Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Surprise, Surprise … David Brooks Wrong Again

It is not surprising to find David Brooks wrong. In fact, it appears to be his bailiwick, or special talent, or preternatural domain – taking a complex problem and providing a simple, commonsensical answer that is almost always short sighted or just plain wrong. In this case, he is talking about common core and his rather conventional view that education is all about American global competitiveness: “[Education] is to get students competitive with their international peers.” (NYT Op Ed) Education is not about personal betterment, setting students up for future success in their economic, political and social lives, a path to upward mobility, about teaching tolerance and cross-cultural understanding, creating an informed and educated populace to serve our democracy or any of those other middling goals of a bygone era. And if you disagree with him, well, you’re just not listening hard enough (Academe Blog)  

Brooks has been wrong about one thing after another for many years now. Take, for example, his position on the eve of the war in Iraq in 2003. First he absolved Bush of any moral responsibility to actually consider the potential costs of war, actually mocking anyone who disagrees with him (apparently a common trait for him): “They want him to show a little anguish. They want baggy eyes, evidence of sleepless nights, a few photo-ops, Kennedy-style, of the president staring gloomily through the Oval Office windows into the distance.” Then he provides the lie that cost thousands of American lives and over 130,000 Iraqi civilians theirs: “Bush gave Saddam time to disarm. Saddam did not. Hence, the issue of whether to disarm him forcibly is settled.” And even before the infamous “Mission Accomplished” Bush speech, Brooks declared on April 28, 2003 that “the war in Iraq is over.” (Salon)

For a time, Brooks stuck to his guns, belittling anyone who disagreed with him with lines like, “Come on, people, let’s get a grip.” He disparaged the “Chicken Littles like [Democratic senators] Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd [who] were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam” and then ridiculed the “pundits and sages [who] were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!” The American people needed to exhibit patience, and allow the carnage to continue until he was proven right: “The task is unavoidable . . . The terrorists are enemies of civilization. They must be defeated.” Ultimately, he changed his tune and turned against the administration, but it took even longer for him to finally offer a mea culpa, on behalf of all the hawks (uninvited, one should add), claiming begrudgingly, ““We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy.” And then went on to another fantasy to explain himself, “As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves.”

Or take the case of his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, which argues for the inherent meritocracy of the “new bohemian” elites who apparently care more about meaning than materialism and more about experience than acquisition. (Prospect) The term bobos thus engenders this new “bohemian bourgeoisie” elite, now ruling the world: "This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out … They find a way to be an artist and still qualify for stock options." And then “"To be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to ... show how little your worldly success means to you. You always want to dress one notch lower than those around you." But while there are certainly these rare creatures among the media elite, and maybe, to a lesser degree, among the tech ingénues, what about the Wall Street bankers and traders, the Pharmaceutical salesmen, the lobbyists and conservative media gods? What of the remaining members of the blue-blooded elite? What of their children? What of the cadre of celebrities have taken conspicuous consumption to belle-époque levels? What of the CEOs of our multinationals? All of these are missing from a book that seems to be about Brooks creating a rallying cry or a fictionalized image of himself.

And these are but three examples of a “pragmatic conservative” who is practically always wrong. But in could be argued that he but a symptom of a New York Times opinion corps that has gone from bad to worse over the past few years. Beyond Brook’s folksy, uber-patriotic, American exceptionalist, commonsensical “soft conservatism,” we have the uncritical shish kum bah globalization and neoliberal cheerleading of the corporate-sponsored Thomas Friedman, the bombastic, but ultimately unsatisfying, linguistic gymnastics of Maureen Dowd, the dull, preening liberalism of Bob Herbert (who I like), Nickolas  Kristoff and Gail Collins and the exceptional, but I would guess uninteresting to non-believers, empiricism of Paul Krugman (whose every column could be predicted based on the topic with 95% confidence). One almost feels whimsical nostalgia for the wit of William Safire, as much as we might have disagreed with his perspective on everything except language. 

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