Monday, September 5, 2016

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

Before we begin what's going to be an extended series of posts on David Brooks' conclusion, I'd like to take a moment to talk about "priming." It's a psychological term referring to the way in which subtle cues can be used to adjusts how a person makes decisions or perceives a situation. When deliberate, priming is an experimental factor being studied; when inadvertent, it's noise that can distort the findings of a survey. And of course, it can also be used by a layman as a form of rhetoric. It's damn effective, too - even if you spot it or know it's coming in advance, it can still be very effective.

There's a great example of this in The Road to Character. Brooks has already been priming the reader for over 200 pages to think of the world in terms of a glorious fallen past and a degenerate hollow present, but now that we're transitioning back into the present he wants to prime us for that in particular. Here's how he does that:

In January 1969, two great quarterbacks faced each other from opposite sidelines in Super Bowl III. Both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath were raised in the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. But they had grown up a decade apart and lived in different moral cultures...
...[Unitas] was unflamboyant and understated. "I always figured being a little dull was part of being a pro. Win or lose, I never walked off a football field without first thinking of something boring to say to [the press], he would say later...
...Joe Namath was the flamboyant star, with white shoes and flowing hair, brashly guaranteeing victory. Broadway Joe was outrageously entertaining and fun to be around. He made himself the center of attention, a spectacle off the field as much as on it, with $5,000 fur coats, long sideburns, and playboy manners...

There are around four pages of this. Read just those passages carefully - I'll wait.

Now, read this analysis from deeper in the chapter of the Dr. Seuss classic Oh, the Places You'll Go!:

The book is about a boy who is reminded that he has all these amazing talents and gifts, and ultimate freedom to choose his life: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose." The boy is reminded that his life is about fulfilling his own desires. "You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."

Leave aside for a second that this is bullshit, that anyone even passingly familiar with that book knows that it's primarily about confronting the world and one's personal fears of being out there rather than how awesome you are. And while we're at it, ignore the bullshit in the previous passages, suggesting that Unitas and Namath - born in the same general period - somehow represent different "moral ecologies" rather than simply different personalities. Set all of that aside...

...Did Brooks start to make sense, even for a second? Did it seem like he was really on to something?

Courtesy of My Charade, CC-BY
It's a hell of a trick. A lot of this chapter seems to be criticism of the old cliché "Be yourself." It's the kind of thing we tell to kids to help them resist peer pressure or endure bullying or take chances they wouldn't otherwise. But properly primed, it's not hard to see this message the David Brooks way, as an invocation of narcissism and selfishness. To use his words, this is the belief that "there is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong." It suddenly seems so negative, doesn't it?

We touched briefly on this during the analysis of The Upside of Down and I ultimately concluded that McArdle was probably doing that by accident, even though with her scattershot approach she really needed it. Brooks, by contrast, is doing this on purpose, no question. He's much more subtle and skillful and the placement really feels deliberate. But I'm not sure why he feels a need to manipulate the reader like this. Unlike McArdle, Brooks knows his audience - middle age upper-class elites who are ready and eager to dump on the young for being young. He didn't need to prime them to look down on the KTDs, so why bother?

Moving beyond the priming, Brooks opens this chapter with something that, at first blush, seems remarkable. David Brooks, who loves to punch hippies, seems like he's ready to go cold turkey:

But then moral realism collapsed. Its vocabulary and ways of thinking were forgotten or shoved off into the margins of society. Realism and romanticism slipped out of balance. A moral vocabulary was lost, [You just said that, Dave - Ed.] and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls. This shift did not happen during the 1960s and 1970s, though that period was a great romantic flowering. It happened earlier, in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Of course, that's not what's happening at all. This is a lead into Brooks complaining about Benjamin Spock and Norman Vincent Peale and Betty Friedan - the whole paleoconservative enemies list. Again, it's funny how Brooks' intensive study into the characters of these Great Men led him to conclusions that he's held for most of his life. It's sort of a small-scale variant on the phenomenon of self projection as God. Wherever the master of humility looks, he sees himself staring back.

We then move on to Brooks' complaints about the meritocracy. Like most people who are successful, Brooks assumes that the meritocracy is something that actually exists, fully oblivious to the fact that he, himself, got his entire career via connections. But never mind that, what's so wrong with succeeding on your own merits?

The meritocracy liberates enormous energies, and ranks people in ways good and bad. But it also has a subtle effect on character, culture, and values. Any hypercompetitive system built upon merit is going to encourage people to think a lot about themselves and the cultivation of their own skills...Subtly, softly, but pervasively, this system instills a certain utilitarian calculus in us all. The meritocracy subtly encourages an instrumental ethos in which each occasion - a party, a dinner - and each acquaintance becomes an opportunity to advance your status and professional life project.

This is something Brooks has been driving at since the start with all that "Adam I and Adam II" stuff. Brooks views these values not merely as dichotomous, but as mutually exclusive. Being materially successful erodes your ability to feel love for another person, and vice versa.

Some of you may find this hard to believe. Brooks has spent the last fifteen years of his life - not to mention a good portion of this book - seeking the middle ground and carving it out where it didn't exist. Surely the Pope of the American Center wouldn't say something like this and mean it? Well...

The meaning of the word "character" changes. It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely...
The shrewd animal has streamlined his inner humanity to make his ascent more aerodynamic...Things once done in a poetic frame of mind, such as going to college, meeting a potential lover, or bonding with an employer, are now done in a more professional frame of mind Is this person, opportunity, or experience of use to me? There just isn't time to get carried away by love and passion.

...I couldn't tell you if he means it, but he said that and more. In Brooks' world, there is no such thing as a well-rounded person. You're either going to spend your life pushing aside people who get in your way or flailing yourself with cords for your filthy sins. Sociopath or masochist - that's your choice, kid, make it before it's made for you. Just remember that if you choose wrong, you'll never experience the simple, pure joy of bonding with your employer.

As absurd as this all is, it also gives away something very telling about Brooks and his worldview. It's something I noticed very early on, and I've been waiting for the right time to go into detail on it. Throughout this book, David Brooks writes about work solely in terms of prestige. You can see it in the above passages, or in anything he's written about "vocation," or in the condemnation of the KTDs we'll see in Part II. Either implicitly or explicitly, every time he talks about work he's talking about becoming prestigious.

It makes sense, because it's been a part of Brooks' world probably since he was very young. He came from a comfortable, privileged background and swiftly ascended into the ranks of the elite. He would have spent most of his college years surrounded by people for whom a certain level of material success was a foregone conclusion, so they would have spoken of their future professions in terms of image and status, with vulgar concepts like money considered only in that money is a factor in status. It wouldn't have taken him long to internalize this, especially once he started cozying up to the superstars of the conservative movement.

It's not just that Brooks views his own work in terms of how to become more famed and respected, it's that he seems to think that everyone else has the same outlook. What got me thinking about this was a throwaway passage all that way back on pages 55-56:

I once met an employer who asks each job applicant, "Describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you." He is essentially asking those people if they have their loves in the right order, if they would put love of truth above love of career.

Brooks looks at the job interview as an opportunity to make a moral judgment on the prospective employee. If the prospect lies, then he clearly places status over those deeper values. It never occurs to him that the person might have prepared and rehearsed for this, not because he wants to build his status, but because he'd like to eat tomorrow. At no point in his discussion of profession and vocation and career does Brooks consider that work is something most people do to make a living. With his background, it's not something that would even occur to him.

David Brooks loves to pen self-deprecating one-liners about how out of touch he is. He always assumes that this is because he doesn't spend his weekends at mid-range chain restaurants, drinking domestic beer and shooting the bull about the NFL. He is out of touch, but that's not why. Brooks and his peers are out of touch because they don't know what it's like to worry about money. Something tells me that Brooks has never missed a night's sleep trying to figure out how to cover all his bills, or opened up an ulcer trying to conceal his empty bank account from the wife and kids, or gotten sloppy drunk to forget yet another failed interview. The difference between Brooks and the Real, True Americans isn't cultural, it's economic. This is a man who will never be broke, because his brand is so valuable that he can make more money in a single speaking engagement than most people do all year. He's sheltered from the number one American stressor, and a lifetime of noble savages Heartland tours won't fix that.

We can all have a good laugh at that "bonding with an employer" line, but that's just proof that Brooks doesn't get it. To him, schmoozing the boss is an act of oily cynicism that erodes the soul. To me, it's survival. I've learned from harsh first-hand experience what an employer actually is - a man or a woman with the power to destroy my life at will. Since I live in a state where employers don't need cause to fire someone, they can exercise this will for petty, capricious and personal reasons. I know full well the consequences of working a late shift and having little personal contact with my supervisor, leaving him to draw conclusions about my character from fragments of information and his own presumptions. Don't think that I've never wondered if things might have turned out differently had I laughed at his bad jokes or chit-chatted with him about college sports like everyone else.

In Part II, we'll see Brooks build his case against the Kids These Days, and it's especially awful. Stay tuned.


  1. Everything he writes seems like self-justification.

    1. And it only gets better from here. He's got two hundred pages of finger-wags built up and he's using every single one.

  2. ah - glancing over this again - it occurred to me - Earl Morrall stated the game for the Colts in Super Bowl III Unitas was on the bench but was put in late in the game to try and goose the offense.

  3. I've learned from harsh first-hand experience what an employer actually is - a man or a woman with the power to destroy my life at will.