jimsleeper.com » Ross Douthat, a Strange New Voice at NY Times

Ross Douthat, a Strange New Voice at NY Times

user-picBy Jim Sleeper – March 13, 2009, 8:34AM

I first met Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ newest columnist — and, at 29, its youngest-ever and perhaps its first op-ed page conservative Catholic believer — four years ago after reviewing his engaging and gutsy student’s memoir, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. I’ve recently reviewed his book, Grand New Party. So herewith some thoughts about the Times’ smart and telling but slightly risky choice.

The smart and telling part is that Douthat will outclass not only William Kristol but also a faithless, conniving, faux-populist neo-conservative strain of punditry, whose collapse has been evident recently in loud second thoughts from the historian Robert Kagan at the Washington Post and in the maunderings of David Brooks.

Ironically, Douthat’s co-author of Grand New Party, Reihan Salam, worked for Brooks at the Times in 2003-4. But Douthat comes from somewhere else and is going somewhere else, and he is not alone. He may give serious left-liberals an adversary they deserve, because, unlike Kristol and Brooks, he has more beliefs than insecurities.

That brings us to the risky part of Douthat’s hiring. Although I wrote about Grand New Party for the liberal Catholic Commonweal, which I’ve admired and written for occasionally since the early 1980s, I have no hosannas for that celestial railroad the HRC&AC (Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church). Myself a sometime carrier of the Hebraic strain in the early-American, republican civil religion, I find the Church perverse in too many ways to reprise here (i.e., Don’t get me started.)

The Church does take a long view of things, usefully keeping the tragedy of the political before us. Sometimes it props up what looks like the serenity of its faith with unseemly, Grand Inquisitorial musings about (and exploitations of) the weaknesses of the flesh in a fallen world. Some of us Hebrews take an even longer and somewhat different view of how to balance the evil inclinations in the human heart with efforts to repair a world that isn’t quite so fallen.

That Jewish orientation has its own risks, but this whole debate is lost on those who’ve been running the nervous, neo-liberal/neo-conservative Times for the past few decades. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. has found that his empire is a fragile craft in history’s tides (and God’s). So he has grasped for a pundit who respects the Catholic Bishops’ well-known injunctions on behalf of the poor and against unjust wars, but not from a knee-jerk-liberal vantage point.

In Privilege, Douthat stood almost equidistant enough from the free-marketeering right and the liberationist left to see a perverse codependency between them, as I mention in my review. Conservative though he is, he confessed to a sneaking sympathy for his fellow students’ Living Wage Campaign on behalf of Harvard’s underpaid workers. That’s the Dorothy Day part of him. Or maybe it’s the Baltimore Cathechism, which is more Tory and corporatist in the conservative “we incorporate and care for everyone” sense of that term.

Conservative Catholics tend also to be statists of theocratic inclination and to be prissily or haughtily silent about their side’s own sins — a silence of the sort to which the usually congenial Douthat is not always immune, owing partly also to his inexperience in the business and political worlds. His hauteur flashed during a long and increasingly testy defense of the late conservative Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus in a series of exchanges with Damon Linker in the New Republic. That his casuistry has a longer arc than Brooks’ sophistry makes Douthat a bit too ecclesiastical for my taste, but also, when he’s at his best, more grounded and even profound.

It doesn’t worry me that Douthat considers human life a sacred, inter-generational thread that is not to be broken by individual decisions or (as I hope he also thinks) by the state in capital punishment or in unjust wars. I do wonder what Douthat would think about capital punishment and lesser but noxious repressions if the state tended toward theocracy or just took sides on certain issues, in ways he considered beneficent.

But he’s only 29. As he travels his Via Dolorosa from the Times op ed page toward the Kingdom of God on earth, Douthat may be an interlocutor who makes liberals think through their own long-unexamined assumptions and find the missing groundwork for some of their beliefs in government action and individual rights. Neo-conservatives have derided liberals for holding these beliefs at all or for holding them badly, when in truth neo-cons held some of the same beliefs. It may be more rewarding to watch Ross Douthat transcend his conservative prematurity than it has been to watch David Brooks grow up politically so much later in life.