Books postsFriday September 06, 2019
Disliking David Brooks
Here's a killer lede to Jacob Bacharach's review of David Brooks' new book, “The Second Mountain.”
David Brooks is an easy character to dislike. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, he concocted ethnographies of the habits of conservative voters to tell a story about cultural divisions and the red-blue divide that just so happened to confirm everything his readership already believed. His specialty as a columnist is to identify some just-so failure of the “welfare state” in order to promote the kind of “entrepreneur” whose semi-private innovations are austerity by another name. He loudly supported the war in Iraq. He taught a course on “Humility” at Yale that prominently featured his own works. Although it is his job to interpret the currents of American culture for an audience of millions in the pages of TheNew York Times, he has never been good at looking beyond his own instincts and experience.
A defining experience came when, in 2013, Brooks divorced his first wife, Sarah, and several years later married his much younger research assistant, Anne, whom he met while writing a book called The Road to Character.
Ouch. And truer words. The piece is called “David Brooks's Moral Journey,” and it's often good, but—caveat—there's a lot of Brooks quotes to slog through. I came across it because Brooks wrote another idiot column for the Times today that trended on Twitter, and which I didn't read because I have work to do.
King Donald's Ghost
While on vacation in Belgium, I read Adam Hochschild's excellent “King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” which is a little like reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” while drinking beer in Germany. The book is all about how the Belgian king, Leopold II, realizing he needed a colony or colonies to accrue the riches he desired, and without an army to do so, stealthily carved out a huge chunk of Africa from under the noses of his European counterparts and made it his own. In the process, he destroyed civilizations, cultures, lives. An estimated 10 million lives were lost during his reign of terror. While being held up as a paragon of liberal virtues, he was actually reintroducing the slave trade to Africa. And even when others began to condemn him, including such international names as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle, it took years before his grip on the continent was loosened.
The book, published in 1998, is much-recommended, and there's a lot to quote from it, but probably nothing as relevant to my country and my time as the following.
Whenever the voices of Leopold's critics grew louder and louder, the King would bankroll, or have cronies bankroll, a sham “investigation” into the charges, which would inevitably clear him. He did so in the 1890s and again in the first decade of the 20th century. But the latter investigation backfired.
... one of the judges, while listening to a succession of witnesses with atrocity stories, had broken down and wept. It was now obvious to the king that the process had backfired: to his horror what was intended to be a sham investigation had slipped out of his control and become a real one.
So what did Leopold do? This. It will seem very similar to anyone who's been paying attention to American politics in the Trump era:
With his modern sense of public relations, the king understood brilliantly that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event. He also knew that journalists dread having to digest a long official report when writing against a tight deadline—all the more so when the material is in a foreign language.
On November 3, 1905, the day before the Commission of Inquiry report was scheduled for release, every major paper in England received a document with a cover letter explaining that it was a “complete and authentic résumé of the report.” This timely and helpful summary came from the West African Missionary Association, which surely sounded reliable. Missionaries, after all, had been among the Congo state's most consistent critics. Most conveniently of all, the summary was in English. Delighted, nearly all the British newspapers published the summary, thinking they were getting a one-day jump on the big news of the week. The Associated Press transmitted the summary to the United States, where it was also picked up by major newspapers. Only during the next few days, as reporters and editors had time to read the full text of the report in French, did they realize that the so-called summary had little to do with the report. Again and again it took major points in the report and “summarized” them beyond recognition.
Leopold is Trump, the West African Missionary Association is Attorney General William Barr, and the press hasn't changed.
When I got home I checked to see if Hochschild had written on this sad historical similarity but couldn't find anything. BTW: I assume Trump doesn't know this history. He didn't look at Leopold and said, “Let's do that.” He just has a similar sense of marketing and morality as this 19th-century genocidal king.
The Potential of Government
“There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this.
”They‘ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they‘ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country [where LBJ grew up] and how electricity [which LBJ brought once he became a congressman] changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up. And that one bridge created thousands of jobs: 31,000,000 man hours of work, done in twenty states, went into it.
We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They‘ve forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.“
Robert Caro, ”Working." Cf., Michael Lewis. The good writers are showing us the way. This is the left finding its voice after 40 years.
Every Hollywood Studio Exec Ever
“Most people have a will to power that is imitative, and when they see something that works, their imitative mind says, ‘Well, we’ll do that, but we‘ll do it three times better, or bigger.’”
George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998.”
McCabe on Sessions
Was reading this last night in Andrew McCabe's “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump” (recommended) and thought I'd share some of McCabe's observations about former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
- As time went on, I observed many things about Attorney General Sessions that gave me pause. I observed him to have trouble focusing, particularly when topics of conversation strayed from a small number of issues, none of which directly concerned national security.
- Almost invariably, he asked the same question about the suspect: Where's he from? The vast majority of the suspects are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. If we would answer his question, Sir, he's a U.S. citizen, he was born here, Sessions would respond, Where are his parents from?
- He was very interested in narcotics trafficking—an important issue for the country, but not usually central to the kinds of national-security issues that are the focus of the President's Daily Brief. Still, to try to get his attention, the briefers started putting updates about narcotics shipments from Colombia in the book. Someone had told Sessions that even if we knew in advance about every drug shipment destined to leave Colombia by boat or ship, the U.S. wouldn't allocate enough vessels to intercept them. This made Sessions apoplectic. ... Why don't we have more boats down there? Why don't we put more boats in the water? Is that all we need—more boats? This is ridiculous! I‘ll go talk to the White House chief of staff. I’ll get us more boats. Sometimes he went on like this for fifteen minutes. He seemed to think that the FBI had some kind of navy at its disposal, and that this navy was off doing other things. We had to tell him, We don't have the boats in Colombia. We are not able to do that. That's not us.
- Sessions spent a lot of time yelling at us about the death penalty, despite the fact that the FBI plays no role of any kind in whether to seek the death penalty—that's a job for Justice. All the people on Sessions's side of the table would look at their laps.
- You never knew when you’d bump into some distorted perception. On one occasion Sessions launched into a diatribe about whom we were hiring at the FBI. Back in the old days, he said, you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted. Not like all those new people with nose rings and tattoos—who knows what they’re doing?
- In time it became impossible to avoid the overwhelming evidence that the attorney general had little use for serious discussions of national security. And an attorney general can't ignore that conversation. Engaging on counterterrorism is not optional.
I'd say we dodged a bullet but ... it's the St. Valentine's Day Massacre out there.