Thursday, May 05, 2005

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.


Anonymous said...

You described Islamic Fundamentalists to a "T" in your first four paragraphs. Although, something tells me you were referencing "Christians" aka "Right Wing Exremists" in your comments. Putting these "extremists" on the same level makes your argument invalid.

Anonymous said...

It is that a priori dismissal of the possibility of any comparison that makes the point all the more cogent.

Anonymous said...

Dan, thanks for pointing out Brooks latest atrocity. I think his bigger misdeed is slandering "secularists" as "militant." Here's the letter I just sent him:

Dear Mr. Brooks:

- Last week the Air Force Academy acknowledged over 50 cadet complaints of anti-semitism and religious harassment by evangelical Christians; Jewish cadets reported being blamed for the death of Jesus Christ.

- Last month Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph was convicted of deadly bombings at the 1996 Olympics, 2 abortion clinics and a gay nightclub.

- For presiding over the Terry Schiavo case, Judge George Greer was kicked out of his Southern Baptist church and subjected to death threats. A North Carolina man was arrested for offering a $250,000 bounty to kill Michael Schiavo.

- The recent "Justice Sunday" event was organized by Tony Perkins, a man with longstanding ties to KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and the racist Council of Conservative Citizens.

- In 2002, Sen. Trent Lott was forced from his majority leader post after praising the late Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential bid. After Thurmond's death, relatives revelealed he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a black housekeeper.

- That same year, it took a Boston Globe lawsuit to force the local Catholic Archdiocese to make public its records documenting decades of sex abuse by its priests and cover-ups by top church leaders.

- Rev. Jerry Falwell reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by claiming America "deserved what it got" for being too secular and tolerant of homosexuality. Ann Coulter opined that we should "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

- In 2000, Bob Jones University labeled the Catholic and Mormon churches "cults" and admitted to maintaining a campus ban on inter-racial dating.

So explain again exactly who the "militants" are in America.


Nelson, Roslindale

Anonymous said...

Bravo to AnthonyG and to Nelson. to both I say: Wish I'd said that.

And bravo, of course, to Bob Kuttner, who is now the Globe's token liberal op-ed writer. Goodness, things have changed since the paper's glory days in the 70's.

Anonymous said...

Recommended reading...

Nice pieces in latest Harpers on religious reactionairies taking over the nation. A potent combination of corporate wealth, militarists, and spiritual front groups endanger us all who claim to be the children of the Enlightenment. The road to Empire is climbing to its climax...

Anonymous said...

Brooks is as phony as they come

He has been unreadable for years, and brings disgrace upon the NY Times by his presence. Probably a recipient of Rupert Rupees, he has never exhibited the slightest sign of wisdom, the least spark of intellect.

He is truly a creature of the sludge.

Anonymous said...

The truly bizarr-o thing about Brooks is that, if he wanted, he could make passionate, cogent and honest arguments about the inspirational role faith has played in America's greatest accomplishments. Or he could explore the contradictory conclusions reached by pro- and anti-slavery religious activists before the Civil War (both sides claimed biblical justificiation for their views).

Instead, he indulges in the dime-store victimology of televangelist hucksters like Pat Robertson. Ironically (or perhaps not)the ACLU who he slanders as militant secularists, has been at the forefront of defending the rights of religious minorities for decades.


Anonymous said...

Brooks is pandering propagandist. The Times does indeed sully its standing by this association.

Anonymous said...

Do you like scary things? Google "dominionist" or "dominionism", then, and read something by or about this hardcore group that firmly believes in a theocracy of like-minded evangelicals. That the leaders of this movement include supposedly mainstream figures like James Dobson and Pat Robertson is even more frightening. And they are aiming at all levels of government, from the school board to the White House. For a quick overview, check out this Rolling Stone article:

Anonymous said...

To Dan Kennedy:

"Paraphrase" is a summary of someone else's statement using different (and usuually fewer) words while accurately reflecting the meaning of the original. What Brooks does here is a form of deliberate misrepresentation commonly referred to as constructing a "straw man" argument.

Anonymous said...

Wow, real diversity of ideas. Those pining for the "glory days of the 70's" might peruse the Globe Letters page. Not much has changed THERE, you can bet.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold back Anthony, tell us EVERYTHING you are thinking....

Anonymous said...

Here's another "militant secularist" in North Carolina David Brooks missed. Looks like the Supremacists have begun purging Pluralists:

Religion and Politics Clash

Religion and politics clash over a local church's declaration that Democrats are not welcome.

East Waynesville Baptist asked nine members to leave. Now 40 more have left the church in protest. Former members say Pastor Chan Chandler gave them the ultimatum, saying if they didn't support George Bush, they should resign or repent. The minister declined an interview with News 13. But he did say "the actions were not politically motivated." There are questions about whether the bi-laws were followed when the members were thrown out.

You can find a link to the video here.

Nelson, Roslindale

Steve said...

Nice Freudian slip there WLOS.



Anonymous said...

I'm no fan of David Brooks, but I don't see why his paraphrase of Robert Kuttner's views is such "ugly stuff."
I've seen uglier stuff. Here's a paraphrase of the views of Edward Said. " Edward Said stood for the destruction of Israel, and for its replacement by a secular state in which Jews would be outnumbered. The status of Jews in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world does not inspire hope that Said’s vision would have amounted to anything more than another means of annihilation."
This was Dan Kennedy's paraphrase of Edward Said. It's true that Robert Kuttner has the disadvantage of writing at smaller journals than David Brooks. Said had the greater disadvantage of having just died when Kennedy used his paraphrase.
Bob Gardner
Randolph, MA

Dan Kennedy said...

To Bob Gardner -

That's a summation of Said's views, not a paraphrase of a quote. But never mind - I tip your hat for digging deeply enough to find that. Two points, though:

1. My summation of Said's views was accurate. Brooks's paraphrase of Kuttner was inaccurate because he deliberately omitted Kuttner's significant qualifiers.

2. You cleverly suggest that I waited until Said was safely dead before going after him. Completely untrue. I wrote about his fictional background as a Palestinian refugee in 1999, and he refused my requests to interview him. Here's the piece: