Ross Douthat: Better in a Crisis

The blogger Who Is IOZ?—scourge of

contemporary empire

and the reasonable and


punditry that goes along with it—gave a

nod of non-disapproval

to the New York Times’ Ross Douthat this week, for the columnist’s


to the Arizona shooting spree:

I can’t exactly endorse the conclusions of his last couple of paragraphs, but since I so often pick on the guy, I want to give credit where due.

It seems

only fair

to second that. There’s still plenty to argue with in the column. As Dave Bry

noted on The Awl

, Douthat’s description of assassins’ mental landscapes as “stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue” rather underestimates the strangeness of Beck’s world view (and how congenial it was to

at least one shooter

). But overall, it was a respectable effort from a columnist who isn’t always the easiest to respect—a dose of honest-sounding opinion informed by fact and history:

Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger, not a John Bircher, not a segregationist. Instead, he was a Marxist of sorts (albeit one disillusioned by his experiences in Soviet Russia), an activist on behalf of Castro’s Cuba, and a man whose previous plot had been aimed at a far-right ex-general named Edwin Walker. The anti-Kennedy excesses of Texas conservatives were real enough, but the president’s assassin acted on a far more obscure set of motivations.

This sudden use of nuance (not some insincere, dutiful rhetorical “balance”) reminded me of Douthat’s

reaction last month

to the Wikileaks story—the leaks part of the story, not the rape-charges part. Douthat argued that Julian Assange, while “not a terrorist,” mirrored al Qaeda’s desire to antagonize an “American empire” into greater imperialism and injustice, “in the hopes that the system will eventually collapse under its own weight”:

The problem, though, is that the American national security state is almost certainly more resilient than either Assange or Osama bin Laden seems to think. Which means that their efforts at sabotage have little chance (by design) of prompting any actual reforms in the system they despise, a vanishingly small chance of actually bringing the whole thing to its knees — and a substantial chance of just making life worse for everybody, inside and outside the United States government alike.

How is this the same writer who bumbled around tying himself in knots trying to intellectualize his

opposition to gay marriage

or his

acquiescence to the campaign to bar Muslims

from Lower Manhattan? Faced with a complicated story, in which there weren’t straightforward party-line answers, the conservative columnist came up with a sharp, liberal-informed-by-leftism critique—one without a trace of his usual Panglossian complacency.

Now, again, a messy event comes along, and Douthat more or less rises to the occasion. Apparently he’s a much better thinker when he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think.