Monday, January 02, 2017

The Road to Character by David Brooks (Book Review #82 of 2016)


The Road to Character by David Brooks

(Two stars) I followed this book up later with Brook's earlier work Bobo's in Paradise. I suspect from comparing the two books, and what I read in his NY Times columns, that Road to Character is basically a dump of biographical information gleaned in Brooks' research over the years. As the NY Times' own review of this book states, Brooks has a knack for the "obscure but potent social studies research." For example, he begins with a supposedly influential book from 1965 by a Jewish Rabbi, which probably few have even heard of today, which could have been part of his research for Bobos but likely didn't fit with the story he wanted to tell there. Brooks reads material from the era he is trying to understand-- books which may have been widely read in a previous generation. Hence, Brooks can introduce to us a random collection of individuals ranging from Augustine of Hippo to various 20th century Lefties because he's read works by those authors or come across a biography of that character. (I suspect he grew up a Baltimore Colts fan, hence he loved Johnny Unitas and included him.)

It is hard to find any common threads between all of the characters in this book. Instead of "Character" meaning "integrity," or what you do when no one is watching, it is as though Brooks simply means "personality" or even just "adulthood." Some of these are "great leaders" or "thinkers," Brooks tells us, but they are more like atlas obscura. Some of these people are spiritual, some of these are basically anti-spiritual. Most are deeply flawed; Eisenhower, for example, had an affair and abruptly left his mistress deeply heartbroken. Brooks does not address this nor tell the reader that the man ordered more government overthrows and assassinations than perhaps all Presidents after him combined. So, Brooks chooses his "character" traits carefully.

I read most of Brooks' columns and watch him every Friday on PBS Newshour, am a long-time fan, so this book was a bit of a disappointment. My favorite chapter was the one on Augustine, in which Brooks quotes Tim Keller at points. That chapter is very much worth reading; the rest... eh. Hints of how David Brooks feels about how the 2016 Presidential Election comes to the surface at times, Brooks either quoted ideas from his book or referred to them throughout 2015-2016 in reference to how much he loathed Donald Trump. I listened to this book in the summer heat of the election and noted that Brooks seemed to be referring to Trump's characteristics at points illustrating the the antithesis of character in 2015 as he penned these pages. This was quite evident if you watched PBS' coverage of the Republican convention in which Brooks' asks Trump advocate Tony Perkins' what virtuous character traits Trump offers (Perkins responds with "courage," perhaps having read Brook's book).

The following is what I gleaned, personally, from the book:
Brooks begins with the 1965 work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The Rabbi reads the differing creation accounts in Genesis as representing struggles of human contradiction. Adam I- wants to build, create, produce, discover and create a resume-- to have "success." Adam II is the inner conscience, he wants to do good but also BE good. He believes in charity and love rather than success. This is how Brooks describes the struggle of "everyman," and confesses his own struggle in this area. Brooks (and presumably men of character)take steps daily to build character and confront Adam I. As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I found this chapter lacking. Tim Keller, who Brooks quotes later in the book, wrote Every Good Endeavor in part to tear down the false dichotomy of "sacred" and "secular." The Gospel frees us to work "as for the Lord," so even where we are Adam I aspirational we are fulfilling the cultural mandate God gave to Adam to "fill the earth and subdue it." Hence, we can worship and love as we work and these need not be juxtaposed.

Humility is freedom from the need to know you are superior all the time. Humility is knowing what you don't know. It is recognizing that we are all "crooked timber" (Kant). In his repeated reference to the "crooked timber," Brooks comes very close to the Gospel but not far enough. Brooks' Jewish background equips him with the knowledge that we all know there is something deeply wrong with us, deep down. There is something broken that we cannot fix. Brooks' own solution is to strive against Adam I in favor of Adam II. He offers Ida Eisenhower's advice that it is better to resist temptation than try and overcome once it is succombed to. He also writes that our universal sin nature equips us to empathize with others. If the issue is really virtue, only the Christian Gospel acknowledges that we do not have the power to pursue and achieve virtue ourselves. We have to be made righteous-- it has to be imputed. Jesus is the only one who was ever righteous, because He is God. But, as I said above, Adam I need not be seen as lacking virtue. By following Jesus, we die to ourselves and are daily made new, bringing every part of Adam II to every part of Adam I. We are still an incomplete picture of that, but we'll be much closer in a promised eternity when there is no more sin.

David Brooks moans a lot about the narcissistic nature of the 21st century. He compares watching NFL players celebrate after a 3-yard catch to the humility shown in radio broadcasts immediately following WWII; how thankful people were back then and how quick they were to give credit to others. George C Marshall didn't even keep a diary because he felt it was too self-centered an activity. The median "narcissist score" is rising (any time you hear him bemoan the narcissist it's easy to read "Trump.") Humility is knowing what you don't know; it is "freedom from the need to show that you are superior all the time." Character cannot be inherited, it must be built (can there be any doubt he refers to Trump in these points?).

I appreciate Brooks' point about vocation being your calling, which is different than a career or a job. This, again, jives with Keller and others who teach a proper theology of work. (The Hebrew word for "work" in Genesis 1-3 is the same as the one for "worship.") We need to reclaim "vocation" because it has been removed from our vocabulary because of abuse in prior times. Don't ask "what do I want from life but what does life want from me?"

The Eisenhower family had odd relationships with religion, but always a keen awareness of sin and temptation. Brooks profiles Dwight's mother as a way to show how she instilled character in Dwight. He had major rage issues, and recognized that discipline and self control reaped benefits. But, a little indulgence is okay-- "moderation is a good idea." The moderate individual understands that there is not a "one size fits all" approach to anyone. Everyone deals with his own sins/temptations differently. (Brooks seemed to be defending his moderation at times, perhaps writing autobiographically. As he writes, this book is an attempt to "save my own soul.")

One convicting point Brooks makes is that nonfiction has replaced fiction as wisdom (99% of the books I review are nonfiction). Education used to turn to Homer and the classics, which were fiction but taught great truths. We have abandoned that for the blogosphere, news networks, and non-fiction books. Google and other tools show literature is increasingly using economics terms like "utility" and "profit" instead of moral words like "bravery" and "virtue."

I did not make many notes in Brooks' profiles of several characters, but noted they had bents far to the left of Brooks' politics. One of the strangest profiles was that of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who advised Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the original advocates of non-violent protest, but was later disowned by the movement in part because of his homosexual lifestyle and self-destructive tendencies. Rustin had championed the rights of interned Japanese in WWII and was a critic of British colonial policy in India. Rustin kept advocating for African American and homosexual rights while serving a prison sentence. Eventually, he works for rights in the background with no publiclity, which I guess is the trait Brooks wanted to draw our attention to after painting Rustin as a rather unstable character. Brooks doesn't always spell out the character, some chapters are just mini biographies with little commentary and you can judge the person for yourself.

The pieces devoted to Augustine are quite good. Augustine wrote of his addiction to sin, his pure fascination with it, that is everyone's problem. Augustine also recognized that "the human mind stretches out into infinity," and nothing can satisfy our desires. We cannot be satisfied ourselves, nor can we steer our minds where we want. We cannot captain our own lives. Augustine eventually surrendered to God's plan and sovereignty and found in Him the infiniteness that could satisfy his own unlimited wants and needs-- this is also the Gospel. Brooks wisely quotes from Keller on inputed righteousness, and how grace means people receive what they don't deserve. Augustine, like all believers, recognized we can only love because God first loved us. (Brooks writes quite a bit more on love.) Pride, however, shows "confidence but insecurity." He further quotes Keller on pride and instability.

The goal of education should be to introduce us to new things to love. Brooks pens a summary of the life of 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson (who some might consider an undiagnosed autistic person today). Johnson's love of words called for a vocatino of writing things like the Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson was of Anglican background and wrote moral essays, and is more known for his famous quotes, like "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," (again-- Trump). Brooks seems to like Johnson more than Michel de Montaigne, who also wrote prose on morals and character (in the 16th century). Montaigne was smart, steeped in classical Greek and aware of it, and also wrote of the virtues of marriage but disliked strong passions. Other than "self-honesty," the character lessons of these two writers isn't clear.

That brings us to Johnny U versus Broadway Joe. John Unitas represented the stoic nature of yesteryear, he had the same expression after a touchdown as he did after an interception. There were no celebratory dances, no outward displays of emotion, just a desire to win for the team professionally. Namath, however, represented the rise of the Baby Boomer narcissist. His fur coats, and stocking commercials, and endless parties and women, his braggadocio. It seems unfair that Namath's Jets beat Unitas' Colts in Super Bowl III (a game Unitas played only a sparing role in), much less that Namath made the NFL Hall of Fame with one of the worst HoF resumes of any QB there. I could have written this paragraph just from watching the old NFL Films episode of SBIII narrated by John Facenda, which was my first childhood introduction to NFL football (I suspect that classic is where Brooks got the inspiration for this part from). Brooks uses Unitas-Namath to dispel a myth about the "Greatest Generation," these people sacrificed much during the Great Depression and WWII, but abandoned such moderation after the war. The economy boomed, incomes rose, and restraint was cast aside (and the new Bobo class was created, but Brooks does not reference his prior work here). Virtues and suffering were replaced with cults of positivism and humanism.

Even now, parents and children may be closer than ever before thanks to Facebook, but the love seems more conditional. Conditional love creates fear, fear that the love is not permanent. Such fear creates a desire to perform in order to get love, to need applause to feel loved but constantly being aware of how fickle the crowd is. Morality has been replaced by utility, we're taught that suffering is no longer necessary and that discipline may be harmful. Brooks reminds us that "everybody needs redemptive assistance from the outside," none of us is righteous of our own accord and we all need help from the community. Wisdom begins with epistemological modesty, to recognize that you don't have all the answers and that you may not even know how to best obtain them. But our (American) communities have become more tribal, less willing to reach outside a bubble.

“People of character are capable of staying attached to a calling, purpose through the long run. The things that lead us astray, like fear, gluttony, and vanity are short run. Elements like courage, honesty, and humility, take us on the long road.” I suspect that after 2016, Brooks is less optimistic about us embracing those virtues again and finding that long road. Two stars.

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