Thursday, July 09, 2009

Is Dignity Just a Veneer?

David Brooks contemplates George Washington's effort to be a true gentleman, comporting his conduct to a set of rules that Brooks believes helped shape both his "inner morals" and "the outward man". I'm not sure how the rules Brooks cites,
“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.
would have any great impact on "inner morals," but I'm not arguing with the larger point. You can embark on a program of self-improvement that focuses both on how you approach others and on what's going on inside your own head.

But despite introducing us to the dignity and self-discipline of George Washington, Brooks quickly loses focus:
As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
So, even a few hundred years ago, people saw Washington's brand of dignity as special and different? Among the founders of our nation, only Washington was dignified? Or is it that, while they respected Washington for his self-discipline, most others felt more free to depart from their dignified public personas when they were behind closed doors?
Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution - that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.
I think Brooks' theory of the Constitution as reflecting some sort of "dignity code" is misplaced. (What language is he contemplating?) I think it would also be more accurate to say that the perspective on mankind as living "in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions", in need of artificial systems to impose restraint, is derived from Christian theology. Brooks simplifies his "dignity code" into three elements:
  • "to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests "

  • "to be reticent - to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public "

  • "to be dispassionate - to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm."

Brooks tells us, "Remnants of the dignity code lasted for decades" - but it's fair to ask, did anything more than those "remnants" survive Washington's presidency? How does this "dignity code" mesh with the circumstances leading to John Adams' signing and enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts?

Brooks elaborates on the code "remnants" that persisted.
For most of American history, politicians did not publicly campaign for president. It was thought that the act of publicly promoting oneself was ruinously corrupting.
Is Brooks arguing that this was correct? That it's undignified for politicians to campaign for office or promote themselves? Even if it means that the general public must vote for a President to whom they haven't really been introduced? Then, for goodness sake, why is he holding up Ronald Reagan, one of the most successful self-promoters in American political history, as the embodiment of dignity? Brooks' next point makes his reasoning more clear:
For most of American history, memoirists passed over the intimacies of private life.
Despite Brooks' commentary on Washington's inner character, it's apparent that what he's really speaking about is public image. It's okay for a politician to relentlessly self-promote, even as he divorces, remarries, and becomes estranged from his children, as long as the public image that results is suitably "dignified". A religious leader can chase every skirt in town as long as it stays out of the papers and he goes home to his wife at night. Why didn't JFK make Brooks' short list of "dignified" politician? His politics and public statements seem to directly evoke Brooks' "dignity code"? Was it the negative media coverage of his personal life?

Although Brooks doesn't give a long list of "dignified" people - beyond George Washington he names "in sports (Joe DiMaggio and Tom Landry), entertainment (Lauren Bacall and Tom Hanks1) or politics (Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr.)" - it's interesting that he names only one woman. The term "dignity" is not one often associated with women, even though as I think about Brooks' explicit "dignity code" it's one that female public figures seem more apt to follow. The word seems a bit gender-loaded.

It's also interesting to see who makes the list and who does not. Katherine Hepburn is less dignified than Lauren Bacall? Or is it that there has been media coverage of her affair with Spencer Tracy? JFK is less dignified than Ronald Reagan? Don't JFK's words and political actions advance the "dignity code" rather explicitly? ("Ask not what your country can do for you....") In both cases, the remnants of the "dignity code", in which the media chose not to cover personal indiscretions, held up pretty well during their lives. Had the media chosen to continue to ignore their personal foibles, would they have made Brooks' list? (Was Thomas Jefferson dignified?)

Brooks next engages in hyperbole:
But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.
Come again?
But it’s not right to end on a note of cultural pessimism because there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity.
Of the four men of politics Brooks can name as "dignified", three are from the past fifty years and one currently serves as President. How does that indicate a trend away from dignity? More to the point, isn't it absurd to argue that "the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated" when there continue to be many who strive, every day, to treat other people well and to maintain internal discipline? Does Brooks consider himself to be undignified?

Brooks lists the reasons for the "demise" of dignity:
  • "First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents." - What does that have to do with capitalism, and how is that different from the rest of human history? Once we stopped allowing people to ascend to positions of political and military leadership based principally or solely on birthright, where can I find the glorious era where society sought out the talented wallflowers for positions of leadership? Even prior to the rise of capitalism it was pretty clear that the meek were not about to inherit the Earth.

  • "Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings." - Who's this "we"? Brooks wasn't raised to behave appropriately in public? To keep his impulses under control? He's raising his children in this fashion? Perhaps Brooks can't see the forest for the trees. It seems to me that most people in the country do pretty well on both fronts.

  • "Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession." - About a quarter of Americans identify themselves as evangelical or Pentecostal. I know that some of the leaders of that movement, or politicians associated with that movement, have engaged in spectacular public confession. But again... forest, trees. Also, how does this tie in with "the cult of naturalism" - is Brooks claiming that evangelical Christians embrace naturalism, or that it's equally an affront to dignity to embrace artifice and repression if you later publicly confess your transgressions?

  • "Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners." - So we're in another paradox - capitalism causes a decline of dignity, but so does any reaction to capitalism that encourages equality? Is Brooks arguing that dignified men like George Washington would scoff at radical egalitarian notions such as "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"? That believing such a thing is truly inconsistent with being well-mannered?

Moreover, Brooks seems to be overlooking the fact that "scandal" has played a persistent role in human history. It might appear that Brooks favors greater consequence from scandalous behavior - being drummed out of polite society, banned from public office, etc. - but he appears to accept that you can remain dignified if your scandalous behavior is appropriately concealed from public view.2 His principal complaints seem to be that scandals are no longer routinely covered up, but instead are often searched out and magnified, and that the media gives enormous attention to scandal. Brooks complains,
Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.
Brooks would have preferred things to be handled the old, "dignified" way, where we would have learned virtually nothing about her during McCain's presidential campaign, the media would have ignored her family (even as she thrust them onto center stage), and her scandals of office (if covered at all) would have been buried somewhere around page 20? I'll grant, the coverage was often tiresome, as was Palin's concerted effort to keep the cameras rolling even as she whined about negative coverage. But is it truly worse that we got the opportunity to see Sarah Palin's actual character, instead of a "dignified" veneer that the media politely refused to puncture?
1. Please, Dan Brown, don't get any ideas. I don't want the next movie trailer I see to be for Tom Hanks in "The Dignity Code".

2. (Added) I had no idea when I wrote this, that Brooks would be sharing the intimate details of "undignified behavior" that he tolerated from a Republican Senator... scarcely out of public view.

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