If you can somehow get past theshirtless G-man photos, the threatening emails, or the elaborate love triangles, then the most startling subplot in the Petraeus affair is the way Paula Broadwell insinuated herself into his world in the first place. As Broadwell herself has recalled, she met the general at a dinner for West Point alumni in 2006, then emailed him in 2008 while writing a paper on his theory of leadership. They took a run along the Potomac and stayed in touch, until one day she turned up in a war zone to write his biography. “I shot him an email, and said ‘I’m gonna to go for it,’” she told Jon Stewart in their now-famous interview. Before long, Petraeus had set her up with VIP housing at the NATO compound in Afghanistan and granted her total access.
The officers closest to Petraeus were stumped. Petraeus wasn’t just the Army’s most famous general. He was the military’s best-known and most accomplished intellectual. If he wanted an official biography, he could have had his pick of dozens of scholars and writers. “My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,” Peter Mansoor, one of the general’s top aides, told The Washington Post.
Somehow the ultimate meritocrat had found a distinctly unqualified candidate to sum up his life’s work. And yet, in a way, Petraeus’s lapse wasn’t such a departure from his overachieving impulses and intellectual pretensions. In fact, it was arguably an outgrowth of them. The whole episode turns out to be a case study in how meritocracy can go off the rails.
This may be a good a time as any to remind ourselves that the term “meritocracy”—a bit like its cousin, “the best and the brightest”—wasn’t actually intended to be complimentary. It entered the lexicon through a book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” by the British social thinker Michael Young, who imagined a dystopian world in which a small group of highly educated elites controls society. The meritocrats persuade themselves that, unlike the ruling classes that came before them, they are uniquely deserving of power because they earned it rather than inherited it. (And they have the SAT scores to prove it, by God!) And yet, over time, they somehow manage to become just as inbred, self-serving, and corrupt.
keyboard shortcuts: V vote up article J next comment K previous comment