Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Who Pays This Man?

I'm not sure which David Brooks I detest more — the man whose weekly pile of vomit I continue to read in the NY Times, or the man who mumbles and grins sheepishly on the Jim Lehrer News Hour every few days, saying dumb things and getting bitch-slapped by Mark Shields. Either way, Brooks is a brightly-colored, low-hanging piñata for those like myself who cork their bats on this end of the blogosphere, for reasons that today's column makes abundantly clear. Posing in both venues as a man of reason — here assessing the predictable venality of educated American elites, there cheering the unrelenting optimism and conservatism of the ordinary American people, who never fail to persevere through it all — Brooks continually disappoints, proving himself at the end of every argument to be yet another devoted, Republican simpleton.

Like most of the neoconservatives who choke the arteries of his former home, The Weekly Standard, Brooks usually prefers to get his history completely wrong before solving our national woe. In today's offering about judicial filibusters, the culture of the Senate, and — you guessed it — the binary political divisions over abortion rights, Bobo lays the blame for nearly everything at the feet of Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe decision. Blackmun's crime was "inadvertent," Brooks observes, but
[w]hen he and his Supreme Court colleagues issued the Roe v. Wade decision, they set off a cycle of political viciousness and counter-viciousness that has poisoned public life ever since, and now threatens to destroy the Senate as we know it.
By making abortion into a matter for the courts rather than a matter for legislatures — no, he actually says this — Blackmun and his colleagues prevented the always-wise, always centrist-to-conservative American public from getting what it truly wanted and deserved, "a series of state-by-state compromises" that would have reflected — however grudgingly for some — the true will of the majority. [As an aside here, Brooks' quasi-sociological method is maddeningly 19th century. Complex sociological analysis is non-existent, as are actual social groups; instead, we get this kind of amorphous homme moyen approach that just slays me. But anyway.]

What's remarkable here is that Brooks actually seems to think that it was only the bungled intervention of the Supreme Court that made abortion a matter for the courts to fuss over. Really? Does he mean to suggest that the whole issue would have just gone away — disappearing into a sweet democratic haze — if we'd only have allowed the great states of Mississippi or Texas or Utah to come up with "centrist" laws reflecting "the true will of the majority?" Oh, come on -- stop bogarting my gravity bong, Bobo! It's not 4-20 anymore! [As another aside here, statements like these are why people shouldn't engage in counter-factual histories when they have a particular agenda to pimp. The problem with historical counter-factuals is that they often produce an alternate historical universe in which the complexities and agonies of the present are magically erased. Counter-factuals tend to produce linear histories (e.g., if this one thing hadn't happened the way it did, then this other would have happened instead, and then that would have produced this circumstance, and on and on and on). And linear histories — even histories of shit that actually happened — tend to be unhelpful oversimplifications in their own right. Again, onward.]

Brooks truly slides off the rails, though, as he explains the actual consequences of Roe:
Religious conservatives became alienated from their own government, feeling that their democratic rights had been usurped by robed elitists. Liberals lost touch with working-class Americans because they never had to have a conversation about values with those voters; they could just rely on the courts to impose their views. The parties polarized as they each became dominated by absolutist activists.
Brooks is doubtless correct that abortion rights have become the principle battleground in the judicial nomination procedure. On the other hand, he either doesn't know his history of the New Right, or he's deliberately distorting the entire history of anti-judicial activism since 1954. By the early 1970s, as I will be explaining to my students tomorrow, conservatives of many stripes were furious with the federal courts — and the Supremes especially — for all kinds of reasons. Here, according to my lecture notes, are some of the things that got their knickers in a bundle:
  • constitutional protections for criminal defendants, which were enhanced during 1960s -- protections against the use of illegally-obtained evidence (Mapp v. Ohio), self-incrimination (Miranda), denial of counsel (Gideon v. Wainwright, Escobedo v. Illinois); and protections of the right to silence (Miranda), due process (Pointer v. Texas) and speedy trials (Mallory v. US)
  • the Supreme Court was also backing down from what many perceived as “traditional values” – ruled school prayer unconstitutional in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale); made it more difficult to prosecute obscenity (Manual Enterprises v. Day [1962] and Jacobellis v. Ohio [1964]); recognized sexual privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut [1965]), clearing way for distribution of “the pill” and (later) Roe itself;
  • finally, with the Roe and Furman decisions in early 1970s (the latter declaring capital punishment laws unconstitutional), the Supreme Court had become the most visible and vigorous defender of new forms of civil rights – and the most obvious target for conservative backlash, which was able to take advantage of the Democratic Party’s support for those same rights being granted by the federal bench
  • Note that Roe is just buried in there, one case among many. My point here is not that Roe is an insignificant part of the entire story, but instead to suggest that Brooks is just stupid to explain the looming crisis in the Senate as something that scrolls back to Roe and nowhere else. This showdown over the federal courts has been building since the Brown decision in 1954 and has included dozens of court cases, about which the Right has frothed and fulminated and shaken its fists. Brooks may just as well blame that communist Earl Warren for all this. The New Right certainly did.

    As for Brooks' final bit of incoherence, I'll just offer it without comment and the dumb parts italicized:
    The fact is, the entire country is trapped. Harry Blackmun and his colleagues suppressed that democratic abortion debate the nation needs to have. The poisons have been building ever since. You can complain about the incivility of politics, but you can't stop the escalation of conflict in the middle. You have to kill it at the root. Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, politics will never get better.