Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Republican Philosophers

Okay... so I've been leaving David Brooks alone for a while. But perhaps somebody can explain this one to me:
A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.

Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.

As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as good at talking about a universal order.
Now, I'm not saying that Brooks' prior claims aren't nonsense, but this seems particularly bizarre. Should I now expect, upon visiting a random university, that I will find its philosophy department dominated by right-wing political thinkers, or that the college Republicans will dominate the class rolls?

As I understand it, Brooks is arguing:

  • He called one "prominent liberal think tank" which he will not name;

  • He spoke briefly with the head of the think tank, whom he also will not name;

  • The sole purpose of his call was to ask "Who is your favorite philosopher";

  • The (unnamed) person with whom Brooks spoke declined to answer

  • The (unnamed) person with whom Brooks spoke did not call Brooks at a later date to provide an answer.

Now granted, if Brooks had called me under similar circumstances, I would have thought him to be wasting my time with a childish act of ambush journalism. I would have inferred that he was trying to score a counter-point to the response President Bush gave when asked to name his favorite political philosopher. And I probably wouldn't have had much patience with him, either. And I think it is reasonable to infer from the manner in which Brooks insulates himself from any verifiable detail that, were he more honest about this incident, the target of his comments would eat him for lunch.

But even overlooking that, what is the significance of this anecdote. Brooks doesn't claim to have performed any type of survey of the heads of think tanks - he doesn't tell us if he called every liberal think tank in his Blackberry, or if he just called the one. He doesn't claim to have called even a single conservative think tank for purposes of comparison. And it is possible to infer from the limited description that the target of Brooks' ambush was hesitant to name, on the spur of the moment, a single favorite - something Brooks didn't even do within the context of his own column.

And his notion that liberals want "message discipline", while conservatives have been engaged in a robust debate of public philosophy? Amazing.


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