Summerfest fireworks

After landing in Milwaukee yesterday and finishing out the work day with Bobby Schindler over dinner at the Old German Bier Hall downtown, I went for what turned out to be a great run through town.

Summerfest is happening this week, which is Milwaukee’s big summertime festival and cause for togetherness in and around Lake Michigan. As I ran along the lake at twilight, an enormous number of parents with their children lounged along the park grass of the lake. Vendors sold little light sabers and other glow-in-the-dark toys, and friends and others milled around. It was a world apart from my experience of this same stretch of lakefront earlier this spring.

As I came closer to the Summerfest grounds I came to the end of a jetty. I was about to turn around to finish the run, but everyone sitting on the rocks seemed to be holding their breath. I waited a few moments, and the fireworks began.



Visual diaries

I’ve started to post to Instagram Stories semi-regularly, and am sharing today’s story here. I’m sharing it here because it will have disappeared from Instagram within 24 hours, and like so many of the specific memories of my experience will be lost.

I’ve used DayOne to keep a journal in the past—and might start using it again, at some point after they enable audio/video entries. As a kid, I would write from time to time. Since starting to write regularly here, I treat this as my public journal and way for me to think aloud about things that matter both in fleeting and substantial ways.

After posting snippets of my day to Instagram Stories, I thought how great it would be if Instagram enabled permanent archiving/exporting of these stories. In an instant, Instagram would become a visual diary for countless people who otherwise would probably never keep a record of their lives. And that would be a gift for them in years to come, and maybe too for the children and others.

I think the internet is pernicious to the extent that it participates in the “tyranny of now,” that habit of thinking that whatever is unfolding is the most important thing. The more that parts of the internet can be reclaimed as something closer to an archive and library, the better.

That’s the sort of internet I try to contribute to.


Peter Brown and late antiquity

Ruby Shao profiles Peter Brown, “inventor of late antiquity:”

The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in a dark age, replete with decay and barely worth studying. Or so scholars thought until history professor emeritus Peter Brown invented the field of late antiquity, which spans 250–800 A.D. “Looking at the late antique world, we are caught between the regretful contemplation of ancient ruins and the excited acclamation of new growth,” he wrote in his 1971 book “The World of Late Antiquity.” Brown’s discovery of the era’s dynamism has driven his career. Specializing in the transition from ancient to medieval times, as well as the rise of Christianity…

Born to Irish Protestants in 1935, Brown grew up on two of the continents that he has explored in a scholarly context, Europe and Africa. For the first four years of his life, until World War II broke out in 1939, Brown spent every winter and spring in what was then the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. His father worked as a railway engineer in Khartoum, having struggled like many other Protestants to find employment in his intolerant Catholic homeland. He alone, of all Brown’s direct kin, held a university degree.

Each summer and fall, the heat caused men to send their wives and children out of Sudan. Brown and his mother, a homemaker, returned to a small, quiet, rainy seaside town called Bray on the east coast of Ireland.

“I grew up with two imaginative worlds: one the world of the Middle East, one the world of basically Dublin, Ireland,” Brown said. In the Sudan, he saw hippopotami, crocodiles, and camels under starry skies. Such experiences affected him long after. “Living in the Sudan put in me a love of the Middle East, a real interest in it, distant memories of a very sunny world with large, dark Sudanese servants in long white robes,” he said. …

He received a scholarship to attend Shrewsbury School in England at the age of 13. The institution included students from various socioeconomic classes, including farmers’ sons who left classes every Friday to help their fathers transport animals to the market. Brown intended to study science, but his headmaster discouraged him from doing so because he had performed so well. He instead pursued classics, then the most prestigious and challenging subject, renowned for disciplining the mind. New lessons in Greek added to the Latin and French that he had studied in Ireland. At 15, he switched to history. He added that whereas classics concentrated on the great works of the past, history allowed him to explore the more ordinary topic of how people lived in the past. …

Brown impressed upon his students that they needed to learn by traveling, not just reading. He taught them to understand history from the perspectives of the people involved, rather than from a supposedly omniscient Western historian’s viewpoint, Michelson said. Occupying a place enables a scholar to envision the setting of a community when writing about it, Brown explained. Brown inspired his students to pursue big questions and synthesize seemingly unrelated cultures into a common story, according to Sahner. …

Brown recommended that scholars aspiring to emulate him start from a specific object that they love, with the goal of avoiding information overload, which hampers progress. “You should always think small and intensely, and then radiate outwards,” Brown said. He added that researchers should mine unfamiliar and embarrassing developments, like the cult of saints or the monastic movement, which often conceal cultural tensions. …

Fifty years after the publication of his first book, “Augustine of Hippo,” Brown is researching a book on the meaning of the Christian notion of universalism in late antiquity. “What did it mean to preach to all nations? Did they really think they could convert everybody, or simply bring the gospel to everybody? Those are two different questions…”

I wasn’t familiar with Brown before reading this. What a life.


Worrying about the right things

So often we think about only what’s in front of our faces, and we don’t think about what’s likely to be in front of our faces in the future. Thinking about the future was once a luxury of the elite, because most people had enough to worry about in the “here and now,” and so the responsibilities of the elites was to plan for their people’s future. I think you can see this in the emergence of leaders within our ancestral tribal societies as much as you see it in the heirarchies of our present political, religious, and educational lives. But there are plenty of major things that even our leaders aren’t necessarily planning for.

One of those things I’ve thought about from time to time is what contingencies might exist for the survival of Catholicism if a terrorist attack wiped out the cardinals in conclave at Vatican City during the election of a new pope. This would be a catastrohpic attack on Christianity’s ability to perpetuate itself and would likely lead to splitering and division, as any surviving cardinals and bishops around the world would have to sort out how to proceed in the case of a decapitation of our pastoral leaders. I haven’t heard of any sort of plans for this worst-case situation, though I hope that they exist.

Another example is the problem of civilization-ending asteroids. It seems as if the Europeans are starting to address this threat to humanity’s survival, but the best case situation in the next few years will be a warning time of only a few weeks for an asteroid that could wipe out a New York-sized city. Elon Musk is persuing his “get us to Mars and make us multiplanetary” plan, but I hope by 2100 that we will have both a plan and the means to avert this sort of problem. Like the tribal kings and queens of old who had to worry about the existential threats of societal famine or hostile neighbors, I hope our leaders today can begin thinking more about threats like this.

And on the more practical level, there’s the problem of long term thinking in personal and family life. In the spirit of the Stoics, it makes no sense to actively worry about things like terrorist attacks or asteroids because we simply don’t have the means to control those things. But we should definitely strive to work on what’s in our power to control—things like our personal character, the way we approach our work, the way we approach loving those in our lives, and the way we think about what’s worthwhile.


Corrosive speculation

Matthew Continetti writes on journalists, political speculation, and the devaluation of “the news” in the public mind:

Events are turning me into a radical skeptic. I no longer believe what I read, unless what I am reading is an empirically verifiable account of the past. I no longer have confidence in polls, because it has become impossible to separate the signal from the noise. …

The fact is that almost the entirety of what one reads in the paper or on the web is speculation. The writer isn’t telling you what happened, he is offering an interpretation of what happened, or offering a projection of the future. The best scenario is that these theories are novel, compelling, informed, and based on reporting and research. But that is rarely the case. More often the interpretations of current events, and prophesies of future ones, are merely the products of groupthink or dogma or emotions or wish-casting, memos to friends written by 27-year-olds who, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “literally know nothing.” There was a time when newspapers printed astrology columns. They no longer need to. The pseudoscience is on the front page.

Nor are the empty conjectures and worthless hypotheses limited to Donald Trump. Yes, pretty much the entire world, myself included, assumed he would lose to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a not-insignificant segment of the political class, both Democrat and Republican, thought the Republicans would not only lose the presidency but also the House and Senate. Oops! I remember when, as the clock reached midnight on November 8 and it became clear Trump would be the forty-fifth president, a friend called. “Are we just wrong about everything?” he asked. …

“Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts,” Michael Crichton once said. “We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.”

When we talk (seriously or ironically) about fake news, we’re talking basically about what Continetti is writing about: agenda-driven speculation rather than reporting on the facts of an historical event.

When Donald Trump called “fake news” the “enemy of the American people,” it was reported by the New York Times as a general attack on the free press. But Continetti underscores how vitally important a real free press is, and how agenda-driven speculation in the media really does function as an enemy of public life, in the sense that so many of us no longer believe anything we read or hear.


Bobby Schindler on food and water

I mentioned early in the week that Bobby Schindler and I were in Washington to do an interview with Catherine Szeltner of EWTN’s “Pro-Life Weekly” program. It aired Friday night on EWTN, and is up on YouTube now. Bobby talks about the work of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and focuses on the issue of food and water as necessary for human dignity and a basic and ordinary part of medical treatment:

An important note: we often talk about “end of life” issues when we really are not referring to a situation where anyone is dying. Terri Schiavo wasn’t dying when her estranged husband petitioned Florida courts for the right to deny her food and water. She had experienced a brain injury in 1990 and was lived as a disabled woman who was reliant on no machines or artificial life support.

All that Terri needed was food and water by means of a feeding tube, because her brain injury resulted in difficulty swallowing. Terri’s case only became an “end of life” case when her estranged husband sought to end her life. Unless someone is actively dying, they’re not facing “end of life” issues.


Health as wholeness

Wendell Berry spoke in 1992 with Michael Toms. I found their conversation recently when searching Berry’s works and enjoyed the entire hour:

…an hour of stirring and straightforward wisdom from one of the most highly respected of modern American writers and poets. Using words like “affection”, “satisfaction”, “care”, and “joy”, Berry calls for a re-evaluation of the basic values and practices of our lives. He illustrates his ideas with glimpses of his own life and those of his Kentucky farm neighbors, and describes a future where we can learn to find love, wisdom and meaning in the people, the places and the work of our own daily lives. “Abstractions don’t work – abstractions are abstractions,” he says. “You have to realize that finally you must do something.”

There was this particular exchange that I transcribed because it was arresting to me:

I thought to myself that health is so much more than just physical.

Yes. It is, of course, physical. But physical health doesn’t exist apart from the health of other things. Health ultimately involves the community, and the community ultimately involves the place, and natural life of that place, so that real health … is harmony with the world. Nothing is left out of health because health always implies wholeness.

And harmony with the world in the sense not of the planetary world out there, but harmony with the place we’re experiencing here.

Yes, the world as it’s represented to you immediately where you are.

So often I think that there’s this projection out there somehow that disconnects us from our ability to manifest creatively or to do something.

Yes. It leaves you with nothing to do. The universe, and even the planet, are ideas with respect to this conversation, anyway. They don’t immediately exist. And being right with the universe doesn’t propose that you do anything. Whereas being right with your local place and community and household—that task proposes many little jobs of work and some big ones.



Words should reflect realities

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” —Confucius on the doctrine of the Rectification of Names

I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but a good place to start to reform the names we give things, the words we speak, would be to start with the simple things. “Disrupt” often simply means “change.” “New and improved” often means “different.” And “the more you spend, the more you save” is simply a non sequitur.

When we speak more carefully, it becomes easier to share a common vocabulary—and sharing a vocabulary, where most things have a commonly understood meaning, is a great way to change the world for the better.


Failing Eastern Europe

As I’m making my way through William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” I thought of something from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that I read a few years ago. A literary father of the Solidarity movement, Solzhenitsyn exposed the moral bankruptcy of Soviet rule by revealing its Gulags. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” published during the era of de-Stalinization, was like body blow to Western intellectual Soviet sympathizers. Solzhenitsyn also had frank words for Roosevelt and Churchill’s post-Hitler strategic appeasement:

In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim Il Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought!



Bobby Schindler and I were in Washington today to film with EWTN for its recently-launched “Pro-Life Weekly” program. Catherine Szeltner hosts, and has been a clear and reasonable voice spotlighting issues of human dignity and basic rights since the launch of the program. We were excited to film with her, and Bobby’s first segment will air Friday night and be available online shortly afterwards. I’ll share that here when it’s available.

We spent an hour or so on the patio at the Dubliner after filming, wrapping up some writing and emails before catching our train to Philadelphia.

It was a good day.