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Sides of the Times

Paul Rahe reacts to Jonathan Chait's discussion of the feud between Paul Krugman and David Brooks. 

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 [Jonathan] Chait caught both Krugman and Brooks hurling barbs purportedly at others that were, in fact, aimed at one another.

[Krugman]: 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.

. . . [Brooks]  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.

Rahe comments on the players.

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  . . .

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.

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