Raw humanitarianism

Nathaniel Peters writes:

Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age, offers a sharp indictment of the humanitarianism that has become the implicit faith of our time.

He begins with the thought of Auguste Comte, who created a “rational” religion of humanity that would bring humanity “from a theological and military order to a scientific and industrial one.” in which there would be no separation between men. Comte taught that the arc of history inexorably bends toward the unification of nations and cultures. What matters most is the intrinsically good human nature that we all share, not the political, cultural, or religious distinctions that differentiate us.

Humanitarianism may seem like the true form of Christianity and the fulfillment of classical philosophy, but it differs from them in three significant ways.

First, it declares that there is nothing transcending human nature. It lowers the horizon for human contemplation and action to understanding and sympathizing with our fellow human beings. But, as Mahoney argues, “what is highest in man finds its ultimate source in what is higher than man. …

Second, humanitarianism sees human nature as evolving and perfectible, not a boundary that our desires and aspirations must learn to respect. …

Third, humanitarianism is scandalized by the particular. It exalts humanity in general and believes that nations will pass away. In its Christian variety, it emphasizes moral principles over the person of Jesus Christ. But particularity is necessary to finite human existence. We do not live in an abstract “family” or “humanity;” we live in our own family and our own nation. As Mahoney writes, these particularities mediate our understanding of more general concepts: “human beings experience common humanity only in the meeting of diverse human and spiritual affirmations and propositions that arise from the concrete human communities in which we live.”

I’m reading Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis,” which addresses itself to the problem of post-World War II humanitarianism as an end in itself, combined with a technocracy capable of governing but incapable of inquisitiveness about the essential purpose and telos of human beings.

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Ghosts or ancestors

Andy Weissman writes:

Towards the end of his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen describes how he’s realized that as parents, we have a choice to make: will we be ghosts or ancestors to our children. As ghosts, we haunt them with our mistakes and burdens; as ancestors, we free them from our flaws and walk alongside (or behind them) and help them find their own way.

In the past few months and without really thinking about it, I’ve started to get my morning coffee set up in place before I go to bed. On the kitchen counter I place the coffee dripper, filter, and scale, and then I weigh the beans. Last night at dinner I realized this was what my mother used to do every evening when we were kids.

Was she now being a ghost to me, or an ancestor with me?

Ghosts v. ancestors. I think I like that distinction as a way to think through the impact of family in your own formation—their influence as it has met your choices, and how one reconciles the bad and the good to live a life.

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Spotlighting the ‘whole life’ ethic

Ashley Fetters writes on “secular, liberal pro-lifers at the March for Life”:

On Friday morning, a few hours before the start of the March for Life—the 46th-annual event held to commemorate the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and to call for its repeal—banners waved above the heads of some 60 people gathered on the wet, slushy grounds of the National Mall. Consistent Life Network: … End Abortion, End Poverty, End Racism, End War, read one. Secular Pro-Life: For the embryology textbook tells me so, read another—a sly riff on the “for the Bible tells me so” refrain of the Christian hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Protesters carrying signs (Destroy the patriarchy, not the preborn) and wearing buttons (War is not pro-life) stood in the cold listening as a teal-haired atheist with a nose ring addressed the crowd that had gathered: Why, she asked, if it is wrong to kill a person who’d been born already, would it be okay to kill a person who hadn’t yet?

The #ProScienceProLife meet-up, this year’s title for the gathering held annually ahead of the March for Life, served as a summit of sorts for groups such as Rehumanize International, the Consistent Life Network, Secular Pro-life, and Democrats for Life of America. These groups espouse something called the “consistent life” or “whole life” ethic—the belief that human life should be protected from violence and killing from the moment of conception onwards. So while these groups often protest abortion, they also protest police brutality, torture, war, human trafficking, and the separation of immigrant families.

The meet-up brings together some of the nontraditional pro-life groups at the march—that is, the nonconservative and nonreligious organizations—to hear a slate of speeches, many of them from nonreligious or left-leaning pro-life leaders. But Rehumanize International’s communications director, Herb Geraghty, takes care to explain that these aren’t meant to be counterprogramming efforts: “When we host these meet-ups, we’re not protesting the March for Life,” he says. He describes these events and the presentations given at them as supplementary to the main rally. …

But despite what the popular narrative might suggest—that the pro-life side of the abortion debate is conservative and the pro-choice side is liberal, and the two sides don’t like each other—secular and left-leaning pro-lifers I spoke with said they felt welcome at the March for Life, and that most of the time they feel welcome in the pro-life movement in general, too.

… Aimee Murphy, the executive director of Rehumanize International … told me she was heartened by the theme chosen for this year’s March for Life, “Unique From Day One: Pro-life Is Pro-science.” … The lineup of speakers did … include an equal number of Republican politicians and Democratic politicians this year (two each)—which Bill Samuel, the former president of the Consistent Life Network, sees as a positive development. Samuel, 71, has been attending the March for Life for more than 15 years, and he credits the march’s current leadership with making nonconservative and nonreligious pro-life groups feel welcome at the event.

I met Aimee Murphy at Notre Dame last summer as a fellow participant in the Center for Ethics & Culture’s Vita Institute, and appreciate what she’s doing with Rehumanize International.

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March for Life 2019 scenes

I joined what was probably 200,000 or so today for the 46th March for Life in Washington, DC. Started the day with a breakfast with Democrats for Life, reconnoitered at The Willard hotel and joined the growing crowds on the mall. After the march, headed to the Americans United for Life reception on Capitol Hill.

In the evening, we headed to the National Press Club for a Notre Dame-hosted reception, and ended up finishing the night off with friends at the Dubliner.

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Capitol view and twinkling lights

I spent most of today at the Museum of the Bible at a conference in advance of Friday’s 46th March for Life. At one point I stepped out into the hallway to call in for an interview with Jim Havens of Love Will End Abortion, where we talked Americans United for Life, our publication Defending Life, Leana Wen of Planned Parenthood, and simple ways to respond with love and charity to friends with differing perspectives. This was my view from the hallway as we recorded that segment:

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As evening came on I joined a group heading to Pearl Street where we had what turned out to be an uninspiring dinner, but good conversation:

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I appreciate scenes like the one above, because they show how little it can take to enliven a public space. This would not be nearly as picturesque or welcoming a street without those little twinkling lights stretched overhead. We can do little things like this in our own homes and communities to improve atmospheres that architects and public planners spent too little time considering.

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Jack Bogle, RIP

Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, has died. Art Carey and Erin Arvedlund report:

John C. Bogle, 89, who revolutionized the way Americans save for the future, championed the interests of the small investor, and railed against corporate greed and the excesses of Wall Street, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Bryn Mawr, his family confirmed.

Mr. Bogle, a chipper and unpretentious man who invited everyone to call him “Jack,” was founder and for many years chairman of the Vanguard Group, the Malvern-based mutual-fund company, where he pioneered low-cost, low-fee investing and mutual funds tied to stock-market indexes. These innovations, reviled and ridiculed at first, enabled millions of ordinary Americans to build wealth to buy a home, pay for college, and retire comfortably.

Along the way, Vanguard, which Mr. Bogle launched in 1974, became a titan in the financial-services industry, with 16,600 employees and over $5 trillion in assets by the end of 2018, and Mr. Bogle earned a reputation as not only an investing sage but a maverick whose integrity and old-fashioned values set an example that many admired and few could match.

“Jack could have been a multibillionaire on a par with Gates and Buffett,” said William Bernstein, an Oregon investment manager and author of 12 books on finance and economic history. Instead, he turned his company into one owned by its mutual funds, and in turn their investors, “that exists to provide its customers the lowest price. He basically chose to forgo an enormous fortune to do something right for millions of people. I don’t know any other story like it in American business history.” …

While Mr. Bogle was facile with numbers, he was much less interested in counting than in what counts, and his intellectual range was broad. He revered language, history, poetry, and classical wisdom, and frequently amazed and delighted people by reciting long passages of verse. …

Mr. Bogle had hoped that the Vanguard model — “structurally correct, mathematically correct, and ethically correct” — would goad other investment firms to give customers a fairer shake. While index funds have become widely popular, Vanguard’s competitors often have been less than keen about following the company’s penny-pinching lead. …

When he was not touting the advantages of the Vanguard mode of investing, Mr. Bogle, a self-proclaimed “battler by nature,” was lambasting his professional brethren for “rank speculation,” reckless assumption of debt, “obscene” multimillion-dollar paychecks, and golden parachutes, and saying they had abdicated their duty as stewards in favor of self-interested salesmanship. …

Along the way, Mr. Bogle attracted his share of critics. He was called a communist, a Marxist, a Bolshevik, a Calvinist scold and zealot, a holier-than-thou traitor and subversive who was undermining the pillars of capitalism with un-American rants. Mr. Bogle characterized his pugnacious relationship with the financial industry as “a lover’s quarrel.” His mission, he said, was simple: to return capitalism, finance, and fund management to their roots in stewardship. …

A man who believed in the value of introspection and who was always questioning his own motives and behavior, Mr. Bogle sought to define what it means to lead a good life. It was not about wealth, power, fame and other conventional notions of success, he concluded.

“It’s about being a good husband, a good father, a good colleague, a good member of the community. Everything else pales by comparison. The accumulation of material goods is a waste — you can’t take them with you, anyway — and the waste is typified by our financial system. The essential message is, stop focusing on self and start thinking about service to others.”

When I was in Philadelphia this past weekend I happened at one point to be speaking with a Vanguard person, and asked about Jack Bogle. “He still comes into the office, still eats in the cafeteria with everyone else. He’s the most down-to-earth man.”

Jack Bogle forged Vanguard’s incredible reputation, and through index funds provided generations of average Americans the means to save and invest. My grandmother was one of those Vanguard disciples, and her frugality and farsightedness helped make possible a comfortable retirement for my grandparents and helped provide for the family over the years.

Antonio García Martinez reflected in light of Bogle’s death: “One of the key emptinesses at the core of modern secular liberalism is a convincing answer to the question: what is a good life? The ability to attain a felt (or acknowledged) dignity, irrespective of high or low material attainments, is an essential component of a sane society. The Greeks of course had their best minds wrestle with the question. We don’t dare even ask it anymore.”

RIP.

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Ineffectual and compromised…

I finished Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” yesterday. An incredible, prescient, and haunting story of a people living in collapse. It’s haunting in the same way that Brave New World is, in the sense that looking too long into its dystopian portraiture leaves one feeling like one’s looking into a mirror:

Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism…

Percy published this book in 1971, but there’s a passage in here where someone declares a view of the importance of “human values” that sounds like a rough draft for Anthony Kennedy’s infamous 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

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Georgetown snow

Arrived back in Washington late last night as snow began accumulating meaningfully throughout the area. There was that absolutely-silent calm that follows snowfall.

In weather like this, I wonder how much quieter daily life might be a century from now if and when electric vehicles have wholly supplanted the internal combustion engine. Another way to think of this is to wonder how much quieter daily life was something like 125 years ago.

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Austere and lonely offices

Attended mass at St. Denis in Havertown this morning, in Philadelphia now, and interested in seeing whether the Philadelphia Eagles season continues tonight against the New Orleans Saints. Sharing a scene from Market Street in Old City, and pairing it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays:”

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

It was something like ten years ago (maybe more) in the mid-winter that I was visiting my great uncle Bruce Shakely in western Pennsylvania. I had driven from State College the night before and arrived late. Gradually, the following morning, I woke to what I realized was the sound of Bruce out back, chopping wood for the living room furnace. Bruce was something like 85 at the time, still fulfilling one of Hayden’s “austere and lonely offices” of daily life and love.

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‘Architecture is the only truly public form of art’

In Philadelphia this weekend, and stopped in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul briefly this morning. Pairing views from that visit with Jake Scott’s writing on beauty in architecture:

Architecture is the only truly public form of art. All other styles of art exist in a dedicated space. Paintings adorn walls within galleries that we may choose to enter, just as we may choose to take replicas home with us; music is not constant, it must be played in order to be appreciated and, out of respect for one another, we confine our enjoyment of our music to our spaces, be it in communion in a concert, or alone in our bedrooms; television and film are much the same, and theatre performances even more so.

But architecture exists all around us all the time. When we walk down the street, we are surrounded by architecture—in the fact, the very existence of a street is a creation of architecture. Consequently, when we are forced to interact with art in our every day life, it is only necessary that we ask that art to be good; when we look at buildings, we want them to look back, to make us feel welcome, and not be faced with an impersonal, expressionless façade. Even the term façade is misleading, since a façade contains an expression within it.

The consequence of bad architecture, therefore, is to make us feel less at home, as if the buildings glare at us as we go about our business, making an urban space into a place where no one feels welcome. Even in these spaces, our eyes are not drawn up to marvel at the wonder around us, but instead forced down to stare at the pavement, or off into the distance. …

Each building has a voice, and each city, town, or village is merely a collection of those voices. The more poetic among us might compare it to a choir; each voice has its own note, yet the harmony of the whole takes precedence; and so, when a new voice is added to the choir, it must remember this, and do its best to respect that harmony rather than disrupt it.

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