Jean-Paul, we hardly knew ye

In a column plugging his new book on character earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented the disappearance of “lofty authority figures” from the public square. Brooks’s colleagues on the editorial pages of the Times present a case study in the decline of our public discourse, but it’s not the one Brooks has in mind. You don’t even have to go back as far back as Brooks does to trace the decline — from James Reston and Tom Wicker and A.M. Rosenthal (not to mention William Safire) to Paul Krugman et al., what a falling off was there!

According to Brooks, certain of the old “authority figures were part of the secular priesthood of intellectuals.” For example: “John Dewey advocated pragmatism. John-Paul Sartre and his American popularizers championed existentialism. Hannah Arendt wrote big books on evil and the life of the mind.”

Which gave rise to this classic Times correction, itself reflective of more than one kind of decline: “David Brooks’s column on Tuesday misspelled the given name of a French existentialist philosopher. He was Jean-Paul Sartre, not John-Paul.” Something about proofreading and nothingness…