Welcome

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

  • I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:

    Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

    Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

    To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

    On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.

    What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.

    Building a Culture of Reason

    I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.

    And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

    Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

    I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …

    The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

  • Rathskeller

    Rathskeller

    I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

    Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:

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    The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

    Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

    Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

    “My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

    Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

    Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

    In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

    When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

    We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

    Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

    If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

    Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

    If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

    The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

    Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

    It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

    It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

    It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

    It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

    It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

    “A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

    Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

    All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

    I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

    When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

    We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

    We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

    In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

    When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:

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    Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

    And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

    To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.

  • Ross Ulbricht

    Brian Doherty reviews Nick Bilton’s “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road:”

    Bilton rushes through Ulbricht’s trial. He does not discuss, even to debunk, the legal problems with the prosecution that Ulbricht’s lawyers have brought up. He never addresses any of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the case, such as what Ulbricht’s team argues was an unconstitutionally broad search of the contents of his laptop. He doesn’t mention that the story he repeats uncritically about how the FBI found the Silk Road server has been declared impossible by various computer experts, or that the government has provided no verifiable corroboration for it and didn’t put the agent in question on the stand for cross-examination.

    Nor does he discuss some obvious alterations in the computer records from Ulbricht’s stolen laptop—discovered by his lawyers after the trial—or the fact that someone was logging into Silk Road servers as “Dread Pirate Roberts” after Ulbricht was behind bars. When discussing the second set of alleged murders-for-hire, he lets nearly 100 pages pass before he lets the reader know that the killings never happened.

    And then there’s the book’s end, which robs the cops’ whole cat-and-mouse game of any real meaning.

    The conclusion calls back to the book’s opening, when a Homeland Security agent discovers an MDMA pill in some mail that a colleague blithely decided to open. (Bilton’s authorial voice sees nothing problematic in police opening any mail they want from overseas, a sad legal reality that’s key to many aspects of this story.) In the book’s final anecdote, with Ulbricht in prison for life, that same agent encounters a package with 200 such pills.

    All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht, all the lives upended and community destroyed, were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website.

    And they always will be. Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large. The pointless quest to arrest him did nothing to kill that innovation.

    Yet the people who dedicated their time—and our money—to “taking him down” are the heroes of this narrative. Bilton’s book does what he thinks it does: It tells a harrowing and depressing story of a moral compass gone hideously askew, destroying lives. But that broken compass isn’t Ross Ulbricht’s.

    I met Ross Ulbricht at Penn State in 2008, when I was an undergrad and he was working on his master’s degree. We only interacted maybe twice, and I doubt he would have any memory of me, but I remember him. When news of the Silk Road trial broke a few years ago, I was amazed that the same Ross Ulbricht was the “Dread Pirate Roberts” referenced in the federal allegations.

    Ross’s sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, given his age, given the nonviolent nature of his offenses, and given the corruption of the FBI agents who built the case against him, is a travesty.

  • Student debt and outcomes

    Far better than legislation to socialize the cost of college education would be for Congress to ensure interest rates for loans reflected the true risks/rewards behind specific colleges and degrees. Nick Phillips lays out “how we got here” and the specifics of what a modest but important market-based reform to American higher education policy might be:

    Total student loan debt has tripled since 2004 and currently amounts to $1.31 trillion, making it the largest consumer debt category in the country behind mortgage debt. Current default rates stand at 11 percent, eerily mirroring the peak of mortgage delinquency rates during the subprime crisis. And student loans carry the highest delinquency rate of any category of consumer borrowing. This should worry everyone.

    The growth of student loan debt has depressed home ownership and consumption, creating an ever-growing headwind to economic growth. Missed payments ruin the credit ratings of individual borrowers and limit their capacity to assume risk—for example by starting a new business or moving to a new state.

    The harms aren’t just economic. By dampening entrepreneurialism and creating a new generation of immobile, risk-averse young people, student debt actually has the capacity to change our national character. Borrowers have lost confidence in themselves and have turned instead to government for protective bailouts.

    Hopelessness is festering into radicalism. Young people are furious with these restraints on their mobility, and currently that fury is being channeled by Bernie Sanders with his plan to socialize the cost of public university for all students. Instead of ceding this all-important ground to progressive activists, conservatives should be leaping over themselves to propose solutions to this catastrophe. After all, it was created by the federal government.

    That federal government holds over a trillion dollars of student loan debt, and taxpayers are expected to take a net loss of $170 billion on these loans over the next decade. And the losses will only get worse. The easy availability of federal aid incentivizes universities to keep raising tuition. Taxpayers cover those costs upfront in the form of federal aid, while the universities have no skin in the game if their students default after graduating. Tuition thus goes up and up, and the dominant policy response is always to make federal aid even more available, inflating the bubble further. …

    When the government keeps interest rates artificially low for degrees that in fact carry a high risk of default, it induces more people to sign up for risky programs. Interest rates are supposed to act as a signal that such programs are not good investments. Absent that signal, students with unsophisticated understandings of personal finance and the labor market (and hopped up on Baby Boomer platitudes about following your passion at all costs) see no reason not to go deep into the red to attend a barely accredited university and major in film studies. …

    The easy availability of federal money disincentivizes universities from lowering tuition or improving the quality of their education, while incentivizing bad universities that sell a terrible product to stay open. Under this scheme, student borrowers and taxpayers suffer together. Every incentive is misaligned. An injection of market principles is essential medicine.

    The example Nick cites, of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, is devastating. No way that institution stays open, except for government policy that enables easy student debt from credulous young people:

    The largest law school in the country is Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Its tuition is $50,790 per year, roughly equivalent to top law schools like Yale ($59,865), Berkeley ($52,654), and UT Austin ($50,480). And of course, the government will help you borrow at the same rate to attend Cooley as those other schools. But Cooley is not these other schools. Cooley is the worst subprime risk imaginable. Seventy-five percent of its graduates were not employed in the legal field one year after graduation. Fifty percent of its graduates weren’t employed at all. No rational lender would touch it, but the government’s drive for equity keeps it open. For the sake of its prospective students, Cooley must be made to get cheaper, get better, or close.

    At some point, when the student debt bubble bursts, many people will be crying alligator tears and putting on a show to ask, “How could this happen?” Anyone who cares enough to pay attention to this issue knows exactly what’s happening—but it’s so much more attractive to get paid in whatever way by exploiting the present system, than to agitate for its collapse.

    Those hardest hit are the students and professors themselves, but the lie that “access to higher education” is always and everywhere a path to success is too sweet a promise to contest—even if generations are stuck with trillions in debt to finance a law degree that’s left them jobless.

    If I were a trustee or administrator in higher education, I would prepare for the inevitable shocks to come by trying to make my institution not the “most student friendly” college, but actually the “most professor friendly” college. Walking down that path ensures a robust college for decades to come, led by sparkling talent who will ensure young people continue to enroll even if debt-financed tuition becomes harder to obtain.

    And it’ll be a heck of a lot more just for the professors and students, too—ostensibly the people who are at the heart of any great college.

  • Anti-culture

    Patrick J. Deneen writes on a little-perceived aspect of our present political/social moment in America and most Western democracies: that we generally engage in a debate between two forms of Liberalism, rather than liberalism versus something else. And the great problem of our present debates is that liberalism (either classical or progressive) both seem to result in what Deneen refers to as an anti-culture:

    America is a nation in deep agreement and common belief. The proof lies, somewhat paradoxically, in the often tempestuous and increasingly acrimonious debate between the two main US political parties. The widening divide represented by this debate has, for many of us, defined the scope of our political views and the resultant differences for at least the past one hundred years. But even as we do tense and bruising battle, a deeper form of philosophical agreement reigns. As described by Louis Hartz in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, the nature of our debates themselves is defined within the framework of liberalism. That framework has seemingly expanded, but it is nonetheless bounded, in as much as the political debates of our time have pitted one variant of liberalism against another, which were given the labels “conservatism” and “liberalism” but which are better categorized as “classical liberalism” and “progressive liberalism.” While we have focused our attention on the growing differences between “classical” and “progressive,” we have been largely inattentive to the unifying nature of their shared liberalism.

    While classical liberalism looks back to a liberalism achieved and lost—particularly the founding philosophy of America that stressed natural rights, limited government, and a relatively free and open market, “progressive” liberalism longs for a liberalism not yet achieved, one that strives to transcend the limitations of the past and even envisions a transformed humanity, its consciousness enlarged, practicing what Edward Bellamy called “the religion of solidarity.” As Richard Rorty envisioned in his aptly titled 1998 book Achieving Our Country, liberal democracy “is the principled means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence.… Democratic humanity…has ‘more being’ than predemocratic humanity. The citizens of a [liberal] democratic, Whitmanesque society are able to create new, hitherto unimagined roles and goals for themselves.”

    In the main, American political conflicts since the end of the Civil War have been fought along this broad division within liberalism itself. We have grown accustomed to liberalism being the norm and defining the predictable battlefield for our political debates. Largely accepting at least the Hartzian view, if not also Fukuyama’s claim that liberalism constitutes the “end of history,” we have been so preoccupied with the divisions and differences arising from these two distinct variants of liberalism that our debate within the liberal frame obscures from us an implicit acknowledgment that the question of regime has been settled—liberalism is the natural order for humanity. Further, the intensifying division between the two sides of liberalism also obscures the basic continuities between these two iterations of liberalism, and in particular makes it nearly impossible to reflect on the question of whether the liberal order itself remains viable. The bifurcation within liberalism masks a deeper agreement that has led to the working out of liberalism’s deeper logic, which, ironically, brings us today to a crisis within liberalism itself that now appears sudden and inexplicable.

    What is especially masked by our purported choice between primary allegiance to classical liberalism’s emphasis on a free market and limited government, on the one hand, and progressive liberalism’s emphasis on an expansive state that tempers the market, on the other, is that both “choices” arise from a basic commitment of liberalism to depersonalization and abstraction. Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism seems most likely to secure human goods—the space of the market, which collects our seemingly limitless number of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding any specific thought or intention from us about the wants and needs of others; or the liberal state, which, via the mechanism of taxation and depersonalized distribution of goods and services, establishes standard procedures and mechanisms to satisfy the wants and needs of others that would otherwise go unmet or be insufficiently addressed by the market.

    The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of the state’s efforts to redress injustices masks the reality that the two grow constantly and necessarily together: Statism enables individualism; individualism demands statism. The creation of the autonomous individual, that imaginary creature of Hobbes and Locke, in fact requires the expansive apparatus of the state and its creation, the universal market, to bring it into existence. And, as Tocqueville predicted, once liberated, the individual no longer has reliable personal networks to which to turn for assistance, and instead looks for the assistance of the state, which grows further to meet these insistent demands. While the battle is waged between liberalism’s two sides, one of which stresses the individual and the other the need for the redress of the state, liberalism’s constant and unceasing trajectory has been to become both more individualistic and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other achieves (and fails) in the opposite direction; rather, both move simultaneously together, as a matter of systemic logic that follows our deepest philosophical premises.

    The result is a political system that trumpets liberty, but which inescapably creates conditions of powerlessness, fragmentation, mistrust, and resentment. The liberated individual comes to despise the creature of its making and the source of its powerlessness—whether perceived to be the state or the market (protests to the former represented by the Tea Party and to the latter by Occupy Wall Street). The tools of liberalism cease to be governable and become instead independent forces to which disempowered individuals must submit—whether the depersonalized public bureaucracy or depersonalized globalizing market forces, aided and abetted by technology, from surveillance to automation, that no longer seems under the control of its masters. Much of our common response to liberalism’s triumph today is a celebration of our completed liberty, but it takes the form of discussions and debates over the ways in which we can lessen the unease accompanying our powerlessness and dislocation as we submit terms of surrender to ungovernable forces in politics and economics. The movements that resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump suggest that some will reject the terms of surrender altogether, even at the cost of considerable political and economic disarray. Across the world today, liberalism’s moment of triumph is being marked not by the tolling of victory bells but the sounding of air-raid sirens

    Calls to restore culture and the liberal arts, to curb individualism and statism, and to limit the technology of liberalism will no doubt prompt suspicious questions. Yet, practices that foster culture, liberal arts, and an equality born of shared fates will prove to be formidable answers to the challenges from a theory whose practices are unsustainable. …

    I want to offer three areas for consideration where one can see liberalism’s two opposing parts advancing a consistent and uniform end by effectually engaging in a pincer movement from two different directions, and in the process destabilizing the very possibility of a shared political, civic, and social life. These areas are, first, liberalism’s hostility to culture, with preference given to a pervasive and universalized anti-culture (to borrow sociologist Philip Rieff’s term); second, liberalism’s assault on the liberal arts and humanistic education; and third, liberalism’s creation of a new and fully realized aristocracy, or what I call a “liberalocracy.” …

    First, both classical liberalism and progressive liberalism are commonly arrayed against the persistence of culture as a basic organizing form of human life, and together devise economic, social, and political structures in order to replace the variety and expanse of existing cultures with a pervasive anti-culture. Local cultures, often religious and traditional, were seen by the architects of both classical and progressive liberalism as obstacles to the achievement of individual liberty. Shaping the worldview of individuals from the youngest age, cultural norms came to be seen as a main obstruction to the perception of the self as a free, independent, autonomous, and unconnected chooser. Whether in the form of classical liberalism’s tale of the “state of nature,” which portrayed the natural condition of human beings as one in which culture was wholly absent, or progressive critiques of tradition and custom (for instance, the main object of John Stuart Mill’s concern about “tyranny of the majority” in his classic essay On Liberty), a continuous feature and core ambition of liberalism was the critique and eradication of culture as a given, to be replaced by a pervasive anti-culture in which remnants of cultures would be reduced to consumer choices.

    The advance of this anti-culture takes two primary forms. Anti-culture is at once statist, especially arising through a legalistic regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be described and discarded as forms of oppression. It is the simultaneously the consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture which, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anti-culture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing customary norms with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what had come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with the pervasive legal threat and financialization of debts. Thus, in the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anti-culture.

    Deneen’s is a heady analysis, and I’m working through what I think about this by actively seeking greater context, history, perspective, etc. on it in a process that I expect might take my lifetime. What I can say for certain, right now, is that if Richard Rorty’s description of liberalism is the common understanding (that it’s the “means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence”) then I reject that entirely as utopianism. Deneen’s analysis of anti-culture intuitively seems correct.

  • One short sleep past…

    Apropos of nothing, other than a reality we all face:

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
    For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
    Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally
    And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

    —John Donne

  • Zach Rocheleau shared his experience in college learning about marriage and family earlier this month, and I’m excerpting some of that here. It captures so much of the spirit that I saw at work in the life of my grandparents, especially, but also so many of the older pre-Baby Boomer marriages that were still active and alive when I was a child and observed them up close:

    In college, I took one of my favorite classes of all time and it was called Creation & Grace. My professor was Dr. Riordan. He was a short man his mid 70’s. His voice was soft but he could speak with so much passion. I could listen to him for days. It was peaceful but yet engaging and inspiring.

    The purpose of the class was to show how philosophy and faith can come together to truly give us the ability to see the world in its purest form. To help us see how beautiful this world is and how lucky we are that it was created for us.

    One day in class, the topic of marriage and raising a family came up. He explained that there are two ways you can see your wife. He needed to explain the philosophy first to help us understand. He articulated that you have two options when you see something. You can either see it as a means to an end, which is the fact that this thing could lead you to a desired result. Or you can see it as an end in itself, which is that you see the thing as the end goal. He asked the class if we understood and we all agreed.

    He then moved back to the topic of marriage and raising a family. He explained that in order to have a lasting and beautiful marriage, you must see your wife as an end in herself rather than a means to an end.

    He then went into explaining what this truly means and this is where my life forever changed. My priorities changed. How I saw women changed forever. I fell in love with my future wife right then.

    He talked about his love for his wife of 53 years and what it truly meant for her to be the end in herself. He explained that she was his best friend. His teammate for life. Her contagious personality could light up a room. Her cute little cackle when she laughed. How she would blush even after the smallest complement. How she loved more than anything when he would wink at her from across the room. How he would still catch himself standing in awe of her even after 53 years of marriage. He explained that he just wanted her. He didn’t want anything she could do for him. He just loved her unconditionally. He only wanted her.

    Then he explained the significance of this. He explained that love is not a means to an end. Love is unconditional. Love is loving someone as an end in themselves. He further explained that a lot of the guys nowadays see women as a means to an end not an end in themselves. Treating them like a physical object that can be replaced rather than something that is truly special and one of a kind. And I got sick to my stomach when he said that because I knew it was true and I was guilty of this.

    I’ll never forget that class. I remember before I graduated college, I told Dr. Riordan this exact story and he had tears in his eyes. He was such a kind man and I knew his love for his wife was pure. He then said to me, “Zach, this principle does not only apply to your wife. I want, even if you do not think the young lady with ever be your wife, to treat her like she will be your future wife. He said better yet, like she is your future daughter.”

  • Puritan capitalism

    Dr. David L. Schindler reviews Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

    Probably the most common reading of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism appeared for the first time with English Puritans (Calvinists) of the seventeenth century, as though the “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money” began decisively at this time or with this people (17). Weber is sardonic in his dismissal of such a reading. The impulse to acquisition, he says, “has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given” (17). He insists that “[i]t should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit” (17). Weber’s argument is centered rather on a more basic and interesting phenomenon: what he terms the “disenchantment” (die Entzauberung, or Rationalisierung, “rationalization”) of life and work in Puritan theology.

    In summary, we may say that Puritanism’s peculiar God-centeredness, according to Weber, conceived God’s transcendence “negatively”: God was pervasively “present” in the world only through the influence of his “absence.” The human being never participates intrinsically in God’s goodness. On the contrary, man remains a subject to whom that goodness must be imputed, incomprehensively and from outside. Likewise the things of the world are drained of all intrinsic worth.

    Puritan “disenchantment” thus involves an utterly utilitarian view of the world. Man’s purpose in the world is to be ever-active in “rationalizing” things in maiorem Dei gloriam. But the point is that this “rationalizing” process is conceived in a thoroughly instrumentalized fashion. Nothing in the cosmos really bears value—or salvific value in relation to God—save as “rationalized” via the power of human activity. …

    In this light, “the most urgent task” for the Puritan becomes “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment”—as a necessary condition for bringing “order into . . . conduct” (119). “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God” (157‒58). Restlessness becomes a sign of God’s salvific action. Inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible insofar as it detracts from the orderly demands of daily work. What gives glory to God, in a word, is the incessantly active performance of his will in one’s “worldly calling” (157‒58). …

    It is important to see that the Puritan ethos as described by Weber persists in America even when, over time, the strength of Puritan piety wanes.[2] Pious Americans and secularized Americans continue to occupy largely the same cultural space, insofar as they both presume a distant God who is most effectively present in and to the world in his “absence,” and insofar as they (consequently) approach the things of the world most basically as apt for rationalization—if not any longer as a sign (for the religiously inclined) of God’s imputed favor, then in the interest of enhancing comfort and advancing the (secular) human estate.[3] What is crucial to see is the link Weber’s book defends (here set forth in terms of Puritanism and America) between the ethos of a culture and its (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions regarding God and the orders of creation and civilization.[4] This link remains even when one is unaware of these assumptions.

    Weber’s argument, then, implies not only that those in America who faithfully follow Puritan theology embody this ethos, but that any who live in America are inevitably shaped by this ethos, even if unconsciously. They tend to presuppose a God who is distant from the world, or acts ungenerously (or not at all) in relation to the world, such that the world is no longer symbolic of God, bearing inherent truth, goodness, and beauty as given (qua being). Human freedom becomes a simple exercise of choice, absent of any naturally ordered love of God. Knowledge becomes a matter properly of power over things and their meaning, as distinct from first “seeing” or experiencing things as they are (contemplation). The world becomes neutral (“dumb”) stuff awaiting controlled manipulation (experiment). Leisure is identified with idleness and enjoyment of external-bodily pleasure. Work is reduced to ever-more efficient activity for the purpose of producing the ever-greater wealth that enables idle comfort. Deepening the truth, goodness, and beauty of things for their own sake and as symbols of the good God, and thus simultaneously toward liturgical service, is no longer the proper concern of civilized public—economic, political, academic—order.

    Weber’s argument in the end implies that no religion has more thoroughly instrumentalized the world and work and leisure than has Puritanism.

    I’m instantly skeptical when I hear someone cast “capitalism” in a negative light, because behind the slight air of scorn that almost always accompanies the comment is some specific complaint or reading-into of a social/moral/cultural activity that the person has a problem with and assigns to “capitalism” broadly, rather than the actor specifically. Dr. Schindler sheds light for me on one of the legitimate problems of our age—this cultural “breathing in” of the Puritan mentality of justification through activity/work—that makes it difficult to even speak about “capitalism” without meaning a sort of capitalism wherein no one is ever at peace.

    Catholics have lots of work to do if we’re ever to reform a cultural sense of capitalism that is closer to what Michael Novak so clearly recognized it is, at its core: an uplifting and ennobling force, so long as it allowed for the creative and virtuous channeling of human energies in a way that recognizes human dignity.

  • Little radio memory

    I took this short little video in July 2012 in State College, when I was visiting I think over Arts Fest—a bit of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. I came across it recently when going through some files, and it brought me back to that moment I filmed it, as rain spattered down a bit, cutting through thick summer air and slowing the world a bit.

    It brought me to think a bit about what made The LION 90.7fm so attractive and compelling to me as a freshman at Penn State. It was the sound of a student-led, public broadcasting station that was able to speak freely, broadcast freely, and play whatever it felt was right. It was a station that didn’t want anything from its listener; indifferent in the good sense, of being removed from the concerns of the wider commercial market. It clearly empowered the human voice, and seemed to give it a confidence and force beyond what its generally youthful broadcasters had really earned, and consequently had a verve to it that made it a joy to listen to.

    I remember tuning in occasionally even while in high school, feeling like I was getting to know bits and pieces of Penn State and State College months before I’d really be there in earnest. And now I return to it from time to time, to hear of a Penn State and town that seems slightly different from the one I remember, but that retains that essential element of compelling indifference.

  • Literate, engaged citizens

    I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

    A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

    Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

    As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

    Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

    As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

    Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

    We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.