George H.W. Bush, RIP

George H.W. Bush, rest in peace. The 41st president died in Houston last night. Rod Dreher shared Joshua Treviño’s H.W. reflection, and I’m sharing that same reflection here because I think it’s one of the best:

Here is the one thing you need to know about him, among all the things of his crowded and extraordinary life: his most enduring legacy is the war that did not happen. It is a commonplace that his predecessor in the Presidency defeated the Soviet Union, and there is truth to it, but it is not the whole story. President George H.W. Bush was the man who managed, deftly and successfully, the Western portion of the implosion of the Soviet empire. It was a perilous passage — the abrupt collapse of an imperium and a pillar of world order — that would have almost certainly produced great-power war under nearly any other circumstance. It did not largely because of the men who were President at the moment: President, that is, of both the failing USSR and the ascending United States.

Think back to the revolutions of 1989, and the triumphant scenes of Europe liberated at last, of the Second World War reaching its final conclusion after six long decades. Think back to the realization that Soviet Communism, the specter haunting free men throughout most of the century, was in its death throes. Then think back to what you didn’t see: American triumphalism in Europe, the imposition of terms, the march of Western armies to the Oder and Vistula, the spiking of the ball.

President George H.W. Bush, unnoticed and uncredited by his nation, steered a victorious America — flush in the defeat of its sixth empire in just over seventy years, standing upon the precipice of global hyperpower — with restraint, prudence, and even modesty in its moment of triumph. It was an exemplary achievement not just for the virtues inherent in those qualities. It was an exemplary achievement because of the people who lived.

Under nearly anyone else, in nearly any other era, the generation of 1989 would have been sacrificed to wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge. Under George H.W. Bush, these men and women lived, and their children are with us today.

It is a curious thing to have as the most enduring achievement a thing that did not happen. The former President understood it. The American people did not. They still don’t.

I was a small child living with my mother in Bayreuth, West Germany in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall began to fall. She was on a Fulbright there, and I was along with her. We visited Berlin, and we brought back a piece of that wall when we came home. Here’s a photo of us in Bayreuth’s Hofgarten from that autumn:

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In reading Joshua Treviño’s reflection, I think about how easy it would have been for President Bush to have “spiked the ball” in some way that would have blown up in our faces. Even in Daniel McCarthy’s blunt epitaph for a man he believes essentially created our present geopolitical dilemmas, he points out the sort of restraint Bush demonstrated in presiding over the U.S.S.R.’s collapse:

Bush refused to encourage Ukrainian efforts to break free from the Soviet Union in summer of 1991 and warned of ‘suicidal nationalism’ on the part of Ukraine. Bush was right, not because the Ukrainians did not deserve their independence—which they soon peacefully obtained—but because US involvement would have been a goad to Russian nationalism and could only have complicated the necessary work of dismantling the Soviet Union, work that could only be carried out by Soviet subjects (including Russians) themselves.

I was in Kennebunkport, Maine over Memorial Day in 2010 with friends, and we had the chance to meet Bush briefly. He had a tradition of coming out for the Memorial Day parade there. It was one of his last years before age and disability made a wheelchair a necessity, and he was milling about and greeting everyone in a low key way. Shaking his hand and offering him a simple “thank you” for his service was a memorable moment, the sort that I hope continue to exist even despite the increasingly imperial nature of the U.S. presidency. I hope, through the countless number of Americans who have similar experiences with our presidents, that the best instincts of an older America are carried forward for generations to come.

Christian humanism

Paul Seaton writes on Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis“. Here he writes on Christian humanism’s motivating concerns:

The Christian God, we’re told, delights in human variety and leaves man “in the hands of his own counsel” in many areas. These thinkers therefore pursued their different muses and put their talents at the service of their Lord, their fellow man, country and civilization. There is a second lesson to be found here as well: respect for conscience. These days, however, one needs to add: “informed conscience,” perhaps even “trembling conscience.” These men and woman were acutely aware that they were under their Lord’s judgment. Publicly rendered judgments about war and peace, social order and disorder, the formation and deformation of the human person, were not to be lightly offered. And talents were given to be exercised and to bear fruit. We will be “required to give an account of ourselves” is found twice in the New Testament.

The Christian God thus bestows gifts and freedom and conscience upon his favored creature and Christianity calls its adherents to employ them in tandem for His glory and the salvation of men. Moreover, since Christians belong to two cities, they owe duties to both. And finally, since Western civilization is a civilization deeply bound up with Christianity, having absorbed paganism and spawned modernity, its fate is of concern as well. Hence, something of a first sketch or indication of Christian humanism emerges: it is the thoughtful Christian’s response to his manifold duties and complex vocation.

It needs to be further specified, however. Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself. The rise of fascism, the outbreak of total war, the dangers to and decadence of the democracies—all these were parts of the modern phenomenon. These talented and thoughtful Christians tried to rise to the level of the challenges they posed. To do so, they draw from deep wells, while adapting them to the times.

Hence, Weil’s great essay on “force,” that is, on Homer’s Iliad, which showed the permanently illuminating power of the founding Western epic and its contemporary relevance. Hence too her caveat to her contemporaries not to become the enemy in combatting him. Achilles always needed the lesson that grieving Priam taught about our common mortal lot.

Hence, Eliot’s extolling of Virgil as the definition of “classic” and of Dante’s Comedy as the defining European poem; hence his study of “modernism” as modernity’s latest poetic revelation and as a form that contemporary Christian belief could employ to constructive ends. This would be yet another example of turning the gold and silver of Egypt into objects pleasing to the Lord.

Hence, too, the spirited Maritain’s diatribe against the founders of modernity (Luther, Descartes, Rousseau) in The Three Reformers, but also his coinage, “integral humanism,” to indicate the antidote to modern errors. Hence his efforts at reconnecting Thomism, modern science, and modern democracy on the basis of an updated ideal of wisdom and Christian personalism. Hence, too, his Education at the Crossroads, a critique of “the American system of education.” Man must be considered whole and free and his education, designed for the whole free person. The spiritual nature and destiny of the person must be front and center, even, or especially, in an industrial and technical age.

And, hence Lewis’s 1943 classic, The Abolition of Man, itself a critique of contemporary pedagogy, this time in England. The title indicates the stakes involved in getting education right. If there is a single phrase that sums up the apprehensions of these Christian humanists, this is it. One pedagogical path led to “men without chest,” the other followed “the Tao,” the common moral wisdom of mankind. Grace then would have a dialogue partner that was open to its message of forgiveness and elevation.

I’m fascinated by the foresight the Christian humanists showed in realizing that, despite the necessary nature of World War II, the Western powers weren’t morally prepared for the post-war implications of our victory. And that a descent into a technocratic model of international governance was not a laudable turn of events, for its inevitable interest in further grinding down human distinctiveness in the pursuit of a standardizable social order. I’ll be reading Jacobs’s book before the end of the year to better understand his view on Christian humanism.

“Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself.”

Simplifying the Christmas season

Leo Babauta writes on simplifying the Christmas season:

What would happen if we decided to become radicals, and simplified the holidays? What would happen if we bucked the consumerist traditions, and got down to the essentials?

For some, the essentials are religious — the spirit of this season has nothing to do with shopping or all the crazy trappings of the holidays. For others, myself included, the essentials are spending time with loved ones. That’s all that matters…

Make a list of the traditions you love, and that you don’t love. We can let go of some holiday traditions, but we don’t have to toss out everything. What traditions do you love? Playing holiday songs, caroling, hanging stockings, making pie, decorating a Christmas tree (some of my favorites)? Maybe you really don’t like the turkey or wrapping presents, shopping, egg nog, wasting food, lying about the existence of Santa, or getting drunk (those are ones I don’t like btw). Make two lists — traditions you love, and ones you don’t. …

Let’s let go of the myth that you have to spend to give. Giving is a beautiful thing. Here are some ways to give without getting into debt.

  • Gift your family with some small experiences, such as caroling, baking, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, playing football outside.
  • Volunteer as a family at a homeless shelter.
  • Ask people to donate to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts.
  • Make meaningful gifts. A video of memories. A scrapbook.
  • Do a gift swap where you put a valued possession (that you already own) into the swap.
  • Bake gifts.
  • Have an experience instead of giving material goods: do something fun together, go to the beach or a lake.
  • Find hope. Christmas has so much potential to be about so much more than buying — it can be a season of hope, renewal, loved ones, inspiration, contemplation. Talk to your family about this — how can we find ways to be hopeful, thankful, cooperative? How can we be more present instead of worried about getting presents? …

I find this sort of advice and guidance to be helpful every Christmas season. It’s too easy to fall into the traps of obtaining more in our culture, and it’s too easy to forget those around us in the rush of daily life.

What places promise, and what they evoke

Aaron Renn writes on civic branding, but also on themes of promise, authenticity, and looking to the future with a real awarenesses of one’s past:

At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.

This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility. …

Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.

So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.

This is even true in the fashion industry. When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld revived Chanel in the early 1980s, he did so by drawing on inspiration from the firm’s archives. This became a model that others followed. As the New York Times stated, “Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past.” By contrast, “New Coke” was one of the great rebranding flops in history. Coca-Cola is as American as apple pie. Changing such an iconic product was a betrayal of its brand promise. The company swiftly backtracked.

In short, cities too often have decided that they need to replace their existing brand to copy another’s that they think is necessary in order to compete. This typically fails because a brand needs to promise something distinct. Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it thus: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

There’s nothing wrong with having bike lanes or coffee shops. But today, these things aren’t going to sell a city to businesses or potential residents.

The Dos and Don’ts of Civic Branding” is worth a read if any of this is compelling.

John Singer Sargent and the Great War

I saw John Singer Sargent’s “Death and Victory” for the first time a week or so ago, thanks to a friend sharing it in remembrance of the Great War, World War I. It was created in 1922, when there had been barely enough time for the trauma of that war to have begun to form scar tissue, let alone heal. But in imagining myself seeing this, standing before it the year it was created, I can imagine it bringing some degree of solace.

Philip A. Bruce, my great grandfather, served in the Great War and I think about him and what “Death and Victory” would mean to him. He served in the Army at St. Mihiel and at Meuse-Argonne in 1918, and I think elsewhere. After the war he became a Philadelphia Police Officer, and in November 1929 was killed in the line of duty. He’s memorialized with other Philadelphia Police Officers in Franklin Square. It was my great grandmother who led the family through the Great Depression and provided for her young daughter and many relatives.

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“Happy those who with a glowing faith, in one embrace clasped death and victory.”

A Jesus who agrees with everything

Samuel Gregg writes that Catholics are drowning in sentimentalism and that “faith and reason are under siege from an idolatry of feelings”:

Catholicism has always attached high value to reason. By reason, I don’t just mean the sciences which give us access to nature’s secrets. I also mean the reason that enables us to know how to use this information rightly; the principles of logic which tell us that 2 times 2 can never equal 5; our unique capacity to know moral truth; and the rationality which helps us understand and explain Revelation.

Such is Catholicism’s regard for reason that this emphasis has occasionally collapsed into hyper-rationalism, such as the type which Thomas More and John Fisher thought characterized much scholastic theology in the twenty years preceding the Reformation. Hyper-rationalism isn’t, however, the problem facing Christianity in Western countries today. We face the opposite challenge. I’ll call it Affectus per solam.

“By Feelings Alone” captures much of the present atmosphere within the Church throughout the West. It impacts how some Catholics view not only the world but the faith itself. At the core of this widespread sentimentalism is an exaltation of strongly-felt feelings, a deprecation of reason…

So what are symptoms of Affectus per solam? One is the widespread use of language in everyday preaching and teaching that’s more characteristic of therapy than words used by Christ and his Apostles. Words like “sin” thus fade and are replaced by “pains,” “regrets” or “sad mistakes.” …

Above all, sentimentalism reveals itself in certain presentations of Jesus Christ. The Christ whose hard teachings shocked his own followers and who refused any concession to sin whenever he spoke of love somehow collapses into a pleasant liberal rabbi. This harmless Jesus never dares us to transform our lives by embracing the completeness of truth. …

That isn’t, however, the Christ revealed in the Scriptures. As Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his 1991 book To Look on Christ: “A Jesus who agrees with everything and everyone, a Jesus without his holy wrath, without the harshness of truth and true love is not the real Jesus as the Scripture shows but a miserable caricature. A conception of ‘gospel’ in which the seriousness of God’s wrath is absent has nothing to do with the biblical Gospel.”

“This harmless Jesus never dares us to transform our lives…”

Sources of national purpose

Earlier this month, just as the midterm elections were taking place, Kevin Williamson wrote something that’s been sitting in my browser since I first read it. “Against ‘Unity'” presents a provocative-seeming but actually rather conventional invitation to seek tolerance and pluralism, not a politically-achieved sense of moral-therapeutic feeling of social unity:

For what I guess are obvious reasons, the past couple of weeks have been heavy with discussions and columns on the theme of President Trump and “unity.” “Trump can’t unite us,” says the headline on a discussion between Ross Douthat and Frank Bruni in the New York Times. “Can anyone?”

One possible answer to that question is: “I don’t care.”

Nobody has ever explained why it is we need to be “united” to begin with, or made the case that we are somehow seriously disunited. There’s a great deal of histrionic howling and stupidity surrounding our politics, which is really only a proxy war for deeper underlying cultural differences. There’s some cause for concern there, but the cure for that division isn’t “unity” — it’s the opposite of unity: Live and let live. A great many of our problems come from the desire to forcibly recruit people whose lives and interests are unlike our own into the pursuit of our own narrow visions of the good life. The whole point of our national arrangement is that we can be pluribus and unum at the same time. That’s why the states didn’t cease to exist when we created a federal government. “Unity” means “oneness,” and trying to push people into oneness when they want different things will always cause tension. If there’s “unity,” then somebody wins and somebody loses. Plurality, on the other hand, means that we don’t all have to live the same way or hold the same things dear.

There are things to be concerned about, of course. But the country is trucking along just fine, our institutions are robust, our communities functional. …

And even if such “unity” were necessary or desirable, why should it come from the chief administrative official of the federal government? We have a president, not a prince. The president isn’t the country. He isn’t even the government. The purported need to bask in the glow of solidarity under his benevolent gaze is gross and unworthy of us as a people.

We aren’t here to be bent by the government to some national purpose. The government is here to be bent to our purposes. … Government is there to fix potholes and mind the borders and keep the peace. It isn’t there to give us a sense of purpose, or to make us feel good about our neighbors and fellow citizens. And if you can’t endure your neighbor because you’re so torqued up about whoever won the last election or whoever’s going to win this one, then you have problems that no mere politician can solve. …

We should try to get a government that functions better as a government rather than try to make it function as some kind of national moral totem.

If our sense of national purpose is fraying, political solutions to that problem seem unlikely to be the best remedy.

America’s vast differences

Pete Saunders writes on the idea of the American heartland, and touches on the fact that America used to think of itself in a much more diverse and creative way than it generally does today, wherein we have simply the coasts and the middle, the heartland:

The nation’s interior is the result of myriad patterns of settlement, vast differences in local climates and precipitation, the presence of local resources, and varying opinions on governance and business development. New Englanders settled much of the Great Lakes and built the manufacturing infrastructure. Appalachians and coastal Southerners settled much of the Mississippi Valley and established the natural resource-based industries. The settlers of the upper Midwest moved further west and founded the modern agribusiness model. Manufacturing still dominates in much of the Great Lakes; agribusiness and food processing remain strong in the Ohio Valley and northern Plains; energy still reigns supreme in the southern Plains and Mississippi Valley.

Why have we reduced our thinking about America’s vastness to the relatively bland options of “coasts” and “middle”? What is the American heartland if it’s not a united, cohesive sort of thing? Saunders explains:

The nation’s center has often been defined by what it lacks relative to the other parts of the nation – the elite universities, finance industry and political power of the northeast; the sun-drenched beauty of the beaches on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts; the stunning vistas of the Mountain West and Southwest; the mild climate (and climate of openness and innovation) on the Pacific Coast. I sense that this effort to unite very different parts of the middle of the nation are driven by those who want to compete with the vitality of the coasts but struggle with how to do it. …

Economic disparities at the regional level are large and growing. The economic convergence that characterized much of the twentieth century is a thing of the past, and regions are pulling away from each other. However, if there’s any lesson to be learned from the coasts and Sun Belt, it’s that each region must build on its unique strengths to recapture its economic vitality. The coasts and Sun Belt did not get to where they are today by linking their fortunes to other areas; they got there by touting their specific advantages and developing the leadership structure to promote it.

That said, there’s a path to prosperity for all of the Heartland states, without linking them together. The Great Lakes have a manufacturing infrastructure that will continue to be a foundation for its revival. That region has also a legacy of human capital investment (large land-grant universities and health care and biomedical institutions, for example) that will lead the transition toward the region’s next phase. Energy will continue to play a prominent role in states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, and the stifling lack of affordability on the coasts will increasingly force people to consider affordable options elsewhere in the nation. There is a path.

The American Heartland works better as a state of mind than as a geographic region. Ironically, its elusiveness is its strength. It can be anywhere in America. But the strengths and weaknesses of the places that make up our nation’s middle aren’t always found anywhere, and would benefit from the kind of fine-tuned understanding that led to the revival of other parts of the nation.

I think this falls apart in the last paragraph, insofar as a return to health for any of America’s middle cities in any of its regions won’t be found in a generic identification with a “heartland” ethos so much as an underscoring of the particularities of the place—the Detroitness of Detroit, the Milwaukean sensibilities of Milwaukee, etc. America’s differences are vast; we shouldn’t necessarily downplay those differences if we believe that one of the strengths of this nation lies in its diversity, and if our principles are truly binding on the consciousness of our people.

Trees do not wait

I took the photo here on Dumbarton Street on the walk home recently, and it ties in with John Cuddeback’s reflection on autumn and the falling of leaves:

That the trees do not wait is perhaps a gentle reminder of many other things that will not wait, that call for our attending to each day.

The natural world speaks to us in so many voices. It speaks most powerfully, perhaps, when we recognize something of ourselves in it. Belloc writes of autumn as tending to unsettle us. The falling of leaves can cut a little close to the bone.

“Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.”

It’s not that we have to go out in the woods and explicitly answer that permanent, uneasy question. It might be enough for us just to look up, and to listen. And to feel a little more our place in reality.

For every tree there will come a year in which its leaves will fall, never to be replaced. If the falling of leaves is poignant it is at root because human life is poignant; and a gift; something to be treasured and savored each day.

Whether we go for a walk alone, or alone with someone we love, something of who we are is waiting for us under the trees. Today.

 

Marquette Building and good public art

I’ve written before about what bad public art is for. When I was in Chicago earlier this past week I walked by the Marquette Building at night, and noticed an example of what I believe to be good public art:

I think two characteristics of good public art are, first, that it tells a story worth hearing, and second, that it is particular to its place in some sense. The engravings/reliefs above the entrance to the Marquette Building have these characteristics. They convey something of the rootedness of that particular place, and they convey some of the stories of the people who came before us in that place—in this case, apparently some of the story of “Father Jacques Marquette, the first European settler in Chicago, who explored the Chicago region in 1674 and wintered in the area for the 1674-5 winter season…”

In an arresting way, the Marquette Building does far more to connect the man or woman of the present with the distant past of this particular part of Chicago and this particular part of America than the beautiful but anodyne glass and wood foyer across the street will ever offer passersby of the future.

What I mean is that the Marquette Building offers people like me who walk by with the chance (even if only in the thinnest way) to connect with a bit of America’s far distant past and to encounter, in some sense, the realities of a far different generation of explorers and indigenous peoples. It knits together disparate generations and offers the chance of a sort of spiritual, or at least civic, wholeness.