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.

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.

Being ‘childlike’

I’m sharing Saturday’s Gospel reading, and Bishop Robert Barron’s reflection on it, because it’s not only a beautiful reflection on what Christ means when he tells us to be “childlike,” but it’s also a good way to return to C.S. Lewis’s trilemma to figure out who Christ is:

Bishop Robert Barron, Daily Gospel Reflections
Luke 10:17-24

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus calls his disciples and us “childlike”: “Although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike”. How so? Children don’t know how to dissemble, how to be one way and act another. “Kids say the darndest things,” because they don’t know how to hide the truth of their reactions.

In this, they are like stars or flowers or animals, things that are what they are, unambiguously. The challenge of the spiritual life is to realize what God wants us to be and thereby come to the same simplicity and directness in our existence. To find out what is in line with the deepest grain of our being.

Let me put this another way: children haven’t yet learned how to look at themselves. Why can a child immerse himself so eagerly and thoroughly in what he is doing? Because he can lose himself; because he is not looking at himself, conscious of the reactions, expectations, and approval of those around him. The best moments in life occur when we lose the ego, lose ourselves in the world and just are as God wants us to be.

Children “don’t know how to hide the truth of their reactions …are like stars or flowers or animals, things that are what they are. … The best moments in life occur when we lose the ego…”

Luke’s Gospel is great for returning to C.S. Lewis’s trilemma, because it provides insight into Christ that makes it impossible to consider him merely a “great moral teacher” or some sort of spiritual philosopher. Christ tells his disciples, “I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy.” Christ instructs his disciples to “rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” And most startlingly, he literally shares that “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma…”

Leaves leap and alight

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Then comes the season of summer, with its soft winds,
When Zephyrus breathes on seeds and herbs,
– A great good is the plant that grows thus –
When the drenching dew drops from the leaves
To await the bright blush of the burning sun;
But then hies harvest, and quickly hardens it,
And warns it to wax ripe against the winter’s coming;
He drives in drought and rises the dust
Flying up high from the face of the earth;
Wrathful winds from the sky wrestle with the sun
The leaves leap from the linden and alight on the ground,
And all the grass goes grey that was green before;
Then all ripens and rots that formerly rose up;
And thus runs the year in yesterdays many,
And winter wakes again, as the world directs,
in truth,
Until the Michaelmas moon was come
With the first pledge of winter.

I’m posting this from an Uber, on my way to an Oktoberfest at Frankford Hall in Northern Liberties. It’s nearly 80 degrees out, and only started looking and smelling like autumn earlier today when I was out for a run, but it’ll be here in earnest anytime now.

‘According to science’

National Institutes of Health write:

By scanning the brains of healthy volunteers, researchers at the National Institutes of Health saw the first, long-sought evidence that our brains may drain some waste out through lymphatic vessels, the body’s sewer system. The results further suggest the vessels could act as a pipeline between the brain and the immune system.

“We literally watched people’s brains drain fluid into these vessels,” said Daniel S. Reich, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study published online in eLife. “We hope that our results provide new insights to a variety of neurological disorders.” …

In 1816, an Italian anatomist reported finding lymphatic vessels on the surface of the brain, but for two centuries, it was forgotten. Until very recently, researchers in the modern era found no evidence of a lymphatic system in the brain, leaving some puzzled about how the brain drains waste, and others to conclude that brain is an exceptional organ. Then in 2015, two studies of mice found evidence of the brain’s lymphatic system in the dura. Coincidentally, that year, Dr. Reich saw a presentation by Jonathan Kipnis, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Virginia and an author of one the mouse studies.

“I was completely surprised. In medical school, we were taught that the brain has no lymphatic system,” said Dr. Reich. “After Dr. Kipnis’ talk, I thought, maybe we could find it in human brains?”

Scientific discovery, like all methods of discovering the nature and observable laws of our world, is a human endeavor. So, the fields of science are fundamentally as human as any branch of human inquiry. For years, students “were taught that the brain has no lymphatic system,” and now that’s changed—in this case, because we’ve rediscovered something that was discovered two centuries ago.

That outrageously misleading phrase “according to science,” so often used to mean “objectively true,” should be avoided at all costs. “According to science” simply means “according to people,” and we often find that we were wrong. Worse, “according to science” eliminates the sort of thoughtful, nuanced thinking that’s necessary for meaningful discovery in the first place in any field of human inquiry.

It’s an example of politics warping language, and diminishing public thought.

Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

—William Blake

Subjective human rights

Mike May interviews Wesley J. Smith, board member of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and Wesley conveys some of the fundamentals that inform our mission:

How do you see these issues and any other trends that are occurring as undermining human dignity?

When you say that some people have greater value than other people, when you say that some people have a greater claim on our care and our concern than other people, you are establishing an invidious system which would tolerate medical discrimination, perhaps in the form of healthcare rationing, perhaps in the form of a situation sometimes called futile care where doctors are entitled, under certain rules, for example in the law of Texas, to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care. You open the door to things such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. Creating a system where people are valued differently will lead to oppression and exploitation of those who are deemed to be those less valuable.

What have you discovered to be the most powerful arguments against those trends?

I think the value system of the West, whether one is conservative or liberal politically, really accepts the concept of universal human rights and universal human equality. I think we need to fight any form of discrimination that challenges that, whether it’s based on race, whether it’s based on sex or whether it’s based on physical capacities, physical health or disability. When we point out that by engaging in these utilitarian practices and policies that you’re creating another form of invidious discrimination … I think people respond … .

The minute it’s subjective, the minute that we decide that in order to have the highest value you have to have a predicated capacity, then who matters and who doesn’t becomes more of a matter of who has the power to decide and you move into a great potential for discrimination.

Underscoring this: physicians can increasingly “refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care.” We’re debating whether we should have something like universal medical care, while at the same time evolving our ethics in a direction that allows for subjective delivery of that care.