December 27, 2003

Department of "Huh?"

David Brooks's intellectual flameout continues:

Op-Ed Columnist: Arguing With Oakeshott: ...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...

It's not clear to me whether I had severely overestimated Brooks as a thinker in the past, or whether he is three standard deviations worse than average as a twice-a-week column writer. Whatever, he needs to think about bailing out of his New York Times job. It's just not working.

Posted by DeLong at December 27, 2003 04:23 PM | TrackBack

Comments

If I'm not confusing the names, I guess it was him, I clicked a link today or yesterday on this blog and off came a large photo of a man on a couch in a strange pose, in jacket and jeans, the picture reminded me of conceited newspaper columnists in Turkey whom I simply cannot stand, so I just closed back the web page.

Even then, "three standard deviations" is cruel, cruel, cruel....

Or was it Krugman!?

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 27, 2003 04:49 PM

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As an essayist and book-writer, Brooks cultivated a persona of the thinking person's modern conservative, without the foaming at the mouth.

Now that he has won lifetime tenure at the times, he seems to feel free to be just another enabler of the bush regency....

Posted by: howard on December 27, 2003 06:59 PM

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We do stink at social engineering! Think about the abolishion of slavery and what a disaster that was. Fortunately all the founders could come up with in terms of meddling was that slaves were three-fifths of a human being. That, er, ontological/electoral modesty was what allowed the constitution to be adopted! Freedom is messy!

Posted by: prolescope on December 27, 2003 07:03 PM

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Brooks displays the same type of thinking that local GOP governments employ for development of suburbs and cities. Forget planning. Forget zoning. Ignore the protestations of the traffic commission. Go along with whatever the developers want.

So what if the lack of planning causes traffic gridlock and long commutes. The people stuck in traffic won't figure who is to blame.

Lack of planning is bad enough when it comes to development in the US. However, when it involves the basics like electricity, food, fuel, water and sanitation, lack of planning is unforgiveable and those responsible are readily identified.

Posted by: bakho on December 27, 2003 07:07 PM

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Let me join in the chorus.

To confuse the "practical knowledge" of expert wheelwrights with an equal mixture of ignorance and arrogance is certainly an achievement.

And when he quotes this Oakeshott character as saying "Be aware of what you do not know." you have to wonder whether he means the things you know you don't know, or the things you don't know you don't know?

It is really a remarkably thin piece of writing.

Posted by: Tom Slee on December 27, 2003 07:38 PM

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"But we should guard against the sin of intellectual pride, which leads to ideological thinking."

Is this some kind of conservative Koan? Perhaps if we open our minds to the notion of this as an intellectual component of Brooks' thought, we can enter conservative nirvana?

Posted by: Masaccio on December 27, 2003 07:56 PM

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“Brooks displays the same type of thinking that local GOP governments employ for development of suburbs and cities. Forget planning. Forget zoning. Ignore the protestations of the traffic commission. Go along with whatever the developers want.”

That might be true, but why do you think that kind of government behavior is the province of the GOP? For example Alameda country California is as Democrat as you can get. The Republicans didn’t even bother to run an opposition candidate against Taucher in 2002. The county voted 70% or 80% against recall, and likewise for 70% or 80% for Bustamante. Pete Stark has a lock on his office, being in Congress since the early 1970’s. Nevertheless Alameda County gives the developers whatever they want. And the developers have gone wild, especially in Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton, which they are rapidly turning into a facsimile of Los Angles. No regional planning there at all. It has massive traffic congestion and getting worse.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on December 27, 2003 08:41 PM

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I'd like a grant to experiment with "Oakeshottian" medicine. Brooks can be my first patient.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on December 27, 2003 09:48 PM

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Brooks is simply another in a long line of rightwing pseudo-intellectual-cum-journalist-commentator-self-annointed-pundits (Buckley-Will-Brooks), who take a quote from some recognized academic or statesman then twist and contort it beyond any recognition so it purportedly supports their own weird idea of the moment. In truth, each is an ideological hack.

Posted by: cal on December 27, 2003 10:00 PM

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Look at the half-full part. This column is a step up from calling for more loathing and sliming in politics.

Posted by: Gary Farber on December 27, 2003 10:26 PM

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David Brooks wrote (in the New York freaking Times, no less):
>
> One of the most important philosophers of the 20th
> century, Oakeshott lived and died, in 1990, in England.
> As 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.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Brooks has any worthwhile idea, can I ask instead whether the Times still employs any decent copy editors? Or have they all decided to spend their time where it could do some good?

Posted by: Jonathan King on December 27, 2003 10:57 PM

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Ah, so this feller dissappointed you all?

But you must still find some worth remaining in him, or else you would not (a) make him a subject here and (b) comment about him.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 12:19 AM

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There are people of sorry influence whose ideas need to be sharply criticized, for the ideas are destructive. That is David Brooks. Even a quick reading of Brooks will show a destructive spirit, rationalizing racism, sneering at political and military honor and decency, slandering the ethics or morals of all contemptuously called "liberal."

Never in my long years of steady reading has there been such a disgraceful columnist at the New York Times.

Posted by: lise on December 28, 2003 02:54 AM

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Why is NYT keeping him then? Isn't NYT supposed to advocate liberal politics, especially relative to WSJ?

Besides, judging from Brad's note, it was NYT that did it to Brooks, rather than the other way around.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 03:13 AM

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The New York Times is not a liberal paper. It is overall the finest paper in the world, a source of endless learning from the arts and literature to science and health, from international to dining news. There is reason for criticism, but an educated person should read the NYTimes regularly and extensively. There is simply no substitute, though I read other papers now and again.

An educated person "should" read the NYTimes!

Posted by: anne on December 28, 2003 05:02 AM

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Bulent Sayin

In the strongest terms, I recommend reading the New York Times thoroughly and regularly. To compare the NYTimes with other papers can be useful, but there is no substitute for the NYTimes no matter a political bent.

Posted by: anne on December 28, 2003 05:06 AM

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Fatalities

American soldiers 337
British soldiers 20
Coalition soldiers 40
---
397 Since May 2

American 476
British 53
Coalition 40
---
569 Since March 20

Wounded

American soldiers ~2702 Since March 20

Note: American forces have fallen to 130,000
British forces have risen to 12,000
Coalition forces have risen to 12,000

Posted by: lise on December 28, 2003 07:57 AM

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Brad:

"Whatever, he needs to think about bailing out of his New York Times job. It's just not working."

It's working just fine, Brad. It's only if you judge him as a intellectual, rather than as a propagandist, or as a 'conservative intellectual', that he fails.

Bulent Sayin:

"But you must still find some worth remaining in him, or else you would not (a) make him a subject here and (b) comment about him."

Well, no. Perhaps you're unaware of it, but the NYT has one of the largest circulations daily newspapers in the US (top 3, I'd guess).

Regular columnists in the NYT are therefore in possession of a rather large megaphone.

Posted by: Barry on December 28, 2003 08:02 AM

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Because the New York Times has kept to such a high level of journalism over all through the decades, it is of signal importance. There is a legacy of wonderful columnists and a fine conservative columnist could have been chosen. Not by any standard David Brooks.

Posted by: lise on December 28, 2003 08:35 AM

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But you must still find some worth remaining in him, or else you would not (a) make him a subject here and (b) comment about him.

By that logic, that I find repeated car wrecks on my street caused by bad behaviour something in which I "find some remaining worth".

Posted by: Aggregate ontologist on December 28, 2003 08:38 AM

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According to Stephen Toulmin (everyone should read "Cosmopolis" btw, though this example comes from "Wittgenstein's Vienna", I think), Austrian medicine ca. 1900 had a doctrine called "medical hihilism". The idea was that most diseases are untreatable and that many treatments do more harm than good. Their medicine consisted of palliative care plus the passage of time.

This was before penicillin, etc., etc., so it wasn't as ridiculous as it seems. Fifty years earlier (before sterile procedures, and while bleeding still survived) it may even have been the best policy.

The Holy Roman influence on the modern and post-modern worlds has been enormous: Freud, Wittgenstein, Popper, Schoenberg, Kafka, Rilke, Hayek, Adorno, and others. A degree of hopelessness about public life and politics is shared by most of them, ameliorated in the cases of Popper and Hayek by an optimism about technology and markets.

Posted by: Zizka on December 28, 2003 09:04 AM

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You know, if Brooks is wrong, there are two rather different ways in which he might be wrong, and it is not clear to me we are keeping them straight. One: maybe he is wrong when he says we are not good at social engineering, i.e., maybe we are good at social engineering. Two: maybe he is right that we are not good at social engineering, and wrong to give us a bye -- i.e., if he is right, we should have taken account of that fact a year ago. He can't have it both ways, nor (for purposes of the current debate) can we. But some nice discriminations are in order. In the present context, I rather tend to the latter view: i.e., the idea of "building democracy in Iraq" was a piece of naive overstretch from the get-go and that our grand designs have turned into just another Edsel. One can believe this and still not regret the 13th Amendment.

Posted by: jda on December 28, 2003 09:10 AM

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i'm reminded of the twilight zone episode with the kid wishing the grownups into the cornfield (and even more so the simpsons parody) Brooks is just saying "It's a GOOD THING that they threw out the only semi-coherent plan. It's a GOOD THING that we wasted those precious few months with jay garner. it's a GOOD THING we didn't consider the medium-term implications of unemploying hundreds of thousands of guys with guns. what horseshit.

great. now i'm a freakin jack-in-the-box.

Posted by: flatulus on December 28, 2003 09:14 AM

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On-topic: Brooks is aspiring to George Will's alpha-male position in the pack of pompous, ethically-compromised fatheads. (Not a herd! Whatever that means.) Safire is ethically-compromised enough, but fails occasionally on the pomposity part. Brooks is pompous enough, s he just needs to compromise himself.

Will has this knack for taking something false and dressing it up as an aphorism to make it seem like the wisdom of Montaigne. This would be a nice, easy challenge for a beginning AI worker, the "Will-o-lator".

"It can rightly be said that ________."

"It can rightly be said that relieving the poor of what little money they have is the true function of the State".

"It can rightly be said that the American educational system has succeeded in producing an electorate which is worse than illiterate".

"It can rightly be said that, if we had known what the consequences would be, the Fourteenth Amendment would never have been ratified".

Incidentally -- if anyone has been tempted -- it can easily be shown that none of those statements is true. But they sure sound good, don't they? And actually, Will probably believes all three of them.

Posted by: Zizka on December 28, 2003 09:20 AM

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Perhaps a Brook-o-lator would work like this:

1. Start with an unsubstantiated claim that the potential funders would like to hear about themselves (say, the modern rich are different and admirable. They are rich by virtue of merit, unlike previous rich classes, and they have high ethical standards).

2. Make your claim appear current by coining a cute word for it (Bobo).

3. Make it appear learned and perceptive. Along the lines of the Will-o-lator, prefix by an extended but irrelevant discussion about an obscure Wise Man. The more obscure the better, as it gives the impression of a learned and widely-read opinion. (As would have said were he still alive...) (If you are not as well-read as I am and don't know , then all you need to know is that was fond of and , and could recite backwards while standing on their head).

4. Get it published and favourably reviewed (greatly facilitated by the first step). If possible, found a consultancy to spread the word more widely.

(And yes, I know this isn't fair, but hey, this is is a comments section).

Posted by: Tom Slee on December 28, 2003 10:06 AM

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I'm a bit puzzled by why this Brooks' column constitutes an 'intellectual flameout.' I thought he was quite good at showing that genuine conservatives would be skeptical of ambitious imperial endeavor in Iraq.

Granted, it is a non sequitur to argue that the liberal foundations of the US constitution created an inability to engage in social engineering successfully. But I'm glad to here a conservative proprogandist espouse a fundamenal liberal principle: that government should not "pretend to know what is the good life" but ensure that people are "free to figure it out for themselves." This pushes us to debate positive and negative freedoms.

As for social engineering, I think James C. Scott's _Seeing Like a State_ shows that even progressive liberals are wary of the project. Of course see

http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/Econ_Articles/Reviews/seeing_like_a_state.html

on the intellectual dilemma this poses

Christopher Ball

Posted by: Christopher Ball on December 28, 2003 12:23 PM

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"Because the New York Times has kept to such a high level of journalism over all through the decades, it is of signal importance. There is a legacy of wonderful columnists and a fine conservative columnist could have been chosen. Not by any standard David Brooks."

Hmmm. So you don't agree with Brad's thinking that Kurgman, huffss, sorry, Brooks turned bad AFTER he joined NYT?

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 01:23 PM

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"Fifty years earlier (before sterile procedures, and while bleeding still survived) it may even have been the best policy."

Or we could have figured out that we should wash our hands. And was it a bad idea to fool around with anesthesia?

Brooks differentiates between "practical" and "technical" knowledge. Creating a democratic state in Iraq may or may not be doable social engineering.

Managing an occupation, however, is qualitatively different. Not planning for that was irresponsible. It would help if Brooks knew how to unpack a problem.

Oh and we aren't good at social engineering? Read the Ordinance of 1787 and what about the 19th century subsities for the railroads. I guess it doesn't qualify as social engineering if it works, so forget about municipal sewer systems and waterworks, the innerstate highway system, most public education over most of its history, etc.

Posted by: alan aronson on December 28, 2003 04:16 PM

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I still don't really understand what this commotion about one poor little feller who writes in NYT is all about, but, does the following constitute social engineering?

http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 04:36 PM

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Oh Mein Gott Anti-Christ is coming!

"... all Federal grant applicants are required to have a Dun and Bradstreet (D&B) Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS)... "

I bet "DUNS" comes up to 666!

Ho the toes o'Nemesis!

Hey, I am joking, Thelma!

(I'm not joking about DUNS requirement, however.)

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 04:42 PM

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At the risk of degrading the thread, I believe Bulent Sayin was sayin' something similar to one of the quotations I use a lot:

"To oppose something is to maintain it" - Ursula K LeGuin

Ignoring Brooks might make him go away.

D

Posted by: Dano on December 28, 2003 11:10 PM

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I agree that David Brooks has been writing trashy columns. At first they were merely incoherent and incomprehensible, which was better -a kind of harmless intellectual puzzle.

What bothers me is the ignorant or dishonest falsification of U.S. history to justify the program (and incompetence) of the current radical reactionaries. So, OK, the founders of the U.S. were wise enough to avoid totalitarian social engineering (French Revolution style). But Hamilton's financial system was social engineering, and he himself advertised it as such. And social engineering with which Washington tended to agree with (e.g. Washington's attitude toward shiftless Western squatters who needed a little taxation to make them more productive). Jefferson and Madison certainly did have an idea of the good life, at least the kind of good life that they thought would produce values and morals necessary for a democratic republic -that is what the fight with the Hamiltonians was all about. And this was a vision that they only reluctantly and partially changed in response to social and economic reality. And read some of Madison's columns on the destructiveness of depending on certain types of manufacturing for social stability and personal happiness (back then it was whether it made a difference whether nation made its bucks by relying on fickle fashion for manufactured shoe-ribbons, rather than potato chips). Jefferson's embargo was social engineering with a vengeance (how many beans should Boston be permitted to import this month?) in order to further his vision of proper foreign policy. Yes, let us compare the mess in Iraq with Jefferson's draconian, but effectively planned and managed embargo. Agree or disagree with the policy, but Jefferson did not pull an Iraq.

Brooks' columns are either extremely ignorant, or extremely dishonest, or both.

Posted by: jml on December 29, 2003 12:36 PM

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You guys got me curious and I looked around a bit on Brooks -- for the first and the last time. These are his words:


"When I was a senior in college I went to a conference which was put on by the Chicago literary magazine Triquarterly. Lots of academic all-stars were there, mainly from literary studies, but not exclusively: Wayne Booth, Edward Said, Ronald Dworkin. There were about fifteen or twenty superstars, very impressive people. I sat there for twenty-two hours, and I barely understood a word they said. I wrote in the school paper that maybe this language is useful, and I could go to graduate school and learn it. But suppose it turns out to be a racket? Then I’ll have wasted ten years, and then I’ll have to unlearn what I’ve learned. So I ended up not going to graduate school, and went into journalism instead. "

And here is the link to text of interview during which Mr. Brooks laid down those pices of jewelry....

http://hnn.us/articles/1650.html

I now understand even less why Brooks is being made a subject on this blog.

A book titled "How to be American"!?

Let me put this way:

I'd be very surprised to hear about a book titled "How to be French".

I would not be surprized much to hear about a book titled "How to be Libyan" -- authored by one Colonel Kaddafi.

And Brad calls this feller a "thinker"!?

Case closed as far as I'm concerned.


Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 29, 2003 03:04 PM

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Can someone pls explain to me how advocating epistemological humility is "pompous"?

I try to keep up with a wide range of viewpoints (from The Nation to ALDaily to NRO) and it was in Bruce Bartlett's column in NRO (of all places) that this site was recommended. Enjoyed many of Brad's posts, but this thread is troubling.

That "right-wing" sites tend to be more willing to consider alternative viewpoints than "progressive" ones makes it difficult to be the liberal I'd like to be.

Can anyone offer specifics as to their distaste for Brooks? Pls spare the ad hominems and eye-rolling - they are decidedly unhelpful. I am willing to be convinced by robust reasoning...

Posted by: Ged of Earthsea on December 29, 2003 03:14 PM

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Mm, Ged. Citing a philosopher most people have never heard of to give panache to your own ideas tends to be considered pompous. Especially when you misinterpret the philosopher. Especially when what you are saying is sort of silly.

Brad has been doing Brooks for a few weeks now, and as he says, he used to respect him. So this post didn't come from a vacuum. It's sort of like you showed up at a movie 75 minutes into it and asked "why does everyone seem to hate that nice man?"

Posted by: Zizka on December 29, 2003 04:16 PM

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Perhaps advocating humility is sometimes done in a pompous fashion?

The "holier than thou" attitude?

By the way, as I see it, the difference between left and right is not in willingness to consider alternative view points.

The mission of the left is to promote reduction of priviliges and expansion of equal rights for all.

The mission of the right is to slow down progress along those directions -- and sometimes turn the clock backwards.

Left and right politics are not alternatives to each other, they are thesis and anti-thesis, together they make it possible for democracy to proceed like a two legged man: Left, right, left, right... with either wing weakened, democracy too weakens, like a crippled or one legged man...

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 29, 2003 04:18 PM

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Ged:
Sorry if there were too many eyes rolling here on Brooks. I try not to roll my eyes in print, maybe I slipped today since I was trying to eat lunch and type at the same time. I rarely agree with William Safire or Andrew Sullivan, but I recommend following them. They do present coherent arguments, and do present evidence and examples. I think that they are usually wrong, but still there is some substance there. Here is what upset me about the column. After seven or eight paragraphs on Oakeshott, he makes sweeping assertions in the last three that are simply outrageous, without any argument, any evidence, any examples. I will try to explain:

"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."

The statement that "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." is absolutely false. They wrote extensively about what kind of societies were capable of self-government, and each had a very distinct notions of what kinds of good life were consistent with a democratic republic. Jefferson, for instance, was definitely sure that an artificial aristocracy built on inherited wealth was not consistent with democracy, neither were the uneducated mobs found in European cities. We might agree or disagree with the founders beliefs about society, but what Brooks says is just silly. They had anything but an "anything goes" attitude towards society.

"Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering."

See my last post on Hamilton's financial plan. Another poster mentioned the Ordinance of 1787. We could also mention public education -a favorite project of most of the founders. Taking public measures to help ensure that there were not extremes of wealth and poverty, that the mass of people were small landholders was also social engineering. Public works programs were social engineering -something that even Jefferson and Madison eventually decided were worthy of support, it was just that they thought that was unconstitutional for the federal government to undertake them in most cases. Madison recommended a constitutional amendment to permit it.

"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."

It was because warnings of the technocrats were ignored that sanitary facilities, water works, hospitals,(as well as museums) were left vulnerable to destruction, and public order was not maintained. You can make the case that the same is true for the political science and area-specialist technocratic advice on the difficulty of political development after the war. What happened in Iraq after the war was either a colossal goof, or criminal negligence of a public international law kind. Brooks falsely portrayed the U.S. founders' political philosophy in order to justify this disgrace and that is infuriating to me.

"...the Americans and Iraqis are now... 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."

This part is just as outrageous. The idea that the Americans and Iraqis have been jointly muddling through anything is nonsense. The American and British invaded and occupied the country by force, and many Iraqis have been very upset that the U.S. thought that the war itself was too important for any muddling through, but muddling through was just OK when it came to the aftermath. I also think that Brooks is dishonest or ill-informed about what kind of muddling through is happening in Iraq. When it comes to the welfare and safety of ordinary Iraqis and coalition soldiers, it has been muddling through. But the US is conducting a concerted, very unmuddled program to reshape Iraqi economic and social structure, destruction of nationalized industries and tariff structures. In the long run, conventional economics says this will benefit the economy (and I agree), but it is probably against international law regarding the role of an occupying power, done without the consent of the Iraqi people, and done without much concern at all for short term human consequences. When it comes to the Iraqi national economy and its relation to the ordinary citizens, the current U.S. administration has a very specific notion of what the good life is, and is imposing it by force. Do an internet search on "Juan Cole" and read some of the archived posts there.

So that is why I think it was a very sloppy, poorly argued, dishonest and deceptive piece of work.

Posted by: jml on December 29, 2003 06:39 PM

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Zizka and Bulent,

Thank you both for your considerate, well-measured responses - appreciate especially Bulent's point regarding the need for both wings. I'd be a little more confident about the strength of our left wing if it showed more of the willingness to dialogue shown by your replies. A wing detached from the body offers little aid in flight...

Zizka, saying that Brooks is "silly" may well be true (although I have trouble seeing the inarguable evidence that most here find in this article), but how likely is that assertion to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you? Again, I don't necessarily disagree with you - I'm just seeking some reasoned support for the assertions being made. Guess I should have caught the beginning of the movie for that...

His extended engagement with Oakeshott throughout the article seems clearly more than mere citation. Not having read Oakeshott myself (though from Brooks' description of him, he sounds intriguing - of course I disagree with him about the Revolution - all the more reason to hear his arguments and try them on for size), I'm very curious to learn the flaws in Brooks' interpretation from the those participating in this thread.

What evidence is there that Brooks introduced Oakeshott merely to lend panache to his own ideas? Could it not also be an account of the familiar intellectual interplay of perspectives that leads to new insight?

As Locke says, "New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common."

Now that's an example of a pompous citation.

;-)

Bulent,

Indeed the advocacy of humility often is correlated with pomposity, but does it not take some discernment to tell if this indeed is the case? And isn't discernment aided by the offering of evidence and support? Brooks' article offers several examples to bolster his advocacy. How is his reasoning mistaken?

Perhaps my reading of history is flawed, but it seems to me that the left is naturally the wing more open to new ideas. When it becomes less open than many (alas, some right-wing jerks we have always with us) on the so-called right, I begin to wonder whether perhaps our labels are misplaced.

That said, I will enthusiastically join you on the first mission, regardless of whatever strange bedfellows I might find there. If only I shared your confidence that those currently carrying the banner of the left would do likewise.

"Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance - these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible."

Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty


Posted by: Ged of Earthsea on December 29, 2003 06:43 PM

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jml,

Wow! Great post! Thanks for taking the time.

"Genius, which means transcendent capacity for taking trouble, first of all."

- Thomas Carlyle (even a blind sow...)

Sorry I missed it before writing my other, now largely obsolete, reply.

I do read Sullivan, enthusiastically, and Cole, with some resignation - good source of bad but necessary news and perspective. Again, it's odd tempermentally for the left to be the realistic, pragmatic ones, and the right the wild-eyed idealists. Hope you'll excuse me if I'm slightly disoriented.

Your overall analysis is compellingly cogent and often persuasive on the points you engage. I'm going to push back in a couple places, which can be taken for implicit agreement in the areas where I don't.

"The statement that '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.' is absolutely false. They wrote extensively about what kind of societies were capable of self-government, and each had a very distinct notions of what kinds of good life were consistent with a democratic republic. Jefferson, for instance, was definitely sure that an artificial aristocracy built on inherited wealth was not consistent with democracy, neither were the uneducated mobs found in European cities. We might agree or disagree with the founders beliefs about society, but what Brooks says is just silly. They had anything but an 'anything goes' attitude towards society."

Though Brooks doesn't seem to draw on it, there is a distinction here (Berlin noted it in the quote from my last post) that could allow your two seemingly contradictory claims to be reconciled somewhat. As this article outlines,

http://techcentralstation.com/121903A.html

(yes, I'm sure there is much silliness to be found in this article/site, but the right/good distinction provides some explanatory potency)

a government that enforces the right (vs. wrong) is qualitatively different from one that enforces the good. By claiming equality as a foundational principle of the nation, it could be argued that Jefferson's concerns had more to do with the right than the good. Are not our pluralistic traditions and the constitional principles (the Bill of Rights, for instance) that grew out of them distinctly less authoritarian than the other alternatives that actually existed at that time? even today?

This reticence with employing the state to pursue the good doesn't rule out collective action, indeed it often encourages it - see de Tocqueville - it is just more wary of putting coercive power (necessarily monopolized by the state) behind it. There are of course exceptions, and productive ones at that, as you have cited, but is not the general spirit less authoritarian and more experimental? A spirit I would think the left would promote? Soros' Open Society effort makes similar arguments to those above.

Brooks may well overstate his case, but its absolute falsehood is not at all clear.

"It was because warnings of the technocrats were ignored that sanitary facilities, water works, hospitals,(as well as museums) were left vulnerable to destruction, and public order was not maintained."

Your first claim, regarding securing the facilities, because it is specific, is persuasive. As for maintaining public order - was there a true public order to be maintained? Is maintaining (or establishing) public order in such a situation so easy as you make it seem? What examples exist of it being done better? I'm sure you're familiar with critiques similar to yours that appeared following WWII. How is your's different?

Your points regarding international law are well taken, although its not clear that the alternatives are preferable in this difficult case.

"'...the Americans and Iraqis are now... 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.'

This part is just as outrageous. The idea that the Americans and Iraqis have been jointly muddling through anything is nonsense."

Um, you said "jointly," not Brooks, though in fact on the ground there have been and continue to be efforts at jointly muddling. They are, both, far from through, that's for sure.

"The American and British invaded and occupied the country by force, and many Iraqis have been very upset that the U.S. thought that the war itself was too important for any muddling through, but muddling through was just OK when it came to the aftermath."

Sure felt like muddling through while the war was going on. It seems clear that that this seat-of-the-pants philosophy was taken too much to the extreme both during and after the war. I'm glad there are articulate critics like yourself who can keep that particular train on the track, but I have difficulty agreeing with your claim that there is no historical warrant going back to the founders for an approach that leans (relatively) toward spontaneity and decentralized decision-making.

"What was really amazing was the speed with which the Americans adapted themselves….They were assisted in this by their tremendous practical and material sense and by their lack of all understanding for tradition and useless theories." - Erwin Rommel, 1943.

Sounds left wing to me! Where do I sign up?

"When it comes to the Iraqi national economy and its relation to the ordinary citizens, the current U.S. administration has a very specific notion of what the good life is, and is imposing it by force."

Nice irony there. But again, can't a distinction be drawn between enforcing the right, which they are very much attempting to do (along the lines of the Bill of Rights), and enforcing the good? I don't see Halliburton constructing any churches...


Posted by: Ged of Earthsea on December 29, 2003 08:20 PM

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