Walking the Key Bridge

I’ve crossed the Key Bridge from Washington to Arlington, Virginia most days since moving here in September, because our office has had its headquarters in Arlington. But we’re moving into Washington today, and on Monday my commute will change as I start heading near Dupont Circle in Washington, by the Cathedral of Matthew the Apostle. That means my Key Bridge crossings will diminish significantly.

When I left our Arlington office yesterday, a late afternoon shower had just passed and the sun was coming out, and I decided to enjoy a walk home.

What we’re seeking to conserve

Sohrab Ahmari has written against what he calls “David French-ism,” which I’ll describe as the tendency of conservatives to attempt to maintain social peace through accommodation with cultural forces that don’t necessarily seek accommodation so much as replacement of America’s older social order with a wholly new order—and a new order with a wholly new set of moral goods. “Though culturally conservative,” Ahmari writes, “French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar.” And the problem with the logic of individual autonomy is that it ends with an unraveling of human relationships, duties, responsibilities, and rights in pursuit of an abstracted sort of liberty that believes its fulfillment will be found in the transgression of all limits, and the dissolution of what conservatives would recognize as social order.

Ahmari points out that the conservative project is doomed if it does not become more confrontational, and if it doesn’t shake off its perhaps excessive concern with abstract goods and its perhaps naive forfeiting of concrete social and political goods in the process of promoting those abstracted goods. Preaching the value of federalism, free speech, pluralism, or toleration doesn’t end up meaning much if you’re only preaching to the choir. At least, this is what I think Ahmari is pointing out. If you’re curious about this intra-conservative debate, first read Ahmari’s piece, then read David French’s response. And then read Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher.

There’s an aspect of Ahmari’s piece that is being widely misinterpreted; many are reading his piece as if he’s deriding conservatives for being “too nice,” when what he’s really doing is point out that calls for civility and niceness are not effective tactics for sustaining pluralism if your opponents no longer care about accommodation. Susannah Black highlights this:

“[Ahmari] wrote that ‘Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.’ This has been read by some as a call to do away with civility and decency. It is not. At least, it is not as I read it. It’s rather pointing out—at least, this is what I take—that if they are in service to an inverted moral order, an un-peace, then these things are not actually civility and decency. … True civility, true decency, are not neutral tactics of conversation which we can use to avoid confrontation. If you’re using something you call ‘civility’ that way, you are not civil. You are dodging. It is not the office of love of one’s enemy to ‘get along with’ him no matter what, to fail to tell him the truth. We must love our enemies—our hosti, as well as our inimici. But the way to do that is sometimes a face off. And there’s nothing noble about shirking.

As with most debates within conservatism, what’s unfolding is an attempt to resolve the question, “What are the things we’re seeking to conserve?”

Human remains, abortion, and eugenics

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Box v. Planned Parenthood, ruling 7-2 that Indiana’s human fetal remains law is constitutional. Americans United for Life had filed a brief in support of Indiana’s law, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court because the Seventh Circuit had struck it down as unconstitutional:

Americans United for Life filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Indiana on behalf of AUL and the Charlotte Lozier Institute, asking the Supreme Court to take the case to address this nationally important question. The brief explains that human fetuses are human beings, and as such, it was constitutional for Indiana to require the humane and dignified disposition of human fetal remains—especially in light of reports of an Indiana waste company dumping human fetal remains in landfills. 

“AUL is delighted that the Court agreed to address this important issue,” said AUL’s Litigation Counsel Rachel Morrison. “Without laws like Indiana’s fetal remains law, medical providers are free to dispose of human fetal remains by incineration with medical waste, by dumping in landfills, and even by burning the remains to generate energy. Indiana’s law recognizes the simple biological fact that human fetuses are human beings and, as such, should be treated with humanity and dignity whether in life or in death.”

Box v. Planned Parenthood is a major victory for life-affirming law and policy, because it is a de facto acknowledgement by the U.S. Supreme Court of the basic humanity of those once-living human beings whose lives were terminated through abortion. Where do human fetal remains comes from, but from human beings?

Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence is highly significant, because he uses Box v. Planned Parenthood to speak authoritatively on an aspect of the case that the Supreme Court has punted on, namely whether eugenic abortions (abortions for reasons of race, gender, disability, etc.) are permissible. Thomas writes powerfully on the history of eugenics and abortion, and concludes by getting to the heart of the matter, which is that abortion will continue to haunt the Supreme Court because it is the Supreme Court itself created the right to abortion and therefore will need to continue to legislate its boundaries so long as it continues to promote abortion as a legitimate human practice:

“This case highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation. From the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as means of effectuating eugenics. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used for eugenic purposes. These arguments about the eugenic potential for birth control apply with even greater force to abortion, which can be used to target specific children with unwanted characteristics. …

Today, nonwithstanding Sanger’s views on abortion, respondent Planned Parenthood promotes both birth control and abortion as ‘reproductive health services’ that can be used for family planning. And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics.

“Indiana’s Legislature, on the 100th anniversary of its 1907 sterilization law, adopted a concurrent resolution formally ‘express[ing] its regret over Indiana’s role in the eugenics movement in this country and the injustices done under eugenic laws.’ Recognizing that laws implementing eugenic goals ‘targeted the most vulnerable among us, including the poor and racial minorities, … for the claimed purpose of public health and the good of the people,’ the General Assembly ‘urge[d] the citizens of Indiana to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement’ and ‘repudiate the many laws passed in the name of eugenics and reject any such laws in the future.’

“In March 2016, the Indiana Legislature passed by wide margins the Sex-Selective and Disability Abortion Ban at issue here. Respondent Planned Parenthood promptly filed a lawsuit to block the law from going into effect, arguing that the Constitution categorically protects a woman’s right to abort her child based solely on the child’s race, sex, or disability. The District Court agreed, granting a preliminary injunction on the eve of the law’s effective date, followed by a permanent injunction. A panel of the Seventh Circuit affirmed. …

“Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the vies of the 20th-century eugenics movement. In other contexts, the [U.S. Supreme] Court has been zealous in vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to race, sex, and disability discrimination. … Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope. In that regard, it is easy to understand why the District Court and the Seventh Circuit looked to Casey to resolve a question it did not address. Where else could they turn? The Constitution itself is silent on abortion.”

I want to highlight something from a footnote from Justice Ginsburg in Box v. Planned Parenthood, because it’s something that will only look worse with time. In responding to Justice Thomas’s concurrence, Justice Ginsburg asserts that pregnant women who choose to abort their children are not mothers: “a woman who exercises her constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy is not a ‘mother’”. While this might be causally accurate—in the sense that women whose children have died are no longer mothers—it’s neither intellectually nor scientifically coherent. Despite his rejection of her, Steve Jobs was the father of his daughter Lisa from the very first moment of her existence—and it’s no different for mothers, despite Justice Ginsburg’s tortured philosophy.

Overcast on Dumbarton

I visited Epiphany for mass this morning on Dumbarton Street, and on the way home walked past this:

A green car on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown

Take a moment and put yourself in my shoes taking the photo—there’s without looking left or right, there’s no way to tell you’re not looking right into the past. This same scene could have existed nearly fifty years ago: same house, same fence, same car, same street, etc. And eventually, even when cars like this are converted to electric and homes are running off of clean geothermal or solar, the scene could still otherwise be the same, a little window for looking out into another time.

We will remember them

It’s a warm, sun-lit, breezy Memorial Day in Georgetown. I took a walk earlier and am reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

A Georgetown home with an American flag

In honor of American soldiers both killed in action and departed in the course of time, here’s a bit from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” which I first heard in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old earlier this year:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them.

A preaching that awakens

I’m at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington for a wedding. It’s a beautiful day for it, and appropriate for sharing this sort bit from Oscar Romero:

A preaching that awakens, a preaching that enlightens – as when a light turned on awakens and of course annoys a sleeper – that is the preaching of Christ, calling: Wake up! Be converted! That is the church’s authentic preaching. Naturally, such preaching must meet conflict, must spoil what is miscalled prestige, must disturb, must be persecuted. It cannot get along with the powers of darkness and sin.

Taking books for granted

Andy Matuschak writes that “books are easy to take for granted:”

Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book. Paper or pixels—it hardly matters. Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken. …

Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later. Great: that’s a better model! Let’s look at how it plays out.

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing.

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them.Baker, L. (1989). Metacognition, comprehension monitoring, and the adult reader. Educational Psychology Review, 1(1), 3–38. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliarSee e.g. Langer, J. A., & Nicolich, M. (1981). Prior knowledge and its relationship to comprehension. Journal of Reading Behavior, 13(4). and Baker, L., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. Handbook of reading research, 1(353), V394..

Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?

Of course, great authors earnestly want readers to think carefully about their words. These authors form sophisticated pictures of their readers’ evolving conceptions. They anticipate confusions readers might have, then shape their prose to acknowledge and mitigate those issues. They make constant choices about depth and detail using these models. They suggest what background knowledge might be needed for certain passages and where to go to get it.

By shouldering some of readers’ self-monitoring and regulation, these authors’ efforts can indeed lighten the metacognitive burden. But metacognition is an inherently dynamic process, evolving continuously as readers’ own conceptions evolve. Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. The reader must plan and steer their own feedback loops.

If lecturers believe that lectures are a warm-up for the understanding developed through problem sets and essays, then at least the lecturers design those activities and offer feedback on students’ work. By comparison, if authors believe that understanding comes only when readers really think about their words, then they’re largely leaving readers to design their own “problem sets” and to generate their own feedback. All this effortful “thinking about thinking” competes with actually thinking about the book’s ideas.I’ve oversimplified here a bit. In fact, this kind of meta-processing of material—designing one’s own questions and generating one’s own feedback—are sometimes effective cognitive strategies. But as far as learning science understands it, they’re only effective for people who are already proficient with both the object-level concepts and also the relevant metacognitive skills. For others, these activities appear to detract from understanding the material; see e.g. Kalyuga, S. (2009). Knowledge elaboration: A cognitive load perspective. Learning and Instruction, 19(5), 402–410.

If the model is that people understand written ideas by thinking carefully about them, what would books look like if they were built around helping people do that? …

Rather than “how might we make books actually work reliably,” we can ask: How might we design mediums which do the job of a non-fiction book—but which actually work reliably?

I’m afraid that’s a research question—probably for several lifetimes of research—not something I can directly answer in these brief notes. But I believe it’s possible…

There’s something valuable in exploring metacognition as an undervalued aspect of the art of learning.

Who’s responsible for a place like this?

I was in McLean, Virginia recently, specifically Tyson’s Corner, for a conference, and while I was stopped at a light at the head of a lane of traffic I looked out onto this:


I’ve probably absorbed a lot from Strong Towns at this point, and particularly their Strong Towns Strength Test, so I’d bet I see a scene like this differently now that I’m familiar with their way of thinking about American communities as either sustainable or unsustainable. A little stream of consciousness thinking that ended with the light turning green:

This little median, separating what is an incredibly wide road that would be impossible for all but the most fit to get across during a light change, is a sort of public mystery. No doubt there’s some public authority to repair/replace it from time to time, but at its heart it’s a public space that’s “out of reach” for anyone other than an unknowable bureaucracy to take care of. There are scores of places like this across America, presumably someone’s responsibility—but whose responsibility, precisely, is basically unknowable for the average person. We assume things are being properly managed, but when it’s not clear who’s really responsible for it, how do you have accountability? If someone asked me to tell them, “How much does this little median cost?” I would have no idea how to begin to even answer it.

Arlington Line

The Arlington Line” historical marker stands at a little intersection at Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, near Court House Metro station. I have walked past this historical marker basically every day for the past eight months in coming and going from my office. Today I stopped to read it for the first time.

“Arlington Line” historical marker

Here the Arlington Line constructed in August, 1861, crossed the Georgetown-Falls Church Road. 100 yards to the northwest stood Fort Morton, a lunette with a perimeter of 250 yards and emplacements for 17 guns; 200 yards to the southeast stood Fort Woodbury, a lunette with a perimeter of 275 yards and emplacements for 13 guns.

A defining feature of life

I’m in Dallas today, where I looked out my car window at one point while in traffic to see this:


It seems as if a majority of American suburbs are surrounded by the sort of strip malls and shopping centers I’m seeing as I’ve been driving along the highway. So maybe it’s only somewhat by chance that I came across Leo Babauta’s piece on purchasing as a response to uncertainty and insecurity:

We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity – we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity … and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.

We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top — it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life.

And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff — if we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.

We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.