Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Green Monster

Envy, one of our least admired but most universal emotions, is often pictured as green, for some reason. I suspect it of being part of the fundamental glue of egalitarian societies. Via Brad DeLong, Jim Sleeper takes a look at conservative "Thought Leader"and New York Times columnist David Brooks, assembling a persuasive self portrait of the pundit from fragments of his own writings. If one finds oneself on the outside enviously looking in, there are a couple of plausible counter strategies - attempt to ingratiate oneself with the perceived superiors or rail against them - Brooks has tried a bit of each.

Some Yale students who took David Brooks' faintly self-serving course on "Humility" last year are buzzing about his New York Times column today, which skewers a certain type of elite college student's ambition to become a "Thought Leader."

"The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler," Brooks explains, using his best comic-sociology idiom. "Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it's like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts."

Brooks quickly turns some bitter thoughts of his own toward recent college grads -- like those he taught at Yale last year and in 2002 -- who are "networking" desperately to make it as writers but will end up like flies trapped in spider webs of assignments that may earn them some real money but leave them "incapable of thinking outside of consultantese."

But then, suddenly, Brooks seems to turn to writing about himself.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.