On Saturday I took a rather scathing approach to Lyse Doucet's From Our Own Correspondent piece for BBC News, which seemed to argue that General Stanley McChrystal had been victimized by Rolling Stone through Michael Hastings' "Runaway General" article. Basically, I accused Doucet of failing to give Hastings' piece a serious reading; but I take this as evidence that I believed she was capable of such reading. Having now read David Brooks' "The Culture of Exposure" column, which appeared in last Friday's New York Times, I realize that I probably cannot expect Brooks to have the same language arts skills. On the desk of a better writer, one might find a "cultural" diagnosis of last week's events and the role that "cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources" (Brooks' words) played in reaching that diagnosis. However, Brooks seems so occupied with cherry-picking take-away one-liners from that profusion that there is little sign he has given any of those snippets any serious thought, let alone tried to situate them in a general sensemaking context.
The result is that Brooks basically reaches the same conclusion as Doucet: McChrystal was a victim. Whether or not Brooks and Doucet agree on the grounds for his victimization is less important than the premise that he was "more sinned against than sinning" (but probably not as stark-raving bonkers as Shakespeare's Lear was). Here, then, is Brooks' diagnosis:
But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.
By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.
These days I tend to read Brooks they way a previous generation read the Alsops (as in "anything both Alsops say is wrong"). Thus, while Matt Taibbi used his Taibblog post this morning to let us all know how bent out of shape he was by the column, I could take comfort that my Saturday hypothesis might have more strength than I had assumed. This was the hypothesis that McChrystal was an agent, rather than a victim:
For all I know he [McChrystal] also recognized that his current situation was untenable and in need of radical change, in which case he may well have deliberately used Hastings as his "change agent." In other words he had come to a stage in his life whose only priority was getting himself out of Afghanistan, and Hastings provided him with an effective means of achieving that goal.
As I said on Saturday, this may sound cynical; but cynicism does not provide logical grounds for refuting a hypothesis!