Finally…a guy who makes you think

An early valentine to columnist David Brooks

No need to wait for the Pulitzer board to convene. hereby awards the 2004 Pulitzer for commentary to David Brooks of the New York Times.

Finally...a guy who makes you think

Finally...a guy who makes you think

In an age when virtually every topic in American life feels assaulted by polarized, predictable rhetoric, Brooks is an intellectual tonic. He’s a so-called neo-con who came to the Times in mid-’03 from the Weekly Standard. But I find him impossible to stereotype. Like a small, small, very small handful of commentators, Brooks writes with a restlessness that sacrifices cant in favor of clarity. I say this as a predictable, doctrinaire liberal who is sickened by the predictability of liberal political candidates–well, hell, all political candidates. I look forward to Brooks because he makes me think, makes me reassess my own dogma. Most of the time I reject Brooks in favor of my own dogma but at least he makes me struggle, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Submitted for your approval, some random nuggets from the past few weeks:

1. On the morning of the New Hampshire Primary, Brooks breaks down the newfound attractiveness of presidential candidate John Edwards:

NASHUA, N.H. – A couple of weeks ago, one of John Edwards’s aides showed me, in the manner of one unveiling the Dead Sea Scrolls, the original draft of The January Speech. Edwards had spent much of the fall showing that he was more than a slick trial lawyer, and the new January speech was to differentiate himself from the other candidates.

Edwards collected his thoughts over a few weeks and must have written them down quickly. There were about 25 words scrawled illegibly over two sheets of spiral notebook paper. On the page it’s a mess, but coming out of his mouth it’s a thing of beauty. In a year in which all the candidates are saying pretty much the same thing, one eloquent speech has propelled Edwards from the ranks of the hopeless to the ranks of the plausible.

The speech is built around the theme that has dominated the Democratic campaign this year: that we are a nation divided. You may have looked at the last several election results and concluded that we are a nation split roughly in half. But according to Edwards and the other Democratic candidates, we are actually a nation divided between the top 2 percent, the rich, powerful insiders – “those who never have to worry about a thing,” as Edwards puts it – and the 98 percent, us ordinary folks.

This particular version of the Two Americas theme is sociologically, politically, economically and demographically false, but it is rhetorically quite effective. It means that all these problems that seem intractable are actually solvable if we just take power away from that selfish sliver. Government will begin to work for the people again; all students will have access to first-rate education; regular folks will have a health care system that works for them. It’s all imminent!

John Edwards is one of the happiest populists in U.S. history. He doesn’t rage against the 2 percent who have seized all this power. He sees politics through the prism of his own personal triumph, his rise from being the son of a millworker to becoming a lawyer and presidential candidate.

The emotional climax of his speech comes when he describes how he used to represent “people like you” against teams of highly paid, distinguished corporate lawyers. “And you know what happened? I beat them, and I beat them, and I beat them again!” The crowds go crazy, but they are not only applauding; they are applauding and smiling at the same time, a result that was not generated by all the other candidates who have used the Two Americas theme over the years.

John Kerry’s speech is a list of programs; it responds to voters’ discrete desires. But Edwards’s speech has an overarching vision and the coherence of a fine short story. It starts with the Two Americas and has a binary structure throughout: two economies, two governments, two foreign policy visions. Edwards moves from one subject to the next better than any other candidate I’ve seen, without losing a hint of momentum. When he is interrupted by applause, he doesn’t stop to acknowledge it. He continues on with three or four exhortatory sentences to build the applause, and raise the pitch. He is programmatic, but only in one area, education, to show he can do policy. He doesn’t burden audiences with too many proposals.

The crucial question for Edwards is whether he can move from charisma to character. Bryan Garsten, a Williams College political theorist whom I met at an Edwards speech, points out that Aristotle believed that the greatest speakers don’t just persuade audiences to accept an argument – they get people to trust their judgment. They use emotion and logic to establish their character, which leaves a deeper impression than the momentary thrill of a standing ovation.

For all its excellence, this speech does not do that. And as someone who has seen Edwards deliver it six times in the past eight days, I suspect that it alone will not be enough to get voters to prefer Edwards to the more experienced Kerry.

Edwards’s answers are just too facile. There is grace in his performance but no sense of struggle. Yet Edwards’s rise could not have been achieved without moments of anger, resentment and humiliation. If in The February Speech he can communicate that struggle, that sense of difficulty, which is shared by millions, then he will be a less polished campaigner, but a most persuasive one.

2. End-of-2003 musings on the war, told through a conversation with a dead philosopher:

This is a good time of year to step back from daily events and commune with big thinkers, so I’ve been having a rather one-sided discussion about this whole Iraq business with Michael Oakeshott.

One of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Oakeshott lived and died, in 1990, in England. As writer Andrew Sullivan, who did his dissertation on him, has pointed out, the easiest way to grasp Oakeshott is to know that he loved Montaigne and Shakespeare. He loved Montaigne for his skepticism and Shakespeare for his array of eccentric characters.

Oakeshott seemed to measure a society by how well it nurtured idiosyncratic individuals, and he certainly qualified as one.

Oakeshott was epistemologically modest. The world is an intricate place, he believed, filled with dense patterns stretching back into time. We have to be aware of how little we know and how little we can know.

But the fog didn’t make Oakeshott timid. He believed we should cope with the complex reality around us by adventuring out into the world, by playfully confronting the surprises and the unpredictability of it all.

In his 1947 essay, “Rationalism and Politics,” he distinguished between technical and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort that can be put into words and written down in books. If you pick up a cookbook, you can read about the ingredients and proportions and techniques for preparing a meal.

But an excellent cook brings some other body of knowledge to the task, which cannot be articulated. This knowledge comes from experience. It cannot be taught but must be acquired through doing, by entering into the intrinsic pattern of the activity.

We can’t know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, but it is impossible not to see the warnings in his writings.

Be aware of what you do not know. Do not go charging off to remake a society when you don’t understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation and impose something you call democracy that the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.

I try to reply to these warnings. I concede that government should be limited, prudent and conservative, but only when there is something decent to conserve. Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi society spinning off so violently, prudence became imprudent. The Middle East could not continue down its former course.

I remind Oakeshott that he was ambivalent about the American Revolution and dubious about a people who had made a sharp break with the past in the name of inalienable rights and other abstractions. But ours is the one revolution that worked, and it did precisely because our founders were epistemologically modest, too, and didn’t pretend to know what is the good life, only that people should be free to figure it out for themselves.

Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering. Our government couldn’t even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq — thank goodness, too, because any “plan” hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.

I tell Oakeshott that the Americans and Iraqis are now involved in an Oakeshottian enterprise. They are muddling through, devising shambolic, ad hoc solutions to fit the concrete realities, and that we’ll learn through bumbling experience.

In the building of free societies, every day feels like a mess, but every year is a step forward.

3. Evaluating Bush’s immigration reform plan through a hypothetical character. Unlike many conservative pundits, who pose immigrants as a menacing threat to society, Brooks accepts the inexorable human forces that drive people to cross our borders. The Administration should be half as evocative in explaining its position.

Imagine a person 10 times more determined than you are. Picture a guy who will wade across rivers, brave 120-degree boxcars and face vicious smugglers and murderous vigilantes – all to get a job picking fruit for 10 hours a day. That person is the illegal immigrant. Let’s call him Sam. This whole immigration debate is about him, the choices he faces and the way he responds.

One thing we know about Sam: He will get here. Between 1986 and 1998, Congress increased the Border Patrol’s budget sixfold. Over that time the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States doubled, to 8 million. Getting across that border is Sam’s shot at a decent future. Maybe his whole family depends upon him. He will not be herded away like a lamb.

At the moment, Sam lives in the shadows of society. But last week, President Bush proposed an immigration reform plan that would offer him a new set of choices.

Under the Bush plan, Sam could become a visible member of society with legal documentation. He could get a driver’s license. He could benefit from worker protection laws and possibly see his wages rise. He could open a bank account, which would let him ship money back home without having to pay huge fees. As Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute has shown, he would be much more likely to invest in himself through worker training.

More important, he could go home and see his family. He wouldn’t have to live with the constant fear of detection. He wouldn’t have to drive on back roads to avoid being pulled over and asked for his license by the police.

But Sam would have to think hard about the Bush proposal, because it is not all good news. In the first place, it would tie him to a single employer. He would have to have a job waiting to get in, and he’d have to keep it once he was here. Instead of trying to sell his labor on the open market, or jumping at opportunities, he’d be tied down. If he lost that job, he would have a short but terrifying window of time to find another.

More serious, his stay in the United States would be limited. For up to six years, Sam would be legal, but at the end of that time, he would probably face deportation. Then what would his family do for money?

Sam might decide, all things considered, that it was better not to be in the Bush system, and to remain, as he is now, in the shadows. Or he might decide to enroll in the Bush system for a few years, then return to the shadows.

If Sam is going to cooperate, if the United States is going to have the labor force it needs to prosper, if the cloud of gangsterism and exploitation is to be finally removed from the lives of immigrants, then Congress is going to have to take the Bush plan and add a component that addresses the immigrants’ long-term dreams.

There are several ways to do this. Some have proposed a point system. Sam could earn a point every time he did something that would make him a better citizen. A point for learning English. A point for a high school equivalency degree. With enough points he could earn a green card. He would be on a rigorous path to citizenship, which would still be longer than the one legal immigrants would take.

The Bush plan also needs that long-term component to have any chance of passage in the House of Representatives. There are about 70 Republicans who will never vote for any immigration reform but prohibition. To get a majority, the administration has to take the rest of the Republicans and win over a big chunk of Democrats.

The Democrats’ position is that Sam has to get full legalization – which is politically impossible – or he gets nothing. Last week, most Democrats, led by Howard Dean, dismissed the president’s plan contemptuously.

But if Democrats were offered a reasonable way to regularize Sam’s life and give him hope for the future, I can’t believe that they would really be so hardhearted that they would turn that down.

Bush has moved the Republicans a long way on this issue, and he will probably have to move a little more. The Democrats haven’t budged, but if they do, we will finally be able to see Sam emerge into the sunlight, and we’ll be able to take advantage of all the work and drive and creativity that he and millions like him bring to this country.

4. This is the top part of a column that many liberals hated. But it contains an important bit of critical thinking. Start reading:

Do you ever get the sense the whole world is becoming unhinged from reality? I started feeling that way a while ago, when I was still working for The Weekly Standard and all these articles began appearing about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and a bunch of neoconservatives at the magazine had taken over U.S. foreign policy.

Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Vice President Dick Cheney to hunt for humans. The Asian press had the most lurid stories; the European press the most thorough. Every day, it seemed, Le Monde or some deep-thinking German paper would have an expose on the neocon cabal, complete with charts connecting all the conspirators.

The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century, which has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy. To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles. We’d sit around the magazine guffawing at the ludicrous stories that kept sprouting, but belief in shadowy neocon influence has now hardened into common knowledge. Wesley Clark, among others, cannot go a week without bringing it up.

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for conservative and neo is short for Jewish ) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President George W. Bush. There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle’s insidious power over administration policy, but I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he’s shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

It’s true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But correlation does not mean causation. All evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently. Besides, if he wanted to follow the neocon line, Bush wouldn’t know where to turn because while the neocons agree on Saddam, they disagree vituperatively on just about everything else. (If you ever read a sentence that starts with Neocons believe, there is a 99.44 percent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue.) ….

The column continued on, but we won’t because I want you to read back to the second sentence of the last paragraph: “Correlation does not mean causation.” Write it on your bicep with a Sharpie. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen polemicists, columnists (and mediocre investigative reporters) trip over that truth: The simple fact that events occur in relation to each other doesn’t prove they caused each other.

5. A brilliant exploration of America’s flexibility about its religions and the social paradox therein:

George W. Bush was born into an Episcopal family and raised as a Presbyterian, but he is now a Methodist. Howard Dean was baptized Catholic and raised as an Episcopalian. He left the church after it opposed a bike trail he was championing, and now he is a Congregationalist, though his kids consider themselves Jewish.

Wesley Clark’s father was Jewish. As a boy he was Methodist, then decided to become a Baptist. In adulthood he converted to Catholicism, but as he recently told, “I’m a Catholic, but I go to a Presbyterian church.”

What other country on earth would have three national political figures with such peripatetic religious backgrounds? In most of the world, faith-hopping of this sort is simply unheard of. Yet in the United States, we simply take it for granted that people will move through different phases in the course of their personal spiritual journeys, and we always have.

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville was bewildered by the mixture of devout religiosity he found in the United States combined with the relative absence of denominational strife, at least among Protestants. Americans, he observed, don’t seem to care that their neighbors hold to false versions of the faith.

That’s because many Americans have tended to assume that all these differences are temporary. In the final days, the distinctions will fade away, and we will be all united in God’s embrace. This happy assumption has meant that millions feel free to try on different denominations at different points in their lives, and many Americans have had trouble taking religious doctrines altogether seriously. As the historian Henry Steele Commager once wrote, “During the 19th century and well into the 20th, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt.”

This tendency to emphasize personal growth over any fixed creed has shaped our cultural and political life. First, it’s meant that Americans are reasonably tolerant, generally believing that all people of good will are basically on the same side. In London recently, President Bush said that Christians and Muslims both pray to the same God. That was theologically controversial, but it was faithful to the national creed.

Second, it has meant that we relax severity. American faiths, as many scholars note, have tended to be optimistic and easygoing, experiential rather than intellectual. Churches compete for congregants. To fill the pews, they often emphasize the upbeat and the encouraging and play down the business about God’s wrath. In today’s megachurches, the technology is cutting-edge, the music is modern, the language is therapeutic, and the dress is casual. These churches are seeker-sensitive, not authoritarian.

The small groups movement, from which Bush emerges, emphasizes intimate companionship and encouragement. Members of these groups study the Bible in search of guidance and help with personal challenges. They do not preach at one another, but partner with each other.

The third effect of our dominant religious style is that we have trouble sustaining culture wars. For some European intellectuals, and even some of our own commentators, the Scopes trial never ended. For them, the forces of enlightened progress are always battling against the rigid, Bible-thumping forces of religion, whether represented by William Jennings Bryan or Jerry Falwell.

But that’s a cartoon version of reality. In fact, real-life belief, especially these days, is mobile, elusive and flexible. Falwell doesn’t represent evangelicals today. The old culture war organizations like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition are either dead or husks of their former selves. As the sociologist Alan Wolfe demonstrates in his book, “The Transformation of American Religion,” evangelical churches are part of mainstream American culture, not dissenters from it.

So we have this paradox. These days political parties grow more orthodox, while religions grow more fluid. In the political sphere, there is conflict and rigid partisanship. In the religious sphere, there is mobility, ecumenical understanding and blurry boundaries.

If George Bush and Howard Dean met each other on a political platform, they would fight and feud. If they met in a Bible study group and talked about their eternal souls, they’d probably embrace.

The greatest gift a newspaper can make to its readers is prodding them to think about things in a different way. Brooks was my ’03 Christmas present.


Four days after I posted that, Brooks compressed the Demo primary season into about 700 words, focusing his attention on the question of “electability.” For any of you who find yourself trying to squeeze facts into digestable prose–whether commentary, feature or hard-news reporting–check this out:

Let us review the Democratic presidential primaries so far:

In the beginning, John Kerry surged to a big lead in the New Hampshire polls because he seemed so electable. He had plenty of experience, lots of money and big hair, and, as somebody said, he looks like an animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln. But then Howard Dean raised a lot of money, and New Hampshire voters figured that he was bringing so many new people into the process that he must be electable – and if he was electable, then they should probably support him because they wanted somebody who could beat George Bush.

So Dean’s poll numbers rose, and the news media noticed his momentum, and other voters noticed how much great press he was getting. And that led to a self-reinforcing upward spiral of electability as more people concluded that he was electable because so many other people were concluding he was electable. People around the country saw that Dean was doing so well in New Hampshire they, too, concluded that he must be electable, a perception that led to an impressive rise in the national polls, which only enhanced his electability.

All this time, Kerry had not changed his views particularly, and he had not changed his campaign style, though he might have changed the bags under his eyes, depending on whom you ask. But savvy Democratic voters wanted to vote for somebody who could win the most votes in November, and they decided that since Dean was ahead of Kerry, therefore Kerry must be less electable, so voters moved away from Kerry. So Kerry’s support plummeted, and the more his support plummeted the more he looked pathetically unelectable.

So Kerry fired his campaign manager and moved to Iowa, where fewer people had formed a conclusion about his electability. And lo and behold, Dean started saying some weird things.

These weird things didn’t really bother Democratic primary voters, but primary voters imagined they might bother general election swing voters. And since electability is all about Iowa and New Hampshire liberals trying to imagine what Palm Beach County, Fla., independents will want in a presidential candidate nine months from now, this created ripples of concern that Dean might not be so electable after all. The media picked up on the doubts, which created a downward unelectability spiral.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Democratic insiders drafted Wesley Clark, who may have been a Republican and who didn’t seem to have a single domestic policy idea in his head. But he did seem electable because he had worn a military uniform and thus could negate the Republicans’ biggest electability advantage, national security.

Clark seemed so immediately electable to so many Democrats that the day after he announced his candidacy, he shot up toward the top of the national polls. These voters are nothing if not principled, and their primary principle is that they should win. This, after all, is a party of ideas.

But Clark decided not to campaign in Iowa because everyone knew that organization is everything in Iowa, and a defeat there might mar his aura of electability.

Suddenly Kerry, who had not changed his views particularly, nor his campaign style, began to see his poll numbers rise in Iowa because Dean seemed a little less electable. Then other Iowa voters began to notice the momentum behind Kerry, which made him look still more electable, so more voters decided that maybe Kerry was the man to support after all.

And, what do you know, Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, and from that moment on the election turned into a postmodernist literary critic’s idea of heaven. It became an election about itself, with voters voting on the basis of who could win votes later on.

It’s the tautology, stupid.

So New Hampshire voters who had dismissed Kerry as a pathetic, unelectable loser days before took a new look at him after Iowa and figured that if he could win an election, he must be electable (which is sort of definitional), and concluded he is a triumphantly electable winner. Now Kerry is riding this great wave of electability, and he has a huge seething army of fanatical Kerry supporters who will follow him to the death, unless, of course, he stumbles – in which case they will abandon him faster than you can say “electability.”

In which case, John, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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