Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Dr. Brooks' Prescription

David Brooks is, as usual, worried about his liberal friends. He may not agree with them - he may, indeed, loathe everything they stand for, with the white-hot loathing of a toady who doesn't wish to be reminded that there's more to life than toadying - but that doesn't mean he's unwilling to lend a helping hand.

First and foremost, he's worried that the Left has devolved into a gaggle of sedulous apes:

We're living in the age of the liberal copycat. Al Franken tries to create a liberal version of Rush. Al Gore announced his TV network yesterday.
Well, to be fair, Rush stole a great deal of his schtick from Father Coughlin. And this liberal TV network Brooks speaks of...who's that copying? I mean, the mass media are liberal by definition, are they not?

As I said, Brooks wants to help. He's dead set on it, and he's not going to let his contempt for us stand in his way:
Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at odds with reality.
What an old slyboots Brooks is, eh? What a master of amphibilogia! Honestly, no one does condescension quite like him...except for the comic-book guy from The Simpsons.

Brooks goes on to argue that feuding between factionalists has given today's Right its strengths, which are manifest in its ability to sell out its supposed principles at a moment's notice:
Once, Republicans were isolationists. Now most Republicans, according to a New York Times poll, believe the U.S. should try to change dictatorships into democracies when it can.
One could just as easily - and far more rationally - assume that this belief has changed because Republicans are power-worshipping opportunists who will believe anything if the right people tell them to. One need do no more than take a look at David Brooks, the Human Windsock, to see how true this is.

There's another unique quality of conservatives that Brooks would have us ponder: they know things about stuff.
Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears...
Acutely conscious, perhaps. Personally conversant with? Not bloody likely. On the contrary, much like Marxists, conservatives years ago fell into the habit of uncritically accepting received wisdom about their "intellectual forebears," without bothering to read any source materials in full. Why wade through Adam Smith's books, after all, when Rush Limbaugh can give you the important bits in seconds flat? I can't tell you how many conservatives I've met who've told me that Smith or Hayek or Rand "proved" something or other, only to be cast into dithering confusion when I innocently asked "How?"

In reality, many intellectual forebears of the Right are somewhat less than glamorous. They include Gerald L.K. Smith (creator of the Christ of the Ozarks), who described the UN very presciently - from the standpoint of blithering, ultra-right paranoia - way back in the 1940s:
Our new President has paid tribute to this internationalist organization which promises no good for the future of America. It outlaws prayer and forbid anyone to mention the name of Jesus within its halls...
These deranged opinions - and thousands more like them - have been ringing in the empty skulls of the GOP rank-and-file for decades, and the average conservative has no idea where they came from. The real story of factionalism on the Right, and the remarkable ability of the party's leadership to keep moderates on board while catering to extremists of the worst and most dangerous sort, is very interesting indeed. But it's not a subject that Brooks is likely to tackle anytime soon.

As ever, Brooks is unwilling to curse the darkness of the Left without lighting a Molotov cocktail. As he sees it, if liberalism's bones are ever to rise again, the Left needs to stop encouraging unity - which everyone knows has never done any political or social movement any good at all - and start encouraging fractious debate on a variety of Brooks-approved topics:
If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn't want message discipline. I'd take this opportunity to have a big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the American character.
Fair enough. The Left's in such a rut that it's been reduced to stealing patented right-wing ideas like broadcasting over the radio...but it can solve this problem by promoting a lively debate over the finer points of Herbert Croly's thought. At which point, we can look forward to another slap on the wrist from Brooks, for failing to understand that red-state moderates prefer NASCAR and barbeques to rarefied philosophical disputation.

This sort of disingenuous intellectual scolding has been a real habit with Brooks lately. He supposedly sees the ideas of these "good" liberals as eminently worth discussing, but you'll notice that he himself doesn't discuss them at all. And for good reason. Tom Paine's pretty conceits are anathema to today's Right. And John Dewey has been a conservative bogeyman for decades; he's routinely described as a Communist stooge and a minion of Satan. The idea that discussion of these thinkers is necessary for the Left - and that it never happens - comprises malice and ignorance in equal measures.

In his last column, Brooks suggests that intelligence agents should be forced to read Tolstoy, in order to learn about human nature. I like Tolstoy too, so I'm happy to share this pithy quote with Brooks:
The governments of our day - all of them, the most despotic and the liberal alike - have become what Herzen so well caIIed "Ghenghis Khan with the telegraph;" that is to say, organizations of violence based on no principle but the grossest tyranny, and at the same time taking advantage of all the means invented by science...to enslave and oppress their fellows.
Tolstoy had something to say about people like Brooks, too...people "so intoxicated with a sense of their own imaginary dignity that they cease to feel their responsibility for what they do":
The desire of the educated classes to support the ideas they prefer, and the order of existence based on them, has attained its furthest limits. They lie, and delude themselves, and one another, with the subtlest forms of deception, simply to obscure, to deaden conscience.

3 comments:

janeboatler said...

Phila,

This is an excellent explication of David Brooks's column, but I have to ask if it's really worth spending time on. This column of his is getting lots of play elsewhere in bloggerdom, but IMHO, it's not deserving of all the attention and effort. I had to stop reading him, because he was scrambling my brain. He may be an evil genius sent out by the other side to totally disable our thinking processes, so I believe he's best avoided.

Thersites said...

Brooks doesn't KNOW anything. It's just astonishing. The pretense that there is any sort of intellectual consistency whatsoever to what passes for "conservatism" nowadays... well, unreal.

Phila said...

JB,

You're quite right...it's not worth it at all. The sad truth is, I'm responding to Brooks and Gallagher because posts like these pretty much write themselves, and I have no time right now to do anything more interesting or substantive.

I hope to get around to something more edifying sooner or later...but this week is very, very hectic for me.