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February 28, 2003

community-based discussion

I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative," or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty in our own community, Prince George's County, although many of the speakers came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the Hennepin County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.) I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick with me.

First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank, so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly because everyone in the room is on the left, and that's their most fundamental identity. That's why they all feel confortable with one another. But the agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological: we're supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities. The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial fact.

Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups, and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible. I wondered why these questions didn't come up. (I didn't ask them, either). Here are three guesses:

If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged, black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable to answer effectively.

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February 27, 2003

civic work

I participated in an interesting conference call with members of the . Although I'm a bit embarrassed because I haven't done any work on it, I'm listed as the co-editor of a proposed book that would describe recent experiments in real-world citizens' deliberations. The Consortium, meanwhile, is committed to holding a conference for researchers and practitioners during 2003. The purpose of today's call was to explore the possibility of using the conference to create the book—by inviting authors to present preliminary drafts of their chapters. There are potential advantages to collaboration for both the Consortium and those of us who are working on the book.

I also met with the two students and two professors who are conducting a project on journalism, funded by the Kettering Foundation (I am Principal Investigator). Their project is to create a website with material drawn from political theory that's of practical value for working journalists. The more fundamental goal is to explore ways that political theory could be more useful to journalism, and vice versa. They have decided to focus for now on two pressing issues: the role of the press in covering a war; and arguments in favor of conscription. They are finding more good political theory relevant to the second question, but more news coverage of the first.

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February 26, 2003

the high school rat race

A day spent frantically working on grant proposals for CIRCLE and the Prince George's Information Commons—three proposals in all. I did have an interesting phone conversation about the degree to which high school students volunteer in order to improve their chances of being admitted to college. This is very common, apparently. I don't necessarily draw cynical conclusions about the kids' characters. Instead, I'd tend to blame an increasingly efficient system of sorting the whole national student body by "merit," which causes everyone to compete on a common scale, whether they aspire to Harvard or the local public college. More and more people know how to play the game of college admission. As a result, I fear that kids are waiting until after high school for their real lives to begin, and much of what they do as adolescents feels hollow.

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February 25, 2003

grant-writing for local work

In between dealing with various financial issues involving CIRCLE, I wrote most of a proposal to the NSF to support high school classes for the next two years—including money for curriculum development, assessment, and research. The specific activity that we'll ask NSF to fund is map-making. If funded, our kids would make a whole variety of interactive maps of their community that they would post on their website: asset maps, network maps, environmental maps, problem-solving maps, and historical maps of the County. My current dream is that we will get funding from several specialized sources to suppport work in particular fields over the next 2-3 years. One source might fund a journalism after-school program on Tuesdays; another would fund map-making on Wednesdays; and still another would support community history work on Thursdays. (Clearly, since I have another full-time job, I would only be able to come to these classes occasionally.) All the classes would produce material for the Website. Once the site was full of valuable material, we would convene community leaders and citizens and say (in effect): This is something that belongs to all of us, because it reflects the richness of our community. Would you like to join us in adding material? Would you like to run the site as a nonprofit association? We're at your service, and we're willing to back away if it's time for someone else to manage things.

The idea, in short, is to strengthen the community by building a new independent association connected to a Website. But to get people interested, the site has to have content. And since no one wants to fund us to build an association, we need to go after specialized funders in various content areas—such as NSF for geography. We'll see if it works.

Mike Weiksner and Archon Fung have contributed nice replies to my posting on the blog.

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February 24, 2003

renaissance portraits

I stayed downtown today. Some of us from CIRCLE had an interesting lunch in Union Station, discussing research ideas with some potential applicants. I was also on my cell phone a fair amount, mostly talking to fellow NACE members about opportunities to mobilize the organization. In between things, I ran—literally ran—into the National Gallery. I headed for an area that I hadn't been in for a long time, and found myself looking at a couple of striking portraits of Guiliano de' Medici, who was murdered at mass in the Pazzi conspiracy. The Gallery has Botticelli's amazing painting (which looks almost like a fine modern cartoon, with its bold blocks of color and exeggerated features) and also Verocchio's large bust of the same young man. Guiliano is ugly but charismatic; confident or perhaps arrogant; and very much an individual. I can't think of anything else to write about these portraits except art-historical cliches ("Renaissance individualism," "unsentimental realism" ...), but it was a 25-minute break that will stay with me for a long time.

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February 21, 2003

medical information online

In between phone calls on practical issues, I worked on my paper concerning the reliability of medical information on the Web. As a little experiment, I tried searching for "mononucleosis" on Google. (MEDLINEplus, the ambitious federal portal, notes that "mononucleosis" is one of the most common search terms on its site. Since the disease is not serious but lacks a cure, some reasonable patients and parents may want to diagnose it and treat the symptoms on their own.)

I noticed a few things:

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February 20, 2003


I had a string of meetings today, the first day back after almost a week off for snow. Since travel was still disrupted in many parts of the city, I agreed to meet one out-of-town colleague at her previous appointment in Silver Spring; we then conducted most of our business on a campus shuttle bus to College Park. Two of the meetings were with graduate students who are just starting on major research projects. I tried to give them lots of research ideas so that they wouldn't be overly influenced by any particular idea I suggested. In one case—again because of travel disruptions—we conducted most of the meeting standing on top of a pile of plowed snow in a median strip in a residential neighborhood near the College Park Metro.

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February 19, 2003


The fifth day of deep snow. The initial festive atmosphere has turned distinctly grouchy. I tried to get to work, but there were many hundreds of people on the Metro platform and the trains—which passed through about four times an hour—were so packed that no one was getting on. I stayed for 45 minutes and then gave up. At home for the fifth straight day, I was reduced to inventing a Napoleonic naval wargame with blocks and tiddly-winks.

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February 18, 2003

cabin fever

Another day of snowdrifts and no public transportation. Cabin fever is beginning to affect us all, although we had some fun sledding. I could have composed something for this page, but instead I devoted the part of my brain that blogs to writing a contribution for the Deliberative Democracy blog.

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February 17, 2003

David Broder

Today, President's Day, was supposed to be the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service. We were excited, because we had just launched our report on The Civic Mission of Schools; John Bridgeland had formally praised it on behalf of the administration; and it was to be distributed at the Forum. But with Washington buried under perhaps the biggest snowfall in its recorded history, the Forum was cancelled. I am, however, delighted to link to a Sunday article by David Broder that not only endorses The Civic Mission of Schools; it also deftly and accurately summarizes it. And today's Washington Post has a masthead editorial endorsing the report. (Unfortunately, the Post was hardly delivered to anyone today, since side streets were impassable.)

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February 14, 2003

European anti-Americanism

During a conference call of the we were asked to say what we are doing to keep our spirits up during this time of looming war. Most of my friends and colleagues reported practically useful or spiritually worthy activities that they have embarked on recently to bolster their spirits—ranging from playing music to rediscovering grammar school friends to co-teaching a course with Noam Chomsky (literally). All I could think of was our family decision this morning to follow the instructions in the newspaper and buy plastic sheeting for an emergency shelter room. (Unfortunately, all the sheeting is gone from local stores).

Although I probably should focus on the damage that we may be about to do in the Middle East, my actual thoughts range from fear for my family, to irritation at the way the Bush Administration handles diplomacy, to equally profound irritation with the European anti-War movement. Everyone's instinct in a time of crisis is to use it for pre-existing political ends, whether they want to bash American culture or impose US power on the Middle East. Each group interprets everyone else's motives as narrowly selfish or self-indulgent. And all the parties act so as to confirm the worst interpretations of their enemies.

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European anti-Americanism

This blog is becoming interactive! My friend Lars Hasselblad Torres sent me the following email, which I quote with his permission: "Hey peter, scouted out your blog today, and noted your irritation with European anti-war movement. Is it safe to say their anti-americanism, or is it their tactics to get in the way of Bush policy? Anyway, thought you might find 'of paradise and power: america and europe in the new world order' of interest: robert kagan lays out a hobbesian vs. kantian mood form each." Lars then followed up with a set of good references to the whole question of US-European relations, including this link to the Foreign Policy Association. To Lars' list, I would add Timothy Garten Ash's good New York Review piece that collects virulently anti-European comments by senior US officials. These are at least as inflammatory and unjustified as the anti-American comments that set me off.

I suppose my suspicions about European anti-Americanism were born a long time ago, especially in graduate school in England. There's a lot of bad faith and scapegoating on the European left: a desire to attribute bad things to the US when European countries are just as responsible. I also think that people on the European left tend to attribute undesirable features of American life to something intrinsic and cultural about us—for instance, "American individualism"—when the causes of our problems apply to them as well. Three examples:

Which brings us to the current debate about Iraq. I think the French and others are completely right that we should postpone an invasion and try to strengthen the inspections. But to what extent is this difference of opinion a result of a cultural gap between the Europeans (allegedly "from Venus") and the Americans ("from Mars")? The US has an offensive military capacity that the Europeans lack, singly and collectively. So perhaps the US must play bad cop in order to allow the Europeans to play good cop. Absent a military threat from the US, there would be no inspections, and the Saddam regime would go completely unchecked and unchallenged. This would be morally unacceptable to the European left, especially if European companies continued to do profitable business with Iraq. If this is right, then there are not different cultures on either side of the Atlantic. Rather, the West is one culture; it relies on a powerful military that happens to be headquartered in the USA.

None of which excuses the ham-handed and sometimes offensive way in which Rumsfeld and other Bushies handle diplomacy ....

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February 13, 2003

the release of Civic Mission of Schools

Today was finally the big release of The Civic Mission of Schools. (I can finally link to the text of this report, which had been embargoed until today.) John Bridgeland, Advisor to the President and Director of USA Freedom Corps, made a very nice speech in formally "receiving" it for the press. About 150 people were present for the lunch/launch, including Vartan Gregorian, who spoke eloquently, and many authors and endorsers (and friends in the civic engagement world). I thought it went very well—at any rate, I'm relieved that it's done.

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February 12, 2003

why apply for the Rhodes?

I tried to talk one of Maryland's Rhodes Scholarship applicants from last year into reapplying, because he came within a whisker of winning. Since he's primarily a scientist, it's not necessarily in his interest to go to Oxford. But he's also something of an activist for deaf culture, and the Rhodes could open doors for him later if he wanted to continue advocacy work.

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February 10, 2003

journalism and political theory

Most of my time is spent planning for the launch of our report on k-12 civic education, The Civic Mission of Schools. At a press conference on Thursday, it will be "received" by John Bridgeland, Advisor to the President and Director of USA Freedom Corps, in the presence of the presidents of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Carnegie Corporation of New York, and others. So there are millions of practical details to attend to.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I filed an interim report with the Kettering Foundation, describing our progress on a project involving journalism and political theory. We're trying to figure out how each discipline might learn from and benefit the other. As an experiment, two graduate students (under the direction of a philosophy professor and a journalism professor) are creating a Website presenting ideas from political theory in a format useful to working journalists. The idea is to learn what kind of philosophy would be practically relevant—and what journalists should learn from philosophers. The students have decided to focus the Website itself on war and democratic theory. The central issues to be addressed are (1) the uneasy relationship between national security and civil liberties in a democratic society; (2) freedom of information, and especially press access to information in time of war; and (3) the implications of a professional military for the health of a democracy.

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February 7, 2003

a snow day

A snow day: Washington covered in soft, wet, white billows, and the University closed. I was happy to stay home, since I could sleep late and begin to recover from a sinus infection. Also, my parents are with us, so I had extra time for family.

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February 6, 2003

Cesar Chavez school

My day began with a nice breakfast at a fancy downtown hotel, talking to a foundation program officer about a project that he is planning. I camped out in the lobby to do some work, and then Metro'd to the Cesar Chavez Charter High School for Public Policy. It seems like fun to go there. Two hundred kids are tightly packed into improvised classrooms in a former office building. There's a sense that they are helping to create something idiosyncratic and important. Students participate heavily in planning the service projects that are central to the curriculum, so their voice matters. At the same time, discipline is strict: if you arrive one second late, you go straight to detention. As we walked through the halls, the principal had something specific to say to practically every kid she met: "We set up SAT classes for you. Oh, you can't do them because you're in the Corcoran art program. OK, we'll figure out an alternative."

The neighborhood, near U Street, is full of charter schools—I suspect because the rent is fairly low and Metro connections are good. It's a transitional neighborhood, traditionally African American and working class, but now with quite a few White yuppies. I was thinking about the problems and advantages of gentrification when I passed workers restoring a beautiful row house. Outside the next-door house, an African American woman stood and shouted at them: "White man already has everything!" As an illustration, it was too perfect.

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February 5, 2003

beyond voting

I had a chance to meet today with a state social studies supervisor, which was an interesting opportunity to find out more about the complex interplay among state standards, high-stakes tests, curriculum design at various levels, and the textbook market. If I write a civics textbook, I'll have to navigate these treacherous waters.

Later, with our high school class, we spent quite a bit of time talking about why they should (or should not) vote. I tried to move the conversation to a related topic: How do we find out enough about candidates that we can make a choice? It seems to me that the need for that kind of knowledge is the biggest obstacle to voting.

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February 4, 2003

index of youth civic engagement

We had a CIRCLE staff meeting this morning. The most interesting question we dealt with was this: To what extent is it useful to construct a broad index of civic engagement? CIRCLE was part of an elaborate process that developed 19 survey questions covering a wide range of civic and political behaviors. Is it useful to derive one number from these 19 questions, as an overall measure of overall civic engagement? If we promote such an index, some practitioners will use it to assess the condition of their own communities (compared to the national average) and to see what happens as a result of their programs. Is this beneficial or misleading?

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February 3, 2003

the "gold standard" for medical information

I spent some time writing my article about Medline as a "gold standard" of medical advice and information of the Internet. No individual knows enough about medicine to make a direct assessment of the information presented on this huge portal, which adds half a million new scientific references every year. To decide if the material on Medline is reliable and useful, we cannot apply what my friend Anton Vedder calls "primary epistemic criteria," such as "consistency, coherence, accuracy, and accordance with observations." But we can use what he calls "secondary epistemic criteria," and they are all in Medline's favor. We can easily see that it is well-funded, separated from profit-seeking companies, and run by distinguished professional organizations and bodies.

So should every American who goes online for medical information consult only Medline and those sites to which Medline links? One problem is that government officials, including medical doctors, may have political agendas. In 2002, various agencies of the United States Government removed information about condom use and abortion from their Websites, allegedly because elected politicians favored sexual abstinence before marriage and opposed abortion on moral or religious grounds. For example, the National Cancer Institute had posted information denying a link between abortion and breast cancer until an anti-abortion Member of Congress objected, calling it "scientifically inaccurate and misleading to the public." Another federal Website removed its positive assessment of condoms' role in preventing the transmission of disease. After the removal was criticized, similar material reappeared online with the following additional text (in bold): "The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse. …" A liberal Member of Congress said, "We're concerned that their decisions are being driven by ideology and not science." The President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America put the charge more strongly: "They are gagging scientists and doctors. They are censoring medical and scientific facts. It's ideology and not medicine." [See Adam Clymer, "Critics Say Government Deleted Sexual Material From Web Sites to Push Abstinence," The New York Times, November 26, 2002, p. A18; and Adam Clymer, "U.S. Revises Sex Information, and Fight Goes On," The New York Times, December 27, 2002, p. A15.]

There is controversy about the reasons behind these particular choices to post, remove, and revise online information. However, we need not resolve the facts in these cases to see that government Websites may be written on the basis of "ideology and not medicine." Actually, all science is thoroughly imbued with normative choices about what is important to study, what outcomes should be valued, and how much risk to tolerate. Thus a more sophisticated critic might say something like the following: "The Federal Government presents its medical websites as a 'gold standard' and claims that nothing but dispassionate science determines decisions about what to include. In reality, all medical advice involves an element of normative judgment, whether deliberate or unconscious. However, because government Websites are lavishly funded and linked to the organized medical profession, they threaten to monopolize discourse about important topics. Hence, we demand that these Websites disclose their normative or ideological leanings and refer explicitly to alternative perspectives."

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