The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Burden of Young Genius

Posted on | January 6, 2011 | 8 Comments

“There is . . . a new generation of young, sophistic bloggers who offer their wisdom from the New York-Washington corridor. They are usually graduates of America’s elite colleges and navigate in an upscale urban landscape. One, the Washington Post’s 26-year-old Ezra Klein, recently scoffed to his readers that a bothersome U.S. Constitution was “100 years old” and had ‘no binding power on anything.'”
Victor Davis Hanson, “The New Sophists,” Real Clear Politics

“The perversity I want to understand starts in the ’60s. What happened? This: intellectuals took over the elite.”
David Gelernter, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber

The trend toward standardized testing and a nationwide competition for admission to the most selective schools was the mechanism by which the change described by Gelernter took place. The Internet has made the effects of this change more glaring than ever, especially among young writers like Ezra Klein.

There have always been intellectual prodigies. One might say Bill Buckley was one such, achieving national fame at age 25 with his 1951 book, God and Man at Yale. But Buckley (who had served in World War II) at least had to write a manuscript and find a publisher, whereas nowadays any brainy young person with a Blogspot site can address a potentially worldwide readership instantly without intermediation or editorial supervision.

Klein became a blogger in 2003 at age 19 and, two years later, was already a well-known member of the liberal blogosphere when he moved to Washington, D.C., to join the staff of The American Prospect (a publication whose existence he discovered via a link from Instapundit). Intelligence and eloquence are very important attributes in a writer, but are no substitutes for knowledge and experience, in which even very bright young people are generally deficient. Being catapulted to such prominence — an influential voice in national politics — at such an early age inevitably encourages intellectual hubris.

It used to be that the world of journalism required a certain amount of dues-paying. In his memoir The Prince of Darkness, Robert Novak remarked that when he joined the D.C. bureau of the Associated Press at age 27 (by which time he’d been a reporter more than a decade, having begun as a sports writer for the Joliet Herald while still in high school) he was the only member of the bureau under 30. It took Novak four more years to become chief congressional correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and it was another two years after that before he began writing a syndicated column with Rowland Evans.

Dave Weigel has admitted that his early success contributed to the hubris that preceded his Icarus-like undoing in the JouroList scandal. Perhaps Ezra Klein will avoid such an embarrassment, but the perils that afflict the young and brainy in the Internet age will continue.


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