David Brooks’s dilemma (and ours)

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Consider one of David Brooks’ dilemmas. In last Friday’s Times he wrote a pretty good column about the contemporary American power elite. As he described it, sixty and more years ago, blue blood WASPs ran America’s financial institutions and foreign policy (something of a simplification, but let it pass), ethnic bosses ran the cities, and engaging working class drunks filed the newspaper stories. Now those critical sectors are run and staffed by the meritocracy, people who did well on the bubble tests and went on to succeed at elite universities. We have, Brooks explains, “opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of every other group. “

Then he acknowledges the new regime isn’t working out as well as expected. None of these major institutions is now doing its job adequately, and the country knows it. We need, Brooks concludes, to reevaluate our definitions of merit, and leadership because “very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.” This is true, and for a newspaper column, a profound observation.

But there is a salient body of fact that Brooks elides, and therein lies a tale. While opportunities have opened up for women and all the non-Wasp groups Brooks mentioned, all groups have not rushed with equal force into the breach. If one takes, for example, the issue of Mideast diplomacy, it has been noted recently that most of the country’s important Mideast diplomats are Jews, most of writers covering the Israel-Palestine conflict for the New York Times are Jewish, as are two of three of the president’s top political advisers. Dig in a different direction, and one finds a similar kind of thing, as observed on this site, of the financial players engaged in selecting the next senator from New York

There is no need to exaggerate the phenomenon, and indeed a need not to—outside of New York, there are plenty of rich Protestant power brokers, the South is important politically and Jews are seldom influential there, etc. But to say the least, the collapse of the WASP ascendancy has not been equally rewarding to all of the groups Brooks cites at the top of his column. Indeed for some of them, like Catholics, that collapse has probably coincided with a net reduction in cultural and political influence.

Brooks avoids mentioning this, as do virtually all writers. The reason is obvious: nearly any analysis, indeed any mention, of Jewish power is overburdened with sensitive historical associations. Unspecified but ominous reference to this history is the main polemical weapon Leon Wieseltier uses in his effort to take down Andrew Sullivan for his writing on Israel and Palestine. Some of Sullivan’s arguments, Wieseltier asserts “have a sordid history”; Sullivan is one of those who proclaim “without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea that Jews control Washington”; Sullivan adopts an explanation which “has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.” No need then to examine the truth or the untruth of Sullivan’s argument, a vague allusion to history suffices. Criticism of Israel is tied to the modern history of European anti-semitism, and to an extensive bibliography of generally tendentious books about Jewish power, from Alphonse de Toussenel’s Les Juifs, Rois de L’Epoch (published in 1845) forward. Of course this discourse was an auxiliary to the holocaust. About this Wieseltier (and the countless others who polemicize in this manner) are correct: discussions of Jewish power have sometimes had terrible consequences.

But where does that leave 21st century Americans? One example is the case of David Brooks, who clearly knows what he leaving out of his column about the American power elite. Brooks is Jewish, and a Zionist, and in no danger of being labeled an anti-Semite by Leon Wieseltier or anyone else. But still he is hesitant; presumably because he doesn’t want to write something that either might encourage anti-Semitism, or (more likely considering his readership) enhance public understanding of the Israel lobby. At least the first of these motives is commendable. But the reticence has a consequence: when Brooks writes a column about the American power elite and its weaknesses, he needs to avoid one of the essential aspects of his subject. That can’t really be satisfactory to him, or to his readers. It’s a dilemma with no obvious solution to it.

About Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative. The former editorial page editor of The New York Post, he has written for Fortune, The New Criterion, National Review, Commentary and many other publications.

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