Monday, August 29, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 6 (Dignity)

Chapter 6 is the civil rights chapter, which is to say that it's the black chapter. Yes, here's that "diverse set" that Brooks promised back in the introduction. It's mostly about Bayard Rustin, but it starts with A. Philip Randolph and ends with Martin Luther King. These are three connected figures, but it's odd that Brooks would try to cram so many people into one chapter. Judging by the citations at the end of the book, it might have been because he could only find one source apiece on these three men (because running down two sources on MLK would have been a terrible strain), so combining them was the only way he could reach even its comparatively short length (about five pages shorter than most).

Then again, maybe he didn't quite know what he was saying in this chapter. Perhaps because of the strain of trying to work in three stories, the format's a little strained here, and it's not really clear what virtue Brooks is trying to demonstrate here. I don't care what the chapter title says, it ain't dignity. Perhaps, dear reader, we can figure it out together.

Although the chapter starts out with Randolph, it's clear that most of this thing is about Rustin and the largest share of the pages are set aside for his life and times, and apparently the most important thing to know is that Rustin was gay gay gay. Of the eight pages specifically devoted to Rustin's history, four of them concern his sex life. It's funny that Brooks would be so obsessed with this, as Very Serious People like him are usually left-of-center on social matters like LGBT issues. A little cursory research suggests that Brooks defended gay marriage back in 2003 at a time when virtually no conservatives were willing to do that, not even the moderates.

So why does Brooks now think that I need to know about how many men Rustin fellated in prison? No other chapter is nearly as explicit, not even the next chapter which concerns romantic love. Is it important? Somewhat, insofar as her narrative concerns recovery from scandal, but there was no vital need to go into detail. Seriously, if he was unduly rough when talking about Eisenhower, then this was just plain brutal.

But enough of that, there's a point in here somewhere. I think it starts somewhere around here, on page 145:

At first, the major civil rights organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP were skeptical or completely hostile. They did not want to offend legislators or members of the administration...In addition, there had long been a basic difference of outlook within the civil rights movements that involved not just a debate about strategy but also a deep difference of opinion about morality and human nature.
So this chapter displays not so much a virtue as a philosophy. What's more, it's a philosophy that Brooks has touched upon previously, one that sounds an awful lot like the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity:
Man is a sinner at the core of his being. He will rationalize the injustices that benefit him. He will not give up his privileges even if you can persuade him they are unjust. Even people on the righteous side of a cause can be corrupted by their own righteousness, can turn a selfless movement into an instrument to serve their own vanity. They can be corrupted by whatever power they attain and corrupted by their own powerlessness.
Everybody sing! Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face...

So Brooks' very cheery point is that people are swine by nature and you have to make them to do the right thing because they'll disappoint you otherwise. Oh, did I say that was Brooks' idea? Well, about that. He heavily cites an academic source called A Stone of Hope in this section, and this is a point where a compare and contrast are very interesting. Here's the section of A Stone of Hope that Brooks cites, and here's the relevant section of The Road to Character. You may notice a few similarities here that run deeper than the basic ideas. For example, here's the source:

Evil was "rampant" in the universe: "Only the superficial optimist who refuses to face the realities of life fails to see this patent fact."

And Brooks:

Evil, King declared, is "rampant" in the universe. "Only the superficial optimist who refuses to face the realities of life fails to see this patent fact."

Brooks seems to really, really like the way other people phrase things. Oh, but he also enjoys cutting quotes short and putting his own spin on them. Brooks:

They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely b education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity. It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. As Rustin put it, American blacks look "upon the middle class idea of long term educational and cultural changes with fear and mistrust."

And the full quote from the source:

The average Negro has largely lost faith in middle-class whites. In his hour of need he seeks not "talk" but dynamic action. He looks upon the middle-class idea of long-term educational and cultural changes with fear and mistrust.

It was more a statement of tactics (Rustin being a fan of nonviolent action) than one of philosophy. Also he said it in 1942, not in the 60s like Brooks implies, but eh, details.

That Brooks is lazy shouldn't come as a shock by this point, but the fact that he's dealing with MLK really highlights the foibles in limited sourcing. Brooks' entire case rests in its entirety on a single source - there's nothing else at all cited in this section. Again, that's pretty remarkable given how easily one can track down other things the man said. For example, King's 1967 "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech, which concerned the progress and challenges of the civil rights movement and concluded with the famous "arc of the moral universe" quote, hardly seems as fatalistic and grim as Brooks suggests. But there I go, denying that every human being is a vile creature in dire need of guidance from David Brooks.

This was a brief post, but it was short for two reasons. One, there wasn't a lot of meat on this particular bone. And two, the next chapter was clearly written by an entity from beyond the stars and I'm eager to get to it.


  1. Brooks' values are based on his needs. People are immoral because if they are immoral, they should be controlled for their own good. If those moral actions put millions in his pockets, so much the better.

    1. Brooks runs with that pseudo-aristocratic crowd who consider themselves above concerns as vulgar as money. We'll see that on display much later in the series, when Brooks considers employment as an issue of status vs. service, never even considering that this is not what most people consider when they work.

      Then again, he also took a $120,000 trip on his employer's dime, so clearly he's not entirely above the allure of filthy lucre.