sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Book review review:
David Brooks wrestles Andrew Sullivan in a fight for The Conservative Soul.
(Oh, don't you just hate that? You get up from the computer for a snack and some errands, and the next thing you know it's 21 months later and we're still in Iraq. But anyway . . .)
Over at the New York Times, conservative Op-Ed columnist David Brooks is reviewing Andrew Sullivan's new book The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. It's an interesting choice of reviewer, pitting Sullivan's rediscovered careful and cautious conservatism of doubt against Brooks' grand but bland national greatness conservatism.
Now, before Brooks disappeared behind the Times Select wall, I always read his columns with a mix of grudging admiration and mild disgust. They were - how can I put this? - the equivalent of a calm, pleasant, reasonable-sounding man talking to you in a calm, pleasant, reasonable-sounding manner, perhaps with an avuncular arm slung over your shoulders, you starting to nod slightly until suddenly *wham*, he sucker-punches you right in the gut. Except that's not quite right; Brooks would never do anything so violently uncouth, or so obvious. Instead, there were just these constant little partisan digs right underneath the surface, unnoticeable at first, like one of those cuts you don't even feel until suddenly you look down and - Oww! I suspect there may be a part of Brooks who aspires to have the kind of rapier-sharp wit where one's opponent doesn't know they've been decapitated 'til they try to turn their head and - *thump*. Either way, I've always seen him more as the perfectly nice-seeming fellow who happens to spend time furtively funneling bits of broken glass into jars of ideological baby food. (While a Protestant by inclination, one might be tempted nevertheless to call Brooks a pap-ist.)
[What? I've used up my figurative language quota for the week? And my allowance of atrociously wince-worthy punnage? Well, onwards then . . .]
Anyway, this trait's hardly present in the review. Brooks' accurate but slightly sneery note that a Oakeshottian grand-crusade-rejecting conservative would never write the Declaration of Independence might be a poke at the British-born Sullivan, but that seems unlikely. It also, of course, misses the point; no conservative of any sort, by any reasonable definition, would end up writing the Declaration of Independence. (Ah, maybe this is a spark of the old Brooks, with that buried implication of a conservative Jefferson!) Sullivan's conservatism, more an attitude than a politics, ideally would provide the kind of irritatingly cautious warnings that might help prevent things from getting out of hand in later years.
But we're straying out of the shallows now - can't have that - so here's the absolute jaw-dropper, the thing that jumped out of the pages of the Sunday Times and whomped me over the head with a giggle-stick:
I must confess, if I hadn'’t been reviewing this book, I wouldn'’t have finished it. I have a rule, which has never failed me, that when a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Left Behind series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down because the author either doesn't know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith.
Now, you may already know why I nearly sprayed a mouthful of cereal over the poor paper, but just in case, we have to go back, back, back to December of 2001 and Brooks' famous and much-discussed Atlantic Monthly piece on the gulf between Red America and Blue America. In a tour de force of anthropological fieldwork, he drove from his home in Montgomery County, MD, to Franklin County here in PA to compare the two:
Sixty-five miles from where I am writing this sentence is a place with no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble. No blue New York Times delivery bags dot the driveways on Sunday mornings. In this place people don't complain that Woody Allen isn't as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny. In this place you can go to a year's worth of dinner parties without hearing anyone quote an apercu he first heard on Charlie Rose. The people here don't buy those little rear-window stickers when they go to a summer-vacation spot so that they can drive around with "MV" decals the rest of the year; for the most part they don't even go to Martha's Vineyard . . .
Amazing! Unfortunately, when Sasha Issenberg of Philadelphia Magazine carefully retraced Brooks' epic journey into the wilds of Pennsylvania, it turned out that many of his carefully-collected facts were - how shall we put it - slightly embroidered, and his virtuoso generalizations often just that (and easily disproved to boot). And such accusations - that he would benefit from actual reporting, that he simply "present[s] his readers with the familiar and ask[s] them to recognize it," (says Sasha), that "too often, Brooks's "archetypes" are really just old-fashioned stereotypes. It should go without saying that most people are more complicated and contradictory than stereotypes allow for," (says Nicholas Confessore) have followed his later work.
Perhaps Sullivan should pay attention to Brooks' criticism. After all, he knows what he's talking about.
It gets better, though. While I was gawping at this bit, my eyes lit on a section I had somehow skipped over, right in the middle of the quote:
The intellectual brutality Sullivan describes in these pages, and which does mark American life, has more to do with bad character and political partisanship than theological rigor, and Sullivan is wrong to claim its roots are religious in nature. The people who are most destructively closed-minded in America are people like Donald Rumsfeld, Ann Coulter and Howard Dean, and they are not exactly religious nuts.
Agree or disagree about from which stagnant sinkhole these roots grow, but - three examples of "the people who are most destructively closed-minded in America"?
* Donald Rumsfeld, whose unshakable self-certainty did as much as anyone's to create the disastrous quagmire in Iraq,
* Ann Coulter, whose "humor" involves rambling about "ragheads," suggesting rat poison for Supreme Court Justices, regretting that Timothy McVeigh didn't go into the New York Times Building, and musing that "It would be a much better country if women did not vote." (Although the general consensus seems to be that she doesn't actually believe any of it, and just does it for the attention, and revenue. Maybe so.)
* And the moderate Democratic former governor (of Vermont, for goodness sakes!), '04 presidential candidate and DNC chairman Howard Dean, whose infamous Dean Scream had all the dangerous craziness of someone's thinning-haired suburban dad getting a little carried away and trying to pull off a rebel yell.
Now that's a glimpse of the old Brooks! Not quite at the top of his game, but who can blame him for being a little frazzled this fall?
posted by Dan S. on 3:16 PM | | link
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