanations are, for the most part, not based on nearly as solid ground as the rest of the column, and seem fairly inadequate anyway. His first explanation is that nobody believes any more that "the traditional family is obsolete, that drugs are liberating, that it is every adolescent's social duty to be a rebel." My guess is that exactly the same people who used to believe these things still believe them, and that this number was never very large, and still isn't. Since Brooks relapses here by not offering any evidence for this claim, my guess is apparently just as good as his. (And people may not believe that "drugs are liberating" any more, but none of the statistics he gives suggest a decline in drug use.) Next he posits that Americans have become better parents, and actually supplies evidence (an increase in the amount of hours parents spend "constructively engaging" with their children) to suggest that this is true, so I'll take him at his word. His third argument is that those under 30 are reacting against the "culture of divorce" and trying to lead more stable lives than their parents. I think it's a little too soon to be judging this -- in fact, way way way too soon to be judging this -- and no evidence is given either, so we'll discard it. Finally, "over the past few decades, neighborhood and charitable groups have emerged to help people lead more organized lives, even in the absence of cohesive families." This seems the flimsiest and vaguest of his explanations. What exactly does he mean by "neighborhood and charitable groups"? Is this where he sneaks the religious right in by the back door (and if so, why not just come out and say so)? Does he really believe that there were no such groups before, say, the seventies? And why can't he supply any facts to back up this assertion? Actually, he probably can't because it's far too vague, which simply reinforces its worthlessness. So, Brooks can't really explain why Americans are leading better lives, which is unsurprising, to say the least. And even if all his explanations were valid, they really wouldn't be able to cover all his statistics. His third explanation deals solely with divorce, and since the divorce rate is falling only very slowly, it wouldn't seem to provide much help. And really, which of these explanations accounts for a drop in drunk driving? Or child poverty? Or teenage pregnancy? But we can't complain too much: Brooks offering facts and then giving vague and pointless non-explanations for those facts is far better than his usual combination of idiocy and lies.

August 04, 2005

Column 2005-8-4 Commentary

Amazingly, Brooks's latest column has some redeeming features. For starters, he breaks from tradition by presenting actual facts and, even more incredibly, citing actual sources. In yet another unusual development his point is actually interesting and well-argued. Brooks is claiming that terrorists are not peasants from backwards nations lashing out against America as the symbol of a modernity that is excluding them (actually, I can't really remember anybody making this claim, but I'll let that go: maybe this was Brooks's pet theory), but rather are largely from middle- and upper-middle-class families, well-educated and with good jobs, who are rebelling against globalization and latching onto jihad to give their lives meaning. These new jihadis are fundamentally products of Western, or at least modern, globalised society. Therefore, Brooks says, "democratizing the Middle East may not stem terrorism." Of course, his analysis strongly suggests that democratizing the Middle East will not stem terrorism, as it would not affect any of the factors he mentions as creating terrorists, but for Brooks to actually stand up and say anything that might be construed as direct criticism of the Iraq war is practically inconceivable. And, really, given that democracy is the solution for everything in the neocon vision, this is a pretty big break for Brooks. Brooks also points out that nationalists are in many cases distinct from jihadis, since the latter are a product of globalization rather than "springing organically from the Arab or Muslim world," and that the U.S. should work on separating these two forces. While these two conclusions are both quite reasonable, they don't go quite far enough, but we'll come back to that.

A more immediately obvious blemish is the fact that, to balance what might well be taken as criticism of the GWOT, or GSAVE, or whatever, Brooks throws in two (half-hearted) swipes against old targets. First, he claims that "[i]deologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism." Because people blowing themselves and others up in an attempt to bring about a return of the Caliphate in the Muslim world, insofar as they have any goal in blowing themselves up, is clearly exactly the same as people agitating (in some cases violently) for world revolution and proletarian control of the means of production. Actually, since the first goal is entirely spiritual, and the second entirely economic, it's hard to imagine two ideologies more opposed to each other. Brooks's only evidence for this claim is that both attract disaffected youths who are opposed to the system, a purely surface resemblance. He also claims that both movements use similar symbols, which would be a more important, if only slightly so, correspondence, but, tellingly, he can't provide any examples of this, though he does give examples of overlap in the recruiting pool and points out, quite pointlessly, that both Islamists and Marxists rail against imperialism and capitalism. In fact, this whole diversion is quite pointless -- it adds nothing to the analysis of Islamists, this column's topic, as they share no goals or methods with Marxists except in the most general sense (e.g., both attempt to persuade people to join their orgainizations). It really appears that the only reason to include it is to ensure that there is at least one criticism of leftists in the column.

A similar reasoning applies to Brooks's final conclusion (he gives three, the first two of which were discussed earlier), which is that what is really needed is more assimilation. Actually, I'm being charitable in assuming that Brooks intends for this to be taken as a criticism of European immigration policies, as otherwise there is absolutely no explanation of why this conclusion is included. The title of this column is "From Cricket to Jihad". Brooks spends much of it explaining that even assimilated Muslims become terrorists, despite their education and technical jobs. To quote Brooks from earlier in the column, "[t]hey give up cricket and medical school and take up jihad." So, essentially, after expending much effort to show that the pool of terrorists is largely drawn from assimilated Muslims, perhaps because of their assimilation -- after all, this conflict is presented as "a conflict within the modern, globalized world" and so presumably the jihadis can't be outsiders -- Brooks concludes that more assimilation is needed. Actually, this stunning illogic is fairly typical for Brooks: it's just that he is sufficiently reasonable in the rest of the column that it comes as a surprise.

But this both these problems pale beside the main issue that Brooks does not address. Assuming that these terrorists are striking a blow against globalization to give their lives meaning, we must ask why they choose to revolt against globalization in this fashion? Why not give their lives meaning by becoming radical leftists or anarchists (with the added benefit that they don't have to give up on their newly meaningful life so quickly)? Brooks does not even bring up this question in his column, but these studies of foreigners who tried to get to Iraq to fight the Americans (and some who got there and committed suicide attacks) sheds some light on the question. It turns out -- surprise, surprise -- that almost all of those studied had no terrorism background and had been inspired by the war itself. Combine this piece of information with the rest of Brooks's facts and we can see that his conclusions don't go nearly far enough. Democratizing the Middle East may not stem terrorism, yes, but the more important and obvious conclusion here is that attempting to democratize the Middle East by force will certainly not stem terrorism, and will almost certainly increase it. Similarly, while the U.S. should certainly try to separate jihadis and Arab nationalists, the worst possible way to do this -- in fact, the one way that is guaranteed to drive nationalists and jihadis into each other's arms -- is to invade an Arab country. In short, given what we know about terrorists, the Iraq war is a complete failure as a terrorist-fighting technique. I'm tempted to give Brooks, wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party that he is, some credit for even approaching criticism of the war, even though I'm sure that he read about these studies -- they were circulated fairly widely for a few days -- and it really doesn't take much to come to the conclusion that the Iraq war exactly the wrong move to stop terrorism (and for many other reasons too, of course, but we're just dealing with terrorism here). However, we must try to use carrots as well as sticks, and when Brooks displays vestiges of logical thinking, he should be encouraged for his successes, just as he is castigated for his failures. So we'll call this column a good start, and while I'm not sanguine about the likelihood of this being the precursor of some improvement on Brooks's part, I can still hope (and I need something to hope for now that it seems that the Times will never fire Brooks).