Pope Francis’s TED talk

Pope Francis has talked of the “God of surprises,” and just as often turns out to be a pope of surprises. That’s true of his surprise (pre-filmed) TED appearance in Vancouver last night.

I’ve been following along with the TED conference through Snapchat from a few people I follow, so already felt somewhat connected to the talks there. I hope Pope Francis’s participation sets a standard for things like this, and that someday a younger pope might surprise an audience like this in person.

Death of a White Oak

Bruce Shipkowski reports from Bernards, New Jersey (an hour west of Manhattan) on an incredible White Oak tree that lived for more than 600 years and became a part of American history:

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A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday… Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years. …

“I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I’m really going to miss seeing it,” said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.

The tree has been an important part of the community since the town’s inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.

Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. …

“It has been an integral part of the town, that’s for sure,” said Jon Klippel, a member of the church’s planning council. “It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We’ve been blessed to have it here.”

But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree’s acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.

Trees like this are natural landmarks, and special symbols of our country. I’m reminded of the old idea of planting trees at the founding of a new institution or public initiative as a symbolic act of the hope that whatever new thing takes root as the tree does, and flourishes for generations for the betterment of the people.

Trees matter.

First visits to Ave Maria

I was looking back through my old writings, and found the following reflection that I wrote in mid-March 2012 after visiting Ave Maria for what I think was my first or second visit there.

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia, riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor northward from Ave Maria, Florida. On the way down I had lunch with a woman who had never heard of the place, it being a town and university so freshly sprung.

For most of my time visiting, traveling, and working in Ave Maria the students were largely away on spring break. The exception was The Queen Mary Pub in the town square, the sole watering hole in Ave Maria and a place that ended up feeling like a second home, literally a place where everybody knows your name.

A few years after the founding of what was to become Penn State a lawmaker quipped that State College was a town “equally inaccessible from all parts of the state.” This isolation blessed the town with a separation from the day-to-day chaos of the world, providing a special atmosphere in which to learn. It’s also what helped cultivate the spirit of Happy Valley as a place “outside of time” in some sense.

I think much the same could be said for Ave Maria today, a college town that’s miles away from the nearest neighboring town on 5,000 acres of land near a 22,000 acre preserve. A special spirit could develop here, too. The place has existed here for fewer than five years, so time will tell.

In the center of the town there’s Ave Maria Oratory, a cathedral-like church. Outside the town square there are maybe 200 homes spread across the landscape. At night the sky is yours to behold in its fullness, while even in winter warm air tends to fill your lungs on an evening run. Children that ride bikes past one another on a street greet each other by name. It’s a deeply human place, even while still surrounded by marsh and swamp.

The “Notre Dame of the South,” I’ve heard it called, Ave Maria is an experiment in whether the values that once shaped both American and Catholic culture can be regenerated in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular time, whether old ways can again direct distinctly Christian lives.

“When we have broken from our god of tradition,
and ceased from our god of rhetoric,
then may God fire the heart with His presence.” 

—Emerson

Journalists should be skeptics

Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?

“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.

Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:

The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.

What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?

A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.

Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.

In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:

There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.

Cato: A Tragedy

Reading Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy.” A few of my favorite parts:

Juba:

Honour’s a sacred tie, the law of kings,
The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,
That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her,
And imitates her actions where she is not

Sempronius:

Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence

Portius:

I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause,
And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in them.
‘Tis not in mortals power to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius — we’ll deserve it.

Bias against elderly people

I’m sure that young and old have been at odds since human beings emerged on the scene. Right now that’s playing out in terms of “Baby Boomers v. Millennials” complaining. That’ll change someday, and then it will be my generation’s fault, and we’ll criticize young people for their excesses.

These aren’t unique thoughts, but they’re two things I thought of recently as related reasons that younger people tend to be biased against elderly people.

First, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly have seen a lot, and this often makes them less enthusiastic and more skeptical of fresh ideas than younger people would like.

Second, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly are likely to know a lot by virtue of their long lives and their experiences “mining” different parts of the terrain of human experience. This makes the elderly possessors of different sorts of knowledge, sometimes acquired from deep “shafts” within the mine, and which can make younger people uncomfortable.

Maybe I’ll expand on these at some point, but if not at least wanted to jot them down for reflecting on in the future.

Democrats for Life membership

I’ve been following Democrats for Life of America for a while now, after discovering them last year. I’ve written about my perspective on building a culture of life in America, and specifically on the need to create a true spectrum of choice in terms of our thinking and public policies. I joined Democrats for Life as a basic member today because I heard good things about their recent conference in Philadelphia and particularly because I’m impressed with their successes in advancing the Pregnant Women Support Act through the Affordable Care Act:

The Pregnant Women Support Act – the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) is one of our proudest accomplishments. Signed into law as part of the Affordable Care Act, 17 States received PAF grants and are now helping pregnant women. It is not enough to simply oppose abortion; we must provide support and provide options for women facing unplanned or crisis pregnancies.

Senator Casey (D-PA) introduced legislation to expand the PAF. Please contact your Senator and urge him or her to support S. 144, the Pregnancy Assistance Fund Expansion Act.

Background:

DFLA proposed a comprehensive plan that will reduce the number of abortions by 95% in the next 10 years by promoting abstinence, personal responsibility, adoptions and support for women and families who are facing unplanned pregnancy. The 95-10 Initiative seeks to reduce the number of abortions in America through Federal, state and local efforts as well as support and encouragement to volunteers and dedicated people on the front lines helping pregnant women. Much attention has been given to ending abortion or keeping it legal. We believe that we must do more to reduce the abortion rate by helping and supporting pregnant women. …

We support helping pregnant women who wish to carry their children to term but because of lack of resources believe abortion is their only option. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Congressman Lincoln Davis (D-TN) and Pro-life Democrats in Congress who share this same commitment introduced the Pregnant Women Support Act in the U.S Senate and U.S House. The legislation is a comprehensive approach to provide support for pregnant women who want to carry their child to term. Most of the provisions were included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF).

Some of the programs included are:

  • establish a toll-free number to direct women to places that will provide support
  • collect accurate data on why women choose abortion
  • provide Pregnancy Counseling and Childcare on University Campuses
  • provide accurate information to patients receiving a positive result from prenatal testing
  • provide counseling in maternity group homes;
  • increase the adoption tax credit and it permanent
  • eliminate pregnancy as a pre-existing condition with respect to health care;
  • provide grants for ultrasound equipment;
  • support informed consent for Abortion Services;
  • increase awareness about violence against pregnant women;
  • require the SCHIP to cover pregnant women and unborn children;
  • provide free home visits by registered nurses for new mothers.

I would support Planned Parenthood if they no longer performed abortions, and instead focused on delivering on their pro-choice philosophy in a life-affirming way that equally supports both mother and child. In the meantime, measures like the ones Democrats for Life advocate are necessary steps toward public policy that recognizes that abortion should be “rare” as President Clinton envisioned. Today it’s not rare, and I have to think a huge part of the reason is because culturally we’re not empowering mothers and fathers to feel that they have any practical alternative other than abortion.