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.
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?”
I am confused. Is David Brooks talking about Upworthy? Buzzfeed? Thought Catalog? Ted Talks? Opium delirium? http://t.co/NHEc5GexKC— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) December 17, 2013
That David Brooks column was one written by a man scared younger writers he can't quite understand are coming for his job. And we are.— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) December 17, 2013
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.
Is David Brooks' "powerless lunch" a subtweet about Paul Krugman?— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) December 17, 2013
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.
David Brooks does the smarm/snark thing. It's officially a meme. http://t.co/dgwCNDD1Jn— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) December 17, 2013
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:
@JamilSmith what was this supposed to accomplish? why was this in a major paper? this was for an audience of about 500.— John Legend (@johnlegend) December 17, 2013
“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.”