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Justin Fox

'Meritocracy' Is Just Another Way to Put You Down

Society is in trouble when we start throwing around terms like "the best and brightest" without irony.
Sorting out the chaff.

Sorting out the chaff.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

David Halberstam’s 1972 book, “The Best and the Brightest,” is an account of how brilliant U.S. officials with impressive credentials made such a mess of the war in Vietnam.

We had a copy on the shelf at home when I was growing up, so I knew the gist long before I got around to reading it. I was therefore somewhat taken aback the first time I heard some of my ambitious peers unironically referring to themselves as “the best and the brightest.”  I eventually got used to that. As Halberstam put it in a foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition of the book, the phrase “went into the language, although it is often misused, failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”