Discovering the Ideas of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson

Recently two prominent columnists, David Brooks of the New York Times and Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, simultaneously have discovered the ideas of Jordan Peterson, about whom I had known nothing. I now know that he is a University of Toronto psychologist, author of a popular new book, “12 Rules for Life:  An Antidote to Chaos,” and popular YouTube analyst of classical and biblical texts and critic of identity politics and political correctness. [1]

David Brooks’ Observations

For Brooks, Peterson’s “worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.” Peterson argues, says Brooks, that “for much of Western history, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism — and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag.” Now “we’ve decided to not have any values. We’ll celebrate relativism and tolerance.”

Peterson, according to Brooks, rejects these views. Instead, Peterson emphasizes that “life is suffering” and that everyone needs to “choose discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.”

In Brooks’ opinion, “much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhoratory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.”

Peggy Noonan’s Observations

Noonan distills Peterson’s new book this way: “Know life’s limits, see and analyze your own, build on what you’ve got and can create. And be brave. Everything else is boring and won’t work.”

These views come from his “respect for the stories and insights into human behavior—into the meaning of things—in the Old and New Testaments. (He’d like more attention paid to the Old.) Their stories exist for a reason, he says, and have lasted for a reason: “They are powerful indicators of reality, and their great figures point to pathways. He respects the great thinkers of the West and the Christian tradition.”

Therefore, says Peterson through Noonan, ”Admit “you will die and on the way to death you will suffer; throughout you will be harassed by evil, both in the world and in your heart. . . .Accept the terrible responsibility of life with eyes wide open. . . . Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant. . . .Become aware of your own insufficiency. . Don’t lie about anything, ever.”

Conclusion

Peterson’s ideas and new book sound intriguing. I am adding the book to my reading list.

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[1]  Brooks, The Jordan Peterson Moment, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2018); Noonan, Who’s Afraid of Jordan Peterson?, W.S.J. (Jan. 25, 2018).

Humility and Equipoise As Fundamental Civic Virtues

David Brooks in two recent New York Times’ columns discusses humility and equipoise (the ability to hold various opinions or identities in equilibrium) as two fundamental civic virtues.[1]  Here are his arguments for these conclusions.

The truth is pluralThere is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth. Sometimes immigration restrictions should be loosened to bring in new people and new dynamism; sometimes they should be tightened to ensure national cohesion. Leadership is about determining which viewpoint is more needed at that moment. Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all.”

Beware the danger of a single identity. Before they brutalize politics, warriors brutalize themselves. Instead of living out several identities — Latina/lesbian/gun-owning/Christian — that pull in different directions, they turn themselves into monads. They prioritize one identity, one narrative and one comforting distortion.”

It is a myth, according to  Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters. . . . In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.” And the “more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. . . . [Moreover, these multiple identities or attachments should enable an individual] to practice equipoise [which is] . . . the ability to move gracefully through your identities—to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.”

With such equipoise, one more easily can “turn the other cheek, love your enemy. Confront your opponent with aggressive love.” This was Brooks’ indirect quotation of a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 27-31):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“Creativity is syncretistic[Wise politicians and citizens] . . . don’t just pull their ideas from the center of the ideological spectrum. They believe creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible. They might combine left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law. Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise [politician and citizen]. . . can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.”

“Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.”

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The [wise politician and citizen] . . . is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.”

In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the [wise politician and citizen] . . . operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith. He understands that most of the choices are among bad options (North Korea), so he prefers steady incremental reform to sudden revolutionary change.”

“Moderation [The wise politicians and citizens, for Brooks, are moderates, who] do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.”

“Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”

In support of this conclusion Brooks says he has been inspired by “the great book Faces of Moderation” (Univ. Pa. Press. 2016) by Aurelian Craiutu, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University.

Conclusion

Especially important for me is the recognition that all human beings have multiple identities that should be honored and that all of us need to keep reminding ourselves of this fundamental truth. Everyone is a child of a mother and father, usually grows up in a specific place with a specific nationality and perhaps is a brother or sister to other siblings and a cousin to others. With adulthood everyone may choose to become a spouse or partner of another human being and perhaps a parent of a child or children. Everyone may choose be an adherent of a particular religion or of no religion. Everyone may choose to change some of these identities and to adopt other identities such as attendance at a specific college or university in a specific class and participation in a specific occupation or profession.

One could also agree with Brooks that partisanship is blinding, that politics is a limited activity and that its lows are lower than its highs are high and, therefore, conclude that one should avoid all political involvement and stand on the sidelines as an “independent.”

But that is the wrong conclusion, especially in a representative system of government. Instead, one should be so involved. This is where the virtue of moderation comes in.

More fundamentally Brooks’ conclusions  remind me of Biblical passages. The Lord requires us mortals “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  “[A]ll of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5) (emphases added.)

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[1] Brooks, What Moderates Believe, N.Y. Times (Aug. 22, 2017); Brooks, In Praise of Equipoise, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017). Earlier blog posts discussed a book by  Brooks and his presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on :The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

 

 

Reflections on Learning and Teaching

As a student of history, economics, political science, law and other humanities courses at six colleges and universities[1] and as an instructor at three such institutions,[2] I have participated in different ways of instructing and learning such bodies of knowledge and skills: college and university lectures, other lectures; seminars, research and writing; tutorials; the Socratic method; and role-playing. Similar methods were used in my practice as a litigating attorney and now as a blogger and ordinary citizen. Underlying all of them, of course, are reading and studying. Here are a septuagenarian’s lessons in life-long learning.

My thinking about this subject and writing this blog post were prompted by a recent article about the lecture as a mode of instructing and learning. That article by Molly Worthen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was put into a broader context by her quoting John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” where he said the humanities taught a student “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent. He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”[3]

College and University Lectures

“A good lecture class,” Worthen says, teaches “comprehension and reasoning” by keeping “students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action.” It does so by emphasizing “the art of attention, the crucial first step in … ‘critical thinking.’” She quotes Monessa Cummins, the Chair of the Classics Department at Grinnell College, my alma mater, as saying the lecture places “a premium on the connections between individual facts . . . [and] the building of an argument.”

This is “hard work” for the students, Worthen adds, requiring them “to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Indeed, students need to be taught how to listen, and lecture courses are exercises in “mindfulness and attention building.” This skill cannot be assumed, but must be taught. One way of doing so, in Professor Cummins’ classes, is to assign one student in each session to present a critique of her argument at the subsequent small discussion section.

Such a lecture course teaches that “listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next–and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.“

This is enhanced, Worthen argues, by requiring the students to take notes by hand, not by typing them into a computer. The former makes it impossible for them to make verbatim transcripts of the lecture, but instead to synthesize as they listen. That may be true, in my opinion, when the lecturer does not provide the students or audience with an outline of the lecture.

Lecturing, on the other hand, with a PowerPoint outline and providing the students or audience members with the Notes Page version of the outline enables the student to glance at the entire presentation in advance and see how the individual points fit into the entire lecture or presentation and then add his or her notes to individual pages as the lecture proceeds. PowerPoint also facilitates the use of graphs, maps and photographs in the lecture. [4]

Worthen also recognizes the utility of combining a large lecture session with small discussions sections and thereby obtain the reactions and comments of the students.

My memories of my first exposure as a student to lecturing 58 years ago as a freshman at Grinnell College are fuzzy at best, but I do not recall being provided with tips on how to take full advantage of this form of instruction. I now wish I had been told how to listen, to be mindful and to synthesize as I listened. I wish I had had a professor assign one student in each session to present a critique of the lecture’s argument at the next class session. Of course, then all notes of a lecture were handwritten.

As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford, 1961-1963, attendance at university lectures on these subjects, often by world-famous scholars, was optional. I attended some primarily to see and hear such people as philosophers A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, economist J. R. Hicks and legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, but regrettably I did not regularly do so. (Instead my attention was focused on tutorials as discussed below.)

As a law student at the University of Chicago, 1963-1966, the Socratic method was the dominant form of instruction, not lectures. The latter instead were formal occasions for all the students and faculty, usually provided by visiting scholars and judges. (The Socratic method also will be discussed below.)

In addition, I was a lecturer when I taught a course on the American Civil Law System at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm, when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law, when I was an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and when I was on the faculty of various continuing legal education courses while I was a practicing lawyer. That experience required me to review the material to be covered, to conduct any additional research I deemed necessary, to determine the main points to emphasize, to construct an outline for what I wanted to cover in the lecture and, in some cases, to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for use at the lecture.

Other Lectures

All of us obtain information and are educated, or not, in other oral presentations throughout our lives. I think of major political speeches like the State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses; other speeches at public events; and sermons at churches.

When, for example, I listen to speeches or presentations at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, I sometimes take handwritten notes and submit proposed questions for the moderator to ask the speaker. Later I also can go to the Forum’s website to re-listen to the speech. I also have written blog posts about some of these presentations. Another recent source of lectures for me is those offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of the University of Minnesota.

For sermons at Westminster Presbyterian Church, I sometimes make handwritten notes of some of the points on the church bulletin in my hands while the morning prayer, hymns and choral anthems usually emphasize some of the sermon’s main points. I also have found that I learn more about the sermon’s lesson by reading its text when it is subsequently posted on the church’s website and by reading and reflecting on the Scripture passages for the sermon; additional insight is often providing by writing a blog post about a sermon.

Seminars

My best educational experience at Grinnell College was taking the Political Economy Seminar my senior year with nine other students and with faculty from the economics, history and political science departments. We read important books in the field, not textbooks, and wrote and presented our papers on the former for discussion by all.

The Washington Semester at American University in the Fall of 1959 provided another type of seminar experience as a group of students from all over the U.S. met with politicians, government officials and others to learn about the operations of the U.S. government and political process.

I also organized and led a liberal arts seminar for lawyers at Grinnell in 1984. After reading various materials, we gathered at the College to discuss American legal history, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), jurisprudence and the lives and challenges of being humane judges and lawyers. Our leaders were a federal appellate judge, a national ADR scholar, an American history professor, a jurisprudence professor and a practicing lawyer.

Being in a book group, for me at Westminster Presbyterian Church, is another seminar experience for groups of 12 or smaller. Reading an assigned book and then gathering for a discussion of the book led by one of the group usually leads to a greater understanding of the book and its issues. For example, I recently led my group in discussing David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” after I had written about the book in this blog.[5]

Research and Writing

During my student years I conducted factual and other research about various subjects and in the process learned a lot about those subjects as well as research skills. The task of then reducing that research into a paper on the subject provided more learning about the subject plus the process of writing such papers. Later as a practicing lawyer these skills were further developed with the aid of the legal process for obtaining evidence in lawsuits, including the examination of witnesses, and the writing of briefs and other legal papers under rules for their contents and length.

The student research paper I best recall was at American University. The topic was how political interest groups participate in important cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more specifically in contempt-of-congress cases in that court. I identified such cases, read the Court’s opinions in the cases, interviewed staffers at the relevant congressional committees (especially the House Un-American Activities Committee) and at the relevant political interest groups (especially the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors) and then spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court’s Library reading the briefs in the case, including those from the ACLU and the AAUP as amici curiae (friends of the court). The paper summarized this research and conclusions.

My enjoyment of research and writing continued as a practicing lawyer, both in my work as a lawyer and as a putative scholar. For example while at Harvard Law School for a short summer course, I spent time in its library doing research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling, both prominent attorneys who were graduates of that Law School and of Grinnell College, and interviewing attorneys at Welch’s Boston law firm, about his representation of the U.S. Army in the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Later I wrote articles about both of them for the Grinnell Magazine [6] and even later with excerpts from the Welch article in this blog.[7]

A similar process was involved as a law student in researching and writing comments for the law review and as a lawyer in writing briefs.

Grinnell College recently has enhanced its use of research and writing as an educational method by adding a public website, The Grinnell Post, that hosts student essays about current events, public debates, and issues of interest to the Grinnell community. Its mission is to allow students to share their work in a public forum and foster conversations with a diverse readership and solicit their comments and criticism.

Another Grinnell effort to incorporate digital technology in the liberal arts is a website, Ashplan, initially devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seeks to foster the inheritance of classroom culture; that is, it forges connections among students studying the same material at different times, allowing new students to benefit from, remix, and add to the work of their predecessors.

Tutorials

As discussed in a prior post, the tutorial was the primary mode of undergraduate education at Oxford. During each week of the three terms of the academic year, I would have two tutorials, usually with only one other student and the tutor and sometimes only by myself with the tutor. The assignment was always in the form of a question with the tutor’s suggestions of books and articles one should read.

As a result, most of my time each week at Oxford was spent in the university libraries reading those sources and other relevant materials, figuring out how I would answer the assigned question and writing an essay setting forth that answer and analysis. Then I would see the tutor again and read my essay for critiquing and discussion.

I loved the independence of this system and being “forced” to come to a conclusion on an issue and to construct my own analysis and documentation for my conclusion. This was exactly the skill that was tested in Oxford’s university-wide examinations at the conclusion of my student-years, as also discussed in a prior post.

Grinnell College now has a First-Year Tutorial for all freshmen in groups of about 12 students that are led by “faculty members . . . from all academic departments . . . in more than 35 topics.” For the Fall of 2015 these include “Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership;“ “Racism: Color, Culture, Class; “ and “The Origins of Capitalism.” Every tutorial emphasizes writing, critical thinking and analysis, and oral presentation and discussion skills. The tutorial professors also serve as the advisers to their tutorial students until they declare a major field of study.

Socratic Method

After the treasured independence of the Oxford undergraduate experience, I initially was shocked in my first weeks in the Fall of 1963 as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now I was in large classes with daily assignments of certain pages in our large casebooks. The professors did not lecture. Instead they cross-examined individual students, one-by-one, about what the holding of a particular case was and what the result should be in a hypothetical case. We were being taught, we were told, how to think like a lawyer.

This method clearly taught you how to read a judicial opinion very carefully (and very painfully and slowly during that first semester of law school), to analyze that opinion to determine what its holding was and to think about the arguments that could be raised in similar, but different, hypothetical cases. Then in class you had to learn how to think on your feet and respond to questions from the professor as you would later do as a lawyer when questioned by a judge.

Reading and analyzing constitutions, statutes and regulations are also important for a lawyer, but I do not have clear memories of how that was done in my law student years. Of course, many judicial opinions concern judicial interpretations of such materials, and the overall law-school emphasis on reading and analyzing judicial opinions covered that methodology.

Learning how to do legal research and write legal briefs is another important part of law school. In addition, being a member of a law review staff and editorial board gives experience in writing and editing articles about legal topics.

Role-Playing

Participating in moot courts and playing the role of a lawyer making an argument to a court is another prominent method of legal education. I did not take advantage of this opportunity in law school as I was busy working on the law review doing legal research and writing and editing articles for the journal.

I, however, employed this method when I taught for one semester at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm. I acted as a trial court judge hearing arguments by students as lawyers on a motion to compel production of a college tenure committee records in a hypothetical lawsuit brought by a professor against a college for denial of tenure. A different kind of role playing in that course was having the students, in lieu of a final examination, play the role of a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and write an opinion deciding a case after reading the briefs in the case along with my memoranda summarizing some of the legal issues and after hearing the case argued before the actual Court.

I also used the moot-court method when I was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; I acted as a federal district court judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a complaint under U.S. federal statutes (the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act) alleging a corporate defendant’s violations of human rights in other countries. I also acted as a judge of an immigration court to hear arguments on whether the court should grant an application for asylum by someone who allegedly had a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country due to political opinion or other protected ground.

I used a different kind of role-playing when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law. In a first-year civil procedure class, I played the role of a law firm partner while the students played the roles of associate attorneys working for me as we collectively identified issues, potential arguments and additional legal research needed for preparing a civil complaint under the strictures of Rule 11’s requiring such a pleading to be warranted by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing the law and by evidentiary support.

In such role-playing exercises, the student learns about procedural and substantive law, identification of legal and evidentiary issues and how to write and analyze briefs and make oral arguments.

In my experience, this is an effective way of learning several areas of law plus the skills of advocacy, and most students appreciate these opportunities to have a taste of what it is like to be a lawyer.

Conclusion

I am fortunate to have experienced different methods of teaching and learning from able practitioners of the different methods. I have learned in each of these settings and cannot say one is better than another. A lot depends on the size of the audience and the stage of your educational career. Seminars and tutorials require a small number of students while lectures are more appropriate, if not required, for a large number of students. I hope that I have been able to convey the same excitement of learning when I have been the instructor.

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[1] Grinnell College, 1957-1961; American University (Washington Semester), 1959; University of Oxford, 1961-1963; University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966; Harvard Law School (Summer Program), 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2001.

[2] Grinnell College, 1982, 1984; University of Iowa College of Law, 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2002-2010.

[3] Worthen, Lecture Me. Really, N.Y. Times Sunday Review (Oct. 18, 2015).

[4] Aaron Fichtelberg, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, strongly disagrees on the value of PowerPoint. Indeed, he argues that it “turns good teachers into mediocre ones and mediocre lectures into a sludge of unengaging facts.” According to him, it “forces rigidity on the content of the course and passivity onto the students.” I agree that sometimes such use is boring. But as with all of these modes of teaching, there are the good and the bad. Other opinions?

[5] The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on the Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

[6] Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2006, at 12; Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21.

[7] Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 10, 2012); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012); Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 12, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”  

Between World & Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided to read “Between the World and Me” after reading David Brooks’ column about the book, watching Charlie Rose’s interview of the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and learning that the book was No. 1 on the New York Times hard-cover nonfiction “Best Seller List.”

Reading the book prompted my conducting research about the book and the author and then reading his earlier memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.” The following sets forth my reactions to all of this information. As always, I invite comments of agreement or disagreement.

“Between the World and Me”

As a white male septuagenarian, I thought this book by a 40-year-old African-American man described a world totally foreign to me. The book thus was another marker of the existence of U.S. racial segregation over the last 40 years. Part of my reaction was due to the author’s using words and names of people and music that meant nothing to me. I also found it difficult to understand his obvious mélange of what had to have been black “street talk” with “standard” English.

I had the sense that the author as he was growing up lived with an omnipresent fear of violence to his black body from his father, from other young black males and from law enforcement personnel and that this fear has produced an omnipresent rage. In his words, that rage “burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

There were only two exceptions to this fear and anger, as I read the book.

The first was when he attended Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the preeminent higher education institution for African-Americans, which he called The Mecca with so many beautiful young black women (“jennies”), with so many black people doing so many different things, with professors from other countries and with its large collection of books and articles by many black writers and scholars. He also met his future wife there. After six years on and off, however, he dropped out of Howard to pursue a journalism career.[1]

The second was his recent trip with wife and 14-year-old son to Paris France for an escape from concerns about race while experiencing the gastronomic and cultural wonders of that great city. He also told Charlie Rose that his Paris trip was due to his love of the French language and wanting to see how France deals with its problems and to expose his son to other parts of the world. At least the first of these reasons motivated earlier black authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who are briefly quoted in the book on racial issues, to spend significant amounts of time in Paris.[2] This love of Paris, however, could not obscure for Ta-Nehisi the fact that the French had colonized many parts of Africa and had taken advantage of its black people.

Coates told the Baltimore Sun the book was intended to tell a black audience “’I see your pain, and you’re not crazy.’ There’s racism, and then there’s the mind-tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn’t real.”

The title of the book puzzled me, and its inclusion in an extract in the book’s preface from a poem by Richard Wright, an African-American author and poet, did not help. I then searched and found the complete poem and discovered it was about the impact on a black man of his discovering evidence of the past lynching of another black man. I then concluded that the book’s title meant that white men’s violence against black men always comes between Coates and his perceptions of the rest of the world. Is that right? Here is the complete Wright poem (with the excerpt quoted in Ta-Nehisi’s book in bold):

“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled 
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun…. “

“The Beautiful Struggle”

Beautiful Struggle

Coates’ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published seven years earlier. It covers the first 18 years of his life and, therefore, overlaps some of the time period discussed in the new book. I was surprised to discover that I thought the two books were describing two different men. Indeed, the use of the adjective “beautiful” for the earlier account of his first 18 years would not be apt for the telling of the same story, in part, in the recent book  Of course, Coates in 2015 is different from the man he was when he wrote the memoir in 2008. Now he is reacting, in part, to the horrible recent killings of unarmed black men: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to name a few.

In “The Beautiful Struggle” we learn that unlike so many young black men in the 1970’s and 80’s Coates had parents who were educated and concerned about his education and well-being.

Although Coates said he feared his father, William Paul Coates, and thought he was a “practicing fascist” mandating books to read and banning religion, his father also was an important figure in his life. The father was a Vietnam veteran, an early member of the Black Panther Part and an early collector and re-publisher of books and other writings of black authors. His father earned a B.A. degree from Antioch College and a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University and worked at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center, which is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Thus, many of the names of black authors mentioned in “Between the World and Me” perhaps were not discovered by Ta-Nehisi when he was a Howard student, but already were known to him through his father’s work.

His father’s interest in black culture also explains Coates’ first name, Ta-Nehisi, which “The Beautiful Struggle” says is an ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubians in Africa.

His parents’ desire for their son to have an excellent education was exhibited when as a fourth grader he was sent to local private schools for tests and hoped-for scholarships But Ta-Nehisi was not interested and did not do well on the exams so the private school option was foreclosed.

After doing reasonably well in ninth grade at William H. Lemmel Middle School in Baltimore, Ta Nehisi pleased his parents by gaining admittance to the City’s preeminent public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which emphasized sciences, technology, engineering and math. He, however, did not do well there and was expelled at the end of his junior year after he failed English and was in a fight with another student in the cafeteria.

Afterwards, his father said, “Ta-Nehisi, you are a disgrace to this family’s name.” For the son, that hurt because he had completely let his father down and because “I’d failed myself. No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail.”

Earlier that year after the family had moved to a large suburban home, Ta-Nehisi participated in an African-American ritual, Ankobia, to celebrate those who lead in battle, setting the standard for courage and commitment; this ritual was organized and taught by Pan-African black American activists.

He, therefore, experienced (and presumably enjoyed), at ages 16 to 18, the suburban lifestyle that he castigates in “Between Me and the World:” a life style “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.”

For his senior year of high school Ta-Nehisi attended Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School and turned around his poor record at Poly. His grades improved. He gave a speech at a school assembly about Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black Nationalism and the Pan-Africanism movement. Ta-Nehisi became a peer counselor and conflict resolution person. He applied to four colleges, including Howard, and was admitted to all of them and decided to go to Howard as the memoir ends.

Conclusion

The Charlie Rose interview reveals Coates as a calm, sensitive, rational, intelligent human being rather than a wild-eyed extremist who cannot get over the legitimate fears and anger of his childhood, an impression easily left by his later book.

In that interview Rose pressed Coates on whether the message of combating white supremacy or the process of writing was more important for him. Coates eventually admitted that writing was more important because he loves the challenge of writing and that eventually he might use his writing skills to do something else like writing a novel.

He also said he was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s beautiful writing, and many have commented on Coates’ new book’s adopting the same form as Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew:” a letter to a black male relative (son for Coates and nephew for Baldwin) about violence against blacks. Coates’ comments about his love of writing and of Baldwin’s literary skills leave a lingering question: was his recent book an intentional or subconscious attempt to try to write like Baldwin? (I do not have the literary knowledge to answer that question.)

Coates also told Charlie Rose that he does not share the optimism and hope of many African-Americans and that he does not believe racial progress was or will be automatic or preordained, which was his interpretation of the famous saying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This interpretation of that saying, however, in my opinion, is clearly erroneous. No one can seriously believe that progress on racial issues or on any other social or political issue is automatic or preordained. Such progress or change requires a lot of work and sacrifice to advocate change and to mobilize public opinion in favor of such change. There will be disappointments or failures along the way, and that is why people in the struggle need words of encouragement and hope like these words of Dr. King. Indeed, Coates conceded to Rose that as a result of activists and pressure, there has been progress on racial issues in the U.S. since the Civil War.

In addition, Coates said he thought that President Obama’s recent eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina was the greatest presidential address he has ever heard. To see and hear it again, as in this video, still brings tears to all people of good will. Some of the President’s words also undercut Coates’ lack of appreciation for the importance of religious faith and of black churches in the struggle for racial progress. The President said:

  • “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life, a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.  They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.”

I join David Brooks in his previously cited column in disagreeing with Coates’ total rejection of the American Dream. According to Brooks, “The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements.”

======================================================

[1] For the next eight years or so after leaving Howard, Coates was a journalist with freelance jobs, alternative weeklies, and magazines but never for more than two years at a time. In 2008, he published his memoir and then landed at The Atlantic, initially as a blogger; later, as a national editor.

[2] Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his 1940 novel “Native Son” and his 1945 autobiography “Black Boy;” his poem, quoted at the end of the first part of this blog post, provides the title for Coates’ book. James Baldwin (1924 –1987) is well known for Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956 The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Coates on page 133 of his book quotes from Baldwin’s essay, “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies,” a paragraph of which is contained in the Appendix to this post. Coates also quotes two other African-American poets whose full poems are in the attached Appendix: Sonia Sanchez (p.3) without Coates telling the reader the full poem is about Malcolm X; and Amiri Baraka (p. 73).

===================================================

APPENDIX

I. Reviews of “Between the World and Me”

Bennett, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a Generation Waking Up, New Yorker (July 15, 2015)

Brooks, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

Harris, The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Magazine (July 12, 2015),

Ip, Ta-Nehisi Coates defines a new race beat, Columbia Journalism Rev. (Oct. 29, 2014) Johnson, An Updated Racial Hustle, City Journal (Aug. 2, 2015)

McCauley, Ta-Nehisi Coates on the roots of racial violence, Balt. Sun (July 18, 2015),

Remnick, Charleston and the Age of Obama, New Yorker (June 19, 2015),

Schuessler, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Visceral’ Take on Being Black in America, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

II. Other Writings by, and Interviews of, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates, American Girl, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2009) (article about Michelle Obama)

Coates, Between the World and My Book Club: Your Final Critical Thoughts, The Atlantic (Aug. 8, 2015)

Coates, List of Articles in The Atlantic

Coates, My 10 Favorite Books: Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2015)

Coates, Ta-Nehisi News (Blog of the most recent and crucial events in the social, political and cultural life of the U.S.)

Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014)

PBS NewsHour, Interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates: We accept violence against African-Americans as normal (July 23, 2015)

III. Richard Wright

Biography

Richard Wright’s Poem, “Between the World and Me

IV. Sonia Sanchez

Biography: Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver, September 9, 1934) is an African-American poet most often associated with the Black Arts Movement. She has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as plays and children’s books. She was a recipient of 1993 Pew Fellowships in the Arts.

“Malcolm [X]”

do not speak to me of martyrdom                                                                                   of men who die to be remembered                                                                                 on some parish day                                                                                                               I don’t believe in dying                                                                                                         though I too shall die                                                                                                             and violets like castanets                                                                                                     will echo me.

Yet this man                                                                                                                               this dreamer,                                                                                                                             thick-lipped with words                                                                                                         will never speak again                                                                                                             and in each winter                                                                                                                   when the cold air cracks                                                                                                         with frost, I’ll breathe                                                                                                             his breath and mourn                                                                                                             my gun-filled nights.

he was the sun that tagged                                                                                                   the western sky and                                                                                                               melted tiger-scholars                                                                                                             while they searched for stripes.                                                                                         he said, “fuck you white                                                                                                       man, we have been                                                                                                                 curled too long. nothing                                                                                                         is sacred now. not your                                                                                                           white face nor any                                                                                                                   land that separates                                                                                                                 until some voices                                                                                                                     squat with spasms.

Do not speak to me of living.                                                                                                 life is obscene with crowds                                                                                                     of white on black.                                                                                                                     death is my pulse.                                                                                                                     what might have been                                                                                                             is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       floods the womb until I drown.”

Sanchez, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (emphasis added)

V. Amiri Baraka 

Biography: Born in 1934, Amiri Baraka was raised in USA. Having studied Philosophy and Religion at Columbia University, he has a sound knowledge of these subjects that also reflects well in his writings. He is a well known African-American writer of fiction, drama, poetry and music. With books such as Tales of the Out and the Gone, he has received the PEN Open Book Award and is also respected as one of the most widely published African American authors of his generation. Apart from writing, Baraka is considered as a revolutionary political activist and has given lectures on various political and cultural issues extensively throughout Europe, Africa, USA and the Caribbean.

Ka’Ba
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.

Our world is full of sound 
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s 
tho we suffer, and kill each other 
and sometimes fail to walk the air

We are beautiful people 
With african imaginations 
full of masks and dances and swelling chants 

with african eyes, and noses, and arms 
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place 
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor                                                                                                         to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new

correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

VI. James Baldwin 

Biography: James Arthur Baldwin (1924 –1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racialsexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if un-nameable tensions.[1] Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work(1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni’s Room (1956).[2] Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is said to be his best-known work.

“On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies”

“[The Europeans who came here paid the price of becoming “white.] And [they] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife— looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.” Baldwin, On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies, in Roediger (editor0, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means To Be White at 177-180) (emphasis added).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Brooks Speaks on “The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church
David Brooks @ Westminster
David Brooks @ Westminster

This was the title of David Brooks’ May 14th presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum. An appreciative audience of over 3,000 filled the Sanctuary and other rooms at the church to hear the talk and demonstrated why he called Westminster his “favorite venue.”[1]

Both the talk and his recent book, “The Road to Character,”[2] emphasize “modesty and humility” and assert that “human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness” and that “character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.” This at least is what the Syllabus for his “Humility” course at Yale University states. Or as he said in his talk, we are “splendidly endowed, but deeply broken.”

Brooks recalled with gratitude three personal uplifting moments. One was observing his then three young children playing on a beautiful day. Another was watching women in Maryland teaching English to immigrants. The last was sitting at a luncheon next to the Dali Lama and experiencing his inner joy and laughter. These moments produced David’s overwhelming sense of gratitude to have experienced these moments of higher joy, an enlargement of his own heart and an acknowledgement that these had happened to him by the grace of God.

Because issues of morals and character in western culture have been discussed by Christian theologians, his book uses their vocabulary. We need to recover and perhaps modernize that vocabulary, said Brooks, especially to recover the meaning and importance of the concept of sin.

He also mentioned that many contemporary U.S. politicians feel compelled to promote and advertise themselves and as a result start to believe their own propaganda. Exceptions of politicians of modesty and honesty are former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Westminster member who was in the audience; Minnesota’s former U.S. Senator David Durenberger; and current U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

His book provides biographical sketches of how 10 different people in different ways created disciplines that built character. He mentioned the following six of them in his talk.

Ida Stover by age 11 had lost both of her parents and then was an overworked indentured servant in another household, but at age 15 she left to be on her own, to get a job and an education. Later she married David Eisenhower, became Ida Eisenhower and raised five sons, one being Dwight D. Eisenhower. After Ike threw a temper tantrum at age 10, Ida paraphrased Proverbs 16:32 to him: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater that he who taketh a city.”[3] In other words, the central drama of your life is fighting against your own sinfulness and weaknesses. Many years later Ike said this was one of the most valuable moments of his life that helped him to recognize his temper as a weakness and to develop techniques to prevent it from interfering with his leading others.

Frances Perkins was a genteel graduate of Mount Holyoke College who found her vocation of improving worker safety by happening to be a witness to the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in Manhattan, in which many workers lost their lives. She responded to what the world was demanding of her.

Augustine for many years resisted his mother’s efforts to become a Christian, but after he had done so, the two of them shared a beautiful moment in a garden just before she died when “all the clamors of the world slipped into silence” and were “hushed.”

Dorothy Day, a social activist, near the end of her life started to write her “life remembered,” but could not do so. Instead she “thought of our Lord [Jesus], and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!” Day’s “The Long Loneliness” shows her intense self-criticism, her discovery of her vocation and her humility. It is one of Brooks’ favorite books and also of the students in his Yale course on humility.[4]

George Eliot (born Mary Anne Evans) obtained character through her love for George Lewes, and such love, according to Brooks, humbles a person, making you realize you are not in control of your own life; allows you to express tenderness and vulnerability; de-centers your self; and fuses two individuals together.

Brooks advised the high school students in the audience to make the following commitments by the time they were at least in their mid-30’s: adopting an existing faith or philosophy of life; choosing a vocation; getting married; and choosing a community in which to live. Although he did not say so, these commitments may change during your life.

With respect to the marriage commitment, Brooks quoted this beautiful excerpt from a beautiful wedding toast that was offered by his friend and noted American author, Leon Weiseltiere, to an unnamed couple:

  • “Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach. It will not be accelerated, or made efficient: love’s pace is its pace, one of the fundamental temporalities of mortal existence, and it will not be rushed or retarded by even the most glittering pressures of service or success. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it — a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist one in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses, but we may not be idols.”

The unnamed couple who were thus toasted were (a) Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the author of the award-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and a former Harvard Law School Professor and (b) Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School Professor, an acclaimed author and a former aide to President Obama.

======================================================

[1] The audio recording of the speech is available online and later the video of same will be added. . Brooks’ prior appearances at the Forum, also to overflow audiences, are also available online: “The Historic Election of Barack Obama” (Nov. 13, 2008) and “The Social Animal: Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (Mar. 31, 2011).

[2] The recent book was discussed in the following prior posts: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character “ (May 1, 2015) and David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015). Brooks has created a website about the new book to foster readers’ comments about character.

[3] The Authorized King James Version of Proverbs 16:32 states: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

[4] The Dorothy Day book is on the 2013 edition of the Syllabus for Brooks’ “Humility” seminar at Yale. The other books on the syllabus as well as the topics covered in the seminar make one wish to be a student again. In light of Brooks’ recent book’s not including biographical sketches of any Jewish people and his comments on that omission to a Jewish critic, it is noteworthy that the Syllabus describes one seminar session as being devoted to Moses, the “most humble man on earth;” the “Jewish formula of character building through obedience to the law;” the “way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge;” and the Book of Exodus as the reading. The Yale seminar has prompted comments by a student who was in the seminar, criticism of the Syllabus and Brooks’ defense of the seminar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar

David Brooks
David Brooks

CharacterIn The Road to Character,[1] as noted in a prior post, David Brooks asserts in the last chapter, ““No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.” (Emphasis added.)

But the book does not identify such an exemplar (an admired person who deserves to be copied). Brooks’ short biographies of ten individuals do not suggest, at least to me, that any of them should be an exemplar. Yes, each of them can be admired for certain aspects of their lives, but they are hardly exemplars.[2]

Instead Brooks describes an ideal exemplar in these words from the first chapter. “[C]ertain people seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are . . . the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain.”

Such people “seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

“They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly accused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service. . . . They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.”

Such people, Brooks says, “are the people we are looking for.”

Look no further, Mr. Brooks. Such an individual has been found. He is Jesus Christ!

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). A lengthy interview of Brooks provides fascinating background for the book and his thinking about religion and other topics. (Bailey, Interview: David Brooks on sin, Augustine and the state of his soul, Wash. Post (May 1, 2015).)

[2] These individuals are Francis Perkins, Dorothy Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne.

The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks “The Road to Character”

David Brooks
David Brooks

Character

David BrooksThe Road to Character [1] makes the legitimate point that too often in contemporary society all of us emphasize what he calls “résumé virtues” at the expense of “eulogy virtues.”  [2]

In the final chapter, Brooks sets forth the following as what he regards as the most important eulogy or moral virtues:

  1. “We . . . live for holiness . . . ., [for lives of ] purpose, righteousness, and virtue.”
  2. Living lives of purpose, righteousness and virtue “defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature . . . [:] we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence . . . . to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do things but end up doing the opposite.”
  3. We “are also splendidly endowed. . . . We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.”
  4. “In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. . . . Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.”
  5. “Pride is the central vice. . . . Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. . . . Pride deludes us into thinking we are the authors of our own lives.”
  6. “Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. . . . This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd.”
  7. “Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment.”
  8. “The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. . . . People with character . . . are anchored by permanent attachments to important things.”
  9. “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.”
  10. “We are all ultimately saved by grace. . . . It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. . . . [You] are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.”
  11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. . . . The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement—reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing—and a capacity for reverence and admiration.”
  12. “Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts. . . . The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness . . . [and] understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. . . . [Wisdom] is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”
  13. “No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. . . . [which] is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?”
  14. “The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. . . . [He] prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. . . . [He] prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden.” [2]
  15. “The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin . . . will become mature. . . . [Maturity] is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.”

Most of the book is devoted to short biographies of ten individuals who struggled against sin and weaknesses and who demonstrated that such a struggle is, in Brooks’ words, “the central drama of life” and that “character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. [3]

For a Jewish man like Brooks, many of the words in this list sound amazingly like Christian theology: sin, humility, pride, vocation, saved, grace, redemption. Moreover, most, if not all, of the biographical subjects in the book were serious or nominal Christians, and none is Jewish like Brooks. The only reference I found to Jewish thought is the Introduction’s use of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s creation of the notions of Adam I, whom Brooks characterizes as the “external résumé Adam,” and Adam II, whom Brooks calls the one “who wants to have a serene inner character.”

In an interview on NPR, Brooks admitted that he is “a believer” and for this book has been “reading a lot of theology” which has “produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart. But it’s also fragile and green [and] I don’t really talk about it because I don’t want to trample the fresh grass.”

Moreover, at last October’s annual meeting of The Gathering, “a community of Christian givers actively providing opportunities for education, challenge, connection and encouragement to people all over the world, as well as one another,” Brooks delivered a speech, “How to be Religious in the Public Square.” He said he “spend[s] a lot of time in the Christian world” and before he criticized some Christians’ creation of walls of separation from others, he said, “I want you to know I am for you and I love you.” Brooks then affirmed “ramps” to the Christian life, saying, “There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ.”

A Jewish critic asked Brooks why there were no Jewish subjects in the book. The response: “an earlier version included a chapter on Moses. He was the meekest man on earth and yet called to lead. He was humble enough to try to get out of it. That basic humility, the wrestling — the Greeks and Romans didn’t know what to do with Moses’ style of leadership. But the Moses chapter ended up on the cutting room floor because the great biblical prophet didn’t leave a trove of personal writings the way other characters did.” [4]

I wholeheartedly agree with Brooks that “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.” Providing such assistance is a major duty for family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions and institutions like congregations, both Christian and Jewish. A subsequent post will discuss our shared need for “redemptive assistance from exemplars.”

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). The New York Times review of the book, in my opinion, is a very unhelpful grappling with the book. (Iyer, Résumé vs. Eulogy, N.Y. Times Book Review (April 29, 2015).)  Much more on point is Gerson, David Brooks’ new book: ‘The Road to Character,’ and a path to grace, Wash. Post (April 23, 2015), A review in the Guardian from London complains, “Any reference to how economics – the lack of money or status – shapes character is myopically absent.” (Roberts, The Road to Character review—a smug search for the roots of good nature, Guardian (April 20, 2015).)

[2] Item 14 about leadership seems out of place on this list of moral virtues. It is a succinct statement of a classical conservative political philosophy ala Edmund Burke, and one may certainly be a moral person and an exponent of this philosophy. But, in my opinion, this point is not a sine qua non of moral virtue. For similar reasons, I also wonder whether item 12 about “epistemological modesty” should be in this list of moral virtues.

[3] The subjects of these short biographies are Frances Perkins (“The Summoned Self”); Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Self-Conquest”); Dorothy Day (“Struggle”)’ George C. Marshall (“Self-Mastery”); A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin(“Dignity”); George Eliot (“Love”); St. Augustine (“Ordered Love”); and Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne (“Self Examination”).

[4] Eisner, The Road to David Brooks’ Character, Forward (April 23, 2015).