Tom Shakely


I'm a social entrepreneur, and write daily on culture, community, causes, and life. I'm executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and author of Conserving Mount Nittany. Try my weekly digest.

Liberty v. license

The following is excerpted from Professor Robert George’s 2003 commencement address at Hillsdale. Hillsdale is a classical liberal arts college in Michigan which George noted experienced its “founding during the struggle over slavery in the mid-nineteenth century” and has since then sought independence through self-reliance, benefactors’ generosity, and a refusal to accept federal funding that could influence its mission. George’s address hits on similar themes in the personal realm:

True freedom consists in the liberation of the human person from the shackles of ignorance, oppression, and vice. Thus it was that one hundred and fifty years ago Edmund B. Fairfield, President of Hillsdale, speaking at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the new college building, declared that education, by lifting a man out of ignorance, “disqualifies him from being a slave.” What overcomes ignorance, is knowledge; and the object of knowledge is truth—empirical, moral, spiritual. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” True freedom, the freedom that liberates, is grounded in truth and ordered to truth and, therefore, to virtue. A free person is enslaved neither to the sheer will of another nor to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly, fulfilling his obligations to family, community, nation, and God. By contrast, a person given over to his appetites and passions, a person who scoffs at truth and chooses to live, whether openly or secretly, in defiance of the moral law, is not free. He is simply a different kind of slave.

The counterfeit of freedom consists in the idea of personal and communal liberation from morality, responsibility, and truth. It is what our nation’s founders expressly distinguished from liberty and condemned as “license.” The so-called freedom celebrated today by so-many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment, and the media is simply the license to do whatever one pleases. This false conception of freedom—false because disordered; disordered because detached from moral truth and civic responsibility—shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old. Enslavement to one’s own appetites and passions is no less brutal a form of bondage for being a slavery of the soul. It is no less tragic, indeed, it is in certain respects immeasurably more tragic, for being self-imposed. It is ironic, is it not, that people who celebrate slavery to appetite and passion call this bondage “freedom”?

Counterfeit freedom is worse than fraudulent. It is the mortal enemy of the real thing. Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational account or defense of its own normative claims. It speaks the language of rights, but in abandoning the ground of moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the rights of others or to demand of others respect for one’s own rights.

In its essence, this is a Hillsdale-inspired restatement of Washington’s belief that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

If liberty is understood as “the power to act,” the natural question is: “In service of what?”

“Virtue” maybe sounds prudish. It’s still a less exhausting way of life than “Ego.”

A small, beautiful tradition

I was so thrilled to learn yesterday that Penn State is continuing its tradition of naming some of its residence halls after people of historical and communal merit, rather than simply financial merit:

At today’s (July 22) meeting of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, held on the Wilkes-Barre campus, trustees approved names for two new residence halls currently under construction on the University Park campus. The residences halls, located in the North Halls and East Halls areas, are scheduled to be completed in fall 2017.

The new 310-bed residence hall in North Halls has been named Robinson Hall, in honor of Sarah E. Robinson. Robinson was hired in 1871 by the then-Agricultural College of Pennsylvania to be its first music instructor. The student body numbered 75, and Robinson’s appointment brought the faculty to a total of 10.

One of the process steps in determining building names is discussion with students about the possibilities, according to Gail Hurley, Penn State’s associate vice president for Auxiliary and Business Services.

“Students favored Ms. Robinson because a significant cohort of Arts and Architecture students live in North Halls and many are associated with the School of Music,” said Hurley. “In addition, Robinson Hall will be the first in North to be named after a prominent woman.”

East Hall’s new 336-bed residence hall is named in honor of Pennsylvania Gov. George Howard Earle II, who served from 1935 to 1939. All of East’s buildings are named for governors of the Commonwealth.

Earle Hall is part of a larger East Halls expansion and renovation project that began in July 2015. The largest residential complex on the University Park campus, East has a total of 14 residential halls that currently house 3,825 students, primarily first-year students.

Gov. Earle was a staunch supporter of Penn State and instrumental in funding 10 building projects on campus that increased the physical plant by 50 percent at the time. He also was an advocate for changing the name of the then-Pennsylvania State College to The Pennsylvania State University.

Especially at Penn State, a state-affiliated place of learning founded for the benefit of the Commonwealth’s sons and daughters, place-names should always have a greater story to tell than who happened to have the most money at particular points in history.

Fake culture wars

Travis LaCouter wrote a while ago on culture war, and I excerpted some of what I aligned with the most last year. Peter Thiel delivered a short, compelling speech in Cleveland this week at Donald Trump’s nominating convention. Thiel basically introduced the thesis of his book, which is that America has forgotten where to set its sights, and in the course of this he dropped this line: “fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline…” Excerpting the portion of his speech that packed the greatest punch for me:

My Dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University, just down the road from where we are now. Because in 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.

It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the Internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon—and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio.

The future felt limitless.

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all.

That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan Project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue, Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.

When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom.

This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Of course, every American has a unique identity.

I am proud to be gay.

I am proud to be a Republican.

But most of all I am proud to be an American.

I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform. But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.

Christians don’t need formal structures

Michael Spencer, in 2009, writes:

We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

Gracy Olmstead considers Spencer’s reflection in the light of “saving the millennial faith,” which is a good and important thing to consider.

What Specncer’s reflection impresses upon me, meanwhile, is the incredible risk to Christians of attempting to recreate the institutions and structures of Christendom—the structures of a sort of Christian-run culture. 

Those things of the past can’t be recreated at this particular historical moment, and the greatest risk to Christinans today and tomorrow is the temptation of owning and controlling sprawling properties and structures that sap the strength and energy of the Church, which is always at heart a personal, cultural, and social faith whose vitality comes from its relationships, rather than its structures.

Why doesn’t music exist?

I was reading Joseph Pieper’s “Only the Lover Sings” on the way into Philadelphia this morning.

“We obviously perceive more and something other than the specific sounds produced,” writes Pieper, “by the bow on the strings of a violin, by the air blown into a flute, or by the finger hitting the keys of a piano. All these sounds, of course, also reach the ears of those who cannot relate to music at all (should such a species exist). These sounds alone, no doubt, do not yet constitute music as such! What, then, do we essentially perceive when we listen to music in the proper manner?”

Immediately thinking of dogs, I wondered what do dogs perceive when they hear music.

Something akin to our hearing a leaf blower, maybe? Noise?

It’s the same way with art: what does a dog see in a Rembrandt? Is that canvas distinguished as different from the blank wall on which it sits? Or is it just another thing in the way?

I’d like to think a dog sees something there, or hears something in a piece of music, which he intuits is important, different. But my own experience with the difficulty of a Creator suggests to me that a dog might be blind or deaf in this respect.

I suspect God doesn’t exist, really. If he did, what would be the mystery of faith? Where is God hiding? He is not a creature, like other embodied creatures, existing somewhere in the universe. So to argue God’s “existence” seems sillier than to affirm the simple reality of God’s being.

(His continuing relationship with us was revealed by the embodied Christ, so clearly God can exist if he wills it. But maybe not; did everyone see God when they saw the physical presence of Jesus? It seems not; most only saw the son of a carpenter, or later a preacher or prophet. Neither Pilate, nor Herod, nor the Pharisees seemed to see God when Jesus stood before them. So, Jesus is God, but his being is not necessarily obvious in his existence.)

Maybe it’s the same with music. It exists only as sounds vibrating both our’s and our dog’s eardrums. But when we hear it, something more comes through that isn’t only sounds, but something other than what is physically there.

22480543569_41491d7c54_oOf course, dogs notice what exists, but not necessary what is. They might have their own sort of spiritual vocabulary to account for a piece of music, or a Rembrandt, when they feel an inkling that this is something other. This isn’t the nothingness of the blank wall, but the somethingness of… well, something other….. When hearing a certain sort of noise, a dog might think the equivalent of “I Am” without understanding any of its second order implications. Then again, maybe not.

The point is that a dog might recognize the existence of a piece of music, at least as noises clanging in his ear, even if he doesn’t recognize its being as a piece of music. We pity the dog for this inability to hear, but it’s an inability we all too often share with him: an inability to recognize in a created, beautiful thing what it is, and that its creator might be the one in front of us. Filling our supper plate, even.

In a painting or a piece of music, the dog doesn’t recognize his own master as either the painter or composer.

The damned thing of it is, that all too often, neither do we.

Returning to the title, my question was: Why doesn’t music exist? and I said tend to think God doesn’t exist, either. Why, then, do they only have being?

Obviously, dogs can hear the sounds of music, but not its being; and we can see the work of the Creator, but only know of his being by faith or intuition.

So, maybe what I am really asking is: Why doesn’t being exist?

You’re investing in a place, not a house

Robert J. Schiller writes on Why Land and Homes Actually Tend to be Disappointing Investments:

Over the century from 1915 to 2015, though, the real value of American farmland (deflated by the Consumer Price Index) increased only 3.1 times, according to the Department of Agriculture. That comes to an average increase of only 1.1 percent a year — and with a growing population, that’s barely enough to keep per capita real land value unchanged.

According to my own data (relying on the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which I helped create), real home prices rose even more slowly over the same period — a total increase of 1.8 times, which comes to an average of only 0.6 percent a year.

What all that amounts to is that neither farmland nor housing has been a great place to invest money over the long term. …

… we need to realize what land represents, even in Manhattan or Silicon Valley or any booming area. People in such places usually aren’t buying land for its own sake but for the myriad services that housing provides. A home is not just a place to sleep and store clothing and keepsakes. It can be a place that is convenient to a stimulating place of work, good schools and entertainment and, indeed, part of an entire human community.

… the slow long-term pace of farmland and home price increases is not surprising. Nor would it be shocking if this trend continued for the next century, despite price surges over the last few years.

A more extreme outcome is also quite plausible. In a hundred years, we might even see much of our former farmland converted back to wildlife preserves. In fact, it’s far from inconceivable that the real price of land could be even lower than it is right now.

You’re investing in a place when you buy a home. You’re not investing in a house. If you haven’t enjoyed your investment, it’s probably because you’re treating a plot of soil or pile of metal, plastic, and wood as if they were more valuable than the place you’ve put them.

Golden Gate Park

I’m back in Philadelphia this morning after 12 days in California. I’m also coming back with a new appreciation for the Golden State after driving back and forth from San Francisco to San Diego, first south along the Pacific Coast Highway, then back north along I-5 through the mountains and then fertile farming plains.

I spend this past low-key weekend with friends in San Francisco, enjoying their company and enjoying a Saturday walk from Haight-Ashbury through Golden Gate Park, past sights like the Rhododendron Dell and American Bison Paddock to the Pacific Ocean where we had beer at the Beach Front Chalet where American Indians in tiled mosaic still threatened with taught bows as the waves crashed down outside, oblivious to time. It was a nice Saturday.

Yesterday was spent largely at the Presidio, specifically the Walt Disney Family Museum cafe where I caught up on action items with Chris Buchignani for The Nittany Valley Society, and took care of end-of-week housekeeping-type stuff. Dinner, night Mass, then back to SFO for my flight here.

This is one of those moments in life where appreciation comes viscerally and freely. It’s a wonderful world.

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