David Frum: crap jobs keep us safe

I’m beginning to wonder if the best that contemporary American conservatism can offer is interesting trolling.

Of those self-identified conservative writers who make some kind of real attempt at contributing to a wider discussion—rather than just playing to the sealed audience of e.g. Fox news and its talk radio or online analogues—two of the best examples I can think of today mostly seem to engage in some kind of value-added trolling. Reihan Salam appears to have settled into a natural niche at Slate, trolling so consistently that (in combination with Slate‘s basic raison d’être) I have to suspect it’s at least semi-intentional. Occasionally he produces some interesting new wrinkle on familiar controversies, though, rather than just endlessly repeating the exact same ignorant and inflammatory lines over and over and over. Not simple flamebait, i.e., but value-added trolling.

I think that David Frum, by contrast, is probably as sincere as he can be. But through the years of occasional encounters at The Daily Beast or The Atlantic, it seems like in practice much of his output can be summed up as a form of concern-trolling. That isn’t quite the right term, exactly, but it does come close. Frum seems to have found a niche playing that rare, reasonable, moderate conservative; the premise of his articles is frequently a critique of some instance of the mass of conservative politics going overboard. Except, when you read past the click-baiting headline, he generally proceeds into a non-shouty but otherwise standard affirmation that the real bedrock problem, whatever the situation, is liberalism. His reaction to the Conservative party’s wipeout in last month’s Canadian election was a classic example. Setting out from a premise that the Conservatives must avoid the tempting error of deciding that their message was just fine and they just need to continue saying the same things but louder… Frum wasted little time in declaring that the Liberal party has no real answers for Canada and will inevitably bring ruin to the nation, and that essentially the Conservative agenda is still the correct one in all significant aspects. Implying that, basically, they just need to continue saying the same things but louder.

This Friday, however, he may have outdone himself. His article’s headline promised an all-too-precious interruption of wisdom in the mostly brainless reaction to last weekend’s terrorist attack in Paris: “Bombing Syria Won’t Make Paris Safer.” Good for you Mr. Frum, I thought, let’s reward this with a page view… He managed to maintain some tenuous connection with the headline’s promise for three of four whole paragraphs. After that, oh dear heavens, David, have you really been engaging in the most amazingly subtle parody this whole time after all?

Perhaps inevitably, Frum quickly steers his sound-but-unpopular proposal, that bombing Syria won’t help, well away from any suggestion that this is because, y’know, endlessly bombing Islamic societies actually promotes retaliatory actions. No no no, Frum reassures us right from the get-go that indulging “the primal need for visible retaliation” is just fine, and might even help a little. It just won’t help very much, Frum warns, because—returning us to safe and familiar concepts for conservatives—the real problem is that softheaded Europeans have let Muslim immigrants overrun them.

That’s just the start, though. It gets much, much better.

Ultimately, Frum’s real theme emerges as an argument that Europe’s Islamic citizens are ghettoized and must be integrated with mainstream society if a readiness to attack that society is ever to be checked in a truly effective way. This is not necessarily a bad point, I think, by itself. It can of course easily turn into wingnut fantasies that forced conversion to Christianity is the answer, but Frum wastes no time on this. What he offers, instead, looks more thoughtful, and is more interesting but more because it’s revealing than because it’s actually thoughtful.

Frum offers a six-point plan. Without personally having much background in the salient laws, I presume that point five, “Prevent Western-born ISIS fighters from returning home,” is reasonable enough if kind of obvious and of limited relevance to Frum’s own major theme. Much the same criticism applies to point six, “close the doors to further Muslim immigration,” which also poses issues of practicality and discrimination; Frum avoids saying whether he advises European governments to block all immigration or to impose something like the explicit or de facto religion tests which have recently polluted American politics. Point four is just asinine, as Frum basically proposes that social media companies should somehow massively step up censorship of anything that some undefined standard deems terrorist recruitment; the conservative Frum seems to hope that by lean, for-profit private companies volunteering to do this work, society can avoid government censorship in name while having its effects in practice. Because Freedom, presumably.

But all of this is small stuff compared with points one through three. Here, references to religion aside, Frum basically tells Europeans to be more like America. This, too, is not completely stupid in theory; I’m not sure our advantage over Europe is enormous but America is, arguably, the modern world’s best example of a society where outsiders can join in and participate on equal terms with incumbent citizens relatively quickly and reliably. I think this is a good thing, as far as it goes, not so much because it protects us from terrorism or even because “assimilation” is an important value by itself, but simply because the alternative of new arrivals having no choice but to remain an “other” is definitely worse. Unfortunately, Frum’s prescriptions for how Europe can improve on this score are… basically just forced labor and flag-waving.

Really, getting down to it, that’s about all there is. Still, point one in particular astounded me the first time I read it and I think it’s still worth highlighting. (Too bad I’m only doing so way down here. Dammit, I’ve done it again.) Point one is, formally, “Focus on jobs first” and once again this seems reasonable. Except it’s there that Frum seems most like he’s engaging in parody. Basically, his outline for how European societies can integrate Islamic communities by focusing on jobs consists of: “create lots of entry-level jobs,” in parallel with a more American, “flexible” labor market, i.e. toss out job security and other worker protections, “while simultaneously reducing social-welfare benefits that enable people to refuse work.” In other words, “idle hands do the devil’s work,” therefore European governments should force Muslim citizens to take shitty jobs so they won’t have time to cook up radical terrorist agendas.

For all its ready compatibility with reductio ad absurdum, this is fascinating to me because it seems to be an open acknowledgement that the conservative fixation on pushing people off welfare and into paid employment does not really depend on economic necessity. Frum’s message is that the “focus on jobs” is in fact about a means to socialize people (in the behavioral rather than economic sense) rather than about producing needed goods and services. Frum does not make even a token reference to the idea that this will make European society better off economically. (He even suggests a Keynesian economic perspective with his reference to “the severe economic-austerity policies required to preserve the euro currency.”) Why would it do so, after all, when he acknowledges that he’s envisioning “entry-level jobs” for the low-skilled, which in a developed 21st century economy seem unlikely to contribute much to overall economic production.

For all of the idiocy with which Frum entwines it, I still find this proposal remarkable. Mostly it’s appalling in how small and sad it is even after achieving what seems to be a conceptual leap forward. Frum seems to admit that Europe can afford its welfare state economically, and then suggests that “idle” people still need job opportunities not for material acquisition, but because of social rewards. This is staggering from a conservative, not least for how tremendously paternalistic it is; even though Frum works his way back around to a laissez-faire work-or-starve system, his reasoning turns on its head the whole notion that it’s liberals who want to take away freedom and run everyone’s lives with social engineering schemes.

Instead, Frum makes it clear that conservatism is quite happy operating from a basis that it knows best and has the right to mold individuals to its vision of society… but simply has a vision that is so dismally sad that it will never be accused of utopianism.

Starting from the apparent belief that society should take responsibility for helping marginalized groups into lives richer in opportunity and connection, Frum’s vision is… low-skill, low-wage make-work jobs accompanied by the threat of homelessness and starvation as incentive to cooperate.

Yeah. Forget looking at cultural biases that perpetuate marginalization; Frum touches on this but dismisses it quickly. Forget providing people with skills to do something genuinely meaningful (or trying to figure out what that is in an increasingly automated economy); just assign them to dig ditches and fill ’em back in, and take away any alternative means of putting food on their table. Forget calling for all of society to become less insular and closeminded, and to truly celebrate diversity. Instead, point two proposes, let’s look to the childish unity-through-elective-nationalism model of 19th-century America, which model has not even proved all that successful on its own terms except for pale-skinned immigrants from one particular subcontinent. (Point three, for what it’s worth, is largely a nothingburger about how 19th-century Irish immigrants to America benefited from various mutual-aid systems, most of which Frum would probably frown upon today; notably he does not even mention labor unions.)

Yes, David, I’m sure that this glorious vision will inspire Christian, Muslim and secular Europeans alike to unite in throwing out welfare programs and embracing the McJob.

Ugh. I really almost feel sorry for him, so absolutely bereft of ambition does this “vision” seem to be. Realistically, though, I should probably feel more sorry for all of us. If this represents the bleeding edge of enlightenment’s progress among reactionary attitudes… it’s going to be a loooong wait for the better tomorrow.

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