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David Brooks and the importance of ignorance awareness

I have my ups and downs about New York Times columnist David Brooks. But if one wants to even pretend to have an open mind and hold out any hope for communication across the ideological and partisan divide, liberals have to pay attention to the smartest, most reasonable facts and arguments coming from conservatives, especially conservatives with a demonstrated ability to take something other than the party line. (Same would be true, of course, if the words liberal and conservative were swapped in that sentence.)

In case you don’t know, every Friday “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS features a discussion of the week’s politics with Brooks and liberal columnist Mark Shields (Shields is now on his third conservative partner in that gig. Can you remember the other two?)

Last Friday, this brief Lehrer-Brooks exchange seemed worth sharing verbatim:

JIM LEHRER: Finally, your thoughts, five years of the Iraq war, what are you thinking about right now, David…


… about the war and the rest? What needs to be said about it? Let’s put it that way.

Well, it’s been a searing experience for the country and for a lot of us. I would say it’s changed my view of the world quite dramatically, as I look back.

And I think what I knew, but didn’t practice, was the sense that societies are complex, organic organism, more complex than we can possibly understand. And if you’re going to intervene…

You mean other societies than our own?

BROOKS: Ours, too. Ours, too.


And if you’re going to intervene in a society, you have to respect the complexity and respect your own ignorance of that complexity. And that’s something every conservative should really know. But sometimes those facts were held in abeyance in the enthusiasm of the moment.

What think?

Here it is in full context.

(And the answer to the trivia question above: First it was David Gergen and Shields. Then Shields and Paul Gigot. Now Shields and Brooks.)

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 03/24/2008 - 11:39 am.

    Many, many years ago when I was in high school I read The Ugly American, which treated in novel form the problem of intrusive ignorance by Americans abroad. It was not great literature, but it addressed the ineffectiveness of US foreign aid due to lack of understanding of local realities by US officialdom. The Ugly American made a big impression on me. But the central message continues to allude our decision makers who have a lot of power, a mechanistic view of life and no patience. We reaped the results of this in Vietnam and now in Iraq. Amnesia concerning these experiences will continue to be our national tragedy.

  2. Submitted by Nelson Nelson on 03/24/2008 - 01:40 pm.

    David Brooks my favorite conservative…atleast I can tell he has put some thought into an issue.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/24/2008 - 03:09 pm.

    There’s a fine line between nuanced and wishy-washy, and Brooks seems to walk it, particularly when he is spouting pop-psych (I AM a professional….).

    Is he saying that he was ignorant of the nature of Iraqi society (and the fact that there is no such thing in a generic sense) until now?
    That he didn’t know that he was ignorant until now?

    And I won’t even start to comment on his confession of ignorance about our own society.

    I’ll just ask one question:
    How can you respect a society if you’re ignorant concerning it? I’d expect more in the way of talking about how to overcome that ignorance, rather than wallowing in it. But then, I’m not a conservative.

    I don’t think that David Brooks is in fact among the smarter conservatives. For an example of a conservative who does not always toe the party line I’d nominate George Will.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/24/2008 - 05:52 pm.

    While I am glad to see Brooks’ statement, its flavor seems more excuse than revelation.

    It is hard to plead ignorance when the evidence is clear that exactly the kind of complex information Brooks suggests was absent, was offered by military and diplomatic experts within the Bush administration prior to the war and that advice was not only ignored, but its offerrees punished.

    It is hard to say our understanding lacked such complex ‘nuance’ when we so clearly disdained the muddle-headedness of ‘nuance’, relying instead on the enthusiastic moral clarity of ‘good vs evil’ that still pervades the framing of our foreign policy.

    And in suggesting why ‘practice’ did not follow ‘knowledge’, Brooks offers the ‘enthusiasm of the moment’, a kind of national insanity defense – that is both too easy and too kind.

    In the Bush administration’s planning, selling and executing of the Iraq War, what we have is not an unfortunate ignorance, but a willful bull-headedness, an intentioned overriding of reality in pursuit of a predestined policy by a group within this administration that still believes that it has the power to create its own reality and enforce this ‘reality’ upon the world.

    But as long as Brooks and his fellow conservatives are in such a contemplative mood, in considering further military moves on the big board (such as against Iran) there is another area of enthusiastic ignorance that should be addressed.

    Before we go to war again (euphemistically described as ‘intervening’ by Brooks) we should acknowledge our ignorance not only of the ‘society’ that is the object of our ‘intervention’ but also our ignorance on that particular method of intervention.

    Supporters of the current administration and their foreign policy seem fond of quoting Clausewitz’s line that “war is merely a continuation of politics by other means.” In doing so they imply that it is a rational act with identifiable variables and foreseeable consequences.

    They should take time to explore the complexities of that statement and recognize that it was not a conclusion but part of a larger discussion Clausewitz was having about war.

    Clauswitz was saying that just as war is not solely an act of brute force, it also is not solely an act of rational policy. He is saying instead, as described by Christopher Bassford in “Clausewitz and His Works”, that the nature of war “lies in his “fascinating trinity” [wunderliche dreifaltigkeit]: a dynamic, inherently unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation.”

    ‘We just didn’t know’ is not enough.
    ‘It was more complicated than we figured’ is not enough.
    ‘We knew better, we just got carried away’ is not enough.

    These excuses are not enough to justify the lives lost and torn apart; nor to explain the long pattern of intentional and unintentional untruths that got us into, kept us from succeeding at and continue to keep us in this war; nor to establish a foundation for continued blundering around in this particular china shop (or the one next door) as we explain that the previous carnage resulted mostly from our failure to ‘get’ the complexities of Iraq.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 03/29/2008 - 05:03 pm.

    As I read this post and comments, I remember another time and place, when we determined to go to war against Germany and Japan.

    In the case of both countries, the issue of knowlege of the complexities of their cultures had no place in the discussion.

    They were a threat, and at least one of them had attacked us (arguably both, if U-Boat attacks are considered).

    The theme was that we were going to save the world from evil dictators.

    Not far, it seems to me, from the present situation in which our country finds itself.

    It seems to me the response of our “greatest generation” was much more appropriate than our present meanderings across the philosphical horizon.

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