Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 1 (The Shift)

I've discovered that without a rigorous focus on the Adam II side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve.

-David Brooks

On its surface, The Road to Character is a personal journey, a meditation on personal faults a la St. Augustine. That's certainly what Brooks wants you to take away. However, it doesn't take long to notice that most of the book is outwardly directed, with Brooks taking far more interest in the moral flaws of other than he does in his own or those of his circle. Specifically, a lot of the narrative takes the form of lectures directed at the Kids These Days (or KTDs, for brevity). Looking out at the under 30 crowd, Brooks sees future generations destroyed by rampant self-absorption, constantly falling short of the moral clarity of the Good Old Days.

All of this stems from what has to be Brooks' favorite statistic of all time. Here's how it appears in my edition of The Road to Character:

For example, in 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn't 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.

This is not the first time we've heard about this Gallup poll. He cited it in The Social Animal, his factually challenged and narratively deficient novel, and he's cited it in at least one of his Aspen Ideas speeches. Other people have used it, too, enough that this was the main takeaway from The Road to Character.

It's certainly a bracing statistic, though. Close your eyes and you can visualize the spiritual rot as it spreads with terrifying quickness through the youth. You can hear Kennedy's call - "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" - fading beneath the chorus of young voices calling out "Me! Me! Look at me!"

A disturbing image, to be sure. One problem, though: Every single part of that statistic is false. That Gallup poll was not conducted by Gallup, neither of the two initial studies were in 1950, the subsequent study was in 1989 (and Brooks gave a different year for the latter date every time he's cited this "fact"), the subjects weren't high school seniors and they were actually very different groups of students. Oh, and the actual authors of the study disagree with Brooks' conclusion, noting that the question he mentioned was from a panel of questions on "Ego Inflation," that he cherry-picked the one that showed a significant increase (likely due to the subjects interpreting it differently), and that on a whole the Ego Inflation did not go up anywhere close to 70 points.

But other than that, he was accurate, demonstrating the commitment to professionalism that we Plebian bloggers and self-published barbarians will never possess. And as Kevin Drum might say, we all know it's true - does it matter if he was dead wrong? Grading on the curve, indeed.

I highly recommend reading that article behind that link, and not just because the author did a lot of heavy lifting for me, debunking not just this "fact" but another one, in which Brooks claims that half of the KTDs prioritize fame above all else (Reality: The question was about what they thought their peers valued). It's also because it's a fascinating companion piece to the infamous Sasha Issenberg piece on Brooks' "One Nation, Slightly Divided." Both feature an author who greatly respects Brooks and is genuinely disappointed when he discovers how sloppy and dishonest Brooks really is.

But enough about that, there's more to this chapter than weeping over the plight of the KTDs. Specifically, that's half of it - the other half, in what will become a theme, is Brooks harkening back to a Golden Age when everything was swell and people knew how to act and think. And our introduction to this age of quiet dignity was via his local NPR station and their rebroadcast of an episode of Command Performance, an Armed Forces Radio variety show produced during World War II - and specifically the last one they ever did, right after V-J Day:

...the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility...The mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of "Ave Maria"...The actor Burgess Meredith read a passage written by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent.

You can listen to the broadcast here, and the page also includes a complete rundown of who performed on that show. Brooks isn't lying about some of the solemnity in the examples he picked, but then again he picked out four examples in a show that ran for more than an hour and a half and featured dozens of musicians, vocalists, comedians and speakers. It wasn't exactly the extended funeral march for the fallen that Brooks suggests. Yes, you'll hear prayers and a rather touching rendition of a fallen war correspondent's hopes for the future, but you'll also hear Jimmy Durante swapping corny jokes with Bette Davis and Lucille Ball sighing throatily for the enjoyment of a lot of sailors.

I bring this up because it's going to become a leitmotif in the book - Brooks presenting history in a way that's simplified and very romanticized. Oh yes, Brooks does admit - eventually - that this was no Golden Age, especially not for women, blacks or Jews. But that's quickly set aside so that Brooks can wax poetic about the "moral ecology" of the age. I might ask (as would, I imagine, many of the KTDs) what kind of morality could exist in a culture that so readily accepted both casual and systemic bigotry, but then I'm missing the point by trying to stake out a specific code. You see, the other leitmotif is that Brooks' morality has a nebulous, nonspecific nature. It's like his politics in that regard.

I could deliver my own thoughts on that featureless "moral ecology", and I imagine I will as we proceed through the book report portion of this book. For now, I'll restrict myself to commentary on my favorite passage in this chapter. The balance of Chapter 1 concerns humility and how it is achieved. Going by the example Brooks has given us, one becomes humble by reading/skimming biographies and dropping names at Yale. But there are other paths:

I have a friend who spends a few moments in bed at night reviewing the mistakes of his day. His central sin, from which many of his other sins branch out, is a certain hardness of heart...Sometimes he is not fully present for people who are asking his advice or revealing some vulnerability. Sometimes he is more interested in making a good impression than in listening to other people in depth. Maybe he spent more time at a meeting thinking about how he might seem impressive than about what others were actually saying.

He doesn't always pay careful attention at meetings? Wow, that's a serious personal indictment, all right.

I can forgive Brooks for picking a pretty beige example of "sin" - real life conversion stories are seldom as colorful as the ones we get in fiction. But really I'm struck by the vagueness - "a certain hardness of heart." When one admits to a specific failing, one is in a position to take specific steps to improve it. But how do you improve on something so ambiguous?

Each night, he catalogs the errors. He tallies his recurring core sins and the other mistakes that might have branched off from them. Then he develops strategies for how he might do better tomorrow...We all have a moral responsibility to be more moral every day, and he will struggle to inch ahead each day in this most important sphere.

On first brush, this practice - going over every fiddly little error you made, every single day - struck me as unhealthy. A fixation on minor personal faults can very quickly spiral into self-hatred, especially if you're running them on a loop through your head every night. But on closer examination, it's clear that this person (assuming that it's not Brooks himself) is really taking some very mild steps toward self-correction. To go along with his vague sins, he's given himself equally vague fixes, like "pause more" and "put care above prestige." You know what happens when you try to follow such general directions? Nothing. You do nothing, because there is nothing to do.

And that's why I don't think Brooks is fully sincere about this awakening. I don't think he's lying so much as his approach is extremely shallow. Any sort of genuine awakening (religious or otherwise) always brings with it an impetus to change, and the most inspirational stories always involve big changes in both perception and lifestyle. The criminal who gave up the life to help others find a way out, the executive who gave up the seven-figure job for a charitable pursuits - that's what we want to hear. No one wants to hear about a somewhat hard-hearted person who decided to listen more.

Brooks has been working on this "awakening" for a few years now. How has he changed his life? He hasn't given up the high-prestige NYT column or the frequent television appearances, I know that much. He has shifted from lecturing people on, as Charlie Pierce would say, fking on their sofas without his permission to lecturing them about being selfish and shallow in general. But that's about it. He may well have made changes to his personal life but they're not big enough to be visible from the outside.

Brooks, like his possibly fictitious friend, has found a way to get credit for penitence and humility without having to confess to anything all that damning or change his wicked ways. It's a very safe middle ground, and Brooks is all about the safe middle. It's the easiest way to achieve his goal without all that heavy lifting. He's envisioned this ideal man - selfless, morally astute, possessing of true wisdom and unbound by worldly fetters. More than anything else, Brooks wants to be this man. He just doesn't want to become this man. With David Brooks, sacrifice is always for someone else.

One more general point before we exit. Throughout this series, I plan on using examples from Brooks' work outside of the book to demonstrate inconsistencies and weaknesses in his beliefs. However, while I do have some doubts about his sincerity, good faith requires that I assume that any contradictions between his current beliefs and his previous beliefs are the result of a legitimate change in attitude. So I've chosen 2012 as my cutoff date, as this seems to be the point where he turned mopey and began formulating this new philosophy of his. Anything he wrote or said before that is off limits; after that it's fair game, and the closer to the publication date, the more fair it is. [Future me: I broke this rule in the final breakdown but kept it through the review of the book proper]

Note that this applies only to his arguments. As far as his prose is concerned, I'm granting myself permission to grab examples from anywhere in his career, as his writing never really got any better (and in many ways it's grown much worse in recent years).

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