Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Thought Leader

"The Leftist intellectual" could be an alternative title to this


Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.

He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. He doesn’t have dark nights of the soul, but his eyes blaze at the echo of the words “breakout session.”

Many people wonder how they too can become Thought Leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like.

In fact, the calling usually starts young. As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. His college application essay, “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life,” is widely praised by guidance counselors. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation. He is widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority. Of course he will seek to establish his edgy in-group identity by trying to prove that he was never really that into Macklemore.

Fortunately, this snarky phase doesn’t last. By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese. It’s not clear our Thought Leader started out believing he would write a book on the productivity gains made possible by improved electronic medical records, but having written such a book he can now travel from medical conference to medical conference making presentations and enjoying the rewards of being T.S.A. Pre.

By now the Thought Leader uses the word “space” a lot — as in, “Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time in the abject sycophancy space, but now I’m devoting more of my energies to the corporate responsibility space.”

The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.

He’s succeeding. Unfortunately, the happy moment when you are getting just the right amount of attention passes, and you don’t realize you were in this moment until after it is gone.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.

In the end, though, a lifetime of bullet points are replaced by foreboding. Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.

Still, one rarely finds an octogenarian with status anxiety. He is beyond the battle for attention. Death approaches. Cruelly, it smells like reverence.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why are Parsi elites welcomed, while Jewish and Chinese elites are reviled?

Foreign ethnic elites who have a disproportionate influence in their host society's economy are called market-dominant minorities. The two best examples are the Chinese who settled southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and the Ashkenazi Jews who lived mostly in the Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe, and more recently in western Europe and its offshoots.

In her book World on Fire, Amy Chua looks at how the presence of market-dominant minorities can easily spark ethnic tensions, as the lower-status natives feel envy and anger toward what they come to perceive as an intrusive race of bloodsuckers. Again the Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese provide the strongest examples -- no matter where they go, the locals usually come to view them with antipathy. Occasionally that escalates into full-blown ethnic riots, like the pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe and the series of anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia.

Explanations for the psychology underlying the native masses' hatred of ethnic elites tend to portray the envy and resentment as an inevitable consequence of the presence of market-dominant minorities. Yet there is a clear counter-example of a market-dominant minority group that has been welcomed wholeheartedly by most of the host society -- the Parsis of India, who have a disproportionate influence at the higher levels of the Indian economy.

Even though they are only one case, it is such a strong counter-example that it must make us reconsider what truly underlies the psychology of anger toward ethnic elites. The Parsis, like the Jews and the Chinese, are not a native ethnic group of the society where they have strong influence, having come from Persia into India. (While they do share some genetic and cultural heritage, it would still be like a group of Armenians settling and wielding much control over the economy in Ireland.) They also came to their high status gradually through greater intelligence and industriousness, not through force. And they have been living in their host society for hundreds of years -- plenty of time for the seeds of envy and rioting to have been sown.

And yet, there has been no history of pogroms against the Parsis. If anything, they're seen as more of a national treasure, not that Indians worship them or anything. All the ingredients for an explosion of ethnic hatred and rioting would seem to have been present for centuries, so what gives?

The general consensus by native Indians and by European observers, for at least the last several hundred years, is that the Parsis are incredibly charitable, preferring to spread around their wealth. (See some representative quotes in their Wikipedia entry.) They themselves emphasize this aspect of their community in the phrase "Parsi, thy name is charity." Most importantly, they aren't only generous toward one another, but toward the masses of their host society. A 20th-century Parsi captain of industry, J.R.D. Tata, was right out of the progressive mold of Andrew Carnegie and Milton S. Hershey.

So, it looks like the primary way that they've avoided the fate of so many other market-dominant minorities is to not behave like a bunch of greedy gold-hoarders. They don't give away all of their wealth, but they do donate enough to prove their generosity. Moreover, no one sees them as doing so without any real care for others -- i.e., just being charitable to gain approval or to keep the would-be rioters content. All observers seem to agree that it's out of a sense of duty and empathy.

And it's empathy where the Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese are lacking. I touched on this in a longer post about why they tend not to be very good social scientists. Popular stereotypes everywhere that they've settled depict Jewish and Chinese people as brusque and rude, whereas the opposite stereotype prevails about the Parsis. They would also not fail basic tests of the recognition of facial emotions like the East Asians do. And unlike Jews, the equally high-IQ Parsis haven't produced scores of fruitcake intellectuals and political "thinkers," from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand, whose failures stem from nothing more than their inability to get other people.

In general, looking over this list of famous Parsis, they don't seem to produce many autistic or nerdy people. It looks more like professionals, entrepreneurs, and entertainers. (The Han Chinese have over 10,000 times as many people as the Parsis, and yet they can't produce a single Freddie Mercury.)

What was it about their niche in India that preserved their empathy, unlike other market-dominant minorities like the Chinese and Jews? Beats me, I don't know their history well enough. Something about the types of white-collar jobs they held must not have selected for having a dim and suspicious view of other people, unlike the case of Jewish tax farmers in Europe.

Their story should give us hope that it is possible for an ecological niche to select for higher average IQ, as well as for business skills, while not corroding our social nature. Sadly they do have very low birth rates, but then what brainy group these days does not?