This summer – except when distracted by children and a trip to see their maternal grandparents – I have been working more or less flat-out on a book. Ask me right now about the fine points of the McConnell plan and I will sigh and plead ignorance. If I really have to study up on it, I will. Ask me, however, about the rise of Achaemenid Persia, Sparta’s handling of Polycrates of Samos and of Hippias of Athens, the background to the battle of Marathon, and Xerxes’ march to Doriscus – and I can tell you a lot. I have spent more time in the company of Herodotus in the last two months than I have spent awake in the company of my wife.
But every so often I have taken a break – even if only for a few minutes – and that is what I did after finishing something yesterday afternoon. I started with Arts and Sciences Daily, as I often do. Then, I read a review of a book by my late friend Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary executor Colin Thubron. And somehow – I do not remember how – I came across a piece posted back in April by Jonathan Chait on the website of The New Republic. Entitled Why Do Paul Krugman and David Brooks Hate Each Other?, it is a riot.
Before you start reading it, however, let me issue a warning. Like most liberals, Chait lives in a bubble. Without a thought regarding the objections that might be made, he can write of Barack Obama’s “technocratic meliorism” and of Paul Ryan’s “Randian determination to liberate hero-capitalists from social obligation.” But, to give him credit, Chait is smart enough to be able to understand the absurdity of David Brooks’ notion that if Obama were only to invite Ryan to lunch, the two could settle the budget question over a corned beef sandwich.
But here is what is really interesting. One of the unwritten laws of journalism is that columnists at The New York Times do not attack one another. If they really, really disagree, they have to be oblique, and Chait caught both Krugman and Brooks hurling barbs purportedly at others that were, in fact, aimed at one another. Here is Krugman, in his column, lambasting Brooks:
Last week, President Obama offered a spirited defense of his party’s values — in effect, of the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Immediately thereafter, as always happens when Democrats take a stand, the civility police came out in force. The president, we were told, was being too partisan; he needs to treat his opponents with respect; he should have lunch with them, and work out a consensus.
That’s a bad idea. Equally important, it’s an undemocratic idea.
And here is Brooks, in a column, aimed purportedly at Donald Trump, but responding, in fact, to Krugman:
Very few people have the luxury of being freely obnoxious. Most people have to watch what they say for fear of offending their bosses and colleagues. Others resist saying anything that might make them unpopular.
But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. They are so impressed by their achievements, so often reminded of their own obvious rightness, that every stray thought and synaptic ripple comes bursting out of their mouth fortified by impregnable certitude. When they have achieved this status they have entered the realm of Upper Blowhardia.
As Chait points out, this really cannot be about Trump. The Donald works for himself. He has no boss, and he has no colleagues. Krugman has both. In this connection, Chait points to a Weekly Standard cover associated with a story written by Brooks back in 2002. Krugman is, he plausibly suggests, the fellow holding The New York Times. “The main problem here,” Chait observes, “is the mismatch. Krugman and Brooks are two Jewish-American baby boomers who grew up in New York, but their intellectual style could not differ more sharply. Krugman is an acclaimed economist who thinks in rigorously empirical terms. Brooks is a journalist who tends to view policy questions through hazy philosophical prisms. On top of that, there's ideology. Brooks views Krugman as making himself a hero to the liberal choir, while he (Brooks) fearlessly challenges both sides. Krugman sees Brooks as residing comfortably within the cozy embrace of the conventional wisdom, whereas he (Krugman) risks being cast as a partisan or a radical by arbiters of respectability like Brooks for following the logic through to its conclusions.” I quote this last passage because it seems to me that Brooks and Krugman, as represented by Chait, understand one another tolerably well – better, in fact, than Chait himself understands either one of them and better than either understands himself.
I know Krugman and Brooks only from reading them, but that is, I suspect, in this case enough. When I read the former, I nearly always find myself thinking of a kid I knew in third grade. Every time the teacher left the room, he was up in front of the class, clowning around. He wanted attention; he desperately craved applause; and he was willing to abase himself in their pursuit. Krugman is a man of great intelligence and considerable ability as an economist, and he has been honored as few men could ever hope to be. But, out of partisan instincts and a degrading desire to be fiercely loved and admired, he is willing to sacrifice the genuine respect that he earned for his acumen. Once upon a time, he really did think “in rigorously empirical terms.” Now he writes simply and solely as a partisan. When he agreed to write for the Times, he checked at the door the thoughtfulness that once distinguished him.
When I read Brooks – who is no less intelligent and would be pleasant company, I am sure – I am frequently driven to hold my head in my hands. He very much wants to fit in, and when Pinch Sulzberger hired him, for once in his life he knew what he was about. Brooks is what passes as a respectable conservative in left-liberal circles. He is weak and accommodating; above all else, he does not want to rock the boat – and he can be relied upon to urge those who admired his writing when he worked at National Review and The Weekly Standard to surrender to democracy’s soft despotic drift. Lean back, he seems to say. Relax and go with the flow.
Brooks is profoundly uncomfortable with evangelical Christians and with the great unwashed who live between the two coasts. He has evidenced a visceral dislike for Sarah Palin and those like her. He was thrilled and he made no bones about it when Barack Obama appointed a cabinet made up of individuals just like David Brooks – educated at elite schools, graced with the right crease in their pants, unsullied by sordid experience as businessmen, and blessedly free from religious beliefs he regards as primitive.
Brooks has a boss and colleagues, and he will never write a column likely to be thought by them “obnoxious.” He really does have disdain for the “few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern,” and he is prepared to believe that all that is really going on is that they are taking “their own abrasive urges out for parade.” In this posture, there is something obviously self-serving. For, if Brooks sticks to it – if, when the chips are down, he is always ready to come to the defense of the Barack Obamas of the world – he will keep his comfortable perch, he will be liked (if not respected) by those like him, and he will fit right in. If, however, he were to rock the boat; if he were to conclude that the administrative entitlements state is economically and morally bankrupt and things cannot go on much longer in the way they have gone; if he were to jettison what he so accurately describes as “subservience, insecurity, and concern,” it would cost him. It would cost him a lot.