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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


David Brooks Is Morally Blind

David Brooks wants to lead us back to more moral lives, yet he refuses to grapple with reality.

April 17, 2015

New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks we have lost the plot, morality-wise.

He has a new book to peddle, The Road to Character, which looks to be a case study on becoming a good person, and so in his column space and elsewhere, he’s been ruminating on what collectively ails us.

His effort of April 17, “When Cultures Shift,” attempts to trace the origin stories to how we lost our collective way, and in a novel twist, rather than pointing his finger at '60s counterculture, he looks towards the Greatest Generation.

He claims the “pivot point” is the end of World War II, when we emerged from “16 years of hardship, stretching back through the Depression,” and when we experienced a “softening in the moral sphere.”

Brooks claims this “softening” is evidenced in texts like 1946’s Peace of Mind by Rabbi Joseph Liebman, which included “a new set of commandments,” such as “Thou shalt love thyself,” which told everyone to “relax.”

Brooks also fingers The Mature Mind, by Harry Overstreet, which asked readers to “embrace self-affirmation, and the even more well-known, The Power of Positive Thinking, which, in Brooks’s view “rejected a morality of restraint for an upbeat morality of growth.”

While Brooks acknowledges some benefits, for example, of feminists and civil rights groups that “seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations,” he now believes that we have “overshot the mark,” and currently live in a culture he calls “the Big Me,” “In which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside.”

The damage, according to Brooks? “What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.”

It’s hard to know where to start in response.

For starters, Brooks needs to go further back for the origins of the self-confidence game, perhaps to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937), or if that’s not early enough, perhaps he could look at Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac with its classic maxim, “God helps them that help themselves.”

Or maybe we should note that, as usual, Brooks is speaking to the cultural 1%, those that have the luxury of being pandered to by a famous person as part of a college commencement ceremony. Should we go to Ferguson or North Charleston and ask around if they’re experiencing an excess of self-esteem, as opposed to, I don’t know, systemic oppression? They may be wondering when the years of hardship are expected to be over.

But even in the realm Brooks is addressing, and criticizing, the young people of opportunity and privilege, he gets it wrong.

The culture he finds so troubling, one where “we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives,” is not rooted in an excess of self-esteem, but rather in an overabundance of anxiety.

Brooks believes young people have lost their moral way because we have failed to teach them the virtues of self-reflection, or require them to address issues of character.

But the reality is closer to what William Deresiewicz identifies in Excellent Sheep, or Brooks’s New York Times colleague, Frank Bruni, explored in a recent column, “Best, Brightest – and Saddest?” which examines how the young people of Palo Alto, one of the most privileged communities in the country[1], are in the midst of a mental health crisis.

The initial culprit is said to be over-parenting, a failure to allow children to fail, leaving them “grit” deficient.

Adam Strassberg, a Palo Alto parent and psychiatrist, has a different idea, that everyone is afraid of losing ground in the endless race to … no one knows exactly. Strassberg says, “Maintaining and advancing insidiously high educational standards in our children is a way to soothe this anxiety.”

However, the phenomenon that so concerns Brooks (and me as well, to be honest), is not rooted in the decline of institutions that once served to inculcate morality (like the church, or even schools). Neither are parents or kids themselves to blame.

Instead, we should be pointing the finger at our current culture of scarcity, of competition, of punishment.

For example, the recently convicted teachers in the Atlanta cheating scandal may have been guilty of moral failings, but those failings are part of a system that held them accountable for not only impossible to fulfill, but actually meaningless metrics. Without the threat of arbitrary termination, do we really think we’d see such acts?

And why are the school reformers that made such outcomes inevitable not held accountable?

Our young people are simply playing the game we’ve constructed for them. When education is expensive, when it is viewed as absolutely “necessary” to secure some measure of economic stability, when only the shiniest name brand degree will do, why wouldn’t we see a generation of young people desperate to “broadcast the highlight reels of their lives?”

What he’s seeing is not narcissism run amok, but panic in the face of a world that suggests we’re all in this alone.

Brooks believes this “romantic culture of self-glorification” should give way to “an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgement that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up.”

Brooks doesn’t suggest how we might go about achieving this, because how could he? He has the cause wrong. He is demanding a kind of moral heroism, that people martyr themselves in the name of I don't know what. Maybe just because in the cramped mind of David Brooks, it's the right thing to do. This is really the same way Brooks looks at impoverished communities and recommends bootstrapping, (a moral cowardice if I've ever seen one), rather than addressing longstanding and damaging inequities.

People aren’t failing the world around them. The world around them is failing the people.


[1] Ranked 6th in the nation for per capita income in places with more than 50,000 residents. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-income_places_in_the_United_States





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