Of Human Dignity and Shoes
by Circle or Line
For most of you [last] weekend contains a date you’ll never forget, along the lines of September 11, or December 7 — anniversaries of profound wounds to our country as a whole, even if we didn’t lose a relative in those surprise attacks or the wars that ensued. For millions of Americans, however, January 22 portends a loss that is much more rawly personal. One woman in three who came of age after Roe v. Wade has exercised the “right” the judges discovered in 1973 to terminate a pregnancy; millions of men took part in those decisions; too often forgotten are men who (like me at 17) were bereaved of our unborn children against our wishes. All those Americans lost a family member in the events of January 22, and so this day will never slip by unnoticed, much as most of us wish it would. We’d rather not “go there,” not dredge up the guilt of many flavors—participant’s, bystander’s, survivor’s. It all feels much the same. If I can speak for the many, let me tell you we’d rather think about almost anything else, be it baseball, stock prices, or shoes.
So let’s talk about shoes. One of the authors to whom I owe the most intellectually is the political philosopher Hadley Arkes, of Amherst College. Arkes is the world’s leading advocate of a deeply unfashionable theory called Natural Law. You never hear about that notion any more, but it played a major role in certain historic events: the American Declaration of Independence, the Abolitionist movement, the U.N.’s post-war assertion of human rights that transcend the laws of nations, and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. It’s almost stunning to think that an idea with such a pedigree could simply be dropped by the world’s intellectuals, like a toy that a child grew bored with, but that is what has happened. People will still assert human rights, or insist that our government act with justice, plucking fruit from the branches of a tree they pretend isn’t there. (I won’t speculate for the moment why they do this. Just take it from me that “Natural Law” is a term you shouldn’t use in academia, law, or politics. It will brand you as an extremist.) Anyway, in one of my favorite books by my favorite thinker, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Arkes starts by talking not about abstract right and wrong but a particular pile of shoes. That has a better philosophical precedent than you might think: One of Heidegger’s most famous essays concerns the making of shoes.
But Arkes isn’t interested in what Germans have thought about crafting shoes, as in the careful way they protected them, kept shoes safe from heedless destruction in time of war, gathered them carefully and avoided wherever they could the needless waste of a single shoe—almost as if each pair had a unique and irreplaceable destiny, a dignity no man could rightly ignore. You have probably guessed by now where the shoes that interest Arkes were found: piled neatly, outside the gas chamber at an extermination camp. Those shoes, and other personal items like gold teeth, were extracted from the items of human waste those plants efficiently processed into smoke. They remain with us as a testimony to modern economy and thrift. Really, I can think of no other single thing (not a skyscraper or a space ship) that sums up the essence of what it means to be modern as that pile of Jewish shoes.
The age we mark as modernity began with grand, exhilarating gestures: discourses on method that would set us free from the dead hand of tradition (Descartes); declarations of the rights of man (the French Revolutionary Assembly); manifestos rejecting the tyranny of mere economic laws over the lives and labor of men (Karl Marx). The grand progression of the movement Henri de Lubac dubbed “heroic humanism” was full of such golden moments, which moved through the dark night of history like torches leading us forward, ever forward, to a glittering future that would make life at long last worthy of man. At the end of all the struggles, after the next (surely final!) conflict, or the next, we were promised without any irony a brave new world, an earthly paradise. Descartes had no doubt that science would end disease and aging, so men could live forever. Robespierre offered public safety and a reign of absolute virtue. Marx fought to eliminate war, inequality, and even boring jobs: in the stateless, classless Communist endpoint of history, no one would even have to specialize in anything. We could move from one career to another from day to day, and have ample time in the evening to philosophize or write poetry. As Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
And we did. That’s what we spent the 19th and 20th centuries doing, energetically. We broke up historic empires into nation-states, where men forgot their loyalty to tiny village or global Church, and learned to think as members of ethnic tribes or aggrieved social classes. After these collectives had done their work, and proved themselves too dangerous (in 1945, and 1989, respectively) we set about smashing them, too. We broke down the ramshackle, inefficient structure of the old extended family to its minimal, nuclear core—and then when that didn’t prove as economically useful, we split that into atoms. When we learned that families have no economic use or political import, we redefined them at last as consensual, temporary alliances of adults—to whom the State contracts the duty of caring for children overnight, in the hours when schools and daycare facilities aren’t open. We have very thoroughly accomplished the job modernity’s founders set us: liquidating every barrier to the assertion of the Self, short of the laws of physics. We have killed all the fathers. We are free to make of ourselves exactly what we will, no less and no more. And here we sit with the treasure we’ve won: this pile of shoes.
The road we took to get here should be clear: In the high-minded, ruthless war of liberation we fought against the past, against authority, against every duty or imperative that each of us as individuals had not freely signed on to as consenting adults, we had to destroy the village in order to save it. That village was the vision of human life our superstitious ancestors us clung to, in which a human being was something radical and unique, an amalgam of spirit and flesh whose destiny may have begun inside the uterus, but which stretched on forward into eternity. You would meddle with such a mystery at your peril, remembering that the penalties could haunt your own eternity. So the peasants used to mutter at the soldiers and the secret policemen, who laughed as they carted them off. They weren’t afraid of judgment, and had no hopes of pie in the sky when they died.
The only support, it turned out, for having a high opinion of other people’s lives (our own are sacred by definition) lay not in the shiny new laboratories or libraries we were building, but in the drafty, candlelit houses of worship we had to bulldoze to make room. The old sacred books that old men quoted to thwart the free play of our desires, which we piled in bonfires or smirked at as curiosities, were more important than we realized. They held crucial information, the shibboleths needed to make men treat each other a certain way—a way we had come to take for granted. That way of treating people—respecting the weak, sacrificing for the young, venerating the old—emerged in human history as the side-effects of specific assertions about the world. We didn’t want to believe this. We were sure we could have the milk without the smelly cow or the raging bull. So we killed them, and used the leather to make… that pile of shoes.
To suit the way we feel about ourselves, we act as if life is sacred, the individual is precious, and each of us has a dignity no one can deny. What we see in nature is that life is cheap, that all our DNA cares about is replicating itself, and we are no more than one species among many millions, on a trivial planet in a clockwork universe (one of many) that’s gradually running down. We are atheists who want to think of ourselves as angels, and know deep down that we are beasts. We are free of the very things that gave us the right to freedom. We “know” that we are special, and realize that we aren’t. I’m not, and neither are you. But we will each agree to pretend that we don’t know this, and go on dancing the minuet as the lights slowly fade to black and the knives come out.
The moment the darkness fell, when the real message of modernity was fully felt, is the subject of my favorite movie of 2011, Sarah’s Key. I don’t want to spoil this powerful film for you, but I must give a tiny summary. In it, Kristin Scott Thomas plays a middle-aged French journalist, married with just one child—a twelve-year-old daughter. She is working on a story about the deportation of Jews from Paris, which many Frenchmen still like to pretend was forced on France by the Nazis. But records show that it wasn’t, that French officials willingly offered those Jews to Hitler, French policemen dutifully rounded them up, and millions of Frenchmen watched without protest while it was done. This is the story Thomas is telling, but along the way she discovers something strange. The quaint old apartment her husband has just inherited from his family fell into their hands during the War—at exactly the time that Jews in their part of Paris were rounded up for the camps. She starts to dig into the family’s dirty laundry.
While she’s doing the hard journalistic work, Thomas starts to feel physically drained, exhausted, and nauseous. At first she attributes this to the dark material she’s exploring, but the doctor informs her otherwise: She is pregnant. Her shock is palpable (and very well played by Thomas in a stellar performance). She and her husband had tried for years to have a second child, even resorting without success to in vitro fertilization. She arranges a cozy, romantic dinner to break the news—and is staggered at his response. He no longer wants a second child. Things have changed in the past few years, he explains, and we built a life that makes both of us happy. You love your work, I love to travel, and our daughter will soon be away at school. We’ll be free again, like newlyweds. Do you really want to spoil all that, for… this?
Thomas is angry, of course. She feels rejected, ashamed, disgusted. But she cannot deny the force of his arguments. This is an unasked-for intrusion on their lives, a biological accident like leukemia or cancer, a rebellion of mere matter that threatens what’s really sacred: their freedom to pursue the lives they wanted. As arbitrary as the dictates of a king or the tenets of a religion, this biological problem threatens to break up her happy marriage—indeed, her husband insists he will leave her if she doesn’t terminate the pregnancy. He’s within his rights; did he ask her to get pregnant? Did they discuss it beforehand, and both agree to this course of action? Then how could he rightly be bound by her decision? No one has the right to force someone else to become a parent, does she?
Thomas redoubles her work, and unearths the story of the Jewish family displaced from her husband’s family apartment. She tracks down and follows the fate of each of its members, and confronts her father-in-law about his family’s history. She learns to love the little Jewish girl Sarah, pulled out of her family home at nine years old by the neighborhood policeman, and shipped off to a concentration camp. She neglects everything else—including her decision about her pregnancy—in search of some trace of Sarah. She learns to see the Holocaust not as some black and enormous monolith, but up close and near-at-hand. She picks up, if you will, a single pair of shoes. She learns what it means. And she makes her choice.
That power of choice, that freedom which Roe v. Wade held as more sacred than life itself, is nothing to speak of lightly. Liberty is the hard-won product of thousands of years of struggle. It’s the logical implication of Classical reason and Jewish-Christian revelation. It’s the crowning glory of human dignity. It is every single one of these things—or else it is nothing at all, a mere illusion, a flickering of electrical activity in the brain stem of a mammal. We are each of us the envy of angels. Or else we are accidents, as unfree and scraped clean of meaning as a pile of dead people’s shoes.