Sunday, April 18, 2010

Removing All Doubts

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

THIS GREAT OLD ADAGE, usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln, has been consistently violated lately in American political discourse, both by a chronically misinformed citizenry and an out-of-touch punditry -- nowhere more so than when it comes to the phenomenon known as the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party. There were rallies all over the country on Tax Day, and the mainstream media is finally taking a good hard look at what it is, why it is, and just who is attracted to its virulently anti-liberal and anti-government sentiments.

Toward this end, on April 15 the New York Times assembled a small gaggle of commentators online, charged with getting to the bottom of What Tea Party Backers Want. Besides giving a good cup of tea a bad name, we know what they don't want -- to shut up and accept the results of the November 2008 election -- and we can guess by their all-white composition and more blatant displays of racism that they're not too keen in general on a black man in the White House. As expected, the "experts" gathered here are think-tankers and academics -- with some going on record as believing the Tea Party will have a Ross Perot-like impact on the upcoming midterm elections and further out in the 2012 presidential campaign. Others make way too much of a recent poll indicating a "significant percentage" of so-called Independents and Democrats are Tea Party members; and a "longtime political consultant" called Douglas Schoen thinks they're more diverse than they're portrayed and that it's somehow "extraordinary that close to 1 in 5 Americans call themselves Tea Party supporters." Why? That means over 80% thankfully are NOT identifying with Tea Party simpletons!

I'm not a longtime anything except old, but I think if anything there will be a backlash against any politician getting too close to this lunatic fringe.

But my candidate for hands-down dumbest take so far on the nascent-but-already-irritating Tea Party was a March 4th column by David Brooks, which found the Times' token conservative digging at the dreaded Pop Sociology well again. His modus operandi in such pieces is to come to a conclusion first, then retrofit the "facts" that fit his thesis. Last week, for instance, in a column titled "Relax, We'll Be Fine," he uses a few stats about population and income trends to back up a feel-good notion that "the U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival." None of it rings true, with the following paragraph an example of what might best be described as Brooks' very un-Toffler-like brand of future schlock on display:
"As the world gets richer, demand will rise for the sorts of products Americans are great at providing — emotional experiences. Educated Americans grow up in a culture of moral materialism; they have their sensibilities honed by complicated shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and they go on to create companies like Apple, with identities coated in moral and psychological meaning, which affluent consumers crave."
Brooks' whole essence of American Exceptionalism, like most sheltered conservatives, can be boiled down to, If Americans are doing it, ultimately it's good for the world, because Americans always mean well. That's the only way I can make any sense of what he's saying.

He's been on an awful negative roll lately, just mailing in column after clueless column. And people are noticing. On April 7 Brooks reflected on the NCAA Championship game, using the prism of "spoiled" Duke versus "underdog" Butler to postulate on Bigger Issues in American society. Not a bad concept, but Brooks uses it to hammer home his point that the rich and successful are who they are for a reason: they work harder than the poor. It was great to see Matt Taibbi calling him out for this elitist rubbish on his excellent True / Slant blog. In "Let Them Eat Work," Taibbi as you might expect does not hold back:
"I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door."

But back to Brooks and his observation that the current Tea Party = the 1960s Antiwar movement. That claim is somehow even more offensive than his usual outlandish and off-base flights from a reality-based universe -- which obviously is saying something.

A proposal this bad needs a catchy title to match -- and "The Wal-Mart Hippies" does the trick. I'm shaking my head as I type the words here, but Brooks' childish position, that "The Tea Party’s raging against the machine echoes an older radicalism from the opposite end of the political spectrum," is absurd on the face of it. All too typically, Brooks presents little to no evidence to back it up -- making his column the reliably fact-free space on the New York Times' op-ed page that it's become.

After noting that both movements aim to "return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution," he concedes there are many differences, including one being of the right, the other the left, one motivated by a war, the other by government spending. But then he plows right ahead toward his conclusion, claiming that "the similarities are more striking than the differences." This is where an editor should have shot down the idea before Brooks wasted everybody's time, because he uses the rest of the piece to prove no such thing.

Again wildly throwing around concepts in the hope that a few of these stereotypes might stick, Brooks finds great significance that both groups believe in what he calls "mass innocence," defined as: "Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures." What mass movement has members that don't believe in this? It's like a horoscope in that it's so general that it applies to everyone from Jehovah's Witnesses to the Black Panthers.

The remainder of the column is filled with gems like "members of both movements have a problem with authority" and want to "destroy the corrupt structures and defeat the establishment." Trees died for these observations, to paraphrase one legendary negative book review.

His tiresome conclusion is that the Tea Party will eventually self-destruct because they're shortsighted like '60s radicals were and therefore are not true conservatives, because "to remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings." See, according to David Brooks, the Left blew it back then "through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and na├»ve radicalism." I guess the Left just didn't see the "wisdom" of the Vietnam War which the "just authorities" of the time like Nixon and Kissinger were insisting was worth 55,000 dead Americans to preserve civilization as we know it. Glad that's been cleared up for us.

This March 4th column drew 261 comments on the Times' website, a healthy amount of traffic but nowhere near the 500-600 other opinion pieces regularly attract. (Today's Frank Rich column for instance already has 580 comments.) That alone should tell his editors something. Maybe it's time to give someone else his valuable op-ed real estate. It has to be at least on the table if there's anyone on the ball minding the store.

Quite a few rightfully indignant readers responded forcefully to Brooks' brand of hogwash, some of them upset that Brooks would even make such a boneheaded comparison. Like all good writing, I only wish I'd have thought of some of these Comments first, but it's enough to know others are thinking along the same lines. Here's a few choice ones that show there are plenty of people not buying what Brooks is selling:

We need a serious analysis of the Tea Party folks, but we won't be getting it from Mr. Brooks' pop sociology. The inchoate, but real and dangerous, rage of the marginalized white working-class grows out of 30 years of working harder and getting nowhere while the top 1% has grown ever richer and, alarmingly, less white--symbolized by Obama's election. As ever, Brooks wants to analyze American society without mentioning class or race, and so misses the target by a mile...

...There is little, if anything, about the Tea Partiers that isn't ugly. All too often, stupid, simple people, looking for simple solutions and simple slogans - being manipulated and courted by demagogues, dolts, and one very dangerous dame. And by the way - the New Left of the 60's touched an entire generation, and encompassed not only the politics of the major political parties - but also social justice movements for women, Afro-Americans, Native Americans, Indigenous peoples worldwide,as well as the oppressed and the exploited everywhere...
...David, the fact that The Tea Party Movement has people on Medicare and Medicaid complaining about the government's involvement in health-reform sums up their unbelievable (and frightening) intellectual ineptitude and proves that they truly lack any organized goals, objectives or ideas to have a legitimate debate. So I think it's shamefully egregious to compare the followers of MLK Jr. and others who championed civil and social freedoms, equality, love and acceptance - to 'people' as egotistical, zealous and uneducated as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and their Fox News addicted, Tea Party zombies.


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