Monthly Archives: September 2003

David Brooks, Relativist

I was going to avoid blogging anything about David Brooks's phenomenally wrongheaded op-ed, The Presidency Wars, in today's New York Times on the grounds that its deficiencies were obvious. But then ABC's influential and often sensible The Note (link updated 10/2/03) praised it, saying, “If you care even a whit about America having a civil national public discourse (during this time and forever), read every word of David Brooks' brilliant New York Times column, and thank Arthur for hiring him.” In light of that maybe there is some need to point out just how unreasonable and anti-intellectual David Brook's column really is.

It's hard to summarize an argument that isn't an argument so much as a mood. Echoing years of 'The Breaking of the President' rhetoric (a meme that I think started with David Broder), the column moans that there are players in the Presidency wars who treat disagreements about policies as fundamental issues of values, and argue that their opponents are illegitimate. The anti-Clinton crowd did this and they were wrong, Brooks argues somewhat belatedly, and the anti-Bush crowd is doing it now and they are wrong too:

To the warrior, politics is no longer a clash of value systems, each of which is in some way valid. It's not a competition between basically well-intentioned people who see the world differently. It's not even a conflict of interests. Instead, it's the Florida post-election fight over and over, a brutal struggle for office in which each side believes the other is behaving despicably. The culture wars produced some intellectually serious books because there were principles involved. The presidency wars produce mostly terrible ones because the hatreds have left the animating ideas far behind and now romp about on their own.

The warriors have one other feature: ignorance. They have as much firsthand knowledge of their enemies as members of the K.K.K. had of the N.A.A.C.P. In fact, most people in the last two administrations were well-intentioned patriots doing the best they could. The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it's the haters themselves.

I agree that people who focus on their hatred for a person as opposed to hatred for a policy are not generally helpful. But Brooks' main point, that the Administration's fiercest critics are a bigger threat to our liberties than the Administration itself is seems offered as a matter of faith rather than something based on evidence. Can it seriously be argued that a writer for the New Republic is a “core threat” to our liberties, one greater than the lawyers who are arguing that the US Government has the power to seize any citizen anywhere and hold them indefinitely without trial?

More fundamentally, Brooks's view depends on a rejection of the idea that there is any truth out there that can be ascertained. If one believes in truth, in even an approximate way, then it is simply wrong to dismiss arguments that 'X is a liar' or 'Y is a danger to our liberties' out of hand as illegitimate, even if you go to nice dinner parties with nice people who don't seem the least bit like monsters and probably are not in fact at all monstrous in their daily life. It is theoretically possible, after all, that some of those claims of systematic mendacity and fundamentally anti-Constitutional policies are accurate. Or, they are falsifiable, in which case we should educate (or, in some cases, condemn) those who advance them. In either case, journalists owe it to their readers to provide facts. These are mostly absent from Brooks's column.

OK. Somewhat shorter David Brooks:

  • The core threat to democracy is never the people who are in power, it's their critics. There is no need to consider the actual facts about the current Administration's veracity in making the case for war (which if proved might substantiate claims that the Administration undermined the democratic process), nor the consequences of its economic policies for the next generation (which if substantiated might show that future generation's democratic options are being intentionally constrained for the benefit of a few today), nor the civil liberties consequences of CAPS2 and other tracking systems, nor the civil liberties implications of the Padilla case because the Administration's critics are too shrill and don't know all the nice people in Washington as well as I do.
    [reformatted for clarity]

  • Am I the only who thinks it is odd to find that the so-called conservative position today is grounded in relativism?

    Update: Just in case it wasn't clear from the above: part of what I am taking issue with Brooks's assertion of automatic equivalence. Equivalence is certainly possible, but it should not be a substitute for thinking things through first. Just because some–but not all–of Clinton's critics were absolutely loopy, and fulminated for eons about a bunch of crimes that clearly never happened (Vincent Foster was murdered, Clinton raped various people, the Clintons did something illegal in the Whitewater matter), it does not follow that people who say the current administration, or parts of it, is mendacious, evil, or dangerous must therefore be ignored without first weighing the sometimes extensive evidence they have offer.

    Posted in Politics: US | 4 Comments

    Legalizing Miss Daisy

    There's wars on in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy is tanking, it appears that someone in the White House will trifle with a CIA agent's cover for cheap political revenge, there's uncertainty as to the integrity of the ballot box, but down here in South Florida, the local citizenry have their priorities straight and are sticking to domestic issues. For example, today's Miami Herald reports on the “crusade” by Homestead resident Cindy Adams to regularize the status of Miss Daisy.

    Miss Daisy is not an undocumented immigrant washed up on these shores. She's native-born, but in an act of the rankest discrimination, the town of Homestead wants her rusticated just because she's a pig.

    Ms. Adams is trying to right the injustice that threatens her porcine companion. The Miami Herald, a paper with a shrunken staff, shrunken news hole, and recent redesign by someone who was channeling USA Today is all over this story, with pictures, including this priceless one:

    Not to be outdone when it comes to pork, Governor Jeb Bush has gotten out front on this essential issue of pigs rights, and has issued a proclamation saluting potbellied and other miniature pigs. But not too far out front. In keeping with the Jeb Bush strategy of never taking the visible lead on a red-meat (or is that a white-meat?) issue, our Governor didn't go as far as Alabama and Pennsylvania, which each proclaimed a “Minature Potbellied Pig Day”.

    This sort of stuff is why local scribe Dave Barry has to keep saying “I am not making this up.”

    Posted in Completely Different | Leave a comment

    The Dean Campaign Does Something REAL Smart

    I'm impressed by Dean Campaign's new Net Advisory Net, which is nothing less than a modular, virtual, board of policy advisors which has as its first effort attracted some serious people with serious ideas. (And—very smart—the 'NAN' is set up with campaign deniability built-in in case the advisors go nuts on some issue.)

    You have to had it to the Dean for President campaign. They are not only smart but they have good taste .

    I almost turned myself into a Dean volunteer long before he was famous as the 'anti-war' candidate — I liked his health care plan which centered on insuring children. It was simple, straightforward, and politcally practicable and would have a big bang for the buck.

    There were two things that held me back. First, even early on Dean seemed gaffe prone, and in this era of 'gotcha' media, the danger of a spectacular crash-and-burn seemed too high. I'm still not sure about that one. The second reason was that I have a rebuttable presumption against supporting governors from small states. A Jimmy Carter type comes to Washington with too few friends capable of running the country. The President ends up either with too few trusted advisors, or finds himself relying on folks who aren't up to it. The presumption is rebuttable (cf. Clinton; while he had a lot of faults, lack of high-powered friends was not one of them).

    If this “Net Advisory Net” is more than PR, Howard Dean has just removed one of the two worries I had about him.

    Continue reading

    Posted in Politics: US | 1 Comment

    Yahoo! Wants $299 for Listings

    One of the few things I did to announce this blog (I’m still struggling with whether to send an email to the colleagues) is attempt to list it on Yahoo!

    I looked around and the most appropriate category seemed to be Directory > Computers and Internet > Internet > World Wide Web > Weblogs >
    Law so I clicked on the “suggest a site” button in that category.

    My first reaction was, Wow! Either they’re desperate, or things have changed in the three years or so since I last tried to put something in the directory. For this is (approximately) what I saw (squeezed a bit to fit the blog):

    Continue reading

    Posted in Internet | Leave a comment

    This Could Spell the End for Margaritaville

    Wasting Away in Margaritaville isn't just Sen. Bob Graham's favorite song, it's more or less the antham of Key West and erratic points north as far as South Beach. Imagine the horror that will grip South Florida if it sobers up enough to learn that Mexico is threatening to cut off all bulk exports of Tequila.

    Kidding aside, this has all the makings of a classic NAFTA reference, as Mexico will claim its motive in blocking bulk exports is product purity, and the US will claim it's just a cover for the real motive, forcing all those bottling jobs to move south of the border

    Posted in Completely Different | Leave a comment

    New Handy Cyberlaw Resource

    Jennifer Granick of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society has just announced the publication of the first Packets newsletter designed “to provide the legal community with concise descriptions of recently decided cyberlaw-related cases, and to point to the original decisions.” The announcement says it will be a bi-monthly publication written by Stanford Law School students. Staff and fellows of the center and volunteer attorneys will be the editors. The first issue is already online. It looks like a good, and well-written, resource for students and for lawyers who are not immersed in the field, complete with links to the sources after the summaries. People wanting more news, more often, albeit even more summarized, will probably want to subscribe to Michael Geist's exhaustingly comprehensive free daily newsletter, BNA Internet Law News.

    Posted in Law: Internet Law | Leave a comment

    The Admirable IETF Reform Process

    The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is engaged in a lengthy bout of self-criticism and attempts to reform the processes by which it creates the Internet standards most of us don't know but love. (If you want a short intro to the IETF, it has a sort of self description and a sort of mission statement.)

    Very much in line with the open, participatory ethos I described in Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace, the IETF is going about the project of trying to make itself better — a daunting task in light of the self-perceived decline in both the speed and quality of new standards, various workflow difficulties including duplication of effort and inconsistent projects, plus the sense among some participants that the entity is no longer as effectively bottom up and democratic as it used to be. Rather than reject these claims, the IETF establishment, gently herded by IETF Chair Harald Tveit Alvestrand, is addressing these very difficult, sometimes intractable problems head-on. You can monitor their efforts at Status of change efforts within the IETF. The problem-statement working group charter and the problem-statement mailing list provide richer detail for those with the time to delve deep. So far, it's an impressive effort that I think largely justifies my claim that the IETF is the closest thing we've got going to Habermasian discourse in action.

    Update: And here's a link to draft-ietf-problem-issue-statement-04.txt which lays it all out.

    Posted in Internet | 8 Comments