July 2016

  • Secrets v. mysteries

    Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism:

    In 1979, the security expert Susan Landau drew a distinction between secrets and mysteries. Surveying the way that the Iranian Revolution had taken the United States completely by surprise, she noted that the intelligence community was focused on secrets–trying to understand the things the shah’s government was hiding–rather than on mysteries–what was happening in various public but not widely visible groups loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

    In journalistic terms, the most famous news story in living memory–Watergate–was based on the acquisition of secrets. Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, delivered insider information to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, essential to the reporting he did with Carl Bernstein on the Nixon White House. Watergate’s hold on the self-conception of the traditional U.S. press remains significant, even as many of the stories of the last decade have hinged on mysteries instead of secrets. The faked business dealings of Enron and Madoff, and Barclay’s manipulation of the LIBOR rates, were all detected by outsiders. (Indeed, one of the reasons that Bethany McLean, who broke the Enron story in Fortune magazine, has not been widely lionized is that offering her accolades for correctly interpreting and following up on publicly available data would mean admitting how few members of the business press operate that way.)

    The Big Short tells the story of Michael Berry, who came to understand that the housing market was a bubble that would burst. Did Berry discover a secret—something that was being hidden? Or did he answer a mystery—”correctly interpreting and following up on publicly available data”? I think it was a little bit of both.

  • Aria Bendix at CityLab writes on Boston’s new poetry initiative. It’s ingenious. Poetry is applied to sidewalks around the city with a biodegradable, water-activated spray paint. When it rains, the sidewalks share their poems:

    Thanks to a partnership between Boston’s City Hall and Mass Poetry, a nonprofit that supports the Massachusetts poetry community, the city’s showers are being transformed into a hidden art project.

    The project, appropriately titled “Raining Poetry,” uses biodegradable water-repellent spray to stencil poems on Boston’s concrete streets. On a sunny day, the letters remain invisible. But once water hits them, the words of famous poets suddenly reveal themselves to unsuspecting passersby. …

    It’s also a chance to expose Boston residents to the rich history of their city, which was once home to poets like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and e. e. cummings. Indeed, what better way to honor Boston’s literary greats than to look to their words as cures for a gloomy day?

    This is the sort of thing that can enchant a city or town, adding a spirit of magic to a place that gives rise to a lifetime of affection—helping the resident know his home better, with the words of the long-forgotten appearing once more, just as much as it forms a bond for the visitor, who will leave with a fresh idea in her mind of the place she expected to visit for only a weekend, but that now will come back to her in memory again and again even after a wet and perhaps dismal visit.

  • Trump’s finger trap

    David Frum synthesizes perspectives from Trump country, with this cherry on top:

    “You tell us we’re a minority now? OK. We’re going to start acting like a minority. We’re going to vote like a bloc, and we’re going to vote for our bloc’s champion. So long as he keeps faith with us against you, we’ll keep faith with him against you. Donald’s a scam artist, you tell me. You’re from The Atlantic? Read that great book by one of your former colleagues, Jack Beatty, about Boston’s Mayor Curley, The Rascal King. Curley was a scam artist. The Boston Irish loved him for it—even when he scammed them, too—because Curley pissed off the people the Boston Irish hated and who hated them. (I can still say ‘pissed off,’ right?) It’s going to be just that way with Donald. I mean, Mr. Trump. I mean, President Trump.”

    Trump is like a Chinese finger trap. You poke your little finger in, trying to understand just a bit what’s going on there. Then you’re stuck.

  • Veronica writes on the DNC in Philadelphia this week:

    The Democratic Convention seemed to turn into a big love-fest last night. I know I’m not the only one who felt like I was being lectured to by a revivalist preacher during Cory Booker’s speech, because it’s all over social media—along with his big-hearted “I love you” message to Donald Trump. As glad as I am to see love and forgiveness exchanged between men who disagree with each other, I have to admit it’s a little weird in context. …

    There was a lot of talk about love last night, and it was not limited to Booker’s sermon. It just makes me wonder what happens when the federal government gets into the business of charity and tells us how we’re supposed to love one another. Isn’t that kind of moralism strangely reminiscent of old theocracies?

    Last night Booker disparaged mere tolerance, and exhorted us to love one another: “Tolerance is the wrong way. Tolerance says I’m just going to stomach your right to be different, that if you disappear from the face of the Earth, I’m no better or worse off.”

    Instead of tolerance he stressed “interdependence” and “unity.” But I wonder what exactly that means in practice, and how it will play out in a free society that was founded to protect every person’s right to form their own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and to have those opinions tolerated by others. If we throw this kind of tolerance for differences out the window, who gets to decide what we all think and believe and what it means to love? The federal government?

    “Isn’t that kind of moralism strangely reminiscent of old theocracies?”

  • The Democratic National Convention is happening in Philadelphia this week, specifically South Philadelphia. In Center City, scattered events and protests have been happening from time to time.

    I ran down to the Well Fargo Center and stadiums last night and as far down as Oregon Avenue tonight. It was a nice, traffic-free way to get a feel for what’s happening, what the mood is, what’s getting people excited, etc. On the way back, I watched/listened to President Clinton’s remarks on Twitter.

    It’s a good week for the city.

  • Greg Kendra speaks with Kristen Day, Executive Director of Democrats for Life of America in this short interview, who has maybe “the loneliest job in the world.” 

    Democrats for Life declares: “We believe in the fundamental worth, dignity, and equality of all people. We believe that the protection of human life is the foundation of human rights, authentic freedom, and good government.” Day explains:

    Democrats For Life is a non-profit organization representing the views of 21 million pro-life Democrats. We are a national coalition seeking to promote the pro-life position within the Democratic Party and to support pro-life Democrats seeking political office. We promote a consistent ethic of life and consequently oppose abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. We also advocate for policies that promote the protection of life, and support families, such as the Pregnant Women Support Act (Pregnancy Assistant Fund) and others.

    Regarding abortion, we believe that the answer to a crisis pregnancy is to eliminate the crisis—not the child.

    We don’t believe women should have to “choose” between motherhood and a decent, safe life. We believe it is going to take emphasis on the support side, which Democrats are good on, to truly give women real choice. A livable wage, affordable children care, paid leave, and flexible hours all help families who are faced with an unplanned or planned pregnancy.

    She talks about her members committing themselves “to an enduring change of heart in our country” that reflects on the Democratic Party’s inclusion of “opposition to the death penalty and support for paid maternity leave” but their simultaneous “commitment to the abortion industry to a new level.” Yet: “…the party platform is out of step with views of Americans, and we have data which supports this fact.”

    The near total capture of the Democratic Party is a recent development. Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey was a bold, pro-life leader, for instance. His son, whatever his personal beliefs, is emblematic of the present generation which has knelt before Planned Parenthood’s singular vision for what constitutes the public good. Yet in their hearts, I suspect most mainstream Democrats from Joe Biden to Tim Kaine to John Kerry to Jimmy Carter are looking for the political space to defy the taboo of the party. Kerry’s Pepperdine University remarks, which Day highlights in her interview, are an example of what so many will say when the spotlight and the threat of groupthink enforcers has diminished:

    “How will we protect the weakest in our midst—innocent unborn children? How will our nation resist what Pope John Paul II calls a ‘culture of death’? How can we keep our nation from turning to violence to solve some of its most difficult problems—abortion to deal with difficult pregnancies; the death penalty to combat crime; euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of age, illness, and disability; and war to address international disputes?”

    A more pluralistic Democratic Party would be good for the country.

  • Jake Blumgart tells some of the stories of Philadelphia’s fringe neighborhoods as the Democrats converge on South Philadelphia for their convention. The neighborhoods Blumgart focuses on most have been strongholds of stability and integration where median incomes are nonetheless falling and divestment is a far larger problem than gentrification.

    Paul Levy’s Center City District is highlighted for its tremendous success in revitalizing Philadelphia’s civic core. Yet at the same time, the failure to address good schooling for families citywide, and the crime and divestment of places like Lower North Philadelphia, are highlighted as examples of the structural problem of poverty for this city.

    If we’re talking about Philadelphia as a whole (or any city, really) I don’t really care about gentrification, bececause gentrification is a “problem of success.” I think conversations about gentrification are often really conversations about the latest generation of integrating new and long-term neighbors.

    It’s the structural poverty, and the total divestment by Philadelphians from places like Lower North Philadelphia—a place that had nearly 300,000 residents in 1950, but only 95,000 in 2010.

    If the Center City District’s success is to be replicated elsewhere, maybe the Center City District and its supporters could incubate an energetic North Philadelphia District with a vision for growth and magnetism.

    Everything starts with vision, and vision starts with seeing more of Philadelphia than Center City.

  • The following is excerpted from Professor Robert George’s 2003 commencement address at Hillsdale. Hillsdale is a classical liberal arts college in Michigan which George noted experienced its “founding during the struggle over slavery in the mid-nineteenth century” and has since then sought independence through self-reliance, benefactors’ generosity, and a refusal to accept federal funding that could influence its mission. George’s address hits on similar themes in the personal realm:

    True freedom consists in the liberation of the human person from the shackles of ignorance, oppression, and vice. Thus it was that one hundred and fifty years ago Edmund B. Fairfield, President of Hillsdale, speaking at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the new college building, declared that education, by lifting a man out of ignorance, “disqualifies him from being a slave.” What overcomes ignorance, is knowledge; and the object of knowledge is truth—empirical, moral, spiritual. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” True freedom, the freedom that liberates, is grounded in truth and ordered to truth and, therefore, to virtue. A free person is enslaved neither to the sheer will of another nor to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly, fulfilling his obligations to family, community, nation, and God. By contrast, a person given over to his appetites and passions, a person who scoffs at truth and chooses to live, whether openly or secretly, in defiance of the moral law, is not free. He is simply a different kind of slave.

    The counterfeit of freedom consists in the idea of personal and communal liberation from morality, responsibility, and truth. It is what our nation’s founders expressly distinguished from liberty and condemned as “license.” The so-called freedom celebrated today by so-many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment, and the media is simply the license to do whatever one pleases. This false conception of freedom—false because disordered; disordered because detached from moral truth and civic responsibility—shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old. Enslavement to one’s own appetites and passions is no less brutal a form of bondage for being a slavery of the soul. It is no less tragic, indeed, it is in certain respects immeasurably more tragic, for being self-imposed. It is ironic, is it not, that people who celebrate slavery to appetite and passion call this bondage “freedom”?

    Counterfeit freedom is worse than fraudulent. It is the mortal enemy of the real thing. Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational account or defense of its own normative claims. It speaks the language of rights, but in abandoning the ground of moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the rights of others or to demand of others respect for one’s own rights.

    In its essence, this is a Hillsdale-inspired restatement of Franklin’s belief that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

    If liberty is understood as “the power to act,” the natural question is: “In service of what?”

    “Virtue” maybe sounds prudish. It’s still a less exhausting way of life than “Ego.”

  • I was so thrilled to learn yesterday that Penn State is continuing its tradition of naming some of its residence halls after people of historical and communal merit, rather than simply financial merit:

    At today’s (July 22) meeting of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, held on the Wilkes-Barre campus, trustees approved names for two new residence halls currently under construction on the University Park campus. The residences halls, located in the North Halls and East Halls areas, are scheduled to be completed in fall 2017.

    The new 310-bed residence hall in North Halls has been named Robinson Hall, in honor of Sarah E. Robinson. Robinson was hired in 1871 by the then-Agricultural College of Pennsylvania to be its first music instructor. The student body numbered 75, and Robinson’s appointment brought the faculty to a total of 10.

    One of the process steps in determining building names is discussion with students about the possibilities, according to Gail Hurley, Penn State’s associate vice president for Auxiliary and Business Services.

    “Students favored Ms. Robinson because a significant cohort of Arts and Architecture students live in North Halls and many are associated with the School of Music,” said Hurley. “In addition, Robinson Hall will be the first in North to be named after a prominent woman.”

    East Hall’s new 336-bed residence hall is named in honor of Pennsylvania Gov. George Howard Earle II, who served from 1935 to 1939. All of East’s buildings are named for governors of the Commonwealth.

    Earle Hall is part of a larger East Halls expansion and renovation project that began in July 2015. The largest residential complex on the University Park campus, East has a total of 14 residential halls that currently house 3,825 students, primarily first-year students.

    Gov. Earle was a staunch supporter of Penn State and instrumental in funding 10 building projects on campus that increased the physical plant by 50 percent at the time. He also was an advocate for changing the name of the then-Pennsylvania State College to The Pennsylvania State University.

    Especially at Penn State, a state-affiliated place of learning founded for the benefit of the Commonwealth’s sons and daughters, place-names should always have a greater story to tell than who happened to have the most money at particular points in history.

  • Fake culture wars

    Travis LaCouter wrote a while ago on culture war, and I excerpted some of what I aligned with the most last year. Peter Thiel delivered a short, compelling speech in Cleveland this week at Donald Trump’s nominating convention. Thiel basically introduced the thesis of his book, which is that America has forgotten where to set its sights, and in the course of this he dropped this line: “fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline…” Excerpting the portion of his speech that packed the greatest punch for me:

    My Dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University, just down the road from where we are now. Because in 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.

    It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the Internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon—and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio.

    The future felt limitless.

    But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all.

    That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan Project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

    Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue, Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.

    When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom.

    This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

    Of course, every American has a unique identity.

    I am proud to be gay.

    I am proud to be a Republican.

    But most of all I am proud to be an American.

    I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform. But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.