Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 2 (The Summoned Self)

And thus we begin the meaty center of The Road to Character, which is basically a series of book reports strung together. Each chapter consists of a summary of the life of some significant figure along with Brooks' analysis of what we can learn from him or her, boiled down to some virtue easily described in a chapter title.

There's one thing that we really should get out of the way: Brooks has developed a bit of a plagiarism problem as of late. It crops up any time he pages through a recent bestseller and turns his column over to an impromptu review - he just can't help nicking sentences or even whole paragraphs. I mention this because he's already discussed some of these figures in his column and had no problems borrowing from other people's work then. I'm really not in a position to spot potential plagiarism, but given that he got away with this in the New York Times - a publication that employs people to stop bullshit like this - there's a chance that he borrowed for The Road to Character as well.

At least the book has citations, and the endnotes are amazing. Here's a reference page for Chapter 2 on Frances Perkins. Study this photo for a second and see if you can't spot a pattern in these cites. It's subtle, so take all the time you need - I'll be waiting below the image.

The cites for every chapter look like this. They all rest heavily on two or three sources, each of which is cited a dozen times or more to give the impression that this thing was thoroughly researched. What we're really looking at is a series of eight digests - a thousand pages of someone else's work condensed into a thirty page squib. Just the thing for the kind of person who doesn't like biographies, but has friends who do and wants to keep up with them at parties.

I've read through a few chapters by now, and I've decided that it may not matter if what Brooks has done meets either the academic or common definitions of plagiarism. In his own words or not, it's unoriginal and it's dull. Brooks is not a dynamic writer and shows little interest in going deeper than the authors whose works he's cribbing from. His entire contribution to each chapter consists of six or seven pages describing what he thinks you should learn from this story. As that's really all he's added to these chapters, those parts will be my focus.

So what exactly are we to learn from Frances Perkins, early 20th-century social activist? Brooks uses her to expound on the concept of "calling" and "vocation" - in sum, the idea that one's fate is and must be shaped by circumstance. Perkins probably never would have gotten involved in serious labor disputes if it wasn't for the gruesome outrage that was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, after all. But how does this translate into advice? One can't really carve a path around something that, by nature, is unpredictable, so what's the actual takeaway? Naturally, that begins with a lecture:

Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life. The assumption behind these clichés is that when you are figuring out how to lead your life, the most important answers are found deep inside yourself. When you are young and just setting out into adulthood, you should, by this way of thinking, sit down and take some time to discover yourself, to define what is really important to you, what your priorities are, what arouses your deepest passions.

Let's ignore for the moment that, earlier, Brooks described his ideal Adam II as being inwardly focused and shallow Adam I as directed outward. We'll have plenty of time to analyze Brooks' lazy, sloppy writing later, I'm sure.

The problem, of course, is the KTDs, along with their parents and teachers. Those kids just aren't being taught the right way, which is...what, exactly? Later in the chapter, we get a hint:

Today, community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life...Many people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings, but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions.

Well, that clears that up.

While Brooks is characteristically vague, I can certainly see the image forming in the minds of his intended audience. It is a typical young person, which is to say typical according to Brooks' formulation. She moves absently through life, lost on the other side of a screen, the suffering that surrounds her being only so much background noise as she pursues a lust for cheap fame. Her path was set long in advance, carefully structured to minimize suffering, to avoid any genuine strife or anything that might challenge her to deviate from that preset route. And as she nears the terminus of this spiritually dead road, she pursues some idle charity work, not out of any desire to help those that she ignored on her trek to world success, but to paper over the unformed void that lies within. She has become so lost to narcissism that she only views service - to use the words of the author - as a means to "use [her] beautiful self to help out those less fortunate."

But are the KTDs really that oblivious? The notion that the young people are disengaged from everything is a truism these days, and like most similar beliefs it is somewhat exaggerated. For example, while many of the KTDs are relatively disengaged from politics, there are still plenty of them who are willing to participate in smaller-scale social activism on a wide range of issues. Or am I to believe that all these KTDs planned to protest against police brutality or sexual violence?

The real problem with these kids is that they aren't moving the David Brooks way. Elsewhere, he's mocked youth activism as a product of anxiety rather than a sincere desire for change and suggested that the KTDs would calm down if the universities would follow his advice and teach the value of vocation. The real problem isn't injustice or inequity, it's "the frenetic pace of competition." I'm so glad we're avoiding clichés.

The most interesting part about this chapter is what Brooks inadvertently gives away about himself:

By this way of thinking, life can be organized like a business plan. First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions. Then you set goals and come up with some metrics to organize your progress toward those goals. Then you map out a strategy to achieve your purpose...

...It's a method that begins with the self and ends with the self, that begins with self-investigation and ends in self-fulfillment. [Hat tip to Tom Levenson for noting Brooks' love of pointless repetition - Ed.] This is life determined by a series of individual choices. But Frances Perkins found her purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you don't ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me?

It's interesting that Brooks sees a dichotomy between success and service. Apparently, you can either pursue your dreams using your skills and passions, or you can make the world a better place, but both ain't happening. Consider that in light of Brooks, who is an unquestioned success in his own profession and miserable for it. Brooks seems to assume that this means that success never makes anyone truly fulfilled, but maybe that has more to do with how Brooks earned that success. He certainly didn't struggle or suffer for his profession - his ascent into the journalistic elite started very early in his career because he knew William Buckley. Once he took that cushy internship at the National Review, he never had to fight for anything again. Brooks did not earn his success, it was bestowed upon him, and I'm not surprised that this isn't terribly fulfilling. Nothing that easy ever is. Unfortunately, Brooks isn't self-aware enough to recognize this as a possibility.

And speaking of not being self-aware: Next time, Brooks uses a biography of President Eisenhower as a cover to justify his entire spineless career. Stay tuned.


  1. Brooks must have decided early to take the easy way out. He only lasted one year as crime reporter before fleeing for National Review. He's had a very successful career but he has a limited mind and his work is mediocre and won't outlast him.

    But we've seen him talk repeatedly about how certain people have developed wisdom and cultured enlightenment through serious application in important careers, and how they should be employed to advise the lesser elite people. By telling the Youth Of Today to work for a pittance, he's not being a hypocrite, he's putting his growth and hard word to use!

    1. I dug up a great interview Brooks gave two years ago in which he admitted that he's only stayed at the Times because it's an easy gig, so he's actually surprisingly honest about his weak commitment. As always, I have to chalk that up to a lack of self-awareness, as in the same interview he bemoans the fact that so many people hate him but never considers why that might be.

  2. This series is great. Thank you!

  3. I'm enjoying this so much. Thanks driftglass.