Tuesday, September 6, 2016

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

Okay, this next part's obligatory and all of you saw it coming, so let's dispose of it swiftly:

This intellectual and cultural shift toward the Big Me was reinforced by economic and technological changes. All of us today live in a technological culture. I'm not a big believe that social media have had a ruinous effect on the culture, as many technophobes fear. There is no evidence to support the idea that technology has induced people to live in a fake online world while renouncing the real one.

I'd like you to guess what's going to come next. Read the end of that paragraph, consider it in light of everything you know about Brooks and everything we've been through thus far, and take a stab at predicting the following line. I'll see you on the other side of the panda.

Got your guesses all lined up? All right, here's the next line:

But information technology has had three effects on the moral ecology that have inflated the Big Me Adam I side of our natures and diminished the humbler Adam II.

You saw a self-serving "but" coming, but not three of them, did you? That's the magic of David Brooks. In order to save me an awful lot of transcription, I'll just give you the synopsis of these three effects:
  1. Everything is faster, which means less time to sit quietly and reflect on deeper things.
  2. People have a greater ability to pursue their own interests independently of the group.
  3. People are encouraged to promote themselves even in casual social situations.
The first one is obviously a crock - people have been complaining about the fast pace of modern life since Socrates was corrupting the youth of Athens. Brooks and his cohort seem to view Facebook and the iPhone as in a different category than the automobile or radio or the telephone or the telegraph or the iron horse or the steam ship or goddamn coffee houses, all of which our culture somehow survived. The second one is just a reheated version of Robert Putnam's "isolating effect of technology," which I've always thought was a load of bunk (Short version: It either ignores all of those introverts who use the internet to find connections or pretends that they all would have just magically become extroverts if there was no internet). The third is one I'm a bit more sympathetic toward, and I've argued myself that a lot of people do treat friends and relatives like their audiences. But unless you buy into that hard Brooksian dichotomy and believe that wanting to be recognized means that you are incapable of love, then I don't see how that informs anything else Brooks has to say.

That was just a little aside. Most of this post will focus on a relatively small but very dense part of the chapter concerning those rascally Kids These Days. Having been ruined by Facebook and Dr. Spock and the dirty hippies and the death of Reinhold Niebuhr, we must now plumb the depths of the crisis of character facing the KTDs. It's a fact-heavy section, and we've already seen just how judiciously Brooks treats facts, so you're better believe I checked every single endnote in this thing.

We start off midway through Brooks' complaint about the meritocracy, which is a thing that exists. Brooks insists that judging people on vulgar things like what they've done is socially corrosive in a very special way. In fact, his argument here is so ugly I don't want to put it in my own words. I'll let him speak for himself:

Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is not simple affection, it is meritocratic affection - it is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success...
...Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here.

David Brooks apparently believes that most parents these days are clinical narcissists incapable of feeling any genuine love for their children. That's a conclusion consistent with his arguments that developing marketable skills slowly but surely turns you into a monster. It's also a monstrous assumption in itself. Brooks doesn't bother proving that many parents are working their way through the dark triad, he just assumes that it's true. That's deeply disturbing. Given the projection on display in the rest of the book, I wonder what this says about the world of the elites in which Brooks dwells. Granted, it would explain a lot if they were all incapable of empathy, but that's a hell of an assumption to make on the basis of nothing. Doesn't bother Brooks, though.

So what happens when, apparently, a generation is raised by the deeply pathological?

This cultural, technological, and meritocratic environment hasn't made us a race of depraved barbarians. But it has made us less morally articulate.

And now Brooks makes his factual case. Which is to say his "factual" case. Which is to say:

College students now say that they put more value on money and career success. Every year, researchers from UCLA survey a nationwide sample of college freshmen to gauge their values and what they want out of life. In 1966, 80 percent of freshmen said that they were strongly motivate to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Today, less than half of them say that. In 1966, 42 percent said that becoming rich was an important life goal. [Today,] 74 percent agreed with that statement.

Given how this book started, we should be wary when Brooks gives stats like this. In this case, though, we won't need to do much digging because it's right there on the page. I wickedly edited the above passage to cover up the fact that "today" is 1990, the year that survey was taken. That means that some of the KTDs are in their early-mid forties and are likely to be the parents of the current youth cohort. Knowing this makes this a hell of a lot less shocking - really, how many of you are surprised that a bunch of 80's kids were obsessed with money?

Brooks might argue that since this is an ongoing trend covering the last fifty years, you could actually draw a direct connection between one group born in the early 70's and another born in the late 90's because they were both driven by the same factors. If that's the case, then looking at the actual KTDs should show no difference. The 2014 version of the UCLA survey - the most recent Brooks would have been able to access - doesn't really talk about money all that much, focusing on more contemporary issues. But a little digging turns up a number of studies from the last five years which are described here and here. So what do we know about the KTDs?
  • 64% want to make the world a better place.
  • 64% would rather have a fulfilling job with a basic salary a boring high-paying job.
  • 63% want to work for a company that contributes to worthy causes.
  • 88% favor collaboration over competition
  • 88% put a priority on "work-life integration."
The untrammeled greed and selfishness just jump out at you, don't they? And if you're more of a practical, real world kind of thinker, then you'll be interested to know that in the real world, the average KTD is just about broke, worries about money on a regular basis (again, this is where Brooks is really out of touch) and wishes that he or she could live closer to family.

Got anything else, Dave?

According to an Ernst & Young survey, 65 percent of college students expect to become millionaires.

Three things. One, this was from 2001, so it's closer to today but still leaves a lot of space, even by Brooks' standards (Unitas and Namath were supposed to be from different worlds despite being born only ten years apart, remember). Two, this was a survey of the interns who showed up at an international get-together hosted by their financial giant employer, so we're not exactly talking about a representative sample of all college students, let alone all KTDs. And third, there's this, from the press release:

...43 percent of students also said that family and friends are a priority right now as they manage their work and personal lives.

Of course Brooks believes they all have sociopaths for parents, so maybe that doesn't count for much.


People have become less empathetic - or at least they display less empathy in how they describe themselves. A University of Michigan study found that today's college students score 40 percent lower than their predecessors in the 1970s in their ability to understand what another person is feeling. The biggest drop came in the years after 2000.

This is true, and props to Brooks to pointing out an obvious weakness - it's a self-report study that assumes you can objectively gauge empathy through responses to questions like "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" and that this is just as accurate as observing behaviors. Personally, I'd give a neutral or negative answer to a question like that just because it would feel pompous to answer in the affirmative. And as Thomas H. Sander says, you have to consider this in light of the fact that actual civic engagement is on the rise.

But that might be what makes this the perfect David Brooks fast fact. Despite all the big talk over figures like Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day, Brooks has little interest in applied goodness. He specifically rejects tangible, external demonstrations of moral character because he wouldn't have a case otherwise. On traditional measures of morality - things like substance abuse, promiscuity and criminality - the KTDs are doing fine. On the progressive virtues of acceptance and egalitarianism, the KTDs are doing great. And even on many of those intangible Brooksian virtues - service and community awareness and interpersonal bonds - the KTDs are fine. Brooks is bellyaching over a crisis of character that just isn't there.

For his argument to work, Brooks has to pretend that none of this matters. He has to look at these fiscally restrained, communally minded do-gooders and tell himself that nothing they say, do or think means anything. He has to argue that there's some high-order intangible morality, independent of anything they do or believe, that they've rejected. It's a rejection he can sense because they don't use words like "sin" or use them in a different way. And if you think I'm kidding, consider that his last piece of evidence involves using software to prove that books no longer contain moral language. No, really:

Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like "self" and "personalized"...Usage of words like "character," "conscience," and "virtue" all declined over the course of the twentieth century.

Brooks assumes that this means something and feels no particular need to prove it. If you're interested in a more scientific approach - something beyond the usual "President Obama is a narcissist because he says 'I' a lot" nonsense - you can check here and here to see people who study this kind of thing explain just why Brooks is wrong. But never mind that.

You want to know something? I can't stand the KTDs. I live a few blocks from a major public university and a few blocks from the downtown area, so I know them and they drive me crazy. I hate that they're so trend obsessed. I hate that they put hashtags in their speech. I hate that a healthy chunk of them consider my saying "drive me crazy" to be a dire slur. I hate that they're all so fragile that I can't speak my mind around them. I hate that they're always walking in front of my car because they can't look up from their goddamn phones. I hate the fact that, for all the talk about substance abuse being all down, half the ones I encounter are entitled drunken twits.

But here's the thing: It doesn't matter. My personal opinions on the mores and beliefs of a pack of eighteen year olds only tells me that I've run into some obnoxious ones in my life. That's it. It doesn't speak to some general decline of character, it just means that we're different. Brooks doesn't get that; he doesn't want to get that. He's writing for an audience of old cranks who want proof that the young generation really is in decline (and that it's different when their own parents said the same thing). Whining about the KTDs just wouldn't be as satisfying otherwise.

So now that we've "proven" that the KTDs are lost in a moral vacuum that's invisible to everyone except David Brooks, it's time for him to give some advice in the form of...a humility code. That's Part III. See you on the other side.


  1. Jesus, I'm afraid to find out what he considers a humility code.

    If we assume Brooks is always talking about himself, and I think we can, this is very interesting:

    "Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is not simple affection, it is meritocratic affection - it is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success...

    ...Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here."

    That is textbook authoritarian parenting, elite version. The parent demands achievement from the child, to demonstrate obedience, to gratify the parents' egos, and also because the parent was raised to believe that the only way their child will ever be happy is to succeed in an elite world.

    When little David becomes an adult, he found that he could make a choice: continue to be a crime reporter or flee for more luxurious surrounding. Because he is indolent and narcissistic, he chose a life of sycophancy and slow moral unravelling. He rejects authoritarian parenting, no doubt because he experienced it himself, but like a good little authoritarian child, he fully invests in authoritarianism as society's basic structure. And he is too oblivious to notice the dissonance, or why he is so very uneasy and restless inside.

    Look at his complaints:
    Everything is faster, which means less time to sit quietly and reflect on deeper things.
    2.People have a greater ability to pursue their own interests independently of the group.
    3.People are encouraged to promote themselves even in casual social situations.

    The first is baloney, as you say. The other two complaints are interesting: it is a primary tenet of authoritarian child-rearing that a child who rejects his parents' preferences for his own is selfish and disobedient, and a child who has self-esteem is egotistical and needs to learn humility. Disobedience is both wrong and sacrilegious, and making your own choices is a rejection of the parents' authority, love and concern. If you think you know better than those older and wiser, you are wicked.

    When you grow up this way, you are almost completely starved of approval and praise and you grow up with a wild craving for it. One of the things we see with the younger generation is that many of them didn't grow up with authoritarian parents or managed to reject authoritarianism (see the psychological traits of Bernie voters). They were allowed or even encouraged! to have self-esteem, to know themselves and trust themselves. That is a complete and utter rejection of David Brooks' worldview. It flabbergasts him. He can't even imagine that anyone can do that, so he utterly misinterprets everything he sees. (And I'm not surprised kids are mentally healthier because of it, and that teen pregnancies are down, although that's mostly better BC.)

    That poor, dumb bastard.

    now blaming authoritarian parenting, while advocating authoritarianism
    he's very confused.

    1. Rats, ignore those last two sentences.
      Yes, I heavily re-write comments. I'm pathetic. :)