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Sunday, December 16, 2007

David Brooks is Still a Moron

It's been a long time since I've done a "David Brooks is a Moron" post.

I thought I'd spend an hour or so this Sunday afternoon with a second pot of coffee and some ridiculous I-heart-the-rich-and-powerful column by the New York Times' leading lover of the status quo. Lately, I especially enjoy the way Brooks is ever so slightly (and with ever so little self-awareness) distancing himself from the Republicans. Just to prove that he's an equal opportunity suck-up.

He loves the rich and powerful of any political stripe.


Well, I fired up LexisNexis (I'm too cheap to buy the Times anymore) and searched for his latest column, ready to pick apart his rhetoric and point out the banality of his positions to possibly comic effect (Brooks writes most of the comedy himself).

I couldn't get past the first few sentences:

The 2008 presidential election has fundamentally shifted, but it hasn't been because of events in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's because of events everywhere else.

In Washington, the National Intelligence Estimate was released, suggesting the next president will not face an imminent nuclear showdown with Iran. In Iraq, the surge and tribal revolts produce increasing stability. In Pakistan, the streets have not exploded. In the Middle East, the Arabs and Palestinians stumble toward some sort of peace process. In Venezuela, a referendum set President Hugo Chavez back on his heels.

What stopped me wasn't the horrifying suspicion that Brooks was going to argue that the past several years of US foreign policy have made the world SAFER (I don't know if he did argue that--I really had to quit reading).

What stopped me was the mention of Iraqi "tribalism." This word has crept increasingly into discussions of the situation in Iraq. It's revolting and it betrays the paucity of our historical imagination.

Tribalism? Who can use this word without cringing? This is the word that Europeans used to describe conditions they helped create in Africa and then to legitimize colonialism.

Of course there were groups in Africa before the slave trade and colonialism. Yes, these groups were sometimes hostile to one another. But tribalism? That was a European invention. The discourse of tribalism grew out of nineteenth century anthropology--the primitivist implications of the term constructed Africa as a barbarous place that could only benefit from imperialism. This rhetorical strategy was followed by policies that produced and codified "tribalism."

This is not to say that Africa was a utopian paradise and that everything bad in the world is the invention of white guys. But the discourse of tribalism is enormously damaging and after a couple of centuries of it, we've almost entirely naturalized it. And the violence in Africa after the decline of the colonial powers bolsters its claims. But we've largely inversed the causal relationships.

So now we're doing it again. Not that Iraq doesn't have it's ethnic crises. But they didn't arise in a vacuum and calling them "tribalism" isn't going to help. It's arrogant. It's ignorant. It's destructive.


  • Sweet Baby Jeebus, I love it when you talk historical AND political in one post. It makes me all warm-fuzzy!

    I'd say that the word 'tribal' has been completely naturalized. I consider myself what astute and I had never bothered to think more deeply on the origin of the word until just this moment.

    But blaming the problem on the victim is a pretty age old tactic, right? I mean, that seems to be par for the course of any person, demographic, government, group of people with designs on another groups stash of X.

    Man, I need to take an anthropology class. I always feel like I only know 10% of anything. Just enough to mark me as a Cletus (you know, some folk'll never lose and toe, and then again, some folk'll. It's cletus the slack-jawed yokel...)I guess the road out of ignorance is marked with the picked over bones of many a Cletus.


    By Blogger Benticore, at 7:17 PM  

  • Ah, the Cletus syndrome. How well I know it. I often feel half-Cletus, half-Ralph Wiggam. "My cat's name is mittens. His breath smells like cat food."

    This tribalism thing pisses me right the hell off. As you say, it's totally a way of deflecting any blame we have in promoting violence in the region and it's a handy justification for sticking around until we get our hands on the oil. It's for their own good!

    I have a friend who is an Africanist. He teaches mostly West African literature and culture and he spends a lot of time in class trying to get the students to have a more historically nuanced view of the pre- and post-colonial (and pre- and post-slave trade) conditions that get called "tribalism." He says the students resist this, not because their dumb or Eurocentric or whatever. It's just such a useful way of talking about it.

    Which is, I guess, how the ideological obfuscation of reality always works. Ideology is reductive and therefore easy and it resolves all the tensions and problems we don't want to acknowledge. "Tribalism" is just easier to comprehend than reality.

    "The leprechaun tells me to burn things."

    By Blogger Feemus, at 11:11 AM  

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