Thursday, June 3, 2004
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June's books of the month
The general interest book for June is David Brooks' latest work of comic sociology On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. [Hey, didn't Michael Kinsley pan it in the New York Times Book Review?--ed. It's true, every conservative's favorite liberal panned the book penned by every liberal's favorite conservative. However, much of this was due to Kinsley's overreliance on Sasha Issenberg's critique of Brooks in Philadelphia magazine. Noam Scheiber effectively deconstructed Issenberg's essay a few weeks ago:
Plus, Brooks takes great pains in On Paradise Drive to stress his reliance on the University of Michigan's prestigious Institute for Social Research for much of his data.]
The book is chock full of observations regarding the shopping, working, traveling, and child-rearing habits of affluent Americans. However, the key theme in On Paradise Drive is that Frederick Jackson Turner's famous thesis that the closing of the American frontier was a signal moment in American history is a load of bollocks. The reason is that for Americans, the frontier is the future. America is a unique country because Americans live in the future -- while many in the world are rooted in the past. Brooks gets at this through his usual mix of trenchant observation and witty verbiage. The best compliment I can pay the book is the following -- after spending the past few years wading through tome after tome trying to get at America's unique place in the world, On Paradise Drive actually gets it.
The international relations book is inspired by Greg Djerejian's complaint about the dearth of big ideas. The demand for theories to explain post-9/11 state of world politics is high -- so it might be a good idea to look at the man behind the successful Cold War strategy of containment. That would be George Kennan's American Diplomacy: 1900-1950. This collection of Kennan lectures includes his famous Foreign Affairs essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which where containment was first articulated as a doctrine.*
What's striking in looking over Kennan again is that much of his analysis was predicated on what we in the IR biz refer to as a "second image" theory. That is to say, Kennan's theory of Soviet behavior was rooted in a explanation of Soviet domestic politics rather than an analysis of the international distribution of power. Kennan had it easy, however -- all he had to do was explain the domestic politics of one country. Whoever comes up with the big idea this time around may need to explain the domestic politics of an entire region -- the Middle East.
Go check both of them out.
*OK, Kennan's 1946 Long Telegram was the first articulation -- but "Sources" was the public version of the Long Telegram.posted by Dan on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM
Kennan was focusing on the domestic politics of a hypercentralized totalitarian state - therefore other influences such as culture, Russian history and other " soft " influences could take a back seat to politics in his analysis.
Not only is the Mideast a region but culture and religion have proving more enduring than the state. The Mideast is full of cruel but brittle tyrannies - even the circumscribed, authoritarian, politics found there are reflecting the latent power and appeal of Islam and conservative Arab social mores out of weakness. The regimes lack much in the way of legitimacy to bolster the appeal of what few coherent ideas these governments attempt to articulate.posted by: mark safranski on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
> The reason is that for Americans, the frontier
posted by: Marcus Lindroos on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
Rarely have I seen anyone miss a point as severely as Marcus just did. The people in Berkeley and San Francisco whom he thinks constitute those cities are still trying to live in the '60s. Meanwhile, we in the "Red" states (boy, is that color-coding mis-loaded) are Republicans because "Republicans are the party of the rich" and we intend and expect to be rich in the future.
> we in the "Red" states (boy, is that
posted by: Marcus Lindroos on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
One must always remember while reading George Kennan that there are two of him. In many respects, he’s similar to Paul Krugman. The earlier Kennan was brilliant and mature. Unfortunately, sometime around the age of sixty he started acting like a petulant child. He virtually disowned his original comments of the 1946 Long Telegram. Thank God that Ronald Reagan ignored this banal and egotistical academic.posted by: David Thomson on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
Very disappointing choice, Dan. Nominating Kennan's work to guide us in this century is like suggesting the Catholic catechism as a guide to understanding contemporary sex relations.
Kennan is analyzing a doctrine (Marxism), a political embodiment of that doctrine (the Soviet state) and world split in two by that doctrine and its antagonist. None of those remains today.
Instead we are threatened mainly by an apolitical, apocalyptic doctrine that has utterly no economic or coherent political program or understanding of social change and that commands no support and very little sympathy outside of its adherents.
Instead of an isolated, autarkic single enemy, we face a multiplicity of state and non-state actors, some of them well-integrated into the global economy (Saudi), some not (Pakistan). Unlike the bipolar world, most of today's key nations commingle hostility to us and cooperation with us in varying degrees.
For these and other reasons--such as the inability of containment to deter terrorist cells in possession of WMD-- containment cannot be the centralizing idea for today's US grand strategy.
Neither will it do to indulge, as Kennan always does, tender poetic impulses and hitch them to WASPy notions of American exceptionalism. His last sentence is quaint:
"In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear..."
"Providence"?? Spare me. We live today in an extremely complex and dangerous world in which pieties and sweeping rhetorical vistas avail us nothing.
The key feature of this world is the double-edged sword: the Saudis are funding AQ; the Saudis are desperately dependent on maintaining current levels of world oil consumption. The French wanted to keep Saddam in power; the French hold a UNSC veto. The Chinese want to replace us as the dominant power in Asia; the Chinese desperately depend on access to the US market. We bash Japan to open its markets and to support us in our wars against islamofascism; we desperately depend on Japan, China and Korea to fund our public debt.
Can we please move beyond the Cold War?
I don't know about the rest of you, but there are all these globs of Marcu$ian condescension dripping down my computer screen.
Anyway, Dan's post reminds me of progressive California dreamer/doer Ed Wood, and the dialogue he penned for the Amazing Criswell: "Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future."posted by: Steve in Houston on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
In school, when writing a theme paper, if a teacher accused me of being "a little careless" with the facts supporting my arguments, I always responded the my broader point was still basically right. And the teacher would respond "yup" and still give me an "F." But I guess it would be too much to expect that such a basic rule of common sense should apply to David Brooks.posted by: RushBush on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
I was so intrigued by the possibility of someone salvaging David Brooks credibility that I actually registered for TNR to read Scheiber's article. Unfortunately Scheiber misses Issenberg's point, namely that since Brooks manufactures 'facts' whenever he feels the need his 'insights' are unsubstantiated opinion. If they resonate with the reader it says more about the readers views than it does about the nation.
Brooks has approximately the same level of seriousness as someone like Chris Rock or George Carlin. A good stand-up might show you something in a new light, but real understanding requires a little more work. People like Brooks are ultimately so shallow that their insights are nearly worthless.
The Red State Blue State discussion, at least the crude version retailed by people like Brooks, is merely an update on the ancient trope of the sophisticated urban versus the rural hick. As a counter to Bobo's I would offer My Cousin Vinny, a funny inversion of that ancient storytelling device. MCV might lead me to be a little less quick to jump to conclusions about rural people but I wouldn't think after watching it that I had seen a documentary on rural Alabama, Brooks doesn't even have that level of achievement since he is peddling stale cliché's and calling it analysis.
The Middle East is not so hard.
Islam + Tribalism is the basis.
The root cause this the inabilty of political structures in the ME to solve the alpha male problem non-violently. i.e. who leads and who decides leadership changes.
The difference between civilized and uncivilized is how the alpha male problem is solved.
"Instead we are threatened mainly by an apolitical, apocalyptic doctrine that has utterly no economic or coherent political program or understanding of social change and that commands no support and very little sympathy outside of its adherents. "
The doctrine is not apolitical.
It is very political.
It says the alpha male must be decided on the basis of family connections and military prowess. This is a very old way of doing buisness. It is very political.
With this type of system rebellion is always just below the surface. Harsh measures must be taken against opponents.
A good understanding of monkey politics will go a long way in making the world of human relations less obscure.posted by: M. Simon on 06.03.04 at 06:25 PM [permalink]
"...penned by every liberal's favorite conservative...."
Uh, which liberals would that be? Kaus?
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