Thursday, April 28, 2005

My daughter in her room in our house in Togo Posted by Hello

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Onward Christian Soldiers

A floating church on Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Posted by Hello

So I was watching CNN yesterday, content=more bloviating about the new Pope, and some berobed padre was yabbering about how one issue for the Church is expansion in the 3rd World, because everywhere that Christianity comes into contact with Islam, Islam is winning.

I don't know what the stats are on this, if in fact there are any stats, but this flies in the face of what I've seen in the 3rd World. In West Africa and here in Southeast Asia, it seems to me that everywhere Christianity and Islam come into contact, Islam is having its ass handed to it on a silver platter. My impression is that while Islam is expanding in sheer numbers, that's chiefly a function of the birthrate: pumping out Muslim babies. Whereas, if you're talking evangelism, Christianity is unequalled, unparalleled, and unrivalled.

Not that I approve of any of this; I feel that religion, in general, can be a positive thing, as long as people don't actually believe in it. But as a purely intellectual query: who's winning? Christianity or Islam? Anybody know?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Your point being?

So today Brooks spends practically the entire column essentially rehashing an argument from no less than Paul Krugman: that the US is increasingly becoming a class-based society as social mobility slows to lower levels than that in Europe. (Though of course he doesn't give Krugman credit.)

This is a pretty convincing and powerful argument, and goes to the heart of progressives' fear and fury at the prospect of four more years of the Bush administration. It's shocking that Brooks is raising this topic, given that virtually every effort in Bush's first-term domestic policy was devoted to increasing and solidifying the class gap: the vast tax cuts tilted towards the richest 1%, the elimination of the estate tax, et cetera. Though of course Brooks never mentions the ways the Bush administration has worked to strengthen the class gap and limit social mobility.

Anyway, there are two key questions here: why is this happening? And what do you propose to do about it? It should come as no surprise that Brooks doesn't blame regressive tax policy, failure to raise the minimum wage, underspending on education, and the demise of unions for the increasing class divide. Instead he blames meritocracy. "Now, the upper class doesn't so much oppress the lower class. It just outperforms it generation after generation." There is some logic to this argument, though it implies that "merit" includes the ability to pay for an Ivy League education.

Finally, we get to the part about proposing what is to be done. Or rather, we don't. Brooks doesn't actually propose doing anything to redress the growing class divide. He does say this: "We can spend all we want on schools. But if families are disrupted, if the social environment is dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help." So Brooks's grand proposal for promoting social mobility is to not increase public education budgets. Visionary!

But actually, this is all quite consistent in its own terms. The point of the article is to call on President Bush to make the same kind of commitment to social mobility in his State of the Union address as he did to promoting international democracy in his inaugural address. In other words, a purely rhetorical commitment, which he will then betray and undermine in his policy decisions.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Those pesky litmus tests

And so we have come full cycle: Brooks today is back in pompously tautological, it-is-thus-as-it-hath-never-been, universal common-sense pronouncements mode, with a column entitled "The Osama Litmus Test" regarding, you guessed it, today's OBL videotape. Brooks's enlightened analysis? Well, it goes something like this: "This proves Osama Bin Laden is not a nuisance! Contrary to the malicious distortion of John Kerry's views which I have just implied, without actually stating."

It's something of a relief to see that after a series of columns in which he showed off his mildly perceptive side, Brooks today is back to raving idiot mode. The column today is so weird that it takes some effort to try and figure out exactly what Brooks is saying, if anything. But let's at least give it a try.

Essentially, Brooks is arguing that because Osama Bin Laden released a videotape in which he said a bunch of nasty things about the United States and bragged, yet again, about having caught the US Government napping on 9/11...geez, I just got stuck again. I started the sentence with "because", and now I'm supposed to follow with the "thus" part of the statement, but I just find it really hard to figure out what the hell Brooks is trying to say. As near as I can figure it, this is the idea: we saw OBL on TV, and he looked like a very, very bad man. And the most important thing about our future president is that he prove to us that, "deep in his gut" (YUCK! Can we declare a freaking moratorium on use of the intestinal tract in political rhetoric? I'm gonna get a perforation here!), he understands just how bad a man OBL is.

Aside from scheduling an appearance on the Daily Show to dismember a realistic blood-spurting OBL life-sized doll with a sharpened crowbar, I am not sure how much more either candidate can do to reinforce the American people's confidence in the sincerity of their OBL-loathing. I also do not see what in God's name this has to do with the question of which candidate will make a better president. It seems to me that to elect someone based on their demonstration of the deepness of their hatred of America's enemies (regardless of whether or not they can accurately identify those enemies) is a good way to wind up with, say, Alan Keyes as president. Brooks:

"Remember when John Kerry told Matt Bai of The Times Magazine that he wanted to reduce the terrorists to a nuisance? Kerry vowed to mitigate the problem of terrorism until it became another regrettable and tolerable fact of life, like gambling, organized crime and prostitution."

And? Is there anyone in the US who would object to reducing terrorism to the state where it was no more bothersome than gambling, organized crime and prostitution? Incidentally, 2 out of 3 of those items are seen as top-flight entertainment by a significant percentage of Americans, rather than as regrettable facts of life. Maybe all 3, if you count "The Sopranos". Careful, David - you've already lost New Jersey, you don't want to lose Nevada too.

"Well, the Osama bin Laden we saw last night was not a problem that needs to be mitigated."

He wasn't? I do not understand what you are saying. The problem of terrorism does not need to be mitigated? Terrorism is just fine? I am not trying to be cute, here. Brooks is saying one of two things: either that terrorism is just fine, or that it doesn't need to be mitigated - it needs to be entirely eradicated. But he never comes out and says the latter, because if he did he'd get himself into a quandary: like everybody else, George W. Bush included, he knows terrorism can't actually be entirely eradicated. It can only be...mitigated. But then he'd have no article.

"He was not the leader of a movement that can be reduced to a nuisance."

I don't know what he is saying here. This is a negative proposition which is clearly intended to lead to some positive proposition, but I cannot figure out what the positive proposition will be. The best guess is that it should be something like "He is instead the leader of a movement that..." What? Nothing there. Brooks doesn't actually have a lear conception of what Al Qaeda is; he just leaves it blank. That way it's more useful as a protean all-purpose scary campaign bugaboo.

"Here was this monster who killed 3,000 of our fellows showing up on our TV screens, trying to insert himself into our election, trying to lecture us on who is lying and who is telling the truth. Here was this villain traipsing through his own propaganda spiel with copycat Michael Moore rhetoric about George Bush in the schoolroom, and Jeb Bush and the 2000 Florida election.

Here was this deranged killer spreading absurd theories about the American monarchy and threatening to murder more of us unless we do what he says.

One felt all the old emotions. Who does he think he is, and who does he think we are?"

Actually, no. I didn't feel any of the same emotions I felt on Sept. 11. Only an idiot who had spent the last 3 years neither studying nor thinking would feel exactly the same emotions. What I felt was curiosity. Where is OBL? What is his current role in the universe of Islamic terrorism? Are the vague demands which he outlined in this tape - basically the withdrawal of American troops and other organiations from the Islamic world - in fact representative of the goals of Islamic violent political movements generally? Could radical political Islam ever be brought to the point where its demands did become concrete political ones, and where deals could be made and enforced with radical Islamic leaders?

Brooks's rhetoric evinces a kind of hysterical fear of penetration - "trying to insert himself into our election," e.g. I guess I just am not that freaked out by the idea of people I loathe trying to participate in the American political sphere of discourse. Hell, I can't get Pat Robertson to shut up either.

"One of the crucial issues of this election is, Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut - not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?"

Append to Yuck: Even More Yuck! "deep in his gut - not just in his brain" -- STOP WITH THE GRODY ANATOMICAL STUFF! I know Christians are all into this body-of-our-lord shit, and I know Bush is God's chosen leader on Earth, but the rest of us DON'T NEED TO HEAR IT! I feel perfectly capable of voting without knowing anything about either candidate's digestive tracts or medulla oblongatas.

On a substantial plane: Why should I care whether a candidate is so fixated on how evil Osama Bin Laden is that it "consumes him"? Actually, would it really be a good idea to vote for a candidate who is pathologically obsessed with a thirst for revenge? Has American political discourse really come to this?

"On Milwaukee television, he used the video as an occasion to attack the president: "He didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden. He outsourced the job." Kerry continued with a little riff from his stump speech, "I am absolutely confident I have the ability to make America safer."

Even in this shocking moment, this echo of Sept. 11, Kerry saw his political opportunities and he took 'em. There's such a thing as being so nakedly ambitious that you offend the people you hope to impress."

Shut UP! Shut UP! (whap-whap) The issue of whether or not President Bush committed enough resources to Afghanistan to capture OBL and eliminate al-Qaeda, rather than getting distracted by the big juicy lollipop of Baghdad, is one of the clearest pointed issues in this election. It serves as a referendum on whether President Bush "gets it": whether he gets that terrorism is a decentralized, networked, internet-age phenomenon which breeds and multiplies in the free-flowing trade and information currents and weakened states of the globalized economy; whether he gets that Afghanistan was thus always MORE dangerous than Iraq, not less; whether he has any idea who Osama Bin Laden is and how to fight him. I don't fucking care how much Bush hates OBL; what I care about is whether he has a clue as to how to fight him. John Kerry has been hammering on this point throughout the campaign. To suggest that because OBL made a videotape and sent it to a network (How dare he! The gall! This is a second national tragedy - we must observe a moment of silence, except, of course, for the Bush campaign) John Kerry should stop talking about the fact that Bush let him get away IS in fact shameless, shameless, naked electioneering, of a disgusting and putrid and vile sort, and only a completely intellectually dishonest hack would be capable of formulating such an idea.

"When we rely on allies everywhere else around the world, that's multilateral cooperation, but when Bush does it in Afghanistan, it's "outsourcing." In Iraq, Kerry supports using local troops to chase insurgents, but in Afghanistan he is in post hoc opposition."

This little paragraph verges on cogency for a moment. The key here, of course, is the difference between "insurgents" and "Osama Bin Freaking Laden". It's one thing to take advantage of local political legitimacy to suppress insurgents in general; it's another thing entirely, when you think you have the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks cornered, to deputize a posse of half-trained locals with their own political interests, rather than dropping in a giant honking division of American regulars to make goddamned sure we get the guy. But we didn't have a division of American regulars; we were getting ready to invade Iraq, so we could fail to find any WMD and open up all the bunkers full of explosives to looters.

"This is why Kerry is not cleaning Bush's clock in this election. Many people are not sure that he gets the fundamental moral confrontation."

Many people must really be incredibly stupid. Do they think John Kerry thinks OBL is an okay guy? That he's gotten a bum rap? What exactly is it that George Bush "gets"? That a nation founded on the principle of government of, for, and by the people is morally superior to a bloodthirsty mass murderer who deliberately targets and slaughters thousands of innocent civilians purely in order to score a political point? Gee, what a piercing insight.

The only content to the claim that George Bush "gets it" is the assertion of a kind of nakedly fascist identification of the soul of the nation, and the souls of citizens, with that of the leader. It is not okay for Brooks to use this kind of language. It isn't. It isn't okay to say he "gets it" without saying what it is he is supposed to "get". It isn't okay to suggest that whether a leader understands the world and proposes intelligent policies is less important than whether he "gets it". That is the language of fascism. Down that road lie endless warfare and ultimate defeat.

"We are revealed by what we hate."

Who said that? I think it was Goering, right? "When someone uses the word 'civilization', I reach for my revolver. We are revealed by what we hate." Oh no, wait. It was David Brooks.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Also Sprach Brooks

Today we have yet another guise of the master: Brooks as Dave Barry. Or perhaps Art Buchwald is the better analogy. I personally find these columns intensely irritating; Brooks is no professional humorist, and his talent for screwball comedy is not the reason why the New York Times decided to give him all those column inches twice a week. So it kind of feels like a ripoff. But in general I find op-ed pages have been giving humor much too much space over the past decade; I find Maureen Dowd almost as infuriating. I go to op-ed pieces to read opinions, well argued and supported by a modicum of data. If I want wacky political satire I'll go see "Team USA".

Anyway. Having grown up in Washington DC, I have some recollection of the kinds of politically expansive dinner guests Brooks attempts to spoof in his latest column. ("It is only now that the dinner party lion emerges to stake his claim to greatness. While others quiver with pre-election anxiety, their mood rising and collapsing with the merest flicker of the polls, he alone radiates certainty.") However, I usually found these guests rather interesting. Perhaps that is because I actually enjoy political discussions. It is my sense that political discussions over dinner became rarer and rarer from 1985 to 2000 or so, as people began to feel that to raise a political subject at dinner was to be, as Brooks puts it, a "blowhard".

Perhaps this is why we've wound up saddled with a political universe full of morons.

Anyway, most of this column is really beneath discussion. However, there are a couple of revealing Brooksisms which are worth teasing out. First, take a look at the ridicule of the "dinner party lion"'s knowledge of electioneering minutiae:

"...he unfurls a series of impressive, counterintuitive but probably meaningless factoids: "You know, historically, polls conducted during the third week in September have proved to be more accurate in predicting the final result than ones conducted closer to Election Day." ...He runs through the bogus subdemographic groups that could swing the vote: cellphone-using creationists (undersampled by current survey methods) or African-American gun-owning deacons, who have been so intriguingly cross-pressured for several months."

One of Brooks's most consistent and immutable characteristics is his contempt for expertise in almost any field. I am particularly reminded of a column about two years ago in which he proclaimed that after attending a foreign-policy conference in the UK some years back, he had realized: "I don't believe in foreign policy." All those complicated ideas, all those complex political formulations, all those tentative theses which need to be supported by data! Who needs it? Just a bunch of mumbling bureaucrats and liberal perfessers. Right?

It's a startling thing to say you don't believe in foreign policy, but of course this is exactly the attitude which pervades current lumpen-GOP circles, as well as the Office of the Vice President and most of the Echo Chamber advisers closest to President Bush. The last 4 years have been an experimental trial of whether it's a good idea to turn the United States government over to people who don't believe in foreign policy, and the results of that trial are now in: the world hates us, our soldiers are being killed at about 10 a week, we're pouring money into a bottomless oil pit called Iraq, North Korea has half a dozen nukes pointed at California, and the self-satisfied smirk of Ariel Sharon looms over the smoking ruins of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, taking an occasional potshot at a Hamas teenager trying to launch a homemade rocket.

But to get back to this column, the subtext to the ridicule of someone who would try to back up his predictions about the election with actual data, particular detailed or complicated data, is that it is absurd or boorish to demonstrate in conversation that one is knowledgeable about an issue. This contempt for knowledge, for data, for expertise, and for intelligence in general is to be expected from Republicans, enemies of the "reality-based community" that they are. For Republicans, the proper place to discuss hard facts is in the corporate boardroom. The general public should be kept in a state of blissful ignorance, so that they can be persuaded to elect a chief executive they'd like to have a beer with - not one who might have intelligent, evidence-based policies on concrete issues.

Personally, given a choice between a beer with Geoerge Bush and dinner with a "blowhard" who's well versed in the minutiae of the current election, I'll take the blowhard anytime.

Then, there's Brooks's curious final point. "He must make sure his listeners do not recall that most voters have only the foggiest notions of what they are voting on. As a Cato Institute study reminds us, 70 percent of voters do not know about the new prescription drug benefit, 60 percent know little about the Patriot Act, and during the cold war, only 38 percent of voters knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO.

"These facts suggest that in close elections, the results are a crapshoot, which would undermine the pundit's claim to expertise."

Does Brooks actually believe this? Brooks does occasionally display a fleeting openness to the possibility of uncomfortable facts which might require a substantial change in his thinking. For example, over the summer, he grudgingly and painfully began to acknowledge that things in Iraq were not going very well. He even began to try to seriously examine what the mistakes might have been which led to the quagmire, and what potential strategies offered the best hope of a way out. But such a serious investigation quickly proved too frustrating and complex for his whimsical, bullshit-prone rhetorical style, and he dropped the whole thing by late September.

In any case, if Brooks really does have such a dim view of the intelligence of the American electorate, it could have serious consequences not just for his view of the legitimacy of electoral support for President Bush, but for his entire weltaanschaung. Consequence 1: it seems pretty clear that anyone who thinks Americans don't understand what they're voting for is thinking primarily of Bush supporters. No one has identified large groups of voters who are just wild for Kerry but don't understand his positions on the issues; and in fact PIPA surveys show just the opposite - large majorities of Kerry supporters do know where he stands on the issues, while the majority of Bush supporters think he supports the International Criminal Court. For Brooks to address the issue of ignorance among American voters is to come perilously close to calling Bush supporters dumb.

But of course he'd never follow through to that logical conclusion.

Consequence 2: David Brooks has throughout his career proven himself incapable of sustaining a gloomy thought for more than 2.3 seconds. His whole tone is one of sleepy, fat and happy triumphalism: the average American is richer than 99.9 percent of the human beings who have ever lived, as his NYT Magazine cover story of summer 2003 put it. (This was another great moment in idiotic Brooks rhetoric - simple back-of-the-napkin demographics shows this figure to be impossible, off by an order of magnitude. But never mind.)

Of course the thesis that Americans are ignorant, yet successful, rich and happy, and that knowledge of facts is therefore not terribly important, is perfectly consistent with the Brooks oeuvre, which is basically an elaboration of Disraeli's thesis that God protects idiots, small children, and the United States of America. Still, if things continue to go demonstrably poorly over the next several years of a Bush second term, and Brooks sustains the suspicion that the American people are kind of dumb, is it possible that he might eventually, inexorably reach the inescapable conclusion that Americans are stoopid bad - and that ain't good?

Don't bet on it.