Personally, I didn't learn a damn thing. Brooks presented me with a lot of safe, intuitive, and outright cliche bits of moral advice, dressed up in such a way that it's totally irrelevant to my actual concerns and trials. But that was bound to happen, since it's obvious that this book was not written with me or anyone like me in mind. Everything in this book was clearly targeted toward an elite audience - parenting and career advice for the wealthy and well-connected to prevent them from ruining their kids. The elite tier is the only world Brooks has ever known, so it makes sense that he'd speak in their language. Honestly though, I can't hold this against him too much. As parochial as this book can get, that approach is still preferable to Megan McArdle's junk drawer philosophy. If nothing else, Brooks knows his audience, and it ain't me.
Of course, this being a book about personal growth and the journey to be a better man, maybe there's a better question to ask: What did David Brooks learn? Well, he learned that respect for authority is a good thing and you need to do it more. He learned that you are too fixated on status and fame. He learned that you don't give enough thought to the ones you love. He learned that you are hard-hearted and too proud to admit it. He learned a lot of things that you need to do to become a better person. And who would know better than David Brooks, master of humility?
The Road to Character is supposed to be about conquering yourself but it's all turned inside out. Every character flaw or deficit described in this thing is one that Brooks saw in someone else - in the Kids These Days or their parents or the dirty hippies or the people who leave mean comments under his columns or that woman who said she hated him at a party or his ex-wife or Paul Krugman...anyone else, everyone else. The man who, his colleagues tell me, is "constitutionally incapable of finger-wagging" does quite a bit of it in these pages. Way back in the introduction, I had a big ol' laugh over Brooks tearing himself down. Turns out that this was the last time he would do that. Much like McArdle, Brooks seems incapable of admitting to any specific errors in judgment. He wants to be a better man but he's unwilling to face down any of the things he's done over the past quarter of a century.
In fact, let's go into detail about that, using this charming little video of Brooks giving a speech on Reinhold Niebuhr, a man he praised at length in The Road to Character, back in 2010 during his pre-moralizing phase:
For those of you who can't or don't want to watch, here's how it went down: During the Q&A, a woman challenged Brooks' supposed admiration of Niebuhr's modesty in light of his support of the Iraq War and his dismissive and insulting attitude toward its critics. Here's how the expert in humility responded:
...I'm not sure I would have ridiculed anybody who didn't support the war. Let me tell you why I supported the war. I supported it because my basic view was that, having spent a long time in the Middle East, was A-1 that Saddam represented a unique evil in the world. I'm not sure how Niebuhr would come down, but that was not an unusual view in those days...And what had happened you would take the Central European model or the Russian model and help bring about the same sort of transition in Iraq and then in the Middle East. And the things people like me got wrong was the difficulty of doing that, unaware but supposedly became aware relatively quickly of the incompetent planning, the fact that many of our leaders in government did not believe in this mission, and what it would take to create a democratic Iraq. And so certainly all those things have been well-rehearsed (sic). But I will say after all this, when they're sort of sliding beyond whether the war was a good idea or not, there is now a pseudo-democratic Iraq. And the execution of the policy was terrible. But if, in 20 years, there is an Iraq which is developing on the path on which it is now developing, a rocky road to a messy democracy... [Emphasis added]
Consider the sheer arrogance coming from a man who was so grandly, publicly wrong. It wasn't my fault; my logic was sound. It was the Bush Administration. It was Congress. It was the generals. It was everyone's fault but ours. And when it all turns around, you'll all see that we were always right. This man taught a course on humility at Yale just a few years after this.
But that's just the specific point. The more generally applicable takeaway is that Brooks, like most Very Serious pundits, refuses to admit that he's wrong about anything. I don't believe that those people who were wrong about Iraq need to supplicate and beg for forgiveness and then disappear forever, but I do think that at some point in the past decade, they needed to admit that they fucked up. They never have - the kind of pass-the-buck non-apology seen above is the best we've ever gotten from any pundit. And this might not be so bad if it were one time only, but these people refuse to admit that they were wrong about anything at all. Every error was a systemic error, an understandable slip-up caused by someone else's failure - and that's when they admit that they're wrong at all.
This presents a special problem for Brooks. He wants to cast himself as a humble man who's struggling to better himself one day at a time. But how humble can you possibly be if you never admit that you made any mistakes? How can you confront your sinful nature when you refuse to confront any sins? Brooks admitted to being shallow, but he never explained how that shallowness manifests. There are general stains on his precious character, but no specific misdeeds that caused them. It's almost like he can't think of any, which is funny because those detractors he refuses to listen to could probably give him a whole bunch.
Brooks probably does wish he was a better man, maybe even one of those Great Men that are so central to his paleoconservative worldview. The problem is that the transformation that he himself describes demands way too much of him. He preaches the need for a worthwhile vocation even as he clings to a job he hates for the easy paycheck. He instructs others to ignore the external joys of prestige even as he gladly accepts the accolades showered upon him by his peers. He demands that others confront their wretched and sinful nature even as he denies ever doing anything wrong. He speaks of the virtue of the private life even as he grants himself the privilege to judge the private lives of the poor from afar. He wants everyone else to sacrifice while he stays the same.
And really, that describes Brooks most of all. He walked down the road to character, met himself eight times and found the promised land which was right back where he started. Would that we could all get paid for such things.
- As with the last series, I've posted an extended review on Amazon. Due to the high profile of this particular specimen, it will take a few hundred helpful votes to raise it to the top of the page - a bold goal, but not impossible. If you have an Amazon account, please head on over and vote me helpful. The review isn't as in-depth or inflammatory as this series has been, but I hope it's more honest than the hundreds of people pretending that this was inspirational and/or whining about the KTDs.
- If you have any suggestions for future subjects, I'd love to hear about them. Leave any recommendations either in the comments of this post or in the About section. My priority is for non-fiction - recent or older - written by people who have grossly undeserved respect (read: no wingnut trash) and terrible politically-oriented novels, preferably by grade-A assholes with no business composing fiction (read: wingnut trash welcome).