February 2020

  • I’ve got my first piece for Humanize from the Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism out today, where I write that human rights require knowledge of the human heart:

    I believe that when it comes to issues of human life we’re generally engaging conflicts that are neither unresolvable nor destined for stalemate. We’re debating issues that matter. We can lose sight of this due to the tendency to throw our hands into the air over the seemingly complex nature of many human life issues, content to “agree to disagree” because “it’s complicated.” For those determined to advance human dignity, liberty, and equality, settling for this false peace is, in fact, a surrender to (at best) a materialist philosophy that prizes autonomy over solidarity, or (at worst) a nihilist relativism that proposes that ultimate reality and truth are unknowable and therefore worthless.

    We already see the poisoned fruits of accepting that false peace in the degradation of human rights. Human rights were once a shield for the protection of those most at risk to the whims of those with greater power, but as we lose our sense of human beings as possessors of inherent dignity and worth, we also lose a firm basis for universal human rights. As if experiencing a collective dementia, we look upon the face of the human person without recognizing the priceless good we see. And in our forgetfulness we lose our ethical bearings, too often falling for utopian promises for a future that never arrives.

    When we survey the field, we observe this annihilation across the spectrum of human life: at the earliest and most physically vulnerable period when we most require hospitality and love, in the form of abortion; at the latest and most culturally vulnerable period when we most require solidarity and companionship, in the form of euthanasia and suicide; throughout adult life when we require encounter and friendship, through a “throwaway” culture of indifference; and across the spectrum of bioethical issues from eugenics to human trafficking, from attacks on patient and physician conscience rights to misanthropic environmentalism, from ethically indifferent forms of genetic engineering to stem cell research to cloning, and on it goes.

    What are we to make of the claims of human rights, amidst all the raw human willfulness and power imbalances that so greatly warp our ability to recognize one another as equals?

  • Humanize

    I joined the Discovery Institute last month as a Research Fellow with their Center on Human Exceptionalism, which exists to affirm and uphold the intrinsic nature of human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley J. Smith, Chair and Senior Fellow of the Center, has just launched Humanize, a blog for news, analysis, and opinion. Wesley writes:

    America is living with the ghosts of the 1960s, the ambition of that time as much as its hubris. In equal measure, those qualities shape our ethically and morally haphazard approach to human dignity and human rights, and particularly bioethical issues that have the potential to harm or damage our liberty and equality with one another as human beings.

    Humanize will offer news, opinion, and analysis to spark and participate in conversations about all of these issues and more, in the spirit of a time when we believed that we could achieve success in every field with ambition tempered by honor—in short, in a way that both advances science and society and promotes human dignity, liberty, and equality.

    As long as we remain fractured across philosophical and intellectual fault lines, issues of human life generally and bioethical issues specifically can only grow more vexing. We’re establishing Humanize with the hope that we can be a home for spirited and robust conversations that address the many ethical or moral issues that currently denigrate human life, as we promote a human-centered wholeness that is the only true hope for a better future.

    Humanize is as much about recognizing new frontiers in science, medicine, and biotechnology, as it is about recognizing that there are perennial frontiers in the human heart that must always be addressed in our conscience as much as our law and policy. …

    The work we thought we were finishing with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has turned out simply to be a starting point for new frontiers in a timeless conversation on the exceptional importance of being human.

    I’ll be contributing to Humanize as often as I’m able.

  • Mikaela Lefrak’s portrait of billionaire David Rubenstein is a fitting read for George Washington’s birthday. I’m a sucker for what Rubenstein calls “patriotic philanthropy”:

    Rubenstein has shaped the cultural landscape of the nation’s capital perhaps more than any other private citizen in the past century. The Bethesda resident has done it while generally avoiding negative press, putting him in stark contrast with other Washington billionaires – your Jeff Bezoses, your Donald Trumps.

    “You know, I get a lot of pleasure out of doing these things,” Rubenstein told me at the top of the Washington Monument. “And if I didn’t do them and I died with more money, would I be a happier person? I don’t think so.”

    He calls this type of giving “patriotic philanthropy.”

    But in this age of bitter partisanship and vast income inequality, what drives someone to stay out of politics and instead give their money to monuments, museums and historic sites? It’s not even clear that these public institutions are as universally valued today as they once were. And many a presidential candidate would argue that the very concept of being a billionaire is morally suspect. …

    So what motivates David Rubenstein to follow this path?

    Deciding to give away money is easy. Figuring out how to do it can be much more complex.

    First, you need a strategy. Take Andrew Carnegie: The 19th century tycoon spent the last two decades of his life as a full-time philanthropist, building more than 3,000 public libraries across the country and setting up education and cultural institutions. Many of them still thrive today, from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University) to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

    Other billionaires set up private foundations and hire other people to give their money away for them. The Ford Foundation was built on the wealth of the founders of Ford Motor Company in 1936. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world, with more than $50 billion in assets.

    There’s also a more business-minded approach. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan created a limited liability company that allows them to both make grants and venture investments.

    As for David Rubenstein, there’s no foundation, no LLC. Just a check book and a passion for American history.

    Rubenstein’s old school approach to public life as a billionaire, seeking to make an impact in a way that is at once deeply political, in the sense that he’s bolstering our national institutions, and yet beyond partisanship, in the sense that he appears to relate to other people first as people, is refreshing.

  • Peter Theil reviews Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book The Decadent Society, wherein Douthat defines decadence as:

    …stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, a jaded will merely to muddle through. …

    Douthat outlines four aspects of decadence: stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion). …

    Choosing agency over boomer complacency, The Decadent Society sets the stakes for the most urgent public debate of the 2020s: How do we get back to the future? …

    A renaissance will require motivational goals. To be motivational, a goal must be both ambitious and achievable. For this reason, I suspect that we should hesitate to put our faith in distant star systems. The fountain of youth and the Tree of Life are not waiting for us in Tau Ceti or on Planet Vulcan in 40 Eridani. We need not be “loyal to the earth” like the atheist Zarathustra, but we would do well to expect our salvation to be worked out in the solar system we have been given.

    For technologists, that means pursuing goals that are difficult but possible: cures for cancer and ­Alzheimer’s; compact nuclear ­reactors and fusion power. For statesmen, that means deconstructing the corrupt institutions that have falsely claimed to pursue those goals on our behalf.

    It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy.

    Douthat is coming to Washington next week for a talk and book signing. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to be there, but I’m going to read the book.

    Pursuing goals that are difficult but possible sounds trite as far as advice for a great life, great career, or a national recovery. And yet, this is the way.

  • Jordan Peterson is in Russia, attempting a recovery from addiction to anti-anxiety drugs. Douglas Murray speaks up for him as his critics seize their opportunity for abuse:

    I have known a few remarkable people in my time. The best of them, inevitably, have fans.

    You can tell the fans, as the novelist Martin Amis once wrote, because they shake when they meet their heroes.

    With Jordan Peterson it wasn’t like that. Walking down any street with him, or sitting next to him in book-signing queues, I saw first-hand what other people heard about.

    In the 20 or 30 seconds that people might have him to themselves, they didn’t tell him how much they loved his work.

    They told him what a difference he had made to their lives.

    A great author is lucky if this is said to them even a few times in their lives. Peterson was told it multiple times every evening.

    I’ll never forget a man in his 20s who came over after one event.

    While Peterson signed his book, he related that 18 months earlier he had been living in a bedsit, spending his time gaming and smoking too much marijuana.

    Today, he said he was married, holding down a job and his wife was expecting their first child.

    This, he said, was all because of Peterson. I’ve heard similar stories many times.

    A serious and grown-up society would take lessons from such a phenomenon.

    Instead of dismissing him, deriding him or trying to catch him out, it would recognise that we live in a society where plenty of people are willing to tell easy untruths but too few people are willing to tell difficult, necessary truths.

    It would also realise that underneath the glitz and technology of the modern age, there lies a deep lack of purpose – a chaos – that for young people in particular can be utterly terrifying and which almost no one addresses. Peterson has sought to address that chaos.

    Not with grandiose plans but with small, achievable steps. All bolstered by a knowledge and curiosity that was frankly awesome as well as inspiring.

    At no point has he held himself out to be a saint. And not once has he suggested that he has all the answers.

    But he knows where the answers do not lie. And he knows that we can live lives of deeper meaning and purpose than this shallow and retributive age pretends.

    Jordan Peterson is a remarkable man.

    But he’s still a man, with all the frailties and failings that condition involves.

    “Instead of dismissing him, deriding him or trying to catch him out, it would recognise that we live in a society where plenty of people are willing to tell easy untruths but too few people are willing to tell difficult, necessary truths.”

  • Chad Pecknold writes on Pope Francis and Querida Amazonia:

    After months of agitation around the Amazonian Synod, the Holy Father’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia was received with relief by many.

    Pope Francis simply ignored the radical reforms demanded by rich, bourgeois liberals in Germany.

    They funded much of the Amazonian synod, and they wanted results. They wanted exceptions to compulsory priestly celibacy — the Pope gave them none. They wanted the door at least opened to the possibility of female deacons — the Pope told them not to clericalize women. After months of synodal and curial intrigue around the so-called viri probati — the Pope said we need holiness and evangelization instead to bring the Eucharist to the Amazonian peoples.

    As one liberal commentator on curial affairs put it, “people are starting to adjust expectations.” There has been a kind of slow-burn realization among agitators that Pope Francis is not the bridge to their shag-carpeted dreams. …

    The German response to Querida Amazonia exhibited the same anxieties which preceded it. Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) — a lay group which advocates for the blessing of same-sex marriage in the Church and which enjoys influence and authority in the national bishops’ conference — expressed his disappointment that Pope Francis “did not find the courage to implement real reforms in the questions of the ordination of married men and the liturgical skills of women, which have been discussed for 50 years.”

    “Fifty years!” The disappointment was palpable. President Sternberg wrote: “Our expectations regarding specific steps towards reform, especially with regard to access to the priestly office and the role of women, were very high. We very much regret that Pope Francis did not take a step forward in his letter.” The ZdK president spoke of the Holy Father’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation as if he were paying a bill for a product he never ordered.

    Some in Germany have been asking impossible things of Rome since at least the sixteenth century, but now, with their outsized wealth and influence, they apparently must make it known to the Successor of Saint Peter that they are “very disappointed in him.” If it were not for their extreme arrogance, impiety, and presumption, one might almost feel sorry at their deflation.

  • I’m on Amtrak heading to Richmond this morning for the March for Life Virginia. It’s early (so still darkish) and it’s overcast and raining.

    If your experience of the world is exclusively or primarily in our cities and along routes like the one I’m traveling this morning (whether by car or train), you’ll tend to think we’re destroying the world because of the way we’re developing it. The sights from my Amtrak window are not exactly ugly, but what’s built along railroad tracks doesn’t tend to be beautiful. The same goes for our highways.

    But we’re not destroying the world because we’re developing it. If we are destroying the world, it’s because we’re developing it in an ugly way—that is, we’re building things that degrade rather than elevate the natural landscape. And in turn that degrades our own experience of it and eventually our lived experience generally.

    This isn’t a new or controversial idea, but if you survey folks across the political spectrum I suspect you’d find we’ve forgotten the principle behind building beautiful things—that aesthetics aren’t just how something looks but speak to what something is. And if we’re committed to the idea that form and function don’t have a meaningful relationship, we’ll keep building things that act as a spiritual corrosive.

    There was the news recently that the White House might be considering an executive order instructing that future federal architecture be classical rather than brutalist, for instance. Why classical architecture matters isn’t simply because it’s “old,” but because its form and its age means it has been tested and that its form carries within it knowledge about what serves all of our needs as human beings—our need for beauty and symmetry and thoughtfulness as much as function.

    If you’re inclined to say that “it’s all relative,” or especially that “beauty is relative,” ask yourself why we seek and conserve those things produced by craftsman (art, homes, public buildings, statues, etc.) and treat the pre-fabricated as basically disposable. It’s because crafted and beautiful things are in harmony with the world as we feel it should be, and we recognize the value in living amidst beauty if we can afford to do so.

  • Mary Nikkel writes about the virtue of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo, whose obstacles are “primarily internal” in contrast with the obstacles Sam faces, which are “exterior to himself”. Nikkel draws out Tolkien’s understanding of Frodo’s heroic virtue:

    I remember when I was younger, I struggled to accept and understand why a lot of my peers found Frodo either forgettable or material for mocking. I understand it a little better now: the movies DO often make him not particularly likable or watchable. The book portrays him as someone who doesn’t seem to be experiencing a reasonable range of human expression/emotion, which admittedly can make him less compelling to read about. I understand that. But I also think it’s integral to the point of the character.

    Frodo and Sam are necessary for understanding each other. Sam was a character cast from the mold that Tolkien learned on the frontlines of World War I. Tolkien saw Sam as the everyday hero, the embodiment of the simple good-hearted courage of the men he watched die in the trenches. Sam’s obstacles are exterior to himself: the geography. The threat of enemy soldiers (orcs), of Shelob, of his companion’s physical and mental difficulties.

    By contrast, Frodo’s obstacles are primarily internal. He endured a lot of those same exterior challenges as Sam, but Sam did much to absorb their impact (see the Cirith Ungol rescue). Frodo’s challenges are the slow, steady erosion of a soul being asked to carry a tremendous internal darkness without being consumed by it. Everything he was became laser-focused on that monolithic spiritual and emotional task.

    This is why, at the end, Frodo had to sacrifice far more than Sam. Because Sam’s primary struggle was against external forces, once those external forces were alleviated, he could go home, marry, have children, live as a functional member of his community. For Frodo, the cessation of exterior pressure could do nothing to mend the way his soul had been burning from the inside out.

    This is a hard thing to portray in movie form (the greatest weakness of the LotR movies is their inability to portray subtlety and spirituality, two traits the narrative Tolkien crafted requires). We see Frodo’s neck chapping from the actual physical weight of the Ring as a representation; well and good. But it’s hard to truly convey the immense mental weight, the crucible of enduring without utter collapse.

    If Sam is a kind of patron saint for the good-hearted soldier, I would posit that Frodo is the patron saint of the depressed, the suicidal, the addicted, the ones living with trauma. We see it best maybe at Mount Doom, where Frodo’s very self has been ground down to nearly nothing: “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”

    If you’d ever been deeply depressed, ever lived chained in the prison of PTSD, you will have experienced that exact same thing.

    And of course that’s not always the most likable thing to read about or to watch. Mental anguish has a way of stripping away so many of the human details about you, even your personality itself.

    “Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different,” J.R.R. Tolkien himself wrote.

    In another letter (#246, for the curious), Tolkien addressed the concern that had been posed to him that Frodo was a weak and failed hero, that his decision at Mount Doom proved it. “I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure,” Tolkien clarified. “At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum– impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted… I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been– say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock.”

    Tolkien built into Frodo a validation of the internal struggle, marking it not as weakness, but ultimately even as a special kind of strength. Through the character of Frodo, Tolkien displayed that internal anguish, fear, and pain were not moral failings. He might not have known it, but Tolkien was building an incredibly beautiful fictitious case study on the impact of trauma on the soul and the human ability to endure.

    “Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task,” Tolkien summarized. “His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

    And for any of us carrying a weight of horror, trauma, grief, dread, anxiety, depression, despair— maybe our hope is the same. To do what we can. To know that, even when our minds give out under the tremendous weight, we are still enough.

    “I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure,” Tolkien clarified. “At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum– impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted… I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been…”

  • Carroll William Westfall, Columbia University professor of architecture, writes why classical architecture is better than modernist architecture:

    The defenders of modernist architecture lost no time in assaulting the recent Trump administration proposal that government buildings be classical. Architecture critics and the heads of architecture schools are among those who seek to preserve the putative right of architects to express their interpretation of the modern era with the latest fashions on public land and at public expense.

    They argue that government interference would curtail their right to practice their art. If people do not like what they see, well, too bad for them. This argument ignores the fact that a building is a public object that occupies a site that is necessarily part of the realm where people lead their lives.

    Things placed in the public realm are obliged to serve the public, common good even if privately owned, and it is the duty of government to ensure this is done. Presently, land is to be used for its “highest and best use,” which is defined by the greatest economic return or, in the case of cultural institutions, for the education of the taste of the people. The result has been a half-century of commercial construction and one-off cultural centers that display the avant-garde styles that the 1962 guidelines encouraged for public buildings as well. …

    The classical in service to the public, common good of our nation, however, has been manifested in buildings from those of Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is also apparent in the choics of President George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant when building the national capital, and in the architects of the first half of the previous century who added the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Union Station, and the National Mall. Need I add the countless state capitols, city halls, courthouses, and other public buildings serving and representing our ideals all across the nation? …

    The 1962 guidelines mandated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” but praise for what the profession has produced is scarce. Consider the colony of federal agency buildings across the National Mall. Their saving grace is that their height and siting is acceptable, but those qualities were determined by century-old safeguards.

    “Traditions are solutions to problems we have forgotten,” I read someplace recently. One of the things for which tradition has long been a solution is the challenge of creating beauty in our public life. If we understand beauty as intelligible, that is, if we understand that we can recognize a person or a thing as beautiful for whatever reason, then we understand that beauty points beyond itself, beyond its physical or material aspects, to a spiritual core.

    What classical architecture predates and also outlasts is the notion that “form follows function” in what we built and how we live. We need more than a built environment of mere functioning. We need beauty.

  • Kobe Bryant, RIP

    Tom Hoffarth and Steve Lowery on the late Kobe Bryant’s faith:

    In the immediate aftermath of Bryant’s sudden death along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, in a helicopter crash Jan. 26, it soon became known that Bryant stopped by Queen of Angels, located a couple miles from his Newport Coast home, for a few moments of reflection and prayer, leaving just 10 minutes after that 7 a.m. Mass started to head to John Wayne Airport.

    Father Sallot later confirmed to various local news outlets that he had seen Bryant after he had prayed in the chapel.

    “We shook hands, I saw that he had blessed himself because there was a little holy water on his forehead,” Father Sallot said. “I was coming in the same door as he was going out … we called that the backhand of grace.”

    Though Bryant was well-known for his discipline (Mamba Mentality), cosmopolitan ways (giving interviews in multiple languages) and, most of all, love, admiration, and devotion for his daughters (the trending hashtag #GirlDad among the tributes), the fact that Bryant took his faith so seriously seemed to take many, including those in the media, by surprise.

    The media may have first met him as a star in Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania before the Lakers obtained him in a 1996 NBA draft trade, but considering Bryant started living in Milan, Italy, at age 7, since his father, Joe, played seven seasons in the Italian League after his own NBA career ended in 1983, Catholicism seems to have been as natural a part of life as basketball.

    Bryant was willing to talk about his faith with anyone willing or wanting to listen. It was there, he said, at both his highest and lowest moments.

    “I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success. Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.”

    “If you do the work, if you work hard enough, dreams come true… and if you guys can understand that, then I’m doing my job as a father.”