Thought Leading

by John Holbo on December 18, 2013

“Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers.”

That’s not a good first sentence.

{ 73 comments }

1

Bill Benzon 12.18.13 at 1:06 am

Yikes! OTOH, if the guy gets everything THAT wrong, well that explains a lot, doesn’t it? Butcha’ know, getting things wrong in that way got him a multimillion dollar house in the Washington suburbs. Did this little boy grow up dreaming of being sophist?

2

Ed Herdman 12.18.13 at 1:18 am

Article was taking its time loading, and in the meantime I tried to think of who could have written this. Mel Brooks was the obvious answer.

3

LFC 12.18.13 at 1:28 am

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.
This is nausea-inducing and I refuse to read the rest of the column (at least for now). I once looked up David Brooks’s bio and, iirc, he was a history major at U of Chicago. Presumably (?) he must know that “little girls” in Athens could not (and did not) grow up to be philosophers (nor did most “little boys,” for that matter). Maybe he farmed out the lead graph to his cat or something. I mean, he’s no Einstein but this is ridiculous.

Btw, speaking of bad first sentences, here’s the opening of the Wikipedia article on Ethan Couch to which JHolbo linked previously:
Ethan Couch is a North Texas teenager, who was sentenced to 10 years probation in December 2013 after killing four pedestrians while driving while drunk and seriously injuring two others after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison.
Jesus. Let’s have an enormous bonfire of every how-to-write guide published in the last 50 years. Bonfire of the Writing Manuals.

4

Shelby 12.18.13 at 1:33 am

Like Tom Friedman, David Brooks perfectly marries prose that is both bad and inept, with wrong conclusions inexplicably conjured from faulty premises. He is so awful in so many ways that even this stellar example can’t quite display all of them. But it makes a valiant attempt.

5

Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 1:35 am

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.

Gee. Who could Brooks be thinking of here?

6

oldster 12.18.13 at 1:47 am

Substance, seriously, what is the answer to your question? Do you think he is talking about himself here? (Is he sufficiently self-aware for that?) Is there some other obvious target, e.g. Malcolm Gladwell? Bob McManus?

Krugman says this today:

“David Brooks has a funny piece today about the new profession of Thought Leaders. I think I know who he’s talking about.”

So who does Krugman think he’s talking about? Someone spell it out for the dim-witted among us.

7

Main Street Muse 12.18.13 at 1:55 am

Gobbledy-Gook passed off by Brooks as brilliant commentary.

Alas poor America…

8

LFC 12.18.13 at 1:57 am

oldster:
Bob McManus?

This is funny. No disrespect to bob, but I’m reasonably sure David Brooks does not know who mcmanus is (unless mcmanus is known beyond the comment threads of CT). OTOH, mcmanus reads books, like David Howell on Geographies of Identity in 19th Cent Japan or whatever, that Brooks prob couldn’t/wouldn’t get through half a chapter of.

9

Belle Waring 12.18.13 at 2:10 am

John told me, “honey, your head is going to explode when you read the first sentence of this David Brooks column, because it’s so sublimely and completely dumb that his career could end now, but still be complete, because he’s reached some kind of apex, or maybe nadir.” Thoughtfully, he brought me a cup of coffee, and watched. The head explosion part. OUR LORD AND SAVIOR ON A SALTINE CRACKER THAT IS LITERALLY ONE OF THE DUMBEST THINGS I HAVE EVER READ. Where by literally I mean not, as is always the case, figuratively, but something approximating the REAL meaning of the word, with parameters adjusted for ‘published in my nation’s most important newspaper’ and ‘happened while I was alive’ and ‘wasn’t an argument by J-Pod on how the Sunni Uprising in Iraq was a direct result of our not having killed enough Iraqi males aged 15-35′ (which latter sort may be more properly called ‘feigned stupidity in the service of bad ends’ and so ‘evil’ or somesuch). My stars and garters that is Dee You Em Bee DUMB! John said to me, and I agree, one often says as a criticism ‘if this were in an undergraduate paper I would fail the student/mark the paper down drastically.’ Sometimes this is said for effect. Again, here this figure of argumentative speech is simply literally the case: if currently 19-year-old Brooks sub two were to hand in a paper that started with this sentence he would be penalized, and rightly, with some leeway given for the fact that young people who have never written anything before often find it awkward to start, thinking that it’s much like asking someone to dance. The rest is also dumb but…this sentence should follow Brooks around for the rest of his life. How can we best abbreviate it, that it may be so?

10

Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 2:12 am

Substance, seriously, what is the answer to your question?

Interestingly the top reader comment says Lloyd Blankfein. I’m betting that if you take all the physician-heal-thyself comments and add up the votes the overwhelming answer is David Brooks in a landslide.

11

MPAVictoria 12.18.13 at 2:12 am

12

Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 2:13 am

To the max also.

13

garymar 12.18.13 at 2:13 am

In previous jobs, I always enjoyed it when the bosses brought in a consultant or thought leader to lecture us or guide us in exercises in leadership or salesmanship or something. They pretended to teach us; we pretended to learn. The snack table at the back was my focus. What a great guilt-free way to take a break!

14

MPAVictoria 12.18.13 at 2:17 am

Garymar I see that we have worked at the same offices.

15

Belle Waring 12.18.13 at 2:19 am

LFC: no disrespect, but I’m certain oldster was being sarcastic about Brooks’ rushing to the defense of the beleaguered mcmanus-sensei, whose head is too much in Japan. No, but you knew that. It is a funny image though. Brooks is perfectly willing to change his mind 100 times before breakfast if accepted Washington wisdom were ever to oscillate in this way. But it’s his shtick that he won’t go to the extreme on one side or another ever, while mcmanus will only reside at one extreme or another, and that makes the prospect of a Brooks/mcmanus superhero team-up totally impossible except on like Earth-2 or whatever. Wait do we live on Earth-2 now? Then Earth-3. Or let’s go old-school Bizzaro-Earth, better. C’mon nerd readers of Crisis on Infinite Earths, help a sister out here.

16

P O'Neill 12.18.13 at 2:26 am

Go easy on Bobo — it’s tough to both stand out and fit in in Ardmore, Pa., but he found a way to do it.

And speaking of Pennsylvania, any time is a good time to read about his fake visits to the west of that state.

http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos-in-paradise/

17

Vance Maverick 12.18.13 at 2:47 am

I can’t quite bring myself to believe Brooks is writing about himself. And yet, if he isn’t, who could it be? I’m not buying the suggestion of Blankfein. Maybe Tom Friedman?

18

LFC 12.18.13 at 2:54 am

This also raises the question whether Brooks’s copy goes straight from his computer to print (on the NYT op-ed page) without the intervention of another pair of eyes, i.e., an editor. Unlikely, I would think, but not impossible. I mean, any editor worth his/her salt prob cd try to take the opening and make it slightly less awful, although my own effort to do that just now is not proving very successful.

Btw, just to pile on, another sentence from the piece:
“In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are [sic] replaced by foreboding.”
This is the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, which apparently cannot pair a singular subject — “lifetime” — with a singular verb (“is”).

19

Peter Glavodevedhzhe 12.18.13 at 2:56 am

S. McG. 5: Gee. Who could Brooks be thinking of here?

Either Brooks doesn’t like or know himself. One hand: his columns have been shaming the winners of the meritocracy game for years, as shallow, calculating, insincere, etc. Other hand: at other times the same people are moral exemplars for an entire nation. This from Brooks, from July 2012, in response to Chris Hayes’ book on meritocracy:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/opinion/brooks-why-our-elites-stink.html

So, yesterday we got the other David Brooks. Tomorrow, who knows?

20

LFC 12.18.13 at 3:00 am

Belle Waring:
But it’s his shtick that he won’t go to the extreme on one side or another ever, while mcmanus will only reside at one extreme or another, and that makes the prospect of a Brooks/mcmanus superhero team-up totally impossible except on like Earth-2 or whatever. Wait do we live on Earth-2 now? Then Earth-3. Or let’s go old-school Bizzaro-Earth, better. C’mon nerd readers of Crisis on Infinite Earths, help a sister out here.

I’m not a nerd reader of Crisis on Infinite Earths (never heard of it, I don’t think; I’m close to sci-fi illiteracy though did read one Iain Banks b/c people here were going on so much about him). The prospect of a Brooks/mcmanus superhero team-up is … mind-bending.

21

David 12.18.13 at 3:03 am

I think he clearly is talking about himself and that this is a desperate cry for help.

22

Murc 12.18.13 at 3:04 am

No lie; when I read that column my first thought was “Oh my God, this is a suicide note. Brooks has had some moment of clarity as to exactly the sort of life he’s lived and the person he is, and he’s decided to end it all. This is as close to an apology and a self-indictment as it’s possible for him to pen.”

I was (sadly? fortunately?) wrong about this. It would appear that Brooks really is just this un-self-aware. Thank god for Brother Pierce.

23

bianca steele 12.18.13 at 3:07 am

Is it a coincidence that so far the big-media people who’ve jumped into this little blogospheric frouhaha are the ones who call forth one’s strongest efforts not to snark at once again? (Gladwell, Brooks, not so often for me but at times even Dowd).

his fake visits to the west of that state.

IIRC (and I may not) he actually got wrong the existence of a restaurant in his own hometown.

24

mclaren 12.18.13 at 3:55 am

Jesus. Let’s have an enormous bonfire of every how-to-write guide published in the last 50 years. Bonfire of the Writing Manuals.

Don’t laugh. Ten years from now the yutz who scribbled that Wikipedia article will be the dean of your college.

Remember the end of Animal House: “Senator and Mrs. Blutarsky.”

25

Dan Kervick 12.18.13 at 4:14 am

I have read a number of agitated and scornful responses to Brooks’s piece today, and I get the feeling that a lot of people think they know precisely who Brooks is talking about. On the other hand, I also get the feeling that several of these writers are convinced Brooks is talking about them.

26

GiT 12.18.13 at 4:16 am

Wait, Brooks wasn’t writing about himself?

27

DBW 12.18.13 at 5:20 am

I don’t get all the complaining about the first sentence, as if we are to think that Brooks is either too stupid or lazy to recognize its fundamental wrongness. Brooks doesn’t write particularly great satire, but he’s clearly signaling from the get-go that he’s writing a satiric piece in which the first sentence is itself an expression of the kind of banality and trite generalization that “thought leaders” like himself regularly produce. The give away is the invocation of an American cliche about boys and girls dreaming of growing up to be X. This is probably the _most_ self-aware column that Brooks has ever written. That it fails to be actually good shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read Brooks more than once or twice.

28

Substance McGravitas 12.18.13 at 5:42 am

I don’t get all the complaining about the first sentence, as if we are to think that Brooks is either too stupid or lazy to recognize

That is David Brooks.

29

Nine 12.18.13 at 5:59 am

The hero of the piece goes from college to writing snarky blog posts to Davos. So it can’t be Friedman or Blankfien or anyone in that position – it’s got to be some blogger who’s annoyed Brooks, probably by targeting him.

30

m0nty 12.18.13 at 6:06 am

Clearly, he was writing about whoever Carly Simon was writing about.

31

garymar 12.18.13 at 7:02 am

Clearly, he was writing about whoever Carly Simon was writing about.

Yes, yes! And the one she was writing about was not vain in the least, because he dumped Carly Simon (!!) and she wrote a song about him! How cool can a guy get? It’s all those other idiots who think the song is about them who are the real vain ones.

So Brooks is singing, “you’re so pundit, you probably think this column is about you, don’t you, don’t you”?

32

Uday 12.18.13 at 7:02 am

It might not surprise anyone that this is an executive summary of something he wrote in the 90s: http://web.archive.org/web/20050309041845/http://www.csis.org/intern/kissing.html

33

Alan 12.18.13 at 8:00 am

I have read that David Brooks is indifferent to facts. This is not true: anything that he wishes were true is indistinguishable from fact, and he is far from indifferent to how he thinks the world ought to be.

34

Ronan(rf) 12.18.13 at 9:40 am

But Brookes only said they *wanted* to, not that they would. Wasn’t Aristotle a big star back then? Like David and Victoria Beckham for that generation? Seems plausible that he’d be an inspiration to the young.

35

Walt 12.18.13 at 9:55 am

The column is about himself, right? He can’t possibly fail to notice he fits the description as well as anyone.

36

Hand Over the Money 12.18.13 at 11:21 am

Unfortunately I think the obvious wrongness of the opening move distracts too much from the overall weirdness of the story he’s telling and how specific it is. It sort of reminds me of an odd short story of Sartre’s about a conservative politician who was a sort of surrealist poetaster as a young man until he slept with an older male poet and shamefully hied off into conservative politics. Like that, if only that story had been a memoir.

37

Zamfir 12.18.13 at 11:27 am

Don’t know about Aristotle, but Socrates was for a while the Beckham of Brazil.

38

bjk 12.18.13 at 12:14 pm

The latter parts fit the description of Brooks, the early parts sound like aspiring social intrapreneur weenies graduating from a place like Yale, where Brooks just taught.

39

bjk 12.18.13 at 12:15 pm

*taught Humility.

40

Medrawt 12.18.13 at 1:11 pm

If, as some people seem to be suggesting, this column is in fact the satirical end-product of a spasm of self-hatred, one would think the same insights that drove Brooks to that viewpoint would also suggest to him that, among those people best primed to guess that he was taking the piss out of his own work, his reputation was so poor that they would take his utterance of the greatest stupidities as just another day in the life of David Brooks.

41

Chris Brooke 12.18.13 at 1:32 pm

There’s a nice eighteenth-century catalogue of women philosophers from antiquity over here (in French):
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=p9kMAAAAYAAJ&oe=UTF-8&redir_esc=y

Start at p. 193 (which is p. 205 of the pdf).

42

Belle Waring 12.18.13 at 1:54 pm

DBW: we are not idiots; you should do us minimal courtesy. Brooks is the most plodding, tedious failure at satire this world has seen since a chunk of chrysoprase was mistakenly given a newspaper column in Mingo, W.V. at the start of the last century, and not discovered until an anti-fluoridation campaign drove the paper out of business in 1954. The introductory sentence is not a deadpan signal for satire (and, indeed, supposing it were, are we meant to problematize all the claims in the op-ed? Just the manifestly, truculently stupid ones?) It is roughly ten thousand times likelier that he is undergoing an Updike-heroic mental breakdown due to his divorce, and that–combined with a few too many Xanax on scotch sandwiches during working hours–has led to peak stupid.

43

LFC 12.18.13 at 2:03 pm

But Brooks only said they *wanted* to, not that they would.
If you can’t ever be X b/c society completely rules it out of the realm of possibility for you, then it’s somewhat unlikely you will grow up wanting to be X, though not, I guess, impossible.

I’m more than willing to entertain the notion that Brooks was intending to be satirical in the opening. But it doesn’t work b/c the reader doesn’t know what the column is going to be about yet, and we aren’t willing to suspend the reasonable supposition that Brooks is being pompously idiotic b/c he’s shown himself in the past v capable of that. So it just comes off as stupid.

44

bianca steele 12.18.13 at 2:09 pm

This is one of those Brooks columns that reads like it was written by a first-year English major who was told all through high school that they were a good writer and encouraged to free-associate when writing humorous columns and so on, or by someone who learned to write like one of those and never improved.

45

bianca steele 12.18.13 at 2:13 pm

Moreover, if we pretend making stuff up is okay when the guy is a professional–or if we say it’s not okay to be negative about him–how do we explain to the college sophomore that she shouldn’t write that way? It can’t be that it’s bad; all the most-praised pros do it. It has to be some weird sociological, institutional or class-based thing. Her teachers aren’t telling her to write differently to get her to improve: they’re telling her to write differently because they’ve already figured out she’s not fated to get into the profession. (Right? I can do this too.)

46

LFC 12.18.13 at 2:29 pm

@Chris Brooke 39
I’d never heard of Cleobuline, who wrote “en vers hexametres” (sorry, no accents), or of Aspasie, who (acc. to this Fr. version of Diogenes, or whatever it is) taught rhetoric to Pericles and Socrates, and had “le talent de bien tourner un argument, si rare dans son sexe”.
No doubt David Brooks extensively consulted this 18th-cent Fr translation of (?) or commentary on (?) Diogenes before judiciously concluding that little girls grew up wanting to be philosophers in ancient Athens. Maybe you should ask Brooks to give a guest lecture on “The Sexual Egalitarianism of the Athenians, the World’s Best-kept Secret.” Or something.

47

DBW 12.18.13 at 2:29 pm

I guess we’re back to the liar’s paradox: if David Brooks writes a column that is self-aware can it possibly be a column by David Brooks?

48

P O'Neill 12.18.13 at 3:38 pm

49

marcel 12.18.13 at 3:45 pm

Following up on a href=”http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/18/thought-leading/#comment-500761″>P O’Neill, common taters may also find tthis pertinent.

50

marcel 12.18.13 at 3:45 pm

Let me try again.

Following up on P O’Neill, common taters may also find this pertinent.

51

marcel 12.18.13 at 3:46 pm

Arrgh!

Following up on P O’Neill, common taters may also find this pertinent.

52

marcel 12.18.13 at 3:48 pm

Yes!

53

MG 12.18.13 at 3:48 pm

54

William Timberman 12.18.13 at 3:59 pm

First, the four horsemen. Then Brooks and Friedman, on matching burros, trotting along dutifully behind. Damned hard to write anything sensible with all that jiggling….

When I was a kid, just about every adult I ran across sounded a lot like David Brooks. Such inclinations as I may have had toward philosophy could probably be traced to those early encounters. Even after fifty years of a somewhat precarious adulthood of my own, I still don’t understand them.

55

Donald A. Coffin 12.18.13 at 4:13 pm

LFC @ 18:

I know a couple of people at the Times; Brooks is not edited much, and any corrections are *suggested* to him, not made without his consent.

56

LFC 12.18.13 at 4:25 pm

Yglesias, linked by marcel @46, is good on this. (Wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, so thanks.)

57

LFC 12.18.13 at 4:28 pm

@Donald A. Coffin: Interesting. I’m not surprised.

58

Richard S 12.18.13 at 4:58 pm

Wait – somebody edits the NYT – NO Can’t be! And Bobo mistakes sophistry for solipsism. Or is it the other way round?

59

Chatham 12.18.13 at 5:03 pm

The unpaid intern who writes Brook’s columns wanted to see how much they could criticize him without him realizing it?

60

mds 12.18.13 at 5:37 pm

bjk @ 36,37:

Yale, where Brooks just taught.

*taught Humility.

Taught a course named Humility, in which the assigned readings contained large helpings of his own writings. So to those who keep asking, “David Brooks must be more self-aware than this, surely?” The answer is no.

61

Schadenboner 12.18.13 at 6:10 pm

#25: Maybe he’s talking about Tom Scocca? http://gawker.com/on-smarm-1476594977

62

PatrickinIowa 12.18.13 at 7:46 pm

It takes a long time to learn to write this badly. So, in response to the question, “…how do we explain to the college sophomore that she shouldn’t write that way?” I say, have her read it aloud and when she dissolves in fits of giggles, tell her, “Don’t do that.”

Thank Moloch, most college sophomores don’t read the Times unless a teacher makes them do so.

63

etv13 12.18.13 at 7:52 pm

Is the Thought Leader Brooks is writing about mathematically possible? I mean, somebody who went from college to writing snarky blog posts won’t have reached his fifties yet, unless he was a late bloomer, but there’s nothing to suggest that possibility in the piece (and indeed, the logic of the piece, such as it is, argues against it).

64

SoU 12.18.13 at 9:30 pm

i think it is pretty clear that the man just isn’t really trying any more. Friedman passed said point long ago. i would bet it is hard to stay motivated with a cushy NYT gig like theirs anyway. who can blame them? i’d say it is best to let the old dogs retire and bring in some new tricks.

65

bianca steele 12.18.13 at 10:20 pm

@57
Why would Brooks be talking about Scocca? It’s not like Brooks provides a neat and nearly metaphysical explanation of exactly what Scocca was talking about, demonstrating that it was ever thus, in elaborate detail, and the power relationships Scocca is worried about are simple matters of conflict between generations, the young maturing and being replaced by the new young.

66

John Holbo 12.18.13 at 11:26 pm

“Brooks doesn’t write particularly great satire, but he’s clearly signaling from the get-go that he’s writing a satiric piece in which the first sentence is itself an expression of the kind of banality and trite generalization that “thought leaders” like himself regularly produce.”

I must admit, I don’t know what to make of this possibility. It did occur to to me that he might be joking. But, as others have pointed out, that doesn’t really make sense either.

67

Katherine 12.19.13 at 10:09 am

I have another theory. He thought – little boys in Ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers” – a banal observation in itself – and then thought – no hang on, that’s sexist see, or possibly that other people would think he was being sexist – and stuck in “and little girls”. Banality, followed by ignorance, followed by idiocy. Frankly, so many layers of fail I ca’t even comprehend how he read it over and then decided to submit it to criticism.

68

Seth 12.19.13 at 11:40 am

Peter@19:

“So, yesterday we got the other David Brooks. Tomorrow, who knows?”

I have long thought of Brooks as alternating between Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Snide.

69

mattski 12.19.13 at 4:47 pm

@ 11

I want to be Charlie Pierce’s amigo.

“Moral Hazard licked his balls in deep concentration and settled into his spot by the window. “

In his honor.

70

CaptFamous 12.19.13 at 9:32 pm

It all seems to clear to me. David Brooks is talking about everyone who is exactly like him, but he isn’t talking about himself, because everybody who’s like him is just pretending, but he’s authentic. The difference is obvious.

i.e. David Brooks is having a Hipster Awakening.

71

Ed Herdman 12.21.13 at 4:52 am

David Brooks is clearly just taking the disciplined philosophical stance that the circularity inherent in the identity of indiscernibles is unacceptable.

72

J 12.22.13 at 1:58 am

@60: I don’t know. You assume that he was proud of the work of his own that he assigned to his students. Perhaps he assigned it in a spirit of humility. ‘Whenever I am tempted by excessive self-regard, I just look at my publications. It’s a humbling experience that brings me down to earth with a thud. See for yourselves by reading…’

73

Fu Ko 12.22.13 at 7:50 am

It took me a long time to get over the first sentence.

Anyway, I got through, and even got to the comments. About half of the people commenting seem to think he’s talking about himself.

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