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The Myth of the Meritocracy?

John Yoo is charming and intelligent, so how did these qualities lead him to write memos that set back civil liberties hundreds of years?

John Yoo, the architect of the Bush torture regime, seems like a nice guy. At least, that was the most disarming thing about Yoo’s interview on The Daily Show this past Monday. Other Bush officials like Donald Rumsfeld seemed harsh and abrasive in interviews on The Daily Show, but Yoo came off as calm, considered, and even self-deprecating. When Jon Stewart asked him point-blank whether or not he is a good lawyer, he replied with a good-natured, “Those who can’t do, teach,” referring presumably to his current job as a professor of law at University of California–Berkeley. By the end of the interview, Stewart declared, “You are the most charming torture author I have ever met.”

It made sense for Yoo to be brilliant: Anyone who graduated summa cum laude from college and who served as Supreme Court clerk could put those skills to work on morally reprehensible ends. Indeed, if anything this Yoo’s litany of legal memos justifying torture fit evil genius archetypes to a T. But evil geniuses aren’t supposed to be genteel. And genteel geniuses are harder to condemn. Stewart concluded the interview with the caveat, “I don’t hate Bush or Yoo or things that were done; I disagree with certain things.” Even when those “things that were done” include repeatedly slamming detainees into walls and other forms of torture, it seemed it was hard for Stewart to bring himself to hate them, exactly.

In a way, Yoo is the perfect illustration of the dangers of meritocracy. On paper, he did everything right. Yoo attended college at Harvard, law school at Yale, and completed clerkships on an appellate court and for Clarence Thomas, followed by stints in government and tenure at Berkeley. It’s an impressive record. And it’s one that he earned entirely on his own. A first-generation immigrant, Yoo did not rise through the ranks of the conservative legal movement due to family connections or patronage. He rose by virtue of his own merits. Nor, if The Daily Show interview is any indication, did he follow what Brookings fellow Peter Singer memorably dubbed the “A-hole rule” for professional advancement, which is to "be a complete jerk to anyone working for or with you, but brownnose your way upwards." He worked hard, was courteous, and did well as a result.

This is how the system is supposed to work. Unearned privileges and legs up are to be winnowed out in an ideal meritocracy; they certainly were in Yoo’s case. Those who excel academically are supposed to be met with professional success; Yoo’s clerkships, government work, and tenure at Berkeley all attest to his. Jerks are supposed to fall behind and gentility and modesty rewarded; Yoo’s good humor certainly was.

And yet it all went disastrously wrong. While the system worked perfectly, it produced a situation where one of its more successful products—Yoo—was writing that the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments do not apply to detainees in the war on terror. Yoo did everything right, and yet ended up arguing positions that all but the most morally bankrupt person would find abhorrent. How could this happen?

A systemic failure like this has not been wholly unanticipated. The novelist Walter Kirn, in his recent memoir Lost in the Meritocracy, points out that the meritocratic structures in which Yoo excelled do not select for excellence. Instead, they select for pleasing authority. As Kirn wrote in the Atlantic article upon which his book is based, “I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I’d reached myself” to get by in college. “With one professor the charm was ‘ambiguity.’ With another ‘heuristic’ usually did the trick.” In the Bush justice department, Yoo seemingly learned that the trick was executive prerogative.

But while Kirn gets something crucial about the meritocratic spirit that his and Yoo’s generation (Kirn was born in 1963, Yoo in 1967) helped usher in, the problem is not merely that the meritocracy is largely a fraud. I do not know how Yoo made his way through college and law school, but even if it were not with the same authority-pleasing swagger for which Kirn pillories himself, it would not matter. At the end of the day, Yoo still wrote the torture memos.

Rather than its selection for authority-pleaser, the primary problem with the meritocracy is its value-neutrality. The system is firm in its conviction that smarts and courtesy should earn dividends in money and/or power, but has nothing to say about the exercise of those fruits. The only imperative is to qualify as “excellent.” When that is defined apart from moral imperatives, as it was for Yoo, the result can be nothing short of tragic.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard University and a staff writer for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter.

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