Enlarger of the common life

A few photos from my day trip to Washington on Thursday for Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network purposes. It was a clear skies, beautiful sort of day. And I happened to walk out of Shake Shack and notice that Snap’s traveling Spectacles machine was vending their camera glasses to what was a fairly long line at one point.

And by the way, isn’t this just an incredible bit of poetic tribute to the U.S. Postal Service? This is how Americans used to conceive of their institutions and the public purpose behind federal and state government activities. How little regard we have even for the possibility of similarly lofty public purpose today:

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Messenger of sympathy and love
Servant of parted friends
Consoler of the lonely
Bond of the scattered family
Enlarger of the common life

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Struggling

Kevin Williamson shares his own story of growing up, and offers blunt advice for those tempted to caricaturize struggling whites in the same way struggle blacks and others have been stereotyped:

Our mortgage then was $285 a month, which was a little less than my father paid in child support, so housing was, in effect, paid for. And thus I found myself in the strange position of being temporarily without a home while rotating between neighbors within sight, about 60 feet away, of the paid-up house to which I could not safely return. I was in kindergarten at the time.

Capitalism didn’t do that, and neither did illegal immigrants or Chinese competition to the Texas Instruments factory on the other side of town. Culture didn’t do it, either, and neither did poverty: We had enough money to secure comfortable housing in a nice neighborhood with good schools. In the last years of her life, my mother asked me to help her sort out some financial issues, and I was shocked to learn how much money she and her fourth and final husband were earning: They’d both ended their careers as government employees, and had pretty decent pensions and excellent health benefits. They were, in fact, making about as much in retirement in Lubbock as I was making editing newspapers in Philadelphia. Of course they were almost dead broke — their bingo and cigarette outlays alone were crushing, and they’d bought a Cadillac and paid for it with a credit card.

They didn’t suffer from bad luck or lack of opportunity. Bad decisions and basic human failure put them where they were. But that is from the political point of view an unsatisfactory answer, because it does not provide us with an external party (preferably a non-voting party) to blame. It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.

Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.

This is the same message, in spirit if not necessarily in tone, as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. And that message is: pull yourselves together. Figures like Donald Trump, who perpetuate the “blame everyone, take no responsibility” mentality, are the heroin dealers in Kevin’s framework.

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Public life v. politics

George Weigel writes on John Paul II in 2001:

Pope John Paul II’s considerable effect on our times is conceded by admirers and critics alike. The imprint of the shoes of this fisherman can be found throughout the new democracies of east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. His critique of “real existing democracy” has helped define the key moral issues of public life in the developed democracies and in the complex world of international institutions. Some sober analysts of papal history argue that one must return to the early thirteenth century, to Pope Innocent III, to find a pontificate with such a marked influence on contemporary public life.

Yet there is a paradox here: the “political” impact of this pontificate, unlike that of Innocent III, has not come from deploying what political realists recognize as the instruments of political power. Rather, the Pope’s capacity to shape history has been exercised through a different set of levers.

As Bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, John Paul has no military or economic power at his disposal. The Holy See maintains an extensive network of diplomatic relations and holds Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. But whatever influence John Paul has had through these channels simply underscores the fact that the power of his papacy lies in a charism of moral persuasion capable of being translated into political effectiveness.

This paradox—political effectiveness achieved without the normal instruments of political power—is interesting in itself. It also has heuristic value. It tells us something about the nature of politics at the dawn of a new millennium. Contrary to notions widely accepted since the late eighteenth century, the public impact of John Paul II suggests that politics (understood as the contest for power), or economics, or some combination of politics and economics, is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, engine of history. The revolution of conscience that John Paul ignited in June 1979 in Poland—the moral revolution that made the Revolution of 1989 possible—is simply not explicable in conventional political or economic categories. John Paul’s public accomplishment has provided empirical ballast for intellectual and moral challenges to several potent modern theories of politics, including French revolutionary Jacobinism, Marxism-Leninism, and utilitarianism. The political world just doesn’t work the way the materialists claim.

At the end of a century in which it was widely agreed that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” the paradox in the public impact of John Paul II also reminds us of five other truths: that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change; that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past; that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world; that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities.

In sum, and precisely because it has not been mediated through the “normal” instruments of political power, the “worldly accomplishment” of John Paul II has helped free us from the tyranny of politics. By demonstrating in action the linkage between profound moral conviction and effective political power, this pontificate has helped restore politics to its true dignity while keeping politics within its proper sphere.

The distinctive modus operandi of this politically potent Pope also suggests something about the future of the papacy, the world’s oldest institutional office, and about Catholicism in the third millennium of its history.

Those five truths aside from power through violence are worth emphasizing:

  1. that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change;
  2. that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past;
  3. that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world;
  4. that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and
  5. that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities

Public life and politics are not the same things.

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See the light

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;…
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,…
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?…

Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes. …

Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building, to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.
And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory!

T.S. Eliot

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Bethlehem

I visited Bethlehem on Saturday night. I’ve been to Bethlehem a few times, and like the place. The historic downtown area is my favorite from what I’ve seen so far, though there’s more exploring I have to do. After dinner with friends we visited the SteelStacks, the old home of Bethlehem Steel, which is today partially rebuilt as a tourist/convention center environment, and partially left in ruin as a monument to an America that’s come and gone. It was a fun, somewhat eerie, visit to a source of Pennsylvania’s 20th century spirit.

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H.K. Derryberry

When I was in Cincinnati last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend Cincinnati Right to Life’s “Evening for Life” Dinner, which featured H.K. Derryberry as keynote speaker. H.K.’s life story is really incredible, and he and Jim Bradford, his friend/mentor, were inspirational in their witness for living the sort of life that recognizes suffering neighbors around you in your daily life. That’s how their friendship was built.

HK Derryberry’s short biography:

HK Derryberry’s life is truly a miracle.  Born July 8, 1990, in Nashville, Tennessee, HK arrived three months premature due to an automobile accident that took his mother’s life.  The tiny two-pound baby boy would spend the next 96 days fighting for survival in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Although doctors offered little hope for survival, this miracle baby proved them all wrong. Because of the accident and his premature birth, he was born blind, with cerebral palsy and countless other medical problems.  Eventually this proved too much for his father, who survived the automobile crash but was unable to cope with life.  When HK turned five years old, he left his disabled son in the care of his mother and disappeared for over ten years.  Raised by his grandmother, some people might say HK faced too many mountains to climb.

Quite the contrary!  At an early age, HK displayed an extraordinary will to overcome his disabilities and at age three enrolled at the Tennessee School for the Blind, becoming one of the youngest students in the school’s history.  His right arm, paralyzed from a stroke suffered soon after birth, did not stop him from learning to read and write Braille with just one hand, another first for the 150-year old school!

HK’s life was changed forever in 1999 when he unexpectedly met Jim Bradford, a local businessman in Brentwood, Tennessee, who was married with two adult daughters.  HK and Jim soon became inseparable and eventually Jim’s family welcomed HK into their lives like an adopted son.   His personal mentoring and constant involvement quickly exposed HK to a world he had never experienced.

Since age ten, HK had displayed signs of a remarkable ability to recall dates and other facts surrounding events in his life.  In 2012, the mystery of his memory was unlocked by medical researchers at Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Memory Clinic.  They discovered that HK is one of only five or six people in the world with a medical diagnosis of hyperthymesia, otherwise known as Superior Autobiographical Memory.  He has the ability to remember every event including time and place that’s occurred to him since he was 3½ years old.  Vanderbilt researchers are optimistic that studies on HK’s brain may one day lead to a breakthrough for people suffering memory loss.

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Shelter for the weary

I’m frequently passing through Suburban Station in Center City, Philadelphia on my way in or out of the city. Suburban Station hasn’t been meaningfully renovated since (I think) about 2000 or so, and it shows.

SEPTA has introduced digital signage for train arrivals/departures, which has been nice. Recently, brighter lighting has helped the underground station feel less dismal, but it’s also highlighted how grimy the place tends to be. Sometime soon there will be turnstiles installed for the new SEPTA Key program, which will physically restrict a portion of the station to travelers. But the atmosphere, generally, is depressing and sometimes oppressive. Both in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, homeless persons flood a place that’s designed to be a public square—a place for all people. The result is that the homeless get neither the aid nor shelter they need, nor do travelers and visitors get the experience of a genuinely public space. That may change:

Though it has the highest poverty rate among big American cities, Philadelphia has one of the lowest homelessness rates, said Liz Hersh, director of the office of homeless services. Nevertheless, the number of people on the street is growing, she said, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. Along with the people without any shelter, Philadelphia has about 5,700 who reside in shelters or temporary housing.

“Three-fourths have some kind of substance abuse disorder or mental health problems and very often both,” Hersh said. “It’s a national crisis, and the wave has not yet crested.” …

Transit stations are obvious havens for homeless people. They’re sheltered, safe, and have amenities like bathrooms. The increase in the city’s homeless population has, in turn, led to more homeless people in places like Suburban Station during bad weather — as many as 350 in one day, according to a count last winter. It’s unusual, though, for a transportation authority to take so active a role in providing an alternative for a city’s homeless.

“SEPTA is pretty unique in major city transit authorities sort of embracing and stepping up to the challenge of homeless systems,” said Laura Weinbaum, a vice president at Project HOME.

Officials aren’t concerned the service center will attract more homeless people to Suburban Station, Knueppel said; they’re there already. …

When finished, the new Hub of Hope, a name borrowed from a much smaller seasonal service center also located in Suburban Station, will provide medical and psychiatric attention, legal services, showers, and laundry. It is expected to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, with some weekend hours, year-round. Meal services will be available Friday through Sunday. If nothing else, it will be a comfortable place for people to sit and feel safe. It will be staffed largely by Project HOME workers and volunteers.

As important, though, is to create an environment where people can stop worrying about the immediate demands of survival, organizers said. That may make them open to more comprehensive services to address the deeper causes of their homelessness.

“Many times, these are folks who have been extremely vulnerable over a long period of time,” Weinbaum said. “If they come in, and we can nurture that feeling of trust, the hope is they will be open to other possibilities.”

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Everything but the stars

I’m settling down after a week on of travel and hotels, so today I’m just sharing this:

“Generations brought up in centrally heated and air-conditioned homes and schools, shot from place to place encapsulated in culturally sealed-off buses, who swim in heated, chlorinated pools devoid of current, swirl or tide, where even the build-up from one’s own pushing of the water is suctioned off by vacuums so as not to spoil the pure experience of sport-for-sport’s sake… poor little rich suburban children who have all these delights, and living in constant fluorescent glare, have never seen the stars, which St. Thomas, following Aristotle and all the ancients, says are the first begetters of that primary experience of reality formulated as the first of all principles in metaphysics, that something is.” —John Senior

When most of us speak about “wealth,” too few of us mean “abundance in a holistic sense.” We often just mean, “stuff”. Or “cash”. Or worse, “expensive debt-based stuff”. Wouldn’t it be better to give up so much of the material things that chain us to a specific day-in, day-out existence, and pursue a life that lets us enjoy the wealth of nature (for instance) on a more regular basis?

“Having it all” means giving up a lot.

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Madeira

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Heading back to Philadelphia today after spending a few days in Cincinnati. Here’s a photo from a walk in Madeira, a neighborhood near Indian Hill in Cincinnati.

It feels like autumn now. When I landed in Cincinnati the weather had a chill in it for the first time, and was a start after how downright hot and humid it was in Alexandria and how it’s been in Philadelphia. Autumn is probably my favorite time of year, but these next few weeks fly by. Trying to be intentional about how I spend this time, and trying not to overthink it, either.

That’s all I’ve got today.

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Owners v. debtors

Johnny Sanphillippo writes on “the death of household productivity” (the financialization of housing) and the ways in which it makes American life less resilient. I would add that it also makes life less authentic:

A couple of months ago a friend sent me some images from Florida. He and his family were visiting his wife’s parents who live in a comfortable retirement community. To quote: “Here’s where we’re staying for the next few weeks. Sun City Center. It’s very superficially nice. My father-in-law has had to look things up in the HOA rule book at least three times since we got here on Saturday.” …

The newest developments feature large homes with all the latest bells and whistles, but their physical design is exceptionally limited. The front yard is a little green toupee between driveways. There’s a useless strip between the homes so they are “fully detached” in spite of the collective legal nature of the HOA. The back yard is a patio up against a concrete wall. These are actually luxury apartments by other means. The inhabitants may be proud “homeowners” but the bank owns these buildings and collects rent every month in the form of mortgage payments with interest.

The majority of the American population currently lives in some version of the suburbs. This will remain true for the foreseeable future. The real question is how ever more people with increasingly limited resources under considerably more stress will occupy them – particularly as failing institutions squeeze them for revenue. This is an extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable set of living arrangements and it isn’t going to end well.

You’re not a homeowner until you’ve paid off your mortgage debt. Until then, you’re a debtor paying interest for your home in addition to taxes on the property. That’s often worse than renting, unless the home accommodates many people, multiple generations, multiple uses (living, eating, working, studying), etc.

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