Friday, March 14, 2008

Brooks on Spitzer

Without "naming names," David Brooks has written what is obviously intended as an armchair psychoanalysis of Elliot Spitzer. I wonder, though, if it isn't more of an introspective essay - where Brooks might find himself but for his preternatural ability to resist marshmallows.
They go through the oboe practice, soccer camp, homework marathon childhood. Their parent-teacher conferences are like mini-Hall of Fame enshrinements as all gather to worship at the flame of their incipient success. In high school, they enter their Alpha Geekdom. They rack up great grades and develop that coating of arrogance that forms on those who know that in the long run they will be more successful than the beauties and jocks who get dates.

Then they go into one of those fields like law, medicine or politics, where a person’s identity is defined by career rank. They develop the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole: the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly way.
Is it just me, or did that get a bit weird toward the end....

Oh, I suppose Brooks paints one path to narcissism. (Mike at Crime and Federalism seems more inclined to see this as sociopathy.) The high school geek, certain of his own superiority, reinforced by family members (but not by peers), who gains a position that vest him with money and power. But at the end of the day, it's the destination that matters. Some of the more common manifestations of personality disorder:
Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Inflated sense of - and preoccupation with - your importance, achievements and talents

  • Constant attention-grabbing and admiration-seeking behavior

  • Inability to empathize with others

  • Excessive anger or shame in response to criticism

  • Manipulation of others to further your own desires
Brooks himself knows that the narcissistic geek is the exception, not the rule, in positions of leadership. How did he put it?
The only real shift between school and adult politics is that the jocks realize they need conservative intellectuals, who are geeks who have decided their fellow intellectuals should never be allowed to run anything and have learned to speak slowly so the jocks will understand them. Meanwhile, the geeks have learned they need to find popular kids like F.D.R. to head their tickets because the American people will never send a former geek to the White House.
Also, if history tells us anything it's that there is no single personality type that is inclined toward a Spitzer-type fall from grace. The "jocks, cheerleaders and preps" are more likely to get a position of fame and/or fortune from which to fall, but maybe that makes no difference to Brooks, who states that in high school:
... all prestige goes to jocks, cheerleaders and preps who possess the emotional depth of a cocker spaniel.
Does Brooks see anybody as having emotional depth? Other than possibly himself?

I'm left with the question, why does Brooks focus on lust, and not the other deadly sins? Does he believe that a hyperachieving nerd is more susceptible to this type of scandal? That Gary Hart and Bill Clinton were unpopular nerds in high school? (What about JFK and Lyndon Johnson?) That Charlie Sheen, Eddie Murphy and Hugh Grant are nerds at heart, involved in prostitution scandals due to their "rank-link imbalances"? Or is it that he's trying to find a way to wag his finger at Spitzer without acknowledging the fallen heroes of the right - Newt Gingrich, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Larry Craig, Tom Delay, George Allen, Bernie Kerik, etc., likely to soon be joined by Don Young and Ted Stevens? Because when you broaden the context and include the more typical cases, you can really see how Brooks missed the mark.

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