Thursday, January 7, 2010

Brooks bedazzled

I’ve run into a number of posts about David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times. JustOneMinute and Grim are writing about it. Someone (I think The Corner’s Web Briefing) sent me to NoLeftTurns which in turn sent me to Armed and Dangerous where I think the discussion of complexity run amok is quite persuasive.* Armed and Dangerous sent me to Will Collier whose post is excellent - and not just because he made me nod by quoting Megan McArdle and made me smile by designating Sarah Palin as the “Tea Party matriarch”.

So. Yes, Brooks’ piece is annoying - really annoying. Anytime you find yourself talking about “the educated class” you really should stop writing immediately. It’s hard to think of a more loaded phrase especially when Brooks insists upon imputing to that “class” any number of beliefs that aren’t necessarily shared by everyone who has, well, has what? An Ivy league education? A law degree? An advanced degree? A degree in something soft - like, say, history - rather than in something hard - like engineering? As deep an understanding of political philosophy as Brooks himself? Or is Brooks’ “educated class” not in common possession of anything except the set of beliefs he says “the educated class” shares. That would be a bit circular but perhaps historians don’t worry about that sort of thing.

Still I’m inclined to be both more tolerant and less tolerant of Brooks’ column than many of those whose opinions I link above. More tolerant because I heard him talk about the tea party movement on one of the Sunday morning shows and I thought he was quite fair-minded about it. His thesis is repeated in his recent NYT piece although it’s buried under all the “educated class” nonsense: outsiders with passion are the ones who define the political landscape of an era and the tea partiers are the outsiders with passion right now:

... the tea party movement has passion. Think back on the recent decades of American history — the way the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s. American history is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life.

In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don’t underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust. If there is a double-dip recession, a long period of stagnation, a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack or some other major scandal or event, the country could demand total change, creating a vacuum that only the tea party movement and its inheritors would be in a position to fill.

It speaks well of Brooks that he can apparently loathe a movement, all its people, and everything it stands for and yet see clearly that it could be a transformative power in politics. That’s far better than so many pundits who assume that everyone and everything they don’t like is doomed to failure at best, failure and ridicule more likely. It also speaks well of him that he can credit the tea partiers with honest passion rather than dismissing them as living, breathing astroturf.

And the less tolerant part? That’s because I’ve never fully recovered from learning about Brooks’ bedazzlement at Barack Obama’s ability to spend 20 minutes giving Brooks:

a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you.

For Brooks that was reason enough to overlook his own description of Obama as “a very mediocre senator” and to fail to apply to Obama the same test he considered Palin to have failed:

The more I follow politicians, the more I think experience matters, the ability to have a template of things in your mind that you can refer to on the spot, because believe me, once in office there's no time to think or make decisions.

As a result of reading the above, I flinch any time Brooks begins using words like “intellectual”, “educated”, or “class”. I’m not saying Reinhold Niebuhr is not useful reading for someone in the political world. I’m just appalled that Brooks believes being able to discuss Niebuhr for 20 minutes makes up for mediocrity and inexperience in a President. And - to bring things full, um, circle - perhaps this is what Brooks really means by “the educated class”: those who can discuss Niebuhr for 20 minutes. If so, then it’s easy to understand why Brooks’ “educated class” has - in Collier’s words - “proven so many times that [they’re] no damn good at” ruling the rest of us


* I also think Armed and Dangerous is, in fact, a dangerous website. The post on Brooks presents a feast of enticing hyperlinks, some of which lead to other Armed and Dangerous posts which present yet more feasts of enticing hyperlinks. I suspect this site could eat up a day or a week quite easily.

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