In his City Meditations series (which you really should be reading), Alan Jacobs offers a critique of Wendell Berrys 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 Berrys Boomers, Trigg is warned against forsaking the appropriate relationship to his place and community. It all turns on affection, says Berry, quoting E.M. Forsters Margaret Schlegel; Brooks, similarly, warns against inverting the natural order of affections. But if Jason Trigg is a Boomer, hes 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 Margarets sister, Helen, to use her position to aid Leonard and Jacky Bast could also be seen as an effort like Triggs.
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, hes done for. We upper classes have ruined him, and I suppose youll tell me its the battle of life. Starving. His wife ill. Starving. [ . . . ] Ill stand injustice no longer. Ill show up the wretchedness that lies under this luxury, this talk of impersonal forces, this cant about God doing what were too slack to do ourselves.
The problem is, the Basts are in this position primarily because of Helens 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 themselvesonly as the means through which she will be able to do something and take a stand, of sorts, against her class and Londons burgeoning industrial capitalism. Helen manages to bear Leonards sonbut 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 beingsher relationship with them is not defined by genuine affection, and so she never connects with them.
Forsters skepticism is more far-reaching than what Brooks expressesthe 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.