Continuity, again

Nathan Gill writing for The Witherspoon Institute contributes great perspective on a debate that’s been playing out for years within a small subsection of conservative and Catholic circles. “There are deep flaws,” writes Gill, “in the narrative of decline that blames the Founders’ natural-law liberalism for today’s cultural and political decay.” The debate centers on whether a “radical traditionalism” is necessary given this perceived decay. It is sort of a “structural decadence” critique of America in parallel to discussions of structural inequality or racism.

I’ve written about the idea of continuity before. The bits of the debate I’ve heard are fascinating, but in general the concept of a radical break from the present seems anything but conservative. In the words of a friend, at some point you might as well be talking about terraforming Mars. In other words, maybe interesting, but far out. Not only should we deal in the reality of out time, but we should learn to think differently:

Frederick Douglass’s life illustrates a conservative alternative to radical traditionalism—an alternative that allows us to be honest about America’s failures, without confusing every failure of practice for a failure of principle.

Although born a slave and raised in the midst of far greater persecution than any of us is likely ever to know, Douglass became a champion of the Constitution in his later years. It was for this reason that he broke with many of his abolitionist friends, including William Lloyd Garrison. In their zeal to remain unstained by slavery, these radical abolitionists had accepted the Dred Scott narrative of the Founding: the Constitution was written by slaveholders and was intended for the government of whites only. Garrison and his friends concluded from this that the only way to purge the nation of slavery was to abandon the Constitution (which Garrison called a “devil’s pact”) and its principles.

Despite the fact that he himself had suffered as a slave under the Constitution and had criticized the American Experiment for its double standard, Douglass saw through this flagrant mischaracterization of the Founding. He contendedthat Garrison’s strategy was self-defeating for two reasons. First, it distracted abolitionists from the true causes of slavery:

“Those … who [deal] blows upon the Union in the belief that they are killing slavery, are … woefully mistaken. They are fighting a dead form instead of a living … reality. It is … not because of the peculiar character of our Constitution that we have slavery, but the wicked pride, love of power, and selfish perverseness of the American people.”


Laurie Schaecher writes about the importance of alignment:

Agree to disagree – a commonly overlooked phrase, with major repercussions. It sounds harmless, and can even end disagreements on a friendly note. But don’t be fooled by the seeming good nature of the expression. “Agree to disagree” is code for “I’ll do my thing and you do yours” and erodes organizational alignment. It is a dangerous path that results in your team being on opposing sides of the issue instead of aligned on the greater purpose. “Agree to disagree” can’t, and shouldn’t, be used to end important conversations.

What is the right way? Laurie says it’s to “replace ‘agree to disagree’ with ‘disagree and commit'” to a common vision. In other words, passionate dialogue doesn’t mean anything if there’s not alignment on the path forward for an organization, or its programming, or whatever.

But replacing “agree to disagree” with “disagree and commit” is difficult, and it’s going to require not just dialogue, but assertive leadership. And leadership involves the right amount of ego in aligning people.

I’m all for healthy collaboration and thoughtful dialogue, but I think the role of ego in aligning on a common vision deserves more acknowledgment.

Internet that’s constrained

I’ve been following Benedict Evans for a while, and particularly a thought he’s been developing for a few months—that it no longer makes sense to talk about “the internet” as opposed to the (more constrained) “mobile internet”, but rather “the internet” and the (more constrained) “desktop internet:”

Mobile is not a subset of the internet anymore, that you use only if you’re waiting for a coffee or don’t have a PC in front of you – it’s becoming the main way that people use the internet. It’s not mobile that’s limited to a certain set of locations and use cases – it’s the PC, that can only do the web (and yes, legacy desktop apps, if you care, and consumers don’t) and only be used sitting down. It’s time to invert that mental model – there is not the ‘mobile internet’ and the internet. Rather, if anything, it’s the internet and the ‘desktop internet’. …

Moreover, this is not just about people in rich countries. Of 5bn adults on earth today, close to 4bn and growing have a mobile phone today, almost all of whom will convert to smartphones over the next few years. The entry price for Android has already fallen to under $40. There’ll be lots of grey areas in this – what people pay for connectivity, and to charge their phone – but mobile is a universal product in a way that the PC never was. Indeed, the lower your income, the more valuable communications becomes. …

This is the first time that tech has had a universal product – it sold mainframes to big companies and PCs to small companies and middle-class families, but smartphones get used by pretty much everyone on earth – even refugees crossing the Afghan desert.

Christian charity

“Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” …

“Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love.”

This comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical God Is Love. “While professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement” of charitable activity, “it is not of itself sufficient.”

We always need “more than technically proper care.”

Back to school

Seth Godin writes:

Parents, taxpayers, citizens, let’s not waste another year. What happens if every teacher and school board member starts discussing what school is for? …

One last thing to think about: What would happen to our society if we spent twice as much time and money on education as we do now? And not just on the wealthy, but on everyone, especially on everyone. …

The real win is creating a generation that actually delights in learning.

There are two significant obstacles to realizing the sort of culture Godin’s calling for:

  1. The more we attempt to nationalize our educational system at the federal level, the less likely it is that a diverse, dynamic set of competing models can come into existence.
  2. So long as we’re focused on creating models for education, rather than decentralizing education, there will be powerful people and groups who work to suck value from that system.

If Darwin is right we don’t need the “strongest” or most “intelligent” national education policy, we need a spectrum of approaches that make American education the “most responsive to change.”

This means that any meaningful conversation on reforming education policy starts with rejecting national solutions, and recognizing that 239 years into the American experiment, public education no longer needs to mean government-managed education.


What explains the glory that was Greece? Actually, sound economic policy:”

By the later fourth century B.C., when Aristotle was writing his masterpiece on Politics, there were about 1,100 Greek city-states, or poleis. They stretched from outposts in Spain and France through southern Italy and Sicily to the shores of the Black Sea and western Anatolia and south to eastern and southern outposts in Syria and North Africa. The total population of Hellas — that is, the residents of small states that were substantially Greek in language and culture — was in excess of 8 million; about a third of them lived in “urban” areas (towns of more than 5,000 people). They inhabited relatively large and well-built houses, lived relatively long lives and produced and consumed very substantial quantities of high quality goods.

Among the central questions raised by ancient Greek history is how and why such an extensive small-state system persisted in such a flourishing condition for such a long time. In an inversion of the experience of Europe from 1500 to 1900 or China from circa 700 to 200 B.C.E., where systems of small state fell to the centralizing logics of state-building and empire, there were many more independent states in the Greek ecology by at the height of the classical efflorescence than there had been several hundred years previously. Moreover, many of them were organized as democracies.

Why, during the era of efflorescence, did the many states of Hellas not consolidate into a unitary empire, on the model of Persia, Carthage or Rome? Or, failing that, into several large competitor states on the model of ancient Phoenicia, Warring States China or Europe circa 1500 to 1900? Ancient Greek history points to an alternative to the dominant narrative of political and economic development…

Contemporary mythology

The full significance – canonically, ecumenically and theologically – of Francis’s bold move will be picked over for a long time. But its real point is to bring healing. Many suffer hugely as result of abortion, but it is a silent suffering, that in contemporary society can barely ever be acknowledged. Those who have taken the lives of the unborn long to unburden themselves, to admit to their sorrow, confusion and regret, and to find healing. “This is what the Church – God’s heart amid humanity – exists for: a battlefield hospital, ready to tend the wounds inflicted by contemporary mytholog about individual sovereignty.   Yet many are persuaded – by the strident voices asserting women’s “right” to abort – that the Catholic Church is a place of judgement and condemnation. If just some among these women in pain hear a different message – which given yesterday’s massive coverage is very likely – and if among those some take up this offer of liberation from guilt and a path back to God – which is also very likely – then Pope Francis’s grand gesture will have succeeded spectacularly.

Reaction to Pope Francis’s announcement, which hopefully brings some peace to both men and women.

Donor relations

In light of yesterday’s complaints about the tediousness of old school practices, I want to shift gears slightly with a more tangible recommendation for university donor relations.

I’ve never been a major donor to Penn State or any other organization, but I’ve conceived and managed many campaigns for significant gifts and endowed funds. Speaking of Penn State in particular, one of the things that surprises me is that there seems to be no processes for them to stay in touch with volunteers like me who clearly have enthusiasm and the ability to follow through on significant development efforts.

I get that it’s impossible for a $4+ billion organization like Penn State to maintain relationships with any and every volunteer. Yet I’d imagine that assigning one development staffer to maintain a database of the few thousand enthusiastic volunteers like me wouldn’t be impossible. A simple quarterly or even twice annual note keeping us in the loop with case studies in successful volunteer efforts, or a behind the scenes look at fundraising techniques (or whatever) could keep us engaged beyond the specific development projects we started with.

What I’m saying is this: it’s surprising to me that Penn State isn’t maintaining relationships with those who go a step beyond simply donating by organizing other volunteers. There’s momentum among that crowd that could be encouraged and grown.



Fred Wilson wrote recently about his experiences using DocuSign to sign the many different documents that come across his desk. I’ve used DocuSign, and I’m a big fan of it for all the reasons Fred Wilson cites. I thought of this in light of some paperwork I had to sign recently.

I’ve been working with some Penn State alumni on a small five year development campaign, which will establish an annual $7,250 scholarship for undergraduate members of The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station. We started this five-year period last June, and at that time Penn State Development staff had to physically mail me copies of the agreement for signing, which then had to be sent back to be mailed to three other University officials for their signatures. It took about a month to obtain all of those signatures, which is just tedious.

I recently had to repeat this process, thanks to the fortunate circumstance of a major donor who will be contributing to the scholarship endowment. We’ve chosen to recognize him by naming the fund in honor of him and his wife.

But this means another month of revised paperwork being mailed across the Commonwealth for four signatures, eventually being approved by the Board of Trustees, and eventually (probably in December) being updated with the new name on Penn State’s giving site.

Aside from the hassle of the signatures, this is an example of a case where our entire development process is slowed, because we’d really prefer not to announce the named donor and launch our next phase until donors can see this scholarship fund on Penn State’s site.

A small example of the state of things, with the hope that the process will get speedier through an embrace of technology.

Anticipating Pope Francis

It’s September, which means we’re less than a month away from the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia. It’s the first time since Pope John Paul the Great’s visit in the late 1970s that a Holy Father will be celebrating mass in Philadelphia. It’s a big deal, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.

Our Archbishop Chaput spoke recently to the national Religion Newswriters Association in light of the coming World Meeting of Families. Specifically he speaks to the power of narrative. I’m sharing the condensed version from First Things, because it’s great:

What do we hope Pope Francis will take away from his September visit to Philadelphia? I hope he realizes that American Catholics in general, and Philadelphia Catholics in a very special way, love and support him wholeheartedly. I hope he sees that there’s tremendous good in our country, and a lot of it began here in Philadelphia, where our nation was born.

I hope he sees how deeply shaped we are —as a city and as a people —by the immigrant experience. I hope he sees that the Church here is alive and eager for a new spirit of life. I also hope he sees the gravity of the challenges we face in advancing a Christian approach to family life, marriage, human sexuality and religious freedom. And I hope he leaves with a sense of how the American Church really conducts her mission.

What do I mean by that last sentence? Critics sometimes claim that America’s bishops talk too much about issues like abortion and religious freedom while they overlook the poor. And of course we do talk about those issues, and we’ll continue to do so— vigorously, and for as long as it takes —because the right to life and religious liberty are foundational to human dignity. Without the right to life, all other human rights are compromised.

But consider this: In Philadelphia we spend less than $200,000 a year on the archdiocesan office that handles sanctity of life, family and laity issues. It has one full time employee. Most of our specifically “prolife” work is done by volunteers, and at the parish level. 

In comparison, we spend more than 4.2 million privately donated archdiocesan dollars each year— every year— on social services for the poor, the homeless, the disabled, troubled youths, battered women, immigration counseling, food pantries and nutritional programs. And we manage another $100 million in public funding for the same or similar efforts. We have 1,600 full time employees spread across these Catholic social ministries doing the works of mercy—and fewer than 200 of them are involved in parenting, family and pregnancy support services. 

What’s the lesson? If there’s anything “lopsided” about the real witness of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, it’s weighted heavily in favor of the poor. It always has been. And that’s the reality in nearly every diocese in the United States. But it’s not a fact that fits comfortably into a storyline of “compassionate Pope Francis vs. conservative American bishops.” 

When Francis was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentine political leaders reviled him publicly as “the leader of the opposition.” When he defended Church teaching on issues like sexuality and marriage, they accused him of conducting “an inquisition.” He wrote about his frustration with that ugly government and media narrative in his 2010 book, On Heaven and Earth. It’s worth taking to heart.

So I hope that as he flies home on September 27, the Holy Father will understand that American Catholics share every ounce of his passion for Christian service and human dignity—beginning with the unborn child, but not ending there; including the poor and the immigrant, but reaching from conception to natural death … and confirming that the “joy of the Gospel” comes from a Gospel of Life.