What the Hell Is David Brooks’s Column About?

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WASHINGTON - MARCH 30:  (AFP OUT) David Brooks of the New York Times speaks during a live taping of Meet the Press March 30, 2008 in Washington, DC.  Guests General Michael Hayden, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Brooks, of the New York Times, and Peter Beinart, a Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy on the Council on Foreign Relations, appeared on the show to speak about the successes and falures of the CIA in the war on terror and the upcoming US presidential elections.  (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/2008 Getty Images

In his Tuesday column “The Thought Leader,” New York Times lead thinker David Brooks satirizes the idea of what he dubs, with Brooksian capitalization, a Thought Leader, “sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler,” who speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative and think-tank dinners. “He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients,” Brooks writes, so he can’t be describing himself exactly, because he teaches at Yale. But the column reads like a dashed-off fever dream aimed at the phony public intellectual, filled with jokes about buzzwords (“breakout session,” “the corporate responsibility space”), actual buzzwords (snark, smarm), and allusions to popular culture (Kelly Clarkson, Macklemore), all adding up to … no one really knows. But some have ventured guesses!

1) It’s about the Internet.

Brooks writes:

There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

2) It’s about Paul Krugman.

A shot at his intra-Times sparring partner?

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.

3) It’s about Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm,” from Gawker.

At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading. Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark.

4) It’s a self-referential rip-off of an old idea.

Capital New York points out the similarities, updated for the new millennium, to Brooks’s own “How to Become Henry Kissinger,” published by the Weekly Standard in 1995, when he wrote, “In this country, any boy or girl can grow up, get on the speaking circuit, and deliver after-dinner speeches to conventions filled with shoe salesmen for $50,000 a pop. All it takes is hard work, dedication, and a reputation for global omniscience.” Now there are blogs involved, and Brooks has made it to the life he skewered, which brings us to pop star John Legend's wise theory …

5) It’s about Brooks himself.

Legend puts on his media-critic hat and nails it:

“I was just trying to be amusing about the life people like me lead,” Brooks confirmed to Daily Intelligencer in an e-mail. “Nothing more.”