Posted tagged ‘Ross Douthat’

Ross Douthat Is Mature and You’re Not

March 16, 2010

New York Times right-wing Boy Wonder Ross Douthat has a sad because The Green Zone isn’t mature enough to handle the tragedy of George W. Bush:

Americans believe in evil, but we’re uncomfortable with tragedy. We accept that there are wicked people in the world, with malice in their hearts and a devil whispering in their ears. But the idea that many debacles flow from choices made by decent, well-intentioned human beings is more difficult for us to wrap our minds around.

Note the presumptive “we,” beloved of hacks from the beginning of time, and how from it one may assume the Wide Stance of the Expert, from which p.o.v. the writer is then able to issue further pronouncements about, uh, “us.”


This is apparent in our politics, where we’re swift to impute the worst of motives to anyone slightly to our left or right. It’s apparent in our popular culture, thick with white hats and black hats, superheroes and supervillains. But it’s most egregious where the two spheres intersect: in our political fictions, which are nearly always Manichaean, simplistic and naïve.

Never mind that all popular culture of every society pits superheroes against supervillains, or at least good guys vs. bad guys, because that’s what makes it “popular.” The punch line here is the word “naïve.” When right-wingers have nothing substantive to say, they play the Vice-Principal card and call you “immature.”

Such, we are told, is the new Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon action film The Green Zone, which, per Douthat, “refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a ‘Bush lied, people died’ reductionism.”

And what does he mean by real tragedy? Is it the needless death of tens of thousands of children, women, babies, elders, and other non-combatants of a country that was no threat to the country that invaded it? Is it the forced exodus of a million people fleeing their homes? Is it the killing and maiming of U.S. soldiers in an action that, while ostensibly (or so we were told, by the decent, well-intentioned human beings who knew it wasn’t true) retaliating against a force that attacked us on 9-11, in fact attacked a country completely unconnected to that event? Is it how a population’s anger and fear were manipulated in order to support a military adventure it could not afford and did not need but was determined to promote regardless?

No. The very thought, Douthat suggests, is “naïve.” Here is how he describes the events of 2003:

The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare. You had a nation reeling from a terrorist attack and hungry for a response that would be righteous, bold and comprehensive. You had an inexperienced president trying to tackle a problem that his predecessors (one of them his own father) had left to fester since the first gulf war. You had a cause — the removal of a brutal dictator, and the spread of democracy to the Arab world — that inspired a swath of the liberal intelligentsia to play George Orwell and embrace the case for war. You had a casus belli — those weapons of mass destruction — that even many of the invasion’s opponents believed to be a real danger to world peace. And you had Saddam Hussein himself, the dictator in his labyrinth, apparently convinced that pretending to have W.M.D. was the best way to keep his grip on power.

Readers born after 2003, who today are at most six years old, may find this account plausible. The rest of us know better and can see it for the selectively incomplete, essentially false piece of historical revisionism that it is.

You had a nation that was hungry for a response, yes, and for whom the first part of that response, in Afghanistan, was thought to be adequate and well-chosen, but was abandoned by those decent, etc., people. Douthat forgets to mention it. You had, in his poignant phrase, “an inexperienced president” whose anti-intellectualism, spiteful insecurity, and provincial ignorance caused him to consciously ignore the knowledge of experts and their explicit warnings of this terrorist attack, and to focus, instead, on tax cuts for his patrons (in a time of “war”) and on vacations.

You had a defensible but non-urgent goal–the removal of Saddam Hussein, one of history’s monsters–as a pre-defined objective, to which all “fact gathering” and “deliberations” and “debates” were subordinated (and the selection of which owed much more to the vainglory of the president, and the egos of the Secretary of Defense and the Vice-President, than to any matters of national security).

You had a “casus belli” about which the president, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and sundry other decent, well-intentioned human beings, knowingly lied, catastrophizing and sowing fear for no other reason than to advance this pre-determined agenda. “We know where the weapons of mass destruction are,” quoth Donald Rumsfeld. “They’re near Tikrit.”

And, to the extent that you had a liberal intelligentsia and a general population supporting the war, it was because they had been deceived into thinking it necessary for their own safety. “Surely,” people thought, “they wouldn’t lie about that. Surely they wouldn’t falsify and manipulate the facts over something as horrible and scarring and brutalizing to all concerned as going to war.”

But to Douthat, this is the “naïve” version of events. According to his version, these were decent people trying their hardest to do right. It is refuted and demolished by a ton of documentary evidence, but never mind.

Douthat cites an essay in Washington Monthly by Chris Lehmann in 2005 about political fiction:

From Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” to their more recent imitators, our novelists have never been terribly interested in the actual challenges of political life. Instead, Lehmann suggested, they usually cast the entire mess as “a great ethical contaminant and task their protagonists with escaping its many perils with both their lives and their moral compasses intact.”

As it happens, this is a pretty good description of the arc of “Green Zone.” But it’s a lousy recipe for real art, which is supposed to be interested in the humanity of all its subjects, not just the ones who didn’t work for Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense.

Setting aside the fact that the last thing I want to hear from a conservative columnist in The New York Times is his theory about “real art,” in fact Lehmann’s description strikes me as a pretty good recipe for real art. The proper domain of art–certainly of drama, even in a mainstream studio movie–is human subjectivity: the personality, its changes, its confrontation with the outside world. Confronting a protagonist with “a great ethical contaminant” is–talk about “tragedy”–a theme and a method that
goes back to the Greeks, if not to the earliest legends.

Douthat, young aspiring conservative that he is, cannot admit that the entire Iraq debacle was in fact a circus of ethical contamination, from the witting lies that sold it, to the Cavalcade of Amateurs sent to restore order after the fall of Saddam, to the cubic feet of cash lost, stolen, or squandered on the free-for-all that they oversaw. Some political stories do indeed deserve a nuanced dramatization in which no side has clean hands and everyone is ethically compromised. There may even be such stories to be found in the war in Iraq. But not among the Bush administration.

Finally, no column from the Times stable of right-wing pundits (Douthat, Brooks) would be complete without a bit of hypocritical, concern-troll hand-wringing over “our ongoing polarization.”

Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.

What you mean “us,” right man?

Perhaps the youthful Douthat was himself born after 2003, and so wasn’t present during the dawn of our current age of poisonous partisanship, birthed by Richard Nixon (or do I mean Joseph McCarthy?), nurtured by Lee Atwater, and thriving even unto our present time under the ministry of Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Ann Coulter, Fox News, Jim DeMint, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, and all the other professional liars, foaming demagogues, and clinically insane loons for whom Ross Douthat has such redeeming sympathy.

From the current disinformation campaign of Dick Cheney, to the pants-on-fire mendacity of Karl Rove’s new memoir, to the sad laments of Douthat and David Brooks and every other wingnut pundit whose paycheck depends on defending the indefensible, this is their current project: re-define the past, absolve the guilty of crimes, whitewash the lies, and profess respect for the tragedy of how decent, well-meaning people understandably made some mistakes.

They will never stop. And why should they? What else do they have to do?


The Way He Douthat Thing He Do

September 21, 2009

When Bill “I Have Been and Will Continue to Be Wrong About Everything” Kristol departed the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, a great cry was heard throughout the land.

“With whom will the Times replace him?” we wondered. “Oh, sure, we still have David Brooks. At least he’ll be around, defending conservative lies, chiding our contemporary foibles and follies with his head-firmly-up-ass sociological observations, and drawing bogus equivalencies between ‘the far left’ and ‘the far right.’ But what if we need more?”

Then our prayers were answered. Not long after Kristol packed up his wrongness and cleared out his locker, he was replaced by a screwball-throwing rightie out of The Atlantic’s farm team named Ross Douthat. And, while he’s needed a couple months to hit stride in the Bigs, Douthat weighs in today with a column of such dazzling falseness and bad faith, it’ll have us thinking “Bill ‘Deeply, Deeply Wrong About Everything’ Kristol WHO?”

Today’s homily concerns George W. Bush. You may remember him from such political events as “the presidency of the United States, 2001-2009.” I say “may,” because as far as his fellow Republicans go, Bush is The Forgotten Man. They don’t mention him. They don’t name airports or schools after him. They don’t seek his counsel. They don’t appoint him to post-presidential committees or send him on diplomatic missions. It’s like the GOP is Stalinist Russia and W has been declared an un-person. He never existed and Republicans from sea to fuckin’ sea never heard of the guy.

But Ross Douthat…well, god damn it, Ross Douthat remembers:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes.

Sure, he just made up that last sentence in the hopes that no one will bother to refute it. “Few have gone as far…” Is that remotely true? Say it with me now: Who cares!? We’re off to a great start. And it gets better.

Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble.

Yes, “the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble” was Bush’s mistake. By “yes” I mean no, that doesn’t make sense. Clearly, this youngster can bring it. Sloppy thinking? Check. Bogus generalizations? Done and done. False premise on which to then base a faulty conclusion? Ask for it by name.

Besides, which of us hasn’t made “mistakes”? Which of us hasn’t ignored urgent intelligence concerning terrorists because we were too busy promoting a tax cut for rich people (and then vacationing on our “ranch”), allowing jets to smash into the World Trade Center? Which of us hasn’t promoted, through fear-mongering, manipulation of evidence, and outright lying, a war against someone who was of no threat to us? And–come on; be honest–who hasn’t dawdled and dicked around while a major American city is allowed to drown?

Mistakes happen, and it’s all water over the levee. What matters, Douthat says, is that Bush tried to fix things.

The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch.

Never mind that the last sentence above is incoherent, since a disaster is not “averted” if it has already been “created.” Because the young man has his work cut out for him. A Times column runs around 800 words, and for a weekly column that averages out to more than 100 words a day.

What matters is that Douthat is trying (very! LOL) just as Bush tried.

It’s true that Bush didn’t personally formulate the surge, or craft the bailout. But he was, well, the decider, and if he takes the blame — rightly — for what Donald Rumsfeld wrought, then he should get credit for Gen. David Petraeus’s successes in Iraq, and for blessing the sweeping decisions that Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke made in last September’s desperate weeks.

The toner on the first printouts of history is barely dry, and already we get revisionism: Iraq was Rumsfeld’s fault. Bush “takes the blame,” yes, but only because he happened to be President at the time. And (having been entirely marginalized by his party during the election campaign of last year, his policies and decider-y achievements ignored by everyone from John McCain to Trig Palin, a duck not only lame but whose legs had been amputated) Bush is now applauded for not standing in the way of a measure that, in the end, seems mainly to have benefited his own best friends within the filthy-rich class.

And if we give Bush credit on these fronts, it’s worth reassessing one of the major critiques of his presidency — that it was fatally insulated, by ideology and personality, from both the wisdom of the Washington elite and the desires of the broader public.

This is–talk about recombinant genetics–a straw man entirely made of baloney. It was not “the wisdom of the Washington elite” that Bush was–and is, and forever will be–insulated from. He was insulated from the truth. He was insulated from knowledge. He was insulated from the advice of experts not pre-vetted to tell him what he wanted to hear. He was insulated from CIA professionals who had actual data from the field. He was insulated from intelligent people not as committed to the cause of the Republican Party as Karl Rove preferred. He was insulated, by his own fundamental combination of resentment, insecurity, and unexamined anger, from anyone to whom he–rightly–felt inferior.

In reality, many of the Bush-era ventures that look worst in hindsight were either popular with the public at the time or blessed by the elite consensus. Voters liked the budget-busting tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The Iraq war’s cheering section included prominent Democrats and scores of liberal pundits. And save for a few prescient souls, everybody — right and left, on Wall Street and Main Street — was happy to board the real-estate express and ride it off an economic cliff.

In reality, this is worthy of Brooks himself. Yes, the Iraq invasion was “popular with the public at the time.” But when a sizable percentage of the credulous, frightened public (not to mention prominent Democrats and scores of liberal pundits) based that support on a falsehood (that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks), and when that and other falsehoods originated with Bush and his administration, just how valid is that popularity? Douthat, good little conservative apologist that he is, somehow overlooks that aspect of things.

This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.

And there you have it: a little parallel-universe re-telling of the facts; a self-serving and selective account of what happened; a white-washing absolution of sins and crimes to be blamed on others; and some circus clown tears over “mistakes.” Put them all together and you achieve the impossible: Bush as a “good president.” Bill “Always, Always in Error” Kristol’s position has been well and truly filled.

Welcome to The Show, kid. Now you have to work on your clichés.