Notes From Across the Atlantic
Notes From Across the Atlantic

Notes From Across the Atlantic

David Mills FAITH Magazine November-December 2013

David Mills is the Executive Editor of First Things

Family and the City

Donna’s doesn’t look right without the flower shed sticking out along the street, where flowers were always sold, even at three in the morning. In the bodega itself, Donna, or sometimes someone from her extended Korean family, could usually be found behind the counter from very early in the morning to midnight.

Donna’s, which sits on the corner just down from the townhouse our founder [Richard John Neuhaus] bought over three decades years ago, has closed after 30 or more years, the victim of a rise of (local rumour has it) $16,000 a month in rent. Not, we stress, a rise to but a rise of. RJN had given Donna a key to the front door of the house, which anyone who’d locked himself out could get by saying “church” or “Neuhaus”.

The neighbourhood is slowly changing, with small, independent businesses like Donna’s being replaced by chains. It’s a result of rising affluence and safety, and while we’re in favour of both, the first does slowly kill off the small, personal, local things that give a neighbourhood its character, and drive out the personalities that give it personality. Perhaps the ideal time to live in such a neighbourhood is after the crime rate has dropped but before the chains move in.

One block west, Capucine’s is also closed, the windows papered over. This was the restaurant to which RJN took his staff after the “raid” that led to the founding of this magazine, and to which the editors repaired for a celebratory lunch every year on the anniversary. Capucine’s rent reportedly rose many thousands of dollars a month. What it is to be replaced with is not yet known.

The loss of the shops is related, of course, to the decline of the city (this one and others) as a place in which one can raise a family. The average rent of an Manhattan apartment is now almost $3,500 a month. In many of the wealthier neighbourhoods the rents are astonishing (we were reading about one apartment overlooking Gramercy Park that rented for $30,000 a month), but rents are high even in the poor neighbourhoods.

Few of our urbanist gurus think about families. As Joel Kotkin wrote in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s excellent quarterly: “Best-selling urban booster Richard Florida, a pied piper for today’s city developers and planners, barely mentions families in his books, which focus instead on younger, primarily single populations. Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor and author of the widely touted Going Solo, celebrates the fact that ‘cities create the conditions that make living alone a more social experience.’”

They prefer what Kotkin calls “the post-family city”. The sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry­ ­Nichols Clark think of the city, and they mean this as praise, as an “entertainment machine” whose residents “can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasising aesthetic concerns”.
Kotkin comments: “Schools, churches, and neighbourhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture and restaurants – a system built for the newly liberated individual.” And he is generally a transient, with a tourist’s commitment to the city.

Devotion to Our Lady

Matthew Milliner writes of our founder: “Following Richard John Neuhaus’s funeral, it was impossible to process out of the Church of the Immaculate Conception ­without ­noticing the delightfully tacky Lourdes grotto in the back. It seemed out of step with an intellectual’s priest.
“And yet it wasn’t. Near the end of his life, I asked Father Neuhaus about how he, a one-time Lutheran, related to the Virgin Mary. He paused, looking out across the dinner table as if over a measureless vista, and wistfully remarked that there were features of devotion that he – a dying man – was just beginning to explore.”

Charities Learning from Big Business?

“What has worked is copying ­Coca-Cola’s business techniques: create a desirable product, market it like mad, and put the product in a distribution system at a price so that everyone can make a profit,” explains Simon Berry, who started a company to get medicines treating dehydration to children in the poorest, most rural parts of Africa. As he told New Scientist, he’d started with the idea of using ­Coca-Cola’s supply chain – “I was working in a remote part of Zambia and I could always get a Coca-Cola” – and designed medicine kits that could fit between the soda bottles in a crate.

And then he found he didn’t need to do that. It was a product people wanted to sell and therefore distribute themselves. It succeeded, the story suggests, because Berry served his market in a way non-profit enterprises tended not to. “We went out and asked people what their problems were in treating diarrhoea. I don’t think anyone had ever done that before; the kits are designed not for poor people, but with them. Some NGOs sit in their ivory towers thinking they are doing good, but how many of them give people the dignity of attention and choice?”

His company, called ColaLife, wants to expand, he said, perhaps with a “Tough Toddlers Kit” with vitamins, nutritional supplements, and deworming pills.

Writers on Marriage

The novelist Richard Ford’s first two tips for writing: “(1) Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea; (2) Don’t have children.” If you must marry, in other words, have a sterile marriage.
Our writer Elizabeth Corey responds: “What strikes me most is the obsession with self: It’s all about me, and my vocation as a writer. Children, or a wife who doesn’t recognise my excellence – these are liabilities. Marriage and children are things you accumulate, when you feel ready to be a consumer.”
Not to pile on, but we’d think the joys and pains marriage and children bring would deepen a writer’s insight into human nature, including his own, and make him a better writer.

“Good Government Pleases God”

New York City councilman Fernando Cabrera represents a poor part of the Bronx. He’s also a pastor, and as we were speaking after a talk he gave to the New York Christian Union, he said, “Good government pleases God.”
It’s an idea Aristotle would have understood, and Thomas, and even Edmund Burke. Complex societies have to be governed, and God and man want them governed well. They want the trash bins emptied and abandoned buildings secured and the tree limb hiding a stop sign trimmed back – all matters that appear in the constituent service section of the councilman’s website, because taking care of them is part of the good government that pleases God.

No Such Thing as Failure?

Speaking to Harvard’s graduating class, Oprah Winfrey explained that there was no such thing as failure – “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” she said – giving as an example the initial failure of her television network. “I’m here today to tell you I have turned that network around!”

This, Leon Wieseltier explains in the New Republic, is “a fine ­illustration of the cognitive disadvantage of elites. Her triumph of inner resources was of course a triumph of outer resources – a common confusion at the top. Success seems to have carried her beyond the imagination of extreme vulnerability.”

Failure, he insists, is real. “If the loss of a house or a job in a recession or a hurricane is ‘just life trying to move us in another direction’, it is in the direction of pain, difficulty, anxiety and despair.”

Except for those with the material insulation to survive it, failure is not a lucky break. …Winfrey’s merry homily at Harvard was empirically false. More, her edifying maxim was disabling, even cruel: you cannot help people face their troubles by telling them that they have no troubles.”

“The ferocity about economic competitiveness, its promotion into a standard by which to measure things it cannot measure … is resulting in a loss of respect for ordinary work and a soft contempt for ordinary people,” Wieseltier goes on. Average has become an insult.

But “there will always be schoolteachers and nurses and shopkeepers and cooks and mechanics and custodians and the old-economy rest; there will always be people who do not write code (how else will the hapless codewriters get through life?); there will always be people who work for other people. The sum total of all these people, and their skills and their labours, is called a society. A society is not an economy, and an economy is not an activity of futurist geniuses.”

Writers on Marriage Again

From Steve Walker’s The Power of Tolkien’s Prose, three of his students’ “Top 10 justifications for not being married from TLOTR”:
(10) It’s the Arwen worry: the girl who married me might die.
(7) The only time I gave a girl a ring she started talking about being a dark queen “beautiful as the morning and the night and all shall love her and despair” and I got nervous.
(1) Think it’s hard getting an elf to let his daughter marry a mortal? Try talking someone into letting his daughter marry an English major.

For Better, for Worse

The PR boys at the New York State Lottery sent out a media advisory praising a retiree who’d won a lot of money for being “faithful” and for his “30 years of dedication to the Lottery’s flagship game”. So habitual gambling is like a religion or a marriage. We’re surprised they admitted it. If they’d only admit it’s like a bad religion or marriage.

The Oxford CS Lewis Society

Of the creation of C S Lewis material there seems to be no end, but some of it is excellent, like the Journal of Inklings Studies, edited by Judith and B N Wolfe, both teaching at Oxford.

Judith Wolfe tells us about the origins of the journal: “As an Oxford theologian, I was surprised again and again that C S Lewis was widely read, and very much enjoyed, by theologians and philosophers, but that he wasn’t felt to be presentable in polite society – he wasn’t regarded as the sort of person who could be drawn into a serious theological or philosophical conversation.”

She noticed, however, that respected academics, like Rowan Williams, then the archbishop of Canterbury, and the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, were beginning to engage with his writing and she decided to help this along. With the help of other groups, like the Chesterton Library, the Oxford C S Lewis Society developed its newsletter into a substantial scholarly journal.

Which is, as you may have guessed, much recommended. For information, see

Faith Magazine

November - December 2013