Actualizing ourselves

David L. Schindler is professor of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington. I’m excerpting some of his thoughts on God and the American spirit:

Do you have one particular source of apprehension and one special source of hope as the century closes — from a Catholic theological perspective?

Schindler: Grounds for hope? Americans are religiously sincere and morally generous. This country has a tremendous energy and abundance of good will. In the light of God’s infinite mercy, that’s always a good reason to hope. My fear is that we don’t see the subtlety of how — as the pope says in Evangelium Vitae — democracy can invert into totalitarianism. We have the illusion that we’re free because no one tells us what to do. We have political freedom. But at the same time, a theological and philosophical set of assumptions informs our freedom, of which we’re unconscious. A logic or “ontologic” of selfishness undermines our moral intention of generosity. We don’t have the requisite worldview that would help us address abortion or the more general, current threat to the family. Can we unmask the assumptions of our culture and deal with them in a way that will free the latent generosity of the culture? Or will those hidden assumptions overcome our generosity? This is the real battle, both globally and in America. It calls for a new effort of evangelization — which consists, above all, in first getting clear about the ideas in Evangelium Vitae; understanding the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment Liberal culture. Alasdair McIntyre has a great line: that all debates in America are finally among radical Liberals, liberal Liberals and conservative Liberals. That’s how I would sum up. If we don’t come to terms with Liberalism…

But liberalism in what sense? Quite a few people who would describe themselves as conservative or neoconservative are, in fact, Liberal…

Schindler: That’s the point: they’re the conservative wing of Liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn’t even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American Liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That’s what I’m challenging. Their approach doesn’t go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar. [Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels — not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

Can solidarity and the common good take precedence if David L. Schindler is right in suggesting that we live with the “logic of self-centeredness”? If actualizing ourselves has to come at the expense of another, is there any justice in our society?

Is the role of the family to create a space that militates against self-centeredness for the purpose of each individual’s good/flourishing, or to help each member self-actualize at the expense of any outside the family (or within it) as necessary?

Peter Lawler, RIP

I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.

Nicholas Frankovich remembers:

What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.

Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:

Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”

He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.

Rod Dreher remembers him, and shared an excerpt that captures why I always find Lawler’s writing so rewarding as a reader:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

Food and water as a basic right

It’s probably true that the most important issue we advocate through the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network is the importance of ensuring that food and water is considered a basic, universal healthcare right for every patient, regardless of their circumstance. It seems this is a practical unknown issue, and for all of the talk on both sides about the status of physician-assisted suicide legislation, the “food and water” issue is an already-legal means of assisted suicide and/or fatal healthcare rationing in every state.

As a primer on the food and water issue, Bobby Schindler writes:

In 2013, Margot Bentley, an Alzheimer’s patient in Canada, was the subject of a lawsuit filed by her family. They petitioned the court to order that her nursing home starve and dehydrate Margot to death by denying her spoon-fed meals. Like so many such cases, Margot was not actively dying and her situation only became an “end of life” case the moment that her family decided to try to end her life.

How did we reach this point?

It began decades ago, when the American Medical Association and prominent bioethicists determined that food and water delivered by means of a feeding tube would be re-classified from “basic and ordinary” care to “medical treatment.”

It’s a little-known fact that in all 50 states it is presently legal to withhold or deny food and water by means of a feeding tube to patients who are not actively dying and not facing any active “end of life” issue.

Delivery of food and water is the most basic form of care for our fellow human beings, and yet our healthcare policies and practices allow for the denial of this sort of care in a way that often brings about the end of a life, rather than being stopped as a part of any natural dying process.

Those who die specifically from a lack of food and water aren’t being “allowed to die,” rather they’re being actively killed—deprived of the most basic form of care by their caregivers, their physician, their hospital or insurer, and perhaps all four working in perverse agreement that the best thing for the patient would be to die, prematurely.

We can do better, and it starts with a frank acknowledgement of what’s actually happening when we deny food and water—whether by tube or spoon or tray—and rectifying our language in law, medicine, and culture.

Mount Nittany Conservancy refresh

Shortly before the release of Conserving Mount Nittany a few years ago, I volunteered to refresh the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s website.

It was a somewhat cumbersome refresh, because I was moving lots of content (100+ posts and dozens of pages) from a manually created HTML/FTP context to a more flexible and self-hosted WordPress context. The site we launched is the fourth below—each of the first four screenshots below is courtesy of Archive.org from the years 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2014:

What we launched in 2013 was good for its time and introduced a lot of new things including a responsive design for mobile devices, but showed its age more quickly than I hoped when we launched it. So I spent some time earlier this spring moving everything from a self-hosted WordPress context to WordPress.com for greater stability, more security, and an overall more robust platform that requires only basic consumer technical experience.

What’s now live is the fifth major refresh of the Mount Nittany Conservancy site, and the second I’ve done in the past five years.

I hope it introduces Mount Nittany to residents of Happy Valley and visitors in a welcoming and exciting way.

Wrigley Field, Cubs v. Brewers

I’m at Wrigley Field this afternoon for Cubs v. Milwaukee Brewers. Milwaukee is about 90 minutes north, and we drove into Chicago the other day. Basically the equivalent of New York/Philadelphia. It felt like a neighborhood game, and was nearly a thrashing except for the Brewers late-effort to bring it from 13-1 to 13-6 in the 9th inning. Beautiful but somewhat chilly day. Lakeview immediately around Wrigley is changing quite a bit.

Distinctive communities

Conor Dougherty writes on one of Silicon Valley’s secret ingredients:

Workers around the country are increasingly being asked to sign noncompete agreements devised to keep them from leaving their job for a rival company. It’s a trend that has extended down the economic ladder to people like hairdressers and dirt-shovelers who are unlikely to possess trade secrets.

But Californians don’t have to worry about it. California law prohibits noncompetes, and this ban is often cited as key to the development of Silicon Valley. To learn more about how this law helped create the modern technology industry, we talked to AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Information and author of “Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.”

Q. How important was California’s ban to the development of the Valley?

A. If there had been aggressive enforcement of noncompetes, Silicon Valley would probably not be what it is today. But the dynamism goes beyond the legal context. From the very early days there was a sense in the Bay Area that people were in it together and trying to build something different, and they built a culture where it was O.K. to share information more openly and it was O.K. to leave to start something new.

Q. What famous company might we not have?

A. In 1956, eight top engineers left the Shockley Semiconductor Lab in Palo Alto to start the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. While they were labeled at the time as the “traitorous eight,” virtually all left within the subsequent decades to start yet another generation of ventures.

By the time that Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore left to start the Intel Corp in 1968 there were more than a dozen other “Fairchildren” in the region. A 1986 genealogy included 126 semiconductor companies that could be traced directly to Fairchild.

In the early days engineers would say, “I work for Silicon Valley.” And the idea was that they were advancing technology for a region, not any single company’s technology. We often think in the U.S. that people or companies create success, but what Silicon Valley shows us is that often it’s communities of people across a region.

Q. There was a recent case in which Google, Apple and others were accused of “an overarching conspiracy” to lower wages for engineers by agreeing not to poach each other’s workers. What does that tell you about how California companies feel about the ban on noncompetes?

A. Essentially they’re becoming the older, more inward-looking companies that early versions of themselves rejected. Maybe it’s natural, but it’s a real departure from the earlier culture of the Valley, which recognized that people will come and go but ultimately we’ll all be better off.

Far more valuable than buzzy ambitions like “becoming a more innovative community” would be investigating specific historical moments that defined your community as it exists today. Then determine whether it makes sense to advance/conserve that historical differentiator for your community, or try something new. And not necessarily on a city council level, but rather on a personal level. If you do something great, others will be attracted to it.

Jobs v. careers

What’s the difference between a job and a career? A job pays, but a career fulfills. That’s how I think about it.

We talk a lot about the “job market,” but why not think about the “career market”? Ben Casnocha has written about the value of being in “permanent beta.” And Anya Kamenetz wrote on “The Four-Year Career” a few years ago:

Shorter job tenure is associated with a new era of insecurity, volatility, and risk. It’s part of the same employment picture as the increase in part-time, freelance, and contract work; mass layoffs and buyouts; and “creative destruction” within industries. All these changes put more pressure on the individual–to provide our own health care, bridge gaps in income with savings, manage our own retirement planning, and invest in our own education to keep skills marketable and up to date. …

[Adam Hasler’s] interests are transdisciplinary–he’s what might be called a “T-shaped person,” with both depth in one subject and breadth in others. He demonstrates cross-cultural competency (speaking fluent Spanish, living abroad) and computational thinking (learning programming and applying data to real-world problems). The intellectual voracity that drove him to write 50,000 words on Western cultural history while running a coffee shop is a sign of sense making (drawing deeper meaning from facts) and excellent cognitive load management (continuous learning and managing attention challenges). Above all, Hasler’s desire to synthesize his knowledge and apply it to helping people, and his ability to collaborate with those who have different skills, shows a high degree of social intelligence. In the future, says Gorbis, “everything that can be routinized, codified, and dissected will eventually be done by machines. Social and emotional intelligence is what humans are uniquely good at–at least for the next decade or two.”

A career with “transdisciplinary” experience—”both depth in one subject and breadth in others”—seems like the key for the future.