There is a perverse new meme brewing on the right, a riff on the apparent impotence of the Obama administration to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It goes like this: some things are just too big and complex for the government to deal with. In fact, 21st century life itself has grown too complex and interconnected for government to deal with. So let’s scale back our expectations and our reliance on government to fix stuff. Just go with the flow, as it were.

At NRO, Yuval Levin dismissed the anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina as unjustified because “accidents happen.” David Brooks argued that technological systems had grown too complex to manage in a column last week. In a later NPR discussion with E.J. Dionne, he rejected the idea that more effective regulation might have made a difference in heading off the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

As for the regulation, if you go down the list of decisions that were made that led to this disaster, the interpreting of the tests, whether to recycle the cement, how to recycle the mud, how to set the cement, none of these things is clear to me would be solved by different regulations. There are certain decisions that have to be made on the spot on a case by case basis and they were made, in this case, by people under extreme duress and in extreme ignorance. I’m not sure a regulator 3,000 miles away could really have done a better job.

It’s interesting how Brooks can take a good point (the problems of growing techno-complexity) and, in a sentence, turn it into a dumb, knee-jerk point. (more…)

A controlled burn of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, May 19

David Brooks has a good column today on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sums up a significant problem my last post touched on: modern life is made possible by various complicated technological-bureaucratic systems. And these things can go south rather quickly and surprisingly. Part of the problem is that they’re complex, and not managed well. That’s par for the course. But the tricky thing is our collective expectations: we (and often the people running them) expect them to just work, and our expectations are way wrong:

Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As [Malcolm] Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This is about right. But not exactly. (more…)

Washington has been consumed for months not just by the endless health care sausage-making process, but also by the tedious meta-debate about the process itself. And the process is indeed, debatable. Nancy Pelosi’s latest wrinkle, called “deem and pass” is a faintly ridiculous maneuver in which House members could avoid actually voting for the Senate health care reform bill that so many of them fear and despise, yet pass it anyway.

This institutionalizes what you might call the John Kerry approach to legislation – you can be for something before you’re against it, and then be sort-of for it anyway! As Kevin Drum notes:

Any Democrat who thinks that Republican attacks this fall are going to be blunted even a smidge because, technically, they voted for the package of fixes, not the main bill, is living in fantasy land.

In fact, it will probably just make things worse. They still will have voted for the Senate bill, but it’ll look like they’re trying to hide the fact. That’s the worst possible tack they can take. For the fence sitters, their best hope is to pass the bill — through gritted teeth if they must — and then come out of the House chamber smiling broadly and proclaiming it a historic advance for ordinary Americans of all incomes etc. etc.

But does any of this matter (except in some marginal congressional races where it might become an campaign issue)? Put another way: does anybody outside of Washington care about congressional process? Most of the nation’s frustration and anger over Congress and health care is not due to arcane procedural maneuvering, but to the fact that, after more than year, the maneuvering has accomplished nothing. What matters is results. Once health care reform passes – or fails – Americans (with the exception of the parliamentarians) will instantly forget about reconciliation.

There’s only one thing more craven than tricky insidery rules, and that’s yammering about their alleged outrageousness. Is there any more vacuous debate? It’s not even a debate but a debate about the terms of the real debate, and its content is almost all opportunistic and hypocritical. Sarah Palin can fulminate about the alleged extra-constitutionality of Democratic tactics, but who doesn’t think she and her followers wouldn’t applaud such maneuvering if it were used to pass something they liked?

Moreover, it’s mostly just cable chat show noise. There’s nothing politically at stake. There’s no downside to attacking congressional process, because nobody outside of Washington understands or cares about it. There’s also very little upside (aside from firing up your own followers) because the politicians using those rules know that.

Here’s David Brooks attacking reconciliation:

Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House. The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.

We have a political culture in which the word “reconciliation” has come to mean “bitter division.” With increasing effectiveness, the system bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy.

Brooks, it turns out, gets his reconciliation facts wrong. And this in the service of his own twisty maneuver, this time in the rules of rhetoric, couching a blunt partisan argument into a supposedly high-minded elegy for a non-existent time when comity trumped politics.

Is Avatar stupid? The standard rap is that James Cameron’s movie turns the complex relationships between civilization and nature into a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains battle. It caricatures corporations (and, more generally, capitalism and Western civilization) as rapacious. Nature and indigenous populations, meanwhile, are treated with dewy sentimentalism that discounts the achievements of civilization and the rapaciousness of nature itself.

David Brooks is the latest to take a shot, identifying some implicit racism in Avatar‘s plot, in which a white guy becomes the hero of blue people. (At least he’s handicapped.)

All good points! But there’s something seriously off-base about these critiques.

Here’s what I’d ask the critics: It may be cliched; it may not be even-handed. But does Avatar (in which a corporation and and its army of mercenaries attempt to kill members of an indigenous tribe and destroy their jungle home in order to mine a rare element) get the basic man vs. nature theme wrong?


David Brooks is, of course, absolutely right that the Obama administration has bitten off way, way more than it can possibly chew:

President Obama has concentrated enormous power on a few aides in the West Wing of the White House. These aides are unrolling a rapid string of plans: to create three million jobs, to redesign the health care system, to save the auto industry, to revive the housing industry, to reinvent the energy sector, to revitalize the banks, to reform the schools — and to do it all while cutting the deficit in half.

If ever this kind of domestic revolution were possible, this is the time and these are the people to do it. The crisis demands a large response. The people around Obama are smart and sober. Their plans are bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.

Yet they set off my Burkean alarm bells. I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well. I fear that we have a group of people who haven’t even learned to use their new phone system trying to redesign half the U.S. economy.

Brooks is also right that the results of these efforts, once they’re tallied up a few years or decades from now, may not live up to their advance billing. How could they? But his critique is a bit of a pose.

If, over the past decade, American conservatives had actually operated from the cautious, modest principles that Brooks extolls, America would be in much better shape than it is today. Instead, they treated governing as a kind of grand ideological experiment. We got laissez faire approaches to the environment and the economy. We got Iraq and Bush’s second inaugural address promising to spread liberty throughout the world. All of these policies privileged, to varying degrees, either abstract point-scoring or political constituency-rewarding over the realities they purported to address.

Obama, by contrast, is (so far, anyway) responding to a genuine set of emergencies by reconfiguring the instruments of government. It’s not shocking that he’s using liberal principles to do this – but it’s not like he’s embarking on an unhinged scheme, out of the blue, to create a Really Great Society. That wouldn’t work anyway – it would fail just as the Bush-Rove project to conjure up a national consensus around narrow and arbitrary conservative principles, disengaged from actual problems, failed. If Obama fails, the failure won’t be due to over-interpreting a political mandate. It will be because the things he tries don’t work. At which point, one hopes, he’ll try something else.

David Brooks hit upon something important in his “neural Buddhists” column last week: both the militant atheists and religious fundamentalists miss out on larger truths about the nature of spirituality that scientists are actively exploring:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

As it is with Brooks at his best, the column boils down a large amount of difficult material into provocative and culturally savvy points – which, in this case, happen to be mostly correct. “The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships” is straight out of Buddhism 101, and accords not just with scientific understanding of the body and mind but also with common sense. (Buddhism emerged in a milieu of ancient Indian religious philosophies that explored the nature of the body-mind in a systematic, experimental way. The Buddha himself put the era’s leading approach to spiritual insight, asceticism, to the test, nearly starving before ultimately rejecting it.) And the is-there-or-isn’t-there debate about God is, indeed, mostly beside the point, a sideshow that sells a lot of books but elides the important questions.

But the column still falls into a typical Brooksian trap: glibness. Are the religious experiences scientists are investigating really a kind of gooey (small-r) rapture, the perception of “the unknowable total of all there is”? I wish he’d chosen his words more carefully. And how are these very diverse concepts – no fixed self, morality, ecstatic experiences of oneness – related, except in the broadest terms, as a bunch of stuff scientists (and religious people through the ages) have observed? Brooks tosses around interesting ideas, which may or may not be connected, either conceptually/theologically or even scientifically, and suggests they’re all part of a single cultural revolution now underway. Not sure about that. The scientific study of morality, for instance, tries to tease out its evolutionary basis – typically, the advantages of altruism for perpetuating genes. But when altruism (or any kind of self-sacrifice) becomes merely a tool for keeping the species going – a means to an end – it loses any claim on the sacred, and on true morality. If you’re being nice to advance your own interests, in other words, you’re not really being nice. And God (if there is one) knows it. But most scientists wouldn’t make that distinction.

On the other hand, Ross Douthat’s critique of Brooks sounds equally muddled:

This notion’s major premise is summed up nicely by Brooks as follows: “Particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.” No, the Christian would say: Particular religious systems are cultural artifacts, in a sense, yes, but they’re artifacts built around specific human experiences, not universal ones. Christian theology and Christian ritual are compatible with the universal human ability to experience the sacred through prayer and meditation, but they’re “built on top” of particular encounters and revelations that tend to have little in common with the “transcending boundaries/overflowing with love” experiences that neuroscientists are equipped to measure. Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, the foundational encounters with God – the religious experiences that created Judaism and Christianity – are nothing like a meditative, free-floating sense of one-ness with the universe. Instead, whether it’s Moses encountering the burning bush or Job being addressed out of the whirlwind or the disciples encountering the Risen Christ, the encounters with God that shape the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to be extremely personal on the one hand (God has a personality, a voice, even a body; He isn’t just some cosmic soup we can all go swimming in) and extremely terrifying and difficult to comprehend on the other.

Here, Brooks’s generalizations are turned into straw men. Of course religions are built on “specific” experiences. Every person’s experiences are, after all, specific. You cannot build a religion on some abstract, unrealized human capability – it must be realized, and every realization will by definition be unique, a product of its own place and time. “A free-floating sense of oneness” may crudely describe, clipboard-style, what some test subjects felt. But it’s a cliche, some words on a page – it doesn’t capture the actual experience they had. By the same token, I doubt Douthat, or the rest of us for that matter, can know what Moses, or Jesus, or the Apostles were thinking and feeling. We have some idea of it from what people wrote down, years after the fact, and yes, it was strange and surprising. Real insights always are.

Photo: Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue in Kamakura, Japan


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