David Brooks on what it takes & Elena Kagan

Brooks, columnist at the NY Times and more generally a moderate-conservative political commentator, has an interesting op-ed piece today.

I don’t like what he’s said, but it actually covers a lot, and I’d like to know what others here have to say. I could also be quite wrong, of course.

So what’s he said? The basic idea is that we now have a generation or two of Organization students. They pass all the tests, including the personality ones, with flying colours. Very bright they sail on by, but they do so because they don’t pause for commitment and passion to ideas or causes. Plus, Elena Kagan is one of these, and that’s the kind of person that can now get through the confirmation hearings.

He starts:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged.

That’s step one. Step Two argues that Kagan looks to be like them. She doesn’t take stands on hard issues, for example. The evidence comes from acquaintances, her public speeches and her few articles.

So far, I haven’t met anybody who is not an admirer. She is apparently smart, deft and friendly. She was a superb teacher. She has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable. …

She has become a legal scholar without the interest scholars normally have in the contest of ideas. She’s shown relatively little interest in coming up with new theories or influencing public debate.

The conclusion is that in fact she’s a bit creepy:

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

So what’s wrong with this? Well, to some extent it isn’t true. She has had to make some principled decisions as Solicitor General. And there’s something else that doesn’t ring true. If she’s made herself into a Stepford professor, why does everyone admire her so? I mean, there are these Stepford profs and they can go very, very high, but they are not generally admired.

But there’s another worrying factor. There is a value placed on confrontation and a genuine lack of sympathy for those who value consensus building. Some people, when they genuinely do not share some value, are inclined to make up pretty bad explanations for the actions of those who have it. Not having much sense of the great pleasure one can get from guiding a discussion to a wise consensus, they can see the course of one’s actions as amounting to a subtrefuge.

The same thing can happen when people see commitment to a cause as actually an attempt at self-promotion.

But that’s not to say there is nothing here to worry about. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “David Brooks on what it takes & Elena Kagan

  1. Not living in the United States, I don’t have an opinion about Ms. Kagan, but I did read Brook’s column in the NYT this morning and it stayed with me. I agree with him that newer generations are less ideological, less passionately committed to ideas than mine (I’m 64). It’s strange that being of relatively the same age as Brooks brings me together with him, in spite of our political differences, he being conservative and I being quite leftwing. It seems that more than a reflection on Ms. Kagan’s aptness for the job, the column is a lament for a world that is disappearing, a world with sharper ideological and political frontiers. I share that lament, although I recognize that those who seek consensus
    are needed in many areas of life.

  2. I find this strange coming from Brooks. If I remember correctly, he wrote a piece about Sotomayor in which he argued She would be a good appointment because, even though her personal opinions/attitudes are not “unscarred” by the multiculturalism of the time in which she went to school, she doesn’t carry this over into her legal opinions.

  3. Brooks goes wrong at Step One, in thinking that the prevalence of people suppressing part of their personalities in order to get ahead professionally is anything new. People have been doing this since the beginning of civilization. What is nice about living in our era is that, as opposed to medieval times, there are many many more ways to get ahead professionally, so people have more of a choice about which kind of career to pursue, and thus more of a choice about which elements of their personality they need to tone down.

    This “lament for a world that is disappearing,” as Amos puts it in the first comment, is based on a misperception. The young people “passionately committed to ideas” have always been a small minority. Brooks was probably one, I guess Amos, too. Now that they are older, they are out of touch with the young folks. They just see the younger generation in broad outline, and that broad outline looks just like any previous generation in broad outline, i.e., largely conformist. “They aren’t like I was,” they complain. But most people weren’t like they were back in the day. To think otherwise is to mistake the small group of folks they associated with as representative of their generation as a whole. I know we all like to do this, but it is a bad induction.

  4. Justin: What you say is undoubtedly right, and it makes me and probably, Mr. Brooks feel even older than we felt before reading it. However, a bath of reality is always welcome. Thanks.

  5. First, I agree with Justin. My guess is that Brooks has assumed nostalgia the late 60s, when at least pretending to have political passion was trendy. (He was born in 1961, so he kind of missed being part of it.)

    Second, Brooks is missing a very important point:there is no promotion beyond Supreme Court Justice. For a lawyer, in a very real sense, that’s the endgame. You’ve won. As a result, Justices have often grown into the role, recognizing that they no longer have to please anyone to get ahead, and may go in directions nobody expected.

    The classic example of this was Earl Warren, who was appointed by Eisenhower (R) because Eisenhower wanted a conservative Justice. Warren turned out to be very liberal, and Eisenhower described the nomination as “the biggest damn-fool mistake I ever made.” Currently, Justice Stevens is another example; he was appointed by Gerald Ford (R). (I am not aware of anyone turning dramatically more conservative on the court, interestingly. Might be forgetting one, though.)

    In recent years, it’s been a lot harder to get someone through who turns out to be radically different than expected. There’s more scrutiny of the record now, and up to this point there’s been a lot of record available to scrutinize. Kagan, however, is different. She’s never been a judge, so we don’t know how she would rule on anything. As Solicitor General, she’s in an advocacy role: we don’t know what she personally believes, because she’s representing her client’s views. And while she does have a history of “going along to get along” and has been very successful that way, she won’t have anything to angle toward if she’s confirmed.

    She’ll have won. There is no bigger prize. And once she realizes that, she’ll feel free to do whatever she thinks is right and just. Whatever that turns out to be, her behavior up to this point is only a partial predictor of it.

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