FOR ONCE IT WOULD ACTUALLY BE GOOD FOR OBAMA TO LISTEN TO DAVID BROOKS

If Barack Obama only listens to one piece of advice from David Brooks (and unfortunately, he seems to listen to a lot more than that), this would be a good one on the Supreme Court:

I think, if I were sitting there in the Obama White House, from a Democratic perspective, I would say: Hey, we’re going to lose six to eight senators. We’re never going to get another shot to nominate a liberal. Let’s take our chances with this one.

If Obama’s going to give David Brooks’ views more weight than Paul Krugman’s (let alone Barbara Ehrenreich’s), let’s hope he at least takes this rare bit of good advice.

WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

Kate Sheppard notes the passage of Russia’s “Day of Conception:”

Today falls exactly nine months before Russia Day, and as one of Putin’s policies to encourage more breeding in his country, he’s offered SUVs, refrigerators, and monetary rewards to anyone who gives birth on June 12. So the mayor of Ulyanovsk, a region in central Russia, has given workers there the afternoon off to make with the baby making. Everyone who gives birth is a winner in the “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia’s Independence Day” contest, but the grand prize winner — judged on qualities like “respectability” and “commendable parenting” — gets to take home a UAZ-Patriot, a Russian-made SUV.

This seems like as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get (at least until June 12, which incidentally is the anniversary of two commendable parents I know) to ask why the kinds of natalist appeals and policy justifications that are so widespread in Europe are all but non-existent in the United States. Sure, American politicians seem to be expected to have gobs of kids to demonstrate their family values. But why is it much more common for politicians in Europe to push policies explicitly designed to make people have more kids?

Discouraging though it may be, I think the best answer is race. Politicians in Sweden or in Russia or in France get further with calls for the nation to have more babies for the sake of national greatness or national survival because that nation and those babies are imagined to look more the same.

Marty Gillens caused a stir with his research suggesting that Americans have negative attitudes towards welfare and its beneficiaries because of their negative views towards the racial groups imagined to benefit (Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, Bruce Sacerdote, Simo Virtanen, and Leonie Huddy further explore this). Americans are less inclined to support government spending on social programs, these scholars argue, because they’re less likely to imagine those programs benefiting people who look like them. Conversely, Swedes are more content with a robust welfare state because their immigration restrictions keep those benefits away from people of other races.

(In 1990, the top country sending immigrants to Sweden was Norway. In 2000, it was Iraq. And the increase in Sweden’s foreign-born populations in the 90’s roughly equaled the increase from the 70’s and 80’s combined. There’s cause for concern that as immigration to Sweden increases, benefits will decrease or access for immigrants will decrease – a process Swedish conservatives already began in the 1990s.)

I don’t think you can really explain the lack of natalist rhetoric in the US without similar logic, and particularly confronting animus towards a group Americans can’t deny welfare benefits simply by cutting off immigrants: African-Americans. What Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” heaps shame on imagined “welfare queens” for working too little and birthing too much. In the controversy over the ’96 welfare bill, fertility came up plenty, but the imagined problem was too many babies, not too few. Churches and others made what you might consider natalist arguments against the bill, but they didn’t get much traction – unlike the GOP Congressman who held up a “Don’t feed the alligators” sign.

So when David Brooks wrote a paean to natalism in America, he left those hated Black women out. Instead, in a column a month after the ’04 election, he cited Steve Sailer (who even John Podhoretz recognizes as a racist) celebrating that “George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates.” Brooks’ column celebrates these fertile white parents for demonstrating good red-state values:

Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling…The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.

Can you imagine a prominent right-wing pundit or politician saying such things about a low-income Black family that chose to have more kids?

Now some will say that American conservatives are less natalist than their European counterparts because they’re more anti-government. Which is a fair point, but I think it’s difficult to explain the presence of “Christian Democrat” parties in Europe without considering race. Or you could argue that the natalist push in Europe is based in part in fear of immigration. Which circles back on the same argument: racial fears and prejudices map more easily along lines of citizenship in countries that have historically had fewer non-white citizens. Just as the comparative historical ethnic diversity of the United States plays a role in explaining why our political system has held down benefits for everyone rather than only restricting them to citizens (though we’ve done that too), it seems like the strongest explanation for why we don’t hear lots of appeals for America to have more babies.

Is there a better explanation? (This is where those of you who’ve been kvetching about the paucity of posting should leave comments)

THE DIGNITY OF YOUTH

I’m no fan of hipsterdom (it says a lot that it takes preppy-ism to make hipsterdom look goood, sort of like it takes feudalism to make laissez-faire capitalism look good). But this David Brooks column railing against hipster parents who dress their kids in hipster outfits is just silly (makes John Tierney look good – almost). To read Brooks, you’d think that the hipsters were the first and only parents to impose their particular culture on their children. Everybody else must just dress their kids in what they’d be wearing in the state of nature, right? What with all the sneering about the counterculture’s dupes, he never quite gets around to specifying what that should be – just that it has something to do with “the dignity of youth.”

I’ll take a baby T-shirt that says “My Mom’s Blog Is Better Than Your Mom’s Blog” over one with a big Nike swoosh any day.

Bad idea:

The leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, concluded that the group must bow to political reality and moderate its message and its goals. One official said the group would consider supporting President Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program.

Talk about forgoing the big tent. The Human Rights Campaign has always been too conservative for me. But this would be a new low. First, because contrary to the impression one might get from Queer Eye for the Staight Guy, scores of queer folks and their families also depend on social security to enable them to retire with dignity rather than into poverty, and they too deserve better than this privatization sham. Second, because now more than ever, as the economic justice movement struggles to better do justice to its queer constituents, standing on the wrong side of one of the major economic justice debates of the next four years can only narrow the movement. Third, because social security privatization is also incredibly unpopular with the American public, as it should be. So if, as the article suggests, the HRC’s new focus is on introducing gay America to everybody else, this seems like a particularly ill-chosen move to start with. (Spotted by Julie Saltman)

Speaking of Social Security, some one should ask David Brooks whether he’d be comefortable staking his national security on the stock market. Because if not, he’s in a strange position to be telling working class Americans to entrust their economic security to it. There’s a reason we call it “Social Security,” not “Social Program In Which If You Play Your Cards Right You Have A Decent Shot Ending Up Less Poor Than Without It.”

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

David Brooks on the Spanish electorate:

I don’t care what the policy is. You do not give terrorists the chance to think that their methods work. You do not give them the chance to celebrate victories.

If that’s really the case, then why did Bush provide Usama bin Laden exactly the “clash of civilizations” confab he was seeking by invading Iraq? Why does he support Israel’s policy of advancing Hamas terrorists’ intentions of forestalling peace by responding to terrorism by suspending peace talks? Why is he appeasing religious fundamentalists worldwide with a federal marriage ammendment?

I tend to make an effort, on this site, to highlight pieces by folks I generally, sometimes vehemently, disagree with which demonstrate our common ground. On the one hand, it bolsters my case to cite supporters to the right of the upper- or lower-case left. On the other hand, I think it’s important to distinguish differences in postulates, differences in conclusions, and everything in between – to know where the real area of contestation lies. And sometimes, just because it’s reassuring and humbling to remember what we don’t disagree about.

Having said all that, I’ve made clear in the past what I tend to think of David Brooks’ arguments. The same probably holds for the arguments he would see as natural correlaries – and I would see as perversions – of the account he sets forth in column today. But his account, nonetheless of a Bar Mitzvah in the shadow of the Shoah is deeply resonant. I was also, not so long ago, a Bar Mitzvah named Joshua, and I chanted the Shama holding a Torah rescued from an atrocity which so many – one of whom I’m named after – could not escape.