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Fathers, Sons, and the Road to Character

Eight years after penning “Dreams of My Father,” and over six years into a presidency that by most accounts doesn’t seem to be finishing with as much promise as it began, President Obama spoke from the heart yesterday, in offering remarks to My Brother’s Keeper Alliance in the Bronx.

It was a good speech—particularly the second half, and it came just a week after the White House director of My Brother’s Keeper spoke at AEI on a panel about improving opportunity for black men in America. The President described recent task forces convened by the administration, and new approaches to fighting poverty, and all manner of things to potentially minimize the sting of future riots in places like Ferguson or Baltimore.

But these insights came after he spoke about the private sector and the role of private citizens—which, long after the television cameras depart, can practically help increase 3rd grade reading levels, improve via mentoring graduation rates for Latino or African American young people, and reduce incarceration rates that today disproportionately plague minority communities.

And then, breaking from the teleprompter, Obama channeled Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s new book: “These kids are… our kids,” said the President. “We see ourselves in these young men… after all, I grew up without a dad, wondering why he wasn’t there…. The most important thing is simple: You matter. You matter to us…. Really, what it comes down to is, do we love these kids?” He then pledged to stay involved with this initiative, beyond his presidency.

It was nice to see Obama-the-dreamer return for a moment—almost as if recognizing, wistfully, that some of his early dreams have failed.

Readers of this column are plenty familiar with the economic statistics. Since January 2009, $7.5 trillion in new debt, a massive new federal healthcare entitlement, and a very troubling Middle East, to say nothing of racial divisions or enflamed religious liberty wars here at home. The honeymoon ended long, long ago, and the President surely must know it.

So what’s the answer? Sure, love has something to do with it, as Obama identified yesterday, but I’d add two more thoughts.

The first comes from David Brooks’ outstanding column on poverty in the wake of recent Baltimore unrest. It’s deeply insightful from start to finish, in its description of culture and the role personal relationships can play in transcending the social psychology of today’s disconnected youth—especially, all too often, for young men without healthy male role models. Winning those young men back to human flourishing is vital work, and Brooks’ upward call to a life of character and grace comes in times like these as apples of gold in settings of silver.

The second resource—and this one will take 38 minutes of your time—is Arthur Brooks’ latest speech to 500+ Baylor University students and professors. The answer to poverty, he says, is different than you might think: it’s neither charity nor government redistribution. The secret for today’s college grads is knowing your idols, choosing experiences over things, and pursuing a steady, hard-working, faithful obedience in the same direction. Do that, Brooks says, and you’ll attain your dreams.

President Obama reminded us yesterday that regardless of your childhood upbringing, you are—we are—in fact your brother’s keeper. David Brooks calls us to an examined life that pursues eulogy virtues, not just personal advancement. And Arthur Brooks invites us to pursue a life of abundance—without attachment.

These are each lessons that, ideally, fathers would teach to their sons; or if not dads, that church and community leaders would teach to parishioners and young people.

But they are also lessons for brothers and for sisters, to be learned and relearned. If you’re graduating next week, welcome to the (lifelong) road to character.