Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Way off base

Now I'm normally a fan of the good Dr. Atrios, but his recent broadside against New York Times columnist David Brooks (a.k.a. 'Bobo') was entirely uncalled for:


Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.

In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.

Shorter Bobo, courtesy of Fred Phelps:

Thank God for 3,000 Dead Americans!

Now I'll admit that Brooks has spent a lot of the past few years with his head up his ass, but to juxtapose a misguided op-ed writer with a piece of human refuse such as Fred Phelps is an underhanded comparison, a bit of cheap rhetoric better suited for the red-meat conservative blogosphere. Why don't we just equate poor Bobo with Hitler and be done with it?

Besides, Atrios is just plain wrong on this one, as he's cherry-picked the hell out of Brooks' article to read it in the worst possible light (he's not the only one - Gawker made the column a veritable pinata for its readers' bashing as well). I mean, it's not the best-written thing in the world, but it's not what my friends on the Left are making it out to be.

Brooks may be lamenting the passing of a cosmic scheme which explained disaster in terms of divine crime and punishment, but he's certainly not calling for a return to it; nor is he celebrating the death and destruction as Phelps and his perverted ilk are. Misread the man's motives if you will, but bear in the mind that the same column that opened with the above ended with the following:

In the newspaper essays and television commentaries reflecting upon it all, there would often be some awkward passage as the author tried to conclude with some easy uplift - a little bromide about how wonderfully we all rallied together, and how we are all connected by our common humanity in times of crisis.

The world's generosity has indeed been amazing, but sometimes we use our compassion as a self-enveloping fog to obscure our view of the abyss. Somehow it's wrong to turn this event into a good-news story so we can all feel warm this holiday season. It's wrong to turn it into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined. It's certainly wrong to turn this into yet another petty political spat, as many tried, disgustingly, to do.

This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation.

David Brooks is merely looking for answers. Must we kick him in the teeth for daring to vocalize what's been on most of our minds for the past two weeks? Shame on us.

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