Brooks and Nocera

In “Enter the Age of the Outsiders” Bobo moans that one of today’s most worrying big trends is that the more extreme fringe elements of society are on the rise, in domestic politics, global politics, and beyond.  In the comments “David Henry” from Walden Pond sums Bobo  up for us:  “Pop sociology from Mr. Brooks. Undefined terms, misty ruminations, and an undisguised plug for reactionary Cruz.”  In other words, a typical POS from Bobo.  Mr. Nocera, in “Osama Bin Laden’s First Draft,” says Jonathan Mahler’s piece on the Osama bin Laden raid is as much about the nature of journalism as it is about the facts surrounding the event.  Here’s Bobo:

As every schoolchild knows, the gravitational pull of the sun helps hold the planets in their orbits. Gravity from the center lends coherence to the whole solar system.

I mention this because that’s how our political and social systems used to work, but no longer do. In each sphere of life there used to be a few big suns radiating conviction and meaning. The other bodies in orbit were defined by their resistance or attraction to that pull.

But now many of the big suns in our world today lack conviction, while the distant factions at the margins of society are full of passionate intensity. Now the gravitational pull is coming from the edges, in sphere after sphere. Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.

The same phenomenon can be seen in many areas, but it’s easiest to illustrate in the sphere of politics, both global and domestic.

In the 1990s, the central political institutions radiated confidence, derived from an assumed vision of the post-Cold War world. History would be a slow march toward democratic capitalism. Nations would be bound in peaceful associations like the European Union. The United States would oversee a basic international order.

This vision was materialistic and individualistic. Nations should pursue economic growth and a decent distribution of wealth. If you give individuals access to education and opportunity, they will pursue affluence and personal happiness. They will grow more temperate and “reasonable.”

Since 2000, this vision of the post-Cold War world has received blow after blow. Some of these blows were self-inflicted. Democracy, especially in the United States, has grown dysfunctional. Mass stupidity and greed led to a financial collapse and deprived capitalism of its moral swagger.

But the deeper problem was spiritual. Many people around the world rejected democratic capitalism’s vision of a secular life built around materialism and individual happiness. They sought more intense forms of meaning. Some of them sought meaning in the fanaticisms of sect, tribe, nation, or some stronger and more brutal ideology. In case after case, “reasonableness” has been trampled by behavior and creed that is stronger, darker and less temperate.

A group of well-educated men blew up the World Trade Center. Fanatics flock to the Middle East to behead strangers and apostates. China’s growing affluence hasn’t led to sweetening, but in many areas to nationalistic belligerence. Iran is still committed to its radical eschatology. Russia is led by a cold-eyed thug with a semi-theological vision of his nation’s destiny. He seeks every chance to undermine the world order.

The establishments of the West have not responded to these challenges by doubling down on their vision, by countering fanaticism with gusto. On the contrary, they’ve lost faith in their own capacities of understanding and action. Sensing a loss of confidence in the center, strong-willed people on the edges step forward to take control.

This happens in loud ways in the domestic sphere. The uncertain Republican establishment cannot govern its own marginal members, while those on the edge burn with conviction. Jeb Bush looks wan but Donald Trump radiates confidence.

The Democratic establishment no longer determines party positions; it is pulled along by formerly marginal players like Bernie Sanders.

But the big loss of central confidence is in global governance. The United States is no longer willing to occupy the commanding heights and oversee global order. In region after region, those who are weak in strength but strong in conviction are able to have their way. Vladimir Putin in Crimea, Ukraine and the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad crosses red lines in Syria. The Islamic State spreads in Syria and Iraq. Iranian proxy armies roam the region.

Republicans blame Obama for hesitant and halting policies, but it’s not clear the foreign policy and defense apparatus believes anymore in its own abilities to establish order, or that the American public has any confidence in U.S. effectiveness as a global actor.

Where is this all heading? Maybe those on the fringes of politics really will take over. Say hello to President Ted Cruz. Writing in The American Interest, Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown argues that we are heading toward an “Age of Exhaustion.” Losing confidence in the post-Cold War vision, people will be content to play with their private gadgets and will lose interest in greater striving.

I only have space to add here that the primary problem is mental and spiritual. Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.

Regarding Bobo’s first graf…  “The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”  It’s as though Yeats could see today’s Republicans.   You’d also think that the NYT would tire of Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

I rise in defense of my colleague Jonathan Mahler.

Mahler’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, titled “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?,” grapples with the way journalists on the national security beat covered that singular event. It focuses primarily on two well-known journalists, Mark Bowden and Seymour Hersh. In his article, Mahler raises the possibility that there might have been more to the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in 2011 than the narrative that we’ve come to accept as “the real story.”

Bowden, 64, is the author of a number of crackling good tales — “Black Hawk Down” is his best-known book — that take the reader inside dramatic events. Government officials are often key sources. His book about the Bin Laden raid, “The Finish,” which is based on numerous interviews with Washington officials, lays out the narrative that we now all know about how the C.I.A. tracked down Bin Laden in Pakistan, and so on. Bowden is a highly respected journalist, and “The Finish” has only helped cement his reputation.

Hersh, 78, is the legendary investigative reporter who in 1969 broke the news of the My Lai massacre and told the Abu Ghraib prison story 35 years later. For many years, most of his work has appeared in The New Yorker. Last May, however, he published a Bin Laden “counter-narrative” (his word) in The London Review of Books — an article that, as Mahler stresses, was turned down by The New Yorker. Hersh’s 10,000 word article disputed much of the account reported by Bowden as well as by Peter Bergen of CNN, who wrote an earlier book about the raid, “Manhunt.”

Mahler’s story is as much about the nature of journalism as it is about the facts surrounding the Bin Laden raid. Readers get a good sense of when journalists feel they have enough information to publish and when they don’t. Although Mahler gives plenty of space to Hersh’s counter-narrative, it is also clear that he’s not buying most of it. He calls some of Hersh’s claims wild. The famous reporter comes across as a bit of a crank.

But Mahler also raises the possibility that the Bowden-Bergen account may not be the final word: that the government officials who served as sources may have had reason to hold details back, or put a shinier gloss on events than was warranted. This does not strike me as a controversial point to make.

Yet the pushback Mahler has received — from Bowden, from Bergen, and especially in the Twittersphere — has been remarkably vehement. Bowden isn’t just upset with Mahler’s story; he’s furious. When I spoke to him, he denounced it as having bought into “crackpot conspiracy theories.”

“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out how things actually happen,” he said. “Stories like this make me feel that it is a losing battle against pure speculation, and theories that are concocted” out of thin air.

When I asked him whether government officials might have held things back, or distorted the truth, Bowden quickly rejected the idea. He had too many different sources, he said. Too many people would have had to have told him the same set of lies. “It strains credulity to the breaking point.”

But does it? I recall my own experience writing a book about events that took place in the government. In the fall of 2010, Bethany McLean and I published “All The Devils Are Here,” about the 2008 financial crisis. After many interviews with current and former officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, we wrote our account of events that are murky to this day, most obviously why the government let Lehman Brothers fail.

In the intervening five years, new information has come out. Most recently, Ben Bernanke, the former Fed chairman, admitted that he and Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, had been less than forthcomingabout the reasons for Lehman’s failure. That information was not in our book because Bernanke and Paulson withheld it.

Bowden’s book was published 18 months after the Bin Laden raid. All things considered, that is not a lot of time. Having been there myself, it strikes me as inevitable that facts will emerge later that add to — or contradict — the original narrative. Bowden wrote the best book he could under the circumstances; there is no shame in that. To suggest that Bowden may not have been told everything hardly means that The New York Times Magazine is buying into some far-fetched conspiracy theory.

We are lucky to have narratives like “The Finish,” which is a great read and as close to the truth as Bowden could get. But is every fact set in concrete? Surely not. Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” as the old saying goes. In the modern age, that’s as true for books as for any other form of journalism.


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