Tuesday, December 15

Maybe It's Me

Lt. Col. David Brooks, "Obama's Christian Realism". December 14

SHORTER David Brooks: the real reason to see the world in black and white is that way, every time you tell yourself you're inherently right, you'll know it's true.
If you were graduating from Princeton in the first part of the 20th century, you probably heard the university president, John Hibben, deliver one of his commencement addresses. Hibben’s running theme, which was common at that time, was that each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside.

You might not have been paying attention during the speech, but as you got older a similar moral framework was floating around the culture, and it probably got lodged in your mind.

Most likely in or near the canyons.

Is there some reason why we are near-ceaselessly obliged to remind David Brooks of something like the following?: "Of course, if you happened to have been born female you wouldn't have heard one, unless there was a bleacher section for helpmeets, and if you couldn't pass the paper bag test you wouldn't be taking any other tests at Princeton, though they might've referred you to Tuskegee for a blood test. If you were African-American, and the speech carried to the kitchens, you got to hear snippets of platitudes from the man whose immediate predecessor would go on--or had gone on--to become President of the whole dang country, and whose own moral education had recently been informed by a showing of The Birth of a Nation.

We're not replying "Bu..bu..but…Racism! Sexism!" because that trumps Brooks' argument (although, it does). We're saying so because, somehow, the merest recognition never seems to rise to his level of consciousness. Privileged white guy (and Presbyterian minister), called upon to deliver annual obsequies to a crowd of (mostly) equally-privileged college grads (his tenure, from 1912-1932, spans the distance from college as an almost exclusive province of the wealthy, through the first admissions testing, through the post-WWI boom) and the falls back upon the easy Manichaeanism of the well-off, a battle in which, after due reflection no doubt, he sides with Good. Huzzah! And never mind that 60% of the population of his own country was excluded even before the financial screening. And anyway, if you slept through the speech the Volstead and Mann Acts would school you soon enough. USA! USA!

How many other examples are there that make Brooks' point, or "point"? How many alternate ways to use the one he chose without the wistful shrug and the tiny tear for those better days of yore, and the clear moral distinctions that facilitated the reenslavement of black Americans and the retrenchment of Progressive reforms?
You, and others of your era, would have been aware that there is evil in the world,

For one thing, it's mostly all they talked about at your Klan meetings.
and if you weren’t aware, the presence of Hitler and Stalin would have confirmed it. You would have known it is necessary to fight that evil.

Or, as in this case, to look on while they fought each other.

Okay, just a couple things here. One: Stalin was our ally in WWII, and, in fact, it is the Soviets who defeated the German war machine. You can look this sort of thing up, except on the History Channel. This does not absolve him of duplicity in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, nor his crimes against humanity, nor of his half in holding the world hostage to nuclear annihilation. Two: the Degree of Difficulty in finding yourself, working schlub with limited military forces at your disposal, morally superior to Joe Steel and Crazy Al McSchickelgruber is zero. And remember, that's a multiplier.

Finally, as points one and two are frequently compounded by those who choose to miss them entirely, the enormities of Stalin do not make your brand of economic exploitation morally superior by default; the Polish partition and occupation of the Baltic countries do not absolve the West of colonialism, nor the US, in particular, of the way it operates in the rest of "its" hemisphere; and Nixon--not exactly a man who had to stay up nights looking for just the right balance in his Nobel speech--that was Kissinger--shook hands with Mao. We didn't go to war with Hitler because he was Evil; he'd been demonstrating that for a decade before we got involved (after he thoughtfully declared war on us, which I used to think Every Schoolboy knew). Assuming we knew what Evil was, and assuming we decide to fight It, rather than trade with It, we'd never have time for anything but. And if the last Evil Empire we invaded has taught us anything (not that I have much reason to believe it did, or could) it's that it's a helluva lot easier to establish a military force that threatens the globe in the name of Good than it is to find replacement parts once you actually start breaking it.
At the same time, you would have had a lingering awareness of the sinfulness within yourself. As the cold war strategist George F. Kennan would put it: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

Okay, that's enough self-reflection. I think that Islamic-looking guy over there's got a burger sack.
As a matter of policy, you would have thought it wise to constrain your own power within institutions. America should fight the Soviet Union, but it should girdle its might within NATO.

Which was especially helpful since that's where the battlefield was located.
As Harry Truman said: “We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”

Always with the quips, that Harry. Did he say that to Syngman Rhea, or John L. Lewis?
You would, in short, have been a cold war liberal.

Just like David Brooks! I love it when equations work out.
But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

If Bush was an Ivy Leaguer, they considered dropping out of high school. If he was sober, they reconsidered constant inebriation. If he was qualified to be a major party's candidate for President, they wondered who wasn't.

And who could blame 'em?

Y'know, I was born ten days before the close of 1953, and I've never tried to change that. It means I was eligible to get my Learner's Permit just as the Evil Sixties officially ended. It means I was in the last draft class eligible to help teach the Vietnamese the theological benefits of democracy, the liberal use of herbicides, and shooting at things from helicopters, just like John Kerry did before me, to such popular acclaim from Mr. Brooks' cohort. So maybe I'm not the best judge of this sort of thing, since the nightly slaughter of American youth sent to defend the democratically-elected government of Whichever Military Strongman Had Staged The Latest US-approved Coup coincides almost precisely with my learning to read, and think about, the actual history of my country. I remember thinking--or hallucinating--at the time that Vietnam was just the latest in a long line of neocolonialist killfests being excused by inflated international threats at the service of corporate profits. So it's hard for me to say which one influenced the other, though I'm sure someone with Brooks' perspective--that is, someone who was in the 7th grade when Nixon resigned, and who spent half his career cashing checks from William "Too Young For Vietnam" Kristol--can see all this a lot clearer.

Jesus H. Christ, if Mr. Obama will pardon the expression: one day Douthat, next day Brooks, the Evil Sixties neither experienced while fully potty trained, if at all, and Poor Forlorn Authority, humming along, minding its own business, trying to share the Democratic Love, viciously mugged one moonless night by a bunch of thrill-crazed bong enthusiasts. And so convinced they're right that it doesn't even occur to either to check.

Okay, forget asking about which side of the equation we've come down on most often, or why the people so enamored of making the world madatorily safe for Democracy are so often outraged when it threatens to break out in their own country. If we might just ask: when, exactly, has this equation worked? The defeat of Imperial Japan. Kosovo? I seem to remember most of your side being agin' that one, Dave. I know you like to claim The Collapse of the Soviet Empire Starring Ronald Reagan, but let's be serious. We didn't confront that particular Evil, we just out-shopped it, and the odds are pretty good that we'd'a been busy creating the Most Expensive Military Apparatus the World's Ever Seen after 1946 whether the Soviets existed or we had to invent them. We're still in Korea, we got thrown out of Vietnam and Lebanon, and we'll eventually leave Afghanistan pretty much the way we found it, unless we love democracy enough to start a nuclear war with Pakistan. At a couple $ trillion we could've just started peeling off million-dollar T-bills until Saddam Hussein agreed to move to Libya. What's left? Grenada? Do you even care if there's any evidence that this shit works, let alone how much it costs (so long as your own taxes don't go up)?

Let's just do a little thought experiment. Let's make you the eighteen-year-old in 1972, facing induction--no more college deferments, mind you; those were all used up by Cheney--and a sudden unexpected and irresistible career path change. How long would it have been before David Brooks was Canadian again?

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world….

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

Well, y'know, that's great, and I really, sincerely hope the President appreciates the fact that he's managed to get David Brooks on his side, at the low, low cost of most of the rest of his actual constituency. And I hope he'll enjoy it, right up until you start slagging him again.


-blessed holy socks, the non-perishable-zealot said...

HEAR YE! O HEAR YE!! Hey, I’m having a BIG party on my drawbridge in Heaven (after my demise)! Why don't you meet me Upstairs for a beer where you can bitch at me as we play thumb wars? You just avoided hot-damn. Kick-ass!!!

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Sir, I love you as the curmudgeon you are, and have to say, I really appreciate your ability to read this stuff so WE DON'T HAVE TO.

Seriously, it's like they say at Sadly, No: Always Trust the Shorter. Stay In The Boat.

In my Real Life, or what is left of it after the bankers decided that actually, you know, performing their function and financing economic activity was far less romantic than playing craps with everybody else's money, I have become very familiar with the concept of the Sin-Eater as it has been integrated into Modern Commerce, and indeed have performed in that role myself more than once.

So, you know, as one professional to another, well done, sir; and don't take it personally.

heydave said...

What's Brooksie's next step?
Since George Effing (thanks!) Will already linked blue jeans with general lackadoos, with an obvious homage to bow ties, my bet is Brooks correlates the absence of powdered wigs with fewer people dying in prison, where they should.

jackd said...

But after Vietnam....Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for.

I'm still agape at that construction. The implication seems to be that *someone* was unconscious, or its equivalent in terms of thinking, saying, or doing anything noteworthy, from 1974 to 2001. Ol' Bobo probably meant those liberals, but I can think of at least two other candidates that description fits a lot better.