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.

    4 thoughts on “David Brooks, Relativist

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

      It’s not odd. This is because relativism is a hiding place, not a position.

    2. You’re making a mistake by assuming that Brooks is being honest about this in the first place. Unlike William Saletan or Jack Shafer — who I believe truly have regressed into hopeless relativism — Brooks is just playing a role. He’s obviously got The Memo that the “Bush Hatred >= Clinton Hatred” defense is paying dividends in some sectors, so he’s dutifully trotting it out there.

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

      I’m glad you said “so-called” conservatism, because it’s absurd to call Brooks a conservative in any but the most decadent sense of a person who is happy with the way things are and puts down anything that would disrupt it. And, yes, that IS a relativistic position. True conservatism means (1) a belief in objective moral and spiritual truths, and (2) loyalty to a particular civilizational tradition as the carrier of those truths. Without that grounding, conservatism is little more than reactive dislike of liberals, or, even worse, as in Brooks’s case, sychphancy to whatever is prevalent at the current moment in one’s society. Brooks is not a conservative; he’s a courtier. And that’s putting it more politely than he deserves.

      —–

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