February 2016

  • Antipolitics

    David Brooks writes about “antipolitics:”

    Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. … You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

    The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. …

    But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. …

    As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.” …

    Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. … They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

    Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

    The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

    I struggle with whether there’s really any coherent point behind the “anti politics” concept. Like so many of Brooks’s columns, this reads as a series of interesting thoughts strung together with quotes.

    If there’s anything that Trump and his supporters are a reaction to, I think it’s likely that it’s the perceived anti politics of an Obama administration that’s itself too often appeared unwillingness to compromise. The Tea Party itself was a reaction to the perceived intransigence of an administration that believed its Congressional majorities meant that minority perspectives would be neither listened to nor accommodated.

    If there’s any such thing as “anti politics,” it would be closer to the reality that both parties have implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) endorsed things like warrantless wiretapping and unchecked drone warfare without anything resembling the sort of robust domestic debates that Brooks believes should characterize our political process.

  • Why ‘we are’

    Kevin Horne, president of Penn State’s Graduate & Professional Student Association (GPSA) delivered short, beautiful remarks at the Penn State Board of Trustees meeting this past week.

    I’ve been friends with Kevin for a number of years now. Kevin’s remarks to Penn State’s board of trustees capture a lot of the spirit that animates a vision we share for the conservation of special places:

    Hello everyone, my name is Kevin Horne and I’m the president of the Graduate & Professional Student Association. I like to kid Emily and Shawn that we are the oldest of the three student government associations at Penn State, with our constitution chartered back in 1951.

    But I want to use my time to talk a little bit about 1951, and how the concept of shared governance and the inclusion of the student body and its representatives in the university decision making mechanism has evolved over the years.

    I want to start by saying that I think shared governance at Penn State is exceptionally strong right now – at least stronger than it has been in my five years of student government involvement at the undergraduate and graduate level. One need not look further than the latitude we’ve been given by President Barron and Vice President Sims to overhaul the student fee process, or the inclusion of a voting student-selected trustee, or our presence on the various committees of the Board and our invitation to speak today to know that we are in a better place  But the importance – indeed, the essentialness – of student involvement in all aspects of university decision making is not yet embraced by every administrator and every trustee, and I want to pose a challenge to those who haven’t jumped in feet first.

    Let’s go back to the 1950s for a second. Only a few years later, Jesse Arnelle would be elected as the first black student government president to serve at a major university, months before Brown v. Board of Education was decided. A few years later, Dr. Eric Walker became Penn State’s president. Dr.Walker is a man who often referred – and Trustee Arnelle can back me up – to Penn State as having TWO presidents, himself and the student body president. This is a time when the Penn State student governments had offices and held their meetings in Old Main. This is a time when Penn State students ran the library, built the HUB, and contributed to a great deal many things that continue to enrich Penn State student life today.

    Now, higher education has obviously changed considerably from the days of Jesse Arnelle and Eric Walker’s two president concept, but not all of its sentiment need be lost. Consider, when working with future student government leaders in our roles, what a Real University actually means. Memory of our past can improve the present and change the future. When students are treated and referred to as customers, we lose. When trustees, professors, townspeople and administrators view themselves as simply a conveyor belt of knowledge – or worse, businesspeople — and students – the very students who give our great University its lasting and enduring spirit – are viewed as too young to be informed, we lose. When students and their ideas are treated merely as something to manage, we lose. When we all pretend to be merely participants in a marketplace, rather than soulful people living together in a community, sharing in this moment in this place, breathing in the same magic of the Nittany Valley that visionaries like Jesse Arnelle, or Eric Walker, or George and Frances Atherton, or Evan and Rebecca Pugh, or Joe and Sue Paterno breathed, we all lose. These are some of the realities that my six years at Penn State have forced me to face, and they’ve changed my life, the highest calling to which a Real University can aspire.

    I believe that the larger Penn State becomes by raw metrics, by numbers of whatever measure, the more vital it becomes to make it small again. And when we let marketing and public relations rule the day, or treat Penn State like its selling a product from the supermarket shelf, as another former Penn State president once described it, we fail tragically short of living up to what “We Are Penn State” really means.

    And this all goes back to students, and embracing the 97,000 people – people fully capable of informing decisions on how their university is governed – in all that you do as University leaders and decision makers. I challenge this group: Why stop at one student trustee? Why stop at 2 or 3? Why not have students on every committee? Invite us to your meetings, and we will invite you to ours. The student body is eager to participate in all that you do — the participation of which is a hallmark of a healthy university.

    I thank you all for a great term, for your dedication to a true shared governance system at Penn State, and I hope and trust that our successors will be met with the same candor of openness and willingness to work together — as you all have — to continue the indomitable Penn State spirit of developing excellence in all things.

    Thank you.

  • Closing a chapter

    I spent the day in Center City, Philadelphia at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center. Today closes a chapter on my relationship with the Archdiocese, specifically my two years on Archbishop Chaput’s 26-member Archdiocesan Pastoral Council advisory body.

    I haven’t written a great deal about my experiences there, for the very good reason that the conversations are confidential in nature. It has, though, probably because of this characteristic, been a rewarding experience and one that’s helped me think through the life of the local church in entirely new ways despite having been born here and raised within the Catholic system.

    There’s been a tremendous energy, reform and increasingly a clarity of vision at work in this local church, and I’ve been happy to contribute in a small way to conversations on the future.

  • Avoiding hubris

    Daniel Larison writes on the “hawkish cult of ‘leadership’”:

    It is very questionable whether U.S. “leadership” in the abstract is needed in many parts of the world, and it is even more debatable whether it is desirable for us to exercise that “leadership” in certain regions. The U.S. has frittered away trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on ill-conceived attempts to show “leadership” in the Near East, and in the process inflicted enormous harm on the region with virtually nothing to show for the effort. A lot depends on what the senators mean by “leadership,” and their statements earlier in the op-ed confirm the suspicion that they equate “leadership” with meddling in foreign conflicts, interfering in the affairs of other nations, and generally having the U.S. make unnecessary and unwise commitments overseas.

    We’re fortunate to play a central role in international affairs, largely borne out of our role in the defining World Wars of the 20th century and the international infrastructure we created afterwards that places us at the center of things. An enormous amount of good has resulted from this—most notably, a more stable, peaceful, and connected planet with a better shot to resolve disputes through diplomacy than with war.

    Our important role comes with the threat of hubris, too. What do I mean by this? I think we have a tendency to consecrate any international action we take as if it were of a sacred nature. We do this both on the left and the right, in acting like our own often non traditional and rapidly evolving attitudes translate by-right into universal values on everything from covert wars and military adventurism to unaccountable drone wars and foreign aid tied to American social policy preferences, particularly on abortion and marriage. 

    Why do I struggle with these things? Because they look an awful lot like freshly dressed colonialism.

  • The Museum of the American Revolution is in the middle of its construction in Old City, Philadelphia. It replaces the Independence Park Institute, which was a blank, unattractive brick monster. I’m not sorry to see it go.

    Despite having read about the coming Museum of the American Revolution, I hadn’t originally realized that it was going in that space at 3th and Chestnut. It’s not opening until 2017, but the renderings look like a significant improvement. It’s also great to see that despite a $119 million pricetag the Museum won’t be taking on any debt to complete construction. Lingering debt has been a major problem for many city arts/culture institutions as a result of the recession. Two recent overviews worth reading: Revolutionary doings on South Third Street and American Revolution Museum to immerse visitors into the war with new exhibit.

    The photos with the Business Journal piece are great, and I especially love the rendering of the “living” exhibit of Boston’s Liberty Tree. I’ve always loved grand trees and the rootedness and timelessness they embody, and also the idea of the Liberty Tree that the ideals of the American founding would take root in her people:


    One thing I haven’t noticed that has surprised me is a lack of any apparent connection between the Museum and the Sons & Daughters of the American Revolution. I joined the Sons in November 2013, and haven’t heard anything about the Museum from their channels either. It seems like a natural partnership should exist, even if only minor. The Sons are national, but locally have helped create iconic memorials like Washington Square’s Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier.

    I’ll be contacting the Sons to see if I can find out more, but hopefully they come on board to support the Museum at least financially in the years to come.

  • Nick Bayer, CEO of Saxby’s Coffee, shares his dream of revitalizing Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. The growth of University City has traditionally been led by the Penn, joined more recently by Drexel. A true hub is developing to the point where living, working, and recreating in University City without really needing to cross the river into Center City is possible.

    The elephant in the neighborhood is 30th Street Station, and the acres of uncapped rail yards leading to the station that prohibit the continued expansion of this part of the city, and cut off the neighborhoods from the waterfront. Getting pedestrian access from the University City/30th Street Station area to the waterfront is probably a century-long endeavor. Aside from the monumental rail yard capping project, there’s the Schuylkill  Expressway. But if we figure out how to cap I-95 and create a park at Penn’s Landing, maybe we can figure it out in time.

    Starting with a rethink of 30th Street Station is a good place to start. It shouldn’t be simply a transitory space. It should become something close to a 24/7 hub of activity where there’s a reason to be there even if you’re not heading to another city. And where, if you are, there’s access to workspace, good restaurants, and more intentional spaces.

  • Mayfair


    I visited Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the border of Philadelphia on Sunday with family. We were there to select the memorial grave marker for my grandparents, who were both buried there in October. After we were finished with those decisions, we drove the half hour or so across town to the Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia.

    It was my first time at the Mayfair Diner, and first time ever, I think, actually being in Mayfair in a meaningful way. We’ve driven through the neighborhood a few dozen times in my life, but we had always been on our way to someplace else.

    After finishing lunch at the diner, we decided to visit St. Bernard’s parish nearby, and then 7166 Cottage Street, a great home across Cottman Avenue that I’ve never been in, but where my great grandmother raised my grandmother, and where my aunts, uncles, and mother made many childhood memories.

    Like so much of the city, it’s a dense and walkable neighborhood, and I convinced my family to walk it with me rather than do yet another drive-by tour where we’d be separated into cars and sealed away from a genuine experience of the place.

    Like I did this summer, visiting these places was like a little pilgrimage for me of a place “both foreign and familiar,” as a friend of mine as written about special places.

    I never experienced Mayfair in the way my family did, but I was glad to be able to connect a bit with it, and to hear some of the memories of the place that still animate the lives of those I love.

  • I wrote this Town & Gown contribution on Evan and Rebecca Pugh, marking Penn State’s Founders Day celebration this month. It’s a small tribute to the first couple that created a Pennsylvania institution that will likely last until the Commonwealth comes apart:

    Evan Pugh was Penn State’s first president.

    It’s great if you happen to know of Evan Pugh. In fact, it’s likely that knowing about him already puts you in the minority among students and alumni. But just knowing this bit of raw information isn’t worth much in and of itself. It’s available to anyone curious enough to wonder and with access to Wikipedia. Why care? …

    Evan Pugh’s vision and devotion to the early Penn State was remarkable in its own time, but perhaps is even more remarkable in our own. Perhaps best exemplified by the carousel of football coaches since 2011, we seem to be exiting an era when one arrived in the Nittany Valley to make Penn State their life, not simply their job. Pugh, a man whose ability and professional qualifications meant he could choose his own career path, gave himself fully over to the fledgling cause of Penn State, internalizing the dream of higher education for the commoner in the “splendid isolation” of this place. He writes to Professor Wilson, Penn State’s Vice President, on September 18, 1863:

    “I am resolved to stay with our College, while God gives me strength to perform my duties there, whatever may be the pecuniary inducements or prospects of honor elsewhere. It is my duty and my destiny to do so, and I shall seek honors in the path of duty and of destiny…”

  • Encryption

    The FBI is trying to force Apple to create a weaker version of iOS software for iPhone that would weaken encryption and the device’s fundamental security. Tim Cook has issued this public letter:

    The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.

    Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.

    All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data. …

    The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge. …

    While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.

    I thank God that Apple is willing to be the voice for encryption. It’s necessary to guarantee the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection of the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” The point that Cook is making is that, like any new weapon, once Apple is forced to create the software that the FBI wants, it exists and threatens the security of every device.

    Snowden revelations has shown that the British GCHQ routinely spied on their citizens, including remotely activating citizen’s cameras and microphones to monitor them in their home. That’s the sort of future Tim Cook is warning against.

    I excerpted Justice Scalia’s words the other day: “Nobody—remember this… ever came forward with a proposal that read, ‘Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.’”

  • Visiting Happy Valley

    I’m on the way back to Philadelphia after spending 36 hours in State College for the first time in many months. It’s THON weekend at Penn State, which I visited with a few friends in its early hours:

    Fantastic energy, and I think one of the best traditions in any college community in the country. A few of us met up with Paul Clifford for breakfast at the Corner Room yesterday. Paul took over as new head of the Penn State Alumni Association last month, and we were able to introduce him afterward to Old Willow, Penn State’s first student tradition.

    We also took a tour of the Hintz Family Alumni Center with Tibbs Moyer, a 1949 graduate. She volunteers at the Penn State Alumni Association, and it was fantastic hearing about her time at Penn State in the 1940s, and how she met her husband when he was at Bucknell. (They both later studied at Penn.) She graduated when my grandfather was in his junior year, and she didn’t know him. It’s a gift to be able to connect with people like Paul and Tibbs and so many of the good people that live in Happy Valley. It’s always great to visit, and almost always feels like the good sort of reset, helping me reconnect with people in a direct way.

    I lose sight of that sometimes when I get too into a routine.