Dignity and placelessness

Gracy Olmstead on Sarah Smarsh’s bookHeartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth“:

“The American Dream has a price tag on it,” she writes. “The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.”

… many Americans disdain manual labor and the workers who do it. We talk dismissively about those who make our roads, buildings, and airplanes—the farmers who grow our food, the plumbers who fix our toilets, the electricians who make sure our houses have light. We pit blue-collar work against white-collar work as if the latter has greater dignity, meaning, and benefits for society. Yet if push came to shove, we could do without D.C. think tanks much more easily than the men and women who fix our roads. Sadly, all the financial benefits and security go to the knowledge economy workers, while those who make their work possible struggle from paycheck to paycheck. …

There are some important things in this book that conservatives should walk away with. First, we need to do a better job fighting poverty and empowering the poor. Those who call themselves “pro-family” should demonstrate it with policies that support single mothers and new parents (like paid family leave, for one). Sure, it would be better if businesses provided this on their own. But the fact of the matter is that many do not and will not.

Second, our language surrounding the dignity of work and self-sufficiency is good—but it is not sufficient. …

One thought I had while reading Smarsh’s book is that placelessness features largely in the instability and resulting poverty of her story. She does an excellent job explaining why instability is so common among the poor—especially poor women. But I’ve also observed the way embeddedness in good communities (ones with lots of involved citizens, nurturing neighbors, and vibrant associations) has historically fostered better opportunities and social capital for those who stick around, even the poor. Unfortunately, these sorts of communities are on the decline throughout America—which means you have to get lucky in order to find a place like that, or to be born into it. I have increasingly realized that I was one of the lucky ones. There’s a privilege that comes not just from a family or an income, but from a place that nurtures and grows you. Fewer and fewer Americans live in those sorts of places.

“Placelessness” reminds me of “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” that I saw sometime last year. It’s a “cinematic portrait of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of Wendell Berry.” It’s focused on the intersection of American culture and agriculture, but it’s also a good introduction to some of these concerns of Olmstead and Smarsh.

Monuments and principles

A few scenes from around Washington on this beautiful, only-slightly-chilly day:

I read Jamal Khashoggi’s final Washington Post column today. It’s powerful and strikingly prescient:

There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbors’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.” Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Even Lebanon, the Arab world’s crown jewel when it comes to press freedom, has fallen victim to the polarization and influence of pro-Iran Hezbollah.

The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar. In 1967, the New York Times and The Post took joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which went on to become a platform for voices from around the world.

My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.

Each of the buildings I saw today are, in their own ways, monuments to the sort of principles that Jamal Khashoggi gave his life for. RIP.

Nurturing home

Carrie Gress writes on a theology of home:

Home. It is a magical word that resonates with all of us. Even those from broken homes, or homes that no longer exist, there is still something in the idea that is sought after. Home is that place where we are meant to be safe, nurtured, known for who we are, to freely live and love.

Home’s universal appeal populates culture. Take Me Home, Country Road, Sweet Home Alabama, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas are a few songs that invoke the themeMovies and literature end happily with protagonists, like Odysseus, finally going home. The entire goal of the American pass-time of baseball is to be safe at home. YouTube videos of joyful homecomings fill up our social media feeds and we spend billions of dollars constructing and decorating our own houses, turning them into Home Sweet Home.

Our homes are the great theatre where the drama of our lives unfolds, as G.K. Chesterton eloquently said:

“The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of mortal life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where people should work, or even the only place where women should work, it has a character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labour.”

Home, by its nature, foreshadows heaven. Pope Saint John Paul II’s final words in this life were “Let me go to the house of the Father.” He wanted to go home – to the home that all of us are willed by God to go to, even if he allows our own will to lead us somewhere else.

Cultivating and nurturing a home is one of the most important things I can imagine doing in life. Growing up, I saw how my grandfather, grandmother, mother, and uncle all worked together to nurture our home, and their example is one I hope to carry forward someday in my own family.

Constitutional approaches

Adam J. MacLeod writes on the Constitution:

I argue that the terms of our Constitution are intelligible when understood in the context of the centuries-old legal tradition from which they are taken. Today I explain why efforts to render intelligible the U.S. Constitution’s terms without reference to the tradition fall short. I examine four efforts to interpret the Constitution and argue that they succeed only insofar as they point to important aspects of our legal tradition. In tomorrow’s conclusion I describe the legal tradition that supplied our constitutional terms and how those terms can be understood and used in both legal and civic discourse. …

He explores four interpretive schemes: the Novelty Constitution, the Enduring Constitution, and the Axiomatic and Natural Rights Constitutions. MacLeod concludes his analysis in his follow-up piece:

The view that the Constitution evolves as judges invent new understandings of its terms falters, for the expansion of judicial power comes at the expense of judicial legitimacy. The text of the Constitution is not alone sufficient because the Constitution does not define its own terms. Interpretive methods that look to natural law and natural rights are grounded in the Constitution, but they are quite limited in practice. The Constitution is not, in Edward Corwin’s words, “a mystic overlaw.” The law of reason on which it is grounded requires specification in rules and judgments.

In today’s essay I argue that those rules and judgments are packed into the Constitution’s terms. For many of the terms of the Constitution are legal terms, pulled out of the common law. …

So, our Constitution is both particular and universal, both young and ancient. Its rules and specifications change over time, but they were designed to change in keeping with the artificial reason and peculiar institutions of the common law. Our Constitution is both much younger and much older than 231 years.

The common law that our Constitution declares and the common-law rights and duties that it secures have a thousand-year history in England and the United States. And the common law incorporates elements that preceded it by several centuries more. Aspects of our Constitution can be traced back to ancient Babylon, Athens, and Jerusalem. In a sense, our constitution is universal.

Yet our Constitution is also not universal in an important sense. It is ours. It reflects our commitments as a people. We have chosen those norms and institutions that enable our people to flourish, such as private property and the jury trial. We have rejected those that suppress human creativity, such as monarchy. And we have abrogated those that are unjust, such as slavery and racial segregation.

We continue to disagree about matters of civic importance. And today our disagreements are often emotional and expressed with rancor. But understood as an expression of the common law commitments on which it was built, our Constitution still supplies common terms in which we might re-transform our civic discourse into something rational and productive.

Worth reading, especially for non-attorneys interested in making sense of the often sharply different perspectives on what the Constitution really is.

Penn State student broadcasting marks its 105th year

When I visited Penn State at the start of this fall semester, I sat in on The LION 90.7fm’s first all-staff meeting of the academic year. Ross Michael, the station’s president and general manager, mentioned that they would be celebrating the station’s 23rd birthday sometime in October, as the present incarnation of the larger Penn State student broadcasting experience. I just got an email that the celebration will be happening October 29th from 1-3pm in the HUB-Robeson Center, and will probably be streamed live by the station.

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There’s a historical marker in The LION 90.7fm’s facilities called the “Penn State Student Broadcasting Story,” which covers the 100+ years of this Penn State tradition. Here’s its coverage of The LION 90.7fm (WKPS)’s era:

WKPS

Determined to restore that voice and resurrect a unique and powerful Penn State tradition, students in the early 1990s once again championed the cause of student broadcasting. The Board of Trustees petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a new license, to be operated independently by and for the students, and on October 31, 1995 the airwaves welcomed WKPS and the rebirth of student radio.

Located in Downtown State College, this third generation station experienced its share of growing pains, learning to excel not through an academic department or college, but for the first time as an independent student organization. Eventually WKPS found an identity in “The LION” and, in 2003, a home in the HUB-Robeson Center. Creating a station both innovative and well-programmed, students restored many of their earliest traditions, including Nittany Lion athletics broadcasts, coverage and fundraising for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, and service as a platform and voice for a growing student body. Diverse programs such as the Jazz Spectrum,  Jam 91, State Your Face, Latin Mix, and Radio Free Penn State echoed earlier incarnations from the WDFM era.

Students continued to narrate the stories of their time, notably during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during which Mike Walsh covered the attacks through John Raynar, who was working one block from the World Trade Center. “We were the only media outlet in State College who had someone on the scene that day,” recalled Walsh. “That was the high point of our professionalism.”

While breaking new technical ground, student broadcasters also learned to redefine their value in light of a more connected culture, pioneering internet streaming ahead of peer stations, establishing an automated broadcast schedule, partnering with Movin’ On and The State Theatre to welcome acts large and small, and connecting major industry labels to independent and avant garde artists. In a tangible way, student broadcasters created a home for peers, professors, townspeople, and friends to put into practice the ideal of “a liberal and practical education,” embodying the principles of a free society through concern for speech in all its forms, as well as artistic and musical expression, and a cross-generational experience of a community in time which valued sense of place.

Forging their own identity in the context of the larger history of student broadcasting, students fused an often fierce commitment to principle with an evergreen mission of enhancing university and community life.

This is the history and spirit that will be celebrated later this month as Penn State student broadcasting celebrates its 105th year and as The LION 90.7fm marks its 23rd year as present standard bearer of that tradition.

Along K Street

A scene from earlier this week of the St. Regis along K Street, as I was making my way to the Catholic Information Center for the Leonine Forum:

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Along with Robert Hazel’s 1958 “Statuary Hall,” which I’m still trying to appreciate:

Statuary Hall

The dancers candled in their flames
cold on eyes and brittle hair,
cold on their marble shoulders, light
that is not pleasure but a way
to know by limits, and they know
time by decorum and love by art,
they find this way to imitate
the never final partially true—
they pray with dancing if they pray—
before the movement as they move
subsides to consciousness, before
the movement pauses as they take
this partial truth of movement and
believe pure energy is true
as if dead men were surely dead
because they move so little, as though
the deadness of ideas and men
is always carried slowly and
is true because this movement holds
the shaping deadness finally in;
they know that chaos, if they fail,
becomes a city, and if they move
falsely then all their partial truths
become a stammering of blood;
they move with courage, perilously
in plights of incense as they breathe
freedoms tallowing coldly out.

Tending what you’ve got

Quint Studer writes on Strong Towns that “character counts” when seeking to create or conserve a sense of place in your community:

The less you look like everyone else and the more you look like yourself, the better off you’ll be. In fact, creating a distinctive sense of place is your competitive advantage. When a community’s leaders keep their focus on creating a unique place that people want to be, the local economy tends to thrive. Businesses want to move in. Young people don’t have to leave to find jobs. The best talent flocks to such communities.

When you cultivate a sense of place, not only will citizens spend their dollars at home, you’ll attract tourists as well. They’ll have a good time. And because you’re giving them something to talk about, they’ll come back—and they’ll generate great word of mouth that makes others want to visit, too.

It’s obvious when a community has created a strong sense of place. They know who they are and are always telling their story. They’re authentic. They’re warm and welcoming. They’re quirky and colorful. They have a sense of energy and life that you can feel when you walk around. So how do you create that? Here are a few tips: …

Take a good hard look at your downtown. How can you make it more vibrant? Is it walkable? Is there a great intersection that residents and visitors perceive as the center of life and activity in your downtown? Are there plenty of great places to eat and shop? Are there plenty of things to do, day and night? Are there cool living spaces to attract both young people and empty nesters? …

Know your story and tell it in a meaningful way. How can you immerse people in the experience of what makes your town unique? Take a cue from other towns that have done this. Hershey, PA, is known for the Hershey Company, and it has built its whole identity on a “chocolate” theme. There’s even a candy-themed amusement park, and the downtown streetlights are in the shape of Hershey’s Kisses. What is your town known for? Maybe it’s a crop like apples or blackberries, or a product like furniture, or a famous singer or historical figure. …

Assess what you have. What can you preserve instead of rebuilding? Are there old buildings that could be repurposed? People love to work, eat, shop, and stay in renovated factories and warehouses. Old buildings have a sense of character that’s hard to replicate. …

Remember that little things mean a lot. One of the best things I’ve learned from Strong Towns’ president, Chuck Marohn, is that small fixes can make a big difference. Just like a fresh coat of paint makes a home look new again, planting some trees or repairing a dilapidated landmark can have a huge impact on how your community looks. Green and clean matter. And first impressions count, so make sure your community has a good “front door” like a gateway or attractive sign to welcome visitors.

I took the photo that accompanies this excerpt in Georgetown on my way to work earlier this week. It’s a simple enough building, but it’s well cared for and it’s such a distinctive sort of blue. This scene captures what it’s like for a traditional sort of architecture to nonetheless stand apart without bombast and without disrespecting the experience of the place.

Ambiguity, young people, and discernment

Pope Francis and the Vatican are hosting the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” in Rome this month. Chris Stefanick suggests what Catholic engagement with young people requires right now:

A back-to-basics clarity. I’m not merely speaking about clarity when it comes to specific teachings, but in a more encompassing sense of the word: They want clarity on what, exactly, we have to offer for their lives. And if we can’t answer that for them, they want us to get out of the way.

Our message, the “thing” that we offer, is the Gospel, which, despite all the failures of the Church, remains the best news ever. It’s the news that the human person isn’t a cosmic accident whose destiny is worm food and then nothingness. It’s the message that we’re created with a purpose, redeemed by a loving God who has a plan for our lives, and destined for eternal glory. It’s the message that we’re called to greatness by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. We’re not just invited to call him “friend” and then do what we want. It’s the message that he loves us, even in our weakness, and that his love has deep and profoundly good implications for our lives.

The results are conversions. Every week. A young woman recently approached me after an event and said, “I had an abortion. You’re the first person I’m telling this to. And this is the first time since my abortion that I feel like God can love me again.” I walked her to her priest who heard her confession, and she left a different person. These stories happen all the time. …

Ambiguous language about hard moral issues won’t win souls. After the McCarrick debacle, frankly, vague language from our clerics attempting to be more open-minded and push the envelope on sexual ethics will just seem … well … creepy. (Now is definitely the hour for black-and-white clarity to make a comeback.) …

Creating a rift between new propositions and old moral teachings in an effort to go along with the times won’t make us attractive. It will make us look faithless and confused.

If we want to actually win souls in a world where young people are bombarded by 3,000 ads per day, we have to get back to the basics. We need to be clear about what, exactly, we offer the world. … We have to be known as the Church of the Gospel again.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is in Rome for the Synod, and is a member of its permanent council. At gatherings like these, bishops offer statements called interventions and I’m excerpting from two of Archbishop Chaput’s interventions. First:

Who we are as creatures, what it means to be human, why we should imagine we have any special dignity at all — these are the chronic questions behind all our anxieties and conflicts. And the answer to all of them will not be found in ideologies or the social sciences, but only in the person of Jesus Christ, redeemer of man. Which of course means we need to understand, at the deepest level, why we need to be redeemed in the first place.

If we lack the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially to the young, then the Church is just another purveyor of ethical pieties the world doesn’t need. …

In reality, young people are too often products of the age, shaped in part by the words, the love, the confidence, and the witness of their parents and teachers, but more profoundly today by a culture that is both deeply appealing and essentially atheist.

The elders of the faith community have the task of passing the truth of the Gospel from age to age, undamaged by compromise or deformation. Yet too often my generation of leaders, in our families and in the Church, has abdicated that responsibility out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness in forming young people to carry the faith into the future. Shaping young lives is hard work in the face of a hostile culture. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is precisely a result of the self-indulgence and confusion introduced into the Church in my lifetime, even among those tasked with teaching and leading. And minors — our young people — have paid the price for it.

And second, Archbishop Chaput on youth and vocational discernment in light of maturity:

In his opening Mass homily, the Holy Father described Jesus as “eternally young.” When I heard this, it reminded me of a song by the artist, Jay-Z, that was popular a few years ago. The song was entitled “Forever Young,” and it was a remake of a popular tune by the German group, Alphaville, from the 1980s. Jay-Z sang for the young – and for all of us – “I want to live forever and be forever young.”

The image of Jesus as “eternally young” is not only beautiful but powerful. As we deal with the many outside pressures on the Church today, and the problems we also face within our believing community, we need to remember that Jesus is alive and vigorous, and constantly offering his disciples an abundant new life. …

Of course, the Jesus who came into the world as an infant did not end his mission as a youth. He matured into an adult man of courage, self-mastery, and mercy guided by justice and truth. He was a teacher both tender and forceful; understanding and patient – but also very clear about the kind of human choices and actions that would lead to God, and the kind that would not.

The wealthy societies of today’s world that style themselves as “developed” – including most notably my own – are in fact underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.

[We need] to be much stronger and more confident in presenting God’s Word and the person of Jesus Christ as the only path to a full and joyful humanity.

I might share one or two more items as the Synod continues, but I’m following it as news filters from Rome. If there’s anything I’ve taken from this so far, it’s how true it is that relationships between different generations can be very difficult, especially for older generations. There’s a continual temptation to “read into” younger generations the same virtues or vices, the same spirit and passions, that characterized your own life, or your own entire generation at an earlier time. This sort of thing makes real encounter with others really difficult, because you’re bringing lots of psychological and emotional baggage into that encounter.

Diminishing specialization

Cal Newport writes on a study by Peter G. Sassone, a Georgia Tech economist, started in 1985 as computers were beginning to come into wide use in the office. The effects of the machines were not what was expected; principally, manager productivity decreased as those whose roles required the greatest degree of creative thought and specialization took on administrative tasks enabled by the machines. Newport writes:

Deploying a technique called work value analysis, Sassone measured not only the amount of work conducted by his subjects, but also the skill level required for the work. He found that managers and other skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees.

He identified several factors that explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff.

The positive impact of this change was that companies needed less support staff. The negative impact was that it reduced the ability of managers and professionals to spend concentrated time working on the things they did best.

Surprisingly, Sassone found that hiring more administrative staff and reducing the number of managers could yield the same outputs:

This rebalancing works because more administrative support means the higher level employees can spend more time working deeply on the activities that produce the most value. Because the former are cheaper to hire than the latter, the result is the same work for less total staffing costs.

This touches on something I think we all have felt with our machines, which is that, yes, on the one hand we can do more than ever before, but on the other, it feels as if we’re sometimes or often accomplishing less in significant and concrete terms.

I’d rather more of us be generalists than specialists when it comes to the quality of our thought, the depth of our attention, the ranginess of our curiosity, and the value of the humanities to harmonize our often unordered experiences into a meaningful whole—but for purposes of corporate performance, Sassone’s study is important.

Selectivity and discipline

Riffing off of Wendell Berry’s reflection that “nothing can take form except within limits,” here’s Matthew Kitchen writing on the problem with a limitless culture of work:

“Always-on culture is weird. It’s not how humans thrive. It’s not how productive people break through to the next level,” said Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism,” which details his philosophy of confidently saying no to things that don’t benefit you—a “disciplined pursuit of doing less,” but doing it better. “Modern culture now acts upon us so constantly that we start reacting to it rather than acting for ourselves.”

Mr. McKeown argues that being selective about how we spend our time turns it into a valuable commodity to be traded, ultimately earning you respect and making you more productive when you’re “on.” For instance, saying no to aimless meetings frees up your office time to finish tasks, eliminating extra work at home. But many of us still are burdened by FOMO—the fear of missing out, or in this case the fear of missing opportunity, of being seen as less hardworking and less reliable than co-workers and thus expendable. According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review study, 43% of those surveyed “sacrifice or significantly suppress other meaningful aspects of who they are” and give in to always-on.

So rather than using technology to augment our work, speeding us out the door in 6 hours instead of 10, or cutting down to an ideal four-day workweek, we’ve misused technology to bolster antiquated workaholic habits.

Aims, objectives, and goals require discipline, and I think discipline requires the sort of “essentialism” that Greg McKeown is talking about. That Harvard Business Review study is really dispiriting, if it’s true that nearly half of Americans “sacrifice or significantly suppress” their own personal and familial wellbeing simply to give the appearance of perpetual engagement.