Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 4 (Struggle)

Over the last few years, Brooks' writings have taken on heavy themes of spirituality. That's not exactly a surprise - a man of age adrift in a sea of self-doubt often finds God in the depths. And because it's Brooks, it also shouldn't surprise you that this spirituality is very vague and nonspecific. While the Pope of the American Center routinely uses his column to preach about the sacred and the only - often in ways that imply that an atheist couldn't possibly find fulfillment - he has adamantly refuses to discuss his own higher beliefs.

What Brooks does or does not believe really isn't relevant, and I suspect he hasn't figured it out himself - if he's too indecisive to commit to an ideology, then I seriously doubt he's got the gumption to commit to a God. He's occasionally used his column to remark on Jewish history and tradition and some of his most impassioned sermons (like the one before this on sin) have the unmistakable feel of the old school fire-and-brimstone evangelist, but I've noticed distinct notes of Roman Catholicism in his rhetoric. Perhaps the bland mush of his beliefs has acquired some of that heady Catholic flavor from his years working with Ross Douthat, Junior Token Times Conservative.

On a related note, today's sermon is about Dorothy Day and the virtue of suffering. Your excitement is so potent I can sense it over the internet.

When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives. But notice this phenomenon. [Just a reminder that this was edited - Ed.] When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don't usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant.

I feel like we've taken this trip before, don't you?

People who seek this proper response to the their ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of personal happiness. They don't say, "Well, I'm fighting a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up."

And while Brooks waits for another round of kudos for discovering the concept of grief, I'll just note that there are three more pages just like this. Suffering is good. Suffering a growth experience. Suffering teaching humility (the highest of the Brooksian virtues) and it's a lot cheaper than attending Yale. As with so much in The Road to Character, Brooks is so pleased to have found this particular road that he doesn't notice all the footprints that are already there.

Speaking of well trod ground, this chapter contains something that's obligatory in a book written by even the most jelly-limbed of sensible conservative pundits:

The word "counterculture" was used a lot in the late 1960's, but Day was living according to a true counterculture, a culture that stood athwart not only the values of the mainstream culture of the day - the commercialism, the worship of success - but also against the values of the Woodstock counterculture the media was prone ["media were prone" - Ed.] to celebrate - the antinomianism, [Hippies were Calvinists, who knew? - Ed.] the intense focus on the liberated individual and "doing your own thing."

One day all the hippies will be gone, and there will be no one left for conservatives to punch. I often wonder if they have a contingency plan prepared for that day.

Odd political compulsions aside, the message of this chapter isn't all that hard to grasp. Through his patchwork narrative, Brooks gives a classic account of romantic poverty and virtuous suffering:

The Catholic Worker movement was meant to ease the suffering of the poor, but that was not its main purpose or organizing principle. The main idea was to provide a model of what the world would look like if Christians really did lead the lives that the Gospels command and love. It was not only to help the poor, but to address their own brokenness, that people served. "Going to bed at night with the foul smell of unwashed bodies. Lack of privacy," Day wrote in her diary...
...The loneliness, suffering and pain Dorothy Day endured have a sobering effect on anybody who reads her diaries. Does God really call for this much hardship?...But in some sense this is a false impression left by overreliance on her diaries and her own writing. Like many people, Day's mood was darker in her journals than it was in her daily life. She didn't write when happy; she was engaged in the activities that made her happy.

Powerful imagery, to be sure. Now let's look at some very different imagery from a magazine article David Brooks wrote on the $120,000 Four Seasons world trip he took, published the same year as The Road to Character:

I tried but failed to ward off the second bottle of champagne. I was sitting in my room at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, on the phone with a friend. The hotel staff had already brought me chocolates and Turkish delight to welcome me. They’d put bookmarks in the books I’d left on the desk. They’d replaced my bathmat midday because I’d gotten the first one wet. They’d arranged my notes for this article in clean little stacks. There was already one ice-bucketed bottle of champagne on the dining room table when the door chime rang...
...I must confess, other sweet small moments came when I just said what the heck and enjoyed the self-indulgence. The caviar in Russia was really nice. So was the beautiful hotel pool in Morocco, the sweet staff at every stop and the little cubes of Turkish delight. And yes, over the course of the three days at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, I did drink both bottles of champagne.
Of course, we all have a responsibility to reduce inequality in our society. But maybe not every day.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice,
bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,
and many of our people need it
sorely on these accounts."

Okay, this is unfair. Yes, it is a striking juxtaposition between contrary attitudes Brooks expressed in the very same year - or even in the very same month, as you can see in this compare and contrast with his columns. Yes, there is something absurd in seeing expert in humility David Brooks ironically liken himself to Magellan or comment on the fact the not at all fancy people on this trip were mere "single-digit millionaires" at the "lower end of the upper class" or complain about how sad it is at the end of his trip when he's not being pampered anymore, at a time when he's talking up the sublime virtues of a simple life. It would be very, very easy to call Brooks out on his hypocrisy and spend the rest of the post mocking him for his pretention and obliviousness.

I don't think it's that simple, though. First off, that article struck me as Brooks' attempt to do his own version of The Innocents Abroad, the travelogue written by Mark Twain at the dawn of the era of mechanized transportation. The main difference (apart from the massive and blatant disparity in talent between the two men) is that Twain wrote that book less to dwell on idle luxury and more to comment on the opening of the world to the casual traveler. There's not much new to be gleaned on that topic in the 21st century, and Brooks doesn't really try.

"If Magellan had had his own 757 and
a global archipelago of sumptuous
breakfast buffets, his trip would have
been something like this."
More to the point is something I've noted before, on the American upper class and their great love for tales of romantic poverty. Brooks is hardly the first person ever to decide that his comfortable, consumerist life is rather unsatisfying and that there's poetry and nobility in the Other Half, those humble souls sacrificing for their beliefs and earning every little victory through pitched struggle. This love always ends with reading about such  humble souls (preferably from a seat on the veranda with a glass of wine and some petit fours). Each and every one knows that it's a fantasy, that none of them have the fortitude to give up their easy comforts for such a life. That's fine as long as it stays a daydream, but the second that daydream turns into a lecture it becomes a problem. When it becomes a book of lectures, it's a big problem.

The problem here isn't that Brooks is lying, I'm sure he's consciously sincere. No, the main problem, as it often is in this book, is that Brooks is directing all these lectures outwards, as though it were other elites or the KTDs or someone else who was grappling with the emptiness of an unfulfilled life. On a deeper level, the man simply has no clue what he wants. He's too wedded to comfort and the easy road to actually follow any of these romanticized models he cites, which calls into question his authority to give these lectures at all. Brooks is doing his level best to convince me that I have an unfulfilling life and that my problems are philosophical rather than practical. But why should I take life advice from someone who doesn't even know what he wants out of life?

Next time, we get a serious case of deja vu.

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