A detailed parsing of the frames, spins and lies perpetuated by the two right-wing columnists in The New York Times. Updated whenever either posts a column.

December 29, 2005
The Sidney Awards, 2005

Twelve months ago I created an award, named after the philosopher Sidney Hook, to honor the best political and cultural essays of the year. Since then, two things have happened.

First, dozens of people have told me I should rename the awards the Sidneys instead of the Hookies, so they will sound less puerile.

How about the Hookers? Then Brooks could give his award to politicians of both parties without any qualms.

Second, thousands of writers, motivated by the chance to win this career-capping and soul-fulfilling prize, have worked unstintingly to refine their thinking, thus raising public discourse to a level unmatched since the age of Pericles.

I've now read a pile of essays for the second annual awards, and noticed that while many of the ideological essays don't seem as interesting on second reading, many of the biographical ones do. Here are some of this year's Sidney winners (available in full on their magazine Web sites):

This is an interesting statement. Brooks found no ideological essays during the past year that moved him, or changed him?

"In a Ruined Country," by David Samuels. The Atlantic Monthly. If anybody thinks impersonal forces shape history, consider Yasir Arafat. No foreign policy doctrine could have conceived him, no great power could alter him, yet he transfixed the Middle East for a generation.

After his death, Samuels interviewed Arafat's intimates and put together the pieces of the man. Arafat was part earth mother, spooning food from his plate into the mouths of his lieutenants. He was part willful child; he loved "Road Runner" cartoons and lied constantly and transparently.

Am I the only one who noticed Arafat's physical resemblence to Mel Blanc, the late great voice of Warner Brothers cartoons (where Road Runner originated)? But then again, I'm probably the only one on the planet who thinks George W. Bush purses his lips just like George Burns. "Say goodnight, Rummy."

He bragged about saving time by shaving only every fifth day, but spent an hour each morning folding his kaffiyeh into the shape of Palestine. He was narcissistic about other people's deaths. Once when Bibi Netanyahu refused to call him, he set off a round of street violence until the call came.

He annihilated his private life for his cause, and had a pre-modern understanding of money. As a friend said, he saw money as power, so he hoarded it. Personally ascetic (he slept on a cot and wore army surplus clothing), he stole $1 billion to $3 billion of the $7 billion in foreign aid given to the Palestinian Authority. His cronies diverted most of the rest, so only 9.5 percent of the money reached regular Palestinians.

Halliburton has "lost" some $8 billion in American funds since the Iraqi invasion. Bush's cronies have diverted a great deal of Iraqi rebuilding funds as well. Great minds think alike. At least Arafat had the decency (or the neurosis) to hide his ill-gotten gains rather than flaunt them before the world.

Samuels is sympathetic but damning, and reminds us that the character of peoples and leaders matters most.

More than historical necessity? We always knew Brooks was no Marxist.

"The Inventor of Modern Conservatism," by David Gelernter. The Weekly Standard. This has been the year of the conservative crackup, and many essayists have tried to imagine where the right might go next. Gelernter, a Yale computer prof, offered this advice: Be like Dizzy.

Dizzy Dean was a three-time 20 game winner and MVP of the National League in 1934. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1934. I agree, and think we should all be like Dizzy Dean.

Benjamin Disraeli ...

oh...sorry...wrong Dizzy. Who the hell calls Disraeli "Dizzy." Gladstone? Queen Victoria? "Dizzy, there's a crisis in the Suez, take care of it." "Yes, Vicki."

...was an urbane novelist, and yet, being fiercely Hebraic, he also defied the elite opinion of his day. "Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life," Lord Salisbury said. He created a modern, nationalistic conservatism, transforming the Tory party from the rich man's party to the party of patriotism.

This is not too different from how Rove and company have painted the Republican Party after 9/11, and is certainly no different than what Reagan did in the '80s.

National conservatism meant caring for the whole nation, rich and poor. It also meant feeling a mystical attachment to his country's exceptional character, and promoting reforms consistent with the distinctive customs of his people, not according to abstract principles about humanity. Disraeli worried more about what his forefathers would have said about his foreign policy than about what his allies would say.

Modern American conservative philosophy seems to me based on a stark view of Social Darwinism. That is, winners (which includes those born in wealth as well as those who get there through any means, legal and illegal) prosper and losers (everyone else) quite properly fall by the wayside. There doesn't seem to be much room for "caring for the whole nation, rich and poor," which implies compassion.

I've noticed this new strain in Brooks' writing of late. That is, trying to find a way to reconcile conservatism with care for the unfortunate. The problem is, it doesn't seem to be there. All compassion is voluntary. It is not the responsiblity of the government to take care of the Darwinian losers, and individuals have the freedom (perhaps even the responsibility) to be as selfish as possible.

Brooks will then, in my estimation, fail in his efforts. This doesn't mean he'll change his stripes: his philosophy of humanity won't let him. But I sense that at some point he's going to break with many of his conservative contemporaries.

Karl Marx and Disraeli were both 19th-century Jews whose fathers had them baptized, who worked in London and died two years apart. Marx, Gelernter argues, created the modern left and Disraeli the modern right. One was atheist, materialist and transnational. The other was religious, romantic and national.

One was called Dizzy, the other Marxy.

"Missionary," by Louis Menand. The New Yorker. The literary critic Edmund Wilson began his career, Menand writes, believing that an educated journalist could deprovincialize American culture and lift the national mind. He was the best of the heroic intellectual performers with grand visions for literature and the arts.

Then, in midcareer, Wilson realized that the movement he dreamed of was never going to happen, and that literature was receding from the center of national life. He settled into a life of messy disaffection.

He still hated the things he had always hated: bourgeois smugness, philistinism, prudery and commercialism, but his life was no counterargument, filled with feuds, drinking and divorce. When he fought with Mary McCarthy, he'd retreat to his study. She'd light piles of paper on fire and shove them under the door.

Menand describes an entire cultural shift in a sad, brief portrait, and yet makes it clear that Wilson was the sort of writer who deserved multiple Sidneys. Tragically, he lived too soon.

Menand's latest columns in the New Yorker have been incoherent and lack the kind of rigorous thought usually found in the magazine. One would hope his book doesn't follow that course.

December 21, 2005
The Measure of Success

I would like to propose a ban - a ban on Bush administration officials measuring our success in Iraq by the number of Iraqi soldiers we have "trained." I propose this ban because it is an utterly misleading metric, and if we become addicted to it we are going to make some even bigger mistakes in Iraq than we already have.

The issue is not how many Iraqi soldiers there are in Iraq. The issue is how many Iraqi citizens there are in Iraq. Without more Iraqi citizens, there will never be enough Iraqi soldiers.

This incessant Bush babble about training the Iraqi Army is so much wasted breath. After all, who is training the insurgents? Nobody, as far as we know - yet they have proved to be a smart, adaptable and lethal fighting force. Because in war, motivation always matters more than training. The insurgents know who they are and what they are fighting for. I think who they are is horrendous and what they are fighting for is apartheid - the right of Iraq's Sunni minority to rule permanently over the country's Shiite and Kurdish majority. But they have the will, and therefore they have the way.

The Iraqi Army will be effective only if it has a will to go along with the way we are training it. And the Iraqi Army will have the will to fight only if its soldiers have a government they believe in and are motivated to defend. And that brings us back to citizenship.

It is terrific that Iraqis just had another free and fair election and that some 11 million people voted. Americans should be proud that we helped to bring that about in a region that has so rarely experienced any sort of democratic politics.

But what's still unclear is this: Who and what were Iraqis voting for? Were they voting for Kurdish sectarian leaders, who they hope will gradually split Kurdistan off from Iraq? Were they voting for pro-Iranian Shiite clerics, who they hope will carve out a Shiite theocratic zone between Basra and Baghdad? Were they voting for Sunni tribal leaders, who they hope will restore the Sunnis to their "rightful" place - ruling everyone else? Or, were they voting for a unified Iraq and for politicians whom they expect to compromise and rewrite the Constitution into a broadly accepted national compact?

If they were voting for Iraqi sects, then it means that there are no Iraqi citizens - only Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis etc., trapped together inside Iraq's artificial borders. If, however, they were voting for a unified Iraq and Iraqi leaders who will make that happen, we still have a chance for a decent outcome.

Because if there are Iraqi citizens, and national leaders, then we have partners for the kind of Iraq we hope to see built. In that case, we must stay the course. If there are no Iraqi citizens, or not enough, then we have no real partners and staying the course will never produce the self-sustaining Iraq we want.

President Bush talks about Iraq as if it were a given that there is a single Iraqi aspiration for exactly the kind of pluralistic democracy America would like to see built in Iraq, and that the only variable is whether we stay long enough to see it through. I wish that were so - our job would be easy. But it is not so. It still is not clear what is the will of the Iraqi people. In the wake of this election, though, we are about to find out.

Everything now rides on what kind of majority the Iraqi Shiites want to be and what kind of minority the Sunnis want to be. Will the Shiites prove to be magnanimous in victory and rewrite the Constitution in a way that decent Sunnis, who want to be citizens of a unified Iraq, can accept? Will the Sunnis agree to accept their fair share of Iraq's oil revenue and government posts - and nothing more?

My own visits to Iraq have left me convinced that beneath all the tribalism, there is a sense of Iraqi citizenship and national identity eager to come out. But it will take more security, and many more Iraqi leaders animated by national reconciliation, for it to emerge in a sustained way.

Unlike many on the left, I'm not convinced that this will never happen and that all of this has been for naught. Unlike many on the right, I'm not convinced that it will inevitably happen if we just stay the course long enough. The only thing I am certain of is that in the wake of this election, Iraq will be what Iraqis make of it - and the next six months will tell us a lot. I remain guardedly hopeful.

How will you know if things are going well? Easy. The Iraqi Army will suddenly become effective without U.S. guidance. It will know how to fight, because it will know what - and whom - it is fighting for.

Not bad. But with this iffy kind of success, what the hell was Friedman doing when he argued so vociferously for an invasion? You never go into a war in a crapshoot unless you're backed up against a corner, and the United States was never in that position. This guy, who claims no one else has long memories, has a strong case of personal amnesia. Tom, for Chrissake, admit you were wrong.

December 18, 2005
Taking a Long View of the Iraq Conflict

Over the past few years, the Iraq war has morphed from a war of liberation against Saddam into a civil conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. And when you look at this civil conflict - or civil war if you want to call it that - you see how typical it is of many of the civil wars we've seen in the world over the past six decades. Over that time, there have been 225 civil wars, and many of them have featured the same sort of insurgency and counterinsurgency, the same ethnic feuding and the same pattern of elections intermingled with violence that we see in Iraq today.

American policy makers and think-tank Johnnies have not really looked at Iraq in the broader context of these other conflicts. That's in part because when Americans think of civil war, we tend to think of our own Civil War, which was utterly atypical. It's also because American experts were almost all trained to think about wars between nations, even though civil wars are nine times more common.

Brooks continues his assault on the fact that this is a Republican war, ginned by a Republican administration, pushed by Republican pundits, and ratified by a Republican Congress. This isn't an "American" war, these aren't "American policy makers," it's a Republican war created by neocon policy makers, who should have known better. Most Democrats and realists (Thomas Friedman notwithstanding) could have written the first paragraph in 2002. Brooks' frame is simply wrong.

If, however, you do happen upon the Journal of Peace Research, where specialists do write about civil wars, you find that their broad perspective helps you see Iraq in clear and refreshing ways.

It's interesting to know, for example, that the median civil war lasts about six years. It's also interesting to know that most civil wars start, as Iraq's did, because of a power vacuum at the top.

Again, this is something everyone against the war from the beginning understood. Only the neocons and their syncophants (including one David Brooks) did not. But there's more to it than that. This isn't just a civil war. It's a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, with America as a third party to the war.

When a country's central government becomes ineffective, as Iraq's did after the toppling of Saddam, groups begin to grab for power and resources. (Civil wars are much more likely in countries with oil or other mineral wealth.)

The leaders of insurgent armies certainly magnify ethnic grievances as part of their grab for spoils, but sectarian hatred usually isn't sufficient to start civil wars. These wars are started by local elites that are essentially making an investment. They decide to commit violence now in the hopes of grabbing great wealth later. The people who do the killing might be whipped up by ethnic grievances, but the people who lead civil wars are usually rational and greedy.

Once a war starts, the length of the war is influenced by how strong and effective the central government is. If the central government is strong enough to fight back against insurgents, demonstrate resolve in the face of setbacks and also bribe insurgent leaders into joining the establishment, then the war can be cut short. If the central government is weak or corrupt, or if it reacts to the insurgency with excessive brutality, then the war drags on.

But this isn't always the case. Yugoslavia's civil war began with the government, not with insurgents. However, that's not what's important here. Most civil wars do not begin with the invasion by a foreign power seeking to put its own puppets on the throne.  Many of the insurgents are fighting against the U.S. invaders, and not merely fighting a civil war. He's comparing apples with oranges.The whole thing is a lot more complex.

This is why it is essential that the U.S. remain in Iraq until we are sure the central government is strong.

There are three ways civil wars end. In countries where ethnic hatreds have been whipped to fever pitch, there may be no answer but partition - separating the two groups. In countries where one side will settle for nothing less than total victory, then the war rages until one side suffers a crushing defeat.

But the best news out of Iraq last week was that the Sunnis voted joyfully and in large numbers. In what they said and the way they acted, both the Sunnis and Shiites made it clear that while they are engaged in a fierce rivalry, they fervently believe in a democratic and unified Iraq. This is not yet a to-the-death struggle.

That makes the third option for ending a civil war - a joint governing agreement - more likely. The difficulty in ending a civil war via compromise is that neither side can trust the other enough to lay down its arms. That's why it is necessary to have a third party - in Iraq, the United States - to cajole the two sides toward the settlement, to enforce the agreement afterward, to nurture a functioning social contract after that, and to prevent hostile outside powers from spoiling the deal.

Of course, the United States, as the invading army, has its own agenda here. Sufficient rumors abound that the U.S. is building permanent military bases throughout Iraq. It is not in the United States' interest to have an Iraq, even if controlled by a Shiite/Sunni coalition, that would throw America out on its keister. Both Sunnis and Shiites would be wise to understand this is not merely a disinterested third party attempting to settle a bad situation.

That's why, again, it is essential that the U.S. remain in Iraq long enough to de-escalate the conflict.

Only if one believes the U.S. is a disinterested party. To a degree, he's taking the civil war frame, the same one used by anti-war polemicists prior to the invasion, and twisting it into an argument for continued American involvement. But again, the U.S. is not disinterested. The United Nations is, of course. If Brooks were really serious, he'd be in favor of an real international coalition picking up the pieces.

At the very moment that American gloom-mongers are opting for panicked withdrawal, there's been a pileup of good news on Iraq: the improved training of Iraqi troops, the more effective counterinsurgency strategies, the booming Iraqi economy, the vastly improved White House communication strategy, the amazing confidence of the Iraqi people and, most of all, this glorious election.

The improved training of Iraqi troops is bogus. The more effective strategies haven't really stopped the fighting, the booming Iraqi economy is not helping all Iraqis, and the "vastly improved White House communication strategy" is nothing more than a change in its line of propaganda. As for the amazing confidence of the Iraqi people and the glorious election, it's way too soon to do more than keep one's fingers crossed. This election is a good sign. But let's see what happens if Shiites and Sunnis united with one goal: throw out the U.S.

All of which means that Iraq's civil war doesn't have to be a cataclysmic one - that is, if Iraqis keep their heads and the United States has the perseverance to finish the job.

And continue building its permanent bases.

Addendum December 19: The fiction remains that the American presence on Iraqi soil is temporary, a fiction reinforced by Sunday's Bush speech. What we can expect to see in Brooks' next series of columns will be continued discussions about (1) the new Administration "honesty" about Iraq (which is less than honest when we realize that a. according to Paul O'Neill, an Iraqi invasion was in the works in January 2001 and therefore did not spring from bad intelligence; and b. the administration went out of its way to find and use suspect intelligence from the start, so to assert the plans were based on "faulty intelligence" is,deceptive), and (2) we will certainly win the war if we stay the course. The way that the Bush speech ties into Brooks' earlier frames would be disconcerting if it did not feel so deliberate.

December 15, 200
The Holy Capitalists

What explains success? What forces drive some nations and individuals to move forward and grow rich while others stagnate? These happen to be the most important questions in the social sciences today.

In the scholarly arena, you see an array of academic gladiators wielding big books and offering theories.

Over here are the material determinists. Jared Diamond, with his million-selling "Guns, Germs, and Steel," says the West grew rich not because of any innate superiority, but because Europeans happened to have the right kinds of plants. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, with his tome, "Civilizations," argues that success is determined by climate and geography.

Over there are the cultural determinists. Thomas Sowell argues that ethnic groups develop their own skills and values and thrive or suffer as they compete, conquer and migrate. In his great opus, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," David Landes shows how cultural mores shaped European empires and the Industrial Revolution.

Now another academic heavyweight has entered the arena. In his new book, "The Victory of Reason," the Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the West grew rich because it invented capitalism. That's not new. What's unusual is his description of how capitalism developed.

The conventional view, embraced by most of his fellow cultural determinists, is that during the Renaissance and Reformation, Europeans shook off the authority of the Catholic Church. When a secular world was created alongside the sacred one, when intellectual freedom replaced obedience to authority, capitalism and scientific advances were the result.

That theory, Stark says, doesn't fit the facts. In reality, capitalism developed in the Middle Ages, and the important innovations were made by people in the belly of the faith. Religion didn't stifle economic and scientific ideas - it nurtured them.

Stark is building upon the recent research that has reversed earlier prejudices about the so-called Dark Ages. As late as 1983, the esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin could write a chapter on the Middle Ages entitled "The Prison of Christian Dogma."

But the more we learn, the more we realize that most of the progress we link to the Renaissance or later years actually happened during the Middle Ages. Roughly a hundred years before Copernicus, Jean Buridan (circa 1300-1358) wrote that the Earth is an orb rotating on an axis. Buridan, a rector of the University of Paris, was succeeded by Nicole d'Oresme (1323-1382), who explained why the rotation of the Earth doesn't produce wind.

Other medieval Scholastics made the same sort of discoveries in economics and technology. Five hundred years before Adam Smith, St. Albertus Magnus explained the price mechanism as what "goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale."

Catholic monasteries emerged as capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses. And engineers invented or commercialized a vast array of technologies: the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, eyeglasses, and so on.

These innovations and discoveries, Stark argues, were not made by the newly secular, but by people who had a distinctly Christian sense of the sacred. Catholic theology had taught them that God had created the universe according to universal laws that reason could discover. It taught that knowledge and history moves forward progressively, so people should look to the future, not the past.

The church recognized the dignity of free labor at a time when most other cultures did not. It valued private property and emphasized the essential equality of human beings despite their unequal incomes and stations.

This history is important today. (And not only because Albertus Magnus knew more about reconciling faith and reason 700 years ago than the bogus culture warriors do now.) It's important because whether we are dealing with poverty around the world or at home, it is not enough to simply liberate people and assume they will automatically pursue economic prosperity. People need to be instilled with certain beliefs, like the belief that the future can be better than the present and that individuals have the power to shape their own destiny.

Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nurtured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history. Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it's important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.

And that explains why the Kansas educational system sits at the forefront of scientific knowledge today.

Okay, that's really glib. But what Brooks is overlooking is that while the monestaries seethed with interesting thought, all of which was subject to Church approval, much of it never went beyond those walls. Buridan may have said the earth was an orb rotating on an axis, but it took another 200 years before Copernicus actually got the word out, and by the mid-1500s, the Renaissance was in full swing. It wasn't until the Age of Reason that scientific advances actually took hold. We must also understand that a lot of knowledge was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire, and it took over a thousand years for that lore to be re-discovered.

But then we must ask why it took a thousand years for that to happen. We must ask about the effect of the Inquisition on scientific thought. Many scholars argue that Descartes, in his Meditations, by doubting the world and then reconstructing it (beginning with the famed "cogito ergo sum"), was able to shake the foundations of thought away from Christian dogma and toward an enlightenment that did not rely on the Bible or church authorities, but on reason. To argue that the "Catholic Church nurtered one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in history" is like arguing that Hitler laid the groundwork for the entire Post-War boom.

December 11, 2005
What 'Munich' Left Out

Every generation of Americans casts Israel in its own morality tale. For a time, Israel was the plucky underdog fighting for survival against larger foes. Now, as Steven Spielberg rolls out the publicity campaign for his new movie, "Munich," we see the crystallization of a different fable. In this story, the Israelis and the Palestinians are parallel peoples victimized by history and trapped in a cycle of violence.

This is a "fable" shared by many Israelis, amongst them the great writer Amos Oz. Because Oz and others like him in the Israeli peace movement (which could encompass as many as a majority of Israeli citizens) hold this view, and because unlike David Brooks, they've actually spent their lives there, one would think it would behoove an American armchair pundit to at least acknowledge, while disagreeing, their point of view at the least as a legitimate one.

In his rollout interview in Time, Spielberg spoke of the Middle East's endless killings and counterkillings. "A response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine," Spielberg said. "There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end?"

The main problem, he concluded, is intransigence itself. "The only thing that's going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills."

"Munich" the movie is a brilliant representation of this argument. Its hero, Avner, has been called in by Golda Meir to assassinate the terrorists responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Over the course of the movie, as assassination piles upon assassination, Avner descends into a pit of Raskolnikovian hell. Israelis kill Palestinians and Palestinians kill Israelis and guilt piles upon paranoia. Eventually, Avner loses faith in his mission, in Zionism, in Israel itself.

This is a new kind of antiwar movie for a new kind of war, and in so many ways it is innovative, sophisticated and intelligent.

Uh oh, here it comes...

But when it is political, Spielberg has to distort reality to fit his preconceptions. In the first place, by choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism.

The difference between a good reviewer and a bad one is that the good reviewer examines the piece of art as it exists. A bad reviewer takes the piece of art and compares it to the one he or she wishes they'd seen. Based on those definitions, David Brooks is a bad reviewer. Steven Spielberg chose to make a film about 1972. He did not choose to make a film about some other time, some other place, some other story. Last summer, he made "War of the Worlds." Should he be blamed for not making "War and Peace" instead?

In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis.

The film is set before Hamas and before Islamic Jihad. If Steven Spielberg had wanted to make a film about Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he would have made such a film. As for the rest, the Munich terrorists wanted to exterminate Israelis. They might have been holocaust deniers, and they were certainly anti-Semites (anti-Jewish. They were themselves Semites). This criticism is based on the assumption that "Munich" is a non-fiction editorial. It's not. It's a drama, a work of fiction, though based on fact.

One more thing. Like all bad reviewers, David Brooks forgets that there is a screenwriter. In this case, it's a man named Tony Kushner (who co-authored the screenplay with Eric Roth. We can assume, though, that it's Kushner's ideas we're dealing with). He may have heard of Mr. Kushner. Along with several other works, including the recent musical "Caroline, or Change,"  Kushner is responsible for "Angels in America," arguably the greatest American play since the days of Williams, Miller and O'Neill.

There is, above all, no evil. And that is the core of Spielberg's fable. In his depiction of reality there are no people so committed to a murderous ideology that they are impervious to the sort of compromise and dialogue Spielberg puts such great faith in.

Maybe that's what Spielberg and Kushner believe, at least concerning Israel and Palestine. That doesn't make it a fable. It makes it a different belief system from that of David Brooks. Now we see Brooks' right-wing rigidity come to the fore. He has all the truth. Anyone who disagrees with him is living in a fantasy land. .

Because he will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong.

Brooks is rewriting history. The existence of evil is palpable in "Schindler's List," so Spielberg does believe in it. However, as an artist, he also understands that the key to great art is complexity. This may be why most conservatives are lousy artists: they only see things as simple, in terms of black and white. So Spielberg doesn't portray the aliens in "War of the Worlds" as strictly evil, or Mister in "Color Purple" as strictly evil, or even the Japanese in "Empire of the Sun" as strictly evil.

Again, if Brooks wants to call someone out, it should be the man who wrote the film, not the one who directed it. Tony Kushner. Say it with me. Tony Kushner. Kushner, by the way, in "Homebody/Kabul" sought to examine many of the issues that Brooks talks about. If Spielberg wanted to discuss these issues, he could have made a movie of that play. He didn't. He made this movie.

Understandably, he doesn't want to portray Palestinian terrorists as cartoon bad guys, but he simply doesn't portray them. There's one speech in which a Palestinian terrorist sounds like Mahmoud Abbas, but beyond that, the terrorists are marginal and opaque.

Again, that is not the story either Spielberg or Kushner were working on. If David Brooks were doing it, it would be entirely different. Also, it would probably suck.

And because there is no evil, Spielberg gets the Israeli fighters wrong. Avner is an American image of what an Israeli hero should be. The real Israeli fighters tend to be harder and less sympathetic, and they are made that way by an awareness of the evil implacability of those who want to exterminate them.

Kushner, David. Kushner. It's his screenplay. It's also based on a book, and it's possible the Avner of the book is similar to the Avner of the movie. Brooks might have had a point had he compared that Avner with this one. But he didn't. He's comparing their Avner with the one in his head. Besides, if Avner is "an American image of what an Israeli hero should be," then Brooks has forgotten something else: This is a big-budget Hollywood movie. and Eric Bana is playing the hero of a big budget Hollywood movie. He's not playing a composite of real Israeli fighters. Geez, doesn't the guy know the difference between a movie and reportage?

In Spielberg's Middle East the only way to achieve peace is by renouncing violence. But in the real Middle East the only way to achieve peace is through military victory over the fanatics, accompanied by compromise between the reasonable elements on each side. Somebody, the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority, has to defeat Hamas and the other terrorist groups. Far from leading to a downward cycle, this kind of violence is the precondition to peace.

That may be the case. But that's not the point of view of the film's creators. Why should they make a film they don't believe in? Just to satisfy David Brooks?

Here too, Spielberg's decision to tell a story set in the early 1970's makes "Munich" a misleading way to start a larger discussion.

Maybe Spielberg and Kushner are examining a different era to gain some historical perspective, so that people can understand how Arabs got from there to here. Maybe they're not interested in Brooks' manichean approach toward good and evil.

In 1972, Israel was just entering the era of spectacular terror attacks and didn't know how to respond. But over the years Israelis have learned that targeted assassinations, which are the main subject of this movie, are one of the less effective ways to fight terror.

Israel much prefers to arrest suspected terrorists. Arrests don't set off rounds of retaliation, and arrested suspects are likely to provide you with intelligence, the real key to defanging terror groups.

Again, Spielberg and Kushner are telling a story. They were not writing an editorial about how Israel treats terrorists today. Can Brooks even tell the difference? One supposes he will feel "The Producers" is a failed editorial about theatrical accounting.

Over the past few years Israeli forces have used arrests, intelligence work, the security fence and, at times, targeted assassinations to defeat the second intifada. As a result, the streets of Jerusalem are filled with teenagers, and the political climate has relaxed, allowing Ariel Sharon to move to the center.

Recent history teaches what Spielberg's false generalization about the "perpetual motion machine" of violence does not: that some violence is constructive and some is destructive. The trick is knowing the difference. That's a recognition that comes from reality, not fables.

History teaches Spielberg the same thing. Brooks needs to see "Schindler" and "Saving Private Ryan" again. Also, Brooks seems to forget that the entire Bush foreign policy he so favors is not "reality-based," as Administration members have said. So if Brooks is dead-set against a reality-based foreign policy in the real world, why is he so concerned about a lack of reality in a work of fiction?

December 10, 2005
O Fight, All Ye Faithful

Note: This column is abridged. No, you're not missing anything.. '

Tis the season when even the most blasé agnostic finds something special to fight about. But the Christmas battles are so complicated this year that you may be reluctant to join.
Don't let that happen. Honor the season. To get in the holiday spirit, you just need to arm yourself with the answers to a few basic questions:

Where is the "war on Christmas" being fought?

The so-called "War on Christmas" was a right-wing talking point that originated last year on talk radio and Fox News. If you avoided those two places, you'd never know a war was taking place. It takes Tierney several paragraphs before he finally gets there.

On many fronts. Retailers and politicians refer to fatally wounded evergreens as "holiday trees." The White House has sent out cards wishing a happy "holiday season," incurring the wrath of conservatives worried that secularists are "taking Christ out of Christmas." And the White Witch has cast Narnia into perpetual winter without Christmas, an assault not only on Santa Claus but on ecosystems vulnerable to climate change.

Is there any link between the White Witch and the White House?

Yes, by the way. Walden Media, co-producer of the Narnia film (with Disney) is a notorious right-wing company that supports fundamentalism and Republicans.

Why do some Christians object to the term "holiday tree"? Because it hides the ancient link between the tree and Christianity, found in an original Christmas gospel:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel said unto them: "I bring you tidings of great joy. On this Christmas go forth and smite a mighty tree, a Norway spruce with pleasing boughs, and place it in your home, and adorn it with candles and red balls and strands of silver." And the shepherds were sore afraid and said unto the angel: "What is this spruce you speak of? What is Norway? Wouldst thou allow a small palm tree?" Please note, the angel did not call it a holiday tree. Is that "original Christmas gospel" in the New Testament?

No, but never mind where it comes from. That's the kind of cynicism that's ruining Christmas. As a matter of historical fact, people in the ancient Middle East did put greenery inside their homes in December. The Egyptians put date palm leaves into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun at the solstice. Romans honored the god of farming with evergreens and gifts during the Saturnalia, their weeklong solstice festival. Did the Romans say "Happy Holidays" to one another?

No, the traditional greeting was, "Io, Saturnalia" (the first word was pronounced "yo"), which meant roughly, "Ho, praise to Saturn." Scholars suggest that the date of Christmas was picked in the fourth century to coincide with the Roman holiday.

Did Roman pagans complain that Christians were taking Saturn out of Saturnalia?
Perhaps, but in those days there were no conservative all-news channels. The pagans in northern Europe must have complained about their traditional Yule solstice festival. Christians not only co-opted customs like burning a Yule log, but also turned Yule into a synonym for Christmas. 

Why are today's Christians having such a hard time holding on to Christmas?

In some cases because of ridiculous political correctness, like not allowing the singing of traditional Christmas carols in public schools. But it's mainly because they're up against retailers who don't want to offend their many non-Christian customers. That old seasonal admonition of good will to all means more sales.

So some people now use the word "Holiday" instead of "Christmas." But "Christmas" is still used virtually everywhere. Sure, "Silver Bells" says "Happy Holidays," but that was written by a Jew. Even in Hawaii, they say "Mele Kalikimaka" which translated means...Merry Christmas. This thing is so fucking phony.

Does the moral fable of Narnia offer any way to resolve these religious differences over Christmas? Yes. The pro-Christmas side forms an army and destroys the opposition.
Are there any other ways? Well, non-Christians could tolerate a few Christmas traditions, and Christians could recognize they're not the only group in the mood for lights and festivities on long December nights.

So what's the right greeting? If you want be safe - or sell anything - go with "Happy Holidays." Otherwise, say anything you want. What's your choice? Yo, Saturnalia!

Yo, Tierney. There is no religious difference here. It's a bunch of demagogues playing their demagogic games. And you're buying right into it.

December 8, 2005
Running Out of Steam

Conservatives are in power but out of sorts. Fifty years after the founding of the modern right, conservatives hold just about every important government job, yet the conservative agenda has stalled. Federal spending has surged. Social Security reform is dead. And when voters are asked which party they trust on key issues, they decisively reject conservative ideas.

What Brooks refuses to acknowledge is the fact that the ideas have now been proven bankrupt. He's looking for excuses, and he'll find them.

On the economy, Democrats are trusted more, 56 to 34. On education, it's Democrats 55 to 32. On taxes, Democrats 48 to 38. On health care, Democrats 54 to 29. For members of a movement that is supposed to be winning the battle of ideas, conservatives are in a mess.

Given that the economy isn't doing nearly as well as under a Democrat, that "No Child Left Behind" has been a complete unfunded bust, that tax cuts have only helped the very rich, and that people are paying more in health care costs and getting less, why would anyone except a rich person vote Republican? When conservative ideas are put into practice, most people lose.

So what's gone wrong? First, most of the issues that propelled conservatives to power have been addressed. Modern American conservatism was formed by people who wanted to defeat the Soviet Union, reduce crime, reform welfare, cut taxes, deregulate the economy and reintroduce traditional social values. All those problems are less salient today.

The Soviet Union defeated itself; crime fell for a variety of reasons, welfare was gutted, taxes for the wealthy were cut, economic deregulation has led to massive corporate abuse, and religious censors are screwing it up for the rest of us. Nice. Great success story.

Second, conservatism has been semi-absorbed into the Republican Party. When conservatism was in its most creative phase, there was a sharp distinction between conservatives and Republicans.

That's because Republicans had to deal with running the country and the ideologues did not. But the Republican Party always had a strong conservative wing. It's also true that from the time of Roosevelt up to the Clinton era, the populace embraced various elements of the New Deal. It took a couple of generations after the Great Depression to completely forget why America got there in the first place, and how it got out. It was only when the memory of those days became distant that the ideologues and politicans mixed and matched.

Conservatives chased ideas, while Republicans were the corporate hacks who sold out. Now that conservative Republicans are in power, that distinction is obliterated.

The Republican "ideal", which came into play after the turn of the 20th century was always pro-business, and therefore the line between idealists and hacks was frequently crossed. The two most corrupt administrations of the 20th Century were those of Harding and Reagan, both Republicans.He is also deliberately ignoring the role of the powerful Christian movement within the Republican party.

There are a number of consequences. A lot of the energy that used to go into ideas is now devoted to defending Republican politicians. Many former conservative activists have become Republican lobbyists. (When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it's a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.)

Except that the "oddballs" and "sleazeballs" are the same people: Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist leading the pack. Neo-con idealists, like Dick Cheney and associates, have become sleazeball war profiteers. The "philosophers" behind the neo-con movement such as the father and son Podhoretz and Kristol teams, make a fortune today as media pundits. There's gold in them thar hills, and these "activists" are all busy digging.

Most important, there is greater social pressure to conform to the party's needs. Even writers and wonks are supposed to stay on message. In the 1970's, supply-siders mounted an insurgency against the Republican House leadership and against some sitting G.O.P. senators. If any group tried that today, it would be crushed by the party establishment.

It was the conformity that made the Republifcans so strong in the period between Newt Gingrich's rise and Tom DeLay's fall. Now that Bush is no longer popular and DeLay is gone, the conformity is fading. If there were an insurgency today, the party establishment couldn't do a damn thing. The insurgents, however, are all moderates.

Third, conservative media success means intellectual flabbiness. Conservatives used to live in a media world created by people who thought differently than they did. Reading certain publications and watching the evening news was like intellectual calisthenics. Now conservatives can be just as insular as liberals, retreating to their own media sources to be told how right they are.

Conservatives always have been intellectually flabby. That's why they're conservatives. For most conservatives, it's  always been about money and property. The rest is ideological dressing. Brooks is quite different. His philosophy is inhumane, to be sure, but at least it's not a cover for greed.

Fourth, conservatives have lost their governing philosophy. In 1994, the Republicans thought their purpose was to reduce the size of government. But when the government shutdown failed, they never developed a new set of guiding principles to clarify which things government should do and which things it shouldn't. George Bush came up with a philosophy of compassionate conservatism, but it remains fuzzy and incomplete.

"Compassionate conservatism" is a propagandistic phrase. There's no philosophy behind it at all. It was Bush-code aimed at the religious right.. Brooks here is avoiding the truth, that Bush and company never believed in budgetary restraint. They were in favor of corporate, rather than individual, welfare, which benefited the members of their class. Brooks will never discuss class or social hierarchy, nor will he acknowledge that the Bush Administration has been an absolute disaster for the idea of making government smaller.

One can argue, of course, that much like the idea of term limits, Rrepublicans were just saying stuff to get into power. Now that they're there, they really don't give a shit. It's not about ideology, it's about power and money. But as I mention above, conservatives shouldn't feel used. They're making a mint.

Fifth, conservative Republicans have lost touch with their base. To win, Republicans depend on white rural and suburban working-class voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Conservative Republicans offer almost no policies that directly benefit these people. Americans at that income level tend to be financially risk-averse. But the out-of-touch Republicans offered a Social Security plan that increased risk.

Here, Brooks is hitting the nail on the head, but still missing the point. Republicans have lost touch with their base because having gotten past the opening moves, they're now exclusively focused on their philosophy, which benefits the wealthy and leaves nothing for anyone else. It's the philosophy that's out of touch with the Republican base. They just can't spin it as well because its bankruptcy has come home to roost.

Sixth, conservatives have not effectively addressed the second-generation issues. Technological change has really changed the economy, introducing new stratifications. Inequality is rising. Wage stagnation is a problem. Social mobility is lagging, and globalization hurts hard-working people. Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this). The health care system is ridiculous. Welfare reform is unfinished. Conservatives have not addressed these second-generation issues as effectively as their forebears addressed the first-generation ones.

Because then they'd be liberals, or moderates. Conservatives can't address these issues without straying from their hands-off philosophy.

The good news is that we are about to enter a political season with no obvious conservative standard bearer, leaving plenty of room for innovation. Also, the current conservative crisis has produced some new thinking. A few weeks ago, two young writers, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (my former assistant), unveiled a fresh conservative agenda in a Weekly Standard essay called "The Party of Sam's Club." These writers, 26 and 25 years old, are closer to the future than the party leaders.

This is somewhere a cross between nepotism and an unabashed self-promotion. He's supporting his disciples because they're echoing him.

And the final bit of good news for the right is the left. No matter how serious the conservative crisis is, liberals remain surpassingly effective at making themselves unelectable.

Part of that has to do with Democrats listening to advice given by conservatives like David Brooks. And it isn't liberals who are effective at making themselves unelectable. A  good liberal, like Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama or Barbara Boxer, can easily get elected. It's the DLC Democrats who can't get elected --- because they have no philosophy other than Republican Lite..

December 6, 2005
Go West, Young Astronaut

NASA still doesn't have the money to go back to the Moon, much less head to Mars, but there is good news for space explorers. Someone else is on the job.

Richard Branson, who's selling rides into space for $200,000 (cash up front), is close to sealing a deal to take off from a new spaceport in the New Mexico desert. The first flights are scheduled in three years, and his company, Virgin Galactic, has already collected more than $10 million from future passengers.

The list of paid-up customers includes the architect Philippe Starck, the actress Victoria Principal and the "Superman Returns" director, Bryan Singer. There's a waiting list of thousands, ranging from the actor William Shatner to the cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Branson expects this venture to more than pay for itself, enabling him to start lowering ticket prices and expanding the business. "We're going to plow all the money back into space," he told me. "We'd love one day to have a hotel up there and keep pushing the boundaries."

Branson is a bit of a scammer, though. There have been so many in the past, acclaimed as great entrepreneurs until the someone figures out the numbers don't work. Remember Enron? Adelphia? Worldcom? If it was Gates or Lucas, maybe there'd be something there. But Branson? Tierney is buying his line completely. Funny, though, if it turns out to be a scam, no one will force Tierney to admit it.

He has ordered five spaceships and plans to send more than 700 people into space in the first 18 months, which is more than all the government-sponsored space programs have sent in history. There's a lesson here for Congress and the White House as they haggle over financing NASA's plans for the Moon and Mars.

What? That free enterprise is always better than government? Maybe some people just don't think that way.

The new Virgin Galactic spaceship will be a larger eight-person version of the ship that last year won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a reusable spacecraft. Its designer, Burt Rutan, backed by the billionaire Paul Allen, spent over $25 million to beat two dozen competitors.

That's the beauty of offering prizes: a little money buys a lot more R.&D. than you would ever get by giving the funds to NASA. Prizes spurred Charles Lindbergh and others to quickly turn aviation from a stunt into an industry. Competition inspires innovations that would never be approved by bureaucrats - like modeling a spaceship on a badminton shuttlecock.

But not necessarily commercial competition. The race to build the atomic bomb and the race to get to the moon both propelled scientists to achieve their goals without commercial considerations. Of course, you have to have a goal. The American space program hasn't had one in years, other than military purposes..It's true that commercialization could prompt greater interest in outer space, especially for the very rich. But I keep coming back to the fact that this sounds like a scam.

Rutan's spaceship, unlike NASA's space shuttle, doesn't need elaborate tiles as a heat shield because it re-enters the atmosphere much more slowly. Before returning to Earth, it changes its streamlined shape by folding its wings, enabling it to descend relatively gently, like a shuttlecock.

The problem is that only government can afford the kind of testing necessary to ensure this new design actually works. So in essence, we're back to square one. Besides, would you be so eager to go into space on a spaceship that works only theoretically?

Now that Rutan and Branson and other entrepreneurs are entering space, there's no need for NASA to poke around in Earth orbit with the space shuttle and the space station. Nor does it need to return to the Moon. Rutan figures that private spaceships will be going there before long, so he'd rather see NASA concentrate on ways to reach Mars.

Who owns the moon? Is it first come, first serve? Tierney doesn't go into that question, or the entire question of commercializing outer space. Commercialization is a priori a good thing. Government is a bad thing. NASA doesn't need to exist except to form the backdrop for more commercial utilization. In a sense, NASA is being relegated to another example of corporate welfare, which Tierney wholeheartedly approves.

So would I, but not all by itself. Instead of just financing NASA's plans for Mars, Congress and the White House should make it compete against engineers like Rutan. It could offer a prize, to be awarded by the National Academy of Engineering or the National Research Council, for the best plan on paper for a manned mission to Mars.

Branson told me he'd be willing to enter that competition for a prize of $10 million - a pittance next to NASA's $16 billion annual budget. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, said he'd enter it, too.

An even better idea would be to offer prizes for making actual progress on a Mars mission, not just drawing up plans. Zubrin suggests that the federal government get entrepreneurs started by offering a $5 billion prize for the first flight of a vehicle that can lift 120 tons into orbit.

And who determines who wins the prize? Would cronies have the inside track? What if the prize winner absconded with the prize money? Or didn't succeed? These are basically huge government grants to private enterprise. It's not dissimilar from the way the pharmaceutical industry works. Government pays for the research, Big Pharma gets the profits.

There could also be a grand $30 billion Mars Prize for getting a human to Mars and planting the American flag. That would be a bargain compared with the current plans of NASA, which wants to get to Mars by first spending $100 billion just to reach the Moon.

And the $30 billion prize goes to .......Halliburton, which then builds a rocket for $1 million and pockets the rest.

I realize that Congress and the White House are reluctant to upset NASA's monopoly because they don't want to offend government workers and the contractors defending the status quo.

Or because they have qualms about commercializing space or about this level of corporate welfare.

But these engineers could be eligible for the prize, too. The teams competing might well subcontract parts of the mission - like tracking the spacecraft - to divisions of NASA, and those government workers could share in the cash.

Notice the not-so-subtle dig about government and workers. They're the only greedy ones. Enterpreneurs are visionary.

A Mars Prize would have one wonderful political advantage over doling out money to NASA. Today's politicians could announce the prize without scrimping to pay for it in any budget anytime soon. They would get the immediate glory of inaugurating an interplanetary quest, and someone else would get the bill.

Someone would make a lot of money, and nothing would be built because there would be no oversight.

Tierney should stop taking Heinlein so seriously.

Addendum to David Brooks December 4th column:
A central element of the right-wing pundit machine is the refusal to see Bush Administration pronouncements as propagandistic in nature. So the president can give a speech, such as the one Brooks is talking about, and he sees it as showing a significant policy change. The problem is, over five years, we've come to understand that everything said by this Administration is unreliable. Rather than looking at words, we must look at deeds. New words on the part of President Bush signal nothing more than a new tack to the propaganda. By implying that the words themselves have meaning, Brooks is guiding journalists away from looking at facts, and toward parsing the words. The right-wing has been pulling this number since day one of the Bush Administration, owith complicity from folks like Jim Lehrer and Tim Russert. The result is shock and surprise when events go in a different direction from the words. After five years, you'd think journalists would know better. But they don't.

December 4, 2005
Multiple Reality Syndrome

Most serious people who spend time in Iraq report that reality there is contradictory and kaleidoscopic. The Sunnis are participating in the democratic process; the Sunnis are supporting the insurgents. The Shiites are building a national government; the Shiites are creating death squads. The Americans are securing neighborhoods; the Americans are inciting violence.

This information is only contradictory if you consider that all Sunnis think as one, or all Shiites think as one. Brooks, who on PBS said that Bush's latest Iraq speech was a watershed and a major turning point, is still living in a fool's paradise.

A Times correspondent, John F. Burns, has written about the rumors, half-truths, obscurities and shadowlands that envelope Iraqi society. In his book "The Assassins' Gate," George Packer contrasts the contradictory reality in Iraq with the simple-minded debate at home, with liberals spewing anti-Bush slogans and conservatives fixating on every piece of good news. "There were not many people in America who could stand the cognitive dissonance with which Iraqis live every day," Packer writes.

"Liberals spewing anti-Bush slogans" is probably not what Packer said at all. This is the "Hate Bush" frame that the righ-wing has been pushing. The opposite of "conservatives fixating on good news" is "liberals fixating on bad news." Brooks is making things up as he goes along.

It's been interesting to watch the Bush administration grapple with these ambiguities, contradictions and dissonances. When the war first began to deteriorate, the Bushies exuded what Packer calls a "theology of confidence." The president felt he had to display resolve or his team's morale would suffer. Public speeches were relentlessly positive, even to the point of fantasy.

Well beyond the point of fantasy, and part of the general Bush Administration policy of never ever ever admitting a mistake, and always saying everything is right. "You're doing a helluva job, Brownie" is typical and consistent with everything the Administration has done in the past five years. Brooks is trying to separate Iraq out, as if it's different from the same old crap we've been hearing from Rove and company.

Administration officials felt compelled to assert a mastery of events they plainly did not possess. Sometimes I'd come away from off-the-record conversations and background briefings feeling my intelligence had been insulted, because even in private, officials would ignore realities that were on newspaper front pages.

Then, gradually, an internal glasnost evolved. John Negroponte, then our ambassador, forced people in Washington to confront unpleasant truths. But the internal deliberations were not matched by external candor.

In other words, the Bush Administration continued lying to the public even after they stopped lying to themselves. Way to go, Brooks.

There was a vast gap between the eighth-grade level of some public statements and the graduate-school level of private White House conversations. It was about this time that a bewildered newcomer to the Bush administration interrupted an interview to ask me why I thought there was such a big difference between the probing and realistic President Bush he would see in the Oval Office, and the pat and repetitive Bush he would see at press conferences and on TV.

Probing and realistic President Bush? This is a new one. I haven't heard that one in months. Are we resurrecting the old vision of Bush The Leader, as opposed to what we've seen lately, Bush The Dipshit?

The president's Annapolis speech last week marks the start of the third phase of the Bush administration's efforts to function amid the fog of the Iraq war. John Burns and Dexter Filkins wrote that the speech was a watershed; for once the Iraq Bush described matched the Iraq his generals confront every day. I'd add that the speech was a watershed because more than ever before, the views the president expressed in public resembled the views he holds in private.

They also resemble the views the rest of us have been holding for a long time. Who still believes the insurgents are mostly external terrorists? That Bush is now more in line with what news reports have been telling us for months does not give me too much hope. After all, Cheney is still spouting the same old nonsense.

I think of this as the Khalilzad phase, because our current ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is more intimately involved with all the Iraqi factions than any American has been before, and is taking more sophisticated information back to the White House.

Now when you ask administration officials about how the Iraqi government is doing, you get complex and informative answers: some ministries, like Finance, have competent leadership, while others, like Interior, are a mess. The Iraqi Army is doing a decent job of being a national institution, rather than a front for sectarian militias, but the police forces have been tainted by militia influence.

Bush's statement that Iraqi forces recently led a successful battle have been debunked, as has a great deal of the positive news in Bush's speech. Those of us old enough to remember all the crap about successful Vietnamization need to take pause here.

The fact that the administration is beginning to present some reality-based information is good, of course. But come on. This war has been going on for two and a half years, and the fact that complexity is being acknowledged now is way too little, way too late.

When you ask about the Sunnis, you also get answers that acknowledge the contradictory nature of reality. The Sunnis are politicking, but they are not renouncing violence. The Sunni political parties are showing surprising organizational ability, even while the Shiite politicians are fragmenting into bickering blocs. The Sunnis generally despise Americans, but they are coming to recognize that the American presence is a useful check on the overbearing Shiites.

This must be difficult for any right-winger who sees things in black and white. For the rest of us, it's pretty obvious that contradictory thoughts abound amongst Sunni factions, and even amongst Sunni individuals. As they do with all of us. Geez.

There's also more internal debate. For example, some administration officials believe primordial sectarian passions threaten to rip Iraq apart. Others believe that Iraqi politics are sectarian but that Iraqi society is not so bitterly divided.

Which just means internal administration debate sounds like what's happening in the real world. It's nice to hear, but again, after two and a half years? They should have been discussing this in 2003. The rest of us were.

I still wouldn't say deliberation is this administration's strong suit.


Nor is it really possible for anybody to fully understand reality in Iraq, where nothing is as it seems and the myriad of local conditions often don't cohere into one national picture.

Which is why the decision to go to war was such a bad one.  An elective war that wasn't reality-based? And Brooks is still applauding President Bush.

But just as our troops and the Iraqis have learned to fight better, the White House has learned to think and communicate better. These days one at least has the sense we are putting our best team on the field - whether it is too late is another proposition lost in the shadowlands.

This is the Best Team on the Field? This has been the Only Team on the Field. That some members of this Administration are actually looking at Iraq in a more realistic way, and some are not perpetually lying through their teeth may be a giant breakthrough for Brooks, but at this end, looking realistically, Rumsfeld and Cheney are still running the show, assisted by Condi Rice..This is just more spin.  Nothing's changed.

December 3, 2005
The Pentagon's Vanity Press

Now that the Pentagon has been outed for planting articles in Iraqi newspapers, we're faced with one of the easiest questions of the year: Is it proper for the government to manipulate public opinion through self-serving, one-sided journalism?

Of course not. In a free democratic society, biased journalism is the responsibility of billionaires, foundations and the reporters they buy.

Since leftist foundations can't buy squat, he must be talking about right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.  He is leaving out subtler methods, such as the right-wing noise machine and the use of intimidation to force journalists to view truth and falsehood as a he said/she said dichotemy.

The private sector could have done it cheaply and discreetly, but the Pentagon made a mess of it. It was caught not only planting articles but also - even more humiliating - paying newspapers for the privilege. The first rule of vanity publishing is to hide the money.

There is no FoxNews in Iraq to print their propaganda like they do here. And the money isn't really hidden. Many right-wing pundits make up to $40,000 per corporate dinner.

The Pentagon may want to blame this fiasco on the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based firm it hired to place the articles. P.R. pros are supposed to get stuff in the paper without straight payola. But in this case, they have an excuse.

Yes. It's not the United States. In the United States, they could always find some reporter or pundit to print their crud, or get it posted at FoxNews or blabbed on Talk Radio.

If you've ever been a freelance writer, you know that trying to get an editor in America to accept an unsolicited article is humiliating enough.

But the scribes at the Lincoln Group had to pitch stories to editors in a foreign country, and they weren't even hustling their own stuff. The stories were concocted by those masters of prose and narrative: Pentagon bureaucrats.

The Lincoln freelancers were offering stories with headlines like "The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq," as Jeff Gerth reported in The New York Times. Gerth shared with me (free of charge) a stack of other stories flogged by the Lincoln Group, and after reading them I have new sympathy for these freelancers.

You do have to wonder, though, what would prompt Pentagon people to concoct headlines like that. These are the folks fighting a war in Iraq and they're completely clueless how to pitch anything to the Iraqi people. This level of incompetence is rather damning.

With a couple of exceptions - notably a piece headlined "Iraqi Forces Capture Al Qaeda Fighters Crawling Like Dogs" - this material is Mission Impossible. Try getting someone to take a piece called "Iraqi Soldiers Improve Leadership Skills" or "Renovated Facilities Help to Bolster Security in Mosul." As I read them, I kept imagining rejection letters like:

Thank you for the opportunity to consider "Iraqis Electing the Future." It thoroughly differentiates the Coalition of Independent and Nonpartisan Election Monitors (CINEM) from the Civic Coalition for Free Elections (CCFE) and the Election Violence Education and Resolution project (EVER). Unfortunately, though, it's not quite right for our target audience.
We were intrigued by the headline of "An Iraqi Success Story." But we found the opening rather slow - "Telecommunications is arguably the sector most affected by the 2003 liberation of Iraq" - and then got bogged down in the key paragraph:

"And while there were initial disputes over the process that awarded Egypt-based Orascom Telecommunications (Iraqna), Kuwait-based MTC Atheer and Kurdish-owned Asiacell the first 24-month Iraqi cellphone licenses in December 2003, their growth can only be cited as an Iraqi success story."

Perhaps a rewrite could "punch up" the story to suit our needs, but we fear it still might not work. Have you considered a specialized business publication?
There is much to admire in your article on the Iraqi Security Forces. You memorably describe them "moving across the desert sands like the wind." But you do not introduce us to any of these "heroic" figures or describe their activities beyond a list of the weapons they seized.

This hearkens back to the effort we've seen in recent Brooks and Tierney articles which discuss how the American press is ignoring heroism on the part of our soldiers in Iraq. One thing both columnists consistently do is throw in the little propagandistic nudge or conflation whenever they can.

You write that these soldiers "fight for freedom, wherever there is trouble," a revelation that would indeed be newsworthy to our readers across Iraq, not to mention the American military advisers. But our readers would remain skeptical unless you could provide more evidence.

Such as phony Nigerian uranium stories? .

After a few of these letters, any freelancer would look for a new strategy. Pentagon payola would be the only way to maintain your self-respect.

I hope the Pentagon is getting out of the news business. But if the would-be journalists can't help themselves, they should at least do a good job of propaganda. No more stories headlined "Border Security Is in Full Swing on All Levels."

Is Tierney really arguing against paid Pentagon propaganda or against stupid paid Pentagon propaganda? What's funny is how Tierney forgets to mention Armstrong Williams and others who were paid by the Bush Administration in the United States to spew its propaganda. This is part of the same policy.

Go tabloid and start making money for a change:
"Osama's Orgy: The Tape Al Jazeera Won't Show You"
"Study: Handling I.E.D.'s Linked to Sterility"
"Drunken Zarqawi Cavorts in Vegas With Jessica Simpson"
"Iraqi Security Forces Cheer Tot With Kitten Rescue"
"Blackout Bliss: 101 Fun Things to Do When the Lights Go Out."
"Bomber's Report From Afterlife: No Virgins!"

And now Tierney has come to his ending, never really getting to the real point, which is,Wouldn't the Pentagon be better off changing policy in Iraq than spinning what already is going wrong?

December 1, 2005
The Age of Skepticism

War is a cultural event. World War I destroyed the old social order in Europe and disillusioned a generation of talented young Americans. World War II bred a feeling of American unity and self-confidence. Vietnam helped trigger a counterculture.

Millions were killed in World War I, even more millions in World War II. Vietnam took the lives of 50,000 Americans. The 2100 body bags in Iraq becomes a small number. So before we even get going on the article, Brooks is setting up false models. But that's not even the point. This is an exercise in framing. Over and over again, Brooks focuses on "Iraq War" as if its something outside the context of the Bush Administration and partisanship. This is a Republican War, based on Republican lies and conflations, and sold by people like David Brooks.

The Iraq war is not going to have that kind of pervasive cultural impact, but it has already shifted the zeitgeist.

The zeitgeist shifted after Hurricane Katrina. The emperor was revealed to have no clothes, both by the press and the public, and then belately (of course) by other politicians. But Katrina was a failure of the Bush Administration, and was perceived as a systemic failure. Brooks does not want to acknowledge that. He'd rather focus on the "Iraq War" as a vague, shapeless entity, sapping the American people's innate strength.

There has been a sharp drop in Americans' faith in their institutions.

Understandably. Americans feel conned, by Republicans, the spineless Democrats and by a useless press. But it's not the Iraq War, it's the folks in Washington. The Iraq War --- I'll say the first time but not the last --- is a symptom of what's been going on since January 20, 2001.

Trust in government has fallen back to about half of where it was in 2001. More Americans believe that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.

Two things are at work here: the success of the right-wing frame that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, coupled with the actual wastefulness and inefficiency of the Bush Administration and the pork-obsessed and corrupt lapdog Congress that does its bidding. Of course, one could argue that the Bush Administration is deliberately inefficient and wasteful in order to further that frame.

Besides, this has to do with the War in Iraq how? The Bush Administration is considered by, well, nearly half of all Americans as one of the most disastrous in our history, and that cuts across the board. To blame Iraq for the problem is to obfuscate the much larger issue. What we're looking at here is the blame game. Brooks wants to save his philosophical underpinnings, so he's blaming the entire decline on presumably bipartisan Iraq War.

There has been a sharp decline in support for the United Nations. There has been a sharp rise in the number of people who say the U.S. should mind its own business when it comes to world affairs. Isolationist sentiment is about where it was just after Vietnam.

Starting a war under false pretenses will do that. But these polls show us a snapshot, and snapshots change. It's one administration, acting horribly, and people are responding.

Americans are increasingly cynical about politics and their parties. Only 24 percent of Americans say the Republicans represent their priorities, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and only 26 percent say the Democrats do.

Given that both parties are owned and operated by corporate interests furthering a corporate agenda, that's not surprising. But  (a) it doesn't necessarily have to do with Iraq, and (b) since Democrats, at least according to conventional wisdom, haven't delineated their own programs, this is also not surprising.

The hammer of disapproval has fallen hardest on the Republicans, of course, but the public is just as eager to think the worst of the Democrats. Seventy percent of Americans say Democratic criticism of the war is hurting troop morale, according to a poll by RT Strategies. Most Americans cynically believe that Democrats are leveling their attacks on the war to gain partisan advantage, while only 30 percent believe that they are genuinely trying to help U.S. efforts.

These results are unsurprising. "Do you think Democratic criticism is hurting troop morale?" I would say, yes, probably. I'll go with that. "Are Democrats leveling their attacks on the war to gain partisan advantage?" Given that the attacks only began after Bush's poll ratings went down, I'd have to agree as well. But that doesn't mean I won't vote for Democrats to get those Republicans out of office and change this country's direction. Brooks' reading of the poll is wrong. Most everyone I know would agree with the majority, and most everyone I know is an anti-war Democrat.

Finally, a brackish tide of pessimism has descended upon the country. Roughly two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

At the time of the 2004 presidential election, a large majority of Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction. The country has been headed in the wrong direction for years. They voted for Bush anyway. Americans have always been against Bush's domestic policy. Only now, when Iraq has proved so disastrous, have they turned their backs on his foreign policy.

Iraq is not the only issue that is driving this sour pessimism, but it is the main issue. (Katrina has had a surprisingly modest impact.)

This is disingenuous.. We all agree Iraq is America's main issue. But it was Katrina and its aftermath that changed the zeitgeist and forced the press and public to look anew at the Bush Administration.

And Americans are in this awful mood despite rising consumer confidence and strong economic growth, 4.3 percent.

No one's talking about consumer confidence or economic growth right now. They're all talking about Iraq and the costs, both human and financial. The stock market has been on a roll the past few weeks. But it's been on rolls before. Consumer confidence has been up and down. The war still drags on. Bad news trumps good news. If consumer confidence remains steady and growth continues, some perceptions will change. But Iraq is still a mess, and Bush's platform is still leading America down the wrong path.

Americans are not pessimistic about their own individual futures, but they are pessimistic about their leadership and their country's future.

Is this coming from a poll? Sounds like something out of a hat. Even if it does come from a poll, it's so vague as to be meaningless.

In this atmosphere of general weariness, the political pendulum is no longer swinging on a left-to-right axis.

Here's the frame. Right-wing philosophy is in trouble because everything it touches turns to cow dung. Brooks is trying to save his philosophical ass here by spinning the atmosphere as bipartisan.

As Christopher Caldwell noted recently in The Financial Times, the same phenomenon is striking country after country: the governing party is sinking, but the opposition party is not rising. Problems on the right do not lead to a resurgence on the left, or vice versa.

Most leftish parties, such as those in England, France and Germany have abandoned their roots for Blairish-Clintonian corporate liberalism. This agenda, put forward by folks like the Democratic Leadership Council, saps the left of any vitality and actually saps the left of any participation in the political process. Having one party with two right-wings (as Gore Vidal suggests) doesn't really work.

In other words, the Democrats may win elections in 2006 or 2008, but that doesn't mean they will have the public's confidence or a mandate for change.

Which is absolutely nothing new.  It's been a long, long time when either party had the public's confidence or a mandate for change. Not even in 1994, when it was reapportionment rather than political sea-change, that boosted the Republicans to power in the House.

Brooks also is having a memory lapse. Wasn't he one of those who shouted in November 2004 that Bush's 51% victory gave him a mandate?

In this atmosphere of exhaustion, the political pendulum swings from engagement to cynicism. When polarized voters lose faith in their own side, they don't switch to the other. They just withdraw.

When people get screwed by the powers-that-be, when democracy seems a fraud, when politicians are all lying jackasses, the public gets cynical and withdraws. Gee. It's not an atmosphere of exhaustion. Your people LIED, David. LIED. LIED. LIED.

The chief cultural effect of the Iraq war is that we are now entering a period of skepticism.

Here we go with the frame again. It's not the "Iraq War." It's the Bush Administration's war in Iraq, it's the lies, it's the conflation, it's the deception. The Iraq War is the most visible sign, but Katrina was the eye-opener.

Many Americans are going to be skeptical that their government can know enough to accomplish large tasks or be competent enough to execute ambitious policies.

Here we go again with the old frames. It's Big Government's fault. Not the fault of corrupt and incompetent Republicans who want government to fail. It's Big Government. He's sneaking in all the right-wing garbage, under new terminology.

More people are going to be skeptical of plans to mold reality according to our designs or to solve the deep problems that are rooted in history and culture.

After watching what the Bush Administration did in Iraq, after watching the farce that was Social Security "reform," a clean skies initiative that dirtied the atmosphere, a healthy forests initiative that killed trees, energy initiatives written by Big Oil, and so on, who wouldn't be skeptical? It's the Bush Administration, stupid.

They are going to be skeptical of our ability to engage with or understand faraway societies in the Middle East or Africa or elsewhere.

The Bush Administration screwed up in Iraq. The Bush Administration screwed up in the Mididle East. The Bush Administration screwed up. The Bush Administration. Let me say it again. The Bush Administration. That's why they're so skeptical, so cynical. Apologists like you are still shifting the blame.

In theory, skepticism leads to prudence, not a bad trait. But when it is tinged with cynicism, as it is now, skepticism turns into passivity.

When the people in charge are crooks, charlatans and liars, maybe it is better if we do nothing.

In skeptical ages, people are quick to decide that longstanding problems, like poverty and despotism, are intractable and not really worth taking on.

So it wasn't a skeptical age when David Brooks was skeptical about everything Democrats wanted to do. Now that Americans are skeptical about Republican initiatives, it's a skeptical age. Funny how that works.

They find it easy to delay taking any action on the distant but overwhelming problems, like the deficits, that do not impose immediate pain.

Notice he talks about "the deficits." Who created the deficits? Any action at this point by the Republicans will hurt the average American, and maybe the average American has woken up to that.

They find it easy to dawdle on foreign problems, like Iran's nuclear ambitions, rather than confronting them.

And send our troops there? At this point, who in their right mind would? We don't have the troops to send. They're in Iraq and they're in Afghanistan and they're staying home instead of enlisting. The Bush Administration, not public skepticism, has limited America's actions toward Iran, Korea and whoever else might crop up. Speaking of that, haven't we captured bin Laden yet?

As the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has observed, Americans begin social reforms when they are feeling confident, not when they are weary and insecure.

Radical actions by the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress have left the people of the United States weary and insecure, to be sure. Maybe it's time to stop.

Already the resolve to rebuild New Orleans and seize the post-Katrina moment has dissipated.

Sure, the moment Halliburton got the no-bid contract. Actually, groups of people from all over the country have headed down recently to New Orleans to help rebuild the Ninth Ward. But Brooks also ignores the larger issue. This is the United States of Amnesia, and Labor Day is a few months past. This always happens. How's the rebuilding in Sumatra going, by the way? Remember the earthquake in Kashmir? Compared to that, Katrina is on everyone's mind.

The bipartisan desire to do something ambitious about energy policy is going nowhere.

The desire is bipartisan, the plans are not. Does a bipartisan desire for energy policy mean a Democrat must give in to Republicans? No, it does not.

Even the problem of Darfur evokes little more than sad sighs and shrugs.

This is nothing new. The genocide in Rwanda went quietly as well.

What's at stake in Iraq is not only the future of that country, but the future of American self-confidence. We may have to endure a cycle of skepticism before we can enjoy another cycle of hope.

Welcome to George W. Bush's America. When a government lies and wallows in its own cynicism, corruption and incompetence, people tend to get skeptical. We've got a dissatisfied and angry America, pissed off at being lied to, being cheated, being used. And Brooks is channeling that into something vague about Iraq. Notice, though, that he hasn't once mentioned what it is about Iraq that's sapping people's confidence.  What it is, though, is Administration policy and Administration decisions and Administration lies. He's doing his sleight of hand thing. Now you see it, now you don't.

November 29, 2005
The Good Goliath

Once upon a time, social activists decried the plight of workers in company towns whose paychecks vanished each week because they were being gouged by the local stores. Urban politicians, angered by the high prices charged at grocery stores in the inner city, offered subsidies to attract chain stores that would make food more affordable for the poor.

Then Wal-Mart came along, giving small-town workers an alternative to the local oligopoly and offering urbanites food at the same low prices charged in the suburbs. Now the activists and politicians have a new cause: Say No to Wal-Mart! Stop it before it discounts again!

Except that when people criticize Wal-Mart, they're not talking about monopolistic company towns nor about inner city price-gougers. They're talking about rural and suburban America, and main streets and malls decimated by Wal-Mart's predatory pricing. This is the kind of conflation right-wing propagandists use. He's comparing apples and oranges.

This new crusade is especially puzzling in light of the current consensus among poverty experts. I recently moderated what I expected to be a liberal-conservative debate on the topic that was sponsored by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. It was a fascinating discussion - but as hard as I tried to provoke controversy, there wasn't much of a fight.  Both sides praised welfare reform and said the government should keep pushing people off the rolls and into jobs.

I would be curious to see who exactly was on that panel. Were the "liberals" Clintonian moderates or actual liberals? Guess we'll never know.

And because many of these people are unskilled workers who command less than $10 per hour, both sides agreed that the government should make work worthwhile by supplementing their income through more income tax credits and other programs. From that perspective, Wal-Mart has been one of the most successful antipoverty programs in America. It provides entry-level jobs that unskilled workers badly want - there are often 5 or 10 applicants for each position at a new store.

No. That perspective says what it says. It says nothing about Wal-Mart whatsoever because Wal-Mart doesn't add jobs to the community in the long term. it sacrifices jobs at older stores that can't keep up withWal-Mart's predatory pricing. Not only does Wal-Mart sacrifice jobs, but the replacement jobs at Wal-Mart are generally lower-paying than the first set of jobs.

Tierney is unconsciously making a case against the Administration's claims of economic prosperity through its tax cuts. Obviously, when there are five to ten applicants per job at a place like Wal-Mart, something is not right in America. People are out of work and starving, and the Bush Administration is doing nothing. Job creation (in terms of keeping pace with population growth) is horrific in the Bush years, as many studies have pointed out. The number of people falling below the poverty line in America since 2001 has significantly increased.

Critics say Wal-Mart's pay, $9.68 per hour on average, is too low and depresses local retail wages when a new store opens. That effect is debatable, but even if wages do go down slightly, these workers still end up with more disposable income, as Jason Furman, a visiting professor at New York University, concludes in a paper titled "Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story."

That effect is debatable? Well, anything's debatable. That the moon is made of green cheese is debatable. This is playing with words. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that local retail wages go down when a new store opens.

Furman, a former economic adviser in the Clinton administration and the Kerry presidential campaign, notes that the possible decline in wages is minuscule compared with what the typical family saves by shopping at Wal-Mart: nearly $800 per year on groceries alone, a savings that's especially valuable to the many low-income shoppers at Wal-Mart.

But only if they stay healthy. Throw in benefits from previous jobs, and the equation changes.  No one questions why people shop at Wal-Mart, and what they save there. That's Wal-Mart's greatest strength. The question is what it does to a community: how it forces shop owners to be peons, how it destroys downtowns and malls, and how, in the long haul, it increases rural poverty in America through the inability of new business to compete.

The average income of shoppers at Wal-Mart is $35,000, compared with $50,000 at Target and $74,000 at Costco. Costco is touted as the virtuous alternative to Wal-Mart because it pays better wages, but it needs to because it requires higher-skilled workers to sell higher-end products to its more affluent customers.

Tierney obviously doesn't stoop to shopping at either Target or Costco. He would be correct if his comparisons were Best Buy or Home Depot. But neither Target nor Costco requires particularly higher-skilled laborers. Both get them because --- surprise --- they pay better, and stores will tend to hire higher-skilled workers over lower-skilled workers when given the choice.

Wal-Mart is often denounced for getting "corporate welfare" because some of its employees rely on Medicaid for health care and on other government aid. But so do some employees at other companies or at government institutions like public schools.

He's being disingenuous. Any company paying America's minimum wage is in the same boat as Wal-Mart. The difference is that Wal-Mart has the power to deliberately sabotage small businesses in order to offer minimum wage jobs. As for public schools, there might be a handful of states in which public school teachers receive no benefits, but none I'm aware of. Even if such school districts exist, we're talking about workers receiving salaries and (Medicaid) benefits from the government. But are there actually school districts where skilled teachers are so impoverished that they rely on Medicaid?

Wal-Mart offers health benefits that are generally comparable to what other retailers offer.

Republicans use the "everybody else does it" argument all the time as a rationalization for morally bankrupt behavior. Besides, we're not talking about other retailers. We're talking about Box Store retailers, and insofar as I know, Wal-Mart stands alone.

Its size makes it an easy target for enemies, like the Maryland legislators who passed a bill that would apparently affect only one company in the state: Wal-Mart. The legislators in Maryland (and other states) want to force Wal-Mart to either increase its spending on health care benefits or to make payments to the state's health program for the poor.

Its size does make it an easy target, but so does the way it operates. By forcing stores out of business, Wal-Mart is increasing government health-care subsidies to the poor, and in its own way, milking the state. Oddly enough, Tierney is starting to make a case for national health care, what he would call "socialized medicine." No one would argue about what kind of health care package Wal-Mart offered if a national health care package existed.

But suppose Wal-Mart were forced to give health coverage to all of its part-time employees. To remain competitive, Wal-Mart would probably cut the cash wages of the workers to compensate for the additional health benefits.

This is putting the cart before the horse. Tierney is assuming that Wal-Mart will screw the workers no matter what the government does. Probably true, but it doesn't help his case. Nowhere does he suggest that Wal-Mart give a little back to the community from its obscene profits.

The cut in take-home pay would be particularly hard on the many part-timers who don't need the benefits because they're already covered through their spouses' or other insurance.

This implies that many Wal-Mart workers have spouses who are already covered and therefore don't need benefits. My guess is that such workers are few and far between.

Some of Wal-Mart's critics prefer to imagine that Wal-Mart wouldn't have to cut wages - that it could get away with raising prices a little to cover the extra health care costs. But that would force Wal-Mart's shoppers to cover costs previously paid by the government out of revenues coming largely from income taxes, which are paid disproportionately by the affluent.

This is amazing! Tierney has just given one of the primary reasons advocates for a national health care system give. It's extremely hard on companies, and hurts consumers if employers pay health care costs over and above salaries. Thanks, John. Notice the little piece of framing in the second sentence, "paid disproportionately by the affluent."  The choice of words suggests institutional unfairness toward the wealthy even as he tries to sucker punch liberals.

Instead, Wal-Mart's low-income shoppers would, in effect, pay a regressive new sales tax.

Tierney's argument could go on to say that if the feds were to lower minimum wage standards, Wal-Mart can offer even deeper discounts and thus help the poor even more. Look, Wal-Mart became one of the richest companies in the world because so much money is paid out to the owners and so little to the workers. The argument in favor of benefits is that, again, Wal-Mart should be willing to cut back on its profits to give a bit more back to the communities it ransacked.

It's easy to understand the motives of some of Wal-Mart's enemies. Local merchants don't want to match its prices.

Local merchants want to stay in business and they can't match its prices because Wal-Mart gets special bulk discounts from wholesalers. This is how Tower Records drove small record stores out of business (and is being driven out of business itself by box stores). This is how Barnes & Noble and Borders drove independent bookstores out of business. The playing field is uneven because of the way discounting works.

Labor leaders know that they'll lose members and dues if unionized stores suffer.

No, labor leaders understand that Wal-Mart is fighting to break the power of organized workers. Even with unions fighting, benefits are being cut back across the country. Companies are returning to the days when management controlled everything. Labor is fighting back.He is impugning organized labor with the same greedy motives as corporate America. But corporate America is there to make money; Organized Labor is there to help labor.

But why would anyone who claims to be fighting for social justice be so determined to take money out of the pockets of the poor?

Because it's not from the pockets of the poor. The entire article rests on one point: That Wal-Mart cannot afford to give more benefits without raising prices or screwing workers. But Wal-Mart is not General Motors or United Airlines or any other company that is fighting to stay alive in a new environment. Wal-Mart is capitalizing on unemployment and rural poverty to make lots of money for itself. The question is, should it be held accountable for its actions?

-- Richard Wolinsky

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