What We Are Reading: May 2024

Civilized souls honor the ancient adage “Do not speak ill of the dead.” The New York Times eschews all advice grounded in eternal truths. Its obituary section exists to even scores, one final time, with those who dare challenge its reflexive liberalism. So it was with its vindictive 1999 obituary of Harvard professor Edward C. Banfield, the “maverick of urban policy issues.”

The Times dog whistled so hard about Banfield’s conservatism, “angrily criticized in liberal circles,” it made itself lightheaded. Deplorables like Richard Nixon admired Banfield, whom the Times’ gravespitters further tarred as “a critic of almost every mainstream liberal idea in domestic policy.” No endorsement of Banfield’s books could ring more loudly.

In The Unheavenly City, Banfield suggested, like Plato did, that we judge society “by its tendency to produce desirable human types.” He grounded his analysis of urban decay in the primacy of culture over bureaucratic edifices, government tinkering, and liberal do-gooderism. Unlike today’s Ivy League professors with their Ph.Ds and New York Times subscriptions, Banfield grew up on a Connecticut farm where common sense trumped an academic CV. As such, he could distinguish a muddy pigsty from an urban slum, which he defined not by the decrepit nature of its housing but rather by its “squalid and vicious” style of life. 

Banfield’s impolitic observations of the obvious shocked 1960s suburban sensibilities; his causal analysis doomed his prospects on the Times’ obituary page. Class culture, or “the collective heritage … give the city its characteristic form and most of its problems,” according to Banfield. He warned against the liberal intelligentsia’s seething protestations that class culture “set limits on what the policymaker can do.” Then again, one man’s exuberant fatalism is another man’s waning optimism.

Of Banfield’s four class subcultures—upper, middle, working, and lower—only the last one presented intractable problems. He identified the classes’ “defining” characteristic as their “psychological orientation toward providing for the future.” The lower-class lives for the moment, makes no investments in the future through education or deferred gratification, and suffers in the long-term from its dissolute behavior. Entire societies collapse because such deleterious time horizon preferences are a “cultural trait passed on to the individual in early childhood from his group.”

Class time preference trumped all other social ills for Banfield. The problems of racial prejudice were actually problems of class, in his view; he saw poverty as a product of culture, not the other way around. His high-handed obituarists missed his essential message.

Mark G. Brennan

Central to the West’s new secular religion is that great men do not exist. 

It cannot admit that exceptional men have lived and achieved beyond the common person. All must be understood as equal in talents, and no aspect of human history can ever be described as the accomplishment of individuals with rare abilities. In this warped collectivist prism, all was created by mass movements.

J.W.N. Sullivan wrote his book on Beethoven nearly a century ago, when we knew better than to buy this civilization-
threatening delusion. He presents the German composer as unquestionably above other men, graced with an artistic and philosophical insight of an exquisite sophistication. His most important music exists in the most rarefied realm, composed, in Sullivan’s apt description, as he navigated “strange seas of thought, alone.”

The basic structures of common human life were denied Beethoven by his unique character. For a time, he imagined marriage and family but was incapable of the compromises needed to make this reality. His contempt for those on whom he depended for his livelihood was colossal, indeed, self-handicapping in many instances. His purity of vision and his boundless self-confidence made him intolerant of all who did not share the totality of his perspective. 

Great men are like this. W. H. Mallock writes of the confusion between different definitions of greatness. Some greats are saintly figures whose moral perfections make them stand out from the crowd, while others are less virtuous but leave profound gifts for humankind. Who makes the most important mark in the world, he asks, a doctor who selflessly sacrifices himself during a plague to care for patients and dies in the effort, or his self-interested and vain colleague who flees and invents a cure, from which he makes a hefty profit? 

Beethoven was a difficult human being, to say the least, but he left us with music beyond comparison. In Sullivan’s analysis, his most astounding achievements were his majestic late string quartets, incomprehensible to his peers but now recognized as unparalleled spiritual accomplishments through art, the pinnacle of the aesthetic rendition of “achievement through heroism in spite of suffering.” Beethoven’s greatness rightly humbles us. It also benefits all of us who share the civilization that made him.

Alexander Riley

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