New York Times columnist David Brooks often produces fuzzily incoherent and self-contradictory commentary, but his piece this past Sunday (Times Select firewall there, sorry) deserves special note: It takes a bizarre last-paragraph leap from fatuity into boneheaded fatalism, and it suggests that Brooks needs either a tough editor, a long vacation, or both.
Most of the piece represents Brooks’ familiar argument about culture: culture shapes people, and cultures take a long time to change. Apparently this is stop-press news in Brooks’ circle. After an uncharacteristic foray into an idea that conservatives usually consider hogwash relativism — “All cultures have value because they provide coherence” — Brooks finally gets to his point. He cites the work of Lawrence E. Harrison to note that “cultural change can’t be imposed from the outside….cultural change is measured in centuries, not decades… cultures are separated from one another by veils of complexity and difference.”
Might’ve been worth knowing all this before we invaded Iraq. But never mind. This is simply a “duh” moment; the “huh?” comes next:
If Harrison is right, it is no wonder that young Muslim men in Britain might decide to renounce freedom and prosperity for midair martyrdom. They are driven by a deep cultural need for meaning. But it is also foolish to think we can address the root causes of their toxic desires. We’ll just have to fight the symptoms of a disease we can neither cure nor understand.
There are probably too many layers of lunacy here to grasp in one pass. I think Brooks is saying: Muslims are “driven by a deep cultural need for meaning,” and that need for meaning cannot be changed very quickly — we can’t turn them into non-meaning-seekers without centuries of effort! Which would be fine, except apparently their “need for meaning” is also the “root cause” of their “toxic desire” to blow up airplanes. Since we can’t change them, we must — what? “Fight them” as a sympton of a “disease we can neither cure nor understand”? That sounds pretty hopeless.
Brooks here is shooting himself so far into the stratosphere beyond earthly events and social cause-and-effect that I think his brain has shut down from oxygen lack. Absent from his picture is the possibility that the would-be midair-martyr Muslims, however criminal their intent, might actually be motivated by real-world factors that lie somewhat within our control — like the occupation of Iraq, or the festering of the Palestinian problem, or the indefinite detention and occasional torture of prisoners in American custody. No, the problem is so huge and intractable that we don’t need to bother thinking about the messes on the ground that we’ve helped make; all we can do is “fight the symptoms.”
It is worth pointing out that this analysis is not only detached from reality; it represents a sort of despair. It assumes there is nothing Americans can do to stem the tide of would-be terrorists and make our nation safer. That might require hard, slow work (like the painstaking labors of British intelligence in identifying the bomb plot), whereas Brooks, and the Bush supporters he is channeling, are much happier to cast themselves in a titanic global fight between good and evil — even if the good guys are, as Brooks would have it, likely to lose.
At a moment when Republicans are tossing around labels like “Defeatocrats” to denigrate anyone who dares to suggest we not throw more lives down the Iraqi rabbit-hole, this sort of reasoning is the real defeatism. Why does it appeal to Brooks? One hesitates to stride too far into the thickets of his unreason, but perhaps the “we can’t change them, only fight them” rationale is a way of excusing the manifold failures of Bush’s war-on-terror policy: To Brooks, it’s not that Bush picked the wrong strategic framework and tactics, it’s simply that the foe is too strong.
[tags]David Brooks, war on terror, new york times[/tags]
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