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.

Loving a place

I think the Nittany Valley is a remarkable place, home to not only to Penn State, but also to special communities like State College, victorian Bellefonte, and scenic Lemont, the hamlet at Mount Nittany’s base. Michael Houtz, by the way, captured the heart of the Nittany Valley beautifully a few years ago in this early morning, fog-blanketed valley scene:

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I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.

When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.

Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.

This is one of the reasons I think nostalgia lives in places like State College.

Story and promise

A few years ago I came across Robert W. Jenson’s 1993 piece on modernity and post-modernity, and wrote some notes at the time that I thought I’d surface here. It was a helpful introductory piece for me to the topics of modernity and post-modernity, and why people use these words to describe our area and the recent past. Maybe it’ll be helpful for others, too.

First, Jenson’s thesis is conveyed to a significant degree right in the headline: “How The World Lost Its Story” addresses itself to the idea that western societies have tended to lose their cohering/cementing sense of meaning and purpose and are left with significant questions on how best to live and why.

Jenson talks about this struggle through the framework of “story and promise,” or put another way through the relationship between the story of this life and the promise of what’s to come. The “story of this life” corresponding roughly to the order and purpose to be derived from the chaos and randomness of everyday life, and the “promise of what’s to come” corresponding roughly to Christian or transcendent perspectives on eternal truth, itself pointing to a “something” beyond the immediate experiences of the present and thus furnishing reasons to create and conserve the order and structure of a society for both present and future purposes. Modernity was friendly to reason, but post-modernity appears not to be.

“Story and promise,” Jenson suggests held “modernity” together:

… [modernity] has supposed we inhabit what I will call a “narratable world.” Modernity has supposed that the world “out there” is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow “has” its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it.”

On “promise”:

In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.” ….

One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.

Think broadly and regard “liturgy” as analogous in some sense to culture, or shared ideas, or observances that make a cohesive civilization possible by harmonizing its discordant parts into a whole:

[Today, many] simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga—all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.

“All inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.”

To think of the most basic and essential stories about reality as, at best useful, but most likely just necessary lies is nihilism, and it’s a weak basis for either getting any anything “real” or for creating or conserving any reliable social order. A friend of mine at Penn State used to almost consolingly remark to himself in moments when he was feeling dispirited, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” This dark humor was basically funny at 20, but within a few years it becomes more visibly an abyss from which nothing good will emerge.

We convince ourselves no absolute truth exists, and at the same time that morale-boosting lies are absolutely useful—all while failing to recognize the irony in grasping at something transcendent while rejecting any permanence-outside-of-time as impossible.

If this is discouraging or just leaves you feeling angry or nihilistic, read Jenson’s whole piece for a holistic sense of what he’s talking about.

Three languages of politics

Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides is a short introduction to the reality of “three axes” in American political life and the problem with trying to heal the culture before confronting the moral concerns of each axis. Tristan Flock writes:

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians each have their own tribal language, which often baffles and infuriates outsiders. Until we grasp the nuances and assumptions of each language, mutual understanding is impossible. Fortunately, Kling provides a simple framework for making sense of these semantic differences. …

Kling’s framework eschews the simplistic left–right spectrum in favor of a ‘three-axes’ model of political communication, whereby people tend to communicate in either a progressive, conservative, or libertarian manner. It is simple enough to be grasped at a glance, yet complex enough to aid in understanding. The three ways of communicating can be summarized as follows:

  • Progressives communicate along an oppressor–oppressed axis, where those who stand up for the underprivileged are good, while those indifferent to the plights of the disadvantaged are bad.
  • Conservatives communicate along a civilization–barbarism axis, where those who stand up for time-tested traditions and virtues are good, while those indifferent to assaults on Western values are bad.
  • Libertarians communicate along a liberty–coercion axis, where those who stand up for individual rights are good, while those indifferent to government intrusion are bad.

I think Kling presents a good tactical basis for healing some of the political and social wounds in our culture, simply from a standpoint of learning how to better and more meaningfully communicate across different lines and ways of thinking. This doesn’t strike me as a good strategic basis for political engagement, because it doesn’t directly address questions of telos and virtue and meaning in everyday life, and I suspect those implicit questions are what drive people into different axes in the first place.

Summer scenes and sounds

It’s that time of year when summer is entering some of its final weeks, and the sounds of summer start to seem more pronounced for whatever reason. Here’s a view across the Schuylkill River toward University City from a few nights ago when it was hot, humid, and somewhat subdued:

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And here are some sounds of summer from a night run more recently, in what could have been Fairmount Park:

How often do we really listen to what we hear?

When barriers dissolve

A scene from late last month in Washington when I was sitting outside at the Dubliner:

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Along with a reflection on wholeness that I came across recently:

“When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made of entirely non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. When we see the nature of inter-being, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing what you love

John Byron Kuhner on parenting and love:

I think most children get a sense pretty clearly of what their parents hate.  Most people are pretty hateful, and pretty public about it  … and children in particular are exposed to parents’ hatred all the time. People dread family gatherings [because of] hatred that is so toxic, and which people feel so entitled to impose on everyone else….

I want to share with my children what I love. I want to model for them how an adult loves: loves his spouse, loves his family, loves his work, loves his home, loves the world, loves people, loves things, loves life, loves God. And I know I can’t love everything equally. Some things I’ll love more than others. But I’d like my kids to know what I love and why, just because they’ve been part of our lives, and we’ve talked about them.

My mother tells me a story about her own father, that he would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art frequently, and yet she never knew why he decided to do so. His own wife, my mother’s mother, had no interest and never came. He had only an elementary school education (he was an immigrant from Ireland), and hadn’t even gone to high school, much less college. What did he get out of seeing Canovas and Van Eycks with his daughter on his day off from work? “I never really knew why he wanted to take me there,” my mother confesses. “All I know is that it changed my life.” My mother ended up going to college, and majoring in art history. A father probably doesn’t have to talk about the things he loves, to make a difference in his child’s life: he just has to expose his children to them. But talking about them is useful too.

“I never really knew why he wanted to take me there. … All I know is that it changed my life.”

After many years of teaching, I have to confess that I believe all the more in parenting. For all the very best students I’ve ever had, I’ve been able to say: “I think these children learn things at home.” Their parents may not be teaching them Latin, but they’re teaching them something: their children are learning to cook, they’re learning life wisdom, they’re learning to fix things, they’re learning about books and ideas. In short, almost all of my best students have been people whose first classroom was their home. And one never knows what kind of effect this will have decades later.

At age thirty-seven, when Goethe made his first trip to Italy, he wrote of his arrival as a realization of “all the dreams of my youth,” and he specifically recalls those prints he had seen in his childhood home. Goethe would remain in Italy for nearly two years, and would consider it one of the high points of his life — and a kind of fulfillment of his relationship with his father. I find this one of the most moving images of the tension between the generations resolved by shared love of enduring intellectual beauty.

This is one of my great hopes as a parent: that my children one day will see past my faults, and find me redeemed somehow by the love I had in my heart, a love they have found a way to share somehow. This would be, I think, one of the things that would make me most happy…

What a great witness to the power of little moments of witness to love.

RIP Gerry Lenfest

Gerry Lenfest, 88, died this morning. I’ve written about Lenfest a few times before; his and his wife Marguerite’s public spirited generosity in creating a better Philadelphia will be remembered as one of the high points in the city’s history. Peter Dobrin reports:

H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 88, who substantially remade the educational, cultural, and media sectors of the city and well beyond to become one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic civic leaders of the last century, died Sunday morning…

Mr. Lenfest, who had been in declining health in recent months, parlayed the sale of the family cable business into a second act as the area’s leading philanthropist for nearly two decades, giving away more than $1.3 billion. …

“Gerry has had a huge impact on the renaissance and renewal of Philadelphia and all of its institutions,” said Philadelphia Museum of Art president and chief operating officer Gail Harrity. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he has shaped Philadelphia for the future.”

Said David McCullough, the author and historian: “I think he was one of the most memorable and lovable men I’ve ever known. A devoted Philadelphian if ever there was one. His love of that city and its history, and his willingness to be not only generous with his philanthropy but to work hard to attain a worthy objective, is something we could all take a lesson from on how to go about life. He was a terrific man.”

“We’ve lost our greatest citizen, there’s no doubt about that,” said Ed Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor. “He impacted the lives of Philadelphians at every level, in the city, in the neighborhoods.” …

Mr. Lenfest was born neither to wealth nor the social status enjoyed by some of his fellow philanthropists. A lawyer by training, Mr. Lenfest and wife Marguerite built up their cable business over several decades, selling Lenfest Communications Inc. in 2000 and undertaking a philanthropic spree that put the Lenfest name alongside those of Girard, Widener, Curtis, Annenberg, Pew, and Haas – the city’s historically most generous families.

He was “one of the greatest philanthropists the city has ever seen,” said Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts, who had several close dealings with the businessman before Comcast ended up taking over Lenfest Communications. “He has changed our city and so many institutions.” …

After making plans to donate all his wealth, Mr. Lenfest became an éminence grise to the city’s arts groups. He was chairman of the board of old-line institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Curtis Institute of Music, successfully convincing other supporters that even great traditions needed to be expanded upon and brought up to date.

And he willed new ones into existence. He established the Lenfest Ocean Program, and believed in the new Museum of the American Revolution to the tune of more than $63 million in cash donations, becoming its largest donor. He lived to see it become a reality, greeting guests from a wheelchair when the museum opened its doors in April 2017. …

“In Spanish we call it duende, a presence around someone,” said Roberto Díaz, who started as president and CEO of Curtis as Mr. Lenfest became board chairman. “There’s a very quiet strength there.” …

“I don’t think any of it would have happened without Marguerite’s blessing. She is a force,” said Curtis’ Díaz. “Some of the most consequential conversations we had about the needs of the students actually were with Marguerite as much as with Gerry, and sometimes with her first.”

The way they structured their generosity heightened its impact. Other philanthropists placed their billions in foundations to exist in perpetuity, giving out grants each year paid essentially out of investment income. The Lenfests, however, chose to spend down the entire endowment, and the effect on the nourishment and growth of hundreds of recipient institutions over a dozen and a half years was exhilarating.

The Lenfests gave away more than $1.3 billion to 1,100 organizations – providing scholarships to high school students in rural Pennsylvania, contributing to pay off the Kimmel Center’s construction debt and keep Curtis tuition-free, supporting career assistance for youth, underwriting new buildings at Columbia University and Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, giving free billboard and TV advertising to arts groups, helping to save the Temple University rowing program, and on and on. …

At Columbia, Mr. Lenfest’s giving started at the law school, of which he was a graduate. “But there again,” said Bollinger, “he was willing to follow the lead of the institution as to what was important. When we wanted to build the center for the arts in West Harlem, he was right there with that gift. When we wanted to build out the Earth Institute and worked with improving conditions for impoverished people, he was right there.” …

Lenfest made an incredible philanthropic impact in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere in the space of about two decades. He modeled for wealthy persons in Philadelphia and nationally how to deal with wealth effectively, which is essentially that one grows and benefits in the proportion that they give themselves away; they grow in proportion to their willingness to diminish, in effect. This is one of the great paradoxes of human life, I think.

Relationships mattered enormously. In 1999, Mr. Lenfest took notice of a man emptying the trash bins in his office, became curious about his story, and struck gold with an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship.

“I was in medical school and business school, but I had a commercial cleaning business, and I was dumping Gerry’s wastebasket,” said Keith Leaphart, “and only Gerry would tell the janitor to sit down in his office to talk, and that’s literally how we became connected. He said, ‘Something is different about you. I need to know your story.’ I think he recognized my grit, my determination, I was an entrepreneur, some of the things he saw in himself at a younger age. Gerry wasn’t a silver-spoon kid, he worked really hard to get where he went as a billionaire philanthropist. I think it was mutual fondness.”

A few years later, in 2007, when Leaphart was considering a run for Congress, he approached Mr. Lenfest for support. Mr. Lenfest agreed (Leaphart eventually decided not to run), but before he left, Mr. Lenfest asked Leaphart for something in return.

“He said, ‘Sit back down, Keith, I have some things I need you to help me with,’ and it was really about making an impact here in the city, some ideas about putting kids to work, employment, and what we said was we would work together.”

Leaphart became involved with issues like ex-offender reintegration, and today chairs the Lenfest Foundation board.

What a great story, and what an incredible rise for Keith Leaphart.

And Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, reflects specifically on Lenfest’s impact on Philadelphia journalism:

I first met Gerry Lenfest in 2015, not long after he purchased sole ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Gerry told me at the time, “I just figured out how to become a millionaire in the newspaper business. It’s easy. You start out as a billionaire, and you buy a bunch of newspapers.”

I met Gerry, who died on Sunday, after a long career at the Wall Street Journal. After leaving the Journal, my team and I had a business that advised major American newspaper owners on the digital transformation of their businesses. The question we always heard from a Chicago Tribune, a Los Angeles Times, or a Baltimore Sun was fundamentally the same: “How do I save my newspaper?”

The question from Gerry Lenfest was much more expansive and profound: “How do we sustain great journalism writ large?” Gerry was especially focused on the business challenges. He asked me, “How can digital technology be used to enable and ennoble news, rather than to destroy it?” He sounded liked an 85-year-old millennial.

But Gerry’s most keen observation — and this was in 2015 — was that we were entering an era when questions of credibility would challenge the news industry. He warned that as the news business got tougher, some in power would take advantage of its weakness. As Gerry put it, “On the internet you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. Before long, we won’t know what to believe.” …

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism was founded on the belief that a strong local press is fundamental to the health of civic life in the Philadelphia region and to our democracy writ large. Gerry saw a critical role for the Institute in helping fund and protect journalism in Philadelphia. He also saw Philadelphia at the epicenter of a national effort to protect and transform local news in the digital age and to protect the democracy we serve.

So now in mid-2018, what is happening here in Philadelphia is one of the most closely watched experiments in American journalism.

Requiescat in pace.

Lonely young people

Rhitu Chatterjee reports on a recent study, specifically highlighting the health risks of loneliness and the surprising fact that loneliness afflicts the youngest Americans are lonelier than older Americans:

Loneliness isn’t just a fleeting feeling, leaving us sad for a few hours to a few days. Research in recent years suggests that for many people, loneliness is more like a chronic ache, affecting their daily lives and sense of well-being.

Now a nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna underscores that. It finds that loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. …

More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”

…the results are consistent with other previous research, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, who studies loneliness and its health effects. She wasn’t involved in the Cigna survey. While it’s difficult to compare the loneliness scores in different studies, she says, other nationally representative estimates have found between 20 percent and 43 percent of Americans report feeling lonely or socially isolated.

Loneliness has health consequences. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.” …

And there is growing evidence that loneliness can kill. “We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” says Holt-Lunstad. Studies have found that it is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

… “Our survey found that actually the younger generation [born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s] was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. …

Respondents who said they have more in-person social interactions on a daily basis reported being less lonely.

The survey also found that working too little or too much is also associated with the experience of loneliness, suggesting that our workplaces are an important source of our social relationships and also that work-life balance is important for avoiding loneliness.

When we talk about the health of our country in a civic sense, it seems to me that we should almost always also be talking about the health of the human relationships in our country.