Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 5 (Self-Mastery)

First off, you have no idea how glad I am that we're halfway through this thing. Here's a quick mid-book review: The Road to Character is boring. The chapters read like lazy undergrad essays, void of interesting writing or insight or any real depth. Thus far, there's been no real attempt to weave these together - Brooks mentions the figures from his previous chapters, but only to contrast them. He has yet to find any common threads that run through these profiles, even though he's ostensibly providing a path to this higher virtue. Oh, and the writing is bracingly dull. The main thing that saves this thing is that it's easily skimmable, and I admit to that freely because I guarantee that the people who read The Road to Character genuinely and in its entirety number in the teens. I certainly can't imagine that anyone enjoyed reading this.

That said, the subject of this chapter is...George Catlett Marshall? Huh, well that seems like we're back in Eisenhower's wheelhouse, and in fact some of the sources for this chapter seem to be about Eisenhower. You don't think he just stumbled across Marshall while reading about Ike and decided to use both to fill out the book? No...that's unfair. What about the virtue on display?

He mastered the aesthetic of discipline, having the correct posture, erect carriage, crisp salute, direct gaze, well-pressed clothing, and the way of carrying the body that is an outward manifestation of inner self-control.

So Eisehower's virtue was moderation and his friend George Marshall's was self-control? Are those really so distinct? And speaking of which, are posture, carriage and "way of carrying the body" really different terms?

I'm being a touch facetious, although I feel like it's fair in this case. From the chapter title and the way it opens, you would think (as I did when I first read this) that we're going to learn about self-control. But it's actually about veneration of institutions. And just to prove that I'm not making that up:

Today, it is unusual to meet someone with an institutional mindset.

Hold on, that sentence structure seems awfully familiar. Let's flip back through this thing:

Today, many of us see life through the metaphor of a journey... (p. 9)
Today, commencement speeches tell graduates to follow their passion... (p. 21) 
Today, students live more or less unsupervised in their dorms. (p. 28)
Today, teachers tend to look for their students' intellectual strengths... (p. 28 again)
Today, community service is sometimes used as a patch... (p. 31)
Today, the word "sin" has lost its power... (p. 53)

Did I mention that David Brooks isn't a very dynamic writer? I'll grant you that this is a venial sin of writing, the kind of tic that a lot of people have. Brooks has even used willful repetition as a motif in the past (see this piece from 2005) so it could be deliberate, although it feels like one of those things that was overlooked in the rewrite cycle. But that's part of the problem - no one noticed, not Brooks or any of the people who worked on it. Most of these chapters already follow a formula - introduction to the topic figure, Brooks' commentary, and the rest of the information on the topic figure. Out of the first four commentary sections, three of them (on pages 21, 53 and 115) open with this same structure. Did no one catch this? Or did no one thing there was anything wrong with it? I'll say it again - in publishing, you have to be a professional to make amateur mistakes.

I wouldn't make such a big deal out of this but for two things. One, after finishing a manuscript I run it through text analysis to make sure that shit like this doesn't happen. Two, this remark (paraphrased from Dorothy L. Sayers) from back on page 25:

...if you serve the work - if you perform each task to its utmost perfection - then you will experience the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and you will end up serving the community more richly than you could have consciously planned.

By comparison, Brooks only writes because it's an easy gig. It's still a viable explanation as to why Brooks hasn't found success all that satisfying.

Anyway, back to the subject:

We live in an age of institutional anxiety, when people are prone to distrust large organizations. This is partly because we've seen the failures of these institutions and partly because in the era of Big Me, we put the individual first.

You can probably guess which "partly" Brooks opts to focus on for the balance of the chapter. Americans (and especially the KTDs) aren't distrustful of massive hidebound monoliths because of the things we've seen with our own eyes, but because we're a pack of selfish bastards who can't stand the idea that we won't be the only one standing on stage getting famous. And he even quotes (well, paraphrases) Tina Brown, because if there's anyone who knows about the value of institutions, it's the woman who just finished running the Newsweek brand into the ground.

He does argue for the value of those institutions by appealing to professional standards. For example:

Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover.

Presumably that's why Brooks hasn't spent all that much time rubbing elbows with the plain folk at the Applebee's salad bar. (Easy joke, not sorry I made it)

Brooks doesn't limit himself to bemoaning the decline of big old organizations or professions. He also moves into an area that in another part of the world is known as "filial piety." Witness:

One of the purest expressions of this attitude is a letter sent home by a Civil War soldier named Sullivan Ballou to his wife on the eve of the first battle of Bull Run, early in the war. Ballou, an orphan, knew the pain of growing up without a father. nonetheless, he wrote to his wife, he was willing to die to pay the debt he owed to his ancestors...

That was suitably dramatic. So what are we to learn from this?

We live in a society that places great emphasis on personal happiness, defined as not being frustrated in the realization of your wants. But old moral traditions do not die. They waft down the centuries and reinspire new people in new conditions.

Now, Brooks is a very old school conservative, the kind of guy who can't go more than a few weeks at a clip without quoting Edmund Burke. The notion that he only recently through his studies discovered the value of tradition is a laffer. These are beliefs he's held for most of his life, I'm sure. Certainly a guy who got his start working for William Buckley wasn't bucking a lot of traditions.

Remember that quote from the Sydney Morning Herald about Brooks mistaking "his own state of mind for the state of the cosmos"? This was what that reviewer was talking about. I don't believe for a second that Brooks went delving into history in search of answers. Every time he opened a biography, he found himself looking into a mirror, finding only those things that confirmed what he already believed. It's why he didn't bother to go any deeper, why he didn't try to suss out any patterns or threads in all these accounts. That was never the point.

I already mentioned that Brooks hasn't changed much in his actual life since starting this journey of improvement, but his beliefs haven't changed all that much, either. His external personality is certainly different - he's less condescending, more brooding - but deep down he's the same center-right stooge he's been for the last decade and a half. He responds to his personal problems by reading and writing and speaking about the need to change and grow, but he's yet to budge from his cozy spot in the center.

To become a better man, Brooks would have to change, and that's hard. So much easier to simply define your own standards for change such that you've already met them.

Next time: We're on the downward slope.

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