In his review of Jared Diamond's new book, David Brooks is appropriately horrified by the stories of tribal women who were left to die rather than be cared for by their communities. He's so horrified, in fact, that he seems to reject Diamond's core thesis that these tribespeople have something to teach us about ourselves.
"It's hard to know," Brooks concludes with a nearly audible sigh. "They seem so distant."
When he was done writing that review, Brooks went back to one of his primary preoccupations, which is pushing for Medicare cuts.
Brooks is always readable, whether he's promoting conservative policies, summarizing (albeit somewhat selectively) the latest sociology research, or reviewing a book like Diamond's The World Until Yesterday. About those terrible stories: The first is of an indigenous woman suffering through a breech birth. The other members of her tribe refused to help her, according to the report, and she was dead by the next morning. The second report involved a middle-aged woman who became too ill to move or speak, and the tribe just left her to die and moved on.
In column after column, Brooks has insisted that our national spending on Medicare is unsustainable. He defended the Romney/Ryan voucher plan, which would place arbitrary limits on how much would be spent to provide health care for our elderly (but not on how much profit could be made from their treatment). He also misrepresented the plan to make its case, which wasn't very civil of him.
Brooks even lectured the American people for their unwillingness to cut Medicare. He sees that not as an sign that we've improved upon our tribal-era callousness, but as more proof of our fiscal irresponsibility.
What's most astonishing about Brooks' anti-Medicare crusade is the limit of his knowledge. He's right that health care costs are a key driver of current and (especially) future government spending and must be addressed. But when he last wrote about the subject two weeks ago in that lecturing piece, Brooks appeared completely unaware that dire Medicare-driven deficit forecasts were looking better due to better-than-expected health care inflation.
Worse, Brooks continues to suggest that only "market-based" reforms will fix this nation's very real health care cost problem. He's either ignoring, or ignorant of, two key realities: The first is that every previous attempt at "market-based" cost reform in this country has failed.
The second reality to escape Brooks' attention is the fact that a working model for a successful health care economy is already in place. It provides much better care than ours, at much lower cost, and leaves no citizen uncovered. In fact, there are several such models out there, and they can be found in every other industrialized nation on planet Earth.
The key element behind each of these systems is government-sponsored healthcare. But that idea violates a taboo for Brooks and his ideological kinsmen, so it can't be mentioned -- even when the health of elders (including elderly women) is at stake.
A desensitization process is taking place in our politics, driven by economically-forged folkways that must be obeyed even at the price of needless suffering or death. In that sense at least, Brooks isn't any different from the Pirahã or Siriono tribespeople in those stories -- although their beliefs, however cruel, have a closer connection to their economic realities than those of Brooks and his ideological kin.
Brooks' fixation on "bipartisanship" could even be likened to the emphasis on tribal unity which drives so many harsh actions within Stone Age cultures.
Yet these ironies seem to escape him, and the implications of his preferred policies never seem to trouble his soul. This desensitization seems like a worthy topic for sociological research.
Don't get me wrong. David Brooks seems humane, bright, engaged and civil. I'm sure that he's neither cruel nor unloving to his friends, families and colleagues. There would undoubtedly be much to be gained by an exchange of ideas with him. I have nothing against him. Really.
It's just that he seems so... distant.