Constitutional democracy

A few excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism on republican versus democratic governance:

De Tocqueville wrote of democracy that it “not only makes each man forget his forefathers, but it conceals from him his descendants and separates him from his contemporaries; it ceaselessly throws him back on himself alone and threatens finally to confine him entirely in the solitude of his own heart”. That is a strong way of putting it, and one that reflects the bitterness spread by the French Revolution in the feelings of all its descendants. But it contains a truth. The great difficulty lies in finding the language with which to persuade people to acknowledge de Tocqueville’s meaning.

The social fragmentation presaged by de Tocqueville is as elusive as it is virulent, while the supposed legitimacy of the democratic process is a conception of permanent and vivid appeal. Should politicians wish to criticize the democratic process they must represent themselves as opposed, not to democracy, but to some local or specialized form of it—proportional representation, say, or the single-chamber parliament, or the plebiscite. But these specialized forms exemplify the same principle that they must also claim to be defending, the principle that, in matters of government, it is the opinion of the governed that confers legitimacy upon what is done. It might be possible to argue against the use of a referendum, on the grounds that twenty million people ought not to be asked to make a momentous decision concerning a matter about which almost all of them know nothing (for example, whether to join or not to join the European Monetary Union). It might be possible to argue against proportional representation, on the grounds that it will generate a parliament that is weak, irresolute and peppered with crackpots.

But all such arguments rely on a principle that denies the basis of democracy. For they assert that popular opinion is a legitimate guide only in so far as it is authorized by a constitution that limits its excesses. Hence the legitimacy of government cannot be conferred merely by democratic choice. …

The underlying idea is … that legitimacy can reside only in contractual or quasi-contractual agreement, and not in established usage. Hence, it is thought, the only legitimate government, or procedure, is one that has been “chosen” or consented to by its subjects. Yet as soon as one considers the highly artificial circumstances of democratic choice, one must see that this “choice” presupposes in its turn that the citizens should recognize some prior legitimacy in that which they do not and cannot choose—namely the procedures which make choice available, and the people and offices which guard them.

A Republic, if you can keep it,” reported Ben Franklin after the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The demos, or the people themselves, have always been meant to be heard most forcefully through their elected representatives in our republican model. You might say that we’re a democracy in the sense that we determine in every generation to what extent we’re going to keep the republic. If you don’t like the “republic” language for whatever reason, try “constitutional democracy.”

Scruton continues:

… however fair and free, [the democratic process] will always give precedence to the needs and desires of those who are choosing now, regardless of the needs and desires of those who are not yet with us or those who are already dead. The very same theoretical weakness which afflicts the social contract, afflicts democratic choice—namely, that it privileges the living and their immediate interests over past and future generations.

Burke made the point in something like those terms in his great polemic against the French Revolution. But it is worth setting it in a more modern context, since it bears upon the most important questions that now confront us. Burke argued that we can view society as a contract (as the French Revolutionaries, following Rousseau, proposed) only if we recognize that the contract includes not the living only but also the unborn and the dead. Mention of the dead seems quaint to modern ears: after all, they are no longer with us, and therefore, you might suppose, have no interests which are affected by what we do. That is not how Burke saw the matter, however. The dead, he believed, have an enduring interest in our respect for them. Moreover, this is recognized by the law, which obliges us to carry out the will of a testator, whether or not it is in anyone else’s interest.

But there is a much deeper reason to include the dead and their wishes in our calculations. From the beginning of time, it is respect for the dead that has formed the basis of institution-building. Schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, clubs, libraries, churches and institutions began life as private foundations, dependent on property given or bequeathed by people no longer alive. The present holders of that property were morally speaking, the temporary trustees. Respect for the dead forbade the arbitrary use of their bequests, and compelled the trustees to further the purposes which the founders and donors would approve. By honoring the dead, the living trustees were safeguarding the interests of their successors. Respect for the dead is the foundation of the attitude of trusteeship upon which future generations depend for their inheritance. Remove the dead from the equation, and you remove the unborn. And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is the real danger of unmoderated democracy.

Procedural limitations on democracy must therefore be designed to ensure that the voices of the dead and the unborn are heard in the political process. But not any dead and unborn: only those who belong to the first person plural over which the sovereign power presides — the community-through-time which in modern terms is usually seen as a nation, the term “nation” being etymologically connected with the idea of birth and descent without which the long-term perspective is seemingly impossible to grasp as a part of politics.

It’s an under-appreciated point that Scruton highlights there, that democracy naturally focuses on what we want now, at the expense of the future or the recent past. But context matters; even if you reject arguments about respecting the will, intent, or memory of the dead, it’s a fact that almost nothing in life can be understood out of its context. How can it be that whatever our immediate and present wants might be, that these are the only good worth pursuing?

They’re clearly not, as our entire society is built on the practice of deferring immediate gratification—from investing years of our lives in educating ourselves for future success, to planning in old age for the success of children and grandchildren, to saving as much as possible for retirement in youth and middle age, when immediate spending would be more rewarding in the present moment.

Yet when it comes to governance, we probably tip too much toward democratic interest in present-oriented concerns at the expense of long-term governance and planning for the future. It would explain why we can’t find consensus on energy and environmental policy that plans for the future and why we can’t solve the insolvency problems of our pension and social welfare commitments, for instance.

Broad Street Greenway

I think that Philadelphia could transform Broad Street, its most significant public boulevard, if we decided to start replacing Broad Street’s concrete and asphalt medians with soil, grass, and trees.

I first started thinking about this in Pittsburgh, when I saw the way that certain Pittsburgh streets have simple but elegant elevated green garden medians, and the thought really took hold during Michael Bloomberg’s time as New York City mayor when he helped inaugurate MillionTreesNYC, the city’s initiative to plant and and care for a million new trees across the five boroughs.

There’s frequent debate about whether Philadelphia should start ticketing/towing cars parked in Broad Street’s median as you get down into South Philadelphia, and those debates go nowhere due to the entrenched interests of city councilpersons. Why not obviate that debate entirely and replace the median over time with grass and shrubs and flowers and trees? We would be transforming Philadelphia’s greatest street into Philadelphia’s grandest street, outstripping even the Ben Franklin Parkway in time for beauty.

I don’t think there’s any one solution, and here are just a few examples of how it could be done. Here’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem:

Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, Harlem.png

That looks relatively simple and would probably require the least expense. In other words, keep the existing median dimensions along Broad Street, but punch out the concrete and asphalt. The result is an attractive streetscape for walkers, bikers, and drivers.

Here’s Grant Street in Pittsburgh, which I think is the street that got me thinking about this about a decade ago:

Grant Street, Pittsburgh.png

This is maybe even better from a safety standpoint, since it discourages jaywalking and would allow Broad Street to be narrowed a bit to accommodate a wider median and also maybe a permanent bike lane, all of which would naturally reduce speeding and accidents.

And here’s the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I walked along this avenue when I visited there in July 2012, when I was in Europe for the London Olympics:

Champs-Élysées, Paris.png

The boulevard itself has no real median, but these incredibly wide (by American standards) sidewalks accommodate a double-wide planting of trees and functionally park space along the way. This could be another approach, eliminating Broad Street’s median entirely and doubling the capacity of our sidewalks and reimaging their role as public space.

Compare these few options with the present reality. Here’s Broad and Locust:

Broad and Locust, Philadelphia.png

And here’s Broad and Lombard, a bit farther south:

Broad and Lombard, Philadelphia.png

And here’s Broad and Castle, much farther south when the median turns into overflow parking space and the buildings are set back much farther from the street:

Broad and Castle, Philadelphia.png

Now imagine these scenes transformed, as part of something like a “Broad Street Greenway” initiative to place a few thousand trees all along Broad Street—left, right, and center.

Imagine the experience of walking Broad Street in the summer, when the trees serve as natural canopies alleviating the heat. Imagine the experience during the autumn when the changing colors and resplendent hues also provides jobs for dozens of seasonal workers to sweep the streets and bring a human presence to stretches of Broad Street that feel remote and desolate during certain hours. Imagine the experience during the spring when those trees serve as homes and stopping points for all sorts of birds and chirping life, bringing nature’s sounds and songs to a part of the city that desperately could benefit from something other than the sounds of horns and engines. And imagine the experience during the winter, when certain neighborhoods or the city itself might string up little white lights to festively illuminate the city’s grand street, bringing some hope and optimism and warm feeling to a time of year when many feel particularly discouraged or alone.

Creating a Broad Street Greenway for Philadelphia wouldn’t just be a parks project, or an environmental initiative, but it would also be a great public service and a great act of revitalizing and enlivening one of best known and imagined parts of the city.

Power and influence

Bruno Maçães writes on world order and feelings of chaos:

What was remarkable about the Brexit referendum was that the country that had invented free trade and taken it to the four corners of the world was now refusing to be part of the largest and freest economic bloc ever created. As for Donald Trump, he has come to symbolize a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign-policy consensus. … According to Trump, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

The global order created after the Second World War had been endangered before, but in the past the threat had come from the out­side. Now it seems to be in danger of being abandoned by those who had been responsible for building it and who had always benefited from it. For some, Brexit and Trump have simply been an error of perception: It is true that the countries at the core of the system have to restrain their power and cannot come out on top every time, but over the long term they reap the largest benefits and have the most interest in preserving the system. …

The truth is that for many in the United Kingdom and the U.S., there is no longer a functioning liberal order. …

Surprising? Perhaps, but we have seen it all before — in those societies first suffering the impact of European or Western expansion. One historical analogy is with the arrival of European civilization in the Muslim world. Until the 18th century the course of history still seemed to be favoring the great Muslim empires, and the ruling Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal elites certainly never entertained any other possibility. When the shock arrived, in the form of a string of military defeats and growing trade dependence, no one was prepared. The initial reaction was to wait for the storm to pass while remaining faithful to traditional habits and principles. Two main strands of reaction were eventually considered. First, there was a call to purify Muslim society from later influences and deviations. The origin of the Wahhabi radical reinterpretation of Islam dates from this moment. The second response, moving in the opposite direction, was to try to reform Muslim society, to address its perceived weak­nesses and to appropriate some European ideas, at least in the area of military technology.

A similar process took place in China roughly a century later. Determined to open Chinese markets to foreign goods, Britain intro­duced the habit of opium smoking into the country and later defended its trade through military means, quickly dispatching the poorly equipped Chinese navy. The emperor sued for peace, opened five trade ports to foreigners, and ceded Hong Kong to the British in per­petuity. It was impossible to pretend that the world order as it had been conceived in Beijing since time immemorial could survive the onslaught, but the mandarins spent most of the next few decades doing just that, for their most treasured values prohibited the recog­nition of any alternative to Chinese civilization. …

One could speculate endlessly about the root causes of the new situation, but the truth is notably straightforward. Technology — once the preserve of the West — is now universal. In both cases discussed above, the Muslim and Chinese worlds were faced with a new kind of civilization, carrying all the secrets of modern science, which at first must have looked like supernatural powers. The encounter between European and Asian empires in the mod­ern age had a very specific meaning to those involved: the superiority of European technology. Some Asian thinkers or polemicists went so far as to make the intriguing claim that the encounter was not between Asians and Europeans, but rather between Asians and European machines.

We have now entered a new age, one perfectly summarized by saying that Western machines are every day meeting Asian machines. After all, the same tools we have used — and continue to use — to manage and influence the rest of the world are now fully available outside the West. When power and influence flow in all directions at once, the result is, from one point of view, a democratic order where everyone will rule and be ruled at once. From a different point of view, it could be described as a field of forces where every action is a reaction in an endless chain. Countries, peoples, voters, and presidents are ultimately disturbances in a chaotic field.

Maçães has a new book out called The Rise of Eurasia, which I assume delves into this further. As technology has flattened the world, I think Maçães is right in suggesting that “power and influence [now] flow in all directions.” Neither rising powers like China nor powers like America and Europe are able to exert unilateral power and influence, and that’s making everything politically and socially frothy.

Why celebrate mass

I was at mass a few years ago at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia, and wrote the following afterwards and thought it made sense to share.

It was a mass celebrating Latino heritage and was said by Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez was a local and pastor in West Chester previously, so it was something of a warm homecoming for him. The Mass was in Spanish which gave me more mental space than I typically find when it’s in English and am pulled into responding at the appropriate times.

Why go to Mass, at the most basic level? A friend shared the engraved illustration not long ago, and although I don’t know the source it conveys the traditional theological reasons:

But let me offer a non-theological basis for celebrating mass. This is the one place I’ll be this week where no one around me has any designs on me. No one wants to use me. No one wants anything. We’re just here to celebrate and worship. In that sense, we’re truly at liberty.

You’re free to retreat, if you’d like, into a mental space of solitude that we rarely get very much of in a noisy world of false urgencies.

The mass presents an opportunity every day to be a new person. To think of yourself differently. To reclaim a sense of oneself, and one’s essential role. And don’t we all want to be a new person in some way?

It’s a gift.

Loving a place

I think the Nittany Valley is a remarkable place, home to not only to Penn State, but also to special communities like State College, victorian Bellefonte, and scenic Lemont, the hamlet at Mount Nittany’s base. Michael Houtz, by the way, captured the heart of the Nittany Valley beautifully a few years ago in this early morning, fog-blanketed valley scene:


I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.

When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.

Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.

This is one of the reasons I think nostalgia lives in places like State College.

Story and promise

A few years ago I came across Robert W. Jenson’s 1993 piece on modernity and post-modernity, and wrote some notes at the time that I thought I’d surface here. It was a helpful introductory piece for me to the topics of modernity and post-modernity, and why people use these words to describe our area and the recent past. Maybe it’ll be helpful for others, too.

First, Jenson’s thesis is conveyed to a significant degree right in the headline: “How The World Lost Its Story” addresses itself to the idea that western societies have tended to lose their cohering/cementing sense of meaning and purpose and are left with significant questions on how best to live and why.

Jenson talks about this struggle through the framework of “story and promise,” or put another way through the relationship between the story of this life and the promise of what’s to come. The “story of this life” corresponding roughly to the order and purpose to be derived from the chaos and randomness of everyday life, and the “promise of what’s to come” corresponding roughly to Christian or transcendent perspectives on eternal truth, itself pointing to a “something” beyond the immediate experiences of the present and thus furnishing reasons to create and conserve the order and structure of a society for both present and future purposes. Modernity was friendly to reason, but post-modernity appears not to be.

“Story and promise,” Jenson suggests held “modernity” together:

… [modernity] has supposed we inhabit what I will call a “narratable world.” Modernity has supposed that the world “out there” is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow “has” its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it.”

On “promise”:

In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.” ….

One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.

Think broadly and regard “liturgy” as analogous in some sense to culture, or shared ideas, or observances that make a cohesive civilization possible by harmonizing its discordant parts into a whole:

[Today, many] simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga—all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.

“All inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.”

To think of the most basic and essential stories about reality as, at best useful, but most likely just necessary lies is nihilism, and it’s a weak basis for either getting any anything “real” or for creating or conserving any reliable social order. A friend of mine at Penn State used to almost consolingly remark to himself in moments when he was feeling dispirited, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” This dark humor was basically funny at 20, but within a few years it becomes more visibly an abyss from which nothing good will emerge.

We convince ourselves no absolute truth exists, and at the same time that morale-boosting lies are absolutely useful—all while failing to recognize the irony in grasping at something transcendent while rejecting any permanence-outside-of-time as impossible.

If this is discouraging or just leaves you feeling angry or nihilistic, read Jenson’s whole piece for a holistic sense of what he’s talking about.

Three languages of politics

Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides is a short introduction to the reality of “three axes” in American political life and the problem with trying to heal the culture before confronting the moral concerns of each axis. Tristan Flock writes:

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians each have their own tribal language, which often baffles and infuriates outsiders. Until we grasp the nuances and assumptions of each language, mutual understanding is impossible. Fortunately, Kling provides a simple framework for making sense of these semantic differences. …

Kling’s framework eschews the simplistic left–right spectrum in favor of a ‘three-axes’ model of political communication, whereby people tend to communicate in either a progressive, conservative, or libertarian manner. It is simple enough to be grasped at a glance, yet complex enough to aid in understanding. The three ways of communicating can be summarized as follows:

  • Progressives communicate along an oppressor–oppressed axis, where those who stand up for the underprivileged are good, while those indifferent to the plights of the disadvantaged are bad.
  • Conservatives communicate along a civilization–barbarism axis, where those who stand up for time-tested traditions and virtues are good, while those indifferent to assaults on Western values are bad.
  • Libertarians communicate along a liberty–coercion axis, where those who stand up for individual rights are good, while those indifferent to government intrusion are bad.

I think Kling presents a good tactical basis for healing some of the political and social wounds in our culture, simply from a standpoint of learning how to better and more meaningfully communicate across different lines and ways of thinking. This doesn’t strike me as a good strategic basis for political engagement, because it doesn’t directly address questions of telos and virtue and meaning in everyday life, and I suspect those implicit questions are what drive people into different axes in the first place.

Summer scenes and sounds

It’s that time of year when summer is entering some of its final weeks, and the sounds of summer start to seem more pronounced for whatever reason. Here’s a view across the Schuylkill River toward University City from a few nights ago when it was hot, humid, and somewhat subdued:


And here are some sounds of summer from a night run more recently, in what could have been Fairmount Park:

How often do we really listen to what we hear?

When barriers dissolve

A scene from late last month in Washington when I was sitting outside at the Dubliner:


Along with a reflection on wholeness that I came across recently:

“When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made of entirely non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. When we see the nature of inter-being, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing what you love

John Byron Kuhner on parenting and love:

I think most children get a sense pretty clearly of what their parents hate.  Most people are pretty hateful, and pretty public about it  … and children in particular are exposed to parents’ hatred all the time. People dread family gatherings [because of] hatred that is so toxic, and which people feel so entitled to impose on everyone else….

I want to share with my children what I love. I want to model for them how an adult loves: loves his spouse, loves his family, loves his work, loves his home, loves the world, loves people, loves things, loves life, loves God. And I know I can’t love everything equally. Some things I’ll love more than others. But I’d like my kids to know what I love and why, just because they’ve been part of our lives, and we’ve talked about them.

My mother tells me a story about her own father, that he would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art frequently, and yet she never knew why he decided to do so. His own wife, my mother’s mother, had no interest and never came. He had only an elementary school education (he was an immigrant from Ireland), and hadn’t even gone to high school, much less college. What did he get out of seeing Canovas and Van Eycks with his daughter on his day off from work? “I never really knew why he wanted to take me there,” my mother confesses. “All I know is that it changed my life.” My mother ended up going to college, and majoring in art history. A father probably doesn’t have to talk about the things he loves, to make a difference in his child’s life: he just has to expose his children to them. But talking about them is useful too.

“I never really knew why he wanted to take me there. … All I know is that it changed my life.”

After many years of teaching, I have to confess that I believe all the more in parenting. For all the very best students I’ve ever had, I’ve been able to say: “I think these children learn things at home.” Their parents may not be teaching them Latin, but they’re teaching them something: their children are learning to cook, they’re learning life wisdom, they’re learning to fix things, they’re learning about books and ideas. In short, almost all of my best students have been people whose first classroom was their home. And one never knows what kind of effect this will have decades later.

At age thirty-seven, when Goethe made his first trip to Italy, he wrote of his arrival as a realization of “all the dreams of my youth,” and he specifically recalls those prints he had seen in his childhood home. Goethe would remain in Italy for nearly two years, and would consider it one of the high points of his life — and a kind of fulfillment of his relationship with his father. I find this one of the most moving images of the tension between the generations resolved by shared love of enduring intellectual beauty.

This is one of my great hopes as a parent: that my children one day will see past my faults, and find me redeemed somehow by the love I had in my heart, a love they have found a way to share somehow. This would be, I think, one of the things that would make me most happy…

What a great witness to the power of little moments of witness to love.