This is the archived blog for April, 2003. Click here to see current blog entries
Wednesday, April 30
My blog is listed as "exemplary" on the blog of Dr. John Gøtze, a Danish guy. At the risk of appearing to logroll, I would heartily endorse "Gotzeblogged" (as he calls his blog) for providing relatively technical (yet accessible) information relevant to e-democracy and e-government.
There has been a lot of controversy about specific cases in which medical information was changed on government websites, allegedly because of the political or moral biases of the incumbent administration. I have some thoughts about what to do about this problemif it is a problem. For now, here are the relevant facts, as far as I can tell:
Tuesday, April 29
I spoke today at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, which is a wonderful school that I have visited before. It's a crowded warren of rooms on an upstairs floor of a former industrial building, where kids are intensely involved in regular classes, public-service internships, and the study of public policy. If we are going to have broad-based, creative, informed leadership in the District of Columbia (and other troubled cities), then experiments like Chavez must work. It seems quite clear that the school is successful at presentone hundred percent of its graduates attend college, and all seem inspired to work on social problems. There are, however, the usual questions about whether the Chavez model is replicable, or whether it depends on remarkably charismatic and dedicated leadership.
Today, I was sent this article on the Internet commons by its author, a former president of the American Library Association. It seems to be an important contribution.
Monday, April 28
I was interviewed over the weekend by a group called Civic Honors. The interview is posted here. It was an opportunity to say why I personally believe in civic engagement. I said:
Friday, April 25
Our high school students' online history project tells the epic history of their own schools' desegregation, from 1955-2000. It includes an introductory slide show, a timeline and graph of the county's massive demographic changes, a set of oral history interviews, and then a deliberative forum on the topic, "What should have been done to address school segregation in 1955?" The project will never be complete, because students can always add interviews, historical data, and new perspectives. But it is now ready for a public launch at an event tomorrow. Therefore, we invite anyone and everyone to visit and participate. The URL is www.princegeorges.org/history.htm
Thursday, April 24
I wrote part of a grant proposal today that would allow our high school students to conduct research connected to nutrition, exercise, and obesity. They would identify local opportunities for recreational exercise and healthy food, and also local sources of unhealthy food and barriers to exercise (such as streets without sidewalks). They would place these items on an online, public map along with the routes of local buses and Metrorail. Their goals would be (a) to show local residents how they can get to healthy opportunities; and (b) to show local policymakers how inaccessible certain important opportunities are.
At the same time, students could calculate how much unhealthy food (i.e., grams of fat) can be purchased in various locations for one dollar, versus how much healthy food can be bought. These figures could also be displayed on a map. Students could then compare statistics from comparable areas such as Takoma Park or Silver Spring, MD.
I have been thinking more generally about how young peopleespecially non-college-bound kids and kids of colorcan learn to play a role in local decisions about zoning, economic development, and transportation. They are disproportionately affected by these decisions, yet they rarely participate in public meetings or discussions. CIRCLE has identified "non-college youth" as a group that does not vote, does not attend community meetings or join local groups, and does not have the knowledge necessary to participate. Furthermore, habits of participation or non-participation are usually set in adolescence, so unless we find ways to involve these young people while they are still in high school, chances are they will be uninvolved for the rest of their lives. One promising idea is to get them interested in using technological tools for urban planning, such as the many wonderful products described by PlaceMatters.com.
Wednesday, April 23
I have been thinking a little about the contrast between public deliberation and the professional discipline of philosophy. Philosophers like to make and explore novel distinctions. In part, this is because they pursue truth, and an ambiguity or equivocation is an obstacle to truth. Philosophers can do nothing about faulty or inadequate data, but they can show that A is logically different from B, even when it has hitherto been seen as the same.
A second reason is that philosophers, like academics in general, need to say something new. Only original arguments can be published and otherwise rewarded. Since the most obvious distinctions are well known, philosophers get ahead by finding obscure ones.
In contrast, citizen deliberators tend to gravitate toward language that is vague enough to suppress distinctions, when possible. This is because there is always some pressure to gain agreement, and distinctions drive groups apart. Citizens may care about truth, but often their top priority is to reach acceptable agreements, and to that end they may be willing to overlook vagueness. There is even an art to devising rhetorical formulas that can accommodate different positions. (Diplomats speak of "creative ambiguity.") Also, unlike philosophers, deliberating citizens don't care much about novelty or originality. Sometimes a new perspective can have a powerful effect in a public conversation, because it can break a deadlock or reinvigorate the participants. But at least as often, novelty per se is an impediment, because people don't have time to absorb a completely new idea. Besides, a novel argument may be associated too closely with its author, so others will not endorse it wholeheartedly.
Thus it will often be easy for professional philosophers to tear apart a consensus statement issued by a large and diverse group of deliberators. But professional philosophers would not be able to run a democratic community.
I'm off to California, so this blog may have to pause until April 23. I'm going to Berkeley to give a talk at the Center for the Study of Law and Society (co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology). My title is "Building the Electronic Commons," and I will be discussing ideas that I have described elsewhere on this Website, as well as some new thoughts. This is my abstract:
The talk is scheduled for Monday from 12:30-1:45. Details here.
Thursday, April 17
Here's a troubling technological development, pointed out by Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. A company called Ellacoya provides "network traffic control" software and hardware that allows Internet Service Providers (ISP) to track their own customers closely and to "enforce a very large number of policies" regarding Internet use. The technology can, for example, limit traffic from particular sites or categories of sites to a certain speed, or block connections altogether to particular sites, or block connections at certain times of the day for certain customers. The great danger is that ISPs can now speed up connections to Websites that have paid them for special treatment, while subtly slowing down other sites. ISPs will certainly have the incentive to discriminate in this way if they are owned by a major content provider, such as Microsoft or AOL Time Warner.
This means that if your favorite low-budget nonprofit seems to have a slow Website, your ISP may actually be responsible. Also, ISPs may slow down users who want to create and post material, rather than merely consume it. (Ellacoya says: "Operators can easily discover their top talkers and then set up restricted bandwidth pools for specific applications and/or user groups during peak hours.") This kind of discrimination will be hard to detect, so customers will not switch their ISPs to avoid it. Yet it strikes at one of the fundamental principles of the Internet. You should be able to share any kind of (legal) material with anyone without an intermediary throwing obstacles in your path. Whereas overt obstacles are easily detected and can often by bypassed, subtle discrimination poses a serious danger.
Wednesday, April 16
Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" is often a good indication of what the hard-boiled political analysts think. Sabato writes about Sen. John Kerry and the war. "It's also possible that John Kerry will reap the benefits of being Clintonian, of voting to authorize the Iraq war while speaking up against aspects of it and calling for 'regime change' in the U.S., not just Iraq." Sabato then reminds us of Clinton's position: "In 1991 Bill Clinton uttered this marvelously ambiguous, pre-'the meaning of is' statement about the congressional debate for authorization of the Persian Gulf War: 'I guess I would have voted with the majority [for the war] if it was a close vote. But I agree with the argument that the minority made [against the war].' In other words, in true Clintonian fashion he managed glibly to avoid antagonizing either side, while giving both sides hope that he was secretly one of them."
I have no special brief for John Kerry (nor for Bill Clinton), but isn't it reasonable to adopt a somewhat nuanced position on the war? Surely a reasonable person could decide as a matter of principle to vote for the war while expressing reservations about it and criticizing the president. In fact, I don't see how a reasonable person who favored the war could avoid expressing some criticisms of the way we have handled it. Clinton was much mocked for his statement, but (just like him) I agreed with many arguments that doves made against the 1991 war, while ultimately favoring the decision to liberate Kuwait. Presidents have to be decisive (and defensive about their own decisions), but surely we can welcome a little more complexity from a U.S. Senator.
Tuesday, April 15
Some people regard the telephone network as a "commons," because the telephone companies have been regulated as "common carriers" by the FCC. Today, the Commission simply defines "common carrier" as "the term used to describe a telephone company." But the underlying idea (which the FCC may have forgotten in this deregulatory era) would apply just as well to railway lines or postal services as to AT&T. A true common carrier agrees to move any good, message, or person (depending on the medium) from anywhere in its system to anywhere else for a price that depends only on factors that affect its own costs, e.g., distance and weight or duration. A common carrier may not discriminate on the basis of the content of the message or the identity of the customer. For example, a telephone company may not refuse to carry a phone call because of the speakers' political views, nor may it charge different fees for different kinds of speech. A common carrier railroad would have to carry any passenger from any point A to any point B.
To preserve the common carrier ideal, regulations traditionally prevented owners of communications systems from providing other services. This was because firms that provided "content" as well as the "conduit" would tend to discriminate in favor of their own services. For example, if the telephone company provided 1-900 services, then it would be tempted to give its own calls preferential treatment. For similar reasons, cable-TV providers might give their own channels favored treatment, if they were allowed to offer programming.
A common carrier telecommunications system is an important base for the Internet, because it allows digital messages to be transmitted regardless of their content, thus keeping the Internet uncensored and flexible. But is a common carrier system a commons? We experience a classic commons as collective property or as no one's propertyas "free." I do not think that we view telephone lines as common property. If they resemble a commons, it is for a combination of three reasons: (1) the common carrier rules; (2) the very low marginal cost of each minute of use, at least for local calls; and (3) government programs that have brought telephones into most homes, even in rural and poor urban neighborhoods. If any of these three conditions were missing, then the telephone system would not feel like a commons. This is a significant conclusion because it suggests that three types of regulations are necessary preconditions of the Internet as we know it.
Monday, April 14
I spoke over the weekend at the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium's conference of "community partners"mostly local groups that litigate or organize on behalf of civil rights for Asian and Pacific Americans. There is some concern that this population will be overlooked by those who try to increase (or even merely to study) youth civic engagement. After all, the total numbers are relatively small; there is an absence of data; the "model minority" stereotype implies that Asian youth are doing fine on their own; and the population is very heterogeneous, making research difficult. However, Asian and Pacific American youth are by some measures the least likely to vote. Moreover, research on this population is inherently interesting, since members come from many diverse countries of origin by many routes and for many reasons. Finally, democracy would benefit from the participation of more Asian and Pacific American youth, even if their numbers are comparatively small.
Friday, April 11
I attended a meeting of a committee of the American Bar Association today. There was a panel on civil liberties after September 11. Civil liberties are not a core interest of mine, although listening to professional advocates and litigators always scares me, since their job is to tell us about the egregious cases that do arise. The experts on the panel today pointed out four worrying trends that I hadn't fully understood before:
Thursday, April 10
A person whose name sounds nothing like mine emailed me today with this question: "My mother, long gone, would sometimes call people, including me, her son, 'Peter Levine' in what seemed to me whimsical fashion. Now, decades later, and curious about what she meant by that, I typed in the words at Google and found no reference to such a person in literature or history that might fit. Since your name came up at the head of the list, I thought I would write and ask if you could shed any light on who she may have been referring to. My mother was born in 1901 in Arkansas, had a seventh grade education, and was not well read. I suspect she picked up the expression through conversation or story telling."
This just goes to show youyou never can tell why someone will visit your website.
Wednesday, April 9
My colleagues and our high school class have been using oral history methods to construct the Prince George's County Information Commons history page. Today an expert from the Oral History in Education Institute at University of Maryland came to class to teach our students proper interviewing techniquesunfortunately too late to improve our most important interviews, which are over. I thought one of the most interesting distinctions she made was between journalism and oral history. She claimed that oral history is less adversarial than reporting. "We are recipients of the story," she said. She taught the students to avoid leading questions and questions that anticipate yes/no answers. Open-ended questions are the oral historian's tool.
The class and I came to understand our serious responsibilities better as a result of the session. The desegregation of Prince George's County Schools was an epic struggle. Understanding it is crucial, since racial divisions and inequities remain, and no one is sure how to address them. In nearly half a century since the struggle began, no one had interviewed some of the key players, such as the first African American students to attend White schools in our county. Chances are, no one else will interview them after us. So we alone are creating primary source materials for later historiansand they better be good. We didn't seek this responsibility. Our original intentions were to provide a civics lesson and to develop innovative ways of using websites. But the responsibility is real even if we backed into it.
We were given these links to good online oral history projects conducted
(I have found the same list on this webpage.)
Tuesday, April 8
Continuing the theme of modernism from yesterday ... For six hundred years, English has been tinkered with until it has become a fine instrument for describing what's literally going on and what people are thinking. The vocabulary is famously huge, the syntax is supple, and there are narrative techniques for all occasions. As an example of perceptive modern prose, consider James Joyce's spare description of Leopold Bloom in a hearse:
We don't really know how the old woman talks or what she's thinking. Maybe she's a police informant spying on the house opposite; maybe she's a he. But Joyce has focused his lens so that only Bloom's mind shows clearly. Thus we learn about the objects that Bloom handlesthe door and the armstrapbut only about their functions, because he is too preoccupied to note accidental features like material and color. His very name reflects his state of mind, for he experiences himself as "Mr. Bloom" when he rides in a hearse. We might like to learn more (for instance, what kind of buildings line the avenue?), but such information would ruin the realism. Thinking is perspectival, selective; and we know just what Bloom notices.
Modern literary English allows an author to choose almost any vantage point, any focus, and any depth of field. Why then does Joyce use so many other idioms? For instance, in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, he mimics every major prose style in the history of English. At one point, Bloom has just entered a house where a woman is suffering her third day of labor. He means to express his sympathy to the family, but he finds himself among callous drunks who are loudly discussing whether it would be better in the eyes of the Church for the woman or the baby to die. Bloom mutters vague abstractions to avoid expressing a view, perhaps because any opinion could be heard upstairs. Then ...
Joyce's prose resembles a thick but uneven hedge screening the literal truth. Here, we can just about cut through the fifteenth-century language to to see what's going on. In other places, it is impossible to make out even the basic narrative facts. For instance, we are almost never permitted to overhear Bloom's thoughts about what to do or where to go next. Much like Odysseus, he just shows up in episode after episode.
Frustrated by this and other omissions, we might say: If only Joyce would
just tell the story! Why does he have to use a pastiche of past and present
styles, so many of which are opaque?
The question assumes, of course, that there is a truth to grasp. But
perhaps my "literal interpretation" above is simply one idiom,
a product of its time, just as Everyman reflects the culture of
England in 1500. In that case, Joyce has carried realism to its final
stage. He doesn't describe the world or consciousness (either objectively
or subjectively), because to do so would be to forget the fact that all
seeing is from the point of view of a style. Instead, he describes some
past and contemporary ways in which life has been described. As in one
of Nietzsche's magic tricks, the real worlddisappears! Literature,
not life, is the subject of Ulysses; yet the book itself counts as literature
(in Stephen's words, as an "eternal affirmation of the spirit of
man"), because it is perceptive, tender, and humane.
This rare combinationa declaration of the End of Art that is also
artis characteristic of the greatest works of modernism. Note, however,
that Joyce must deny that there has been progress in the history of English
narrative style. The succession of idioms that he mimics does not evolve
toward clarity. If modern English prose has somehow surpassed its predecessors,
then Joyce would have no excuse to abandon it.
I know less about ballet than about any other art form, which is to say, nothing. Thus I was fascinated to read Jennifer Homans' article "Geniuses Together," in the New York Review of Books some time ago. I have long believed that "modernism" means a recognition that all the past ways of representing the world have been arbitrary and culturally relative styles. Once modernism arrives, we have three main choices: (1) historicism, the effort to reproduce past styles accurately and comprehensively; (2) abstraction, the effort to move beyond style and representation altogether by taking inspiration from something universal, such as mathematics or the unconscious; or (3) irony, the joking recognition that there is no way out of style. I've argued that these are the choices faced by the visual arts and also by philosophy. My friend David Luban argues that even law faces this dilemma. From Homans' article, it appears that the ballets of Stravinsky perfectly illustrate the same situation. First came a historicist phase, around 1909, when Michel Fokine was Stravinsky's choreographer:
And then came abstraction, with Balanchine:
Of course, dancing in plain lyotards in front of plain drapes is also a style. In the other arts, sooner or later, minimalism and abstraction are seen as arbitrary styles, at which point irony becomes the only option. I wonder whether this has happened in dance.
Friday, April 4
My article on "The Legitimacy of Labor Unions," which originally appeared in The Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal, is going to be translated into Chinese for the Global Law Review, a quarterly law journal published by the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I'm excited because an argument in favor of unions is especially important in a country where the right to unionize is barely recognized.
Here's a quote to make you angry. According to an article in the New York Times, after a White House meeting on the Bush economic plan, "Lizann Sonders, the chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab & Company, said the tax cut is 'the answer to the economy, is the answer to the stock market and maybe most importantly it's the answer to bringing back trust and fairness and faith in the system.'" So a representative of a profession that has squandered public trust has the gall to say that "trust and fairness and faith" can be restored by granting her industry a massive tax break that would necessitate deep cuts in programs benefitting the poor and disadvantaged.
At the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference on "Discussion, Dialogue, and Deliberation," some of us watched a video advertising a University of Michigan program that involves students in "sustained dialogues" on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It struck me that the video would drive conservatives up the wall, because of the choice of topics, the assumption that the personal is political, the psycho-therapeutic style, and the attempt to raise consciousness by unrooting hidden prejudices even among apparently enlightened students. It also struck me that there were hardly any conservatives at our conference. This is a common experience in my life. I'm a "progressive" on most issues myself; yet almost all my professional projects are defined in strictly nonpartisan, nonideological ways; yet practically everyone I meet and work with is on the left. I raised this issue at the conference, illiciting diverse and interesting responses. I won't try to characterize other people's views of this matter. For myself, I think we have three choices:
Society for Values in Higher Education's conference at a beautiful rural retreat in northwestern Connecticut. This was my outline:
Deliberation is a hot topic in philosophy, law, and political science, generating shelves of books and articles. I believe that there are three reasons for this:
Then the power of argument, persuasion, and rhetoric was rediscovered. But rhetoric is not always a good thing; people can be persuaded to hate others against their self-interests. Conceivably, a society of rational individuals who maximized their own interests would not be racist, since racism is irrational. People are persuaded to be racists.
If persuasion is politically significant, but often harmful, then we clearly need to figure out how to improve it. "Improved talk" is a rough definition of "deliberation."
These three trends have led to a lot of research on two types of deliberation:
Meanwhile, there have been many interesting experiments that involve actual citizen deliberations at modest scales outside of the government. Many of the groups that promote such experiments are now gathered into the . Their work is influenced by the intellectual trends described above, but it also continues an American tradition going back to the Chautauqua Movement, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.
These experiments have not been much studied. We need to ask: What is the point of convening a group of citizens to discuss a public issue, if the group is not a legislature or some other decision-making body? What outcomes should we hope for from such experiments? Are they intrinsically valuable, or only valuable as part of a movement that somehow "goes to scale" or changes official institutions? What are the best ways to structure citizens' deliberations? And what makes them successful?
Tuesday, April 1
Passions are running high over the war, as they should. Invading Iraq may turn out to be a disastrous decision leading to massive suffering and death in the Middle East and permanent damage to our own republic. Yet it is important not to let the passionate seriousness of the issue ruin our national political culture. Perhaps we ought to keep these points in mind: