John Wanamaker, citizen

I was walking through Center City Philadelphia, right past City Hall, when I noticed they were replacing the sidewalks around the eastern face of the building. John Wanamaker’s statue stood out amongst a sea of debris:

Who was John Wanamaker? I remember “Wanamaker’s” as a kid, and I remember the way in which older family members spoke of it. Not too differently from the way many people talk about Amazon today. It was something like the Amazon of its time.

John Wanamaker’s statue/memorial is probably my favorite in Philadelphia because I think it perfectly captures the spirit of his time and the spirit of Philadelphia in that one of the most important individuals in the city’s history is remembered simply as “citizen”.

What made Wanamaker worth remembering in this way wasn’t his invention of the American department store. It wasn’t his introduction of standard, fixed prices and no-fault return policy for customers. It wasn’t the grand and resilient Wanamaker building, right across the street from where this statue now stands, constructed as a resilient structure to enliven and ennoble the public’s experience of community life—with its organ and eagle and Christmas light shows—as much as it served to showcase and sell merchandise. And it wasn’t simply that he was one of the city’s last great titans of industry and commerce before the hollowing out of Philadelphia after the second world war. We chose to remember him first for being a citizen.


It seems to me that there’s a lot there to unpack; a lot left unsaid but so much implied by that single word left to explain the entirety of the man whose embodied memory stands atop that pedestal.

‘An example I thought was admirable’

I wrote a brief reflection on Jimmy Carter last summer and Kevin Sullivan’s and Mary Jordan’s profile gives me another reason to reflect:

Jimmy Carter finishes his Saturday night dinner, salmon and broccoli casserole on a paper plate, flashes his famous toothy grin and calls playfully to his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn: “C’mon, kid.”

She laughs and takes his hand, and they walk carefully through a neighbor’s kitchen filled with 1976 campaign buttons, photos of world leaders and a couple of unopened cans of Billy Beer, then out the back door, where three Secret Service agents wait.

They do this just about every weekend in this tiny town where they were born — he almost 94 years ago, she almost 91. Dinner at their friend Jill Stuckey’s house, with plastic Solo cups of ice water and one glass each of bargain-brand chardonnay, then the half-mile walk home to the ranch house they built in 1961.

On this south Georgia summer evening, still close to 90 degrees, they dab their faces with a little plastic bottle of No Natz to repel the swirling clouds of tiny bugs. Then they catch each other’s hands again and start walking, the former president in jeans and clunky black shoes, the former first lady using a walking stick for the first time.

The 39th president of the United States lives modestly, a sharp contrast to his successors, who have left the White House to embrace power of another kind: wealth.

Even those who didn’t start out rich, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have made tens of millions of dollars on the private-sector opportunities that flow so easily to ex-presidents. …

“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

“I am a great admirer of Harry Truman. He’s my favorite president, and I really try to emulate him,” says Carter, who writes his books in a converted garage in his house. “He set an example I thought was admirable.” …

As Carter spreads a thick layer of butter on a slice of white bread, he is asked whether he thinks, especially with a man who boasts of being a billionaire in the White House, any future ex-president will ever live the way Carter does.

“I hope so,” he says. “But I don’t know.”

There’s so much power in that simple statement of preference: “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

Russell Arben Fox reflects on the profile above in a beautiful way:

There is a way of talking about the virtues that Carter brought to the presidency: republican, in the small-r sense. Those kind of virtues aren’t a good fit for the presidency today, and–realistically speaking–hadn’t been a good fit for it since the Civil War, if not before. So it was a singularly odd thing that this pious Christian man, this “good old Southern gentleman,” as one of his many friends in Plains described him, this product of farms and the Depression and the military and a slow, traditional pace of life,  could have made his way to the position of, arguably, the most powerful person in the world’s most powerful military, economic, and cultural empire. His time there didn’t last, but in the exhausting, depressing era of Trump, one is tempted to say that James Earl Carter, Jr., has outlasted the American presidency. Good for him.

It’s a simple and obvious enough thing to defend the pursuit of wealth by pointing out that wealth lets you do a lot, and that it buys not only material things but also immaterial things like time. But it’s as simple (though maybe less obvious) that you can do great things without wealth, too.

Where Carter and Truman were coming from was a much older place in the story of America and our people’s character and values. You can get at part of that story by understanding the role that good sense and frugality has always played in a nation of pioneers and bootstrap-settlers. But you can also get at that story a bit by considering just how unseemly and downright corrosive to the public consciousness it is to see one president after another (and politician after politician, generally) literally cash in the chips of prestige, of knowledge, of trust for personal enrichment after his or her time in office has come to an end. Watching that happen often enough makes the phrase public servant unbelievable.

Will future ex-presidents live the way that Carter does?

We’ll need them too.

Penn State history course fills up again

I wrote last year about Penn State’s “HIST 197- History of Penn State” course that debuted for the Fall 2017 semester. Penn State News featured the course’s creation at that time:

“The History of Penn State” grew out of discussions with several Penn State alumni who serve on the board of the Nittany Valley Society (NVS), which works to “cultivate appreciation for the history, customs, and spirit of the Nittany Valley.”  NVS Board member Steve Garguilo, 2009 alumnus in information sciences and technology, provided financial support for the course through the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment.

“This course has been a long time coming,” notes Michael Milligan, Penn State senior lecturer in history, who created and will be teaching the course. “Using Penn State as the backdrop, I want students to be able to analyze and interpret significant developments not only in American higher education, but in American history as well.”

It was popular in its first offering, and is now being offered as an elective for undergraduates of any major for the second time, during the fast-approaching Fall 2018 semester.

We were fortunate to play a role in encouraging the development of this course at the Nittany Valley Society over many years. It’s so encouraging to see it pick up steam. Unlike last year the course benefited from no promotional activity, yet is again at capacity with a full roster of 49 students registered for the start of classes on Tuesday, August 21st:

Last year it took place in 62 Willard and this year it moves to 225 Electrical Engineering West, fittingly even closer to Evan Pugh’s old home in the heart of campus. And just as last year, Prof. Milligan will be welcoming occasional trustees, alumni, and visitors to sit-in on the class. I’m planning to sit in again like I did last year at some point in the next few weeks.

Engaging and redeeming

A number of years ago Andrew J. Bacevich wrote an incredible analysis of the challenge of Christian witness in the 21st century. In the wake of the McCarrick scandal I want to revisit it. He starts:

Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.

Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.

What Bacevich seems to be suggesting is that Christians have generally lost the hope that living lives of virtue and witness to Christ still works, in terms of cultural renewal. Is this too broad a way to describe the situation?

What else is Bacevich pointing out, in effect? The world has not always been like it is today. Evolution and miracles are phenomenon which coexist within the same reality. Modernity has distinct animating principles and attitudes from other periods, like the late Middle Ages. The Genesis story of humankind’s fall due lusting after a sort of universal knowledge continues as rancor in our hearts, driving our desire for new forms of power. And that through it all, Jesus Christ has always been who he said that he was, and that this truth can continue to engage and redeem in every era.

Not himself conventionally religious (watching his sister suffer an excruciatingly painful death, he had concluded that God might be “a Substance, but He could not be a Person”) [historian Henry] Adams was referring to Christianity not as a belief system but as an organizing principle. Christianity as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness. So, at least for centuries, Europeans and Americans had believed or at least pretended to believe.

Adam’s “organizing principle” carries less weight than I would like, apparently akin more to a theory or hypothesis rather than an encounter with anything certainly true.

In any event, after a century of global war on different scales, we’re now living through a time of fractured cohesion and purpose. We barely have a clear, shared civic organizing principle any longer, let alone a shared spiritual belief system to guide our civic activity or inform our moral conscience. We’re drifting.

Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.

I suppose “Christendom” might be understood as nations wherein Christianity was the formula for ordering human affairs—not as outright theocracy as in parts of the Muslim world, but as a means to balance raw state power with a coherent moral order capable of holding it to account for the health of the whole people. And because so few Christians now know their history or their scripture, it’s likely impossible to expect any sort of robust belief on a wide scale. You can’t remain faithful to someone you’ve never met.

Scripture no longer provided an adequate explanation of these events—even to consider situating the Holocaust in what Christians called salvation history seemed obscene. Unwilling to own up to their own complicity in all that had gone awry … nominally Christian Americans sought refuge in ideology. …

As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In this Information Age, we can access coursework from Harvard or Yale or any number of great institutions for free; it’s closer than whatever’s at the nearby public library. We can also access and participate in soul-corroding hate and destructive behavior from our kitchens, bedrooms, and anywhere, all on a magnitudes unimaginable in past times; the sort of things that local zoning boards might have fought to keep out of their towns in times past can now be present in every private room and public space.

What are Christians supposed to do in response to this? How can Christians engage and redeem a world like this? A struggle takes place now in each and every heart to decide whether Christ was honest and whether virtue is true, in essence, and what sort of life and world we might work to create as a result of our conclusions. These struggles have always taken place, but it’s entirely different when there’s no community or social support for it; when we’re living as autonomous, liberated individuals rather than as members of a particular community with responsibilities and relationships with particular people.

So the frantic pursuit of self-liberation that Adams identified and warned against enters yet another cycle, with little sign of anything having been learned from past failures. If the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exists, then it must be that he wills this. Yet his purposes remain inscrutable.

God’s ways have always been inscrutable. I’m consoled by John Henry Newman’s attitude of our own somewhat unknowable purpose in life as superior to Rick Warren’s notion that each of us can discover and live out our own “purpose driven life.”

I think what we’re challenged to realize is that we cannot engage and redeem if we are not ourselves converted in our heart; if we, in effect, do not love Christ.

Tomorrow you may not die

I ordered a copy of The Collegian Chronicles years ago and was recently flipping through it. It’s a sort of history of Penn State from 1887 to 2006 through the pages of The Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper. Its dedication honors Ross Lehman, Class of 1941:

Ross B. Lehman, executive director emeritus alumni association in Office of Student Affairs, from Feb. 1, 1948, until his retirement April 1, 1983; died Dec. 12, 2003 at the age of 85.

Ross was one of the pillars of the State College/Penn State communities. He and his wife wrote a widely read Centre Daily Times column called “Open House” for decades, and like Joe and Sue Paterno he and his wife embodied some of the best aspects of the Penn State ethos. Skull and Bones at Penn State endowed an award in his honor:

It is given annually to a freshman who exemplifies the ideals of Skull and Bones: unselfish service and leadership to the Penn State University community, and the elimination of false pride, excessive self-esteem and grand ideas of personal glory.

A leadership award honoring virtues opposed to false pride, grand ideas of personal glory, etc. is somewhat distinctive now, isn’t it? Who talks like that any longer?

The Collegian Chronicles is dedicated to Ross Lehman, and this bit stands out:

While in captivity in a German prison hospital, Ross recalled awakening one morning to see “the most beautiful, indescribable patch of blue” sky. It was his moment of revelation. “I said to myself at that moment, ‘Each minute of life is an eternity, and it’s how that minute is lived, how acutely one perceives it and absorbs it within his being, that determines how much a man becomes a sun: he generates or he explodes.”

Ross once advised: “Live nobly while you live. Tomorrow you may not die.”

Tomorrow you may not die. A hard phrase, like a needle in the eye of the “live like each day is your last” sentimentalism that justifies doing basically whatever.

I guess I’ll throw my chips in with the Ross Lehmans of the world, and try to be friends with those who do.

Will and Ariel Durant’s ‘Story of Civilization’

I’ve been slowly working through Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series, and wanted to share a bit about it. As a historian, Will Durant wanted to present a comprehensive view of both West and East, or using the now-archaic language of his time, of both Occidental and Oriental history, in one comprehensive narrative. In this way, the somewhat artificial divisions between east and west could be erased and the human story might be more sensible.

The Story of Civilization, published over the course of five decades from 1935 to 1975, has been described as the “most comprehensive attempt in our times to embrace the vast panorama of man’s history and culture.” The series comprises roughly 10,000 pages and was the life’s work of Will and Ariel, a husband and wife team. Growing up, the collection was a centerpiece of our family room library. That’s how I first became aware of it. Further perspective:

The Durants strove throughout The Story of Civilization to create what they called “integral history”. They opposed this to the “specialization” of history, an anticipatory rejection of what some have called the “cult of the expert.” Their goal was to write a “biography” of a civilization, in this case, the West, including not just the usual wars, politics and biography of greatness and villainy, but also the culture, art, philosophy, religion, and the rise of mass communication.

John Little, director of the Will Durant Foundation:

“They had no armies. They ruled no people. They received no government subsidies for their efforts. And yet ‘if knowledge is power,’ as the popular adage states, then Will and Ariel Durant were perhaps the two most powerful people to ever walk our planet.”

H.L. Mencken praised Durant, saying he had “never read any book which left me better contented.” And Clarence Darrow said of another of Durant’s well known works: “I’d rather have written his book on The Story of Philosophy than to have done anything or everything that I ever did.”

Constitutional democracy

A few excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism on republican versus democratic governance:

De Tocqueville wrote of democracy that it “not only makes each man forget his forefathers, but it conceals from him his descendants and separates him from his contemporaries; it ceaselessly throws him back on himself alone and threatens finally to confine him entirely in the solitude of his own heart”. That is a strong way of putting it, and one that reflects the bitterness spread by the French Revolution in the feelings of all its descendants. But it contains a truth. The great difficulty lies in finding the language with which to persuade people to acknowledge de Tocqueville’s meaning.

The social fragmentation presaged by de Tocqueville is as elusive as it is virulent, while the supposed legitimacy of the democratic process is a conception of permanent and vivid appeal. Should politicians wish to criticize the democratic process they must represent themselves as opposed, not to democracy, but to some local or specialized form of it—proportional representation, say, or the single-chamber parliament, or the plebiscite. But these specialized forms exemplify the same principle that they must also claim to be defending, the principle that, in matters of government, it is the opinion of the governed that confers legitimacy upon what is done. It might be possible to argue against the use of a referendum, on the grounds that twenty million people ought not to be asked to make a momentous decision concerning a matter about which almost all of them know nothing (for example, whether to join or not to join the European Monetary Union). It might be possible to argue against proportional representation, on the grounds that it will generate a parliament that is weak, irresolute and peppered with crackpots.

But all such arguments rely on a principle that denies the basis of democracy. For they assert that popular opinion is a legitimate guide only in so far as it is authorized by a constitution that limits its excesses. Hence the legitimacy of government cannot be conferred merely by democratic choice. …

The underlying idea is … that legitimacy can reside only in contractual or quasi-contractual agreement, and not in established usage. Hence, it is thought, the only legitimate government, or procedure, is one that has been “chosen” or consented to by its subjects. Yet as soon as one considers the highly artificial circumstances of democratic choice, one must see that this “choice” presupposes in its turn that the citizens should recognize some prior legitimacy in that which they do not and cannot choose—namely the procedures which make choice available, and the people and offices which guard them.

A Republic, if you can keep it,” reported Ben Franklin after the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The demos, or the people themselves, have always been meant to be heard most forcefully through their elected representatives in our republican model. You might say that we’re a democracy in the sense that we determine in every generation to what extent we’re going to keep the republic. If you don’t like the “republic” language for whatever reason, try “constitutional democracy.”

Scruton continues:

… however fair and free, [the democratic process] will always give precedence to the needs and desires of those who are choosing now, regardless of the needs and desires of those who are not yet with us or those who are already dead. The very same theoretical weakness which afflicts the social contract, afflicts democratic choice—namely, that it privileges the living and their immediate interests over past and future generations.

Burke made the point in something like those terms in his great polemic against the French Revolution. But it is worth setting it in a more modern context, since it bears upon the most important questions that now confront us. Burke argued that we can view society as a contract (as the French Revolutionaries, following Rousseau, proposed) only if we recognize that the contract includes not the living only but also the unborn and the dead. Mention of the dead seems quaint to modern ears: after all, they are no longer with us, and therefore, you might suppose, have no interests which are affected by what we do. That is not how Burke saw the matter, however. The dead, he believed, have an enduring interest in our respect for them. Moreover, this is recognized by the law, which obliges us to carry out the will of a testator, whether or not it is in anyone else’s interest.

But there is a much deeper reason to include the dead and their wishes in our calculations. From the beginning of time, it is respect for the dead that has formed the basis of institution-building. Schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, clubs, libraries, churches and institutions began life as private foundations, dependent on property given or bequeathed by people no longer alive. The present holders of that property were morally speaking, the temporary trustees. Respect for the dead forbade the arbitrary use of their bequests, and compelled the trustees to further the purposes which the founders and donors would approve. By honoring the dead, the living trustees were safeguarding the interests of their successors. Respect for the dead is the foundation of the attitude of trusteeship upon which future generations depend for their inheritance. Remove the dead from the equation, and you remove the unborn. And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is the real danger of unmoderated democracy.

Procedural limitations on democracy must therefore be designed to ensure that the voices of the dead and the unborn are heard in the political process. But not any dead and unborn: only those who belong to the first person plural over which the sovereign power presides — the community-through-time which in modern terms is usually seen as a nation, the term “nation” being etymologically connected with the idea of birth and descent without which the long-term perspective is seemingly impossible to grasp as a part of politics.

It’s an under-appreciated point that Scruton highlights there, that democracy naturally focuses on what we want now, at the expense of the future or the recent past. But context matters; even if you reject arguments about respecting the will, intent, or memory of the dead, it’s a fact that almost nothing in life can be understood out of its context. How can it be that whatever our immediate and present wants might be, that these are the only good worth pursuing?

They’re clearly not, as our entire society is built on the practice of deferring immediate gratification—from investing years of our lives in educating ourselves for future success, to planning in old age for the success of children and grandchildren, to saving as much as possible for retirement in youth and middle age, when immediate spending would be more rewarding in the present moment.

Yet when it comes to governance, we probably tip too much toward democratic interest in present-oriented concerns at the expense of long-term governance and planning for the future. It would explain why we can’t find consensus on energy and environmental policy that plans for the future and why we can’t solve the insolvency problems of our pension and social welfare commitments, for instance.

Broad Street Greenway

I think that Philadelphia could transform Broad Street, its most significant public boulevard, if we decided to start replacing Broad Street’s concrete and asphalt medians with soil, grass, and trees.

I first started thinking about this in Pittsburgh, when I saw the way that certain Pittsburgh streets have simple but elegant elevated green garden medians, and the thought really took hold during Michael Bloomberg’s time as New York City mayor when he helped inaugurate MillionTreesNYC, the city’s initiative to plant and and care for a million new trees across the five boroughs.

There’s frequent debate about whether Philadelphia should start ticketing/towing cars parked in Broad Street’s median as you get down into South Philadelphia, and those debates go nowhere due to the entrenched interests of city councilpersons. Why not obviate that debate entirely and replace the median over time with grass and shrubs and flowers and trees? We would be transforming Philadelphia’s greatest street into Philadelphia’s grandest street, outstripping even the Ben Franklin Parkway in time for beauty.

I don’t think there’s any one solution, and here are just a few examples of how it could be done. Here’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem:

Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, Harlem.png

That looks relatively simple and would probably require the least expense. In other words, keep the existing median dimensions along Broad Street, but punch out the concrete and asphalt. The result is an attractive streetscape for walkers, bikers, and drivers.

Here’s Grant Street in Pittsburgh, which I think is the street that got me thinking about this about a decade ago:

Grant Street, Pittsburgh.png

This is maybe even better from a safety standpoint, since it discourages jaywalking and would allow Broad Street to be narrowed a bit to accommodate a wider median and also maybe a permanent bike lane, all of which would naturally reduce speeding and accidents.

And here’s the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I walked along this avenue when I visited there in July 2012, when I was in Europe for the London Olympics:

Champs-Élysées, Paris.png

The boulevard itself has no real median, but these incredibly wide (by American standards) sidewalks accommodate a double-wide planting of trees and functionally park space along the way. This could be another approach, eliminating Broad Street’s median entirely and doubling the capacity of our sidewalks and reimaging their role as public space.

Compare these few options with the present reality. Here’s Broad and Locust:

Broad and Locust, Philadelphia.png

And here’s Broad and Lombard, a bit farther south:

Broad and Lombard, Philadelphia.png

And here’s Broad and Castle, much farther south when the median turns into overflow parking space and the buildings are set back much farther from the street:

Broad and Castle, Philadelphia.png

Now imagine these scenes transformed, as part of something like a “Broad Street Greenway” initiative to place a few thousand trees all along Broad Street—left, right, and center.

Imagine the experience of walking Broad Street in the summer, when the trees serve as natural canopies alleviating the heat. Imagine the experience during the autumn when the changing colors and resplendent hues also provides jobs for dozens of seasonal workers to sweep the streets and bring a human presence to stretches of Broad Street that feel remote and desolate during certain hours. Imagine the experience during the spring when those trees serve as homes and stopping points for all sorts of birds and chirping life, bringing nature’s sounds and songs to a part of the city that desperately could benefit from something other than the sounds of horns and engines. And imagine the experience during the winter, when certain neighborhoods or the city itself might string up little white lights to festively illuminate the city’s grand street, bringing some hope and optimism and warm feeling to a time of year when many feel particularly discouraged or alone.

Creating a Broad Street Greenway for Philadelphia wouldn’t just be a parks project, or an environmental initiative, but it would also be a great public service and a great act of revitalizing and enlivening one of best known and imagined parts of the city.

Power and influence

Bruno Maçães writes on world order and feelings of chaos:

What was remarkable about the Brexit referendum was that the country that had invented free trade and taken it to the four corners of the world was now refusing to be part of the largest and freest economic bloc ever created. As for Donald Trump, he has come to symbolize a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign-policy consensus. … According to Trump, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

The global order created after the Second World War had been endangered before, but in the past the threat had come from the out­side. Now it seems to be in danger of being abandoned by those who had been responsible for building it and who had always benefited from it. For some, Brexit and Trump have simply been an error of perception: It is true that the countries at the core of the system have to restrain their power and cannot come out on top every time, but over the long term they reap the largest benefits and have the most interest in preserving the system. …

The truth is that for many in the United Kingdom and the U.S., there is no longer a functioning liberal order. …

Surprising? Perhaps, but we have seen it all before — in those societies first suffering the impact of European or Western expansion. One historical analogy is with the arrival of European civilization in the Muslim world. Until the 18th century the course of history still seemed to be favoring the great Muslim empires, and the ruling Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal elites certainly never entertained any other possibility. When the shock arrived, in the form of a string of military defeats and growing trade dependence, no one was prepared. The initial reaction was to wait for the storm to pass while remaining faithful to traditional habits and principles. Two main strands of reaction were eventually considered. First, there was a call to purify Muslim society from later influences and deviations. The origin of the Wahhabi radical reinterpretation of Islam dates from this moment. The second response, moving in the opposite direction, was to try to reform Muslim society, to address its perceived weak­nesses and to appropriate some European ideas, at least in the area of military technology.

A similar process took place in China roughly a century later. Determined to open Chinese markets to foreign goods, Britain intro­duced the habit of opium smoking into the country and later defended its trade through military means, quickly dispatching the poorly equipped Chinese navy. The emperor sued for peace, opened five trade ports to foreigners, and ceded Hong Kong to the British in per­petuity. It was impossible to pretend that the world order as it had been conceived in Beijing since time immemorial could survive the onslaught, but the mandarins spent most of the next few decades doing just that, for their most treasured values prohibited the recog­nition of any alternative to Chinese civilization. …

One could speculate endlessly about the root causes of the new situation, but the truth is notably straightforward. Technology — once the preserve of the West — is now universal. In both cases discussed above, the Muslim and Chinese worlds were faced with a new kind of civilization, carrying all the secrets of modern science, which at first must have looked like supernatural powers. The encounter between European and Asian empires in the mod­ern age had a very specific meaning to those involved: the superiority of European technology. Some Asian thinkers or polemicists went so far as to make the intriguing claim that the encounter was not between Asians and Europeans, but rather between Asians and European machines.

We have now entered a new age, one perfectly summarized by saying that Western machines are every day meeting Asian machines. After all, the same tools we have used — and continue to use — to manage and influence the rest of the world are now fully available outside the West. When power and influence flow in all directions at once, the result is, from one point of view, a democratic order where everyone will rule and be ruled at once. From a different point of view, it could be described as a field of forces where every action is a reaction in an endless chain. Countries, peoples, voters, and presidents are ultimately disturbances in a chaotic field.

Maçães has a new book out called The Rise of Eurasia, which I assume delves into this further. As technology has flattened the world, I think Maçães is right in suggesting that “power and influence [now] flow in all directions.” Neither rising powers like China nor powers like America and Europe are able to exert unilateral power and influence, and that’s making everything politically and socially frothy.

Why celebrate mass

I was at mass a few years ago at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia, and wrote the following afterwards and thought it made sense to share.

It was a mass celebrating Latino heritage and was said by Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez was a local and pastor in West Chester previously, so it was something of a warm homecoming for him. The Mass was in Spanish which gave me more mental space than I typically find when it’s in English and am pulled into responding at the appropriate times.

Why go to Mass, at the most basic level? A friend shared the engraved illustration not long ago, and although I don’t know the source it conveys the traditional theological reasons:

But let me offer a non-theological basis for celebrating mass. This is the one place I’ll be this week where no one around me has any designs on me. No one wants to use me. No one wants anything. We’re just here to celebrate and worship. In that sense, we’re truly at liberty.

You’re free to retreat, if you’d like, into a mental space of solitude that we rarely get very much of in a noisy world of false urgencies.

The mass presents an opportunity every day to be a new person. To think of yourself differently. To reclaim a sense of oneself, and one’s essential role. And don’t we all want to be a new person in some way?

It’s a gift.