Preserving and embracing distinctiveness

Brandon McGinley writes on the Masters Tournament as a tradition:

If you tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of April, you will hear the following introit, delivered by Jim Nantz: “Hello, friends, and welcome to this tradition unlike any other.”

The final round of the Masters Tournament, hosted with meticulous precision by the Augusta National Golf Club, is held every year on that day. The veteran sportscaster’s greeting is one of the few tournament traditions not scripted by the club—though I have no doubt it is appreciated, since it captures the notions of heritage and distinctiveness that have made the Masters the signature golf event of the year.

Augusta National has long been an anachronism… The club polices speech jealously. It is said that at least two established broadcasters have been banned for life for verbal slip-ups: One referred to the patrons as a “mob,” and the other—take a deep breath—said that the perfectly manicured greens had been “bikini-waxed.” This year, club security has been ordered to remove any patron who shouts the popular Bud Light slogan “dilly dilly.”

But these regulations are not arbitrary: They are designed to preserve the mystique of the club as an Eden set apart from the vicissitudes of the world. At the Masters, there is no opioid crisis, no gun-control issue, no Donald Trump, no cultural and political decline. The only ads you will see on the television broadcast are for hand-picked, blue-chip companies more stable than most national governments: IBM, AT&T, and Mercedes-Benz. You won’t even see promos for other CBS programs, and so you won’t be reminded of the existence of Celebrity Big Brother.

Augusta National has used its cultural (and financial) capital to carve out a niche for itself to be itself, on its own terms. Not only does the club achieve something close to perfect consistency in what it controls directly, such as the appearance and condition of the golf course; it also controls the public’s interface with the club by controlling the intermediaries. If a broadcaster violates the rules, he will not be invited back. If CBS does not do its part to enforce the rules, it will not be invited back. The club insists on signing only year-to-year contracts with the network, so as to ensure its compliance.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived. This is a startling achievement in a society that finds security in featureless and easily comprehensible cultural landscapes, and consequently seeks to smooth anything too complex and particular into a barely distinguishable example of a type: just another sporting event; just another television broadcast; just another weekend distraction. …

People don’t make quasi-spiritual pilgrimages to just another championship golf course. They treat Augusta National as special because it has made a massive effort to demonstrate that it is special.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived…” There’s an evergreen lesson about authenticity in this, for people, places, and things interested in being precisely what they are.

Cherry blossoms

It’s Cherry blossom season in Washington and elsewhere. I’m sharing two scenes from this past week. The first is a view from the corner of M and Wisconsin in Georgetown one morning on my way to work. The second is a glimpse of the cherry blossoms.

I was able to drive past the Tidal Basin in Washington earlier this week, and even the view from the car as we snaked along the edge of the water was great. Here’s some history of American cherry blossoms:

Japan gave 3,020 cherry blossom trees as a gift to the United States in 1912 to celebrate the nations’ then-growing friendship, replacing an earlier gift of 2,000 trees which had to be destroyed due to disease in 1910. These trees were planted in Sakura Park in Manhattan and line the shore of the Tidal Basin and the roadway in East Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. The first two original trees were planted by first lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda on the bank of the Tidal Basin. The gift was renewed with another 3,800 trees in 1965. In Washington, D.C. the cherry blossom trees continue to be a popular tourist attraction (and the subject of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival) when they reach full bloom in early spring. …

Philadelphia is also home to over 2,000 flowering Japanese cherry trees, half of which were a gift from the Japanese government in 1926 in honor of the 150th anniversary of American independence, with the other half planted by the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia between 1998 and 2007. …

Other US cities have an annual cherry blossom festival (or sakura matsuri), including the International Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon, Georgia, which features over 300,000 cherry trees. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City also has a large, well-attended festival.

Work, ‘to the exclusion of all else’

Do we live to work, or do we work to live? Dominic Bouck writes on North Dakota’s repeal of the state’s “blue laws:”

These laws, which made it illegal for retail stores to be open from midnight to noon on Sundays, used to be common throughout the country. But now, only some liquor stores are still subject to such constraints. Sunday rest for retail is a relic of the past.

Puritan theology certainly lurks behind these blue laws. But the principle that the state should ensure we have rest goes much deeper than narrow-minded prissiness. God’s rest on the seventh day was of great comfort to the Israelite slaves in Egypt, who knew not rest. … Today’s culture of slavery does not involve overlords cracking whips, but rather the irresistible urges of a consumer economy.

The 24-7 retail culture hurts our poor. Those who suffer most from the loss of blue laws are those conscripted into hourly wage jobs: the young, the impoverished, single mothers, and all those who struggle. …

As those who work in retail know, it’s not as simple as asking for different hours. … One of my high school students recently told me that she had to work at a retail store on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Her Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a Taco in a Bag (a Midwest recipe). The legal protection of Sunday rest helps the individual worker and preserves the family from the arms race that is our consumer society. …

As Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure, the Basis of Culture: “Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” We are made for more, yet society keeps ensuring us less. Christ said it best: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

People say “time is money” because they understand money to be the only meaningful type of value. But really, “time is value.” And we should be cautious about those around us who are too eager to help us obtain what is ultimately ephemeral in exchange for what is valuable.

Robert Spaemann’s contributions

Till Kinzel memorializes the departed Robert Spaemann:

In 1978, a major conference called Mut zur Erziehung (“Courage to Educate”) took place in Bonn, which Spaemann had co-organized and for which he had co-authored various papers that rejected the major tenets of ‘emancipatory’ pedagogy. Instead, Spaemann and his colleagues emphasized the continuing relevance of old anthropological wisdom concerning the virtues of discipline, industry, and order. These could not be jettisoned to achieve some easy and equally distributed happiness, as was often suggested by those refusing to accept any kind of ‘repression’.

As a philosopher, Spaemann aimed at presenting “rational objections against the abstract utopia of the radical emancipatory rule of reason”. This could only be regarded by critics as a dangerous vision that would ultimately undermine plurality and provide the ideological legitimation for the use of violence against those resisting this alleged rule of reason. But Spaemann repeatedly raised his voice in defence of the freedom of the press and argued against political correctness. He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena: “I am not modern,” he once declared in an interview. And recently, in October 2017, Spaemann was one of the co-signers of the so-called “Paris Statement”, the conservative manifesto formally titled “A Europe We Can Believe In”, which is a re-statement and affirmation of the civilizational inheritance of Europe which was promulgated by a group of European philosophers and thinkers in opposition to the “fashionable abstractions of our age”.

Spaemann also criticized other developments in areas beyond mere philosophy. In modern science, the concept of nature had undergone a significant change: It became ‘de-teleologized’. Beginning with Francis Bacon, philosophers had suggested that one should never ask the question ‘why?’ in connection with natural phenomena. Only causal explanations were acceptable, so that in the course of the modern era, a teleological understanding of nature became anathema. Spaemann, in contrast, together with his colleague Reinhard Löw, opened up the debate on the meaning and ‘directedness’ of nature and human beings by examining the history — and the re-discovery — of teleological thinking in a work entitled Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens (1981). In this and later works, nature as such again became an issue, with immense consequences also for ecological thinking. Spaemann’s ‘conservatism’, therefore, always put a strong emphasis on the protection of the environment.

The concept of nature also relates to another feature of Spaemann’s ethical and political thought — namely, that which can perhaps be called a ‘modern version’ of natural right. He did not suggest that this could take the form of a ‘catalogue of norms’ but rather should be considered a way of thinking that enables human beings to ask about the justice of laws and their justifications. Understood in this way, ‘natural right’ remains vitally important.

One of the major fields in which Spaemann has certainly left his biggest mark is ethics. In his various writings on ethics, he offered reflections on major issues of modern society, such as the ethically problematic character of nuclear power, assisted suicide, and the biological manipulation of human beings — particularly abortion. Spaemann was one of the most emphatic defenders of the right to life. He also did not refrain from producing popular radio lectures (his Moralische Grundbegriffe of 1982 is notable) as well as a handy anthology of key ethical texts titled Ethik-Lesebuch: Von Platon bis heute (1987).

The character of human beings as persons became a focal point for Spaemann’s later thought, particularly in his 1996 work, Personen: Versuche über den Unterschied zwischen ‘etwas’ und ‘jemand’ (Persons: Essays on the Distinction between ‘Something’ and ‘Someone’). For Spaemann, this implied the recognition of all human beings as persons, even if not all thinkable criteria for personhood should be actualized in a given case. Especially in these cases, he argued, we should recognize the other’s humanity; and a test case for a civilized society, according to Spaemann, is ensuring that this humanity — even of retarded or handicapped people — is not put into question.

Spaemann’s deeply humane reasoning offers important succour against all attempts to negate the value of some people’s lives by claiming that they are not ‘proper’ persons. Many of his ethical reflections, as well as his more overtly political interventions, were later collected in a volume significantly titled Grenzen: Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns (Limits: On the Ethical Dimension of Actions), published in 2001. To think about ‘limits’ implies taking a critical distance towards modernity. This also led Spaemann to criticize attempts to preserve ‘tradition’ without asking the crucial question whether what Plato said is true. Thus, the actual content of our intellectual traditions needs to be taken seriously instead of merely talking about secondary issues, such as the question over what the functions of a given body of thought might be under certain conditions. According to Spaemann, it is not enough to say that prima philosophia (metaphysics) is important; one actually has to practice it.

“He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena…”

Catholic University’s Maloney Hall

Andrew V. Abela, provost of The Catholic University of America, writes on the opening of the Busch School of Business’s renovated Maloney Hall:

Originally constructed in 1917, it is a beautiful stone building that has long been a mainstay in the university’s life and work in Washington, D.C. Now, it will serve as the hub for several hundred students a year, as they learn to be entrepreneurs and business leaders inspired by the Catholic faith.

This building is centered around a brand-new chapel, and, in a very real sense, so is the entire business school. We don’t believe that business presents a choice between capitalism and socialism, or between right and left. Instead, we enable our students to ground their business decisions in Catholic Social Doctrine, which transcends partisan distinctions and holds the potential to transform our economy in extraordinary ways. …

The principles of Catholic Social Doctrine, developed carefully over more than a century, define the education that our students receive. For instance: They invite students to uphold both the principle of “solidarity,” which is our responsibility to care for others, and “subsidiarity,” the idea that decisions should be made by those closest to the point of impact.

Our students also wrestle with the principle of private property and the universal destination of goods. The first teaches that human beings have the right to manage their own property. The second says to use that property for the good of others.

And students discover the interrelationship between markets and virtue. Often framed as contradictory, markets and virtue are complementary – and in fact, they each need the other. The market economy provides the economic freedom where virtuous citizens can prosper and lift each other out of poverty. Similarly, virtues like trustworthiness, hard work, honesty, and courage, all of which are first cultivated in non-market institutions like the family, churches, and educational institutions — are essential for the existence of the market economy. …

We need courageous people who reject lying, cheating, stealing, and coercion. Above all else, we need well-formed women and men who understand the purpose of business – who seek success only by helping others succeed.

“Laws without morals are in vain.”

What is the Burkean way?

Carl T. Bogus writes on Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk to underscore that to be a conservative is to always be more concerned with a whole community of persons than with individual concerns:

What is the Burkean way? Those who have read only Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—his brilliant jeremiad against the convulsive overthrow of the French monarchy—often think of Burke as an implacable defender of institutions and tradition. But that can be misleading. Burke was, in fact, a reformer, though of a particular kind. He believed that society was a complex organism that evolved to its present condition for reasons that were not always evident. Burke believed that changes are often desirable—and a constant process of improvement essential—but those changes should be made carefully, with respect for tradition and a concern for unintended consequences. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he wrote. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” …

“Conservatism,” Russell Kirk wrote, “never is more admirable than when it accepts change that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of the general condition; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish that principle.”

At the most fundamental level, Burke was a communitarian. It is institutions—governmental, professional, religious, educational, and otherwise—that compose the fabric of society. Each of these institutions has classes of people who devote their careers to preserving and improving them: jurists serve the law, scholars their disciplines and universities, clerics their church, and so on. All citizens, in fact, are engaged in a sacred intergenerational compact. “Society,” Burke said, “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” …

Kirk wrote: “True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.”

‘Glimpses that would make me less forlorn’

A scene near Christ Church, Georgetown Episcopal and a bit of Wordsworth:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn

Closed Beltway, open air walk

Earlier this week coming back from Arlington, traffic had ground to a near absolute halt. I was in an Uber that was making no progress, so I got out and walked the two miles or so home. It was a beautiful evening for it, on foot. Here are some scenes nearing the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and of the Georgetown canal path just over the other side of the bridge.

It turned out that a tanker had turned over on the Beltway:

Commuters, take heed. Anyone intending to take the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway today needs to contend with a tanker truck that overturned near the American Legion Bridge around 2 p.m.

While the driver of the truck was not injured in the crash, there was a minor injury from one of the cars, according to Fairfax Fire and Rescue.

Further complicating the response is that the overturned tanker was holding 8,500 gallons of fueland was actively leaking. A total of 100-200 gallons leaked, but Fairfax Fire and Rescue says that the fuel has been “has been contained and does not appear to have made it into the Potomac River.” …

The lanes on the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway reopened just before 3 a.m. on Friday morning.

Corrupt by nature, but capable of virtue

Andreas Kinneging writes a primer on virtue:

Hardly anyone seriously talks about judiciousness, righteousness, courage, and temperance, let alone chastity, fidelity, and humility. Over the past five decades, these notions have become archaic, and we often no longer understand their meaning.

This disappearance is of some significance. It indicates that traditional morality, in which these virtues occupied center stage, has gradually faded and is about to disappear both from our culture and from our consciousnesses. The crucial question is, of course, how we should assess this development. Is it a curse, a blessing, or of no significance whatsoever? We cannot provide a meaningful response to that question unless we have some understanding of traditional morality. …

Although man is corrupt by nature, he is capable of acquiring virtues. He is born with a number of dangerous instincts, but he is capable of tempering and sometimes even stifling those instincts so that they do not flower into evil. He is susceptible to temptations, but he is not defenseless against them.

Perfection in this sublunary world can only be aspired to, never achieved. Even though moral perfection is beyond man’s reach he is not doomed to do all evil. He is merely inclined that way.

What counts is the battle against the evil within us. We can never win decisively, but this battle certainly need not be lost. To fight this good fight, the main requirements are a certain amount of mistrust toward oneself, a measure of willpower, and perseverance. One must beware of the enemy and show character in battle. Everything else is in the hands of God or—if you prefer—Providence or Fate. And he/that is something we cannot control; we can only hope and pray.

As we have by now surmised, there is such a strong emphasis on virtues in traditional morality because they can save man from the evil within himself. Virtues derive their meaning and significance from the presence of evil in man.

Those who do not believe in man’s inclination to evil will not assign any value to virtues, either. Those who see evil in only a few things peculiar to man will admit only a few virtues. Many of us acknowledge only one real virtue: tolerance. This mirrors the fact that in recent decades the meaning of evil, to the extent that it can be laid at man’s door, has dwindled to little more than intolerance.

The traditional understanding of evil is much broader. Evil is equivalent to the forces of chaos, dissonance, and corruption that spring from human nature. Good is equivalent to the opposite spiritual forces of order, harmony, and growth.

“Virtues derive their meaning and significance from the presence of evil in man.” Andreas Kinneging seems to preach from the same gospel that Jordan Peterson does. It’s evidence of how foreign traditional conceptions of virtue have become that Peterson is regarded by so many as a sort of radical, and that so many seem to treat his ideas as dangerous.

Tradition has become the counter-culture.