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April 30, 2003

medical information on federal websites

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 problem—if it is a problem. For now, here are the relevant facts, as far as I can tell:

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. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) had posted information denying a link between abortion and breast cancer, but Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) objected, calling this denial "scientifically inaccurate and misleading to the public." The NCI Website was then changed to say (for a time) that the evidence was "inconclusive," until a scientific review panel required the Website to reinstate its original language. Likewise, the Website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention removed its positive assessment of condoms' role in preventing the transmission of disease and removed citations of evidence showing that education about condoms did not lead to earlier or more sexual activity. After the removal of these statements was criticized, some similar material reappeared online with the following text added in bold: "The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected."

This last sentence is literally true. However, critics disagree with the strategy and motives that they see lying behind such statements. Participants in this controversy divide into two camps. Some believe that it is the responsibility of public health professionals to reduce the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Private, voluntary behavior that does not transmit such diseases—or otherwise increase morbidity and mortality—is not the business of medicine. For this group, it seems best to advocate condom-use aggressively. Universal condom-use is a more realistic goal than universal abstinence, and condoms generally prevent the spread of disease. Caveats about the effectiveness of condoms, like the one in bold on the revised website, may have the effect of discouraging condom use. As Representative Waxman wrote in an official complaint, the website was "carefully edited to deny the public important information about the role condoms play in reducing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies."

Another group, however, believes that there are two evils to be minimized: (1) the transmission of dangerous disease, and (2) pre- or extra-marital sex, which is bad in itself. Ed Vitagliano, who represents the conservative American Family Association, said, "Science shows that condoms are not 100 percent effective, and offer no protection for certain sexually transmitted diseases like the human papilloma virus and to a lesser extent chlamydia and herpes …. We fall on the side of safety, encouraging children to wait until marriage, not only for moral reasons, but also for scientific reasons" (emphasis added). For this group, it makes sense to advocate abstinence, since this is a good in itself as well as a means to avoid spreading various diseases. Wholehearted, public advocacy of condom-use may strike such people as tacit support for non-marital sex. They disliked the website that was written under the Clinton Administration, seeing it as morally biased in favor of promiscuity. The other side in the debate, however, saw the revised text as morally biased in the opposite direction, and the conflict led to the current text, which still offends some observers.

Sources: Robert B. Bluey "HHS Defends Its Advice About Condoms, Abortion," www.cnsnews.com, December 27, 2002; Adam Clymer, "Critics Say Government Deleted Sexual Material From Web Sites to Push Abstinence," The New York Times, November 26, 2002, p. A18; Lawrence M. Krauss, "The Citizen-Scientist's Obligation to Stand Up for Standards," The New York Times, April 22, 2003, p. D3; Adam Clymer, "U.S. Revises Sex Information, and Fight Goes On," The New York Times, December 27, 2002, p. A15.

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April 29, 2003

Cesar Chavez school

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 present—one 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.

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April 28, 2003

the point of civics

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:

My philosophical position would be something like this: (1) Volunteerism is an inadequate form of civic engagement, because it replaces political action with service, which does not address the root cause of problems or tap the political capacities of the volunteers. (2) Civic engagement should be cultivated for two reasons. First, if we don't deliberately teach it, the least advantaged among us will be the first to disengage, leading to political inequality later on. Second, civic participation is a good human activity. It is not the only or highest good activity: theoretical reflection, spiritual contemplation, appreciation of nature, creation of art, and care for family members are some of the other activities that are inherently good. All of these ends or projects are preferable to the forms of life that are more frequently advertised to young people: consumerism, athletics, and sexual gratification. Moreover, in public schools, we cannot teach activities connected to spirituality or care for family. Therefore, we ought to teach civic engagement (along with art and science) so that it is an option available to young people.

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April 25, 2003

our kids' product

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

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April 24, 2003

kids in urban planning

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 people—especially non-college-bound kids and kids of color—can 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.

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April 23, 2003

deliberation and philosophy

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.

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April 18, 2003

talking about the commons at Berkeley

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:

Legal theorists like Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, and James Boyle have defended various versions of a "commons" theory of cyberspace. They argue for reforms that would considerably reduce property rights, thereby returning the Internet to its orginal state of benign anarchy while enhancing innovation and civil liberties online. I argue that this vision is attractive but flawed. It is politically naive, since majorities of voters and organized special interests have incentives to undermine such an online commons. Also, this vision promotes innovation and negative liberty to the exclusion of other values, including democratic ones. However, there is another understanding of the "commons" that is just as venerable and supported by rigorous theory. This is the notion of a commons as a voluntary nonprofit association (or network of such associations), governed by rules. I will discuss politically realistic ways to enhance the role of such associations in cyberspace.

The talk is scheduled for Monday from 12:30-1:45. Details here.

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April 17, 2003

a new threat to open access

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.

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April 16, 2003

attacking a politician for his mixed feelings

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.

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April 15, 2003

the commons & common carriers

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 property—as "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.

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April 14, 2003

Asian-American youth

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.

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April 11, 2003

civil liberties after 9/11

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:

  1. The material witness statute was designed to allow the government to hold witnesses who might be expected to disappear, until such a time as they could be deposed. Since 9/11, it is being used to hold people indefinitely without any claim that they witnessed any specific crime, and without notice that they will be deposed or otherwise interviewed.
  2. Search warrants are traditionally executed in the presence of the person being searched. This is a safeguard, since the person can complain if his rights are violated, if the police are in the wrong house, etc. But under the Patriot Act, federal agents can execute "sneak and peek" warrants that are clandestine searches never disclosed to the person whose property is searched. This power applies to all cases, not just those connected to terrorism.
  3. The proposal for TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) would have enlisted huge numbers of volunteers, including cable-TV installers and others who routinely enter our homes, as a source of tips on possible terrorists. This program would have promoted volunteerism; but it would also have undermined the fourth amendment.
  4. Just yesterday (or so I was told), legislation passed Congress that will require judges to notify the Attorney General whenever they use discretion to impose sentences lower than the minimum recommended in federal sentencing guidelines. The three federal judges who were in attendance today are certain that this will have the proverbial "chilling effect," since judges will be afraid of public exposure and censure by John Ashcroft. I would hope that federal judges would have backbones. We give them life tenure as well as nice salaries and high social status, so they should be willing to stand up to criticism from the political branches of government. However, hope is not a good basis for legislation. The judges in attendance predicted that their colleagues will fear criticism. They are probably right, which means that the legislation is a blow to judicial independence.

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April 10, 2003

my name, as an oath

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 you—you never can tell why someone will visit your website.

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April 9, 2003

students and oral history

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 techniques—unfortunately 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 historians—and 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 by youth:
What Did You Do, Grandma?
The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968
We Made Do: Recalling the Great Depression
The Stories of the People

(I have found the same list on this webpage.)

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April 8, 2003

Joyce's modernism

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:

Mr. Bloom entered and sat in a vacant place. He pulled the door to after him and slammed it shut tight. He passed an arm through the armstrap and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds of the avenue. Nose whiteflattened against the pane. Thanking her stars she was passed over. Glad to see us go we give them so much trouble coming.

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 handles—the door and the armstrap—but 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 ...

in Joyce's version ....

That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word. Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that taking it appeared efstoons.
But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb's wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend's son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with these wastrels and murdered his good with whores.

in a literal paraphrase ...

"That's the truth," said Dixon. "And a pregnant word, if I'm not mistaken," he added, when the thought struck him. Young Stephen roared at the pun and added sarcastically, "He who steals from the Lord lends to the poor." He was wild when drunk: his eyes shone and his voice was loud and shrill.
But Bloom was grave and quiet, for he still heard shrieking from upstairs. The sound of a woman in labor always moved him, and these particular cries reminded him of his wife Molly, who had borne his only baby boy. The baby had died (of accidental poisoning) after just eleven days. The doctors had said that nothing could be done. Molly was so grief-stricken that all she could do was to shop for the best little wool blanket so that their son wouldn't have to lie cold in the winter ground. Now Bloom watched brash young Stephen, his friend's boy, and grieved for his own dead child. But as much as he mourned the baby (a beautiful child, everyone said), Bloom was just as sorry to see Stephen wasting his life with drunks and his money on whores.

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 world—disappears! 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 combination—a declaration of the End of Art that is also art—is 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.

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April 7, 2003

modernism in dance

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:

Ballet, [Fokine] said, was hopelessly "confused." It was historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers were ridiculously "straight-backed." ... Ballet, Fokine insisted, must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev's: a ballet, he said, must "have complete unity of expression." It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa's French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of that place and time. .... In Fokine and Diaghilev's historicist aesthetic, classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. ....

And then came abstraction, with Balanchine:

Choreographically, Apollon Musagète created a stylistically unified, Fokinesque "whole" world. But Balanchine broke with Fokine in one crucial respect. .... For Balanchine, what mattered was that the external shape, color, and tone of the movement capture an important idea. He was not interested in historical accuracy or what he called "petty, everyday" emotions: he was trying to show something more elevated: "supplication."[7]

In 1957, Balanchine further simplified Apollo (as it was then renamed) by dispensing with the ballet's seventeenth-century sets and costumes in favor of simple black-and-white practice cloths against a plain backdrop. As such, he brought Apollo into aesthetic orbit with his most recent Stravinsky collaboration: Agon. .... Agon was the culmination of an aesthetic Balanchine first introduced in 1946 with The Four Temperaments, and it changed everything we know about how to watch a dance. Agon has no clear narrative, no melodic or lyrical line: rather, it piles blocks of movement and music one on top of another. ....

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.

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April 4, 2003

unions and business ethics

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.

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April 3, 2003

ideology and deliberation on campus

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:

1. We could decide that dialogue or deliberation, properly understood and worked out, isn't neutral. It's a form of politics that's inherently more attractive to the Left than to the Right. (For example, some people think that it must deal with racial and gender oppression, because these topics are at the root of most important conflicts.) Thus, although conservatives should be welcomed and respected if they choose to participate, we shouldn't expect them to join in large numbers, nor should we adjust our styles and topics to attract them. To a considerable extent, deliberation (at least on college campuses) will attract the traditional blocks of the Democratic Party: liberal whites, racial and ethnic minorities, gays. They have plenty of diagreements and plenty of hidden mutual animosity to work though, so it is worthwhile to bring them together to deliberate.

2. We could decide that a properly deliberative approach requires the participation of underrepresented groups. In the case of this conference, there was pretty good participation by people of color, but to my knowledge there were no Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people with any current connection to the military. Just as we would act affirmatively to increase the representation of an underrepresented minority group, so we should take affirmative steps to invite the Right to participate. We should make sure we identify potentially interested conservatives and ask them to participate. We should evaluate our public statements and image to make sure that they don't appear hostile to the Right. We should include conservatives as partners from the beginning of our projects, asking them to help us frame our questions and concerns. And we should not presume to speak for them in their absence. I sense, for instance, that they would dislike the University of Michigan's dialogue program, but it is up to them to express their own views of it. I thought some of the characterizations of conservative views at the conference were stereotyped and inaccurate.

3. We should do a bit of both. Some useful exercises (for example, dialogues on racial identity) are going to be dominated by leftish participants, and that's fine. Others will naturally attract conservatives.

Choice #3 seems attractive because it is moderate, but I believe it is impractical. Given very limited energy and resources, the movement for deliberative democracy is going to have to choose between #1 and #2, I believe, and not imagine that we can manage a bit of both.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 2, 2003

the evolution of deliberation as a field

I made a presentation today at the 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:

  1. Until the 1960s, many scholars assumed that politics was mostly a struggle among groups with fixed interests. Often, groups' goals were assumed to be selfish, although the really important point was that they were inflexible. Therefore, discussion, argument, and reason-giving were inconsequential. This was the Marxist view, but it was also the view of "pluralists" and "realists" in political science, many of whom were quite conservative. So it a broad ideological spectrum agreed that rhetoric was politically insignificant. Politics meant the deployment of power in competitive situations.
  2. 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."

  3. Until the 1960's, the positivist distinction between facts and values held sway in English-speaking countries. Facts were testable and debatable; values were just subjective matters of opinion. There was no debating morality.

    Then, around 1970, moral philosophy was revived, demonstrating that there can be powerful, rational arguments for moral conclusions. However, almost all contemporary political philosophers are democrats. They do not believe that philosophers can decide what is right by sitting in their studies and applying philosophical methods. This approach would be undemocratic; it would also be foolish, since good decisions require the input of many people with different backgrounds, values, and experiences.

    A belief in rational moral argument plus a belief in democratic participation yields a commitment to deliberation.

  4. "Civil society"—an old term—suddenly became hugely influential in the 1980s and 1990s, for various reasons. Definitions of "civil society" vary, but a core idea is that societies form "public opinion" in nongovernmental groups such as clubs, civic associations, newspapers, and political parties. This means that no public opinion can form at all where civil society has been suppressed or destroyed (e.g., in Iraq?). It also means that democracy depends upon having a good institutional base for civil society. Thus there has been a lot of research into what institutions support good discussions and valuable public opinion.

These three trends have led to a lot of research on two types of deliberation:

  1. Deliberation in formal, decision-making bodies such as legislatures, official juries, and appeals courts. The research mostly asks: "Do good arguments count in these fora?" and "How could we make them count more?"
  2. Society-wide deliberations occuring in civil society and the media, e.g., America's discussion of gender-roles since the mid-1800s.

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?

Posted by peterlevine at 12:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 1, 2003

civility in time of war

[Written when the war appeared to be going very badly for the US, at least according to the pundits on TV. ...]

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:

  1. Democracy is about disagreement, and it is not unusual for our differences to be of enormous moral significance. Matters of life and death often divide participants in democratic political life. In such cases, it is necessary both to fight passionately for what one believes and to preserve the political system within which we settle all our debates. Our domestic political opponents are in a permanent relationship with us, almost like a marriage with no possibility of divorce. If the level of animosity gets too high, the damage can be serious.
  2. The decision to invade Iraq may turn out to have been wise or exceptionally foolhardy, but it was a judgment-call. Weighing all the relevant factors—risks and potential benefits to ourselves, the Iraqis, the region, our relationships with allies, and the international system—it was possible to reach a range of conclusions. Perhaps those who had access to classified information should have predicted the first week of war better than they did. But at least on the basis of public information, one could make a case for the invasion ten days ago. I did not think the case was persuasive, but it was not lunatic.
  3. The war is not a ploy to make money for George Bush, Dick Cheney, or their friends in the oil industry. These men already have plenty of money and myriad opportunities to get much richer after they leave the government. I am certain that they are concerned with one self-interested goal (as well, perhaps, as altruistic ends). Their selfish goal is to be perceived as doing a good job running the country, both in the short-term, to help them get re-elected, and in the long-term, to make themselves into American heros. If the war turns out badly in the end, but the US energy industry makes some profits on Iraqi oil, this will not be in Bush and Cheney's self-interest, nor will they see it as a good outcome. The war may be about oil and economics, but only in the sense that cheap oil is good for the whole US economy (which means that we are all morally implicated). The effect on oil companies is not a major consideration for Bush and Cheney.
  4. Pacifists will say that they knew the war would be disastrous. I don't think they knew that—nor indeed do we know today what the final outcome will be. Knowledge is justified true belief. Strong anti-war activists may have had a true belief, but it wasn't justified. I remember having dinner with some conservative men who were certain that Bill Clinton was committing adultery while president. Their whole view of liberalism told them that this must be the case. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke, it turned out that they were correct. But that doesn't mean that they knew anything about Clinton's marriage. They just applied an ideological schema that gave them the right answer in this particular case. When this happens, it's important to remain modest and recognize that one is not necessarily wiser than anyone else.
  5. We have a responsibility to think about the future, not merely assess blame for past decisions. The anti-war movement faces a tough question: What to do now? Even if the war was a terrible mistake, it seems to me that an armistice would be morally and practically disastrous. It's easy to criticize, but our real civic duty is to come up with a range of worthy policies that could be adopted today or tomorrow. I can see only one policy that makes sense, which is to seek the unconditional surrender of the Iraqi government. But I would welcome and admire sensible alternatives.
  6. Posted by peterlevine at 12:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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