Wednesday, July 8, 2009



In a recent editorial, David Brooks faulted 21st Century American society for failing to adhere to a “dignity code.” See N.Y. Times July 6, 2009. He begins his argument by applauding George Washington as a “model man,” not just a model General or public official. Brooks observes that Washington scrupulously maintained “dignity” by applying 110 maxims from a manual called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” He says that Washington lived his whole life according to these rules, which cultivated such habits as “standing when another person enters the room,” “refusing to publicly broadcast passions” and “living reticently.” For Brooks, this systematic adherence to 18th Century etiquette represents a lost art. He calls Washington “dignified” for having followed these rules because they resulted in “self-mastery” and “disinterested,” private strength. Against this historical background, he laments that most Americans no longer practice “dignity” because they publicly broadcast their feelings and refuse to submit to “social norms” for guidance in life. Brooks asserts that “the old dignity code has not survived modern life.”

But Brooks is not talking about abstract dignity. He is talking about specific, 18th Century etiquette rules. Of course 18th Century etiquette rules have not survived modern life. It’s only natural that they died centuries ago. Our society has changed out of all recognition from colonial America. Yet Brooks—like many figures in both American government and law—equate George Washington and 18th Century “founding values” with intrinsic worth. See They “fetishize” bygone values such as genteel chivalry and impossibly modest self-control. Brooks notes that, unlike public figures today, Washington refused to publicly air his passions. Rather, his “moral character set him apart.” He was “reticent,” “disinterested,” “dispassionate” and “private.” In Brooks’ estimation, these 18th Century values transformed Washington into a “symbol for dignity.” And—according to Brooks— “dignity is dead” in American life because people do not act like George Washington anymore.

Dignity is not dead in American life. It is just different from 18th Century etiquette codes. Brooks does not understand that the word “dignity” does not refer to George Washington’s personal moral handbook. Rather, “dignity” derives from the Latin word “dignitas,” meaning “worth” or “worthiness.” In English, “dignity” does not mean technical adherence to a particular moral code. Instead, it refers to “bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation.”, “Dignity” Meaning 1. It also means “nobility or elevation of character; worthiness.” Id., at Meaning 2. These definitions stress self-respect, nobility and worth. They do not depend upon allegiance to 18th Century moral norms or etiquette technicalities. They do not involve morality, either. Rather, dignity is a broad term. Dignity involves respect and principle. It implies a refusal to countenance certain “base” conduct, both privately and in government. A “dignified” man refuses to adopt certain means to achieve particular ends, even if the ends are noble. A “dignified government” values its citizens; it ascribes worth to them no matter the circumstances. Both men and governments can be dignified without technically following 18th Century “social norms.” And while “disinterest,” “reticence,” “dispassion” and “privacy” can reflect dignity, a dignified person need not always be disinterested, reticent, dispassionate or private. After all, we are only human. Our feelings, emotions and passions define us as much—if not more—than our reason. If we never give air to our emotions or passions, we renounce our humanity altogether. In short, people and governments can be dignified without following Washington’s 110-step formula from 1750.

Brooks places undue weight on the “technical aspects” of 18th Century dignity. And oddly, he concedes that 18th Century dignity cannot survive in the United States. In a striking admission, he says that “capitalism” makes it virtually impossible to scrupulously adhere to Washington’s “dignity code.” After all, in order to achieve commercial success in America, Brooks says that people must “become managers of [their] own brand, [and] do endless self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast their own talents.” How true. Modern commercial values make it well-nigh impossible to both retain dignity and make money. Commerce forces individuals to engage in undignified behavior because commerce is inherently undignified. Commerce wants results and bottom lines, not dignity. Dignity is about means, not ends. Dignity is about lofty sentiments, principles and nobility. Yet commerce is about petty profiteering, forgettable deals and self-enrichment. In commerce, it doesn’t matter how you get there; you just need to get there. That is the opposite of dignity. A dignified person shrinks from certain “dishonorable” pathways to wealth. But a “go-getter” does not. A go-getter would blast past the hesitating man with dignity, take the job, make a fortune and live happily ever after. A lot of good dignity did the other guy: Honor and dignity don’t pay bills.

Brooks is correct in pointing out that dignity involves reticence. Commerce, however, does not like reticence. It likes loud, misleading, public and crass advertising. It likes self-promotion, boasting and ostentation. Quiet guys do not get the job or the promotion, nor do quiet guys open new accounts. In fact, quiet guys get fired. It is OK for rich guys to be “private” or “quiet” once they amass a fortune. But before that, they need to pull out all the dignity stops to get the money. In this sense, modern commercial values in America make dignity an impossible dream. Essentially, the only way to maintain dignity is to refrain from commerce altogether. Yet this is our system. Brooks laments the fact that dignity is hard to find in American life, yet obliquely recognizes that commerce makes dignity a bad business decision. If it comes between “dignified poverty” and “undignified riches,” most Americans will opt for riches, dignity be damned. That is just the way our society works.

In some sense, America’s dwindling dignity reflects its value hierarchy. Although George Washington and the Framers may have appreciated dignity for its own rewards, they did not create a government that makes dignity a prime concern. The word “dignity” appears nowhere in the Constitution. It is not a governmental value. If dignity were really a concern, the Framers could have included language that enshrined it. The Constitution has a commerce clause; but it does not have a “dignity clause.” This was a fundamental value decision. No matter how important “dignity” may have been to the Framers as individuals, they did not consider it a primary government concern. No, commerce was more important than dignity. There are no requirements that Congress enact “dignified laws,” or that the President act in a “dignified manner” or that the Supreme Court issue “dignified opinions” that respect the “dignity of American citizens.” From a constitutional perspective, dignity simply doesn’t matter. Our Framers could have made dignity a core American value, but they chose commerce instead.

In this textual light, Brooks can scarcely complain that Americans “do not practice dignity.” They are just trying to find success in a system that values commerce more than dignity. And dignity has never been—and cannot be—central to a system in which commercial gain is life’s prime motivation.

But not all societies enshrine commercial success as much as America does. Germany, for instance, makes “human dignity” government’s overriding concern. See Basic Law Article 1 § 1: “Human dignity is inviolable.” That is a profound statement. It sets a basic tone for government and for society. It announces that the State cares about dignity; it cares about the “way it does things” as much as the things it wishes to accomplish. There is no such hopeful language in the American Constitution. Rather, it merely delineates governmental powers without any support for overriding human values like dignity. True, nothing in the Constitution prevents people from embracing dignity in their lives. But there is no impulsion to embrace dignity, either. These are the values we have chosen.

Despite all this, dignity is not dead in America. While the Constitution may not reflect a formal commitment to dignity in American life, many Americans nonetheless believe that dignity is important. In this sense, Brooks is wrong to fault Americans for abandoning the “old dignity code,” if there ever were such a code in the first place. Modern-day dignity refers to the dictionary definition, not to 18th Century ideals. In other words, a modern American can be “dignified” without always being reticent or dispassionate. Americans practice dignity in the modern grammatical sense; they attempt to live their lives with some “nobility” and “self-respect.” They refrain from activity that contradicts their principles. Some Americans refuse to act in ways that lower their own sense of personal worth. Some Americans do not pursue “any means necessary” to achieve particular ends. That reflects dignity. Dignity means the strength to follow one’s own principles over crass personal gain. Some Americans do that, even if they are not always reticent or private. In short, dignity is not dead; it has simply evolved. It means something different today than it meant in 1750.

I do not think David Brooks understands this. Rather, he uses 18th Century ideals to scold modern individuals for “failing to master themselves and their passions.” He uses “dignity” as a way to express condemnation for values he does not like. In particular, he singles out Michael Jackson as a man “untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood.” For Brooks, Michael Jackson was “undignified” because he could not act like a “regular adult” and felt no pressure to adhere to “rules and restraints” associated with “adult life.” In other words, Michael Jackson did not live like George Washington. He lived out loud, so he was not reticent. He showed his passions, so he was not dispassionate. He lived publicly, so he was not sufficiently private. Yet does this mean Michael Jackson was “undignified?” If anything, David Brooks is holding Michael Jackson to a distinct moral standard. In this sense, Brooks uses “dignity” more as a moral weapon than as a phrase to express “worth” or “self-respect.” What does “adulthood” have to do with these things? And what is adulthood, anyway? The way Brooks lives? Does this mean that we are not dignified if we do not encounter the same “rules and restraints” that Brooks encounters in his adult life?

I disagree with Brooks here on many levels, primarily because he confuses dignity with moral judgment. Michael Jackson lived an “unconventional life.” He did things many people consider “abnormal” and “strange.” Yet judging him under a “dignity standard” employs the wrong analysis. It is one thing to apply contemporary moral norms to brand “unconventional people.” But dignity implicates different values. Dignity is largely an individual matter; it is about self-respect and worth. Morality, on the other hand, is a group matter; moral condemnation reflects dominant group judgments about particular conduct and habits. In this way, Brooks confuses dignity with morality. He takes his view of personal dignity and incorporates it into a moral rule, which he then applies to judge Michael Jackson.

Brooks’ views about dignity are hopelessly inapplicable. We cannot possibly apply George Washington’s 18th Century etiquette rules in a society that has changed as much as ours has changed. And I place no intrinsic value on 18th Century values. Unlike many prominent judges, politicians and historians, I do not fetishize things simply because they were popular in the 18th Century. I do not categorically revere things because George Washington revered them. Just because George Washington chose to value something does not automatically entitle his values to respect in 21st Century life. During George Washington’s lifetime (1732-1799), for instance, English authorities disemboweled traitors (1746) (see, and colonial authorities publicly hanged suspected black murderers in chains until their bodies rotted away (1750). See also Washington himself did not invariably express “noble” or “praiseworthy” sentiments, either. John Marshall, for example, quoted Washington as calling freed slaves “abandoned vagabonds” and “miscreants” who could not serve in the Continental Army because “[t]he rights of mankind and the freedom of America… have numbers sufficient to support them, without resorting to such wretched Assistance.” Marshall, The Life of George Washington (1804)(emphasis added) at p. 273.

In a word, Washington was no saint. And he did not live in a perfectly rarefied age, either. That is why I deeply suspect anyone who blindly assumes that “18th Century values” are somehow “superior” to modern values. Human beings will always be barbaric; but they were generally more barbaric in 1750 than they are in 2009.

Having said all this, dignity is very important to me. Yet I do not subscribe to Brooks’ definition. I do not live my life attempting to mimic 18th Century etiquettes, nor do I deify everything George Washington ever did. Rather, I believe in dignity as worth and individual self-respect. I apply the dictionary definition, not the Washingtonian one. Modern dignity lives on. Washington’s does not. And there is nothing wrong with that. We don’t disembowel people or hang executed slaves in public anymore, either. I’d say that represents an advance in our society, not a regression. Thus, I see no shame in abandoning moralistic “dignity codes” as antiquated as drawing and quartering. We can do better than that.

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