Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 3 (Self-Conquest)

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
-Dante Alighieri

Today, David Brooks, Pope of the American Center, is going to present a sermon on sin. I can tell that you're all thrilled.

Ostensibly, this chapter is about Dwight Eisenhower, one of Brooks' first heroes since his "awakening." But as with the previous chapter and the next six, that's mere setup for the point Brooks wants to make, a frame for his own world-class prose. Let's sample that prose, shall we?

Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry [Ahem - Ed], no matter how hard we try to reduce behavior to the sort of herd instinct that is captured in big data [AHEM - Ed], no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like "mistake" or "error" or "weakness," the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. [Personal note: 81 words is not too long for a single sentence - Ed]

He goes on like that for four pages, folks. On the plus side, he did remind me that I could stand to rearrange my mental furniture - my subconscious loveseat is getting in the way of the psychological projector and making the whole environment feel terribly repressed.

Would that I could, I would transcribe this entire section because it's just too perfect. Everything that's wrong with Brooks' prose and/or rhetoric is on display here: the repetition, the tautologies dressed up as insight, the line-to-line inconsistency, the mixed/inappropriate metaphors, the repetition. "Sin is baked into our nature and is handed down through the generations," so I guess sins are like recipe cards. "To be aware of sin is to feel intense sympathy toward others who sin," which is unfortunate because on the facing page - hell, the facing paragraph - we learn that an "unchecked problem with sympathy" is itself a sin in the same category as substance abuse. Sins are wild beasts; sins are stains; sins are debts; sins are acts of treason. And you'll be pleased to know that we hear a lot more about that mental furniture. All in four pages.

The virtue we're supposed to learn here is moderation, which is odd given the profile of Ike that appears in the book. Brooks depicts Eisenhower as a persistent discipline problem, a heavy smoker, a heavy drinker, an adulterer (which is probably not true - hey, that's what happens when you don't use many sources), a poor thinker, cold toward all his loved ones and insincere in his faith (and I'd recommend One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse for a more in-depth look at Eisenhower as our first ostentatiously religious presidential candidate). At times it turns into an outright hatchet job. Normally I'd think that this was the author trying to be fair and level and present an accurate picture, but I don't think Brooks possesses that much self-awareness. Given his tendency to view negative traits as positive ones (such as claiming that Eisenhower played dumb to his advantage and then casting this as humility rather than deception), he might not have realized how bad he made Eisenhower look. He may want to make amends before his next noble savages heart-of-America safari, because they don't take kindly to badmouthing Ike in these parts. Seriously, be nice to Ike, he killed fascists to save your ass.

Brooks does eventually get around to praising Eisenhower for possessing humility, the most noble of the Brooksian virtues. That, in turn, becomes a lead-in for a section that's even more amazing than the one on sin. Are you ready?

Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue. It is important to start by saying what it is not. Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Neither is moderation bland equanimity.

Um, Dave? Are you sure you want to commit to a statement like that in light of your ongoing commitment to Both Siderism? Maybe this makes your continued insistence that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are basically the same candidate seem a touch inconsistent? Care to comment on all of these things you've written in the year since this book was published? Dave? Remember what we said about lacking self-awareness?

Before you get too invested in tearing Brooks a new one over this, I would remind you that the Iron Rule of the Beltway is still very much in effect, so we're to forget all about this by the time we turn the page:

If you think all your personal qualities can be brought together into simple harmony, you don't need to hold back, you can just go whole hog for self-actualization and growth. If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either.

So when I said that having opinions is the cardinal sin of the Beltway, you thought I was joking, didn't you? Well, that's all right - I, too, thought I was joking.

The thing about David Brooks is that he's a coward. Not a coward in the conventional sense (although probably that, too), but an intellectual coward. He's afraid of holding any opinions for fear that he might be wrong or might be judged. I used to think that, like his Very Serious brethren, this was just a dodge - The Powers That Be don't like for their messengers to have any original thoughts. The more I read into The Road to Character, though, the more it seems like Brooks is genuinely committed to having no commitments.

I can think of no better way to demonstrate this than with a visit to No Labels, the mushy middle political organization that represents no one and yet holds a paradoxical amount of influence in Congress. I discovered these idiots through Brooks, who is a big fan - he even spoke at their launch. And earlier this year, No Labels did their part in rendering satire obsolete when they launched a Policy Playbook that contained only those recommendations that received a minimum level of support in a poll they commissioned. I'm not saying that these policies are bad, but think of what it means to refuse to take a definite stand on any issue until it's been thoroughly focus tested.

How does one so weak-willed even get involved in something as hard-edged as American politics? This isn't a country that's ever sought the center. This is a country that demanded liberty or death, that dissolved those political bands that connected it to a tyrant unfit to rule a free people, that could not exist half-slave and half-free, that called for a united effort to triumph over the forces of savagery and barbarism.

I may not know why Brooks got involved in politics, but I know why he stays because he spoke about it in an interview back in 2014 (i.e. when he was researching/writing this book): it's easy work and no one expects much from him. Again, I'm shocked he doesn't find it all that fulfilling.

Brooks' main problem is not that he's shallow, it's that he's weak. He mistakes ambivalence for prudence and indecisiveness for wisdom. And that he's trying to make some spiritual statement about is especially remarkable.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

All right, I'm not sure I can ever top this, but if you tune in next time, we can watch Brooks talk about religion without talking about religion.


  1. After reading McArdle for years, I was able to see through the multiple layers of pretense and get to her essence: she's greedy. She wants, wants, wants, and then wants some more. She wants it all, and then she wants your portion as well.

    It might be that David Brooks' essence is his laziness, although his blind worship of power and authority doesn't help.

    1. Obedience to authority is definitely a factor, explicitly so in later chapters. The more I read, the more clear it becomes that Brooks is trying to justify the old-school Burkean conservatism that he's probably always held, but had to downplay during the neocon-dominated Bush years in order to advance his career.

  2. He chose luxury and lies over hard work and reality. He worships the elite. He is dedicated to enforcing their norms.

    In one way, he is much like McArdle. Brooks started out middle class and moved up to wealthy, it appears. They both have an exaggerated idea of the excellence of the elite. (Maybe Douthat too?) It makes sense that they would feel their positions in the upper classes are precarious, and a combination of being useful and utter servility would protect their place.