David Brooks’ dignity class – dismissed

7 July 2009

On my Facebook today a “friend” – to the extent that anyone on Facebook is actually a friend – posted an article by David Brooks in yesterday’s Times.  The article, entitled “In Search of Dignity,” is his attempt to examine dignity in public life.  He concludes that “the dignity code [after a list of precepts of George Washington’s] has been completely obliterated.”  In public life and in general public behavior, if I’m not stretching his point too far, we have lost something.  An uprightness, perhaps.

I feel like the fact that this is hogwash should go without saying, but it is sadly consistent with a certain mindset.  Often conservatives, like Brooks, have a tendency to see everything as-it-was as superior to what-it’s-like-now, the latter evincing the (inevitable?) moral decay of a self-obsessed society.  Lest I generalize lopsidedly, it’s often matched by a perception amongst liberals and progressives, to which I am far from immune, that pines for what dreams may come at the expense of our benighted, backwards present.  It is a fallacy of thinking to which none are immune and everybody should resist.  And yet, and yet…

What is dignity?  In an old episode of The Simpsons, of which I can find neither picture nor video, where Milhouse and Bart’s parents are playing Charades.  Milhouse’s Dad draws a bizarre square with a circle in the middle, and when time expires he screams, “Duh!  It’s dignity!” to which the others react with increduilty.  Milhouse’s long-suffering mother then gets up, writes something, and the crowd mumbles, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely dignity,” with admiration and awe.  Obviously they don’t show what she drew.

Not dignity

Not dignity

The purpose of that is that dignity is not some picturable, quantifiable thing.  It’s not a giraffe.  Much like porn, we – we – know it when we see it.  You come up with a definition, fine; it will probably not satisfy anybody but you.  What David Brooks means when he talks about dignity is at first unclear – the fact that he’s doing so abstractly means he has to have something in mind, but he doesn’t let on.  The two quotes he offers from Washington are actually fairly banal social courtesies – standing when people enter the room, not reading in the presence of company.

Lest you think that dignity to Brooks consists only of trite public kabuki, he writes:

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.

The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.

At the risk of making a mockery of my own point, this definition of dignity is crap.  Not only is it crap – were it actually the character of dignity we would find it not a virtue but deeply socially and morally corrosive.

But let’s start from the same premise.  Dignity being what something we see rather than know, Washington was a dignified man.  I defy anyone to say otherwise.  He was a man loyal, decent, reluctant to anger, vigorous at war and generous at peace, private, sensitive, thoughtful.  He was not the soul of virtue.  No man is.  But whatever dignity is, he had it.

It had absolutely nothing to do with some code, written or unwritten.  Washington maybe wrote down what he did as a courtesy to a friend, as a thought exercise, out of ennui.  I don’t know.  But what he wrote is a manifestation, not a summation, of the dignity he had.  And it was only his way.  How, precisely, was Washington’s “dignity code” (or the one America was supposed to have itself had) an artificial system designed for restraining passion?  Nobody made him write what he did or do those things, and plenty of people didn’t, then and now.  He did it because he thought it right.  You know he was a man of dignity precisely because it wasn’t artificial, but a duty he felt he had to his fellows.

Not dignity

This is what I find so objectionable at Brooks’ piece – the idea that dignity is something timeless and unchanging and specific, such that my generation and his will be judged against generations long past.  It’s unfair to both and a historical lie.  In Washington’s time it would have been considered as offensive or more that a servant use the front entrance as that a man failed to stand on the entrance of a lady.  What sort of dignity is it that treats a person differently because of an arbitrary class distinction?  Washington certainly subscribed to no such belief while he lay resting on the grass with his troops after Monmouth.  But yet that would not be thought proper – dignified – by the standard of the day.

Not dignity

Not dignity

Even speaking of a dignity code is, frankly, wrong.  It implies that dignity is merely manners, passed from parent to child and a form of social shorthand.  Worse it may imply something deeper, intrinsic and decent but that must forever be tied to an unchangeable principle.  This is silly.  What made Washington dignified was that he was able to look a changing world in the face and deal with it, not in a haughty, controlling and moralizing way but with grace and good humor.  He was able to run the country and make decisions, for he was a leader; but uniquely he was able to imagine a country he loved that he didn’t run.  Hence why he stepped down after merely two terms; hence why he refused to be King.  Washington was cheerful in the face of disaster and the failings of himself and others – master over what he could control and strong in the fact of what he could not.  Most of all his mind was not set on world of absolutes.  How else could he imagine one without a Royal Governor of Virginia – much less with a President and not a King?

This is what I mean about dignity – it can imagine a world that’s different and flawed and out of its control but still

Not dignity

Not dignity

worth fighting for.  It’s rare not because of the depravity of our times but because it implies a willingness not to try to control the world and lock itself in.  What Brooks has in mind is not dignity.  It’s moral power, potency, and it implies domination.  Domination over emotions: hence “dispassion”; domination over conditions: hence “disinterest”; domination even over care: hence “reticence.”  A dignified man is some sort of human being who transcends their humanity to become some brain-in-a-jar public man.  No dignity this, but death.

Whether a President campaigns from a porch or a train or a space shuttle has nothing to do with dignity.  Neither does holding doors for women, speaking of emotions in public or anything like that.  These are manners, and if David Brooks wants to object to the erosion of change in those he may do so until he’s blue in the face.  But I beg that this not be confused with something so important and rare as dignity.  A person of dignity will not merely operate within whatever the manners of the time are but will surpass them in virtue for no reason other than that they can.  And a person of dignity will be human, not some computerized moral decisionmaking system.  Are Mark Sanford, Michael Jackson or the other negative examples Brooks offers dignified?  I don’t know.  But I would submit that one tearful press conference or even a whole life lived in unwanted spotlight are not disproofs.  They’re errors.  They’re human.

Not dignity... but not bad, either

Not dignity... but not bad, either

Dignity is human.  It’s authentic.  It’s passionate if it needs to be, studied and careful if that.  Bombastic or muted, puny or giant, enthusiastic or hesitant, dignity comes in no specific flavor and is marked by no time.  It is about people bettering themselves, not transcending themselves into godhood.  Washington lost more than he won and he made bad choices.  And he didn’t stop, either, but kept at it.

Dignity is recognizing that you are your choices, not others’.  This is as true practically as it is ethically.  No “dignity code” can make me dignified; it can only make me tolerable.  Anything beyond that is up to me, and it is most certainly not up to David Brooks, pining for a noble past projected into a wealthy future, where gentlemen in plus-fours and indoor plumbing coexist.  Washington waited for no one to tell him how he should behave and he did not whine about how others did, how they used to and how they should.  He didn’t expect others to set an example.  He set it, and they could do as they liked.  This is a lesson that David Brooks should consider next time he decides people aren’t living up to his expectations.  Physician – heal thyself!

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3 Responses to “David Brooks’ dignity class – dismissed”

  1. Dan Abbott Says:

    Without a moral compass there can be no real dignity, as virtue demands a “true north”.


    • I don’t think the two are so intimately related. You can be dignified and be wrong (both in the sense of making mistakes and failing morally). It’s how you react to your own fallibility that matters. Righteous living rather than right living, perhaps, though that’s not to devalue the latter


  2. […] in the vein of David Gregory’s recent attack on egalitarianism comes George Will.  (Courtesy of my friend Rich via an apoplectic rant at Kissing Suzy Kolber.)  […]


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