Friday, January 3, 2014

Getting the Right Balance

I like David Brooks.  I've listened to him for years on the PBS News Hour.  I've often thought of him as the kind of guy I'd like to be friends with.  Affable.  Reasonable.  Real, somehow.   Somebody on the other side of the political divide who isn’t a greedy bastard or a poor shlep poisoned by one of the toxic brands of modern-day religion.   I fall into step behind every liberal cause by inclination and would really like to be in touch with more people on the other side who can keep me honest and give me a good run for my money when I get into a political argument.  I think of Brooks as the kind of guy who, when you argue with him, you have to agree to disagree, because his breadth of knowledge is as good as or better than yours.
So I’m disappointed to hear David Brooks’ latest reasoning on the topic of marijuana laws.  (And I'm at the end of a long line of folks piling on to him for this column.  See here.)  We need to keep them on the books, he says, because society would fall apart if we all became potheads.  He’s reacting to the change in the law in Colorado, where they’ve just legalized marijuana.
I’m disappointed because he’s not making an informed argument.  For one thing, he’s missing the woods for the trees, as Michelle Goldberg points out in an article in The Nation today.    He presents his case without regard to the terrible injustices that obtain when marijuana laws are enforced.    You know that example of how the law can be an ass: The law against sleeping under a bridge applies as much to the rich as it does to the poor.   Punishing marijuana use but not alcohol or tobacco use has always struck me as another one of those cases.  Less amusing, but equally insensitive. 
My niece did a project which involved women in jail and came away stunned by the observation so many of them simply followed their boyfriends blindly into crime and were in for being accessories.  Now their boyfriends have moved on to bigger and better crimes, and they are stuck, in jail, agonizing over not being able to see their children.  That’s what judges are supposed to be for – to take extenuating circumstances into account.  But not all judges do a good job, and it really matters that we have good laws for them to work from to start with.  What Brooks is doing in considering the alleged evils of the weed without regard for the evils of criminalizing people for a victimless crime, and for something people are determined to do anyway, is irresponsible.
But there’s something else I don’t like about Brooks’ argument besides the failure to see the big picture, and that’s his paternalism.
I remember an argument I had with a friend years ago in Japan.  I was amused by the fact that the newsstands were filled with Playboy images of naked women, but the naughty parts were blacked out.  I laughed at the absurdity of having so many people working at a job where they went through every single copy of a girlie magazine with a black chisel tip marker pen, making sure the next person who got their hands on the magazine would not see what the state thought was not good for them to see.  What hypocrisy, I said.  What paternalism.
My friend disagreed with me.  It’s the government’s job, he said, to maintain social order.  It’s like putting locks on your doors.  It doesn’t keep the really bad guys out, but it keeps basically honest people from falling into temptation.  If you cut down on the number of lascivious images, you cut down on the time wasted giving in to lust.  He couldn’t have said it better if he had been a bishop.
Once I got him to admit he took full advantage of Playboy magazine every chance he got when he was in America, we switched to the paternalism argument.  True, he said.  He could handle the pictures without losing his sense of decency and of balance, but there were many people out there weaker than him, and they needed a little support.
I was reminded of that conversation when I went to live in Saudi Arabia, and ran into the orthodox Muslim view that women must be kept out of sight for their own protection because there are so many “weak men” out there.  Actually, many people around me there argued all men are basically “weak” when it comes to sex and cannot control themselves and need policing for their own good.
You can’t win that argument, I think.  It’s ideological and there will always be people naturally inclined to see chaos and license where others see freedom and exploration.  One of the classic glass half full/half empty situations.  Brooks often takes the conservative view, and when he does, you simply have to move on or take the time to pile up the arguments that demonstrate what he’s missing.
I’m inclined to see examples everywhere that indicate the tide is turning and the conservatives have had their day for a while.   The homophobes are losing ground at a faster and faster rate these days.  There are signs that the Tea Party has burned out.  And the U.S. is still a country where corporations make the rules and we live by the rule of money rather than the rule of law.  But the rate of decline may have tapered off. Obama may be just another corporate America chief executive in the end, but the wars are winding down and the evils of Guantanamo and the excesses of the NSA seem to be withering away.  Edward Snowden, long viewed as a heroic whistleblower outside the United States and its English-speaking allies, has finally been endorsed as such by the Guardian and the New York Times, apparently spontaneously and without each other’s knowledge.  Which means it’s an idea whose time may have come.  Let’s hope so.
And that means we may be entering a time when liberal stops being a bad word.  If that’s the case, we will need people like David Brooks to remind us where the line is between freedom and license.  So let’s hear it for David Brooks.
But David, you’ve got to get it right more often.
You might start by checking in with Michelle Goldberg before you put yourself out there.

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