Welcome

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

  • Brookland neighborhood scenes

    After being away for most of the summer, it’s good to be back home in Washington and to be enjoying the last weeks of summer. I’m spending today working outside:

    A few Brookland neighborhood scenes.

  • David McCullough, RIP

    David McCullough, America’s greatest contemporary historian, has died at 89. Miles Smith remembers McCullough as “a historian of the people” who “wrote about an America he loved:”

    In many ways, McCullough represented the last vestige of an older way of thinking about the United States. He claimed to be a historian of the people, and for McCullough those people were a relatively unified body of Americans who gloried in their flawed but nonetheless remarkable past. In an era of increased social and cultural Balkanization, McCullough’s works, his public speaking, and his presence pointed an imperfect people to aspire to the type of citizenship and nobility that Americans high and low could achieve. …

    Nature, and especially the seeming unquenchable American desire to conquer nature fascinated McCullough. His books on the creation of the Panama Canal, the Wright Brothers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Dakota Badlands, and the settlement of the Ohio River Valley showed how Americans rose to the challenge when confronted by natural obstacles to the progress of civilization. 

    McCullough’s appreciation of civilization, and particularly American civilization, is what made him so popular in his own era, and perhaps what made him less popular with the present generation of academic historians. His last book, focusing on the late 18th-century settlement of Ohio, was criticized by “a new generation of historians, scholars and activists” who “took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Native Americans.” This is now typical fare among historians, who embody a zealous binary amid their ideological venting. The particular book, The Pioneers, did nothing of the sort.

    What made McCullough so different from his critics is that he maintained affection and charity towards the United States and its peoples despite its flawed history. McCullough had the courage to admire American civilization and its virtues. He understood that history is not always good versus evil or in linear directions. History is complicated. McCullough understood this in ways that much of academic history does not.McCullough had the courage to admire American civilization and its virtues.

    Affection for his subjects characterized McCullough’s works. His critics complained about his obvious sympathies, but the proposition that a biographer or historian can truly remain neutral towards their subject has always been at best an aspiration and at worst a sort of fiction that academics tell themselves. McCullough was never an academic and even though he received an elite Ivy League education he never seemed interested in writing for the adulation of the guild. This, perhaps more than anything, gave him the courage to love his country, its story, and its people.

    In an era when the idea of preserving any transcendent national identity is often called a dog-whistle for far-right politics, McCullough’s books offer a substantive vision of an American nation committed to virtue, the common good, and human liberty.

    I think McCullough’s 1776 was my entree to his works. I still haven’t enjoyed all his books, but so far The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris ranks as my favorite.

    A decade ago Brian Bolduc at The Wall Street Journal interviewed McCullough, and he shared an observation in that interview that’s stuck with me ever since: “[Y]ou can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.”

    David McCullough helped us get to know both the somethings of our history and so many of the someones of our history. Those encounters with our own story that McCullough offers, with the good and the bad alike, make it possible to have a rightly ordered love for our country.

  • In State College for ten hours

    I drove up to State College early Saturday morning for my friend Kevin Horne’s wedding at Rolling Rails Lodge. It was a fantastic day for a drive and great day for Kevin and Jessica’s marriage to begin. I caught up with many Penn State friends from years past and met some new ones, too, before driving back at the end of this very full day.

    Looking forward to being back in town sometime this fall.

  • Among the many costs associated with our approach to COVID-19 has been massive “learning loss” for students. Nicole Asbury at The Washington Post highlights what has happened in the Washington, DC area:

    In the District, researchers found that students in third through eighth grade fell behind during the first year of the pandemic by about five to six months in language arts and mathematics, compared with test results from 2018-2019, before the pandemic began. Montgomery County — Maryland’s largest school district, with about 160,000 students — similarly found learning gaps in a study it released in the fall. Eighty-two percent of its second-graders, for example, were meeting literacy readiness measures during the 2018-2019 school year. But at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, about 47.5 percent were meeting those measures. The numbers also declined for math. In Virginia, 2020-2021 results show that 69 percent of students passed their reading exams, 54 percent passed math and 59 percent passed science. Those passing rates were a drop from the 2018-2019 school year, when 78 percent of students passed reading, 82 percent passed math and 81 percent passed science. (The test was not given for the 2019-2020 school year.)

    The scores were lower among the school districts’ most vulnerable students.

    Youth Leadership Foundation (YLF) was founded in 1997 to build character among the youth of Washington, DC, and has stepped in alongside others to serve children who have been hurt by the learning gaps and disengagement caused by our recent public policy decisions:

    The Youth Leadership Foundation’s summer program teaches core curriculums — such as math, English, science and social studies — and extracurriculars — such as sports and character development — over five weeks. Most of the students’ families learn about the program through word of mouth, because the foundation has partnerships with schools for after-school programs, too. The program also offers one-on-one mentoring.

    “The mentorship is the bread and butter of YLF,” said Janaiha Bennett, the foundation’s executive director. “We realize the importance of the individual — that everyone’s story is different, everyone’s needs are different.”

    For Kingston Kershaw, a rising fourth-grader at Tyler Elementary in the District, he said he’s excited to be back in the classroom in person, because he has always loved learning. He felt trapped while virtually attending school, because he was never able to go anywhere. Plus, as much as he loves his brother, the two would sometimes get tired of each other, he said after his one-on-one mentoring session at one of the campuses for the Youth Leadership Foundation’s summer program.

    The impact of YLF over so many years has been huge. I’ve served on the board for the past few years and have seen firsthand the energy and commitment of YLF’s team and volunteers. A snapshot of YLF’s impact:

    YLF students outperform their District area peers in educational trajectory and across measures of future leadership. Of the 4,000 YLF alums, 97% have graduated high school (compared to 60% of area peers), and roughly 80% have continued their education beyond high school at university, community college or trade school (compared to 48%).

    I’ll be running in September for YLF’s Race for DC Kids. If you have the capacity to contribute to YLF or to sponsor YLF’s Race for DC Kids, you can do that here.

  • Hadley Arkes soberly assesses the Dobbs decision in a letter in the Wall Street Journal:

    The majority in Dobbs sought [like the dissenters in Roe] also to avoid speaking those key words about the human standing of the child, though it would have been no strain to speak them.

    Following “conservative jurisprudence,” the court held back from pronouncing any judgment on the moral substance. That is why Justice Brett Kavanaugh could write that “many pro-life advocates forcefully argue that a fetus is a human life”—as though there has been no long-settled, empirical truth on this matter, found in all the textbooks of embryology and obstetric gynecology. If the court had set down those simple, key words, it is hard to imagine that your editorial board could offer a warning to “those who believe life begins at conception.” Clearly, there are people who affect to “believe” that pregnant women carry living, growing offspring that may not yet be human. The editorial urges pro-lifers on to persuade these people, but on the anchoring premise that there is no ground of truth on which to test the arguments.

    The court, in Dobbs, overruled Roe, and I have been working in that cause for 49 years. But Roe also changed the culture. It transformed abortion from a thing to be abhorred, condemned and discouraged into a thing to be deeply approved, even celebrated and promoted. It would be a folly to think that Dobbs did anything to impart moral conviction or momentum to the pro-life side as it seeks to rescue even a handful of lives from the 800,000 annual U.S. abortions. As we survey the debris from Dobbs, I wonder whether some of us came to hate Roe v. Wade more than we hated abortion itself.

    I was speaking with someone in their late 70s recently about the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade. This person asked me why the Court didn’t go further in Dobbs—why the Court didn’t rule to the effect that abortion was unconstitutional, and in fact not a matter for states.

    “No one,” this person said, “believed abortion was constitutional prior to the Supreme Court deciding it was in Roe.”

    Yet today, a majority of conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court appear to believe what those seven pro-abortion justices who imposed Roe believed: that the constitution permits abortion.

  • Leaving Rome

    Leaving Rome

    We’re flying back from Rome after six weeks in Italy this summer. We started with a week in Rome in June, spent July in Florence, and spent the past week and a half visiting Milan, Lake Como, Assisi, Teramo, and other parts of Abruzzo before these final two days back in Rome.

    We stayed at Hotel Mecenate, across from the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, for our final two days in Rome. And last night we made our way back to where we started, a short walk from Saint Peter’s Basilica, for dinner at Arlu. We ordered the rocket and pears salad with walnuts and parmigiano reggiano cheese as an appetizer and MaryKate and I each savored our entrees of sliced beef with rocket and parmesan flakes.

    We were fortunate to have a fantastic view from Room 301 at the Hotel Mecenate. We had our windows open to enjoy the fresh air and sounds of Roman life, and were struck by the grandeur and solemnity of the bells of Saint Mary Major.

  • Pescara

    Pescara

    We spent yesterday in Pescara, an Adriatic coastal city and the largest in Abruzzo with a 120,000-person population. Our view from the Hotel Esplanade’s Room 411 offered two panoramic views of the Adriatic, from windows floor-to-ceiling windows that we opened on arrival and didn’t shut until check-out. The warm sea air wafted throughout our room, and the view and closeness gave us something like the feeling of camping on the beach.

    We spent the afternoon at the public beach, washed up, had dinner nearby, and finished the night with gelato. We’re on our way by train and bus back to Rome today.

    I set up my tabletop tripod for my iPhone 13 Pro on our balcony, hoping that no early morning winds would abruptly carry my phone down four stories to the ground. It took nearly three hours of filming in Timelapse mode to capture these 37 seconds of sunrise.

  • The value of a college degree may or may not be diminishing, but we’ve known for a few years now that there is a growing gender imbalance on college campuses. Colleges are attracting more women than men.

    Where are young men to go? One answer: into trades where they can integrate mind and body in something closer to what the ancients would have called a real (meaning holistic) education.

    I learned recently of the founding of the College of Saint Joseph the Worker in Steubenville, Ohio, and their aim is just this sort of mind/body integrative experience:

    The College of St. Joseph the Worker forms students into effective and committed members of their communities by teaching them the Catholic intellectual tradition while training them in skilled and dignified labor. We teach our students to think, but also to pray, to love, and to build.

    Their vision statement is worth reading in its entirety. I’ll highlight just this:

    Students of the College of St. Joseph the Worker will graduate with a BA in Catholic Studies as well as a solid foundation in the skilled trades. Our goal is to produce faithful Christians who are virtuous citizens, intellectually formed, and capable of building up the Church in their communities. 

    Another integrated institution I learned about recently is Harmel Academy of the Trades, which is “a residential, Catholic, post-secondary, trade school for men” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their mission in

    – Helps students grow in holiness through a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
    – Prepares students to be technical experts in their chosen trade.
    – Supports business and industry by providing well-trained, hard-working, dependable and ethical workers.
    – Helps students understand and apply Catholic Church teachings on work.
    – Equips students with the skills and support to lead their future families.
    – Creates associations of Catholic tradesmen, with mentorship, fellowship, and social action.

    We need colleges and schools like these in every state. The more of these we have, the more the gender imbalance will, on the whole, resolve.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade triggered a wave of corporate pledges from Fortune 500 companies. Now that Roe is dead, states can go their own way on the issue of abortion. At least 26 states have or are moving in the pro-life direction, and the remainder are attempting a middle way or are pledging to become more pro-abortion than ever before.

    And lots of companies are doing what Disney, Mastercard, and Tesla are doing: offering to pay for their employees to travel from pro-life states like Texas to pro-abortion states like Illinois in order to ensure a child never sees the light of day.

    Fortunately, some companies are responding in an uplifting and empowering way: increasing parental leave, instituting child-care benefits, and even offering financial support for employees who would prefer to make an adoption plan.

    Meanwhile Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s head football coach, made headlines this week for promoting radical hospitality:

    Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh had social media abuzz with his remarks during an anti-abortion event last week where he was the guest speaker. The former NFL coach has since doubled down on his stance on ESPN, saying that he and his wife will “raise the baby” if family members, players or staff should a have an unwanted pregnancy.

    During a Right to Life event in Plymouth, Michigan on July 17 that both Harbaugh and his wife Sarah attended, the Wolverines coach told the audience why he’s “pro-life.”

    “In God’s plan, each unborn human truly has a future filled with potential, talent, dreams and love,” Harbaugh said according to multiple outlets including Sports Illustrated. “I have living proof in my family, my children, and the many thousands that I’ve coached that the unborn are amazing gifts from God to make this world a better place. To me, the right choice is to have the courage to let the unborn be born.”

    During an interview with ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski on Saturday, July 23, Harbaugh elaborated on his comments.

    “I’ve told [them] the same thing I tell my kids, boys, the girls, same thing I tell our players, our staff members,” the college football coach said to ESPN. “I encourage them if they have a pregnancy that wasn’t planned, to go through with it, go through with it. Let that unborn child be born, and if at that time, you don’t feel like you can care for it, you don’t have the means or the wherewithal, then Sarah and I will take that baby.”

    He continued when asked about his part in the rally.

    “Faith, family, football … those are my priorities. I just think that … the abortion issue is one that’s so big that it needs to be talked about. It needs serious conversation. What do you think? What do I think? What do others think?

    “It’s a life-or-death type of issue. And I believe in, and I respect, people’s views. But let’s hear them. Let’s discuss them because there’s passion on both sides of this issue. So when you combine that with respect, that’s when the best results come. … [I’m] just contributing to that conversation and that communication, which I think is really important, in my opinion.”

    What corporations, institutions, and leaders have to contribute to the conversation over abortion will shape the country—lives will be saved and lifetimes will be lived the more that we speak up for the natural right to life and our common responsibilities to one another.

  • Venice

    Venice

    We caught an early morning train from Florence Santa Maria Novella to Venice Santa Lucia station. We walked the narrow streets of Venice, prayed at the tombs of Saint Mark and Saint Lucia, enjoyed a latte and gelato at Cafe Lavena, and dipped our feet into the Venetian Lagoon before catching one of the last trains back to Florence.