Saturday, October 20, 2018

Book Review: 'The Road to Character' by David Brooks

David Brooks, a respected political Journalist of the Republican persuasion, undoubtedly tempered by his self-exile from the party, here writes an introspective book, a tutorial on character as it were, designed as much to take a deeper look into his own soul, as to try to save the soul of the spiritually dying nation that we all profess to love.

Noticing a shift in the nation's cultural character since the end of WW-II, Brooks zeros-in on the difference as a shift in the process of American character-building -- from a "culture of humility" to the present "culture of the Big me." The reference point Brooks uses to index this change, comes from the much muted response he observed in a "Command Performance" by a group of Hollywood stars of that era as they celebrated the winning of WW-II. The vast difference in then and now struck Brooks as being not just symbolic, but perhaps a difference that signaled a turning point in the moral ecology of the nation.

The utter understated humility and humbleness shown by the stars then, as opposed to what today surely would have been the national equivalent of an "end-zone dance" (on the order of ex-President GW Bush's, video-taped miscalculation of a "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, as his own version of an end-zone dance was performed on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln), struck Brooks as a dividing line between a flawed nation, once self-consciously struggling to build a stronger national character, and today's equally flawed, but now morally lost nation, rapidly receding away from even a semblance of its own self-described democratic moral center and sensibilities. As a US delegate to the UN for more than twenty years, I can attest to the fact that over the last generation, the nation's moral currency has been consistently devalued.

What to do?

Brooks elects to take us along on his own deeper journey into self-discovery by giving one of the finest, most well-researched, and one of the most understandable expositions of the elements of character one is likely to find in the modern literature. With great patience, and even greater precision, the author again recites to us the ABCs of morality, and shows us how these elements might connect to building a stronger national character. And although the book covers much of the same ground and many of the same lessons on the meaning of honor, duty, loyalty, courage, bravery and humility that we all once learned in Sunday School, High School, or the Boy Scouts; and that have also appeared in books by other authors as varied as ex-President Jimmy Carter, William Bennett, Chuck Colson, Lynn Cheney, and mega-Church Minister, Joel Osteen, this book is different, much deeper, with a new updated much more precise vocabulary of morality, sprinkled with a palpable sense of urgency.

Brooks also uses Americans, both famous and infamous, to give us anecdotal evidence of how character is built. We get to see how others have been confronted with, and have managed to summon up the courage to surmount the same kind of moral dilemmas that the current morally-constipated generation faces each day. Today's is a generation that many, including myself, see as one that has used Ayn Rand's vulgar philosophy to fetishize money-making into a new kind of secularized god of capitalist materialism. It does not help that the present generation is also now being "led from behind" by a limp-wrist president whose moral center is so wishy-washy that it shifts with the prevailing political winds, and that he is one who after nearly eight years -- with GW's renditions, Guantanamo, torture, drone attacks, and oppression of whistleblowers -- cannot seem to be able to keep the nation's moral steering wheel in the center of the road?

I can attest to the fact that the young people coming out of some of our finest universities today, are merely chomping at the bits to become corporate "sell outs," ideological shills for some low-minded profit-making "sell out America cheaply" global coporate scheme. It is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that we have succeeded in producing a generation without a moral core, a generation wholly lacking a steady reliable moral compass.

And in this regard, the reader is sure not to miss the fact that the subtext of Mr. Brooks' lessons in morality and character are directed mostly at them, and then as a secondary target, mostly at his own political party, the self-described party of stupid, the same Republican Party that has excommunicated him. Thus, altogether this is a sobering read that I could continue writing about forever, but will spare the reader an endlessly long review, by ending with the first time I myself learned about the meaning of character:

It occurred as I was preparing to enter the12th grade in an academically competitive all-black High School (Yes, there once was such a thing!). Me and my buddy, (the now) Dr. Kenneth F. Caudle (Keno), of Tampa, Florida, strategized over how one of us would win the class valedictorian over our number one nemesis, the much feared, (now) Dr. Clifton Roaf (Cliff), who had excelled at the genius level throughout both Junior and Senior High School, and thus in addition to being a national merit finalist, was also one of the smartest in our class. But what gave us even more angst than his utter brilliance, was the fact that he also had been the teacher's pet since Junior High School.

The problem was how to face in the coming senior year, the imminent danger presented to our GPAs, called "Physics." Since we already knew what book would be used, I came up with the brilliant idea that all we had to do was order the text book over the summer; work through the problems; and voila! be ready to make an "A" in Mr. Bankston's 12th grade Physics class. And since I did not have the $12.95 that the book cost, I wrote a fake letter "posing" as a teacher, knowing that the company would then send me a free trial copy of the text book, which it did. In fact the strategy worked out better than either of us could have anticipated, when in addition to a copy of the text book, the package also came with the teacher's key and every problem in the book worked out!

Now comes a moral dilemma that was my first real test in character. When I called Keno to inform him of our unexpected windfall, it came as a great surprise to me that, he balked? His immediate reaction was: How the hell are we going to learn physics if we look at the answers before doing the problems? And plus Keno added, he was not about to have his winning of the class valedictorian tainted by having cheated in Physics.

Well, at first, I thought my buddy must have gone completely mad, had water on his brain, that he must have been nuts to think like that? But then, ever so slowly and ever so painfully, and ever so privately, it dawned on me that my buddy was absolutely right: What kind of Physicists would we become, if we had cheated our way through High School Physics? Eventually we made a very unsteady pact, but one that neither of us violated: that we would not look at the answers, or analysis, before working the problems out for ourselves. Keno never saw the book, I had it, and it was like a poison pill, like "trying not to think about a white elephant." Having it haunted my conscience. I not only did not want to look at the answers, I no longer wanted that book around at all.

Well, the upshot of the lesson in morality is that we all eventually went on to "earn" an "A" in Physics, and Keno and Cliff went on to tie with perfect 3.0 GPAs and shared the 1959 Valedictorian honors at Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I was an "also ran," at a GPA of 2.73. Cliff went off to Michigan State to play varsity football and become a Dentist in our hometown, and Keno went on to get a PhD in Physics from the University of Maryland, and became a highly regarded Physicists at the White Oak Naval Weapons Systems Laboratory, in Silver Spring, Maryland. I got a Doctorate at USC and became a college Professor, turned diplomat.

I told this story at Keno's retirement party, but failed to mention the most important part, that neither of us ever looked at the answers to the physics problems, and that Keno only called me once to check to see if a problem he had solved was correct. It was. I still owe him a great debit of gratitude for shining light into a moral soul that had not yet awaken to the possibilities of how to go about building character. To me, David Brooks' book is the perfect coda to a long journey -- both his and ours. I highly recommend this book. Five Stars

Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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