Monday, January 03, 2005

Vulgarity and Evil

Brad DeLong and Echidne have already dealt ably with the unappetizing spectacle of David Brooks' spiritual exhibitionism, but when you're wide awake at 4 AM, it's all too easy to convince yourself that you have a few things to add.

First, it's amazing that Brooks thinks anyone who is reeling from the horrors of the tsunami will be edified by this scatterbrained, contradictory inventory of what he fancies are his insights into Nature and God; this is mere peacock vanity on his part, and it's also colossally vulgar.

In his search for an emotionally comforting "explanation" for this disaster, Brooks fails to grasp that the central question of religion isn't who lives and who dies; it's who cares and who helps. Nonetheless, Brooks makes a great show of pondering "what it means" when catastrophe strikes, which naturally includes a solemn attempt to address the question of "God's will."

I'm no theologian, but it's at least possible that God entrusted our well-being to one another, and that Brooks' rhetorical contortions represent an elaborate effort to miss a theological point that's actually rather terrifying in its perfect simplicity.

If God's will is done on earth, surely it's done through our bodies and minds. After all, if God had intended to look after the world's poor, the Bible would probably have spent far less time telling us that we have to do it.

But if God doesn't exist, our human obligations remain no less real and no less pressing, unless we're in sympathy with those pseudomoral nihilists for whose amusement Brooks cuts his marionette capers. Despite what Brooks appears to believe, the view of God as some cosmic Johnny Appleseed who dispenses liberal doses of disaster for our benefit is very far indeed from giving meaning to human suffering; actually, it's a clarion call either to schadenfreude or to atheism. Indeed, between its pinched, self-centered moral relativism and its willful avoidance of basic religious ideals, the Right does more to make atheism attractive than any dozen godless polemicists could.

But maybe it's not God's fault, says Brooks. Maybe it's Nature's fault. Nature, according to Brooks, is both amoral and cruel; its disasters are meaningless and random, but also hostile and hateful. (After all, lions eat gazelles, no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise while we loll around drinking soy lattes at "organic food stores.")

For Brooks, America is perpetually on the verge of losing its innocence, and Nature's worst crime is that it threatens to discourage America from its mission of "National Greatness." Here's one of Brooks' only sincere-sounding complaints about the tsunami:

[I]mages of something dark and unmerciful were thrust onto a culture that is by temperament upbeat and romantic.
Poor old us. Of course, there was also something dark and unmerciful in the bombs that rained down on Baghdad recently, and some might argue that a temperament too "upbeat and romantic" to contemplate the suffering it visits upon other people is a temperament that's defective at best. Brooks' sententious wrath at Nature - it's arbitrary, it's cruel, it's vicious and willful! - could as easily be aimed at the Bush administration; his search for "human agency" might just as well start with his own tireless cheerleading for an unjust war, which has stained his hands indelibly with the blood of children.

To be warned against the "fog of compassion" by a gibbering husk like Brooks is deeply insulting, as is the notion that we should fear Nature more than the evil men whose viciousness and violence Brooks has sought for so long to glorify. Spare me the apocryphal "good intentions" that Brooks has so often discerned in the Bush administration's disastrous schemes, and I'll take my chances with Nature.

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