David Brooks’ column today, “The Thought Leader,” explains how to become a prominent commentator while developing as few valuable ideas as possible. The darkly humorous column is Brooks’ entry in the great Snark vs. Smarm War of 2013.
I suggest you read this column in conjunction with a similar Brooks piece from 1995, “How to Become Henry Kissinger.” That piece addresses the same phenomenon at a time before the Internet had greatly increased the suppply of snark in our public discourse.
Taken together, the pieces show that snark is an effective accountability measure that improves the quality of public commentary by discouraging people from bullshitting.
The two pieces start similarly, explaining how a person can develop an expertise on a niche issue and parlay that expertise into reception as a “thought leader” who can talk authoritatively on anything. But they end very differently.
In 1995, the thought leader enjoyed a graceful retirement, enjoying more adulation (and income) than ever while being relieved of the obligation to be insightful or even interesting:
In your twenties, your friends were fellow wonks. As you became successful you hung around savvy lawyers. In middle age, it was corporate chieftains who hosted you at their hunting lodges. But now you have reached the top and can be assured a good table at the Metropolitan Museum’s annual ball.
You sometimes visit your office at the Hoover Institution, but most of the time you’re travelling with Felix Rohatyn on business for Lazard Freres. They bring you into meetings just as deal negotiations are underway, to dazzle the various parties.
By now you are so important you no longer need to be interesting. You drop your words down on people, as if you are always speaking from a tall lectern.
But in 2013, the thought leader faces an ignominious end, pushed aside by snarky youths who call him out for being full of crap:
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.
In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are replaced by foreboding. Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.
Consider, for example, Niall Ferguson. I am told that Ferguson produced some high-quality historical works in his younger years, which helped him established himself as a general-interest public intellectual. Now, Ferguson makes bold, pompous and incorrect declarations about economic topics that he does not understand.
In 1995, he would have largely gotten away with it. In 2013, by any objective standard, he still does: He’s a tenured Harvard professor and a highly-sought after dinner speaker. People still ask him to write magazine feature pieces, for some reason. But because of the power of the Internet, he at least has to listen to snarky upstarts who point out that he is full of shit.
And that makes Ferguson very unhappy. The money and the fans are not enough; he wants to be shielded from criticism, too. As Brooks predicts, Ferguson tries to shut down his objectors by calling for civility and good manners. He produces Excel charts to reassure himself that he’s better than the snarkers, because deep down he fears that they are right. As Brooks puts it, we are not sparing Niall’s tender spots.
I hope that snark-based hazing of public intellectuals is leading to less bullshit at the margin. Perhaps we have intimidated Niall into not writing about inflation anymore. But even if snark isn’t reducing the amount of bullshit produced, it is at least making the public less inclined to consume it.
The change chronicled by Brooks is terrible news for thought leaders. Accountability is never good for the accountable. But it’s good for consumers, and ultimately, that’s who the media exists for. And it’s why I intend to quit writing by the time I’m 45 — when I will likely have run out of valuable things to say — and become a game show host.
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