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.


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