June 30, 2003
have we lost public liberty?
Even 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.
"Compare 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 New 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.
June 27, 2003
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 and methods.
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 in America."
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.
June 26, 2003
CEOs for Americorps
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.)
June 25, 2003
Was Saddam bluffing about wmd's?
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.
But 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 us—the 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).
June 24, 2003
freedom of speech for universities
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.'
Courts 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?
June 23, 2003
the Alexander bill
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.
Senator 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.
I heartily 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.
June 20, 2003
a community blog
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 its diversity.
June 19, 2003
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).
No 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.
June 18, 2003
why distinguish weapons of mass destruction?
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.
June 17, 2003
educational standards and deliberation
Standards 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 public judgment.
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.")
June 16, 2003
the printing press didn't cause a translation revolution
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.
I 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.
All of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about power, institutions, and technology.
June 13, 2003
against "starving the beast"
"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 freebdom again?
"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."
I 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.
June 12, 2003
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.
- To 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.
- To have a platform for presenting short comments for a small audience, easily and quickly.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- there is a small set of coherent and true principles that can guide us.
- everyone is inevitably ideological, in which case an overt ideology is more honest than a hidden one.
- the alternatives are unpalatable (e.g., we must make no
judgments at all, or we can only decide randomly).
- ideology gives us roughly correct answers while lowering the cost of political participation, thereby allowing poor and poorly educated people to participate
- ideology is the only way to solve "voting cycles"
- there is not a small set of coherent and true principles.
- it is possible to make judgments individually, and generalizations distort a complex reality
- there are preferable alternatives to ideology.
- Public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is available now in several states and major cities.
- Radical tax simplification. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.
- Alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get "captured" by special interests. In each field, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.
- Aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism in the news media, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.
- More federal support for civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life.
- Lawrence Lessig is circulating a petition asking Congress to pass a "Public Domain Enhancement Act. This statute would require American copyright owners to pay a very low fee (for example, $1) fifty years after a copyrighted work was published. If the owner pays the fee, the copyright will continue for whatever duration Congress sets. But if the copyright is not worth even $1 to the owner, then we believe the work should pass into the public domain."
- The American Library Association has a new "commons-blog," devoted to issues of intellectual property. The ALA is a powerful resource for civic work and a supporter of the public domain. Librarians run important civic institutions in communities and schools; they are custodians of intellectual property that people can use for free; and they promote deliberation. The ALA has what the whole public-interest movement most desperately needs: an active, knowledgeable, grassroots base. Leaders of the ALA, such as Nancy Kranich, a recent President whom I know, are aware of their civic role.
- Teen Consumer Scrapbook (Sponsored by the Washington State Attorney General's Office)
- Flint Profiles ("By teaching information access and computer technology as tools for change, this project aims to empower high school students to succeed as decision makers who influence community leaders to respond to their ideas for change. Through this project, young activists will learn to put their passion into action.")
- Harlem Live (Mission: "To empower a diverse group of youth towards leadership using experience and exposure to media and technology. ... HarlemLive is award winning, critically acclaimed web magazine produced by teens from throughout New York City".)
Level ("Street-Level Youth Media educates Chicago's inner-city youth
arts and emerging technologies for use in self-expression communication, and social change.")
- Wire Tap
("WireTap is the independent information source by and for socially conscious
youth. We showcase investigative news articles, personal essays and opinions,
artwork and activism resources that challenge stereotypes, inspire creativity,
foster dialogue and give young people a voice in the media.")
June 11, 2003
two contributions to the Commons
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:
June 10, 2003
deliberation and the scope of the public sphere
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?
In my view, this is really a difficult choice, and there are numerous reasons for and against each option.
June 9, 2003
building a constituency for the Commons
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.
June 6, 2003
ideology: pros and cons
Is 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:
|degree of ideology =||
(range of judgments generated by a set of assumptions) x (coherence of the set)
number of items in the set of assumptions
For example, Ayn Randians have a very small set of assumptionsmaybe just one. Their belief that individual freedom is the only moral value generates a very wide range of judgments, not only about politics and economics, but also about religion, the virtues, and aesthetics. For them, a good novel must be about an iconclastic genius, because individual creativity and freedom are all that matters. So Ayn Randians are highly ideological.
Classical liberals are somewhat less ideological, according to this theory, because the range of judgments supported by their initial assumptions is narrower. For instance, they may say that liberalism only tells us how to organize a state; it says nothing about what makes a good novel, or whether God exists, or what are the best personal virtues.
So is it good to be highly ideological? I would say Yes if:
I would say No if:
June 5, 2003
a strong good government program
It appears that John Podesta will lead a new American Majority Institute designed to develop and popularize "progressive" ideas. (The New York Times story is here.) I think this is great news, even from a non-partisan and non-ideological perspective, because the intellectual collapse of the American Left is reducing competition and debate in US politics.
There are some good idea for broad political movements that could be adopted by the Left. Here's one (more will follow in future postings):
Idea # 1: A strong "good government" program. To attract the Perot-McCain-Bradley vote in addition to its usual base, either party could propose the following policies:
June 4, 2003
resources for the commons
For people interested in the information commons, here are two sites worth visiting:
June 3, 2003
My good friends at the Center for Media Education sent me a list of youth-led civic projects that use the Internet. Here are a few great examples from their list:
June 2, 2003
Jonathan Dancy's particularism
I think that Jonathan Dancy, a British moral philosopher, has made an important contribution with an argument that I would loosely paraphrase as follows. (See this webpage for his own statement.)
Although moral philosophy is highly diverse in its methods and conclusions, it almost always involves an effort to identify concepts or words that have consistent moral significance. For instance, when we examine a complex case of adultery, we may detect numerous features that are morally relevant: promise-breaking, deceit, self-indulgence, lust, pleasure, happiness, love, freedom, and self-fulfillment. We may not know how to judge the case, since its features push us in various directions. But we do knowor we think we knowthe valence of each concept. Regardless of our overall judgment of an adultery story, the fact that it involves a broken promise makes it worse than it would otherwise be. The fact that it expresses freedom or increases happiness makes it better. And so on.
This kind of analysis has the advantage of allowing what Dancy calls "switching arguments." We form a strong opinion about the moral polarity of a concept that arises in well-understood cases, and then we apply (or "switch") it to new situations. So, for example, if we admire conventional marriage because it reflects long-term mutual commitment, then we ought to admire the same feature in gay relationships.
But what if moral concepts do not have the same valence or polarity in each case? What if they are not always good or bad (even "all else being equal"), but instead change their polarity depending on the context? Clearly, this is true of some concepts. Pleasure, for example, is often a good thing, but not if it comes from observing someone else's painthen the presence of pleasure is actually bad, even if it has no impact on the sufferer. In my view, it is a mistake to isolate "pleasure" as a general moral concept, because one cannot tell whether it makes things better or worse, except by examining how it works in each context.
Philosophers have always been eager to reject some potential moral concepts as ambiguous and unreliable; but they have wanted to retain at least a few terms as guides to judgment. Thus, for instance, Kant drops "pleasure" and "happiness" from the moral lexicon, but "duty" remains. It would be revolutionary to assert, as Dancy does, that "every consideration is capable of having its practical polarity reversed by changes in context." Dancy believes that no concepts, reasons, or values have the same moral polarity in all circumstances. Whether a feature of an act or situation is good or bad always depends on the context, on the way that the feature interacts with other factors that are also present in the concrete situation. To shake our confidence that some important moral concepts have consistent polarities, Dancy provides many examples in which the expected moral significance of a concept is reversed by the context. For example, truth-telling is generally good. But willingly telling the truth to a Gestapo agent, even about some trivial matter such as the time of day, would be regrettable. Returning a borrowed item is usually good-but not if you learn that it was stolen, in which case it is wrong to give it back to the thief.