Monuments and principles

A few scenes from around Washington on this beautiful, only-slightly-chilly day:

I read Jamal Khashoggi’s final Washington Post column today. It’s powerful and strikingly prescient:

There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbors’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.” Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Even Lebanon, the Arab world’s crown jewel when it comes to press freedom, has fallen victim to the polarization and influence of pro-Iran Hezbollah.

The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar. In 1967, the New York Times and The Post took joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which went on to become a platform for voices from around the world.

My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.

Each of the buildings I saw today are, in their own ways, monuments to the sort of principles that Jamal Khashoggi gave his life for. RIP.

Along K Street

A scene from earlier this week of the St. Regis along K Street, as I was making my way to the Catholic Information Center for the Leonine Forum:


Along with Robert Hazel’s 1958 “Statuary Hall,” which I’m still trying to appreciate:

Statuary Hall

The dancers candled in their flames
cold on eyes and brittle hair,
cold on their marble shoulders, light
that is not pleasure but a way
to know by limits, and they know
time by decorum and love by art,
they find this way to imitate
the never final partially true—
they pray with dancing if they pray—
before the movement as they move
subsides to consciousness, before
the movement pauses as they take
this partial truth of movement and
believe pure energy is true
as if dead men were surely dead
because they move so little, as though
the deadness of ideas and men
is always carried slowly and
is true because this movement holds
the shaping deadness finally in;
they know that chaos, if they fail,
becomes a city, and if they move
falsely then all their partial truths
become a stammering of blood;
they move with courage, perilously
in plights of incense as they breathe
freedoms tallowing coldly out.

Tending what you’ve got

Quint Studer writes on Strong Towns that “character counts” when seeking to create or conserve a sense of place in your community:

The less you look like everyone else and the more you look like yourself, the better off you’ll be. In fact, creating a distinctive sense of place is your competitive advantage. When a community’s leaders keep their focus on creating a unique place that people want to be, the local economy tends to thrive. Businesses want to move in. Young people don’t have to leave to find jobs. The best talent flocks to such communities.

When you cultivate a sense of place, not only will citizens spend their dollars at home, you’ll attract tourists as well. They’ll have a good time. And because you’re giving them something to talk about, they’ll come back—and they’ll generate great word of mouth that makes others want to visit, too.

It’s obvious when a community has created a strong sense of place. They know who they are and are always telling their story. They’re authentic. They’re warm and welcoming. They’re quirky and colorful. They have a sense of energy and life that you can feel when you walk around. So how do you create that? Here are a few tips: …

Take a good hard look at your downtown. How can you make it more vibrant? Is it walkable? Is there a great intersection that residents and visitors perceive as the center of life and activity in your downtown? Are there plenty of great places to eat and shop? Are there plenty of things to do, day and night? Are there cool living spaces to attract both young people and empty nesters? …

Know your story and tell it in a meaningful way. How can you immerse people in the experience of what makes your town unique? Take a cue from other towns that have done this. Hershey, PA, is known for the Hershey Company, and it has built its whole identity on a “chocolate” theme. There’s even a candy-themed amusement park, and the downtown streetlights are in the shape of Hershey’s Kisses. What is your town known for? Maybe it’s a crop like apples or blackberries, or a product like furniture, or a famous singer or historical figure. …

Assess what you have. What can you preserve instead of rebuilding? Are there old buildings that could be repurposed? People love to work, eat, shop, and stay in renovated factories and warehouses. Old buildings have a sense of character that’s hard to replicate. …

Remember that little things mean a lot. One of the best things I’ve learned from Strong Towns’ president, Chuck Marohn, is that small fixes can make a big difference. Just like a fresh coat of paint makes a home look new again, planting some trees or repairing a dilapidated landmark can have a huge impact on how your community looks. Green and clean matter. And first impressions count, so make sure your community has a good “front door” like a gateway or attractive sign to welcome visitors.

I took the photo that accompanies this excerpt in Georgetown on my way to work earlier this week. It’s a simple enough building, but it’s well cared for and it’s such a distinctive sort of blue. This scene captures what it’s like for a traditional sort of architecture to nonetheless stand apart without bombast and without disrespecting the experience of the place.

Prudence isn’t expediency

Russell Shaw on prudence:

People who want to understand prudence will do well to study St. Thomas More, a man who didn’t wish to be a martyr but became one anyway because he was convinced he had no other acceptable choice.

Prudence is widely misunderstood today. In everyday speech it’s a synonym for caution, even timidity, and by no means a character trait to be admired. Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas who has written wisely and well on the subject, remarks that in many people’s minds “prudence seems less a prerequisite to goodness than an evasion of it.”

But that misrepresents prudence in its classical sense. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “absolutely the principal of all the virtues.”

What is prudent is neither necessarily nor even often, maybe, what is expedient.

New York electric ferry service

As I was pulling up to the terminal at LaGuardia yesterday I snapped this photo of an old American Airlines facility, and not long after read about a company planning to launch New York’s first electric ferry service. The new electric ferry launch is planned for next year, to coincide with New York’s temporary closure of the Manhattan/Brooklyn L train. Micah Toll writes:

SW/TCH E-Mobility (presumably pronounced “switch”) is a new electric transportation company based around multiple modes of EV commuting. The company is planning to offer NYC’s first electric-powered ferry combined with a seamlessly integrated e-commuting fleet onshore. …

Their flagship e-ferry will be an innovative 150-passenger battery-powered ferry used to connect Williamsburg with the East side of Manhattan. The electric ferry will give SW/TCH members a way to beat the L-train shutdown while enjoying a comfortable, stylish, and emission free commute across the East River. …

The electric ferry, and all electric boats in general, feature a much quieter ride due to the lack of a standard diesel or gasoline engine found on most ferries. In addition to a more peaceful ride, the electric ferry will also include a large bar, coffee shop-style seating and outdoor decks, as well as membership perks such as locally crafted coffee and daily specials onboard. …

For the electric ferry, SW/TCH has partnered with Clean Marine Energy (“CME”), an impact-investing group focused on lowering emissions from the marine shipping industry through cleaner fuels and vessel electrification.

The electric ferry is planned to launch in 2019 and will be privately run by an existing ferry operating partner.

SW/TCH’s vision is perhaps overly complicated. Why not simply produce the electric ferries and focus on their success? But the vision for a seamless experience of hopping on the ferry and hopping off to electric scooters or whatever makes sense, insofar as commuters are going to need continue to their destinations in a cost/time efficient way. I’ve read about electric ferries before and I’d like to ride this one next year.

Eighteen hours in New York

A few scenes from a very brief visit to New York for last night’s Human Life Review dinner. Afterwards on the walk south on Park Avenue, as I was headed back to my Midtown hotel at 30th and 6th, I stopped to admire the Empire State Building. It was lit up in the colors of the American flag, shimmering white and alternating solid reds and blues.

It’s a wonderful city.

‘Great Defender of Life’ Dinner

I’m in New York today for the Human Life Review/Foundation’s “Great Defender of Life” Dinner. J.P. McFadden founded Human Life Review/Foundation in 1975; the Review is “an academic-quality journal devoted to civilized discussion of legal, philosophical, medical, scientific, and moral perspectives on all life issues.” In practice this covers “not only abortion but also euthanasia, suicide, neonaticide, genetic engineering, cloning, fetal and embryonic stem cell research and experimentation, and new issues as they emerge.”

Human Life Review’s archives might as well function as an archive of the American intellectual life movement since Roe, and its writers and contributors have in many ways charted out how to return America to a place where authentic, life-affirming choice is possible without the violence and self-harm inherent to our present system of law. Human Life Foundation, meanwhile, publishes the journal and also has provided something like $1.5 million to New York pregnancy resource clinics over the years.

Tonight’s “Great Defender of Life” honorees were David Quinn and Edward Mechmann, and each provided moving and passionate witness for the work of life in Ireland and New York, respectively. Prior to tonight, I had visited the Union League in Philadelphia and the Union League Club of Chicago, but never in New York. These are independent clubs, all created during the Civil War Era for the purpose of raising moral, a spirit of fraternity, and importantly financial and political support for the Union and anti-slavery cause. These institutions are monuments to another era of American conflict, and they’re also lasting symbols of hope for healing and a return to social unity.

David Quinn is Ireland’s best known commentator on religious and social affairs. He has been writing a national newspaper column since 1994. He wrote for The Irish Independent (Ireland’s biggest selling daily paper) for 12 years. Currently his column appears in The Sunday Times (Ireland edition). He also writes a weekly column for The Irish Catholic, Ireland’s biggest-selling Catholic paper. He was editor of The Irish Catholic from 1996 until 2003. He frequently appears on radio and television programs and also contributes to numerous magazines overseas, including Human Life Review and First Things. He has been a leading pro-life voice in Ireland for more than two decades. David is also founder and Director of The Iona Institute which promotes the right to life, marriage and the family, and the place of religion in society.

Edward Mechmann is an attorney with the Archdiocese of New York, where he works on public policy education and advocacy. He is the Director of Public Policy, and has worked for many years with the Family Life/Respect Life Office. He is also the Director of the Safe Environment Office at the Archdiocese, where he oversees their child protection programs.

Being comfortable alone, in public

I biked after work from Arlington into Washington to meet a friend attending a conference a few blocks from the White House. I got turned around biking through one of the circles, and ended up getting there late, but it’s good to be outside and to enjoy such a beautiful afternoon and evening in a place like this.

As I bike along, I like to try to guess whether the people I see live here and are going about their lives, or whether they’re out-of-towners or tourists. I like biking because I find it makes me less self-conscious, in the moments that we’re inclined to feel that way. The School of Life has a great piece on this topic, how to be comfortable on your own in public:

No one is born with a capacity to love and endure themselves on their own; we learn to soothe and care for ourselves by first experiencing the tender gaze of others, and then internalising their reassurance and kindness, replaying it to ourselves in isolated circumstances down the years. The lucky ones among us, those with no compunction about ordering a meal at a table for one, must – somewhere in the distant past – have grown secure through others’ admiration, by which we now ward off suspicions that the head waiter is sniggering and the couple in the corner are teasing us. We, who were perhaps at that time not much larger than a pillow, were lent a powerful sense that we had a right to exist, that we were an asset to the world, that others should be pleased to see us, which means that now, even when the caregivers are long-gone, the charge of love we imbibed lends us an impression that the laughter from the next table is innocent and that we deserve to be brought another basket of bread and the evening paper.

But the less fortunate among us have no such emotional blanket. Whatever our accomplishments or status, we are never far from a sense that everyone is mocking and would have good reason to harm us. We need, with a conscious effort, to do what others have learnt automatically. One side of the mind needs to comfort the other, must make the reassuring noises we never natively received, must soothe us because no one else ever did. Although we’re on our own in the restaurant at the moment, we must strive to hold on to a picture of the rest of our lives: two days ago we were laughing with our friends (of whom we have some great examples), tomorrow we’ll be in intense discussion with some colleagues: we have been loved and held tightly in others’ arms before. We’re on our own right now, but we’re not social outcasts after all.

We should remember – along the way – how little anyone ever thinks of us, in the best possible sense. We are for the most part gloriously indifferent to one another. The person cracking a joke with a group of friends has not rerouted their evening to mock us. The attractive individual deep in conversation with a companion may be talking about how lost they are in their new job. They aren’t speculating on how isolated and ugly we are. Those are voices in our heads, not theirs.

Roger Scruton on reason and faith

I’m sharing two excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World, one today and one tomorrow. Both come from “Believing in God,” his first chapter, and convey the challenge of belief in light of reason with the conclusion that what both faith and reason share is an interest in knowledge “beyond the horizon” of our world and a pursuit of transcendent experience. First, on approaching faith:

There are, it seems to me, two ways in to the topic of theology: the cosmological and the psychological. We can speculate about the nature and origin of the world, in search of the Being upon whom the natural order depends. And we can speculate about the experience of holiness, in which individuals encounter another order of things, an intrusion into the natural world from a sphere “beyond” it. Both ways point toward the supernatural. There could not be an explanation of the world as a whole in natural terms since the explanation must reach beyond the realm of nature to its transcendental ground. There could not be an account of holiness—of the “numinous”—that did not relate the experience to a transcendental subject. The experience of sacred things is, I have suggested, a kind of interpersonal encounter. It is as though you address, and are addressed by, another I, but one that has no embodiment in the natural order. Your experience “reaches beyond” the empirical realm, to a place on its horizon. This idea is vividly conveyed in the Upanishads, in which Brahman, the creative principle, is represented as transcendental, universal, and also as atman, the self in which all our separate selves aspire to be absorbed and united.

The skeptical response to those observations is to say that they are both illusions. It is an illusion that the natural world has some other explanation than itself. For what is explanation, if not the demonstration that some phenomenon belongs in the natural order, the order of cause and effect as this is explored by science? It is an illusion that there are sacred things, sacred moments, holy mysteries. For we explain such things as we explain everything else, by showing their place in the order of nature. These experiences arise from the pressure of social life, which causes us to read intention, reason, and desire into all that surrounds us so that, finding no human cause for those things that most deeply affect us, we imagine a divine cause instead.

… We cannot, for reasons made clear by Kant, reason beyond the limits of our own point of view, which is circumscribed by the law of causality, and by the forms of space and time. We have no access to the transcendental perspective from which the question of the ultimate ground of reality can be meaningfully asked, let alone answered. And we cannot, for reasons made clear by Hume, deduce from our religious experiences that they are not illusions. …

Reason aims of its nature toward a kind of final narrative of how things are, in which all the contradictions (which are contradictions only from a partial perspective) are overcome. If Hegel is right, then the cosmological path points beyond the edge of the world as science describes it, to a place where another kind of question can be asked, a question that cannot be answered with a cause, but only with a reason: the question “why?” asked of the world as a whole… We can answer such a question only by giving a teleological, rather than a causal, account of things. That account will make no difference to, and have no contact with, cosmological science. …

Of course there are idolatrous religions and religions that muddle the natural and the supernatural in ways that make nonsense of both. But there are also religions that turn their backs on idolatrous practices, that invite us to address the specific moments of ritual involvement with an alertness that reaches precisely beyond what is present to the senses, toward the perspective lying on the edge of things, which addresses us I to I. The narrative of a religion is like a commentary on these moments, a prop to be discarded when the experience, the sakīnah, has been fully grasped. This “reaching beyond” of the religious moment is not different, I shall suggest, from the transcendental urge of reason itself. Ultimately the cosmological and the psychological paths are paths toward the same destination, and that destination lies on the far horizon of our world. …

Big lakes, small ripples

Joseph Bottum writes on the Midwest and the prairies:

There’s a metaphor there, I suppose, in the way the white wake of the motorboats out in the middle of the lake turns to a small wash, a gentle swell, by the time it reaches the shore. Events in the national news are like this, in the small towns of the Midwest. There’s the roiling of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination over accusations that he assaulted a psychology professor, back when they were in high school, for example. The coming release of the Apple watch, Series 4. The loss of the aging New England Patriots to the Jacksonville Jaguars in football. The 12,000th blockbuster article about how Trump’s unpopularity has doomed the Republicans in this November’s midterm elections. Splashy back in D.C. and out in San Francisco, certainly. But just a swell, a small up-and-down motion, by the time it reaches the lake’s edge.

The metaphor is a reach, of course. A fun one, maybe: Will the waves caused by the national media’s distaste for Donald Trump, the relentless denunciations of all he does, splash high enough to swamp Midwestern politicians before the freeze of the election locks down the political season for another two years? Will a national repudiation of the Republicans raise the local waters enough to carry the Democrats to shore? But in the end the metaphor seems a failure, the figure more complicated than the phenomenon it’s trying to explain.

In truth, political views out on the prairie are fairly simple. They turn with the national tides, but more slowly and sedately. …

This is fairly level land, scraped smooth by the glacial ice sheets somewhere around two million years ago. West of the Missouri, the earth is rougher: the Badlands, the Black Hills, the high plateau rising to the Tetons. But to the east, the ice flow sanded off the peaks and filled in the valleys. And in their retreat, glaciers left behind the melt water that gathered in all the thousands of little lakes that dot Wisconsin, Minnesota, and eastern South Dakota.

These are the lakes the motorboats prowl. The water-skiers bounce in the white wake as the boats turn away from the far shore to take another lap. The children shout as they bob up and down in inflatable cushions tied to a line from the stern. In the bright sunlight, under the pale sky, hardly anyone wants to notice the leaves on the shoreline trees turning brown. The grass fading to a dry yellow. The long slant of the late afternoon sun. All the signs of fall closing in.

If it’s true that somewhere out there, in the vastness of the American prairie, that our politics “turn with the national tides, but more slowly and sedately,” then it sounds like the prairie is a place many of us want almost achingly to experience.