I want to thank readers for their sincere and heartfelt participation in the quest to determine the 10 most pretentious moments in history – and where David Brooks deciding to teach a course in “Humility” at Yale fits on that list.
Between Twitter and the comments section, and a few scattered emails, we had nearly 500 submissions. As with the Write-Like-Friedman contest, many were of the laugh-out-loud variety. One of my favorites was from “Katherine Kaufman,” whose choice for the most pretentious moment ever was, “Everything Steve Smith does and says and wears every day on ESPN. And my father in law.” I actually like Steven A., and I don’t know Katherine’s father-in-law, but I’m still strongly considering putting both on the list. I had to respect “Alyosha Karamazov” for having the balls to pick a screen name from one of the most pretentious novels ever and then nominate Mother Teresa as his choice for most pretentious person ever. I almost died laughing reading that one.
A great many people nominated two individuals in particular: Newt Gingrich and Norman Mailer. “Brady Fratland” summed up the Mailer complaints perfectly:
The White Negro . . . Jesus, that was painful to read. Actually, anything Norman Mailer did after 1960… his fawning over Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali, showing up at anti-war protests at the Pentagon wearing military-style web canteen belts he’d bought from some tony NYC boutique. . . Second place has to be Kenny G doing a retrospective of Louis Armstrong’s standards. Yeesh.
While “John M” summed up the Newt nominations:
I have to agree with the Newt Gingrich inclusion on any level as he is, without question, one of the true carriers of the eternal gasbag…but it’s this quote from him (that can be found inscribed in the hallowed halls of The Douchebag Academy) that puts him firmly in the top 10 imo as a paragon to all pretentious blowhards past, present, and future… “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
Newt actually said that to his second wife, on the occasion of his leaving her for a mistress, in response to her question about how he could be doing that a day after giving a speech on family values. He’s also said lots of other truly awesome things, one of my favorite being “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.”
But I feel like there should be a blanket exemption to both Mailer and Newt (the “Gingrich/Mailer gasbag exemption”?). They’re just too funny to be on the list. It’s the same with Rush Limbaugh. On the autopsy table, if they can find an instrument strong enough to saw through the smile on his face, I’m pretty sure they’ll find out he was in on the joke all along.
Incidentally, a number of people said I myself should make the list, for making this list. That was tough for me to judge – it was like that South Park scene where they trapped Funnybot in a logic loop and exploded his brain. But it’s a good point and I should probably rate an honorable mention at least. In the meantime, in reverse order, here are the other most pretentious moments in history, as nominated by readers:
10. Ted Kennedy’s post-Chappaquiddick comments about privileges for the “High and Mighty”
On the occasion of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Kennedy said:
Do we operate under a system of equal justice under law? Or is there one system for the average citizen and another for the high and mighty?
Reader “motorcyclist” wondered if this was “more irony than gasbaggery,” while emailer “Lancelot” noted the posthumously-discovered fact that Kennedy liked to make jokes about Chappaquiddick:
9. “The Decision”
Reader “Kevalier” wrote:
LeBron James and “The Decision’ has to rank right up there.
Um. . . The Decision?
LeBron’s televised mega-tacular in front of the slobbering Jim Gray did make Rickey Henderson’s entire career of talking about himself in the third person seem like a Trappist vow of silence. Still most sports writers say LeBron is actually a decent guy who’s genuinely embarrassed by “The Decision” now, unlike some previous wearers of the “Greatest Athlete Alive” crown, who only became more dickish with age.
Nominated by reader “KRH” and by emailer “Chainsaw Mike”. My favorite part of the RS interview was when they asked Sting if he was planning on going the rest of his life without playing with the Police again. His response: “Why do you think that’s important?” Well, um, because people liked the Police – but sorry we asked!
7. William Bennett publishes the Book of Virtues
Bennett received multiple nominations, many of them of the fist-shaking variety. Reader “JMF” summed them up:
Besides someone responsible for enforcing racist and socially destructive drug laws while being a moral guardian on anything, it came out later that Bennett was a ferocious gambling addict, seriously damaging his family to feed his habit. But his habit is legalized and regulated, so I guess it’s OK.
What’s great about Bennett is that when he says something crazy, he doesn’t apologize, but doubles down every time, which might explain his gambling problem. Like the time he said that aborting all African-American babies “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but the crime rate would go down.”
Instead of crawling into a hole forever as any normal celebrity would after making a comment like that, Bennett angrily responded:
…a thought experiment about public policy, on national radio, should not have received the condemnations it has. Anyone paying attention to this debate should be offended by those who have selectively quoted me, distorted my meaning and taken out of context the dialogue I engaged in this week.
What part of aborting all black babies would lower the crime rate was “out of context”? Another great Bennett quality: he can’t go more than twenty-five seconds without quoting Plato, Aristotle, or some other person he clearly believes is an intellectual colleague:
6. Oprah spanks James Frey
As reader “shortbutmighty” put it:
Oprah Winfrey forcing James Frey to sit through an hour of her outraged tears on national television when she found out that he had lied to HER in fabricating A Million Little Pieces (and a million other people too).
Additional points for having the clips of that episode appear on a “Top 25 Oprah Show Moments” program that aired on the Oprah network, with Oprah appearing as a commentator. Thanks for dining at Oprah’s –would you like some more Oprah in your Oprah?
5. The Nicholas Sparks USA Today Interview
As reader “Gayle Force” wrote:
That time Nicholas Sparks (author of such brilliant and erudite literature as A Walk to Remember and The Notebook) put himself in the company of Sophocles, Austen, Hemingway, and Shakespeare, and then asserted Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was complete trash.
The actual quote from Sparks:
The interview inspired blog titles like “Nicholas Sparks Douches it Up for USA Today” and “Newsflash: Nicholas Sparks Is An Asshole.” I want to personally thank “Gayle Force” because if he/she hadn’t mentioned this, I might never have seen this send-up of The Notebook:
4. Literally every episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio
As submitted by reader “Andy.” Lipton is really too funny to be on this list, but he got a lot of votes. Many emailers submitted videos of their favorite Actors’ Studio spoofs. The most popular was this one:
Although I was always partial to the MadTV Lipton-Andie McDowell interview:
3. David Brooks teaches Humility at Yale
The semester is winding down, but section assholes, take note: your attempts to suckle at the power teat may just be getting started.
You may be familiar with David Brooks from his three books, from his New York Times columns, or from his presence on PBS NewsHour, but if that just doesn’t feel like enough, you will soon have a really slim chance to know the “liberals’ favorite conservative” in a totally different capacity: as your professor. That’s right—this “spring,” Brooks will be bringing his famed self and his less-well-known teaching credentials (?) to our very own campus.
And what’s he teaching? It would only make sense for this course to be called “Humility.” Brooks is not only a real big name in general but also kind of an expert on the topic—a quick Google search reveals that he’s written on it in the NYT and discussed it at the Aspen Ideas Festival—so we can pretty much agree that this is fitting. As if the irony weren’t already enough, this class is also a Global Affairs seminar, so, like, humility, guys. Perfect. Especially recommended if you were tempted by Grand Strategy but really just don’t have the ego for it.
2. Ayn Rand says anything at all
Rand received a great many votes. Reader “NevadoZ” simply submitted this quote of Rand’s: “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.” Ayn Rand fits this list for many reasons, but the biggest is that she had absolutely no sense of humor. You can smoke a whole ounce of the world’s most potent marijuana and not laugh a single time reading one of Rand’s books. One can’t, however, promise the same result with this famous Rand appearance with Phil Donahue:
1. Martin Amis writes The Age of Horrorism and other stuff
I’d never read this book, but boy, did it, and Amis generally, get a lot of nominations. Reader “Bet Mulligan” summed things up, quoting from Amis’s book, The Second Plane:
Martin Amis on the use of the shorthand 9/11
“My principal objection to the numbers is that they are numbers,” he writes in “The Second Plane.” “The solecism, that is to say, is not grammatical but moral-aesthetic — an offense against decorum; and decorum means “seemliness,’ which comes from soemr, “fitting,’ and soema, “to honor.’ 9/11, 7/7: who or what decided that particular acts of slaughter, particular whirlwinds of plasma and body parts, in which a random sample of the innocent is killed, maimed, or otherwise crippled in body and mind, deserve a numerical shorthand? Whom does this “honor’? What makes this “fitting’?”
Reader “John Drinkwater” chimed in:
Yep. Great example of how obnoxious Amis is, and not exceptional, either. That’s how he always writes. He’s easily more pretentious than even David Brooks.
Between emails and comments and tweets, Amis got nearly twenty nominations, which surprised me – I personally had never read him and had no idea he aroused such powerful feelings. If it’s possible to grab someone’s coat lapel and implore/beg via email, that’s what many readers who were afraid that Amis might not top this list did with me. One emailer, “James Farrady,” put it this way: “You’re going to be tempted to put Friedman or Brooks or Ayn Rand in first place, but if you do that, it will be an insult to everyone who’s ever had to read a Martin Amis book. You owe it to the victims to put Amis at the top.” He attached this clip of Amis saying Adolf Hitler was a “frightful bore” and a classic example of the artist manque:
Anyway, if Bet, Drinkwater and Farrady could please write in with their addresses, we’ll send your copy of Moral Man and Immoral Society. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send those out this week.
Editor’s Note: Some have noticed that all of the people on this list are English-speaking figures from the 20th-century on. I did solicit nswers from further back in history, and even got a few good ones (a friend from the Huffington Post suggested Alexander the Great for claiming to be descended from Achilles, Zeus, and Hercules), but almost all the responses were from recent times.