Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The punditocracy

One of the most enduring myths of America is that it is a meritocracy, that great people achieve great people, that rich people are rich because they have earned it. It requires huge contortions of logic to believe that at times; Britney Spears is worth $100 million because she has tapped into the zeitgeist of early 21st century civilization, or some such twaddle. We ignore that she is actually a broken-down brand, a sad young woman who has served as a receptacle for a series of music producers and video directors, and convince ourselves that she somehow "deserves" to be immensely wealthy.

Luck has no place in this formulation, as it's seen as excuse-making for the untalented to claim that bad fortune has had a hand in their lives. And the successful folks fear that an acknowledgment of their good luck will somehow undercut their obvious merit. I could cite example after example as to the role chance has played in the establishment of many in the world of business or politics, but that really isn't the point of this post (ask yourself, though: are the "leaders" of the Fortune 500 really the 500 best managers in America, or are the members of the Senate really the 100 men and women who are best qualified to make our laws?).

What has me writing about this today is some recent occurrences with the learned people who write for publications like the New York Times (NYT) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). These are, USA Today notwithstanding, our true national newspapers of record, and anyone who works for them are automatically anointed as the best and the brightest in the field of journalism. Those who have ascended to the rarefied air of columnists for these august publications become the opinion makers for our times, the people to whom everyone else must react. If you look at the number of blog references to what these people write, you see the truth of that - a Krugman or a Friedman writes a column, and bloggers and other columnists immediately leap to respond, to weigh, to consider their points.

William Kristol, son of the father of neoconservatism, writes a column for the NYT. He has accomplished many things in his life in editing and teaching, but the last several years have not been kind to Bill. His recent fame comes from his remarkable wrongness on every aspect of the war in Iraq, yet he was given a column in TIME last year, and now has a column in the Great American Newspaper.

So the less-prominent pundits have to comment on what he writes, no matter how hilarious. The perceptive Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
Let's get this straight. Two weeks ago, Kristol argued that McCain's campaign suspension was a great move. Last week. Kristol endorsed Sarah Palin and the McCain people's strategy of taking the gloves off. After it failed miserably, Kristol concludes that McCain "should fire his campaign."
(This came from Andrew Sullivan, who adds: And all this incoherent, unaccountable, intellectually vacuous drivel was published in the New York Times.)

David Brooks also writes for the NYT. I wrote something about him a couple of weeks ago, and I will deliberately commit the faux pas of quoting myself:
Having seen a lot of Brooks this campaign, I see him as far more interested in being clever than being insightful, far more concerned with how the race can demonstrate that he, David Brooks, is a really smart guy who really understands the rubes in the electorate. What good points he makes, and there are some, are buried under a wave of smugness and superciliousness that make him, for me, barely watchable or readable.
It appears the rest of the commentary firmament is getting around to an examination of Mr. Brooks. Via Sullivan again, Jim Sleeper at TPM Cafe writes about how consistency has become an elusive quality for Brooks:
In one column, Brooks would stroke his chin like a sober savant, purveying credible analysis; in the next, he'd gyrate shamelessly for ideologues and Bush operatives such as Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.

He pirouettes like this constantly to maintain some intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, and to hold onto his market niche as a conservative Republican apologist, on the other. He has tried to square this circle with forced geniality throughout Republicans' Iraq War lying, torture and warrantless surveillance, borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, bottomless corruption, and, lately, national socialism.
What seemed to tear it for people was Brooks' saying in one breath that Sarah Palin was a major problem for Republicans in the election, then writing that Palin's debate performance was "vibrant and tactically clever."

This inconsistency bothers some people, like Sleeper above ("The problem facing Brooks is that everything in his record pushes him to guide his readers as gently and cleverly as he can into the McCain camp, even though that camp now worries and even scares him.") or Steve Benen at Washington Monthly writing about Brooks' focus on Palin's style:
You know who else flashed a bemused smile, accompanied by a never-ending flow of words, like a fearless neighbor who had no use for the idiocies of Washington? George W. Bush, circa 2000. Don't worry about qualifications, issues, or readiness -- vote for the charm. That turned out great, didn't it? I suspect there are probably more than a few Americans who believe we could do a lot worse than "seriousness" right now.
Some people are not so bothered by the whiplash we get as we follow the mind of Brooks. Jeffrey Goldberg:
At least one critic accuses him of dishonesty. It's quite the opposite, I think. David is one of the rare columnists today who wrestles with himself constantly, and who lets the public watch him change his mind. This makes him vulnerable, of course, to accusations that he is his own man. This, apparently, is a bad thing in Washington. So be it.
What it comes down to, I think, is that his critics value consistency more than Brooks does. I've already quoted myself as to why; Brooks is more interested in attracting attention than in presenting a coherent world view. I disagree with Goldberg, I don't think Brooks wrestles with himself at all - the pleasure he gets (as expressed in his oft-seen grin) at whipping out another bon mot overrides any desire he might have to actually believe something.

Peggy Noonan writes a column for the WSJ. One of her salient characteristics is the way that she, like Brooks, tries to explain America to itself. You can always tell in her frequent television appearances when one of these insights is coming. She cants her head, her voice gets even more whispery, and she gravely intones some fantastic "truth."

She writes this way as well. She had the good fortune of getting her new book hawked by Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press a week ago Sunday, and Brokaw even read a passage:
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. ... I think a lot of people are carrying around in their heads ... a sense that the wheels may be coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks, that in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed anytime soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with ‘right track’ and ‘wrong track’ but missing the number of people who think the answer to ‘How are things going in America?’ is ‘Off the tracks and hurtling toward an unknown destination.’
There is enough truth here to be interesting, but I'm fascinated by the "unspoken subtext" part. Noonan wishes to believe that there is some collective unconscious operating in the American people right now, because she's smart enough to find this revealed truth, she's the one who's smart enough to detect that and parrot it back to her fellow pundits.

What she could do, of course, is talk to real people or, if that's too difficult, deign to read a few blogs. The text is neither "sub" nor "unspoken"; there are plenty of us setting out in sharp detail what we feel is wrong with this country, and Noonan need only dip her hand in the pool to find that out. But that would take some effort beyond sitting back in the chair and opining.

In each of these cases, we see people who have been fortunate enough to be hired by journalistic institutions, who are near the top of the bookers' lists for talk shows, who demonstrate that they don't know what they're talking about. Kristol and Brooks cannot hold an opinion for a week, and Brooks and Noonan "know" the American people without actually interacting with any of them.

Nevertheless, these are the folks who are the opinion-makers, the talking heads who fill up chairs on Sunday mornings while providing very little actual insight. And they are so big by dint of their fortuitous positions that far more perceptive writers feel the need to react, if only to counteract some of their uninformed "commentary." It seems a waste, somehow (as is this post, come to think of it).

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