A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: David Brooks

Is Our David Brooks Learning?

by evanmcmurry

Somehow I missed this. I don’t think this was how Obama meant this argument, but whatever works:

Obama spoke about Stand Your Ground laws — and, again, I don’t think he was “sympathetic to all sides” (nor should he have been):

BROOKS: And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Hearing this made David Brooks reconsider his position on these laws:

BROOKS: And I have to say, the point on the Stand Your Ground law was actually clarifying for me. I had some sympathy for the laws because as, you know, as Americans, we should be independent, we should be able to defend ourselves, be strong. But the argument he made about, you know, do we really want all sorts of people, do we really want what happened here, people walking around with guns feeling free to shoot off without legal protections, without the normal legal process — now, that’s a compelling argument, which he put very well.

Yes, Brooks actually said he’d never quite thought about the possibility of extending Stand Your Ground to “all sorts of people.” Yes, even those sorts. When you put it that way, Stand Your Ground is kinda scary, hunh, David?

Nice work, Professor Obama.

cc: David Brooks

by evanmcmurry

Those who believe “Islamists” lack “the mental equipment to govern” perhaps didn’t consider any evidence to the contrary, maybe?

The obvious — and crucial — question is: What’s the difference? Why has democratic constitutionalism worked relatively well in one North African Arab country while it has crashed and burned in another? And what will the answer tell us about the future of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, from Libya to Syria and beyond?

You might think the answer has something to do with Islam. But remarkably enough, it doesn’t. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the first democratic elections produced significant pluralities favoring Islamic democratic parties. Ennahda, the Islamist movement whose political party won in Tunisia, is ideologically similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a kind of associate of the Brotherhood’s loosely affiliated internationale. Both parties believe in combining Islamic values with democratic practice. Both accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims, even if in practice they are both socially conservative and seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.

The contrasting personalities and styles of their leaders, however, have pushed Ennahda and the Brotherhood to behave differently when negotiating religion with secularists in their respective countries.Rachid Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of the Tunisian Islamists, has emerged as the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela. During his decades in exile, Ghannouchi wrote extensively about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and developed a relatively liberal vision of how Islam and the state should interact.

Skeptics then claimed that Ghannouchi’s views were a cover for a more radical agenda; and some Tunisian secularists still think so. But the evidence thus far is sharply to the contrary. When Islamists called for inserting a reference to Shariah into the Tunisian constitution — usually the sine qua non for any Islamic political party — Ghannouchi took seriously the opposition from secularists. In a dramatic showdown with members of his own party’s leadership, he reportedly threatened to resign unless they dropped the measure.

This may have been the turning point in Tunisia’s constitutional process. Ghannouchi’s position is straightforward: He wants Tunisians to adopt Islamic values, but piety means nothing if imposed by coercion. Islam, he believes, will succeed in persuading people to adopt its truths more effectively if they don’t have its teachings shoved down their throats.

Or Muslims are genetically incapable of democracy. Either way.

Shorter David Brooks: Millennials Need A Good Clean Civil War

by evanmcmurry

For the love of:

These letter writers, and many of the men at Gettysburg, were not just different than most of us today because their language was more high flown and earnest. There was probably also a greater covenantal consciousness, a belief that they were born in a state of indebtedness to an ongoing project, and they would inevitably be called upon to pay these debts, to come square with the country, even at the cost of their lives.

Makes today’s special interest politics look kind of pathetic.

I get the feeling the David Brooks of 1860 would write countless editorials against nogoodnik Union troops and their “followership” problems. Amazing what 150 years of hindsight can do for the riffraff.

(This is to say nothing of the “special interests” that might have been at work in a civil war; I feel like Brooks plays with a permanent handicap on that account.)

Josh Marshall And David Brooks Make The Exact Same Point About Edward Snowden, But Only One Of Them Is Right

by evanmcmurry

Josh Marshall and David Brooks are making the same essential point in their pieces on Edward Snowden: that regardless of the abstract moral quality of Snowden’s actions, he performed them selfishly, prioritizing his own conscience over the harm he could cause others.

It’s convincing when Marshall makes it:

At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

[snip] But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal.

That’s smart, nuanced reasoning. We all have problems with the military and the government, but we are all, also, enmeshed with them. To jeopardize these institutions, whatever your reasons, is to view them as distinct and peripheral, not only from yourself but from everybody around you. This is not to say that leaking classified information is never justified, but it is to say that doing so automatically puts you in an antagonistic relationship with the society on whose behalf you claim to be acting. The sating of your conscience doesn’t automatically underwrite your actions.

Needless to say, David Brooks falls way short of Marshall’s take:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.

[snip] But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

Brooks, as only he can, undoes his own point. The pressures of conformity exerted by familial and social bonds are the exact forces that lead to abuses of power; people are too complacent/fearful/loyal/etc. to know wrongdoing when they see it, or act when they recognize it. Under these conditions, it really does take someone like Snowden, who is willing to sacrifice the comforts of a normal life, to point out the overreaches of the state. Who else will? A happy father of four, with mortgage payments?*

Again, Marshall and Brooks are making the same basic point about Snowden’s view of an “atomized” society, in Brooks’ formulation, falsely legitimizing his actions. Marshall’s point is incisive and generative. Brooks’s makes me want to donate to Snowden’s defense fund.

* This is to say nothing of the role giant, secretive government surveillance programs have played in fraying the ends of Brooks’s public trust. After all, we can only judge Snowden’s relation to the state because he revealed it for us.

Ask a Millionaire

by evanmcmurry

Northwestern has published a survey of 83 Chicago millionaires, entitled “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” i.e., “What the 1% thinks.” Most of it is what you’d expect—basically a David Brooks casserole—but other results are slightly more surprising:

• Nearly half of the rich thought the wealthy should pay more into Social Security.

• Some 86 percent of the millionaires were aware that the difference between the rich and the poor is larger than it was 20 years ago.

• Nearly two thirds said that “differences in income in America are too large” 

Hey, that’s something. Now here’s the second half of that last sentence:

• Nearly two thirds said that “differences in income in America are too large” (though they don’t favor a government-engineered redistribution of the cash.)

Which suggests a pretty low limit to what this is supposed to tell us about…anything. The difference between thinking the poor should be better off and believing you have a responsibility to help the poor become better off is the entire game; just ask Ron Paul about people dying in front of hospitals. I guess it’s a good sign that most millionaires don’t openly subscribe to the Randian model that the poor are hammock dwellers siphoning energy from the Producers. But meanwhile in Washington, a Democratic president is proposing cutting Social Security benefits, suggesting that until the link between the less atavistic worldview of the wealthy and their policy preferences is connected, their beneficent thoughts on income inequality mean bupkiss-squat.

(It should also be noted that these were all Chicago millionaires; I’m no demographic expert, but I imagine the thoughts of rich Cubs fans differ from those of rich Ranger fans.)

h/t Gin and Tacos

David Brooks Is Writing Into The Mirror Again

by evanmcmurry

David Brooks thinks the Democrats who wrote the progressive budget are “hermetically sealed,” which may be the biggest instance of the pot and the kettle since the phrase was invented. He also faults them for having “had little contact with private-sector job creators.” They must not have vast spaces for entertaining in which to meet said job creators—vast spaces which come from writing what the job creators want to hear.

Quote of the Day

by evanmcmurry

“A couple of years ago I had a chance to have dinner with Tom Clancy and he was enthusing over some gun he had just seen on a naval battleship. And I’m sitting there while he is talking, thinking, you can’t fake it. If you don’t really have the passion for those kind of guns, you can’t write Tom Clancy novels.” —David Brooks (via)

Is A David Brooks Column Still Alive If It Doesn’t Get Read, Or Is It Something Worse?

by evanmcmurry

You know it’s a bad news Friday when nobody even bothers to laugh at the David Brooks column. If a Brooks column is published and nobody bothers to write a sarcastic treatment of it, did a line like this even exist?:

It’s not multi-polarity; it’s multi-problemarity.

David Brooks, everybody. Now back to reading about gun control.

David Brooks And The Elites

by evanmcmurry

Congratulations to Giant Marxist Vagina Chris Hayes. Nevermind a steady gig at the Nation or a weekend show on MSNBC: you know you’ve made it when David Brooks devotes a whole column to debunking you. From now on, Mr. Hayes drinks for free south of 14th St., in which I include most of the rest of the country where most of the rest of the plebes live.

Brooks no doubt could see this portion of the superstructure from his house, if he didn’t have such a bad habit of mistaking mirrors for windows:

Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.

And things were great. Go on.

Over the past half–century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.

Or family pedigree, family prominence, family connections, or a combination of all three. Go on.

Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.

That’s unobjectionable until you catch the false dilemma slipped in at the end: “The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed.” Note how justice is cannily posed in direct opposition to success, as if society were a zero-sum competition between the two: a more just society, to Brooks, necessarily means a less functional one. Thus do we return to Brooks’s running theme, that world would work best if the people for whom it worked worst accepted their fate and got out of the way.

Would anybody like to pose a counterargument to that?

Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.

Hayes points to his own elite training ground, Hunter College High School in New York City. You have to ace an entrance exam to get in, but affluent parents send their kids to rigorous test prep centers and now few poor black and Latino students can get in.

Baseball players get to the major leagues through merit, but then some take enhancement drugs to preserve their status. Financiers work hard to get jobs at the big banks, but then some rig the game for their own mutual benefit.

[…] Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.

Sounds right to me. If we agree, then why are we arguing?

It’s a challenging argument but wrong.


I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

Hold on a damn second. Where on god’s big green dumb earth did people come up with this idea that poor people don’t work hard? Leaving aside the problems of correlation v. causation inherent in the structure of such an “argument”—wanting as they do to see poverty as a moral failing, conservatives can never agree whether people are poor because they don’t work hard, or don’t work hard because they’re poor, and often end up claiming both, a sort of “let them have their cake and eat it, too” avoidance of logic—it just isn’t true.

Poor people tend to work more than the wealthy; they just receive exponentially less in wages for it. The main structural challenge of being poor—at least up until our most recent White Protestant opposite-of-succeeded with our economy and eliminated the problem of work by eliminating available jobs altogether—is that no amount of work was enough to stimulate economic mobility in a structurally unequal system. When you must work your whole week to break even, there’s no time left over for study and no money left over for study aid (note how Brooks intentionally conflates discipline and money in the above examples), calcifying poverty over generations. Poor people aren’t choosing to watch Real Housewives of the Meritocracy as opposed to taking their children to piano recitals; often they don’t get to either, because they’re clocked in. Brooks wants this to be a moral failing, not a structural-economic one that might be addressed by these concepts of “justice” running around mucking everything up.

Phenomena like the test-prep industry are just the icing on the cake, giving some upper-middle-class applicants a slight edge over other upper-middle-class applicants. The real advantages are much deeper and more honest.

Ah. He must mean about how nobody’s being honest about how the ethos of self interest that was supposed to gird our economy instead destroyed it, and how we have used the acidic rhetoric of the free market to dissolve the social contract.

The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Or that. That also makes sense.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

(That last is a shot at Hayes and Co.) No, what the wealthy have mastered is using the matrices of late capitalism to appropriate counterculture icons and turn them into found status symbols. Nobody’s pretending that they are counterculture, they’re pretending that counterculture is just like anything else—it has an exchange value, and can be purchased for capital. It’s sort of like when a New York Times columnist buys a ticket to a Springsteen concert.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged.

No, you knew you were better. There’s a difference, and it’s a difference to which Brooks obviously wants to return:

The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.

That ethos would be the one “the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.” Brooks never quite says as much, but every sneaky syllogism of his article points to it. Since the introduction of “justice” to the structure of our society, the “outcomes” have been “mixed.” We lost the self-awareness of elitism that allowed elites prior to the introduction of “justice” to conceive of themselves as stewards of institutions. And it just so happened that said self-awareness corresponded with a white, anti-Semitic (and anti-everything else Other) group of men.

Could it be that their self-awareness was formed exactly because their group was exclusive? Elites of yesterday thought they were in charge of institutions not because they were moral captains, but because they thought the institutions should function only for them; what Brooks sees as upstanding men guiding institutions was in fact insular groups of men protecting them against encroachment from the non-white, non-male portions of society. They acted in self-interest, exactly how the bankers of five years ago were acting when they brought down the economy.

The opposite of this self interest, it turned out, was justice. David Brooks thinks it doesn’t work as well; turns out it just doesn’t work as well for his class. But when you think a mirror is window, your class appears to be everybody. If only somebody would write a column about what happens when people “cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.”