Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Crises of context

Phyllis Haver as Roxie in the first film version of Chicago, by Cecil B. DeMille (1927).
David Brooks is jiving:
As Henry Kissinger said, once you get in government you are not building up human capital; you are just spending it down.
Sort of like the salmon that spends its life in the ocean getting fat enough to make that trip up the river to spawn. It's funny to think of old Professor Kissinger doing that, acquiring a lifetime's worth of (evil) character and skill (per Wikipedia, human capital is "the stock of competencies, knowledge, habits, social and personality attributes, including creativity, cognitive abilities, embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value") so he could piss it all away in his eight years in the corridors of power. Only instead of fertilizing a new generation he created the Rolodex that would sustain him in pointless fatuity for decades to come.

Our "people in senior positions", Brooks says, "people at the top of government", and "people in power" are unable to develop new points of view as they "spend down" the old ones, "myopically" unable to see the forest as they deal with the trees, and walled in in bunkers against the "avalanche" of "criticism—much of it partisan and ill-informed" (you're not apologizing, are you, Brooksy?) with which they are assaulted.

That's certainly an awful lot of analogies to ask a person to live with, and sure enough, it's giving our leadership problems:
We are not living in a moment of immediate concrete threat, but we are in a crisis of context.
The exhausted context of our spent-down points of view? The blurry context of our neglected peripheral vision? The un-context of our unvariegated bunker walls? The what?
Le Cochon Danseur, Pathé, 1907.

I was not wholly unimpressed by the next group of thoughts, suggesting that the big current news crises, in Ukraine and the Iraq-Syria borderlands, are not exactly "threats":
The venture by President Vladimir Putin of Russia into Ukraine, for all its thuggery, is not, in itself, a cataclysmic historical event. The civil war in Syria, for all its savagery, is not a problem that threatens the daily lives of those who live outside.
Vladimir Vladimirovich, and the so-called Islamic State, he says, are acting out of weakness, unable to achieve their aims within the framework of civilized rules and norms and therefore working outside them, and that's certainly a much better picture of Putin than the comic book villain he was trying to sell us last spring, and a useful way of thinking about the Mesopotamian irredentists as well. Then again, to refer to them as a "coalition of the unsuccessful" is rhetorical overkill, in particular because they are in no sense a coalition, strongly allied as Russia is with the Caliphate's immediate and bitter antagonists in Alawite Damascus and Shiite Tehran.

But then he goes on to say,
Putin and ISIS are not threats to American national security, narrowly defined. They are threats to our civilizational order.
The danger being apparently that weakness is going to become fashionable and everybody will want to do it. And the "civilizational order" being the critical context that our starving, nearsighted, and walled-in leaders are unable to appreciate.

I don't think so, for one thing. Poutinisme has turned Russia into a petro-state that is unable to diversify its economy and can feed its people only by selling off that one unrenewable patrimony. The Caliphate will not in the medium term be able to hold on to a single city and will have no long term at all. Neither has a sustainable approach, and neither will ever have a significant following of imitators, though they may cause a lot of horror and long-term damage before they collapse.

Brooks's moral seems to be that we shouldn't panic because our national security is threatened, but we should panic anyway for contextual reasons, whatever that could possibly mean, that is for special reasons known only to him, and it sounds like some of that ill-informed and partisan criticism and a call to neoconservative action, though he's not so indelicate as to say so the way Dr. Bill Kristol does.

As Driftglass points out, his frightened description of the irresponsibility and effrontery of the Revolting Weak sounds applicable to the US conservative movement. And indeed, to add to that, what Brooks calls "Putinism" sounds like the doctrine developed for Nicaragua (1981-90), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989-90), and of course Iraq (1991, 2003, etc.):
There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can. But this is precisely the norm that Putin is brazenly crushing under foot. If Putinism can effectively tear down this norm, more and more we’ll live in a world in which brazenness is rewarded and self-restraint is punished.
I.e., Help! Help! everybody's going to be brazen unless we out-brazen them in advance! But honestly, we tried that already.

No comments:

Post a Comment