The jaw-dropping stupidity of opinion journalism today

You know nothing of my work.

Because it’s so fashionable to decry the state of higher education on the pages of American dailies, I think it’s high time for humanities scholars to decry the sorry state of opinion journalism in the U.S. today.  Take this op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks from the pages of the Washington Post todayplease–about America’s “new culture war:”

America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise — limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. [Or] . . . America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.

I swear–I had to double-check the date on this, because it could have been written in 1980, 1958, or 1934, or perhaps with somewhat different language and emphases, in 1856 or 1802 or 1789.  Let’s just set aside the fundamental dishonesty of supposing that our choices really are either “free enterprise” and “market forces” versus “European-style statism.”  (I guess he assembled his column from a Reason Foundation-provided copy of Mad Libs.)  In what sense is this in fact “a new culture war?” 

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  

Yes, Arthur:  even this Marxist feminist American historian–or anyone else with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers–can tell you that this is the original kulturkampf in these United States.  Brooks then goes back to quote Thomas Jefferson in 1801 to “prove” that the U.S. has always been about free enterprise.  (Because as we’ve already established, many editorialists, especially of the conservative variety, are apparently incapable of recognizing or understanding the fact that there was no such thing as a consensus on anything among the so-called “Founding Fathers.”)  Well, yes Arthur:  a small federal government was the Antifederalist/Democratic ideal, wasn’t it?  Except when it came to slavery, of course:  then the Democrats were perfectly willing to let the federal gummint protect their “property rights,” and to use coercive instruments like the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and the Dred Scott decision (1857) to extend their rights into states that had abolished slavery.  Democrats and Dixiecrats in the middle of the twentieth century then yelped and hollered about “states’ rights” and “freedom of association” again when it came to federal Civil Rights legislation, only because they no longer steered the ship of state.  (What do you really think all of those “Impeach Earl Warren” bumper stickers were about, friends?  Abortion rights or school prayer?)

But even if we leave aside slavery and Civil Rights, tell me:  whodug all of those canals and who built all of those railroads?  What about all of those miracle cures that physicians and scientists have developed in the past century?  Who paid for the interstate highway system and the expansion of American universities after World War II?  How did the internet get invented?  “Free enterprise” my a$$.  Hey, Arthur:  can we get a bedtime story about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny next time?  Because they’re about as authentic and real as “free enterprise” has ever been.

0 thoughts on “The jaw-dropping stupidity of opinion journalism today

  1. Besides the general boneheadedness I’m struck by the truculent tone of this:
    These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.
    Do advocates from the Center-Left–roughly speaking, people who think the Civil Rights Act and the NLRA and Roe and Medicare and the GI Bill et al. were good things–ever take this attitude? Why do we (and of course I count myself on that side of the Kulturkampf) never insist that the policies we support are immiscible with the continued existence of a healthy private sector and a market mechanism for (some) prices? Why do we keep playing pat-a-cake when our ideological adversaries believe the game is kill or be killed?


  2. rootlesscosmo is right: The NY Times and Washington Post never stop appeasing these fight-pickers. No matter how much these guys demand, everyone (starting with the President) agrees they are entitled to more. Look how much space Arthur C. Brooks commandeered from a supposedly liberal newspaper.

    “We must choose,” eh? What if we don’t? Or what if we choose something other than what this person wants?


  3. Interestingly, political scientist James A. Morone has a worthwhile column today, also in the WaPo, in which he makes a persuasive argument (see p. 2) for the left/liberal abdication of the language of morality in advancing its agenda. Morone’s very compressed history of the “puritan” and “republican” strategies employed in American political history on p. 1 is too simplistic by half, but I think he’s right to suggest that effective political movements have been legitimately infused with moral conviction and animated by using moral language. The left used to know this–antislavery, populism, Civil Rights, and the war on poverty, for example–but it has ceded that language to the right. I think this gets to the questions that rootlesscosmo and LadyProf ask about the left today.

    Morone is the Chair of Political Science at Brown University. Isn’t it hi-larious that the most worthwhile column in the paper is by someone whose day job is university professor in the Arts & Sciences? Who’da’thunk’it?


  4. Yes! You’ve just put your finger on many of the problems that I have with the conservative and libertarian versions of history – even when I used to lean more in that direction politically. People who look back to earlier periods of American history as a golden age of small government and free enterprise seem to always overlook that government and private enterprise have often been connected from the beginning of US history, and that private entrepreneurs have often sought to take advantage of government support from the very beginning. Not to mention that for many people people (i.e., African-Americans both slave and free), the “small, hands-off” government of the time had all the coercive powers of a 20th century police state, deployed largely in the interest of protecting property rights. When it comes to state’s rights, the doctrine may be legally strong, but historically it tends to get supported by whichever side is not in control of the federal government, so it has the appearance of a political tool. States’ rights would also probably have a much better reputation if it hadn’t been used so often by people who wanted to suppress individual rights.

    There’s too much distortion and oversimplification of history to fit modern politics on both sides of the political spectrum, but the right seems to be even more prone to this than the left.


  5. Paul S.–it’s good to hear from you again.

    I was just thinking about this, as you put it: “There’s too much distortion and oversimplification of history to fit modern politics on both sides of the political spectrum, but the right seems to be even more prone to this than the left.”

    I think that’s correct. My sense is that this is because the Right is temperamentally unsuited to too much complexity, perhaps because they understand that complexity is not what they need when advancing a political argument. The Right wants history to be mostly lists of facts that can be pulled out and used to justify a present-day policy initiative. But I have to admire the fact that the Right thinks history is important, even if I am disturbed by the lack of complexity in the history they want to use. On the other hand, the Left appears not to care about history–not even its own sometimes-heroic history–because as Whigs the Left thinks that history will take care of itself. And that to me is a dubious proposition.

    What do the rest of you think?


  6. I agree that the Right seems more inclined to make political use of oversimplified versions of history, but the Left’s disinclination to make similar use of a different oversimplified history seems to me to be precisely part of its political problem. By abdicating both a moral language for politics (must go read the Morone column!) and any historical narrative to frame its policies, the American Left has unhitched itself from the cultural codes that govern many contemporary American lives. So the problem is not the Left’s policy choices in themselves, but the fact that it has no language for them that fits the ways that people think about their world and their place in it. Without such a legitimizing language, they can be made to appear purely as “Washington insider” scheming.


  7. No, history definitely does not take care of itself. Or at least, when it does, you will generally not like the results.

    When the left was Marxist, we at least thought that history was on our side and that ultimate victory was just around the corner. It provided a narrative framework for understanding the past, acting in the present and hope for the future. But that certainty was wiped out by 1968/1989. It also didn’t help that Marx was wrong about a lot of things. And so was Hegel.

    Historiann is quite right, people on the left not only abandoned Marx and Hegel, but history itself. The left now inhabits a historical wasteland littered with broken themes and emblems borrowed from the past. They are not organized into a coherent narrative or analysis of the past, but instead are a collage or pastiche of things that connote ‘progressivism’ or ‘radicalism.’ But this is post modern window dressing for what people would do or say anyway.

    I keep going back to Walter Benjamin’s _On the Concept of History_ (aka Theses on History). But strictly for purposes of nostalgia and out of stubbornness. I won’t let him be buried by the Victor’s History of Neo-Liberalism.


  8. @Paul S.:

    States’ rights would also probably have a much better reputation if it hadn’t been used so often by people who wanted to suppress individual rights.

    For an interesting take on this, Henry Adams’ scathing life of John Randolph makes the case that Randolph, above all others, was to blame for hijacking the doctrine of states’ rights as a defense of slavery. There’s undoubtedly a lot wrong with this (I’m not a historian) and there was unquestionably a lot wrong with Adams, but it’s beautifully written and surprisingly passionate for a starchy New Englander.


  9. It sure don’t appear to pay to be an opinion journalist with the name of “Brooks” around this little corner of the blogosphere, that’s for sure. I just checked around to see who else might be writing out of that stable. Larry Brooks, who covers sports for the NY Post, says its too early to worry about the Yankees. Hello? Rosa Brooks, a scourge of the right wing media enterprise at the L.A. Times, left a year ago to become a policy adviser in the Obama Pentagon, calling the move “my own private bailout” in her valedictory column. So there does seem to be a pattern of some sort falling into place, it’s just not too clear what it might be.

    As a matter of naked self-interest, though, I’m voting for European-style socialism. Those big fat “retire at 50” checks probably won’t stop coming for another half century or so, which is about how long I’ll need one.


  10. This isn’t the first piece of anti-Europe writing I’ve seen. It seems to be the fashion, I think because of the health-care debate, but also now Greece’s financial problems.


  11. (Because as we’ve already established, many editorialists, especially of the conservative variety, are apparently incapable of recognizing or understanding the fact that there was no such thing as a consensus on anything among the so-called “Founding Fathers.”)

    And not only that, but weren’t these bags of fuck paying attention in ninth grade when they were taught about the ratification debates? Jeezus motherfuck!


  12. Thanks for the link to Morone’s article, Historiann. A few questions:

    1. Is it worth looking at the fact that when Morone wants to find a 20th century analog for George Washington as symbol of the righteous citizen assuming responsibility for public affairs, he turns, not to actual public life, but to Hollywood? Even if you’re a Capra admirer (which I’m emphatically not) isn’t this a little unnerving?

    2.Did the liberal left–while decrying consumerism–nevertheless adopt, along the way, an essentially consumerist version of liberalism that isn’t compatible with a morality-based politics? Where’s the moral passion if reproductive rights are framed as “choice” rather than as rights, or if explicit anti-discrimination policies are packaged as “diversity,” or the labor movement lobbies for the Employee Free Choice Act? Indvidualism isn’t a new theme in our society, but didn’t the left once reject it for its selfishness? And if so, when and why did the left start trying to merge selfishness with the idea of freedom? Isn’t that the other guys’ song? Ours was supposed to be Solidarity Forever.


  13. Morone’s editorial has its flaws. But as one raised by Rooseveltist parents (direction Eleanor) and still clinging to that ancient faith, I think he’s on to something. The language of contemporary liberalism is pathetically devoid of passion.

    I also agree absolutely with Historiann: it’s fantastic to see a professional humanist set up that portable podium in the public square and take a stand. Generations ago, the guys (and they were all guys) who taught when I teach now broadcast about culture and politics over national radio, wrote best-sellers about history and politics and played a vital role in the liberal reformism whose limits are all too clear now–and whose accomplishments, as Morone suggests, look better in retrospect than they did to young hotheads in the sixties.

    It’s time, and past time, for those with the expert knowledge to use it, critically and forcefully, to inject some seriousness into our infuriating, rancid public debate.


  14. So called “free enterprise” is what caused the hideous conditions that triggered the French Revolution. Some folks are really ignorant of history.


  15. Pingback: Monday Meanderings « Blue Lyon

  16. rootlesscosmo: I agree with you about the Left turning its agenda into the Salad Bar at Whole Foods: Fresh and Diverse! “Choice” is weak tea, but it’s been decades since women died from illegal or self-administered abortions, so talking about women’s deaths probably won’t be plausible to the current generation, since the right wing has taken advantage of the political moment to make abortion all about fetal death rather than preserving women’s lives. I think we should remind people what outlawing abortion will mean, and that is forced pregnancy. We all have our own opinions about abortion–but do we really think the state has a compelling interest in forcing pregnancy on women? Do we really want to open that door? What consequences might that for access to (or choice not to use) birth control, IVF, or other technologies or medical/surgical interventions?

    Good point about Mr. Smith, too. Morone was writing about Americans’ desire to see their political leaders as personally virtuous, but of course, even George Washington is no Washington these days, if you know what I mean. Morone might rather have pointed to the press corps’ deference to Presidential image-making in the mid-20th C, and its conscious choice not to report on FDR’s wheelchair, JFK’s womanizing, various presidential health problems, etc.


  17. Is there really such a thing as free enterprise? When has U.S. free enterprise not ended up supported one way or another by the government? And what does non-intervention by the government accomplish? The Puritans who came to this country established what amounted to a commercial charter that enabled them, as they saw it, to take the lands from the people already here. Then indentured servants were brought over to do the work. Then slavery was made legal. In short, free enterprise in our country has flourished on the backs and suffering of others. The “we must choose” dichotomy is typical of Conservative argument, who seeks to simplify it all to its lowest common denominator and eschew all the complexities inherent in the human condition. Plus, who says the author of this article gets to tell anybody what to choose?


  18. Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson being guilty of fathering the Sally Hemings children. Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, and others have used the “slavery issue” to state that he also must be fathering her children. GARBAGE…..they know nothing first hand of the Jefferson-Hemings Study. I participated with Dr Foster and know all particulars of this study.

    Please click on and for full details and recent books on this controversy.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society


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