Prayer at Winter Solstice

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Blessed are the cats, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.

Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.

Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

Blessed is the shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

—Dana Gioia

What bad art is for

When I was in San Francisco last week I was walking down Market Street and heading toward a restaurant after leaving a friend’s work party. That’s when I noticed this sculpture.

Do you see it? I know it’s dark. Even during the day, this art is designed to be sort of tucked away. It’s an ornament for this building’s entrance. It’s an angel, I guess. In its own way, it’s the perfect symbol of our time.

It might be an angel, but it could just as easily be a demon or nothing at all, actually. There’s the featureless face, saying nothing. There are the limpish wings, apparently holding this figure upright at least as much as the internal metal piping that’s (cleverly?) left visible in its legs. There are no arms, because even if it had something to say it definitely shouldn’t call out or gesture to passersby. It’s just bad art, commissioned for a limited public purpose to be unobjectionable and sort of pleasant without the chance of any aesthetic or sectarian dispute over it, because while it was made to seem like something that might stir the spirit, it doesn’t convict the observer and tends not to stir sentiment, either.

Why settle for something like this when sculptors used to produce remarkable public goods like Angel of the Resurrection? What is bad art for?

I think bad art helps satisfy our sense of the sacred in public life (of the human need for symbols of transcendence) without saying anything concrete that anyone would really have to talk about, disagree about, or have their lives arrested by and shaped in some positive way. We’re able to have art that suggests “there’s something more to all of this,” but without trying to cultivate virtue in the lives of its admirers, because what is truth? It’s better not to get into that.

Another thing that bad art is good for is removing the need for conservationists to worry about more stuff to preserve in the future. Artists who could be inheriting and iterating on the received wisdom of thousands of years of human experience are instead choosing to flow with the fashions of their time by making disposable ornamentation with the cheapest materials. It’s as disposable as so much of its surroundings in the rest of our culture, which makes it simpler to replace with something else in the future.

Bad art is encouraging, too. It reminds us that we can be mediocre and still successful. It might be a distinctly American thing in this way, where in the midst of one of our most ambitious and wealthy cities, we prove that we still don’t really know why we’re walking into these buildings every day in the first place.

New American revolutionaries

Leaving San Francisco today, and returning to Andrew Bacevich’s 1998 reflection on “the irony of American power”. It’s worthwhile reading since many are still trying to detox from an incredibly contentious election cycle. Bacevich paints a portrait of American power that is probably at odds with our traditional history:

A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?

The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people.

According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.

Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises—the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein—would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.

William Graham Sumner’s 1899 speech on this history is The Conquest of the United States by Spain. It’s essential for understanding the genealogy of global American military power.

This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism—the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized—is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.

If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty.

The international institutions that America created with other Western powers after World War II probably still derive their power from American power. If it’s true that our international institutions require a globally dominant America (certainly a debatable if) then it means that those international institutions might be as much a brilliant and subtle new means of empire as much as forums for international cooperation. A charitable view might be that our international institutions are a means of universal democratic governance.

Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.

“Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition.” This vision (potentially still being attempted) is incredibly important to understand for context in human politics of the last few hundred years—if not the last few thousand years.

Light, not the weather

A little street scene at Fillmore and Washington in Pacific Heights, San Francisco.

Enjoying this year’s Anchor Christmas Ale this weekend, and generally enjoying the light here. It’s not the weather, but the quality of California’s light, that I love so much about this place.

Off to see friends old and new.

Dissenters, not victors

In Lower Pacific Heights, San Francisco and enjoying the fresh December air from my friends’ studio apartment. From Don Eberly’s The Essential Civil Society Reader:

While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters—by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up. We have learned much of what we know about family life in America in the 1950s from women who chafed under its restrictions, either as young, college-educated housewives who found it unfulfilling or as teenage girls secretly appalled by the prom-and-cheerleader social milieu. Much of the image of American Catholic life in those years comes from the work of former Catholics who considered the church they grew up in not only authoritarian but destructive of their free choices and creative instincts. The social critics of the past two decades have forced on our attention the inconsistencies and absurdities of life a generation ago: the pious skirt-chasing husbands, the martini-sneaking ministers, the sadistic gym teachers.

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult lives in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they could have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

Incredible swaths of history might suffer from a “forest for the trees” lack of perspective; of a fixation on the ways in which a great period of human life failed its social, cultural, religious, ethnic minorities or dissenters. While important to record, those sorts of failings should only rarely dominate our memory of a particular generation.

Eberly provides a great tool here for thinking through what’s maybe a natural, perpetual sort of action/reaction in each generation that explains the stereotype of the old always criticizing the young. What they might be criticizing in youth is the different character of the time they life in, having become so populated by a sense of reality that frankly doesn’t accurately describe their own lived-memory of the past but that the young are too happy to accept.

This is also an interesting passage because it underscoreas that the artististic/cultural/intellectual classes are as at-risk of being reactionary and simpleminded in their thinking as anyone, but with greater consequences to mislead the million who rely on them for great art, for great books, for great thinking and observation and perspective.

If history is often written by dissenters, then a simple thought experiment is to consider that whatever you’re hearing might be something like the opposite of the true portrait of a time.

Scattered travel thoughts

I flew into San Francisco last night, with a layover in Denver.

I’m in Napa this morning for a meeting, have another this afternoon near Oakland, and will be heading back to Lower Pacific Heights for a weekend with friends afterwards. It’s great to be back, first time since I was here in July for the Napa Institute and my PCH trip.

Uber announced earlier this week that new Volvo versions of the self-driving cars they’ve had on the streets in Pittsburgh are now active in San Francisco. I’m hoping to hitch a ride in one of them this weekend amidst whatever else we end up doing. I had a great Uber driver in Philadelphia who took me to the airport who brought up the self-driving advances. “They can’t wait to get rid of us. Keep 100% of the profit, not just 25%.” Yep.

Fewer than ten days until Christmas! It doesn’t feel like it…

Beauty in public works

These are two scenes from my morning drive earlier this week to Radnor, Pennsylvania for a breakfast meeting. The “byway” scene is on the way to Radnor, and the “highway” scene below is one the way back.

As I’m reading/listening to “The Power Broker,” chronicling the life of Robert Moses, New York master builder, one of the things that’s striking is that for all of his faults, Moses’s earliest works were “parkways,” which continue to embody the idea that the journey is as important as the destination. His Long Island parkways especially were designed to be beautiful roads.

At the same time, Granola Shotgun chronicles the problem with the way we fund and build infrastructure of this scale. It’s not built for human scale, it’s not built to look beautiful, it’s not built to be economically sustainable, and it’s not built to last. There are so many examples of these problems shared on that blog.

We need highways, obviously. But we could do a better job making them beautiful, and we’re just choosing not to do that. The overcast skies don’t help in these photos, but driving that highway just felt terrible.

What’s evident in the “byways” photo above isn’t just that there’s a cute little bridge designed for an occasional car, but the entire scene. There are no expensive creek/bridge materials to maintain. There are no sidewalks built with municipal bonds. There are no sidewalks that will public/private maintenance. It’s just a country road, basically.

A lot of people would call this road “underdeveloped,” but I call it perfectly developed. It does its job in a way that lets nature be what it is. That’s a good way to live.

Best healthcare, worst financing

I met recently with one of our board members at the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. During the conversation, he explained the American healthcare situation in the best, shortest way I’ve heard. “We have the world’s best healthcare system, but one of the world’s worst healthcare financing systems.”

Our organization’s mission is “upholding human dignity through service to the medically vulnerable,” and this plays out in practice through service in five ways:

…through public advocacy of essential qualities of human dignity—which include the right to food and water, the presumption of the will to live, due process against denial of care, protection from euthanasia as a form of medicine, and access to rehabilitative care—as well as through 24/7 Crisis Lifeline service to at-risk patients and families.

Our 24/7 Crisis Lifeline is the funnel through which we take cases and serve the vulnerable, and almost every case relates to that “one of the worst healthcare financing systems” insight and how it plays out in terms of health policy on a local level, which is overly aggressive rationing that risks a patient’s dignity.

 

Suicide

Why do Catholics reject suicide in all its forms? Bishop Frederick Henry explains, in light of Canada’s increasing embrace of assisted suicide:

For Catholics, in order to receive the sacraments, one must have the proper disposition. The deepest meaning of receiving sacraments is that man entrusts himself to God’s loving mercy. Consciously and freely choosing euthanasia or assisted suicide implies that one is not entrusting oneself to God’s mercy, but is rather controlling the conclusion of one’s own life. Such a position is incompatible with the surrender to God’s loving mercy and it denies, so to speak, the strength that is inherent in the sacraments. Through the sacraments one participates in the suffering, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus and in the unconditional “yes” He spoke to His Father.

From this perspective, it is impossible to comply with a request for the sacraments when someone has planned to end his life or to have it ended actively. Such a person does not have the proper disposition.

Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are not a “solution” to suffering, but an elimination of the suffering human being. It is therefore the confirmation of despair, of the overwhelming feeling that all suffering can only end when the human person himself ceases to be. If the pastoral caregiver were to support the request for euthanasia, he would be capitulating to despair, which is contrary to the hope alive within him which he wants to proclaim. If the Church’s minister were out of a false of compassion accede to such a request it would constitute an enormous situation of scandal and denial of the truth, “You shall not kill.”

In a Letter to the Elderly in 1999, St. John Paul II shared his faith in these words: “It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the kingdom of God. At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life… And so I often find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you. This is the prayer of Christian hope.”

There is no possibility of Christian suicide. The idea, the phrase, the practice of it is so alien and incompatible with the faith and the way of life of its people that is just does not translate. The challenge of our own time is a therapeutic suicide, a physician-assisted suicide, a family-affirming suicide, etc. In other words, we’re keeping our sentimental opposition toward what I’ll call unplanned suicide, but endorsing planned suicide in a variety of more sanitized forms.

Despite the clarity of Christian teaching, this will be a debate within the Church as much as it is (or more) in the culture. Faith and culture are like waves that wash over each other. One can’t help but influence the other. Among Christians this could be an ugly debate, because the Church is called to be something more than an authority whose job is to bless human will, itself malleable and changing. Stating this in a way that’s not alienating can be a huge challenge, especially for those in the midst of active suffering like my grandfather was in the final years of Alzheimer’s. He lived and ultimately suffered and died well, despite it.

One small, personal thing: if my grandfather was the sort to commit suicide, I would never have known him. I was roughly 8 years old when he was diagnosed, but I have many memories of him and of our happy times together as a family. Even in sickness, he taught me. To those who would think to have robbed us of that time together, I call anathema.

Advent ales

Chris Buchignani is highlighting this particular column for December, and incidentally the book from which it’s excerpted makes a great Christmas gift. Check out The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Nowadays, it seems, excitement is experienced as something that is thrilling because it is new, unknown, risky, sexy and dangerous. Today’s young people seem to look for excitement at the edge of life.

But the ancient excitement of Christmas was something quite different. Christmas wasn’t something which happened at the edge of life, but something that happened at the heart of life. It wasn’t a search for something new and dangerous. On the contrary, Christmas was as predictable as clockwork, and as familiar as one’s most favorite feeling. Each year Christmas came on exactly the same day, and everyone tried very hard to do the same things in the same way they had done them in the past.

To today’s young people that might sound boring. And yet … and yet … in those days it had seemed so very exciting. To me, Christmas had always seemed like a challenge without equal. It was an adventure in time. Every year people tried to see if they could rekindle and pass down the same feeling that had been felt on that first Christmas morn.

They all knew and believed with childlike simplicity that something wonderful had happened on that hallowed night almost 2,000 years ago. They believed that hearts had been opened and changed in a way that had never happened before. They naively believed through all the years since then that the original joy had been rekindled again and again each and every year at Christmas, just as it had been experienced on that first blessed eve.

Oh, the excitement of it all! Each year they wondered: Could it happen again? Would it? Could the magic still work? The anticipation grew to the highest levels of expectation and awe: If they did all the same things, heard the same stories, ate the same foods, drank the same drinks, rejoined in the same ways, would they again feel the excitement of their own first Christmas when they were children? Did they still have it in them to unlock all that joy one more time?

The wonder of it! Could their joy be great enough to renew again for one more year the tremendous joy of that first blessed eve in the year One, when the time of our time began? And so, on the 4th day after the winter solstice, when they were absolutely sure that the sun had begun to rise again in the heavens, they celebrated Christmas.

In ancient days everyone had worked so hard to make it happen again each year. They bought presents which they believed would bring out each person’s most childlike joy. They baked Christmas cakes and cookies, worked for weeks to prepare festive decorations for every room and window, searched out old recipes for Christmas goose or turkey stuffing, hung mistletoe in their hallways, hauled in the Yule logs, and brushed up on the ancient Christmas stories and carols to tell over again to their children and themselves. Old fights were ended, debts forgiven and friendships renewed in this season.

One of the smallest and least significant contributions to the annual challenge to rekindle the ancient joy was made by the brewers of Europe and early America. In those days everyone felt the obligation to contribute whatever they could to the annual renewal of the community’s joy. Each year the brewers made their small contribution by brewing special Christmas ales and holiday beers for the season.

The ancient tradition is undergoing a rebirth in America…

Ben Novak wrote this in 1984. A lot has changed, but hopefully you’ll drink in the spirit of Christmas as meaningfully this season as so many of us have breathed in the magic of the Nittany valley.