the genuine shame of Ross Douthat’s New York Times column
When the New York Times ended (or Bill Kristol ended) the absurd farce of having among their columnists an utterly discredited, partisan neocon whose every assumption and prediction about Iraq had proven brutally and terribly wrong, there was an immediate round of speculation about who might take the laurel of a column in the newspaper of record. A lot of that presumption centered around a David Brooks column that amounted to a series of shout-outs to young, vaguely heterodox conservatives, and a ringing endorsement of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party, their intelligent, sprawling, ambitious, occasionally silly tract on how to reform the Republican party for the new millennium. (Incidentally, the column also contains the assertion that “Sam’s Club conservatism,” Douthat and Salam’s term for their brand of rightwing thought, would someday certainly become the widespread gospel of the GOP. Given David Brooks’s predictive powers, I don’t know if that’s a good thing for the authors.)
Douthat seemed a natural choice, and I, and many others, advocated for him. He had long been an editor at the Atlantic, so he had the kind of big journalistic bona fides the Times liked. His status as a white, married, Catholic male who attended Harvard and various private schools neutered arguments about who the Times hires and why– no sop to political correctness, true, but also not the kind of identity politics stunt that could have inoculated the columnist from criticism in the eyes of the cowardly Times editorial board, as, say, choosing a black female conservative would have done. Douthat also had the considerable advantage, to my lights, of being a genuine social conservative, when the easiest, most reader-fellating move would have been to appoint another columnist with economically conservative but socially “mainstream” views. It would have flattered a certain swath of the Times readership to present them with the less-personal disagreement of economic policy, while avoiding the somewhat nastier, more “offensive” talk of social conservatism. Douthat is significantly to the right of what we might perceive as the Times audience when it comes to abortion, gay marriage, and sex and family issues. This is a not insignificant advantage if, like me, you aren’t interested in reading yet another in the long line of Tom Friedman-style neoliberal national columns that our media seems to enjoy so much.
Trumping all of that, of course, was the fact that Douthat is a gifted and thoughtful writer, always more prone to long, searching essays on deeper questions of community, faith and modern life than the one-off, disposable blog posts that are the norm. Grand New Party, besides a few groaners, is to my mind an essential political text, one I disagree with strongly but one that marks such a leap forward for conservatism in process that I suspect Brooks will be proven right after all. It does little good for an unabashed leftist such as myself to say so, but what I think is key is that the text presents fresh mechanisms for producing unmistakably conservative ends. His blog on the Atlantic, meanwhile, was rarely updated but almost always worth reading. Douthat has the rare and admirable quality, in his writing, of elevating his ideas without distancing himself from their negative consequences. Douthat may not have always arrived at the right conclusions, to my mind, but it was never for lack of considering the alternative or being honest about downside. It was that integrity, and the elegance of mind that accompanied it, that made him required reading, by my lights.
The question I have been faced with over the few months that he’s been working at the Times is to wonder where the hell that Ross Douthat has gone.
There’s no accounting for taste. But I think I am hardly alone in being deeply disappointed in Douthat’s output at the Times so far. He has lost, to my mind, the generosity of spirit that marked his work, and in its place stands a crimped Puritanism that was before an invention in the mind of his critics. His lovely and charming ruminations that led to keen insights have been lost, in the pulse of weekly publication and the absence of nuance that characterizes newspaper columns. In their place stand someone appropriating a style I don’t think he likes. This, I think, may have been inevitable. As he has taken on the uncomfortable suit of “NYT’s pet conservative,” he must at once be himself and yet be the kind of columnist who no one can mistake for a false conservative prophet. It is the heterodox conservative who always has the most to lose in being elevated by liberals like me.
What we’ve gotten, because of this, is poor work, not up to his standards. He has written several columns from the perspective of joyless sex-scold that have hidden the wealth of nuance and philosophical understanding that underpins his considerable discomfort with the American culture of abundant casual sex. His column from last week pulled the neat trick of being at once a piece of advice to liberals and yet utterly dismissive of liberals and the things they cared about. His infamous California/Texas column was, at the end of the day, a tribute only to the enduring power of cherry-picking and half-truths.
Today’s column, for me, takes the cake. And it crystallizes in my mind an evolution of thought I’ve been having on this Nobel prize business. I’ll let Douthat explain. He spends paragraph after paragraph explaining that Barack Obama has nothing to gain, nothing whatsoever, from accepting the Nobel Peace prize. I take him at his word! For example
At the same time, the prize leaves Obama more open to ridicule. It confirms, as a defining narrative of his presidency, the gap between his supporters’ cloud-cuckoo-land expectations and the inevitable disappointments of reality. It dovetails perfectly with the recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which he was depicted boasting about a year’s worth of nonaccomplishments. And it revives and ratifies John McCain’s only successful campaign gambit — his portrayal of Obama as “the world’s biggest celebrity,” famous more for being famous than for any concrete political accomplishment.
Well argued! Why, from reading his entire column, you grow to understand that Obama really had nothing to gain, nothing whatsoever, from accepting this award. It’s a total negative for him.
Yet Douthat has also just said,
True, Obama didn’t ask for this. It was obvious, from his halting delivery and slightly shamefaced air last Friday, that he wishes the Nobel committee hadn’t put him in this spot.
But he still wasn’t brave enough to tell it no.
Perhaps, dear reader, you are aware of understandings of courage and cowardice that go beyond the ken of mere mortals such as myself. But I cannot understand how one can claim that courage is lacking by virtue of the fact that one refuses to do what is in his best interest. It shows a lack of bravery to not do the easiest, most self-serving, most politically palatable thing? Really? I have read opinion after opinion, from commenters left, right and center, on this issue, and none of it makes sense. All are claiming that it would be both the most pragmatic, political and self-satisfying thing for Obama to have turned down the award, and yet all are also sure that somehow his accepting it was the easy thing to do. This makes no sense, and it reveals again what a said joke the hive mind of the Internet and the punditocracy is. Do you think that Obama was unaware of the advantage to him and his administration in turning down the award? Do you think his team and handlers weren’t pointing that out to him? Do you think that there weren’t people in the administration stamping and jumping and insisting that, politically, for his all-important approval numbers, turning down the award was genius? If you think they didn’t know that, you are a fool.
No, Obama and his administration was well aware of what would be easy, self-satisfying, and a cheap political victory. And yet he chose to do the other thing. Why? Perhaps because he respects the Nobel institution. Perhaps because he thinks that it’s bad form for the president of the United States to turn down an award, freely given and meant in good-faith. Perhaps it’s because he understood, rightly, that turning the award down would be considered a slap in the face to the international community. Douthat insists that, as others have done,
Well, to start with, the prize isn’t given out by an imaginary “world community.” It’s voted on and handed out by a committee of five obscure Norwegians. So turning it down would have been a slap in the face, yes, to Thorbjorn Jagland, Kaci Kullmann Five, Sissel Marie Ronbeck, Inger-Marie Ytterhorn and Agot Valle. But it wouldn’t have been a slap in the face to the Europeans or the Africans, to Moscow or Beijing, or to any other population or great power that an American president should fret about offending.
This is, if you’ll excuse me, untrammeled bullshit. Do you think that the British press would not have interpreted this as a rejection of the reappraisal of the United States by the international community that has come in the wake of the Obama victory? The European press? It doesn’t matter what the message “really was.” If you don’t think that this is how it would have been interpreted, you’re just not thinking clearly. I still think the Nobel was a distraction, and silly, and shows an incredibly lack of political savvy on the part of the Nobel committee. But for Obama to turn it down would have been precisely the kind of political opportunism we have come to hate in our politics. It would have been a vain, selfish and empty move, a kowtow to polls and pundits, the easiest way out and a way to insist that he was above politics when he would have in fact been practicing politics of the worst kind. I have come to think that I could not be prouder of the president than I am that he chose to do the politically damaging, adult thing over the cheap, self-satisfied grandstanding so many advised of him. (Including me.)
Douthat has his strengths and his weaknesses, but he is not at his best when it comes to cultural war. His limp waves towards partisan invective are ineffectual and self-defeating. That doesn’t make me angry. Douthat, as I said, is in a tough position. As he writes for the New York Times, he has both a whole world of readers and an inherently distrustful attitude from conservatives. Any feints he makes in the direction of bipartisanship or towards liberal readings are met with howls from the movement conservatives about how he is a RINO, a New York Times conservative. So his Rush Limbaugh act is just wasted space from a writer who is so bright and capable of so much. I don’t want to speak for him but I get the impression that he is least interested of all in that kind of nose-tweaking, although of course I believe him that he finds the Nobel prize a joke and a waste.
No, what makes me angry is the title of the column, in which Douthat directly analogizes Barack Obama’s Nobel win with Hurricane Katrina. That makes me angry. That makes me livid. Douthat calls the award a “travesty” in his column. That’s funny. To me, a travesty is when an American city is swallowed by the sea and our government and its apparatus of disaster mitigation sit mutely by, in the thrall of a pathetic imbecile and the mad, hideous and immoral ideologues that control him. That is a travesty. The American project sending such a loud and shrill message that we are okay with drowned bodies lying rotting the streets, provided the people those bodies once were were black and poor in life– that is a travesty, and a tragedy. That is a wholly preventable and totally unprecedented crime against this nation, its people, and their dream of what it could possibly be. And that sort of thing, Mr. Douthat, is not an appropriate analog for a president winning a prize, no matter how little you think of it.
Ah, but I hear the keys of Conor Friedersdorf clattering away now. That wasn’t me, he insists, and it wasn’t Ross! That, after all, is all you ever hear from conservatives these days. It wasn’t I who sent our soldiers into Iraq, it wasn’t I who left children to drown in New Orleans, it wasn’t I who ordered federal prosecutors fired for failing to politicize prosecution, it wasn’t I who sat idly by as the financial sector plunged itself off of an abyss…. The only consistent definition of conservative I now feel confident in is that a conservative is someone who is not responsible for anything that the Bush administration or Republican congress has done. No, no one is responsible for the Bush administration and its many crimes. No one is responsible for the congressmen who cheered their way along. No one is responsible for the systematic failure of the Republican party machine, which placed such a pathetic, unqualified and ignorant man in the greatest seat of power the word has ever known. No, don’t blame any actual conservatives for conservatism massive failings. Such a thing wouldn’t be fair. The fact that we now have outrage and scandal over Nobel peace prizes and NEA conference calls, when in the recent future we had hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and children shivering chest-deep in putrid water– hey, that’s a facet of the fact that no one is responsible for the GOP. No one is responsible for conservatism, and Freddie, stop being unfair.
This is the true consequence of conservatism’s never-ending series of rendings and divisions: because every conservative these days fancies himself a sect of sanity in a failed ideology; because so many conservatives have taken to patting themselves on the back for their distance from the rabid rump of the conservative base, and doing nothing else but that; because American conservatism has become an army of Andrew Sullivans, parties and cliques of people who proudly declare themselves to be of no party or clique, a never-ending stream of self-styled iconoclasts who take the rich pleasures of being individuals and take none of the hard-fought, difficult and tiring dignity of being responsible for something; because of this, conservatism is lost. The problem is not that conservatives fall too quickly in line. The problem is that conservatism is a line of people insisting that they aren’t a part of the line and as such are not responsible for the actions of the line. Everyone laments the Republican party’s various failures, electoral or otherwise; no one is responsible for the Republican party. Everyone delights in the rank, unfocused and violent anger of the Tea Parties; no one will claim them as their own. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is an ideology in a decaying orbit, an ideology that prides itself on insisting on personal responsibility as so many, thanks to their well-polished, phony individualisms, refuse to take any responsibility for the whole. Conservatism is drowning because so many say (as Conor Friedersdorf insists when I criticize him) “Hey, it’s the OTHER conservatives who do THAT.”
I hold out hope that Ross will get better at his current gig. He’s too bright and too talented to not get better. The question is, can he survive– can any of them survive– this current paradigm, the easy, convenient abdication of any notion whatsoever of collective responsibility? Ross Douthat, after all, is not responsible for the Bush administration. None of them are. They’re just responsible for continuing to call themselves conservatives while this driverless bus of conservatism pushes America off of a cliff. That’s all. They’re just responsible for cheering and whooping at the failures of people who are desperately trying to hold back the massive force of conservatism’s death throes, all the while insisting that they are responsible for nothing.
It is a sad spectacle that cannot end until conservatives cease saying “I am not one of THOSE conservatives who did THAT” and start saying “I am a conservative and I will make myself responsible for desperately needed change.” No more iconoclasts and no more individualists. Now is the time for a conservatism with the courage to accept responsibility.