In his “City Meditations” series (which you really should be reading), Alan Jacobs offers a critique  of Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture . Berry’s “Boomers and Stickers,” he points out, is a nice rhetorical device, but break down as categorical tools fairly quickly.

So it goes in David Brooks’ Berry-channeling column about the young Wall Street philanthropist Jason Trigg. Like Berry’s Boomers, Trigg is warned against forsaking the appropriate relationship to his place and community. “It all turns on affection,” says Berry, quoting E.M. Forster’s Margaret Schlegel; Brooks, similarly, warns against “inverting the natural order of affections.” But if Jason Trigg is a Boomer, he’s the Robin Hood of the group.

This type of categorization is also at cross-purposes with the imperative found at the beginning of the novel which Berry places at the center of his address: “Only connect . . . ” The failure of the characters in Howards End to do this more vividly articulates the warning Brooks tries to give. Indeed, the passionate attempts of Margaret’s sister, Helen, to use her position to aid Leonard and Jacky Bast could also be seen as an effort like Trigg’s.

Helen, certainly, sees herself obligated by wealth to help the poorer Basts. She explains to her sister:

He has lost his place. He has been turned out of his bank. Yes, he’s done for. We upper classes have ruined him, and I suppose you’ll tell me it’s the battle of life. Starving. His wife ill. Starving. [ . . . ] I’ll stand injustice no longer. I’ll show up the wretchedness that lies under this luxury, this talk of impersonal forces, this cant about God doing what we’re too slack to do ourselves.

The problem is, the Basts are in this position primarily because of Helen’s earlier desire to help them; her present efforts are doomed to only make things worse. Despite her intentions, she never manages to see either Leonard or Jacky as ends in themselves—only as the means through which she will be able to “do something” and take a stand, of sorts, against her class and London’s burgeoning industrial capitalism. Helen manages to bear Leonard’s son—but even (especially) in the sexual encounter she fails to approach him in all the humanity of his particularity. She never sees the Basts as anything more than abstractions of human beings—her relationship with them is not defined by genuine affection, and so she never connects with them.

Forster’s skepticism is more far-reaching than what Brooks expresses—the example of Helen Schlegel applies, as well, to Brooks’ recommendation that someone who wants to help in Africa go to Africa, rather than Wall Street. But they share a common target: the utilitarian logic of economic man. Steep your mind in it for too long, and you run the risk of seeing those you wish to help not as the ends they are, but as the means to completing a charitable equation.

Articles by J.L. Wall

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