Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Times's mush-minded conservatives: our latest doomed plea for the Times to save itself

Media Matters has a post up asking the following question: Does the Times need both David Brooks and John Tierney?

I've been thinking about that question a lot in the last month. Brooks, whose pre-column reporting work I loved, has turned out to be a disappointment. I won't agree with a conservative, but I like to be pushed and provoked, and based on past performance, I thought that Brooks was the man to do it. But Brooks writes with a tone that is almost apologetic for his right-leaning views. His columns are based on faulty premises, overbroad stereotypes and conclusory reasoning.

Brooks's 2001 article for The Atlantic, "The Organization Kid," is some kind of classic. When the Times appointed him, I was happy for him and excited for the paper. Sadly, as a columnist, he's obsessed with red state/blue state simplicities, and arbitrary cultural identity issues. This was on display in a recent column harping about the clashing worldviews of spiritual types and "militant secularists." This social conflict is as trumped up as a Wrestlemania grudge match. What bothers me more is Brooks's penchant for splitting people into tidy, discrete social castes. Most of his columns can be summarized as "Wal-Mart vs. Urban Outfitters." He throws in some conservative buzzwords, but his arguments are puddles of mush.

As the Media Matters post explains, John Tierney is up to the same tricks. Maybe it's reflective of a movement that's lost intellectual steam. The right wing is no longer fueled by Hayek and Milton Friedman. Conservatives have no unifying theme, and a lot of them are getting squeamish about the far tilt of their party. Maybe all that's left is a series of narratives about sneering overeducated liberals and the simple folk between the coasts, as if Richard Hofstadter had scripted a nationwide edition of Big Brother. Whatever the explanation, the output of these two columnists has ranged from the silly to the irrelevant.

There must be some professor at the University of Chicago who'd love to be the anti-Krugman. Until that day, the op-ed page suffers.

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