You see, says Sam Tanenhaus, it’s not just that Thomas Piketty may be right, or that he’s been doing this research for years, or even that he’s tapping into widespread concerns about inequality. No, it’s that every decade, America needs an icon of ideas, who embodies in her person (rather than merely her arguments), the dream life of the nation. In the 1960s, it was Susan Sontag. In the 1970s, it was Christopher Lasch. In the 1980s, it was Allan Bloom. In the 1990s, it was Francis Fukuyama (who wrote his essay in 1989, but decades will be decades). In the 2000s, it was Samantha Power. Yes, Robert Putnam was a “gifted thinker,” but remember the Rule of Decades: you can only have one every ten years. And, sure, Tanenhaus says you can have two or three, but you definitely can’t have two whose last names start with P. And Power has a “flowing red mane”—like Sontag had a flowing black mane, and then a flowing black mane with a silver streak—so she was the better choice. And now there’s Piketty. And he’s French, you see, which means he’s kind of like Sontag. And he’s good-looking like Sontag and Power. And he has hair too. And on Twitter they’re debating whether he’s hot or not. Which they would have done with Sontag back in the Sixties, but there was no Twitter then. And, oh shucks, let the man speak for himself:
All of which is to say that however original Mr. Piketty’s economic argument may be, he is the newest version of a familiar, if not exactly common specimen: the overnight intellectual sensation whose stardom reflects the fashions and feelings of the moment.
And that, my friends, is how we do intellectual history—no, sorry, “cultural studies” (they really use that phrase, right above the headline, which is “Hey, Big Thinker”; where is Dwight Macdonald when you need him?)—at the New York Times.