Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 10 (The Big Me) Part III

Well, we did it. We're at the end of...The Road to Character. Our last big hurrah before leaving this one behind is something that David Brooks sincerely calls "The Humility Code." I've been waiting for this for hundreds of pages, to analyze Brooks' big takeaway, his last piece of advice for the KTDs and everyone else who isn't David Brooks. Which is why the Code ended up being such a terrible disappointment. It's hardly a "code," more a restatement of the same bullshit that we've been sifting through for 9.5 chapters. Given Brooks' dedication to ambiguity, I'm not sure why I'm surprised. I guess the long list under that magnificent heading raised my hopes for something spectacularly awful. Instead, we're stuck with a list of fairly safe, quasi-religious moral claims.

But we're here, so let's dig in. I've partially transcribed every entry, but the real ones are a lot longer than this, mostly due to the same repetition that's characterized the rest of the book.

1. We don't live for happiness, we live for holiness...All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue.

Something that the filthy Youngs seem to understand, but let's pretend they don't so that we can feel superior. Note the pseudo-religious language on display - there's a lot more coming.

2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence.

Remember that you are swine, and only David Brooks can lead you out of filth.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin.

Quote on loan from the Holy Bible. I knew there was a source he hadn't poached yet.

4. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.

I was kidding when I said this before, but Brooks has ruined yet another caricature by turning into it.

5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature.

It goes on like this for close to half a page. You're welcome for not showing you the whole thing.

6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies.

Spoken like someone who's never had a cause he really, truly believed in.

7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.

Only heathens like Paul Krugman think that character has any connection to what you do or how you treat people. A true thought leader knows that you determine your character by your use of words like "sin" and "discipline."

8. The things that lead us astray are short term - lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term - courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.

So avoid sin and you're fine. Except you can't, because...

9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside - from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.

Remember, you are still swine and need something to save your soul, like David Brooks is saved by his commitment to journalistic excellence. Why are you laughing?

10. We are ultimately saved by grace.

You know who's missing from this? Calvin. There's a big Calvin-shaped hole in this book. I guess that kind of overt religious call-out would distract from the plausibly deniable faux-spiritualism running throughout the narrative.

11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly.

Instagram kills, kids.

12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We are generally not capable of understanding the complex web of causes that drive events.

At least when McArdle argued that no one can know anything, she was straightforward about it (seriously, "epistemological modesty"?).

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.

For you lowly types who have to work for a living, I guess you'll just have to live with being shallow.

14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it...he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic.

I have no idea what Brooks is talking about here.

15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

Which is why you should become rich and famous first and then write about your struggles. To paraphrase Machiavelli, it's better to look humble than to be humble.

This book does have something of a conclusion, but if you've been reading thus far it's an imminently predicable one:

Even within the tradition of moral realism, there are many differences of temperament, technique, tactics, and taste. Two people who both subscribe to the "crooked timber" view may approach specific questions in different ways. Should you stay in your suffering or move on from it as soon as possible? Should you keep a journal to maximize self-awareness, or does that just lead to paralyzing self-consciousness and self-indulgence? Should you be reticent or expressive? Should you take control of your own life or surrender it to God's grace?

Should you actually change your life, or should you continue to rake in large sums of money and bask in adulation and prestige even as you criticize others for trying to achieve some small measure of the same? Should you take pride in your work, or should you cannibalize your own pseudo-academic philosophizing, knowing that your employer would accept it? Should you write a book about character that has a conclusion, or just let it peter out into the usual indistinct mush? Should you try, or should you fake it?

Next time: My conclusion.


  1. Boy, poor DFB appears to be terribly troubled by temptation.Generally you can tell what is in people's heads by what they deplore. Projection, anyone.

    1. Ultimately, Brooks loves comfort and adulation more than he hates sin and shallowness. He probably has a lot of self-hatred, just not enough to want to actually change his life.

  2. I've really enjoyed this. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Much obliged. And remember, if any of you out there have a recommendation for an awful book that you've avoided reading, leave a comment and I'll consider mounting it on the next tray.

  3. "We don't live for happiness, we live for holiness..."
    There is an explicit connection between obedience and holiness in authoritarianism.

    "We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence."
    Conservatives often say that the main difference between them and liberals is that liberals think people are basically good and conservatives think people are basically bad. This means conservatives have to protect naïve liberals from themselves and the other bad people out there, and that we all must constantly be on guard from committing sinful acts.

    We know damn well that most of us aren't born with the desire to rape, kill, or commit other major offenses. But it's not easy to break down a child and remake him in your pattern. You have to back up your demands for obedience with some heavy ammunition. So authoritarian children are told they are bad and wicked when they disobey, that if they really loved their parents they'd obey, that God can send them to Hell if they disobey their parents.

    Then Brooks says, yes, we're evil but we're also good, thanks to God's grace. This is a sop to the obvious. But people who pretend that they are good and not good/evil are proud and need to learn humility, which David Brooks will be happy to teach them for a large fee.

    "9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside - from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars."

    People need authority and an authoritarian system to tell them what to think, do, and feel. People think they are able to reason, make decisions, and live moral lives based on self-knowledge, self-esteem, and the conscious choice to be good by doing good---but they're wrong! That is why you must have a vocation; it's an outside source of purpose.

    Thanks so much for doing this; I enjoyed very much too.

    1. Thanks, it was a hell of a ride. I learned things about the Beltway that were weird and disturbing, but also explained a lot. The Road to Character contains some overtly authoritarian positions, with its arguments for unquestioningly embracing institutions and traditions and rejecting all forms of individualism. But with the elitist overtones it's a more traditionalist form, as opposed to the coarse populist type that's currently giving Brooks the vapors

      I'm considering doing a quick follow-up with some of Brooks' older works. What Brooks did with The Road to Character is relitigate Bobos in Paradise, his first book, and a brief compare and contrast might be interesting. Also I can show off the awful jokes that made his career.

  4. That *would* be interesting.

    It's so strange to see the right criticize Trump for being authoritarian when their entire worldview is based on an authoritarian hierarchy. They ignore the differences between authoritarian leaders and followers, misuse the term populist, and generally seem to understand very little about power.

  5. 14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it...he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic.

    I have no idea what Brooks is talking about here.

    I would suggest that Brooks is saying that a good leader appeals to the greedy, self-interested side of people ("the grain of human nature") and a bad leader appeals to lofty, heroic goals like materially caring for one's neighbors and creating a society primarily concerned with meeting its citizens' needs. You know, like capitalism is inherently good and sociamalism is very, very bad, 'cuz sociamalism isn't humble and modest and doesn't treat everyone as bathed in sin.

    Say what you will, for all his talk of Dorothy Day and Frances Perkins, Brooks knows which side of his crumpet the butter is on.

    1. I ran back to the library to look this section up, and I think I get it now. It threw me because I didn't remember Brooks talking about leadership at all, but this chunk is right out of the book. Here's the rest of it (if for no other reason than to let you see how long these things are in their entirety):

      As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests. The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be a trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understand that in politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.

      The language is the same as his defense of spineless equivocation and Both Siderism from back in Chapter 3. To Brooks, the best leaders are the ones who never make difficult or bold choices, but rather maintain the status quo while nudging things in the right direction.

      In other words: "Look Frances, we know things are bad for the workers, but there are competing interests at play, and the lows will be very low if we change things too quickly. How about we get the factory owners to promise to think about safety issues, and then we can revisit this whole 'weekend' thing in another decade or two. Fair?"