Bloom Briefing 16: The New York Times, David Brooks, Climate Skepticism, and Blaming the Left

Welcome to the sixteenth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, I take on the New York Times editorial staff. David Brooks has attempted blame the crisis of western civilization on progressive history lessons and liberal activism, and Bret Stephens has written his inaugural op-ed for the paper in defense of climate change skepticism. I offer a rebuttal to both pieces.

David Brooks Blames the Left for All Society's Woes

Last weekend, David Brooks penned an awful article on “The Crisis of Western Civilization.” The crux of this crisis, according to Brooks, is at our universities.

“Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.”

This first-order claim is, in my experience, woefully inaccurate. The core texts of American democracy remain required readings in most students’ primary and secondary educations. Social studies classes and history classes encourage reading of primary texts, and the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights often serve as such texts.

Any introduction to political philosophy textbook will surely have Platonic dialogues, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the rest of the Western canon. I even read some canonical thinkers in a European history class in high school. It's not that these texts aren't being taught. It's that they're being taught in addition to something else.

That something else is history from the perspective of non-European peoples. Imagine (if you have to) what American history looks like to someone who is not white. The country you inhabit has told you that you are less than for its entire history. The canon includes a whole bunch of people, none of whom look like you. The liberal democratic values that the canon produced have been applied inconsistently to advantage other people but never you.

Brooks makes no room for this internal hypocrisy of the West. Yes, Western civilization has produced the foundational principles of liberal democracy that are, without equivocation, superior to any kind of authoritarianism. But the practice of Western history shows that these values are applied inconsistently. “All men are created equal” except that certain people count as only three-fifths. The rule of law is essential, unless that law is a treaty signed with a Native American.

Nobody disputes these shared principles. Freedom of speech, expression, religion, the press. One person, one vote. The rule of law. These principles aren’t up for debate (and nobody would tell you that they are). What can't go overlooked is the unequal application of these principles throughout our nation's history. The problem is that for Brooks, simply addressing this ugly side of our history is tantamount to undermining faith in the principles of liberal democracy that we all hold dear.

Brooks seems to make another error when he links lack of faith in liberal values to revisionist history (the cause) and authoritarian regimes (the effect). If commitment to liberalism and democracy are waning as a result of revisionist history, we would expect to see that wane among the populations whom democracy and liberalism have wronged. But this is not the case. The election produced a president who holds liberal democratic values in contempt, yet who was elected by the beneficiaries of the unequal application of liberal democratic values.

The people who voted for Trump were not, primarily, educated in the leftist tradition which Brooks attempts to blame for the “crisis of Western civilization.” The lack of faith Trump voters have in liberal democracy isn’t from democracy's unequal treatment of marginalized groups. In fact, Trump voters believe in an even more unequal application of liberal democratic values than already exists (racial profiling; religious tests for entry to the country; etc.).

Brooks is just plain wrong when he thinks that commitment to liberalism and democracy are waning on the left. The #Resistance is strong precisely because we now have, in the White House, someone who is openly skeptical of the shared values of liberal democracy. He is a threat to the perpetuation of the republic, and this threat has been recognized not just by the most marginalized, whose have always understood their existence as under threat, but by privileged upper-middle class, liberal-arts-college-educated, predominantly white, people too, precisely those people who have been taught the kind of "history of oppression" interpretation Brooks so loathes.

Admittedly, that they weren't protesting for the benefit of the more marginalized before is something of an indictment of the privileged, upper-middle-class, liberal-arts-college-educated, predominantly white crowd, but it also underscores the point about their commitment to liberal democratic values. That those values are under threat is what has driven otherwise comfortable people to the streets.

Brooks’ assessment of the consequences of the problem are just as off-base as his assessment of the problem itself. Brooks cites three consequences resulting from the decline of commitment to the principles of Western civilization: the rise of illiberal dictators; the collapse of the political center; and the decline of democratic liberalism.

How is it, again, that Brooks connects Trump to the revisionist history that explains how American history is both that of triumph over oppression (independence; liberalism; democracy) while maintaining oppression (slavery; genocide; racial tyranny), to the rise of Trump? He doesn’t, because the only possible way to do so is to claim that this interpretation of history is so troubling to white folks’ shared self-perception that they elected a reactionary illiberal thug to protect them from the threat of actual equality.

Yet Brooks’ nonsensical interpretations go still further afield of any reality when he criticizes the decline of liberal values here at home. “On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.” Yes, chilling intolerance is an accurate description of the inability of an upper-class white woman to express her views on a college campus.

These attempts to portray students as the illiberal enforcers of a new wildly extreme left are beyond tiresome. While our government illegally deports its own citizens, assassinates others, imprisons citizens of different races at different rates, fails to provide equal access to education, perpetrates wanton racial profiling and indiscriminate violence in policing, and tries to impose a religious litmus test on those entering the country, Brooks wants to suggest that it is student activists who represent the gravest threat to liberal democracy here at home. With all due respect to David Brooks, this is, quite frankly, bunk.

On Friday this week, a man wielding a machete and carrying other knives entered a coffee shop on the campus of Transylvania University. He asked a student there about her political affiliation. When she responded that she was a Republican, he said, “You are safe.” He then proceeded to attack those of other political persuasions. Yet Brooks and other commentators (Conor Friedersdorf is the most egregious offender) continue to focus on progressive activists as the threat to liberal democracy while conservative vigilantes perpetrate acts of physical violence against those very same progressive activists, or people of color, or Muslims, or people they think are Muslims, or Jews.

The attacker, much like Brooks, has blamed progressives for his actions. He claims that he was “bullied” and that he faced “discrimination on a daily basis” from progressives. This kind of logic is emblematic of a consistent strain of conservative thought that blames progressive activists or theorists for the bad actions taken by politicians and leaders on the right.

Why did we get Trump? Because Republicans nominated him and elected him? No. Because Democrats nominated Clinton. Because Democrats turned off white voters with a focus on identity politics. Because Democrats were too extreme. Because Democrats were too moderate. How is freedom of speech under attack? Because Elizabeth Warren was prohibited from speaking on the Senate floor? No. Because college students don’t want virulent racists to be invited for talks. Conservatives have even blamed progressives for conservative resistance to climate change.

Consistently and repeatedly, conservative columnists blame the left for the bad behavior of the right. People need to be held accountable for their votes. Conservatives voted for Trump. This is what they wanted. if conservative pundits couldn't convince them not to vote for Trump, then conservative pundits needed to make better arguments. This isn't the fault of the left.

Bret Stephens, New New York Times Conservative

Speaking of blaming progressives for conservative resistance to climate change, Bret Stephens, the new conservative columnist for the New York Times, used his first column to bash progressives for their hyperbolic certainty about the effects climate change.

“Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skepitcs as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

The broader point of this piece is one to which I’m largely sympathetic. On many subjects, we run the risk of become scientistic, operating with a belief that science gives us definitive answers. Often times, particularly in the social sciences, what we get are probabilities. A 90% chance that Trump will win the election isn’t a guarantee that Trump will win the election. It means that 9 times out of 10, given the current evidence available, Trump will win the election. This is why regression analyses operate with confidence intervals and margins of error.

But implying that there is not certainty on the issue of climate change begs questions about how uncertain it is, and what it is that this uncertainty applies to. For a treatment of the science around climate change, I refer you to Dana Nuccitelli’s response in The Guardian.

There are a number of excellent points about the science that warrant your consideration, but I want to focus on the one that is the focus of Stephens' article: the uncertainty.

There is uncertainty about how much global warming and climate change we’ll see in the coming decades (climate scientists are crystal clear about this), but the biggest factor contributing to that uncertainty is human behavior – how much carbon pollution we end up dumping into the atmosphere. This is apparent from looking at the IPCC global temperature projections.

In the red ‘burn lots of fossil fuels’ (RCP8.5) scenario, we’ll see a further 3.0–5.5°C warming between now and 2100. In the blue ‘take immediate serious climate action’ (RCP2.6) scenario, we’ll see a further 0.5–1.5°C global warming by 2100. Those ranges represent uncertainties in the climate modeling, but the difference between them – which is based on how much carbon pollution we release – is bigger than the uncertainty in each scenario.

The uncertainty, then, is mostly about whether or not we implement “abrupt and expensive changes in public policy” that Stephens clearly implies we should not. In other words, in his world, there is very little uncertainty. The projections agree that there will be an additional increase of between 3.0 and 5.5°C by the end of this century.

This article should be nothing short of an embarrassment for the New York Times. They want to have a more diverse editorial page. I don’t really think that’s necessary (they already have two conservatives in Brooks and Douthat), but that’s a fine goal to have. But if the New York Times wants to have greater diversity of opinion, then it’s not unreasonable to demand three things.

First, a commitment to the truth. The New York Times is running big advertisements with the line, “The truth is more important now than ever.” If you’re going to run those ads, you better not publish garbage takes like Stephens’ intentionally misleading interpretation of the science around climate change.

Second, to paraphrase Jeet Heer, editor of The New Republic, you can’t claim you prize diversity of opinion if all your columnists range in perspectives from center-right to center-left. Get some libertarians. Get some socialists. Get some anarchists. Get people with different views who don't violate the previous condition.

Third, balanced coverage doesn’t mean the midpoint between two perspectives, one grounded in facts, the other not. Commitment to the truth means that sometimes divergent perspectives are required to articulate the range of reasonable perspectives on an issue. But on climate change, the reasonable range of those perspectives runs from “the situation is terrible” to “the situation will put historically unprecedented strain on the world’s economy, politics, and society.” The fact that many people falsely believe it's not a big deal doesn't mean that the New York Times should be publishing such a perspective.

Additional Reading:

I'm not entirely down on the New York Times editorial staff. David Leonhardt wrote a great piece about the urgency of confronting ethnic nationalism. He's spot on, and you should read his perspective.

In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb has written about "The Banal Horror of Arkansas's Executions." It is a special piece of writing.