Washington, by JUMP bike

Explored Washington today by bike. Walked from the Meridien in Arlington over to Fort Myer Heights to pick up the nearest Limebike. Rode it past Arlington National Cemetery and eventually across Key Bridge to Georgetown, which was as lively as I’ve ever seen it. Rode over to a friend’s old place on T Street for nostalgia’s sake, and along the way passed one of Uber’s JUMP bikes.

Since I was already sweating on the standard Limebike, I switched to the JUMP bike, which has an electric-assist motor. I think this was my first time riding an electric bike; it was incredible. The slightest pedaling effort is rewarded with assistance from the electric motor. I don’t think I broke a sweat again for the remainder of what turned out to be a 25 mile ride over the next few hours.

Rode the JUMP bike through Whitehaven Park, visited Washington National Cathedral, rode near the Naval Observatory and passed the Vatican’s embassy and the Islamic center, rode through Normanstone Park and back through Woodley Park before heading downtown along Connecticut, eventually passing Dupont Circle and Farragut Square and the Army Navy Club to the mall where I sat under the shade of a Constitution Gardens willow tree. After water and a quick bite to eat, rode on past the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and on to the MLK Memorial. Rested again for a bit under a tree at the Tidal Basin, watching the swan-pedal boats and other revelers enjoying a picture-perfect afternoon on the water. Then to East Potomac Park where I watched planes arriving and departing from Washington National Airport. Circled back to the Jefferson Memorial, then made my way slowly back northwest past Watergate before getting a bit turned around and eventually finding my way back toward Georgetown.

Rode past Holy Trinity just as a wife and husband were emerging, newly married with family and friends smiling. Locked my JUMP bike to a signpost in front of Wisemiller’s Deli and almost immediately encountered an older neighborhood man who asked why I looked familiar, and on spotting my Penn State baseball cap proceeded to ask me why Joe Paterno was scapegoated by Penn State’s trustees, etc. Eventually extricated myself from conversation and walked down into Tombs for an ale and early dinner where we caught the closing minutes of the Russia-Croatia World Cup semifinals.

After finishing the ale, hailed an Uber back to Arlington where I picked up my bag and headed to Reagan for my flight to Seattle.


Contain, deter, and undermine

Graham Allison writes on how American and China can avoid the “Thucydides Trap” wherein, as one great power rises to displace another, war tends to result:

…as China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.

Of the cases in which war was averted — Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany’s rise in Europe since 1990 — the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Although China’s rise presents particular challenges, Washington policymakers should heed five Cold War lessons. …

Lesson 5: Hope is not a strategy.

Over a four-year period from George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” which identified the Soviet threat, to Paul Nitze’s NSC-68, which provided the road map for countering this threat, U.S. officials developed a winning Cold War strategy: contain Soviet expansion, deter the Soviets from acting against vital American interests, and undermine both the idea and the practice of communism. In contrast, America’s China policy today consists of grand, politically appealing aspirations that serious strategists know are unachievable. In attempting to maintain the post-World War II Pax Americana during a fundamental shift in the economic balance of power toward China, the United States’ real strategy, truth be told, is hope.

In today’s Washington, strategic thinking is often marginalized…

As loud and frenzied as so much of America’s public discourse is at the moment, almost none of it seems to concern matters of long-term importance. Developing a grand strategy for countering China’s authoritarian communist regime should be the fundamental foreign policy task of American and European leaders.

Big, long-term bets

Morgan Housel on betting on things that never change:

Amazon’s focus from day one was as old as it gets. Selection and price. Businesses have pursued the idea for millennia.

Jeff Bezos once explained why this was critical:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ That’s a very interesting question. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two. You can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ Or, ‘I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little slower.’ Impossible. So we know the energy we put into these things today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

This is one of those important things that’s too basic for most smart people to pay attention to. …

In the last 100 years we’ve gone from horses to jets and mailing letters to Skype. But every sustainable business is accompanied by one of a handful of timeless strategies:

Lower prices. Faster solutions to problems. Greater control over your time. More choices. Added comfort. Entertainment/curiosity. Deeper human interactions. Greater transparency. Less collateral damage. Higher social status. Increased confidence/trust.

You can make big, long-term bets on these things, because there’s no chance people will stop caring about them in the future.

Filing this away.

America’s first allies

I’m in Washington, where I’ll be for the rest of the week. In honor of Independence Day, I’m sharing an excerpt from the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and then John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore:

Over two hundred years ago, near the site of the present-day Oriskany Battlefield Historic Site, there stood a thriving Oneida village called Oriska. In that village, Oneidas cared for their children and attended to their homes. They tended their crops, and stored the excess for the harsh winter months. They, like their colonial neighbors, lived their lives. Everything would change in a short time, however, as war came to the region and took its toll upon Oneida and colonist alike.

As with the other villages that comprised the Oneida Nation of over two centuries ago, the Oneida people lived under the fundamental principles of democracy. It was that belief in freedom that brought the Oneidas to the aid of the colonists during the Revolutionary War, marking the Oneidas as the United States’ first allies.

But it was not an easy decision. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprised of the Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca nations, could not agree at the onset of the American Revolution if they should war against the colonies. The Oneidas were opposed to any such hostility and because of their dissent unanimity among the nations could not be reached. Thus, the proposal to wage war as a confederacy against the colonists was defeated.

But just as the Oneidas had ties to their colonial neighbors, others within the confederacy had their own allegiances. It was therefore determined by the confederacy that each individual nation could decide for itself whether or not to engage in the war and on which side. The Oneidas chose the colonists.

“I often wish that I could look back through time and hear the words of my ancestors as they sat around the council fires deliberating on whether to join the colonists in battle,” said Keller George, Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation’s Council. “I wish I could listen to the wisdom of their arguments to join the United States and become its first allies.

“Our people have always made decisions based upon how it will affect the seventh generation to come. I know that the decision my ancestors made over 200 years ago, around those ancient fires, was made with the consideration for the faces yet unborn. I represent one of those faces and I thank my ancestors for their wisdom in choosing to aid this great country at its birth.”

Once the decision was made, the Oneidas, and their adopted brothers the Tuscaroras, entered the fray, fighting side by side in many crucial battles of the war…

John Paul the Great, speaking in Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore:

America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities.

One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure”. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: “how ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? …

Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. …

Christ asks us to guard the truth because, as he promised us: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8: 32). Depositum custodi! We must guard the truth that is the condition of authentic freedom, the truth that allows freedom to be fulfilled in goodness.

We must guard the deposit of divine truth handed down to us in the Church, especially in view of the challenges posed by a materialistic culture and by a permissive mentality that reduces freedom to license. But we Bishops must do more than guard this truth. We must proclaim it, in season and out of season; we must celebrate it with God’s people, in the sacraments; we must live it in charity and service; we must bear public witness to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

Catholics of America! Always be guided by the truth – by the truth about God who created and redeemed us, and by the truth about the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and destined for a glorious fulfillment in the Kingdom to come. Always be convincing witnesses to the truth.

Awakening the moral conscience (personally, and perhaps socially) is the most fundamental task that every generation in any society has for itself, but particularly in nations that claim an inheritance of independence and liberty—because the exercise of liberty always involves moral decision making. This is what FDR was speaking to in saying that, “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”

High temperature silver linings

I was walking through Old City, Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon when I looked down at my Apple Watch and saw that it was 98 degrees. It felt hot, but not that hot. Yesterday’s high in Philadelphia was 99 degrees, and today’s is expected to be 95 degrees—getting better as the week continues.

If you don’t enjoy this sort of heat (I do) it can be brutal. But I think it can be useful, at least in terms of reminding people to literally sit down and relax. We don’t do enough of that in a culture that’s more frenetic than it needs to be.

Growing up without climate control, I remember spending long mornings and afternoons in the heat, in a sort of suspended animation on the porch or under the shade of the giant birch or oak trees, or finding a hose someplace or making lemonade. And more than that, I remember specific experiences of those sweltering summer days more readily than I can recall other kid moments from other seasons.

Heading to Washington tomorrow for Independence Day, and spending the rest of the week there before flying to Seattle on Saturday evening.

‘News of the day’ is a figment

Neil Postman writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.

To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

To give still another example, one of more complexity: The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist—could not exist—in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.

This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

I wonder if it’s safe to say that every medium is defined, at least to a large degree, by the information it either excludes or diminishes in importance.

For the past number of years I’ve thought that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from advertising in daily life; that it’s worth paying for services and subscriptions that eliminate the noise, anxiety, and false urgency of advertising. And I think this is still desirable and valuable, but it’s worth reconsidering this to say that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from information-in-excess in daily life.

That is, a deeply lived, engaging, and meaningful life is one where noise of all sorts is kept to the barest minimum. How to do this, practically speaking?

The same thing, with white gloves

I missed the initial report last month when Pope Francis spoke bluntly about the use of abortion as a eugenic instrument:

Pope Francis on Saturday called the practice of having an abortion after pre-natal tests have discovered possible birth defects a version of Nazi attempts to create a pure race by eliminating the weakest.

Francis made the comparison in a long, off-the-cuff address to a members of a confederation of Italian family associations.

“Children should be accepted as they come, as God sends them, as God allows, even if at times they are sick,” he said.

Francis then spoke of pre-natal tests to determine if a fetus has any illnesses or malformations.

“The first proposal, in that case, is ‘Should we get rid of it’? The killing of children. And to have a more tranquil life, an innocent is done away with,” he said.

“I say it with pain. In the last century the whole world was scandalized by what the Nazis did to pursue the pureness of the race. Today, we are doing the same thing, with white gloves.”

Under Nazi eugenics programs, hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly sterilized and tens of thousands killed in an attempt to “clean” the chain of heredity of those with physical or cognitive disabilities.

Good for Pope Francis for speaking so clearly on this. Our individualistic, autonomy-cherishing, consumerist attitudes need these sort of gut-checks.

If we’re going to accept the logic that we can eliminate developing human persons due to predicted characteristics or disabilities, it’s hard to understand why we shouldn’t also accept Peter Singer’s logic that we should be able to eliminate born-but-undesired or born-but-ailing human persons for the same reasons.

And that would lead, certainly, to a freer and more autonomous society, but it would also be a liberty obtained by the strong at the expense of the weak in a society wherein no one’s rights are ultimately secure.

Develop your passion, don’t ‘find’ it

Cal Newport writing more on the problem of the “find your passion” line of thinking, and sharing Melissa De Witte’s piece suggesting “developing your passion” rather than “finding it.” Why? Because:

The belief that interests arrive fully formed and must simply be “found” can lead people to limit their pursuit of new fields and give up when they encounter challenges, according to a new Stanford study. …

…the adage so commonly advised by graduation speakers might undermine how interests actually develop, according to Stanford researchers in an upcoming paper for Psychological Science.

In a series of laboratory studies, former postdoctoral fellow Paul O’Keefe, along with Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton, examined beliefs that may lead people to succeed or fail at developing their interests.

Mantras like “find your passion” carry hidden implications, the researchers say. They imply that once an interest resonates, pursuing it will be easy. But, the research found that when people encounter inevitable challenges, that mindset makes it more likely people will surrender their newfound interest.

And the idea that passions are found fully formed implies that the number of interests a person has is limited. That can cause people to narrow their focus and neglect other areas. …

“Difficulty may have signaled that it was not their interest after all,” the researchers wrote. “Taken together, those endorsing a growth theory may have more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, which may help them sustain engagement as material becomes more complex and challenging.” …

“If you look at something and think, ‘that seems interesting, that could be an area I could make a contribution in,’ you then invest yourself in it,” said Walton. “You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment.”

Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, noted: “My undergraduates, at first, get all starry-eyed about the idea of finding their passion, but over time they get far more excited about developing their passion and seeing it through. They come to understand that that’s how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions.”

Syncs with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” thesis on how to obtain mastery of a skill or subject, and more than that, this syncs with common sense.

LOVE Park to Kansas City

It’s hot, humid, and beautiful in Philadelphia this morning.

I’m headed to Kansas City shortly to meet Bobby Schindler and attend the second half of this year’s National Right to Life Convention. Looking forward to hearing Wesley Smith, and potentially others if time allows.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann will be keynoting; his keynote at last month’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast was good. Melissa Ohden, who keynoted our Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia dinner last year, will be speaking too. I am interested in hearing Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under Trump, Severino’s Office for Civil Rights is attempting to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals in a new way.

But I’ll be in Kansas City mostly for meetings, and to catch up with Bobby Schindler before a few weeks of travel next month.

Anthony Kennedy

Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court yesterday. He’s the last of the Reagan appointees on the Supreme Court, and he’s the last of the 1980s high court justices. Kennedy turns 82 next month, and he’s earned retirement. Who comes next? And what sort of country will she or he help foster?

In January, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote on the Kennedy-era Supreme Court, and it’s unique tendency to “swing from side to side, dispensing wins and losses to the left and the right” in any number of 5-4 cases where Kennedy has been a pivotal decider:

When normal people find out that my job involves writing or thinking about politics, they sometimes ask questions like, “Who is to blame for the government shutdown?” Or “Will Donald Trump get reelected?” Or “Will Donald Trump get us all killed?” And I try to answer these queries quickly so as not to bore them too much: The people. Probably. And, I’m not discounting it, FWIW. Among people who also do this for a living, such as my fellow writers and editors at National Review, you have in-the-weeds conversations about “tail risks” to the whole system. You ask questions like, “Will the Senate still be around in ten years?” Or, “What would cause a regime change in the United States?”

And occasionally these conversations leave you with a thought that you can’t escape, even if you feel silly bringing it up. Here’s one that’s been bothering me lately. I’ve started to think that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may be the one man preventing the United States from political breakdown. …

The most salient feature of American political life is partisan conflict. Gerrymandering and other factors in elections have disempowered moderates in both parties and increased the power of activist groups in each political coalition. The closeness of presidential elections emphasizes that the country is divided in relatively equal camps. The American system, in the eyes of citizens, is functioning less and less like a federal system in an orderly republic. It seems more and more like a closely competitive mass democracy. So long as the presidential coalitions remain roughly competitive, partisans expect some victories in between their defeats. …

The Supreme Court’s role in this scene, with Kennedy as the swing justice, has been to moderate and restrain the ambitions of each party. Kennedy deals out victories and defeats to each side — giving slightly more defeats to social conservatives. In effect, he constrains what each side can do to the other. His mercurial jurisprudence replicates and even gives the savor of legitimacy to a closely divided country.

So I’ve started to worry that if the Court soon consolidates to the left or the right, partisans on the losing end of that bargain will swiftly lose faith in democracy itself. A non-swinging Supreme Court would give the impression of super-charging the ability of one party to act, and restraining its competitor. A consolidated Supreme Court could open up whole new fields of legislation for one side to act against the other. At that point, what would happen?

… I can foresee both parties’ reaching for extraordinary measures if they felt that the Supreme Court had become the cat’s-paw of one party. The obvious bag of tricks includes states’ trying to nullify laws. Or one party could try to pack the Supreme Court with new justices to rectify or reverse the consolidation.

In other words, I’ve begun to think that what’s left of our constitutional regime relies on the impression of legitimacy given to it by a swinging Supreme Court, the Kennedy Court. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the relative strength of our respective presidential coalitions and the respective health of the Supreme Court justices will align to keep the court balanced roughly the way it is, preserving what’s left of our constitutional order. But lately, I’ve begun to doubt it.

If the accidents of history have made Anthony Kennedy our philosopher king, his death means American regime change.

One of the reasons that Dougherty calls Anthony Kennedy our “philosopher king” is due to his 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey assertion that, in a single sentence, probably provides the key to understanding his approach to jurisprudence: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It’s this capacious and basically libertarian attitude that has supported his philosophical (if not jurisprudential) approach to sex, abortion, marriage, speech, and more. We’ll probably never have someone like Kennedy back on the court.

I think Dougherty’s analysis is overly dramatic, but it’s true that Kennedy (along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg) developed a distinctive cult-like followings among certain politico-types. With Kennedy’s retirement, and Ginsburg’s eventual departure, the court’s character is sure to change.