Sunday, 19 January 2014

David and Barack: An Unrequited Bromance

Times columnist David Brooks has now become such a complete parody of himself that if Alex Parene tried to mock him in Salon as he did last holiday season, the joke would no longer be very funny. Everyone’s caught on to him as the purveyor of a unique brand of oily, gray intellectual smoke served with a soup├žon of class prejudice.

But Brooks’ latest weaseling defense of rich and comfortable people like himself tills virgin soil, so much so that half the Internet jumped on it. The content was particularly crude, but the style was interesting, given the timing, and it’s worth having a look.

As usual, Brooks starts out by pretending that everyone can surely pretty much agree on certain sensible principles, shall we? All part of his Mr Reasonable drag.

America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.

Note the disingenuous nod to ‘liberals’, Brooks rhetorical arm around the shoulder. You can just see him charming impressionable youth at cocktail parties with that soothing patter, ‘Come come, young fellow, you don’t really mean to defend crude notions like ‘the 99%’ or ‘inequality’, do you?

Dean Baker demolished Brooks’ flimsy arguments in a Beat the Press riposte (a good site for correctives to orthodox economic thinking). Baker reminds us that class-consciousness was very much on FDR’s mind and in his speeches, which is a big reason why we got the New Deal safety net that Brooks (and his many allies in both parties) want to destroy.

After setting us up to concede certain oh-so-obvious points that turn out not to be true at all, Brooks then deploys the Complexity Meme by which all things that seem nefarious and hateful turn out to be, upon sober and exhaustive reflection by people like David Brooks, much more nuanced and debatable. This is good for chin-stroking passivity, which is where Brooks wants to take us.

Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

Brooks then proceeds to drum up all sorts of shibboleths suggesting that having no work or earning crap wages or living with miserable services isn’t why people are poor, but because families, because attitudes, because culture, because ‘social fabric’, because behavior, etc. He doesn’t quite come out and say ‘lazy-ass Negroes’ anywhere, but there is plenty of wink-wink for those who still need some.

Brooks is worried about the attention on inequality because he and the corporate and professional elite that he defends don’t want to talk about the massive deindustrialization of the U.S. that they have benefited from so mightily. If we engage in hours of Brooks-induced mental acrobatics, we won’t focus on how they ripped out blue-collar jobs, sent them to China and condemned anyone not on the gravy train to deteriorating future prospects if not outright destitution.

Brooks sophistically accuses those raising the inequality issue as believing in a static pie that must be cut up differently rather than letting Romney’s jo creators bake a bigger one. This is so lame that half a dozen commentators have already shredded it. It’s a rehash of Reaganite trickle-down theory that, sadly for Brooks, no longer obscures the death-grip exercised by the 1% that keeps vast wealth flowing ever upwards rather than us-wards.

But it was fascinating to read Brooks on the same day that Obama was presenting his defense of the NSA. Who knew that these two guys, ostensibly from rival camps, have so much in common? In his Friday speech Obama did a pretty good Brooks imitation.

Like Brooks, he started by amicably pulling us in with surely-you-must-agree statements. Our spies, in Obama’s telling, are the Paul Reveres of our time who have surely NOT gone hog-wild even though they now know exactly when we’ve cut a fart and how loud. Who could churlishly spurn his premise that Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty needed to spy on the Brits so that our republic could be born?

Obama didn’t mention that one reason the colonists wanted to throw off the British yoke was the monarchy’s historic abuse of individual rights. It’s pretty appalling that Obama, the constitutional lawyer, never once thought it important to bring up our Bill of Rights and its role in this debate over domestic spying. Instead, it was all about security, war-making and national defense from foreign powers, a speech George W. Bush could have made on the topic.

Think about it: Paul Revere was a notorious dissident, a political opponent of the governing regime, maybe even a violent one. If the Brits were vacuuming up his metadata NSA-style, what are the chances he would have got his horse out of the barn given his well-known links to murderers of redcoats?

While Obama defended spying NSA-style because of its utility in war and for combatting 9/11 type attacks on civilians (which he mentioned a dozen times), only a few minutes later he is applauding the new capabilities of intelligence-gathering and how it can ‘allow information to be collected and shared more quickly between federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement’. How very reassuring! Spying on foreign powers so that we will be KEPT SAFE also enables us to feed data to the cops. Good thing there is no evidence that local police forces ever abuse their powers!

Like Brooks, Obama wraps his professioral arm around the listener while saying, tut, tut, my lad, let’s get a couple of things straight that even you, in your perfectly respectable doubts, can accept. Then bends the truth:

Everyone who has looked at these problems, including skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.

But what ‘everyone’, especially including you, does not want to recognize is that one of the principal threats we face is from the intelligence apparatus itself and its increasing independence from any external—much less citizen—control.

Like Brooks, Obama also resorts to lawyerish verbal squeeze plays that we’re not supposed to notice. No one at NSA ‘sought to violate the law’, he says—oh, please. ‘No, Your Honor, I did not seek to violate the law. I merely sought to rob the bank’.

Or how about this one: the spies were ‘not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails’. But ‘not abusing authorities to listen to your phone calls’ is different than ‘not listening to your phone calls’.

In full Brooksian mode, Obama often nods to opposing views, appears to take them into account, massages them gently and then drops them back onto your plate in unrecognizable form. To listen to his speech, it appears that Obama was a vigilant skeptic of NSA’s powers way before mean little Edward Snowden blew the lid off their doings. If we had just trusted him and his decency to get around to fixing things, it would have happened in due course. Some day.

No matter that his solutions are ‘improved rules’ to be accepted by the rubber-stamp FISA court while he claims that Congress is ‘continually updated’ on everything—which we now know to be completely false and disingenous: does ‘Congress’ mean Congress or is ‘Congress’ = the secretive intelligence committees run by our friends who can be trusted to keep whatever we tell them quiet?

Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.

Who is proposing that? This is equivalent to arguing against Miranda and search warrant laws in criminal cases because they constitute ‘disarming’ the police. And yet we watch Law & Order and CSI placidly witnessing how these obstacles to wild anarchy among police actually force them to use good forensic procedures to solve crimes. The ‘unilateral disarm’ b.s. is a crude straw man designed to discredit criticis. But cops are being watched, albeit highly imperfectly, by courts, lawyers and sometimes citizens. If the spy bureaucracies have no real oversight and operate in secret, why should they obey technical rules, whatever Obama says they are?

Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone.

True enough, but a distraction. Facebook can be sued, prosecuted or legislated into obedience. Who can control the NSA especially when they can target critics or legislators and intimidate them with details of their private lives? We already have non-denials on whether the NSA targets sitting members of Congress. Google could be forced to stop. Can the NSA?

But this paragraph is also Obama at his most revealing: I am here to parse out the nuances for you because you benighted lesser ones do not have my massive intellectual powers. Brooks’ column accused people of having a ‘primitive zero-sum mentality’, and Obama’s speech could copy that: ‘Primitive Worries about the Fourth Amendment’.

Obama’s law school students have said that they never knew what his position on things was, and he is known to pride himself on beating anyone in a debate. Since he and only he can clearly see how all the details fit together, naturally he has the right to talk down to us.
Expert debates like Obama thinks he is love telling us that we’re not being rigorous and fact-based, like here where Obama characterizes all those nasty news stories he hates to read:

Fortunately, by focusing on facts and specifics rather than speculation and hypotheticals, this review process has given me – and hopefully the American people – some clear direction for change.

And yet Snowden’s revelations are anything BUT speculation and hypothesis; they are cold, hard, and for Obama painful facts, or as he terms it, facts and specifics. For the first time, we have very concrete, documented and undeniable information about what the NSA is doing. That’s why all the criticism of Snowden is hypocritical—Obama and his spy teams easily could have blown off anything short of what Snowden did from inside with stonewalling, denials and outright lies. The fact that they are being caught consistently in falsehoods because the reporters have the goods on them makes meaningful reform possible though not inevitable.

There are dozens of other revealing details in Obama’s speech, and commentators are mining it with expert glee.

Obama’s scolding tone makes him a twin cousin of Brooks in his similarly tweedy sophistry. They both like things pretty much the way they are, and their job is to reassure their respective audiences, roughly speaking Republicans and Democrats, that despite appearances to the contrary, there’s really nothing to see here, move along.

P.S. One of the most revolting moments of the speech was Obama’s use of the ‘enhanced interrogation’ euphemism as part of his continuing cover-up of the torture of defenseless detainees. Given that the only person in prison for bringing back torture as national policy is John Kiriakou, the CIA guy who blew the whistle on it, kindly do not tell us how Edward Snowden should come back and face a fair trial.

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