Defense of David Brooks Fails

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David Brooks has found a defender! God knows he can use one, having nearly drowned in derision last week after unveiling a column called "The Follower Problem."

Brooks's defender--right here at The Atlantic--is Philip K. Howard, who agrees with Brooks that America needs more respect for authority. Howard notes the societal benefits of teachers having authority, judges having authority, and so on.

He's right, of course, but I'm not sure how relevant that is. I don't think most of Brooks's critics are people who want to throw erasers in class or defy court rulings. Indeed, so far as I can tell, Brooks wasn't talking about deferring to authority in a formal sense. And he wasn't just talking about respecting authority, but out-and-out revering it. Brooks said we should "celebrate greatness" and "hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves."

This gets at a problem that many people, including myself, have had with the Brooks column: Where are these leaders who are immeasurably superior to ourselves? In Congress? So far as I can tell, Congress consists largely--and increasingly--of not super-smart, not super-principled people whose mission in life is to get re-elected.

I'm not saying that behaving in such a careerist, self-serving fashion makes our legislators markedly worse than the rest of us. I'm just saying that when I think of these people, the phrase "immeasurably superior" doesn't spring to mind.

What's more, the way our careerist legislators keep their careers alive is by doing the bidding of interest groups whose influence is correlated with how much money they have. This means that moneyed interests get disproportionately served. So there's an offputting irony in Brooks's blaming our insufficient awe for authority on a mindless egalitarianism--on "our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect."

And suggesting that we reallocate some of our respect from the downtrodden to "immeasurably superior" leaders is particularly grating at a time when a number of our leaders, in both the political and financial worlds, just helped usher in the most severe economic downturn in many decades, creating lots more downtrodden, and then made sure that the affluent wouldn't be unduly afflicted by these troubles.

To the question I'm asking--Where are the leaders who deserve following?--Brooks answered, basically: Well where are the followers who deserve leading? "To have good leaders you have to have good followers -- able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it."

Last time I wrote about Brooks's column, I vowed to ponder the chicken-and-egg problem Brooks is suggesting here--i.e. that we're cynical and unruly because we've had so many bad leaders, but our cynicism and unruliness keep better leaders from emerging.

OK, I've pondered it now! And I think this vicious circle isn't really very vicious. Indeed, I think our cynicism increases the appeal of leaders who truly deserve following--leaders who would earnestly grapple with our problems, say unpopular things that need to be said, etc. I think watching so many politicians tailor their convictions to the latest polls has left us hungry for politicians with actual convictions. That's one reason Ron Paul has such a fervent following.

Obviously, such a candidate runs into problems. For example: saying unpopular things can cut into your popularity! But having unpopular ideas isn't Ron Paul's only problem; having ideas that are unpopular because they seem nutty and cultish--e.g., his ideas about the gold standard--is another one. So the narrowness of Paul's following doesn't disprove my conjecture that a cynical age creates opportunities for a bold and creative leader with integrity, candor, and true vision. In any event, I'm holding my reverence in reserve until one shows up.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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