DEATH BY PARAPHRASE. It's the cheapest trick in the opinion-monger's playbook: if a person says something with which you disagree in a manner that is just a bit too nuanced for a full frontal assault, paraphrase him - then attack the paraphrase.
New York Times columnist David Brooks takes that low road this morning. In a rambling discourse about the tortured religiosity of Abraham Lincoln, Brooks suddenly interjects:
We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.
What did Kuttner say? You will note that Brooks's formulation - "a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism" - is his, not Kuttner's. Though that doesn't stop Brooks from accusing Kuttner of "smug ignorance" for allegedly holding such a view.
Well, here is the Kuttner Boston Globe column to which Brooks refers. Kuttner does have some harsh things to say about the religious absolutism that is driving much of our public discourse today. But you be the judge as to whether Kuttner demonstrates "smug ignorance."
Here is what may be Kuttner's toughest pronouncement:
Today's religious extremists are not only trying to use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer. They oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth. They twist history to claim that the Republic's freethinking Founders, like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, were really theocrats like themselves. They long for the predemocratic world of absolutes circa 1500.
Of course, he's right, but I digress. Consider what Kuttner has to say about the new pope: "Despite going through the motions of ecumenical outreach, Benedict XVI in his prior life as Cardinal Ratzinger made it all too clear that people who did not embrace the one true church and its dogmas were going straight to hell. Happily, most American Catholics disagree." I don't know about you, but to me that sounds an awful lot like Brooks's observation that "neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth." Yes, Kuttner is nastier; but they're both saying the same thing, more or less.
Kuttner also writes:
Mercifully, religious extremists do not represent anything like a majority. We still have a proudly independent judiciary - in the Schiavo case, Governor Jeb Bush could not find a single Florida judge willing to overturn the testimony of countless doctors. And mainstream denominations like the Presbyterians have begun speaking out vigorously on behalf of religious tolerance and pluralism.
In other words, Kuttner is not criticizing all believers - just the intolerant few. Again, the similarity to Brooks is obvious.
No, Brooks and Kuttner are not in complete agreement. Brooks clearly has more sympathy for the religious right than Kuttner. Needless to say, both are sophisticated men of the world who disagree with the righteous. It's just that Brooks thinks they're cute, and Kuttner thinks they're dangerous.
And Brooks is incredibly disingenuous, using the most widely read opinion page in the media in order to attack the less-well-known Kuttner with words that aren't even Kuttner's. Ugly stuff.