Entry from January 20, 2011

What is it about writing for The New York Times that makes people stupid? Paul Krugman’s recent attempt to blame Sarah Palin for the actions of the deranged murderer Jared Loughner was only the latest of many proofs he has given that you don’t have to have a lick of common sense to win the Nobel Prize in economics. And the arrival in Washington of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is a reminder of one of the most unforgettable of many instances of political and moral imbecility on the part of the Times’s star columnist and best-selling author Tom Friedman, when he compared the Chinese dictatorship favorably to America’s democracy because the latter was failing to act with sufficient dispatch to suit him in order to pass economically crippling legislation on energy and climate change.

Now today Nicholas D. Kristof has decided to give Mr Friedman a run for his dunce-cap by comparing Mr Hu and his fellow Chinese oligarchs to the former president and vice-president of these United States. After criticizing China’s human rights record and America’s response to it even under President Obama (“How can one Nobel Peace Prize laureate be silent when meeting the man who imprisons the next?”) he goes on to write:

My take is that China is going through a period resembling the Bush era in the United States: hawks and hard-liners have gained ground in domestic politics, and they scoff at the country’s diplomats as wimps. China’s foreign ministry seems barely a player. Domestic concerns trump all else, partly because Chinese leaders are nervous about stability and about the delicate transition to Mr. Xi and his team two years from now. A Chinese poll has found that public satisfaction is at its lowest level in 11 years, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao upset hard-liners by calling publicly for more pluralism (he was censored). The upshot is that China- Firsters — Chinese versions of Dick Cheney — have a greater voice. Brace yourself.

When, I wonder, does Mr Kristof imagine that someone other than the alleged “China-Firsters” have been in charge in the Middle Kingdom? Perhaps he believes that Deng Xioaping when he was massacring thousands in Tiananmen Square or Chairman Mao when he was starving millions of peasants to death in the 1950s or unleashing the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s could have taken Mr Cheney’s correspondence course in being a “hard-liner”?

The idea is patently ridiculous, but elsewhere in the column Mr Kristof gives us a hint of where it comes from. “American opinion,” he writes, “tends to be divided between panda- huggers (‘China is fabulous!’) and panda-muggers (‘China is evil!’), but the truth lies between this yin and yang.” That kind of thing is of course just routine liberal throat-clearing without any connection to reality. I challenge him to name even one American who believes either that China is fabulous or that China is evil. But he needs this myth of a popular moralistic delusion in order to stake his own claim to superior sagacity. He alone, he would have us believe, understands that truth lies somewhere in the via media or “gray area” so beloved of liberals while everyone else continues to think in those oikish, uneducated, lower-class black-and-white terms. Thence, too, comes the myth of moral equivalence, which presupposes that it is only a species of American jingoism which regards our imperfect democracy as in any way superior to a thuggish and, indeed, murderous dictatorship. What’s the point of being an intellectual if you don’t know any better than that?

The most worrying thing to me is that America’s President appears to be a victim of the same intellectual conceit. In greeting his Chinese counterpart yesterday, Mr Obama said this: “I absolutely believe China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.” That is an echo of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, 2009 when he said that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” This positively Friedmanite (Tom, not Milton) utterance was cited by Nile Gardiner of the Daily Telegraph of London as one of “10 reasons why Barack Obama is the most na ve president in US history.” Without gainsaying him, I wish to observe that it is, nevertheless, a kind of na veté that is very far from being unique to him. On the contrary, it is the virtual religion of the New York Times’s editorial and op-ed pages — and the reason for their intellectual vacuity.

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