David Brooks is an intelligent man and wants to appear an honest one. But his column in Monday's New York Times betrays both intelligence and honesty by its rush to praise George Bush'"judgments" on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Brooks wouldn't be the first columnist and would-be political pundit -- even on the Times' Op-Ed pages -- who gave up the boring job of speaking truth to power and climbed up on power's shoulders, only to patronize his colleagues still toiling in the murk of uncertainty and critical thinking. But Brooks does one better than writers like Tom Friedman, the Times' resident Mideast expert, who came out in support of the Iraq war only to grudgingly backpedal as the disaster unfolded. Brooks doesn't just invent reasons for agreeing with the White House's views. He invents out of whole cloth the very view that he wants to agree with, in turn giving the White House and himself credit for a seasoned realism above the grasp of other commentators.
As in the following: "[George Bush's] judgments now look correct. Bush deduced that Sharon could grasp the demographic reality and lead Israel toward a two-state solution; that Arafat would never make peace, but was a retardant to peace; that Israel has a right to fight terrorism; and that Sharon would never feel safe enough to take risks unless the U.S. supported him when he fought back." Does anyone who's watched George Bush in action believe he'd have had the reasoning power or regional knowledge to concoct even this cartoonish policy argument? Does anyone imagine the Bush administration's reflexive support of Israel's stubborn and disingenuous policies had anything to do with a real stake in a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as opposed to a knee-jerk response to its own "anti-terrorist" war cry, and a spineless readiness to be manipulated by Sharon's masterful mixture of bluff and ruthlessness (now there's a political realist for you)?
The answer is, I'm sure there are people who do believe this. But I don't think Brooks in his heart is among them. In this column, as frankly in so much else he writes and says these days, Brooks appears dedicated to using intelligence against itself, outsmarting his fellow smartypants, and proving himself dumb and self-deluded enough to join the crew guilty of some of the most destructive policy mistakes in recent American history. The news these days from the very worst of those mistakes, the Iraq war, being hard even for Bush himself to whitewash, Brooks slyly shifts the camera to a scene where the president's tough guy image has, he seems to think, more sticking power. But I doubt even the President would be convinced by Brooks' story-telling here, and certainly most readers won't be. The snide and and manipulative way the whole piece is written only further undermines his credibility.
I've never thought much, truth to say, of Brooks' writing or his politics, and the work of a single opinion-monger wouldn't normally be worth the effort of a protest -- especially when he shares an Op-Ed page with William Safire. But Brooks' subordination of truth-telling to political truckling is really just one, though a particularly sleazy, example of a syndrome that has infected American reporting and commentary from the first rumblings of the Iraq war, if not before. It takes a wide range of forms, from a refusal to risk any critique that might compromise "support for the troops" to the blatant advocacy of the Fox Channel. A review article by Chris Hedges in the recent New York Review of Books explores this issue with compelling eloquence, trying to come to terms with the failure of American journalists and American news outlets to tell the full truth about the war, especially its awful impact on Iraqi civilians. He concludes "If we do not confront our hubris and the lies told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, we will not so much defeat dictators like Saddam Hussein as become them."
This conclusion obviously reaches beyond the work of the journalists who are Hedges' main subject. And Hedges risks being carried away by the force of his own rhetoric, even as he fights with other people's. His readiness to see the dictator in the mirror, however, should remind contemporary writers that the "treason of the intellectuals" -- an expression first applied to apologists for Fascism and later to justifiers of Stalinism -- isn't just a bygone sin. Whether or not the two great analysts of how politics corrupts language, George Orwell and Czeslaw Milosz, would see the true aura of totaltarianism in George Bush may be debated. But they would certainly recognize in the self-serving fabrications of David Brooks, and that of many another modern pundit, the creativity of the "captive mind" daubing pictures of Big Brother, or Big Dubbya, on the walls of its own prison cell.
[12/25: For comic relief, see David Brooks' Christmas present to his readers on today's Times Op-Ed page -- the first installment of his "Hookie" awards, named (sort of) for the controversial neo-conservative philosopher Sidney Hook. The award purportedly recognizes essays for the educated reader that explore "the nature and destiny of man," but the focus of most of them speaks for itself. The first three listed are: "When Islam Breaks Down," by Theodore Dalrymple, a British M.D. who critiques a Radical Islam at odds with modern science and itself; "The Other Sixties," by Bruce Bawer, on late 1950's hipsters like Jack Paar and Sammy Davis Jr adrift in the era of flower power (I see a would-be autobiographical slant here on Brooks' part); and "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews," by William J. Stuntz, a Harvard Law professor who also belongs to an evangelical church (can you dig it?). You don't know whether to be annoyed by Brooks' pretense or to laugh at his transparency. I doubt whether Hook -- a one-time Marxist and a man of great intellectual depth and conviction, despite the polemic extremes of some of his later writings -- would feel honored by this suave attempt to hijack his name and reputation.]