I’m a bioethicist, human rights advocate, and blogger based in Washington, DC.

  • Paris Commune

    Paris Commune

    A touching and fascinating anecdote on the Venus de Milo‘s near destruction during the 1871 Paris Commune disaster comes in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I’m including a bit of the wider context for this drama because it was one of the most touching sections in this great book:


    Like most of Paris, Washburne went to bed and slept through that night, May 21-22, unaware of what was happening, and like most of Paris he was stunned when he awakened to the news. The Tricolor flew atop the Arc de Triomphe, he was told by an excited servant at first light. The Versailles army had entered Paris.

    He and Gratiot both dressed at once and raced out to see with their own eyes. It was true. Others already on the avenue were happily congratulating one another on delivery of Paris at last.

    The regulars had marched in at Porte de Saint-Cloud in force at three o’clock the previous afternoon, and against little opposition advanced steadily along the Right Bank of the Seine on the avenue that connected Versailles and Paris, heading for the Commune stronghold at the heart of the city, at the Place de la Concorde.

    Nothing had foretold the attack. The Commune command was taken completely by surprise. As night came on and the Versailles troops moved forward in the dark, National Guard units manning the barricades at Porte Maillot and on the avenue de la Grande-Armée, beyond the Arc de Triomphe, hastily abandoned their positions, and so another corps of regular troops poured into that quarter of the city. An enormous barricade by the Arc nearly thirty feet high that had taken great labor to build “served no earthly purpose,” as Washburne observed.

    He and Gratiot followed the regular troops down toward the Place de la Concorde, fully expecting to see the National Guard defense there quickly overrun. But it did not happen. Orders had gone out from the Central Committee at the Hôtel de Ville to throw together more barricades, barricades “in all haste,” barricades in every direction. As reported later in Galignani’s Messenger, “Everyone passing was forced to bring forward a paving stone or an earth bag, and any refusal would have been dangerous. Women and children worked just as actively as the National Guards themselves.”

    At about nine o’clock the Communard batteries on Montmartre opened fire on the city and the shells came in “thick and fast.”

    Tired of waiting and doing nothing, Washburne mounted a horse and rode off to see more, entirely without concern for his own safety, it would seem. “5:45 P.M. Have just taken a long ride,” he wrote. “The havoc has been dreadful—houses are all torn to pieces, cannon dismantled, dead rebels, etc., etc. One can hardly believe such destruction.”

    “To arms!” read an urgent appeal posted by the National Guard. “To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls! Let there be no hesitation! Forward the Republic, the Commune and Liberty.”

    By late in the day more than 80,000 Versailles troops had arrived and the western third of the city was in their hands. Still, at the Place de la Concorde and elsewhere, the fighting raged on, gunfire and the screams of the wounded filling the night.

    So began “Le Semaine Sanglante,” the Bloody Week.

    On May 23 a city of 2 million people became a deafening full-scale battlefield. For twelve hours there was no letup in the roar of cannon. Montmartre, the symbolic stronghold of the Commune, fell to the regular army, the Communards leaving behind the dreadful spectacle of twelve regular soldiers who, because they refused to join the Commune, had had their hands cut off. Vicious street fighting took heavy tolls on both sides, but of the Communards especially. Some 4,000 Communards were taken prisoner. Any suspected of being deserters from the regular army were shot at once.

    The Communard positions at the Place Vendôme, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Palace, and Hôtel de Ville continued to hold.

    Everyone in Paris tried to keep out of harm’s way, indoors. Washburne, for his part, decided to make still another effort to save the archbishop. He went by carriage to the Versailles army headquarters at Passy to urge Marshal MacMahon to take possession of the Mazas Prison as quickly as possible…

    Two days earlier Police Chief Rigault and a coterie of extreme Communards had met in secrecy and ordered the execution of Archbishop Darboy and five other priests. The hostages were then moved from Mazas to La Roquette Prison in the Belleville quarter, which was still under Communard control.

    At approximately six o’clock on the evening of May 24, as Paris was burning, the archbishop and the others were ordered out into the courtyard of the prison. They then descended a stairway, stopping at the ground floor, where they embraced one another and exchanged a few last words. When a cluster of National Guard soldiers at the door made insulting remarks, an officer demanded silence, saying, “That which comes to these persons today, who knows but what the same will come to us tomorrow?” Darkness had come on, and the six prisoners had to be led into the courtyard and up to the wall by the light of lanterns. The archbishop was placed at the head of the line. At a signal the firing squad shot all six at once.

    Late that night the bodies were tumbled into a cart, hauled to nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, and thrown into an open ditch.

    At the Mazas Prison another fifty-three priests were murdered in cold blood.

    Nothing of these atrocities was reported until late the next day. Nor was it yet generally known that on the afternoon of May 24, before the execution of the archbishop, Versailles soldiers had found Raoul Rigault hiding in a hotel on rue Gay-Lussac and, upon discovering who he was, took him into the street and shot him in the head. The body lay in the gutter for two days. …

    Although estimates of the total carnage inflicted by the regular troops vary, there seems little doubt that they slaughtered 20,000 to 25,000 people. No one would ever know for sure what the total numbered, but nothing ever in the history of Paris—not the Terror of the French Revolution or the cholera epidemic of 1832—had exacted such an appalling toll. At one point the Seine literally ran red with blood.

    The value of the architectural landmarks and other treasures destroyed was inestimable.

    Olin Warner, like Washburne an eyewitness to events, was later to write a lengthy defense of the Communards, in which he compared their initial idealism to that of the American rebels of 1776. At the time, however, in a letter to his “Dear Ones at Home” he said he had seen more than enough. “I hope it will never be my lot to see a drop of blood shed again. I never want to hear another cannon roar as long as I live. … I am disgusted with everything pertaining to war.”

    On June 1, three days after the fighting had ended, Elihu Washburne went to La Roquette Prison to see the cell in which the archbishop had been held, and to pay homage at the spot in the prison yard where the archbishop and the five priests had been executed. The marks of the bullets on the wall could be plainly seen.

    The body of the archbishop, having been rescued from the ditch at Père Lachaise before decomposition had taken place, lay in state at the palace of the archbishop at 127 rue de Grenelle. For several days thousands came to pay their respects, Washburne among them. On June 7, still greater numbers lined the streets to see the funeral procession pass on the way to Notre-Dame, where services were held with all appropriate majesty. To Washburne is was one of “the most emotional and imposing services he had ever attended.”


    Charred beams, dead animals, shattered doors and window frames, the remains of broken lampposts, wagons, mountains of wreckage, and all the barricades were hauled away. With people working day and night, life steadily resumed. Omnibuses began running, restaurants opened. It was not that the horrors of what had happened were put out of mind, any more than the horrendous damage done vanished entirely from sight. The blackened ruins of the Palace of the Tuileries were to be left standing for more than ten years as a mute reminder. …

    The Hôtel de Ville would be rebuilt, the Column of the Place Vendôme put together again and restored to its old pedestal.

    The Venus de Milo was recovered from a secret hiding place and returned to the Louvre. The incomparable Greek statue, dating from before the birth of Christ, had been buried during the siege in, of all places, the cellar of the Prefecture of Police. Packed into a giant oak crate filled with padding, it was taken in the dead of night to the end of one of the many secret passages in the Prefecture, where, as only a few knew, a wall was built to conceal it. Stacks of documents of obvious importance were piled against the wall, then a second wall built to make it appear the hiding place was for the documents. When the Prefecture caught fire the night so much of Paris went up in flames, the anxiety of those in the know about the Venus was extreme. It seems a broken water pipe “miraculously” saved the statue. Once the smoking ruins were removed, the oak crate was found intact and brought back to the Louvre…

  • Beaver & Pugh

    Lexi Shimkonis reported on one of State College’s latest downtown developments earlier this year, which will be the demolition of this utilitarian building that I snapped a photo of during Homecoming last week:


    It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when I snapped that photo at the intersection of Beaver Avenue and Pugh Street, and it’s striking to me both because it captures that building in likely the best possible light, and also because it’s one of those photos that actually presents a scene far better than the architectural rendering of what’s to come presents things:

    But I am excited about this new building, which will probably start construction sometime next year. It’s the sort of building that is an improvement of what’s there precisely because it doesn’t try to do anything other than improve the corner where it will be, and aesthetically complement the height and only modestly ornamented style that characterizes so much of State College’s downtown.

    The rendering of what’s to come probably doesn’t really convey how incredibly tall it will look when standing on the downward-sloping Pugh Street when compared to the stumpy little three story building it replaces.

  • Bear those ills we have

    To be, or not to be, that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
    No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
    the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
    that Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
    devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
    To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
    for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
    when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    must give us pause. There’s the respect
    that makes Calamity of so long life:
    For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
    the Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, [F: poor]
    the pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay, [F: disprized]
    the insolence of Office, and the spurns
    that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
    when he himself might his Quietus make
    with a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
    to grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    but that the dread of something after death,
    the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
    no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
    and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
    than fly to others that we know not of.

    —Prince Hamlet

  • College Avenue scenes

    College Avenue scenes

    As Homecoming recedes in the mirror, Christmas and the wider holiday and holy season approaches. As I was walking along College Avenue this morning before leaving town, I noticed State College Borough crews hoisting the Christmas Tree at the Allen Street Gate. Christmas wreaths had already been placed earlier in the morning on the lamp posts lining College and Beaver Avenues. A somewhat less chilly, and certainly more festive-feeling, day after a frigid Homecoming experience. Autumn will soon give way to winter, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy both seasons and start thinking about ways this Christmas can be marked without allowing the hollow sentimentality or secular-type materialism to evaporate Advent’s essential mystery.

  • Penn State v. Rutgers

    Penn State v. Rutgers

    An absolutely cold and (for that reason) unpleasant Homecoming game against Rutgers yesterday. It was a beautiful afternoon, but just too cold. I hope Penn State doesn’t schedule Homecoming so far late into the autumn again anytime soon. In the stadium, I walked a complete circuit of the lower concourse to get a sense of the playing field from different angles. Ultimately settled in the upper deck at NDU, but filmed a few minutes in the third quarter and finally the Alma Mater post game.

  • Homecoming scenes

    Homecoming scenes

    I’m at Penn State this weekend for Homecoming. It’s the latest in the autumn that Penn State’s ever held Homecoming, and unless a serious upset occurs this afternoon, the Rutgers game represents a sort of neighborhood match between two nearby Big Ten universities. I’m sharing a short campus walk that I streamed on Facebook yesterday, along with photos I snapped in the afternoon. It was a beautiful day in State College, but incredibly frigid and slightly windy. Depending on how things go today, I’m not sure how much time I’ll spend in Beaver Stadium’s windswept benches.

    Gabriela Stevenson shares some of the history of Penn State’s Homecoming, past and present:

    The first ever “Alumni Home-coming Day” saw the return of over 1,100 alumni to State College for the third game of the season against Dartmouth, which Penn State won 14-7 in front of “the largest crowd that ever witnessed a game on New Beaver Field.” October 9, 1920 and the rest of that weekend, enhanced by old acquaintances, camaraderie, and a “smoker” in the old Armory, “was so great a success it promised to become one of the biggest events on the college calendar.”

    Decades after that first Homecoming Day, it was evident that this statement remained true. By the 1950s and 1960s, Homecoming weekends were packed with activities like an alumni golf tournament, a Homecoming ball, and a Nickelodeon movie night. …

    Now, as Penn State prepares for its 97th Homecoming weekend, Homecoming Alumni Relations Director Emily Heere says her committee seeks to carry out Homecoming’s original core mission.

    “…Homecoming offers the perfect opportunity for alumni to head back to Happy Valley and embrace not only the tradition and things that shaped them into the person they are today, but also the new changes and generations of people that have followed in their foot steps,” she said. “I think the only thing that has changed about Homecoming in terms of connecting with alumni is the fact that there are so many more opportunities now than there were in the past for Alumni to connect and stay in touch with Penn State.”

    But alumni will no longer get marshmallows stuck in their hair. There are no alumni golf tournaments, no semi-formal Homecoming balls, no cider parties. Pride Events Director Matt Monaghan recognizes the shift in event focus as a way to include more students in the festivities.

    “While alumni are highly encouraged to attend all Homecoming events, the events now focus on creating memories now that students can look back on when they visit Homecoming events as alumni,” he said.

  • Rockefeller Christmas Tree

    I had hoped to make it to State College earlier this week to see the Norway Spruce that has been cut down to serve as New York’s Rockefeller Christmas Tree, but it was a busier week than I had anticipated. I’ll look forward to seeing it in New York in December, knowing that a little bit of the Nittany Valley is bringing cheer to so many millions of admirers, visitors, etc.:


  • Literature can have a permanence to it that surpasses the ephemeral and fleeting nature of so much of our daily lives. Sententia Antiquae translates:

    “Among the elements that contribute to the higher evolution of human life, it looks as if one might make a broad division: some are progressive, so that each new stage supersedes the last, some are eternal and are never superseded. I will not try to specify the two classes more precisely; one might say roughly that material things are superseded and spiritual things not; or that everything considered as an achievement can be superseded, but considered as so much life, not. Neither classification is exact, but let it pass.

    Our own generation is perhaps unusually conscious of the element of change. We live, since the opening of the great epoch of scientific invention in the nineteenth century, in a world utterly transformed from any that existed before. Yet we know that behind all changes the main web of life is permanent.

    The joy of an Egyptian child of the First Dynasty in a clay doll was every bit as keen as the joy of a child now in a number of vastly better dolls. Her grief was as great when it was taken away. Those are very simple emotions, but I believe the same holds of emotions much more complex.

    The joy and grief of the artist in his art, of the strong man in his fighting, of the seeker after knowledge or righteousness in his many wanderings; these and things like them, all the great terrors and desires and beauties, belong somewhere to the permanent stuff of which daily life consists; they go with hunger and thirst and love and the facing of death. And these it is that make the permanence of literature.

    There are many elements in the work of Homer or Aeschylus which are obsolete and even worthless, but there is no surpassing their essential poetry. It is there, a permanent power which we can feel or fail to feel, and if we fail the world is the poorer. And the same is true, though a little less easy to see, of the essential work of the historian or the philosopher.”

    It’s in this that you can start to appreciate the distinction necessary when using the words “progress” or “progressive”, which is that the material and technological (and to a degree the social/cultural) space can experience meaningful progress, wherein one generation builds on the inheritance of what was received or corrects what was not received. But all personal and intimate progress begins again with every human person, as far as that person is able to develop the virtue and heart of a whole human being. Christopher Akers writes on the issue of moral progress:

    Monsignor Alfred Newman Gilbey, the one-time Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University, understood this change well. He once remarked to the British philosopher Roger Scruton that “we are not led to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of the Christian is not to leave the world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.” Most of us may still hope that what we do will benefit those whose lives we touch, but the internal struggle is already a heavy enough task.

  • Indiana Dunes State Park

    Indiana Dunes State Park

    Driving from Notre Dame to Chicago on Sunday, as we were nearing the border between Indiana and Illinois, we saw an exit for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park. On the spur of the moment, we took the exit—we had about at least an hour padding in our schedule before we really had to be at Midway/O’Hare airports, anyway. It was about a ten minute drive from the highway exit, and we arrived at Indiana Dunes State Park maybe thirty minutes before dusk, paying the $12 admission, parking, and heading to Lake Michigan’s southernmost shoreline:

    The park building there dates to at least the 1930s, but I think probably sometime in the 1920s. There was an historical sign that showed the building in that period when life in this park of the country was better in many respects than it might be presently. The “Devil’s Slide” was a slope that ran from the highest point of the natural dunes down to the lakefront—it was far more difficult to hike up than it looked from the bottom. I was panting by the time I made it to the top. What I filmed below doesn’t convey at all the steepness of this dune ridge; there was real risk that an incautious hiker could seriously injure himself by falling down the backside of this area. It sure was scenic; particularly for this Pennsylvania boy to see the unfolding autumn foliage mixed with sandy terrain and woods, in earnest and all together.

    A short hike through the dune ridge’s wooded path led to a climbing-down point on the opposite side of the Devil’s Slide and back to the lakeshore. I tried to keep my hand steady for this filming, but wasn’t successful:

    You can see in the last photo how rapidly we were beginning to lose the light, so we took in one more admiring view of this beautiful Midwestern scene before hopping in the car and returning to asphalt modernity.

  • Horses, cars, and fleets

    Elon Musk is having trouble ramping Tesla’s mass market Model 3 into production, and speculators of all sorts have an opinion about how rapidly cars will shift from internal combustion to electric. Bob Lutz’s opinion is worth probably more than most—he’s a former vice chairman and head of product at General Motors, and worked at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and others. He writes:

    For hundreds of years, the horse was the prime mover of humans and for the past 120 years it has been the automobile. Now we are approaching the end of the line for the automobile because travel will be in standardized modules.

    The end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location, you’ll get in, input your destination and go to the freeway. On the freeway, it will merge seamlessly into a stream of other modules traveling at 120, 150 mph. The speed doesn’t matter. You have a blending of rail-type with individual transportation. Then, as you approach your exit, your module will enter deceleration lanes, exit and go to your final destination. You will be billed for the transportation. You will enter your credit card number or your thumbprint or whatever it will be then. The module will take off and go to its collection point, ready for the next person to call.

    Most of these standardized modules will be purchased and owned by the Ubers and Lyfts and God knows what other companies that will enter the transportation business in the future. A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience. The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

    The tipping point will come when 20 to 30 percent of vehicles are fully autonomous.  … there will be a transition period. Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap or trade it on a module. …

    The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it — all will be gone in 20 years.

    Another way to think of this is the continuing democratization of travel generally, but freedom of movement specifically. When one can safely send their kid 1,000 miles away in an autonomous fleet vehicle for relatively little compared to flight—and direct from point to point—you’ve created an incredibly liberating set of social conditions where ties to specific physical place is likely to be even further reduced from what it is today.