Monday, June 30
living under the USA Patriots Act and in a state of semi-permanent war, I am not
worried about what Benjamin Constant called the "liberty of the moderns."
Indeed, after last week's expansion of privacy rights by the Supreme Court, I
think that this form of freedom continues to expand as a result of deep cultural
trends. I am, however, concerned about what Constant called the "liberty
of the ancients."
I'm referring to his De
la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes
(1819), in which Constant defines the "liberty of the moderns" as: "for
each, the right to be subjected to nothing but laws, to have no possibility of
being arrested, detained, executed, or maltreated in any way as a result of the
arbitrary will of one or many individuals: It is for each the right to state his
opinion, to choose his business and work in it, to dispose of his property, to
take advantage of the same; to come and go without obtaining permission, and without
explaining his reasons and itinerary. It is, for each, the right to associate
with other individuals, whether to confer about their own interests, to profess
the religion that he and his associates prefer, or simply to pass days or hours
in a manner that fits his inclinations, his fantasies. Finally, it is the right,
for each one, to influence the administration of the Government, whether via the
nomination of some or all officials, or via representations, petitions, demands
that the authority is more or less obligated to take into consideration.
now the liberty of the ancients. That consists of exercising collectively, but
directly, many parts of absolute sovereignty, [and the right] to deliberate, in
a public space, about war and peace, to ratify treaties of alliance with foreigners,
to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management
of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them,
to condemn or acquit them." [This is my hasty translation; double-check it
before you use it.]
It is the liberty of the ancients that appears threatenedthat
we seem to hold cheapwhen we ignore charges that the Bush Administration
misled American citizens about its reasons for the Iraq war. According to the
York Times, Bush aides are not worried about complaints that they lied
or misled the public, "because people understand that the world is better
off without Saddam Hussein." The world is better off (so far, at least).
However, if the public is willing to be misled, then we citizens have forfeited
our right to exercise our national sovereignty collectively, because we have refused
to "deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace." To borrow Constant's
language, it is time for us to "examine the accounts, actions, and management
of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them,
to condemn or acquit them." Otherwise, we may be free as individuals, but
we are not a free people.
Friday, June 27
Terms like "Asset
Based Community Development" and the "developmental
assets" approach to working with adolescents are extremely popular today
in foundations, schools, and social service agencies. One could dismiss such language
as a mere effort to sound positive and uplifting, unconnected to any substantial
change in philosophy or methodology. But I think that would be a mistake. The
"asset-based" approach (for lack of a better term) is being used by
people who come out of the Left, and it represents a real change in their views
My favorite example of the old ways is now somewhat out of
date, but I can't resist using it. In March 2002, ACORN
organized protests against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that they had
assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them,
Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and
meet with them in New York City. One of the rally's organizers (a Harvard graduate)
explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly
extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry." A colleague
added that the Administration's welfare policies "are an attack on poor families
The organizers of this protest apparently believed that
they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending.
Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress
and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the
political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied
that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And
of course they failed completely.
An assets-based approach would look quite
different. It would treat the welfare recipients as potentially powerful and skillful
political actors, capable of working as peers with selected allies in Congress.
It would also recognize their capacity to build things of value in their own communities,
regardless of federal welfare policy. Poor people do need outside resources, both
capital and government assistance. However, they are unlikely to get such help
unless they have first organized themselves as a powerful political force. The
best way to organize is to identify, advertise, and build up local assets, even
before powerful outsiders offer aid. If residents are used to working together,
have identified their own assets, are confident and experienced, and have created
their own new institutions, then they can win outside support. They can also handle
the influx of aid without being overwhelmed by corruption or manipulative outsiders.
Thursday, June 26
I'm one of about 200 peoplemostly
corporate executiveswho signed an open letter to President Bush that's printed
as a full-page ad in today's New York Times. It reads, in part: "AmeriCorps
programs are closing. Young people who want to serve their country are being turned
away. Communities, schools and children are losing their AmeriCorps mentors, tutors,
teachers and builders . . . Please save these essential AmeriCorps programs that
have done so much good for our communities." (I can't find a link to the
Times ad, but the Washington Post has a
story about it.)
Wednesday, June 25
Those who believe
that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (wmd's) before the
2003 invasion are now citing the host of Western leaders from various parties
and countries who publicly charged Iraq with possessing chemical and biological
weapons and working on a nuclear program. This list includes Bill Clinton, Hans
Blix, and Tony Blair as well as various neoconservatives. If these people were
all making up evidence, the conspiracy was amazingly broad and well-organized.
it needn't have been a conspiracy, or anything deliberate and insidious. Saddam
had powerful incentives to bluff the world into thinking that he had wmd's.
After his defeat in Kuwait, he was in serious danger of being invaded or destabilized
by Iran, which might have wanted to avenge the terrible Iran-Iraq war and save
Iraqi Shiites from this godless Sunni. Shiites and Kurds within Iraq always wanted
to revolt, and the threat of Saddam's wmd's was a deterrent. Saddam had less to
fear from Israel, Turkey, and Syria, but he was clearly paranoid enough to expect
an invasion from any of these neighbors during the 1990s. The perception that
he had wmd's was his best defense.
To be sure, this perception could bring
an invasion from usthe invasion that actually happened. But Saddam may have
felt that we were the least of his worries, especially given the US resistance
to sustaining casualties.
Furthermore, although I have no inside knowledge
of the Western "intelligence community," I know that groups of highly
skilled people can make mistakes. Certainly, very smart academics have been wrong
en masse. I can easily imagine that the prevailing opinion within the Western
intelligence agencies was wrong, because any such group can err, and there were
special obstacles in this case: Iraq's deliberate efforts to deceive, a fear of
underestimating threats, the inherent difficulty of detecting a covert weapons
program, and the absence of checks that help make academic research comparatively
reliable (especially peer review, tenure, and the public citation of sources).
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Monday's Supreme
Court decisions on affirmative action was Justice O'Connor's deference to universities.
In her majority opinion, she writes:
The Law School's educational
judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to
which we defer. ... Our scrutiny of the interest asserted by the Law School is
no less strict for taking into account complex educational judgments in an area
that lies primarily within the expertise of the university. Our holding today
is in keeping with our tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university's
academic decisions, within constitutionally prescribed limits. .... We have long
recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive
freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities
occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition. ... In announcing the
principle of student body diversity as a compelling state interest, Justice Powell
invoked our cases recognizing a constitutional dimension, grounded in the First
Amendment, of educational autonomy: 'The freedom of a university to make its own
judgments as to education includes the selection of its student body.'
have occasionally deferred to universities, not only in admissions, but also in
free-speech cases. Most people think that it is unacceptable for a university,
especially a public one, to discriminate against students or faculty who adopt
radical views, even in the classroom or in their writing. However, most people
think that a university can discriminate against teachers and students
for failing to use appropriate methods of reasoning in the classroom, in papers,
and in publications. The first amendment does not guarantee you a passing grade
even if your final exam is lousy. Thus "academic freedom" is not only
an individual right; it is also an institutional right of colleges to set their
own standards of discourse. (See J. Peter Byrne, "Academic Freedom: A 'Special
Concern of the First Amendment'," Yale Law Journal, November, 1989,
pp. 251 ff.) In Bakke and other cases, justices have extended institutional
freedom to cover admissions and hiring decisions, within broad limits. Peter Byrne
observes that moderate jurists like O'Connor and Frankfurter are the ones who
typically argue this way. Strong liberals and conservatives of each generation
want to decide constitutional issues that arise within colleges; moderates
prefer to defer to academic institutions.
Deference to universities could
be grounded in freedom of associationbut this defense would not apply to
state institutions. Byrne and other commentators want to base institutional academic
freedom on respect for academia as a separate social sphere. They say that science
and scholarship should be masters of their own domains. After about a decade in
the academic business, I can't decide whether this degree of respect is warranted.
Sometimes I think that academia is an impressive social sector guided by Robert
Merton's KUDOS norms: knowledge held in common, universalism, disinterestedness,
and organized skepticism. At other times, I think that academia
is a snake pit of favoritism, logrolling, and faddish conformity. I also think
that the broader question is complicated, i.e., Should (or must) democratic governments
defer to professions as the authorities within their own spheres of expertise?
Last Friday, the Senate passed, by a 90-0 vote, the "American
History and Civics Education Act (S. 504), that had been introduced
by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill would create summer institutes for
k-12 teachers in college settings, where they would study civics and history.
It would give some high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend a
different set of summer academies; and it would organize a National Alliance of
Teachers of History and Civics, for the sharing of information and ideas.
Alexander said, Civics is being dropped from many school curricula. More
than half the states have no requirement for a course in American government.
And American history has been watered down, textbooks are dull, and their pages
feature victims and diminish heroes. Because of politically correct attitudes
from the left and right, teachers are afraid to teach the great controversies
and struggles that are the essence of American history.
agree and think that Alexander's points can be substantiated with solid evidence.
Partly as a result of the way we teach (or fail to teach) civics, the actual participation
of young people in politics and civic life is dropping, and the least advantaged
are the most often left out.
Many people in the "civic-ed" world
are now calling for a movement to revese these trends, using the Civic
Mission of Schools report as the blueprint. This movement or campaign would
have to address fundamental problems that go well beyond what Senator Alexander
mentioned. Above all, social studies are being squeezed out of the curriculum,
especially in grades 1-8, because of budget cuts and an emphasis on testing in
reading and math. S. 504 has no direct bearing on these trends. It deals with
the in-service education of teachersa worthy goal, if not a crucial one.
But S. 504 could have an indirect positive effect if the participating
k-12 teachers and their college instructors become a national network of advocates
for civic education. Here's hoping it passes the House and gets adequately funded.
I just realized that for the last two weeks I have been absent-mindedly
dating my blog entries in May instead of June. The blog has been up-to-date, but
it has appeared to be month old. I suppose that the people who visited during
that period will think this blog is dead and won't come back to read this message.
Maybe it's time for me to use some automated software ...
On a less embarrassing
note, we are thinking of creating an "arts blog" for Prince George's
County. We would recruit several residents, each with a deep interest in a different
aspect of the county's arts scene. We would give them training and ask them to
post at least weekly with news, reviews, and commentary. This would be an interesting
experiment in blogging within a geographical community, particularly one that's
not particularly high-tech. It would also be a small contribution to the County's
efforts to develop as an arts center. I think these efforts are promising. The
communities closest to Washington are affordable, near a major university, and
culturally diverseperfect for artists. We have to be careful not to gentrify
the area in a way that displaces the current residents. But if arts development
is handled right, it could bring new resources into the community while preserving
Thursday, June 19
Here's my latest scheme for
local civic work, connected to the Prince
George's Information Commons. We would train young people to rate local food
sources (both shops and restaurants) for healthiness. We would then generate an
online map of the healthiest places in the community to buy food. This map would
be our direct public service. Meanwhile, we would use the data in combination
with local health statistics to test these hypotheses:
- It is good
for your health to live near a source of healthy food.
- It is bad for your
health to live near a source of unhealthy food.
- It is bad for your health
to live near no food sources (because then you have to drive and don't get exercise).
doubt, healthy food outlets tend to locate near healthy populations, so we'd have
to be careful before drawing the conclusion that the presence of a health-food
store explains the good health of its neighborhood. But with the appropriate
statistical controls, we might discover that the availability of various kinds
of food does matter for healthand that would be useful for planners to know.
Why distinguish between weapons of mass destruction and conventional
weapons, since the latter can be much more destructive? (Compare a modern
air bombing campaign with the use of sarin in the Tokyo Metro system, which killed
just a handful of people). Some think that this distinction is simply a self-serving
rule imposed by countries, such as the United States, that have tremendous advantages
in conventional weaponry. But I think there is a good reason for the taboo on
weapons of mass destruction (which has actually kept respectable nations from
using them since Nagasaki). Human beings have a tendency to use dubious tactics
past the point where they are justified. This happens in "arms race"
situations, when each party uses its enemy's behavior to justify doing a little
bit worse in return. It also happens when one party reasons that x + 1 units of
some dubious behavior are not much worse than x units, which would be OK. By this
reasoning, one can gradually justify any amount of the questionable behavior.
Therefore, in general, we should prevent people from using tactics that
have the potential to escalate out of control. For example, physical punishment
can be much milder and more humane than imprisonment. But imprisonment has a natural
limit (life without parole), which takes a long time to impose, so there is plenty
of time to reconsider a draconian decision. Physical punishment, on the other
hand, can quickly escalate to heinous torture. Thus it makes sense, in my view,
to ban all physical punishment by governments. Likewise, each additional unit
of destruction with conventional weapons costs extra money and takes more time
and effort. Therefore, countries have to think hard before escalating a conflict
with conventional weapons. So-called "weapons of mass destruction" can
actually be rather mild in their effects. But, like physical punishment, they
can easily, quickly, and cheaply escalate to horrifying levels. Hence the taboo
on their use is sensible and should be preserved.
Tuesday, June 17
and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile,
many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make
it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would
rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion
as possible before any vote.
Educational standards can be beneficial for
deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students
and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards
can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem
completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing,
on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed
by small groups in private. They can't be public documents and still function
well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing
good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable
power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than
The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest
in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced
test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on
small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions
that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e.,
those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly
technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important
to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must
assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like
the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control, and cannot
even debate, their content.
Such tests are bad for public deliberation.
Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don't know how to
enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good
for either education or democracy.
(By the way, I have been
asked to announce: "After a mini cyber-disaster, Amitai
Etzioni Notes is back up and running.")
Many people believe that the Church suppressed the translation
of the Bible into modern languages during the Middle Ages, but the invention
of the printing press gave people an unblockable means of access to Scripture.
This story is often cited to show that institutions are dangerous because they
try to control knowledge, but technological innovation enhances freedom.
am no expert on this subject, but I would suggest some grounds for caution: The
Bible was legally translated into certain modern languages, from Slavonic to Old
English, starting before the year 1,000. (See this page;
and I saw a beautiful medieval French Bible at this
exhibition.) To be sure, there were edicts
against translation in the 16th century and later, and the Catholic Church
developed a reputation for obscurantism in modern times because the Mass was only
said in Latin until 1962. However, the Church became reactionary after the Council
of Trent (1545-63); this attitude should not be read back onto the Middle Ages.
The Wykliffe Bible was banned and burned, but not because it was written
in English; rather it was considered distorted by a specific heresy. It
was very hard to translate into the vernacular until the late middle ages, because
modern languages were only gradually developing and gaining enough vocabulary
to render the Bible. There was no such thing as "Italian" or "German"
in 1250; instead there were hundreds of local dialects, each spoken in a small
area, and most lacking rich vocabularies. No medieval Western European Christians
knew Greek or Hebrew, so they would have had to translate from the Latin translation
by St. Jerome. It took brilliant Renaissance scholarship (and an infusion of Greek
experts after Consantinople fell to the Turks) before there was a reliable original
from which to translate. People who emphasize technology as a historical factor
tend to overlook the profound linguistic and literary innovations that were required
before a first translation could be made. The Latin Bible was not secret;
Latin was the language of literate people throughout Europe. The Church
invested tremendous resources in popularizing the Bible through painting cycles,
stained glass windows, "picture Bibles," passion plays, and readings
in churches, including huge, broad-aisled Franciscan and Dominican churches that
were designed to hold mass audiences. (These were "communications technologies"
of great power.) Some modern critics assume that the Church wanted to control
the original text of the scriptures because then it could withhold the radical
parts. I could be wrong, but I would guess that popular passion plays and Franciscan
sermons actually emphasized the radical messages of the original Bible.
of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about
power, institutions, and technology.
Friday, June 13
in yesterday's New York Times says:
"Yes to no new
services, and let's get rid of some of the old ones while we're at it. We have
had way more than enough "services" for decades! It's about time that
somebody finally understands!
"I hope to see those bumper stickers
in 2004. Of course, I hope that people would realize what the slogan means: a
cut in services means a cut in expenses means a cut in government intrusion into
our daily lives!
"Isn't it about time that we rewarded ourselves with
"Disclaimer: the government has likely refined its
methods of intrusion, so it could feasibly cut back and still intrude more. So
let's cut the budget even more and not let that happen."
think the writer is making a mistake, even granting his own basic values. His
argument is: Quite apart from the pain of paying taxes, government spending is
bad because it buys "intrusion." The parts of the government that he
presumably finds "intrusive" are the offices involved in regulation
and law-enforcement: the FBI, OSHA, EPA, etc. He wants to starve these agencies
as a way to increase personal freedom. But they are not expensive. All of
the discretionary programs outside the Department of Defense, put together, consumed
just 19% of the Federal
Budget in 2002, and that included entirely non-"intrusive" programs
like the Weather Service and medical research. Therefore, deep cuts in federal
spending will have to come out of Social Security (23% of the budget), Medicare
(12%), Medicaid (7%), and other means-tested entitlements (6%). (I assume that
Defense, at 16%, is untouchable; and the remaining 17% is interest payments and
other madatory spending.) If anything, a cash-starved government might resort
to more regulation, because it would need/want to respond to social problems
and it would find regulatory mandates cheaper than spending programs.
A friend of mine saw my May
23 entry, which is about the moral dangers of seeking fame, and asked: "Is
writing a blog part of an effort to become famous?" I replied (in effect):
"I have looked deep within and discovered that 75% of my original motivation
for starting the blog was self-aggrandizement." (At least I'm honest.) But
I do have other goals, including:
- To explore the ethics of recording
ideas and experiences in a public waythat is, in a way that's honest and
potentially interesting for other people, and that respects others' privacy rights
and my own duties to the institutions that I work for. Being public in this way
is somewhat tricky, and it's supposed to be a modest experiment in living democratically.
experiment with this new genre ("the blog") by writing unusual kinds
of entries. For the most part, I try not to offer statements of personal opinion
or simple links to other sites, but instead I like to pose moral or philosophical
questions that have arisen in some recent experience.
- To create a notebook
from which I can later borrow for longer, more systematic writing.
have a platform for presenting short comments for a small audience, easily and
- To present myself to anyone who's interested. The best description
of who I am (as a professional) is a record of what I've been doing.
The second day of Deliberative
Democracy Consortium meetings leaves me with little energy for composing a
blog. So I'll reference two valuable items connected to the commons idea:
- There is an effort underway to reverse the recent FCC decision to allow
companies to own almost unlimited numbers of media outlets in each community.
The bill to do this is S. 1046. See this web page from Common
Cause for action steps.
- Paul Resnick, a professor at the University
of Michigan's School of Information, is really one of the intellectual parents
of our local work on the Prince George's
Information Commons. He and Harry Boyte wrote an important paper arguing that
land-grant universities should revive their extension role for the 21st century
by creating a network of community groups that would use the Internet for local
civic purposes. We think of the Prince George's project as a pilot for this idea.
Paul has now put the original, inspirational White
Paper on his website, which is full of other relevant material.
I spent the day at the semi-annual meeting of the Deliberative
Democracy Consortium's steering committee. We were brainstorming about what
would compose the infrastructure of a deliberative democracy in the United
Stateseverything from physical meeting spaces, to networks of trained facilitators,
to formal mechanisms for injecting the results of citizen deliberations into government
decision-making. An interesting philosophical question arose at one point. Assume
that you want a fully deliberative democracy. Which path seems better?
- Make governmental institutions more deliberative. They alone represent everyone,
and they are already committed to egalitarian deliberation (a form of "voice")
as a method of decision-making. Allow the market to remain mostly non-deliberative,
because it reflects other values (such as efficiency and freedom of "exit.")
However, remove any arbitrary constraints that would prevent the state from regulating
the market if that's what people want. They may choose market solutions,
and that's fine. But we should consider democratic institutions to be plenipotentiary,
and leave it up to the public to decide how to use the state.
- Try to make
market institutions as well as the state more deliberative. Perhaps even seek
to reform other institutions too, such as families, religious congregations, and
nonprofits. Do not consider the state to be sovereign or plenipotentiary. Imagine,
instead, that power ought to be divided into several distinct sectors (state,
market, and civil society), none of which rightly rules the others. But make all
these sectors as deliberative and democratic as possible.
In my view,
this is really a difficult choice, and there are numerous reasons for and against
Monday, June 9
The American Library Association's
has a nice mention of The Prince George's
I see our local work on this experimental "information
commons" as an effort to fill an important gap. The national public interest
groups that work on media issues use a model pioneered around 1970 by Ralph Nader
and John Gardner (founders of Public Citizen and Common Cause). Today, these groups
perform extremely important functions in tracking complex federal policies and
lobbying and litigating on behalf of values that would otherwise be unrepresented
in Washington. However (with the exception of the ALA and a few other groups),
they lack a grassroots base. In part, this is because their issues are so complex
that most people cannot, and will not, keep up. In part, it is because the original
Nader/Gardner model depended on a large population of active citizens who were
prone to join groups, to follow and discuss issues, and to make contributions.
Public Citizen and Common Cause were born at the demographic peak of what Robert
Putnam calls "the long civic generation." Now that people are generally
less likely to follow the news and to join groups, the "public-interest community"
in Washington lacks a base. So our strategy is to start building independent (that
is, non-partisan, non-profit, and non-governmental) groups at the community levelas
places where people can develop social ties and learn to use the complex new media
for public purposes. I believe that we should never try to push these groups to
take any particular political positions. Even after people start using the Internet
for public purposes, they may still not be upset (as I am) about corporate monopolies
or a lack of diversity in the mass media. They may have other concerns. But they
will be active, participatory, experienced, experimental, and independent; and
so they will provide the missing voice.
Friday, June 6
it good to be ideological? This seems to be an important question,
since ideologies are what many people use to engage in political and civic life,
yet there are good reasons to be against ideology.
First of all, What
is ideology? I think we are "ideological" to the degree that our
concrete judgments are determined by a set of assumptions that cohere or grow
from a common root. Thus: