Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who’s Whining?

The whining war has started in earnest. Last month, when Phil Gramm famously suggested that these United States might be a "nation of whiners," it was considered such a catastrophic gaffe that the McCain campaign immediately dumped him as economic advisor. In the interim, though, it's become clear that Gramm's remark wasn't as random as it appeared. It seems that some conservative talking heads and "scholars" have set about trying to argue Marie Antoinette's point. One wonders if Gramm started the ball rolling or merely spilled the beans.

My favorite example thus far comes from my second favorite New York Times columnist, David Brooks (Nobody tops the Krug-Man). Brooks faces that wrenching internal conflict that bedevils all neoconservative 'intellectuals'. He'd desperately like to write like William F. Buckley but he'd prefer his persona to more closely resemble that of Chuck Norris. The result is a column that delivers broad-brush generalizations and shallow logic in really fine, learned language.

Brooks' column two weeks ago was a truly stellar example of the form. Fresh off his hilarious lampooning of pseudo-intellectual pretense, (One can only guess if he was really aware of that last layer of irony.) Mr. Brooks jetted off to China. He wasn't there to buy bootleg electronics either, he was there to learn.

The first Chinese dispatch took the form of an insightful gloss of Asian collectivism. For the second, Brooks was on assignment in earthquake-torn Dujiangyan and there he found a brand of stoicism that would shame Winston Churchill. People whose loved-ones had been crushed in an instant by the quake then cremated without ceremony by the military were cracking jokes under a communal tarp. Instead of getting choked up over their loss, they dwelt on the free healthcare they'd received from the government and the adequacy of their temporary digs.

It was obvious where he was going. Massive disaster, terrible loss of life, lethargic government response; his professed incredulity at the sanguine attitude of these Chinese survivors had to have its root in some sort of contrast. To whom would Brooks compare these happy-go-lucky proletariat mascots? The answer came in the last sentence. "When you compare these people to the emotional Sturm und Drang over lesser things on reality TV, you do wonder if we Americans are a nation of whiners."

Reality TV!? Really? Are you absolutely sure there's not some other group of people you were thinking of but didn't think you could call "whiners" in a national newspaper?
I know it's Tim Gunn's phrase and all but, as you toured the crumbling ruins of a Chinese village were you really thinking about Project Runway?

Just in case he was contrasting this Chinese unflappibility with another group of disaster victims that interrupted the president's vacation and wrecked his approval ratings, lets' not forget where we live. Despite the fact that we can no longer claim to be the world's greatest carbon emitter, the United States still has a larger economy than China's. This is despite the fact that we have fewer than a third as many people. In a nation as rich as ours and as powerful as ours, people tend to have higher expectations. People tend to expect the infrastructure around them to work and they expect their government to work for them. If it doesn't, instead of just making-do, people in the United States have a recourse that perhaps the Chinese don't. They can simply elect people who'll do a better job. It's not whining as much as accountability.

I suppose it's possible, however, that David Brooks was actually thinking about reality TV. In that case, it bears mentioning that Michael Kors can be a total bitch if your hems aren't straight.

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