The next America

Angelo Codevilla’s “After the Republic” paints a portrait of an America in a moment of great risk. This is a “sustained moment,” however—sort of like a snowflake that gradually falls from the sky, but ultimately settles in precisely such a way that it finally starts an avalanche:

No one running for the GOP nomination discussed the greatest violation of popular government’s norms—never mind the Constitution—to have occurred in two hundred years, namely, the practice, agreed upon by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, of rolling all of the government’s expenditures into a single bill. This eliminates elected officials’ responsibility for any of the government’s actions, and reduces them either to approving all that the government does without reservation, or the allegedly revolutionary, disloyal act of “shutting down the government.”

Rather than talk about how to restrain or shrink government, Republican candidates talked about how to do more with government. The Wall Street Journalcalled that “having a positive agenda.” Hence, Republicans by and large joined the Democrats in relegating the U.S. Constitution to history’s dustbin.

Because Republicans largely agree with Democrats that they need not take seriously the founders’ Constitution, today’s American regime is now what Max Weber had called the Tsarist regime on the eve of the Revolution: “fake constitutionalism.” Because such fakery is self-discrediting and removes anyone’s obligation to restrain his passions, it is a harbinger of revolution and of imperial power.

The ruling class having chosen raw power over law and persuasion, the American people reasonably concluded that raw power is the only way to counter it, and looked for candidates who would do that.

When I attended the Napa Institute this summer I made a mental note of its talk about preparing its attendees for “the next America.” The next America is a secular America, but it turns out that it might also be a radically political America in a way that we haven’t experienced so far. “Political” in the sense of drenching every part of society in the putrid waters that Washington itself was built upon. “Political” in the sense of making everyone’s private actions a cause for public spectacle. “Political” in the sense of worse.

Never before has such a large percentage of Americans expressed alienation from their leaders, resentment, even fear. Some two-thirds of Americans believe that elected and appointed officials—plus the courts, the justice system, business leaders, educators—are leading the country in the wrong direction: that they are corrupt, do more harm than good, make us poorer, get us into wars and lose them. Because this majority sees no one in the political mainstream who shares their concerns, because it lacks confidence that the system can be fixed, it is eager to empower whoever might flush the system and its denizens with something like an ungentle enema.

Yet the persons who express such revolutionary sentiments are not a majority ready to support a coherent imperial program to reverse the course of America’s past half-century. Temperamentally conservative, these constituencies had been most attached to the Constitution and been counted as the bedrock of stability. They are not yet wholly convinced that there is little left to conserve.

I’m excepting these sections mainly in order to put them here as a sort of bookmark that I’ll return to in the future. To what extent will any of them be right? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to find out.

We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.

LaSalle reduces tuition

I learned yesterday that LaSalle University is reducing tuition 29% next year, bringing annual tuition down to ~$29,000 from ~$40,000:

“The cost of higher education continues to spiral year after year, with no end in sight,” said La Salle President Colleen Hanycz. “We cannot continue to assume that this issue will fix itself someday, somehow—the tuition model for higher education is broken. La Salle is working to reshape that model so college becomes an affordable reality for students and their families.”

Hanycz continued, “We are taking decisive steps to respond to what we hear from students and parents: They want a La Salle education but are concerned about how to pay for it. By reducing our tuition by 29 percent, we are providing real savings to students, and also ensuring that a transformational La Salle education will be accessible by students from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, supporting our Lasallian values of inclusion.”

What has the money that LaSalle is now cutting been financing?

I have family members who graduated from LaSalle when it was a commuter school. They got their degree at a good value. I doubt that even next year’s reduced rates justify whatever the experience that LaSalle promises.

LaSalle students of the past few years have almost certainly been funding the expansion of the university’s residential campus. But how is LaSalle meaningfully (rather than marginally) distinct from St. Joe’s, Cabrini, Holy Family, Neumann, etc.?

These are all good Catholic colleges and universities across Greater Philadelphia that stem from different parts of Catholic tradition. If one isn’t meaningfully distinct from another, why pretend otherwise? Why transition from a commuter to residential model for no particular reason other than perpetuating the institution’s life? Consolidate or close.

Are you serving students in a distinctive way? Are you providing them a first class education at a level of working class affordability? If they’re doing the first but not the second, they’re just like a dozen other great Pennsylvania schools that probably don’t need to exist.

The Penn States of the world can serve the same students at scale and at a lower cost.

All things are vanity

Beautiful and true, from Saturday’s reading in Ecclesiastes:

Rejoice, O young man, while you are young
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
though the dawn of youth is fleeting.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come
And the years approach of which you will say,
I have no pleasure in them;
Before the sun is darkened,
and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
And the grinders are idle because they are few,
and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut,
and the sound of the mill is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird,
but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights,
and perils in the street;
When the almond tree blooms,
and the locust grows sluggish
and the caper berry is without effect,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!

Back from Africa

From someone who spent five years abroad and 17 months in Africa:

these are the sentiments you are supposed to experience when you come back from africa. reverse culture shock: economic shock. the change from poverty to wealth, i was told, is harder than the other way around, than adjusting to the difficulties and trials of life in africa. you return only to feel the people you left behind are somehow more real, more deserving of the good things we have than we are, we who so thoughtlessly have them each day and night.

that’s what you feel when you come back from africa. reverse culture shock. do i? no. …

in part it’s been like winters in south dakota, winters where no one wants to be outdoors, out of heating, but at times you must. and at those times no matter how much you bundle up, you are going to get cold. and you are going to curse the cold and wish you were back inside and generally be fairly uncomfortable for a time. and then, at some point, you’ll have been cold for so long that it becomes the normal state of being, and while it’s still deplorable, it’s not really on the front burner of your mind, and you go on doing the rest of whatever it is you need to do outside, still remembering somewhere how nice it will be to go indoors.

and then you do, and that’s what coming back from africa has been like for me. not a culture shock–this is where i grew up, after all, and being from somewhere is a little like riding a bicycle, though if you spend long enough away it’s bound to be a little unfamiliar. you don’t forget your home. what you do forget–or what you maybe never noticed–is how nice it is to be home, like you notice it coming indoors after a half hour or more outside in the snow and wind: how nice it is to take off your coat, your shoes, shiver a little bit as the cold air shakes out of your hair and you get warm again, comfortable.

coming back to america has been a little like that for me.

High infrastructure societies

Jon Evans writes:

Until recently, I would have used “developed world” and “developing world” rather than “high-infrastructure” and “low-infrastructure.” However, now that the vast majority of the world’s poorest people do not live in poor countries, I’m not sure the first two phrases are meaningful any more.

There’s more parity than there has been in the past, to the point where the neediest are as much “here at home” as they are “far away.” Better to say we are members of “high-infrastructure” economies rather than being “developed,” in the sense that that word implies that the work is done.

Doug Saunders writes in The Globe and Mail:

Now we face what Andy Sumner, who’s probably the most talked-about scholar of poverty, calls the “poverty paradox.” The problem, he says, is that “most of the world’s extreme poor do not live in the world’s poorest countries.” … Today, nearly 80 per cent of the world’s poor live in “middle-income countries” – states, most formerly poor, that now have buoyant economies, large middle classes and surging economic growth propelled by exports to the West. Significantly, these countries aren’t dependent on foreign aid; rather, they’re large-scale givers of aid. They no longer need our “development”; they’re developing themselves.

Rising tides of market economics, internet-enabled economies, and more political and social freedom have lifted more ships. Those in “high infrastructure” countries is increasingly not about solving far-away problems. It’s about maintaining what we have built, or figuring out what needs further building.

Catholic credit unions

I came across this story about St. Ann parish’s credit union in the summer and have been meaning to share it for a while. A Catholic parish running its own credit union is something new to me, although I’ve since spoken to some priests who say it was more common in the 20th century in some places.  St. Ann’s is “run by a small team of volunteers and two part-time employees” for the purpose of helping their community avoid predatory loans:

Mary Snyder and her husband had already spent a decade feeling like they were drowning in more medical debt than they could count, let alone pay off, when a sewage backup caused the plumbing in their Arlington home to go haywire.

Unsure how they’d ever pay a plumber to repair the system and damage to the house while living paycheck to paycheck, the couple didn’t head to the local branch of a national bank, but rather, a small office in the basement of their parish, St. Ann Church in Arlington.

With “zero credit,” no bank would have made a loan, but the longtime parishioners were members of St. Ann Federal Credit Union, a member-owned cooperative organization. The credit union has a unique mission: to provide an alternative for parishioners who might otherwise turn to high-interest credit cards or predatory lenders. Manager Mary Green sat down with the couple to provide financial counseling and approved a $1,200 loan at 8 percent interest, covering emergency expenses.

“She wasn’t pitying us,” said Snyder, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons. “She was helping us in a very real way, which is hard to describe when your entire world is out of whack.”

St. Ann might seem unique, but American parishes were instrumental in the credit union movement during the early-to-mid-20th century. St. Mary’s Bank, the first credit union in the United States, was founded in 1908 by a Msgr. Pierre Hevey, a French-Canadian priest in Manchester, N.H., to help his parishioners, mostly immigrant millworkers, save and borrow money. La Caisse Populaire, Ste-Marie (“The People’s Bank”), as it was called at the time, cost just $5 to join, and members’ deposits were held in a metal box at the bank president’s home.

Catholic parishes were influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” and the principle of subsidiarity — that social change is best handled on the lowest possible level. The pontiff’s concerns about unregulated capitalism and the concentration of wealth, land and industry, inspired many Catholics to create credit unions and other cooperatives, according to David Bovee, an associate professor of history at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, hundreds of parishes, assisted by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), formed their own credit unions in an effort to alleviate poverty in their communities and lead the United States out of the Great Depression.

“In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, at the parish level, people could invest,” and the widespread “boom and bust cycle” could be avoided, Bovee said. One NCRLC leader said that “it takes away from ruthless competition, which is pagan, and substitutes brotherly love, which is Christian.

The principle of subsidiarity, “that social change is best handled on the lower possible level.” This is a foundational concept for understanding the appeal of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (or “cultural nests” as I initially thought of them), and for understanding a Christian response to the secular culture wars.

Lincoln’s poetry

Earlier this month in Washington I ran along the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. I remembered being in Washington in 2010. I visited the World War II Memorial and found in a gift shop someplace near there Poems of Abraham Lincoln, a little book.

Who knew Lincoln was a poet? We’re living in a time when our political elite seem to lack much of any interior life. It’s fascinating, therefore, to discover a time when a president wrote the sort of chagrined and nearly sentimentalist sort of poetry that Lincoln wrote. My favorite is My Child-hood Home I See Again, excerpting here:

My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-tones that, passing by,
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar—
So memory will hallow all
We’ve known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.

History changes

After watching Bruce Schneier’s talk a particular comment of his has stayed with me. Schneier emphasizes that we’re “bad at predicting our social future.”

Amidst the constants of life, death, taxes, etc. our social and cultural environment is always changing in unexpected ways. This is true of the Nittany Valley, though I think it tends to be difficult for Penn Staters and residents to acknowledge this. The pace of life in the Nittany Valley is so cyclical (so familiar from year to year) that it can seem like nothing changes. Yet the character of community certainly does change.

What does this unpredictable change mean? It means we’ve got to keep telling our story—we’ve got to keep articulating who we are and what we believe and convey how we understand our lives in the context of the history of our community.

Our story will change in the telling just as stories did in the old oral traditions. It’ll change based upon our biases and our prejudices and our hopes for the future that impact how we speak about ourselves and the things we love. Yet with every telling of our story what we’ll really be trying to do is convey the best aspects of our legacy to those who’ll carry forward our names in the future.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany and helped create Nittany Valley Press. We can’t let our history seem so obvious and permanent that its specifics and nuances dissipate over time. If we don’t treat our history and place a living thing, the words and ideas that we ascribe to the place just like dry sentiments.

A continual recovery and conveyance of our history is an essential aspect of a real community, which is what we’ve got in the Nittany Valley if we can keep it.

Fraying edges

I think it’s healthy to have a few mental topics that you can return to again and again throughout life, thinking through challenges and opportunities, turning them over in your mind, etc. One of those topics for me is college and life in college towns.

It’s what sparked my interest in helping create The Nittany Valley Society and staying as involved as possible in the life of Penn State. It’s also what leads me to continue thinking about college in the abstract.

In many ways I think we still conceive of the college experience as a sort of otherworldly bubble. The idea remains ingrained in the language—the idea that finishing college means “commencing” adult life. It also remains a part of the idea of adults who urge young people to make the most of their college experience before joining the “real world.”

Despite the trends which seem to suggest college will become more and more like the real world and less removed from its concerns, I think there remains value in retaining the idea of college as a bubble, or campus as a place that should be in some sense removed from the concerns of the immediate culture.

I think of the college experience as a useful bubble, preparing people through wisdom and accumulated knowledge so that they can later go and engage with the world as it is. Specifically, I think the implicit purpose of the college experience is to prepare people to do the work of mending the world’s fraying edges.

We will always need both economic and spiritual fulfillment, so there will always be a need for Herodotus and Homer and Shakespeare and Beethoven. There will be a need for people to learn about to speak about the longings of the heart and how we can satisfy or exacerbate the problems that confront our souls.

And many of those fraying edges related to our specific time and place, because of the success or failure of things like war, public policy, economic disparity, etc.

Changing bioethics

Wesley Smith writes on the direction of Western bioethics:

If you want to see what is likely to go awry in medical ethics and public healthcare policy, pay attention to the advocacy of bioethicists—at least of those who don’t identify themselves as “conservative” or “Catholic.” In their many journal articles and presentations at academic symposia, they unabashedly advocate for discarding the sanctity- and equality-of-life ethic as our moral cornerstone. Instead, most favor invidious and systemic medical discrimination predicated on a patient’s “quality of life,” which would endow the young, healthy, and able-bodied with the highest moral value—and, hence, with the greatest claim to medical resources.

Thanks to the work of bioethics, life-taking policies that a few decades ago were “unthinkable” now are unremarkable. Withholding tube-supplied food and water from the cognitively disabled until they die—Terri Schiavo’s fate—is now legal and popularly accepted, much like abortion. The legalization of assisted suicide is a constant threat. Even where lethal prescriptions or injections cannot be legally provided, some of our most notable bioethicists urge that doctors be permitted to help the elderly and others commit suicide by self-starvation—a process known in euthanasia advocacy circles as VSED (Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking).

Promoters of the culture of death never rest on their laurels. Listed below are a few of the more dangerous “advances” being promoted in bioethics…

We are building the infrastructure, through medical and insurance policies, as much as cultural sensitivities that suppose every law should favor exceptional personal choices rather than general principles, for a less humane society. Smith’s book Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine is a good primer for understanding how and why.

It occurred to me recently that most of the time that we casually use the phrase “end of life issues,” we’re not actually talking about true “you’re dying” moments, but just the “life issues” that lead to difficult questions about the future.

There’s an important role for Christians willing to conserve and promote an historically-rooted, humane bioethics in the years to come. They’ll be hated for it.