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  • Robert Caro: On Power

    Robert Caro’s “On Power” is a great 100 minute reflection on what has basically been the theme of his entire, extraordinary writing career. I transcribed this particular excerpt from his narration, where he talks about the impact of one of the most colorful stories from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I read earlier this year:

    For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the [Northern State] Parkway one foot. Jimmy Roth, who had watched his father and mother sweating side by side on the land, told me about how in years to come his father would keep talking, over and over, about what had been done to them. “I don’t know that I blame them for talking so much about it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll tell you, my father and mother worked very hard on that place, and made something out of it, and then someone just cut it in two.”

    Ina found some of the other families who were dots on the map, and I talked to them, so over and over I heard similar stories, about how Robert Moses’s Northern State Parkway had ruined their lives, too. The injustice of it. The wrong of it. There had been no need for the Parkway to run through the Roth’s farm. Looking at the maps it was clear that the route could have been moved south a tiny distance that would have saved the Roth’s farm and their lives, and the farms and lives of 22 other families with very little difficulty. To the south of their farms was an empty area of farmland. Robert Moses just hadn’t wanted to be bothered moving it, and because the Roths didn’t have any power, he hadn’t had to be bothered. And that was a lesson for me: regard for power implies disregard for those without power.

    And the Northern State Parkway is very clear demonstration of that. The map of the Northern State Parkway and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, is a map not only of a road, but of power, and what happens to those who are unwitting caught in power’s path.

    In the moments when I learned about James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, things changed for me. My idea of what the book should try to be changed. I saw what I hadn’t seen before. If my book was to analyze power fully and honestly, in all its facets, when I got to the Northern State Parkway, the story, if it was to be an honest story, could not only be about the construction of the consequences of the Northern State Parkway and the power of the robber barons. The story of the farmers was a part of the story of the Northern State Parkway, part of the Robert Moses story, part of the picture of power I was trying to learn how to draw, and not an incidental part, either.

    And that, I saw now, in that moment, was what I wanted my book to me. What I guess I always wanted my book to be. What my book had to be, if it was to accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish.

    In order to write about power truthfully, it would be necessary to write not only about the man who wielded power, and not only about the techniques by which he amassed power and wielded it, but it would be necessary also to write about the effect of power, for good or for ill, on those on whom it was wielded, on those who didn’t have power. It would be necessary to write of the effect of power on the powerless.

    There are, of course, personal implications in a decision like this.

    It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker, necessitated the sale of his house, involved desperation, and ultimately came to fruition to some degree from sheer luck. The Power Broker manuscript numbered more than one million words, in telling the truth of both the triumphant genius of so much of New York and Robert Moses, as much as it tells the truth about the true human costs of achieving the New York that today we think of as having been there as long as anyone remembers.

    Robert Caro spoke with Jeff Slate about On Power, which was assembled from two recent speeches, specifically addressing the question, “Do we need a Robert Moses today?” His answer:

    Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

    On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

    So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

    What’s so revealing about The Power Broker is that Robert Moses seized upon the unrealized power of public authorities to do more than any elected official ever could, due to the traditional limits and checks on the power of elected officialdom. In this way, Moses’s power was inexplicable and impossible to anticipate.

    Discovering how to effectively empower someone with the scope of Moses’s vision—while at the same time limiting his power—is consequently a riddle.

  • Shadi Hamid writes on Omar El Akkad’s American War and asks, “what holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?” Excerpting:

    During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?

    Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South:

    “I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.”

    Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.

    But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”

    There’s something to this, isn’t there? War and the urge toward it boiled down to the simple “pleasure of agency,” with so much justification as some kind of window-dressing for the latent violence in our hearts that flows from the desire to justify one’s existence by one’s own force of being?

    The “pleasure of agency” versus the law of the cross.

  • The Last Jedi

    On the spur of the moment last night I decided to see Star Wars XIII: The Last Jedi, booked a ticket, and headed over.

    I saw The Last Jedi at “Frank Theatres Montgomeryville” but when I first visited roughly 20 years ago it was called “United Artists Montgomeryville.” I remember that, because this theatre was where an older cousin Phil took me to see the original Star Wars trilogy when it was re-airing in a remastered edition in theaters in the 1990s. It was a great experience to binge on those movies in a single day, especially for a young boy, and I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since.

    In many ways, The Last Jedi seems to have finished the stories begun with Luke Skywalker in 1977 with the first Star Wars, and opened up new territory for Star Wars to grow into the future. Somewhat bittersweet, but time. And reassuring to see that Disney’s ownership of Lucasfilm won’t mean that every Star Wars to come will be nostalgia-heavy and sentimentalist.

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    Jacob Hall’s review/reaction largely mirrors mine, but it speaks explicitly about the plot. I’ve avoided most spoilers in the excerpt below, but read with caution if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to maintain your ignorance of it:

    With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams sought to prop up and revitalize the most popular film franchise in movie history, to preserve its qualities in amber for a new generation. The Force Awakens was very concerned about what you, the moviegoer and fan, thinks about Star Wars. It wants to please you. It wants to be comfort food. And it’s very, very good at that.

    But with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson wants to burn Star Wars to the ground. Not because he harbors ill will toward it, but because he loves it. He loves it so much that he wants to cleanse the garden and allow something fresh and new to grow.

    Luke knows that the Jedi must end, that they do not monopolize the Force, and that evil has flourished on their watch. But where Luke saw despair, Yoda sees a chance for renewal. Where J.J. Abrams saw a warm and comforting blanket that makes you feel really good, Rian Johnson sees that stagnation is the death of all things. Stagnation leads to Empires and First Orders. Hitting the reset button, breaking the machine, leads to revolutions. And after 40 years of circling similar ideas, Star Wars could use a revolution. …

    The beauty of Star Wars, since its earliest days, has been the depiction of heroes coming from every corner and every walk of life. A farm boy. A princess. A smuggler. They have no business saving the galaxy, but damn it, they have to! Who else will?

    And now we have an orphaned scavenger abandoned by her completely un-noteworthy parents, a conflicted deserter from a vicious military regime, and a skilled pilot with a lot to learn about leadership. The next generation of Star Warsheroes are born from disappointment, the disappointment of having to live in the shadow of heroes and the disappointment of having to fight the war that those heroes failed to actually win all those years ago. No one should have to do this. No young person should have to go to war. … They shouldn’t, but this is the hand that was dealt to them. And they’re going to fight because that’s what heroes do, no matter where they come from. …

    The Last Jedi feels like a movie young George Lucas, passionate and bold, would have made. It feels like a proper Star Wars movie by refusing to feel like a Star Wars movie.

  • Desolate places

    Sara Joy Proppe shares a beautiful but heart-rending encounter with an elderly woman in a big box store parking lot:

    A couple of months ago, I was leaving the store about 8:30 at night when I noticed an elderly woman pushing her shopping cart into the vast expanse of empty parking lot. The scene struck me as odd because, it being winter in Minnesota, the sun was well beyond set, the weather was nippy, and she appeared to be going in the direction of nowhere with no identifiable car in her line of sight. I shrugged it off and got in my car to head home. A few hundred yards later, as I was exiting the lot, there was the woman again except now she was waving at me. I slowed down and paused a moment wondering what to do. Did she need my help? Was I about to get myself into a situation with a “crazy” lady? I uttered a quick prayer for wisdom and rolled down my window.

    She politely asked if I was going in the direction of Western Avenue, which was along my route home. When I confirmed I was, she asked if I might be willing to drive her home. Though I knew better than to really be concerned that she might harm me, I ran through a quick mental checklist anyway of the ways one might avoid being murdered by a stranger. “Establish a personal connection” was one counsel that came to mind, so I asked her name and inquired how she had been planning to get home.

    “My name is Miss Mackenzie,” she answered. She explained she had been planning to take the bus, but it had gotten late, and the bus was so complicated anyway. Then she added, “And, it’s just so much nicer to have somebody to talk to.” I was sold. I made room in my backseat for her groceries and we began our drive home. I learned about her years as a flight attendant, what she studied in college, the places she had lived, the languages she spoke… She was a fountain of words. Arriving at her senior living facility, she thanked me and promised that whether it mattered to me, she would pray for me. The truth is, it mattered so much to me.

    Strong Towns provides the context for Sara Joy’s encounter, explaining what sort of things are important characteristics of great communities:

    Sara Joy’s essay below is simple and beautiful, and it highlights a tremendously important topic: the impact of our auto-oriented cities on senior citizens. There’s a popular trend in the media right now of talking about how traditional downtowns and urban cores are the “playgrounds of the rich” where young people flock so that they can walk to breweries and restaurants and live in trendy converted warehouses… In fact, walkable neighborhoods are attractive to and needed for people of all ages. Seniors in particular benefit from neighborhoods where they can safely run errands, visit friends, and go about their days without needing a vehicle, since many of them cannot drive.

    Unfortunately, most of our cities are designed in a way that makes life nearly impossible for people who don’t drive. And the dangers of un-walkable neighborhoods where cars speed through and pedestrians must contend with crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks, unsafe intersections, and so on… well they’re actually most harmful to the most vulnerable members of our communities: kids and seniors. A simple moment in a grocery store parking lot brought that home for Sara Joy…

  • I wrote earlier this year soliciting audio, memories, items, etc. from Penn State’s student broadcasting alumni for a growing permanent archive, and more recently on the news of Penn State’s “Student Broadcasting” historical marker placed in from of Pattee/Paterno Library just before the start of the fall semester. I also visited the old WDFM headquarters in Sparks Building and made a short video of the Student Broadcasting marker for those who can’t visit it in person.

    Why do I think Penn State student broadcasting still matters in a world where content can be created and consumed instantaneously? Why does The LION 90.7fm—the heir to WPSC, WDFM, and WPSU—still matter for Penn State students?

    For the reason I shared with Penn State News earlier this year: “While it’s a fact that student broadcasting has always been made possible by technology, its true power has always been in empowering the human voice.”

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    What The LION 90.7fm does, and what its predecessors we honor did in years past, is provide a specific place where young people and community members can come together and truly learn from each other. It provides a place where the human voice can be fine tuned, where a Penn Stater can learn how to speak in a way that’s compelling and to earn the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. It provides an extracurricular sort of classroom for learning about how to be a positive public citizen along with a few dozen other Penn Staters. And it provides a place for students to share great music, the news and life of the community, and the spirit of each class with anyone who might want to hear. It’s a place that reminds us that what we say, and the things we create, matter to a whole community and can change lives, careers, and influence others in all sorts of unexpected and unplanned, positive ways.

    We’ve wanted to support Penn State student broadcasters for a long time. It always amazed me that, despite a history dating to the Senior Gift of the Class of 1912 that enabled the first student radio experiments, there has never been a formal scholarship to support students involved with student broadcasting.

    That changed when Mike Walsh, an alumnus of The LION 90.7fm, came to me not long ago and committed $25,000 toward a necessary $50,000 to create the first permanent annual scholarship for Penn State student broadcasters. Thanks to Mike’s gift, I signed the paperwork committing the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group to raise that remaining $25,000 no later than June 30, 2019. I’ve been confident that alumni will step up with contributions of all sizes to help us reach this goal, and I’m writing now to ask if you’ll be one who steps up and makes a gift before the end of this year.

    cropped-psaa_ma_rgb_2c1.pngWe’ve already raised ~$7,500 of the remaining $25,000, and we’re aiming to raise a final ~$2,000 by December 31st. Next year, we’re aiming to raise ~$8,500. That would leave ~$7,500 to raise in 2019 and ensure we reach our $50,000 goal to make this scholarship permanent.

    Even better, Penn State will double match the annual scholarship available to members of The LION 90.7fm, which means that by helping us reach this $50,000 goal, an annual ~$7,200 in scholarship assistance will be available for Penn State student broadcasters going forward, every year.

    I only write to appeal for gifts like this once per year, and now is that time for this year. Will you make a gift today (or later this month) to help us raise our remaining $2,000 goal before December 31st?

    Make a one time, tax deductible gift here, or consider signing up as a recurring scholarship donor directly through Penn State.

    As alums of WPSC, WDFM, WPSU, WKPS, or any of the old residence hall stations, I think we have some duty to the students of today who’ve followed in our footsteps to make life better for them than it was for us. To make Penn State just a little bit better by building up student broadcasters and making it better than we found it.

    That’s ultimately what I’m asking you to consider, if you’re in a position to make a gift.

  • Snowfall in State College

    BlueWhiteTV produced this calm and enchanting short film, “A Snowy Day in Happy Valley,” shot last winter. It captures some of the most beautiful spaces in town and on campus:

    It would be beautiful to watch a similar video with scenes from Mount Nittany, Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, the Indian Steps, and other wilder spots in and around our valley.

    When people talk about there being “something in the water up there in Happy Valley,” little vignettes like this do so much to answer why that feeling exists. That sense of a specialness of place or of a genius loci exists because there’s real community there, and real little towns with main streets, and a beautiful and coherent and aesthetically complementary campus, and a charming and architecturally layered State College borough, and wonderful little hamlets surrounding them on all sides.

  • Dandelion

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    The Dandelion at 18th and Sansom in Center City, Philadelphia is one of my favorite spots. It’s the sort of place you can dress up for or dress down for without feeling out place, which means that even a spontaneous dinner can have a degree of class and character and an overall tone that’s tough for many places to offer so easily upon walking through the door.

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    It’s one of the many great spots in Center City that has an energy that flows out into the streets in warmer weather, and that prompted an older visiting friend this year in the warmer autumn who hadn’t spent time in Philadelphia in many years to comment that Center City felt “practically European” in the sense of being walkable and lively and “tight” even late into the night.

  • Greek generalists

    Edith Hamilton writing in The Greek Way on Socrates:

    Through the dialogues moves the figure of Socrates, a unique philosopher, unlike all philosophers that ever were outside of Greece. They are, these others, very generally strange and taciturn beings, or so we conceive them, aloof, remote, absorbed in abstruse speculations, only partly human. The completest embodiment of our idea of a philosopher is Kant, the little stoop-shouldered, absent-minded man, who moved only between his house and the university, and by whom all the housewives in Königsberg set their clocks when they saw him pass on his way to the lecture-room of a morning. Such was not Socrates. He could not be, being a Greek. A great many different things were expected of him and he had to be able to meet a great many different situations. We ourselves belong to an age of specialists, the result, really, of our belonging to an age that loves comfort. It is obvious that one man doing only one thing can work faster, and the reasonable conclusion in a world that wants a great many things, is to arrange to have him do it. Twenty men making each a minute bit of a shoe, turn out far more than twenty times the number of shoes that the cobbler working alone did, and in consequence no one must go barefoot. We have our reward in an ever-increasing multiplication of the things everyone needs but we pay our price in the limit set to the possibilities of development for each individual worker.

    In Greece it was just the other way about. The things they needed were by comparison few, but every man had to act in a number of different capacities. An Athenian citizen in his time played many parts. Æschylus was not only a writer of plays; he was an entire theatrical staff, actor, scenic artist, costumer, designer, mechanician, producer. He was also a soldier who fought in the ranks, and had probably held a civic office; most Athenians did. No doubt if we knew more about his life we should find that he had still other avocations. His brother-dramatist, Sophocles, was a general and a diplomat and a priest as well; a practical man of the theatre too, who made at least one important innovation. There was no artist class in Greece, withdrawn from active life, no literary class, no learned class. Their soldiers and their sailors and their politicians and their men of affairs wrote their poetry and carved their statues and thought out their philosophy. “To sum up”—the speaker is Pericles—“I say that Athens is the school of Greece and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace”—that last word a touch so peculiarly Greek.

    So Socrates was everything rather than what we expect a learned man and a philosopher to be. To begin with, he was extremely social; he delighted above all in company.

    What is a criticism of a society, like our modern and globalized civilization, that prioritizes specialization and specialists? The witness of Greek history might suggest that specialization limits the ability of any one person to develop his own soulfulness or practical talents.

    In other words, an education in a society of specialists would naturally leave out enormous swaths of general, soul-enriching knowledge. The society as a whole is enriched by the abundance that specialization enables in material terms, but the individuals within that society might be left poorer and less intellectually and spiritually enriched than in a generalist’s society more concerned with the Greek’s sense of telos and love of arete.

    A value of an aristocratic (or semi-aristocratic) class in a democratic/specialized society might be to carve out a certain social space where at least a fragment of society can be less specialized and more generally developed. But it’s difficult to speak about this sort of thing, though, first because in the American mind aristocracy is fundamentally opposed to equality and egalitarian sensibility, and also because the sort of “generalist aristocracy” that might be useful in our society would not be a caste aristocracy of birth, but as much as possible it would be an organic, naturally occurring class. Aristocracy is therefore probably a poor and confusing word to use for the goal of developing a generalist, humanely developed number of human persons.

    If nothing else, Edith Hamilton’s Socrates and others provide examples of what’s possible when we remember that a man good with numbers doesn’t merely have to devote himself entirely to accounting.

  • Considering dimensions

    Reading Fr. Edwin Abbot’s “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” earlier this month led me to re-watch Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which led me to Michael Arbeiter’s writing on the concept of the fourth and fifth dimensions. I’m excerpting his explanation of just the fourth dimension:

    Time, essentially. Picture yourself at this very moment. Now, imagine yourself five minutes ago — or five days, or five years, or (if you want to really blow your own mind) five centuries. To grasp a world observed from the Fourth Dimension (as ours is from the Third), picture each of these variations of yourself as physically connected along the line of time. Though it’s tougher to picture, the jump from D3 to D4 exists in the same fashion that the previous jumps (D1 to D2 and D2 to D3) do.

    Think of it as such: If you view the abstract concept of a line from another angle, you’ll see a plane — a revelation that the unfeasibly thin collection of points you once saw was only one facet of the physical object you had been observing: a measure of its length.

    Do this again when you shift from looking at a plane to looking at a standard object or person. The plane was a motionless vantage point of said thing, a representation of one side of it (that containing its first two dimensions) without perspective of its depth. Turning physically to look beyond this single face brings you to Dimension 3.

    Perform that same song and dance once more and you’re in Dimension 4, no longer looking at an object from the single face of its three special dimensions. Just as you saw a line, retroactively, as one face of a plane, and a plane as one face of an object, any object as we know it is really just one face of a timeline. If you were to stand outside of time and shift rapidly across a given line, you’d see all the conceivable iterations of that object — its past, present, and future incarnations, like a flipbook. Imagine those singular frames strung together endlessly (meaning, for us in both directions. Picturing an object as such gives you a view from the Fourth Dimension.

    We say that God is being itself, the basis for all contingent existence. God, then, would both transcend every dimension, as much as he would be the basis for each. We contingent, finite creatures are “actors on a stage” whose limits we strain to reach and understand through scientific inquiry.

    Someday, maybe, our contingency may be better understood if we can somehow reach beyond our three-dimensionality—beyond time, which is to speak of the sort of transcendence that we believe characterizes God. But it also seems that if were to achieve that, we would no longer be human in the sense we are now. We would have to die, in fact, because one of the characteristics of human beings is their finite, three dimensional nature. Christian theology holds that perfected and resurrected man retains the body, but the true implications of relationship with God are unknowable beyond that.

    Christopher Nolan’s hopeful film depicts a scenario were we might transcend our humanity without losing it.

  • Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

    I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

    Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:

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