April 30, 2004
two interesting meetings
I actually had several interesting conversations today, but I'd like to mention two. First, I met Dr. Laxmi Ramasubramanian of the University of Illinois at Chicago. She helps to create exciting projects that involve residents--including young people--in mapping their communities and creating visions for the future. See, for instance, these Character Plans for the City of Oak Park. This is the kind of work that we're gradually building toward with our own high school students in Prince George's County, MD.
In the afternoon, I heard a good presentation by Hellmut Lotz (available here). Lotz argues that tyrants always have reason to fear for their lives. Others are afraid of them and may try to kill them in self-defense or to usurp their power. A ruler may be sure that he can ward off challengers, but sooner or later he will want to retire or to guarantee his children's safety after his death. But even if he says that he no longer desires power, others have no reason to believe him. The dictator (and his children) are always potential rivals to any new rulers. For this reason, there are very few examples of safely retired dictators. In constitutional systems, however, leaders routinely retire to comfort and safety. Absolute power plus personal security would be best, but it is impossible. A constitution gives rulers limited power plus safety, and is therefore in the interest of rulers. And that is why we have a Constitution, according to Lotz.
April 29, 2004
why do we care about press coverage of Iraq?
There's a very hot debate about the quality of news about Iraq. Some colleagues and students and I have created a special website with a lot of relevant information on that topic. I think the first step is to ask what's the purpose of press coverage. Here are some answers that seem to be implicit in the current debate:
1. A citizen's main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November.
Some people feel passionately that the Bush Administration has been awful--either wicked or incompetent--and that the election results in November should reflect this verdict. For them, it is very disturbing that a majority of Americans still believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or a major WMD program) on the eve of the invasion, and that world opinion is largely favorable toward the war. (See this PIPA report.) They believe that each of these beliefs is false, that the contrary positions make the case against Bush, and that the press is responsible for failing to convey the truth.
Other people (for example, these folks) have the same view of the press' function (to inform citizens who are going to vote yea or nay on the Administration's performance to date), but they believe that Bush is a decisive, visionary leader. To them, it is deeply frustrating that the press emphasizes casualties and conflicts in Iraq, rather than America's work in rebuilding the country. Many of them were incensed when the press reported setbacks in the initial ground war, which quickly turned into a rout of Saddam's forces.
In my own view, citizens need to do much more than vote retrospectively on a president, once every four years. I agree that a president's performance in his first term provides some evidence about how he would behave in the next four years, although this evidence is very imperfect. But if all I'm supposed to do is make a retrospective judgment of competence, and it takes a lot of my time to get adequately informed, and there are many other important issues besides Iraq, and 100 million other adults will also vote, I'm not sure it's worth my trouble to follow the war closely. Furthermore, I don't see a reason to care about the quality of news coverage if each citizen's role is so limited.
2. We are morally complicit in what our government does, so we should understand the results and feel appropriate emotions.
People who implicitly hold this view believe that we are part of a democratic community, so we are morally required to associate ourselves with the actions of the US Government. If Americans are brutally killed by terrorists, we should know all the details and feel a desire for vengeance. If American soldiers are killed, we should grieve for them and their families (and perhaps vent anger against the leaders who sent them into danger, if we think that the war was unnecessary). If our bombs kill Iraqis or Afghans, then we should see pictures and read accounts of what has been done. If people rage against the US in Baghdad, Athens, or New York, we should read what they say so that we can either take patriotic offense or come to share their judgment. Looking away from any of these events is a dereliction of our moral duty.
For their part, news organizations have an obligation to describe events in all their emotional power. Thus it was right to show the bodies of American contractors in Falluja; and we should all view the coffins of the American dead.
There are potential criticisms of this position, although I haven't seen anyone argue against it explicitly. Perhaps we shouldn't engage too emotionally with current events, because our job is to be sober and judicious judges of policy. Or perhaps we have no obligation to read upsetting news or see upsetting pictures, since we aren't very complicit in this war. We are not intentional participants in the group that's fighting. I might say: I didn't vote for Bush, nobody consulted me before they decided to invade, and I don't need to wallow in the bad news that has resulted. Finally, one could argue that the focus of our emotional engagement shouldn't be Iraq. Sadness about deaths thousands of miles away is cheap; we should spend our time worrying about the local homeless, because we can help them.
3. Policymakers will respond to polls, so poll results should reflect good judgment.
This is actually a variant of #1 (above), but it adds an important wrinkle. We don't just vote in November; in addition, we are polled at frequent intervals. Perhaps poll results shouldn't matter, but they do influence policy. If 90% of the public wanted us out of Iraq, we'd probably be heading out. Thus it's important that people pay attention and base their opinions on good evidence and careful consideration of alternative views. Unfortunately, the American people deserve no better than a "B" for knowledge and effort, according to this study.
It's undeniable that surveys matter. But it's not clear that they should. Nor do I have a very strong obligation to inform myself and to participate in discussions about Iraq just in case a pollster decides to call me. It would be better to draw a random sample of Americans, tell them that their opinions will really count, and demand that they do their homework so that everyone else can get on with their private business. This is the Deliberative Polling idea--somewhat utopian, but worth thinking about as an alternative to our current system.
4. The press is a watchdog or whistle-blower.
According to this thesis, it doesn't much matter what average Americans think or know about Iraq. The purpose of the press is to "blow the whistle" when the government really messes up or does something unethical. The audience for such stories need not be especially large. It may be various elites. In extreme cases, the only people who have to read an investigative news report are Members of Congress and officials in the Justice Department, who will use the data in their legal actions against the administration.
It's clear that the press has played this watchdog role well, from time to time. Watergate is the classic case. However, there are several drawbacks to the idea of press as watchdog. First, the only tribunal that should really judge a president is the people. So unless the people pay attention to the full range of news (good as well as bad), a president will not be fairly judged at the polls. If congressional committees, special prosecutors, and bipartisan commissions become the bodies that assess presidential performance, democracy is weaker--and we risk criminalizing policy mistakes.
Second, the press has a legitimacy problem. No one elects the White House press corps to be Tribunes of the People. If we don't approve of their performance, we can't remove them. A skillful populist can discredit reporters precisely by making this point. Indeed, Bush's approval ratings rose when reporters began to hammer him on Iraq, presumably because a lot of Americans view the president as more their representative than the networks and major newspapers. Jay Rosen considers this phenomenon in a subtle essay.
Finally, it really doesn't make much business sense to imagine printing a national newspaper or running a cable news network for the benefit of, 300 powerful policymakers. The news that appears on TV and in print must interest masses of people. This tends to distort any effort to investigate the details and complexities of alleged government misbehavior.
5. Citizens Can Do More than Vote.
People who know me have been waiting for this answer. We don't just observe policy and render occasional judgments. We can also do "public work." In relation to Iraq, we can choose to: organize political movements for or against the war; debate and try to develop policy alternatives for our government to adopt; follow the reconstruction effort closely to learn lessons for our own local work in battered American communities; develop relationships with individuals abroad and with immigrants in the US (in order to strengthen America's "soft power" and make us more responsive); raise money for NGOs like the International Rescue Committee; and even enlist in the US Military.
I like this position best, for philosophical reasons. But we need to be realistic. A lot of these forms of engagement are very hard or cannot reasonably be undertaken by most Americans. For instance, approximately 0.04% of the American population is serving in Iraq. If we increased that number tenfold, we would still only be able to include four tenths of one percent of the American people in direct work "on the ground" in Iraq.
Getting good information about Iraq is difficult, since much of the most important data is classified or inaccessible to Americans.
Also, a lot of movement-building, advocacy, and deliberation work really aims to change other Americans' opinions. But what's the point of that, other than to help them cast the correct vote next November (see #1 above)? If voting is a weak form of citizenship, then trying to change other people's votes is not much better.
As a personal matter, I feel compelled to watch the Iraq situation very closely and to express my views to anyone who wants to hear them. I try to be a responsible observer. I think this is because of #2 (above), a sense of moral association with the US Government. Perhaps my emotional response contains a dose of bad faith or self-indulgence or moral convenience, since I'm far from the suffering and have nothing to do about it. In any case, we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war.
[Two more answers to my original question ("Why should we care about press coverage of Iraq?"), added on May 1:]
6. This war and occupation is a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about profound and perennial issues.
What better way to examine democracy, power, tyranny, military force, cultural differences, law, civil liberties, Islam, Christianity, economic development, and even human nature than to study the dramatic events taking place in Iraq? We ought to understand these issues, because they arise in our own lives and communities; because they are intrinsically interesting and morally serious; and because the views that we form in response to the Iraq war will not only influence next November's vote--they will shape every decision we ever make about national politics. If this is true, then we should expect the press to be an excellent educator, providing diverse opinions and useful information relevant to profound and lasting issues. We shouldn't much care why George W. Bush ordered the invasion, but we should ask what are the necessary conditions for democracy to take root. We should also be interested in such perennial questions as: Should societies use the talents of people who have committed wrongs in the past (e.g., former Baathists in Iraq)? What potential for good and evil do we see in Americans under stress, and how can we strengthen our best instincts as a people? How can a government respond when the popular press is fomenting hatred and violence?
7. The "few-to-many" press is not important; it's the "many-to-many" dialogue that matters.
All my previous answers focused on the mass media: the broadcast networks and major newspapers. But today there are said to be three million blogs, not to mention countless Listservs and printed newsletters. Most of this communication is not focused on Iraq, but a substantial portion is. There may be one million people who have created public, accessible commentary about the war and related issues. Perhaps we should prize this conversation. It is intrinsically interesting, it may shape broad public opinion, and it's so international that it may increase cross-cultural understanding. The paid, professional press still has a major role to play, providing most (although not all) of the basic information that feeds into these informal, public debates. But if we care most about the informal discussion, then we should ask whether the professional press is doing a good job in providing raw material. (I would say that it probably is.)
April 28, 2004
Christopher Kutz on Complicity
Yesterday, I went to the National Institutes of Health to hear Chris Kutz discuss his book, entitled Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age. Kutz sets himself the following problem. As a matter of common sense, I assume that "I am accountable for a harm only if what I have done made a difference to that harm's occurrence." I also assume that "I am accountable for a harm's occurrence only if I could control its occurrence, by producing or preventing it." We are raised to make these two assumptions. Unfortunately, we may belong to groups that do very serious harms, yet each member of the group can rightly say, "I made no difference to the outcome, and I couldn't control what happened." In these cases--which probably create the bulk of the world's evils--no one is responsible or accountable for the wrong.
The case that we discussed most deeply yesterday was the firebombing of Dresden by allied forces during World War II, which probably caused 35,000 civilian deaths in one night and did nothing to advance the Allied victory over Nazism. The firestorm (which sucked oxygen out of the air and caused civilians in shelters to die of asphyxiation) was caused by bombs from 1,000 airplanes. Eight thousand crewmen flew in those planes, and "many thousands further were involved in planning and support." Exactly the same number of deaths would have occurred if 999 bombers had flown instead of 1,000. Thus each crewman or ground-support person can rightly say, "I made no difference, and I had no control over the outcome."
Indeed, because these people were not causally responsible as individuals, I think that no one should accuse them of homicide. But they do have a deep and permanent moral connection to the Dresden firestorm, unlike someone who was home in Iowa at the time. This moral connection requires actions and attitudes on their part: for instance, regret, memory, confession, self-scrutiny, and perhaps active support for peace with post-War Germany. We should consider as morally defective anyone who says, "I was part of a group that killed 35,000 civilians for no military purpose, but I had no effect on the numbers killed, so I don't care what happened."
At the most general level, Kutz argues that "I am accountable for what others do when I intentionally participate in the wrong they do or the harm they cause. I am accountable for the harm or wrong we do together, independently of the actual difference I make." This "complicity principle" conflicts with the common-sense principles of "individual difference" and "individual control" that I mentioned earlier. The conflict is the main subject of Complicity.
The difficulties, which Kutz handles very skillfully, arise when it's not clear whether a person is an intentional participant in a group. It's one thing when I voluntarily join a defined and formal body. For example, if I choose to buy stock in a company whose negligence kills people, that is my problem (morally), even if I had no reason to know about the company's behavior. But there are many harder cases. For instance, everyone drives too quickly on the Washington Beltway, resulting in at least one death/day. But each average driver does not make the roads any more dangerous than they would be without him. In fact, if you slowed down, that would make the Beltway modestly more dangerous. Are you complicit in unnecessary deaths if you drive to work at 70 mph?
Or what about a journalist traveling with a military unit in Iraq? If the unit kills a civilian, is the reporter part of the group and therefore subject to moral scrutiny for the death? Does it matter whether the journalist is "embedded"? Does it matter whether she comes from one of the Coalition countries? I am not assuming that being responsible for killing a civilian implies some severe punishment or censure--there is a war on, and civilian casualties may be unavoidable. But those involved in the killing morally owe an account, and ought to feel emotions such as deep regret. Do these obligations also apply to an embedded reporter who is present at the event?
Since a critical review by John Gardner is currently the top result when one searches for "Christopher Kutz [and] Complicity" on Google, I want to address a mistake in that review. Contrary to what Gardner says, Kutz acknowledges that a person owes special kinds of accountability when he is directly and causally responsible for a harm, whether or not he acts as part of a group. Complicity is an additional layer of responsibility that arises only in virtue of our participation in a group that does something wrong, regardless of whether we affect the outcome.
Complicity is clear, precise, well organized, original, and morally challenging. I must disclose that I know the author very well; nevertheless, I can report that this book is prized by philosophers working on problems of collective responsibility.
April 27, 2004
the NAEP civics assessment
[update: At its May 2005 meeting, the National Assessments Governing Board increased the frequency of the NAEP Civics Assessment to every four years, twice the prior frequency of every eight years. This was a good decision, especially compared to the possibility that the Civics Assessment would be canceled altogethe.]
The 12th-grade NAEP Civics Assessment is threatened with termination. I know that this is not the #1 topic on the minds of millions of Americans, but it's an important and tricky issue. The federal officials responsible for NAEP are inviting comments right now (see below).
First of all, some general background about the NAEP itself. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "Nation's Report Card," looks like a test to the kids who take it, but it's an assessment of our schools and school systems, not of individual students. There are no "stakes" for the kids: no consequences for doing well or poorly. Indeed, no score is computed for a given student. That is because the test instrument is very long, and each person is asked to complete a random part of it. Asking many questions is the best way to measure skills and knowledge, so it's useful to ask a whole population more questions than any child or adolescent could sit still for. The results are then combined to generate statistics for the population.
Assessments are conducted in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and the arts. Traditionally, participation was voluntary; either a state, a school, or an individual child could decline to participate. This has changed somewhat with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Now all states are required to conduct the NAEP reading and mathematics assessments every two years at the 4th and 8th grade. They must conduct the NAEP in such a way as to generate statistically valid results for their whole student populations in those subjects. In principle, the NAEP is funded by the federal government and designed by the Educational Testing Service as a federal grantee. In practice, there are some costs for states and schools--in time if not in money.
In addition to knowledge and skill questions, students are asked some survey questions about their backgrounds and experiences in school and outside. Teachers complete a separate questionnaire. Students' transcripts are collected and connected to their performance on the assessment. All this data-collection makes NAEP a superb source of information about what seems to work in education. To name one example, Richard Niemi and Jane Junn have shown, using NAEP data, that social studies courses increase students' knowledge and also seem to improve their civic attitudes.
The National Assessment Government Board sets standards for Basic, Proficient, and Advanced in each NAEP. The Department of Education is thus able to say, for example, that 2 percent of students score at the Advanced level in civics at the 12th grade level. It is important to note that these cutoff points are subject to debate. They are set by panels of experts and citizens who have exercised their judgment to determine what should consitute Basic, Proficient, and Advanced mastery of a subject. A different group might reach a different conclusion.
A NAEP civics or citizenship assessment has been conducted five times since 1969 (and only three times at the 12-grade level), although history, geography, and economics have also been assessed periodically. The results were representative of the nation's student population, but there was no effort to assess a statistically representative sample in each state--or even in some of the states. Organizing state samples is more expensive than measuring a national sample.
Many experts consider the NAEP civics assessment to be a fine instrument for measuring skills and knowledge. Many would also like to measure civic attitudes and behaviors (tolerance, patriotism, concern for the common good, voting, volunteering, and many more). By law, NAEP scores only reflect students' knowledge and skills, although a few attitude measures were included in the survey portion of the 1998 civics NAEP.
The next NAEP civics assessment is tentatively scheduled for 2006, after an eight-year gap. It will again be a national sample without separate state results. Given the long gap and the lack of state-level data, we can't observe trends in civics. Nor can we compare state standards and curricula to find out what works, nor can we measure progress either nationally or by state, nor can we hold policymakers accountable for civics. Some people also think that it is symbolically damaging to assess civics every eight years if we are going to test reading and mathematics every two years, because what we assess is what we seem to care about. For these reasons, the many and diverse signatories of the Civic Mission of Schools report called for civics assessments every three years, with representative samples in each and every state.
This target appears to be receding. The National Commission on NAEP 12th Grade Assessment and Reporting issued a report on March 5, 2004 that calls for making reading and math NAEPs mandatory in all states. Twelfth-grade civics is to be an entirely optional assessment, conducted only at the national level and only if funding permits. Civics is explicitly placed in a third tier below reading and math (which are to be mandatory) and science and writing (which are treated as highly desirable). The report is a purely advisory document which the National Assessment Governing Board will review critically. NAGB is currently inviting public comments.
There appear to be three reasons that the advisory commission recommended emphasizing reading and mathematics and making civics a low priority. First of all, reading and math are the priorities of the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates NAEPs in those fields at the 4th and 8th grade. NCLB is silent about the 12th grade NAEP, but this report is in the spirit of NCLB. As the Washington Post reported recently, schools are dropping other subjects in order to concentrate on the NCLB mandates. Education Secretary Rod Paige defends the emphasis in the law. "A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics," he says. But the narrowing of the curriculum has attracted critics as diverse as the National Conference for the Social Studies; NAGB's Executive Director, Charles Smith; and the Fordham Foundation's Chester Finn, who wrote:
the omission of social studies-and, more importantly, of history, geography, and civics-from NCLB is beginning to have deleterious effects. It's causing some states and schools to downplay these subjects in favor of those for which they'll be held publicly accountable and compared with each other. As the old educator truism puts it, what gets tested is what gets taught.
Second, only 55% of high school seniors who are asked to take NAEP assessments are now complying. It is likely that those who decline to participate are not a random group but have particular characteristics: compared to other students, they may be busier, or enrolled in poorer or more focused schools, or less academic. Such a low participation rate makes the results virtually meaningless. The report suggests solving this problem by making state participation in reading and mathematics mandatory, and conducting the other assessments occasionally, with national samples, if resources allow.
The third reason is an apparent assumption that schools do not have an essential civic mission. The report urges that NAEP "report on the readiness of 12th graders for college, training for employment, and entrance into the military." It passes over the readiness of 12th graders to be citizens, active in civil society, communities, and politics. This omission feeds fears in our community that testing is driving out civics.
In principle, there are at least four policies that could be adopted:
1. Separate federal legislation could mandate NAEP civics assessments in every state on a regular basis (e.g., once every three years), as a condition of federal funding.
2. NAEP civics assessments could be offered every three years, and funding could be provided to encourage states to organize separate representative samples.
3. The NAEP civics, history, geography, and economics assessments could be combined into a single "social studies" NAEP (with separate subscores for each subject); this NAEP could then be offered every three years in as many states as possible.
4. A completely new--and much shorter--assessment of adolescents' civic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors could be conducted as a random survey, with a big enough sample to generate state-level results in at least the large states.
April 26, 2004
a blog appears in the Washington Post
The Post's "Outlook" section is completely devoted to opinion articles. Yesterday, the Outlook editors chose to reprint a portion of a blog. They didn't use the word "blog." Instead, the article began:
Raphael Cohen-Almagor, director of the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa, is a visiting scholar this year at Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies. He writes a monthly newsletter about Middle East politics that he sends to 300 people in 23 countries. It also appears on the Web at almagor.blogspot.com. His comments in the newsletter about Israel's recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin prompted a spirited exchange with several recipients. The following excerpts are published with the writers' permission.
Anyone who is familiar with blogs will recognize the style of the entries that follow. They are too articulate to be transcriptions of unrehearsed speech, yet they are informal. At least some of the participants appear to know each other, and all adopt a familiar tone ("Hi Steve"). The writing is personal and vivid. The participants appear knowledgeable, but they express opinions rather than present information. They are an international group, and their occupations are very diverse, yet they converse as peers. The reprint in the Post is actually more typical of blogs than the original material on Almagor's website, for Almagor lists his sources (including academic articles) and writes fairly long essays.
I haven't noticed any previous occasion when a great American newspaper chose to reprint portions of a blog as part of its editorial content. Of course, more people are already visiting the most popular blogs than reading any article in the Post. Nevertheless, I presume that newspaper editors retain a sense of professional superiority over bloggers, so the appearance of a blog in the "Outlook" section is a symbolic moment.
April 23, 2004
embarrassment of riches
I don't have an especially good CD collection. Nevertheless, I can listen any time I like to great performances of some of the most challenging and profound musical masterpieces ever written. I can half-listen to Casals play his heart out while I read a book or play with my kids. I can command Horowitz to re-play the same historic concert so many times that I'm bored of it. I can use a Bach keyboard CD as a little refresher between two grand operas. If we're more in the mood for drama, the local video store has hundreds of superb movies, each the equivalent of an excellent theatrical performance. I sometimes think this easy access to masterpieces is almost sickening, as if our walls were lined with the freshest and most sumptuous creamy éclairs and champagne poured from our faucets; or as if we were lazy emperors with bevies of geniuses for slaves. Once upon a time, even if you were rich and lived in a great cultural capital, you could only hear a Beethoven symphony once in a while. The other day, I listened to a beautiful passage that was on the radio in our supermarket--but I left when all my groceries were in the bag.
I'm not at all sure that this is a good way to live. It makes it hard to appreciate ordinary performances or to play music (or act) oneself. It probably lowers the demand for live music and drama and thus makes it harder to earn a living in those fields. It deadens our responses to the great works of the past. And it must be a terrible burden for people who want to create new works.
(These problems seem less serious in the visual arts, since photographs never come close to capturing the impact of original buildings, paintings, and sculptures. It also seems less serious with books, because one has to devote many hours of complete attention in order to read a book at all.)
April 22, 2004
Here is an argument for a moderate form of the philosophical position known as "particularism." A full-blown particularist believes that whole situations are either good or bad; they can be validly judged. However, the separate qualities or aspects of situations can only be assessed in context. A quality is neither good nor bad in all the cases where it arises. The very same quality may make x better and yet make y worse. For instance, the quality of generosity is (normally) good if it makes me donate to the homeless, but it is bad (and makes matters worse) if I give generously to a terrorist organization.
According to particularists, the moral aspects of situations are analogous to splashes of red paint. (This is Simon Blackburn's analogy.) Adding a red splash might make a painting by de Kooning better, but a Vermeer worse; by itself, the red splash it is neither beautiful nor ugly. The de Kooning (overall) is a good painting and the Vermeer (overall) is a great one. We can make valid judgments, but only about whole works of art, not about small components of them.
Note: there is a problem here about what constitutes a "component" or a "whole." Can one make moral judgments about people, about policies and institutions, about whole societies? Is a law a component of a society, or a whole object in itself? The same problem sometimes arises in aesthetics, because it may be valuable to assess a whole suite of paintings, or a small detail of a picture, rather than a single and complete work.
In contrast to radical particularists, I think our moral vocabulary is very heterogeneous. It includes:
1. concepts that are tautologically good or bad. For instance, the right thing to do is always right.
2. concepts that are good or bad pro tanto, which is Latin for "as far as that goes." For instance, one might argue that kindness always makes things better, but an act can be both kind and stupid, and the stupidity is sometimes more important than the kindness. Thus kindness is only pro tanto good.
3. concepts that are good or bad prima facie, "on their face." For example, we rightly assume that a generous act is good, overall. But sometimes unusual circumstances arise that make generosity bad;
4. concepts that are morally neutral most of the time, although in rare circumstances they take on moral significance (e.g., redness or bigness); and finally
5. concepts that operate as particularists would expect them to: they usually make situations morally better or worse when they apply, yet we cannot tell in advance whether they will help or hurt in each circumstance. We must look at the whole situation.
Radical particularists imply that every important concept fits in category #5. I am a moderate particularist because I believe that the other categories also exist, but #5 is common and unavoidable.
For instance, I would place love in category #5. The Romantics thought that love was always pro tanto good. To say that someone was in love might not be the only thing to say about a situation, but it was always a good thing. I think the Romantics was wrong. If Guinivere is married to Arthur, then Guinivere's love for Lancelot is not even pro tanto good; it is bad, and she should work to reduce it. (I believe that we have the capacity to control the emotion of love, but that is a psychological claim and it is not important to my overall argument. Even if love is not in our control, adulterous love is still bad.)
An opponent of particularism may say: Love is sometimes good and sometimes bad. This makes it a highly imperfect concept. We would actually be better off with two words, for instance, "good-love" and "bad-love." The definition of these words would not be morally tautological; we wouldn't just say that "good-love" is love whenever it is good. Instead, a proper definition would connect "good-love" to more general moral concepts like justice and virtue, which we would also define. For example, good-love might include love between two consenting, unmarried adults, because our general theories of the good and of freedom would tell us to value love when it arises freely between unencumbered adults.
The anti-particularist's goal is to use only words that are pro tanto or prima facie good and bad. The goal is to excise words that are morally tautologous and words that have unpredictable moral valences. In practice, of course, we'll always retain our inherited vocabulary. We won't actually talk about "good-love" (because it's an ugly coinage), but we will explain what forms of love, in general, are good or bad.
As a moderate particularist, I reply: love is an extremely important moral concept. It is morally ambiguous, in the precise sense that it only has a moral valence in context--sometimes it makes things better pro tanto, and sometimes it makes things worse, but it is almost always morally significant. Although it may be good more often than it is bad, it is not prima facie good (because it's highly unpredictable).
Furthermore, we cannot make live morally without the concept "love," nor can we split it into two categories. Love is not just the union of two concepts: good-love and bad-love. Part of the definition of "love" is that it can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways.
Although I don't know how to prove that one cannot replace all morally ambiguous concepts with ones that are pro tanto or prima facie good or bad, I strongly doubt that this effort can ever succeed. If, for example, one tried to reason with the concept of "good-love," and defined it so that it included love between unmarried consenting pairs of adults, there would be many cases in which good-love turned out to be bad. So I think "good-love" would quickly collapse into a tautologously good thing (that is, it would mean "love in all cases where love is good"), or it would turn out to be unpredictably good or bad, depending on the context. But that was the problem with our ordinary concept of love.
In short, there is no escaping particularism about love, although we don't have to be particularists about everything.
April 21, 2004
the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools
A coalition has formed to advocate implementing the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report across the United States. The coalition includes 42 individuals and groups, including such major stakeholders as both national teachers unions, the National Council for the Social Studies, the American Bar Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Education Commission of the States, the Center for Civic Education, and many more. The campaign has raised $2 million, most of which will be distributed to teams that will advocate civic education in their own states. The full plan calls for raising roughly another $1.6 million. The Campaign has not been formally launched with press releases and a website, but it is certainly no secret, having been announced at several large conferences. Last week was its second Steering Committee meeting, which I attended. (In fact, I'm the chair, although I don't take that title overly seriously). Conversation was focused, thoughtful, and civil all day.
One of many issues that arose was how to make civic education seem more urgent to the many people who like the sound of it, but aren't moved to promote it. I don't know the answer, but I think that many people are deeply dissatisfied with the political culture (writ large). They don't like the conversation they see on political talk shows, the campaign ads, the leaders of either party, or even the heads of our major non-profits. Certainly, some of these dissatisfied people have unrealistic expectations or have jumped to overly hostile conclusions. But some very thoughtful citizens rightly dislike the general tenor of political debate and the quality of our leaders. To them, we need to say, "What kind of leaders can we expect in 10 or 40 years if we don't do a better job of civic education? Kids are being 'educated' by such spectacles as the White House press conference last week--and worse. If this is the only kind of education they get, then our public institutions and communities will face big trouble in the decades to come."
April 20, 2004
thinking about my generation
When I was younger, I resisted thinking of "Generation X" is an important part of my identity. This was partly a personal trait: to the best of my limited ability, I wanted to be mature and not to follow reflexively the characteristic interests of people in their twenties. My resistance was also--paradoxically--a trait of Generation X. We were born in a demographic trough, outnumbered and often overlooked. We were at least somewhat alienated by our predecessors' talk of a Generation Gap, a Youth Movement, a Sexual Revolution, and a campus counterculture. We couldn't detect any major social upheavals that distinguished us from the late Boomers. In 2002, 54.4% of us (i.e., those who were then between the ages of 26 and 37) said that "There is nothing particularly unique or distinctive about my age group." In contrast, 68.7% of the younger adults and 50.8% of the "Greatest Generation" people said, "My age group is unique and distinct from other age generations." (The Boomers themselves were split almost 50/50 on this question.)
Now, in my thirties, I'm much more likely to think of myself in generational terms. Because of my work with CIRCLE, it's my job to study age cohorts. In particular, I've been much impressed by Karl Mannheim's theory. Mannheim noted that babies are born every minute, so it is somewhat arbitrary to divide individuals into discrete generations. He argued, however, that our political and social opinions are relatively flexible when we are young. (I would explain this in terms of "rational ignorance": we must form opinions, but once we've got them, it's usually not worth the effort to change them.) Thus, whenever a major historical event occurs, it most deeply affects those who are between the ages of 15 and 25 at the time, and they turn into a "generation" with lasting traits.
The classic case was the World War I generation; service in that unbelievable slaughter permanently distinguished an age cohort from those too old or young to be drafted. The Vietnam generation went through a faint echo of the same phenomenon. (Incidentally, the big generation gaps are marked by changes in hair--World War I vets shaved off the Victorian mustaches, goatees, and long tresses of their fathers, whereas Boomers let their hair grow long. We in generation X have been characteristically unsure how to differentiate ourselves, hair-wise.)
Mannheim explains that each generation plays an essential role in the healthy evolution of a society. The older cohorts preserve memory and experience, but the younger ones help by not remembering too much. For example, we Gen-X'ers don't remember Vietnam well enough to let it overwhelm the rest of modern history. In the nineties, I knew many young Madeleine Albright fans--people who wanted to avoid repeating Munich and cared less about Tet or Kent State. Boomers, of course, play an equally important role by keeping alive the traumas of more modern history.
Meanwhile, at a personal level, I'm beginning to draw some guidance and psychological support from identifying with my age cohort. Some of my peers are fabulously successful, running important firms and organizations like the ACLU, writing masterpieces, or holding senior academic positions at distinguished universities. But most of us are in the middle ranks. We are frequently called-- as parents, teachers, and supervisors of younger colleagues--to share memories and experiences going back to the seventies. At the same time, we have parents, teachers, and supervisors of our own, who remember and know more than we do. We play a mediating role at this point in our lives.
April 19, 2004
the "crisis of the left": responses
I'd like to respond to several thoughtful comments that refer to my mini-essay on the crisis of the left.
First, some major points of agreement. I think Mark Schmitt ("The Decembrist") hits the nail on the head when he writes:
Much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare the public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.
In my view, we are not ready to advocate major new programs or approaches--comparable to the New Deal or the Great Society--because we don't yet have enough compelling ideas or concrete experiments waiting to be expanded. While we develop such experiments, we need to preserve the capacity of government to become a force for ambitious reform. That means doing just what "the Decembrist" says--controlling deficits, moving the courts toward the center, and restoring friendships with other democracies--plus promoting broad participation in our public life. Every year, young people are less likely to vote and to participate in many important organizations. Those without college degrees are the first to drop out, and if they have no voice, then there is no chance that government will respond to their needs in the decades to come.
Second, I agree that some blogs are excellent sources of positive ideas for the Left. I rather high-handedly dismissed the whole "blogosphere" in my original essay, and I retract that characterization. "The Decembrist" himself, plus Matthew Yglesias, Crooked Timber, and Brad DeLong are good examples of constructive thinkers.
I do believe, however, there are limits to "idea-generation"--Mark Schmitt's phrase for what bloggers contribute to political life. We need ideas, but perhaps even more we need concrete experiments (preferably rigorously and independently assessed); and we need nascent organizations that have figured out how to mobilize people in productive ways. Of course, there are many such experiments and associations. The charter school movement is just one place to look. But many of the projects that I have examined closely turn out not to be all that successful. So we need more experimentation, more organization, and more critical attention to such work. I'd instantly bookmark any blog that catalogued examples of successful social reform.
Third, I agree with Matt Stoller that there is great value in open, collaborative projects. Matt cites Google, open-source software, Expedia, and Slashdot. I would call all these projects "commons," because they generate free public resources by harnessing the power of voluntary work. They disprove the "Tragedy of the Commons" thesis, which holds that a common resource must always be polluted and exploited until it is destroyed.
I have written enthusiastically and repeatedly about the value of commons as models for progressive politics and new social institutions. But we need to address some tough questions:
1. Can commons work offline, away from computers? Digital goods have remarkable properties. Above all, a digital text or image can be copied and used countless times without degrading the original. Some people see digital goods and online activities as the center of our lives today, in which case we can organize important social functions as commons. But this overstates the importance of computers. Digital goods have marginal significance even for many people on the right side of the Digital Divide (i.e., those with access to computers and the Internet). Progressive politics must be concerned not only with software development but also with bricks-and-mortar industries, elementary school classrooms, forests and oceans, and urban streets. Each of these things can literally be "wired," but connecting them to computers is not necessarily that important. (I posted recently about the limitations of using computers in school.)
2. What's our theory of motivation that explains why really large numbers of people will participate in digital, online projects? Matt Stoller says that "commons" (my word, not his) are "intuitive to the new Creative Class, and young disaffected voters and hip hop fans. Just look at the political issues of the young--p2p, rave laws, privacy, drug legalization--and you'll see, it's not the command-and-control impulses behind New Deal that motivates them, but the social contract underlying the networked systems that they rely on." I have to disagree, at least in part. Our surveys show that young people have similar issue-priorities to older people. For instance, 20 percent chose jobs as the single most important issue, 14 percent selected college tuition, 10 percent cited Iraq, and zero percent chose privacy issues connected to the Internet. We have also found that young people who use and like Internet politics (e.g., blogs and political chatrooms) are very well educated, ideologically committed, and politically engaged. There is no evidence that digital media are motivating large numbers of "young disaffected voters and hip hop fans" to participate politically. On the contrary, the president of your local College Democrats and the leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ are the ones you'll find talking about politics online.
3. Implicit in the previous questions: How do we use digital commons to empower lower-skilled people? For the most part, I fear, the effect of the new electronic media is to increase the power gap between the techno-savvy and everyone else.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, we developed institutions that overcame the motivation problem and, more important, developed civic and political identities among young people. For example, once a union is recognized, every worker must pay the equivalent of dues, so most of them join the union to get a voice. This solves the motivation problem. In turn, unions deliberately develop pro-union attitudes among young workers. What is the functional equivalent of a union in cyberspace?
Now let me pose some questions provoked by the discussion of my essay:
Is the Left hobbled by a lack of resources? Dave Johnson thinks so--and makes some good arguments in support of this conclusion. However, I continue to believe that the lack of money is mainly an excuse that progressives use to avoid taking responsibility for confronting their own intellectual crisis. Johnson mentions the "huge infrastructure of the Right." It is big, and I don't know how to compare it to the Left. But consider that most professors and academic researchers in the humanities, sociology, and political science are left of center, if not radical. (I don't regard this as a scandal, just as the result of a free and competitive market). The American Political Science Association alone has 14,000 members, many of them tenured faculty with substantial salaries, complete freedom of expression, direct access to college students, and a mandate to write about politics. Most are on the Left. They outnumber the Heritage Foundation by 28:1 (a guess). Yet how much influence do they have on public debates? I'd say little, and I'd add that this is their fault. If academic economists have more influence, it's because the intellectual house of neoclassical economics is in better shape than the intellectual house of progressive reform.
Can a presidential campaign develop a positive vision? Mark Schmitt says no, based on his experience in 2000. He's probably right; the best any campaign can do is to choose, refine, and promote a philosophy that's already available within its party. This means that we shouldn't criticize John Kerry for failing to develop the equivalent of the New Deal while he also rushes around the country answering attacks and raising money.
As a matter of fact, I'm not interested in criticizing Kerry at all--I think he holds a weak hand because the Left has failed to develop an array of moving and credible themes from which he can choose. Still, this lack of options is an inescapable problem and he ought to focus on it. At a minimum, I believe Kerry should face the reality that we cannot have a balanced budget, tax cuts for the middle class, and expanded health insurance--all of which he has promised. If he made a choice among those three goals and defended it, this might be the basis of a positive vision. If I recall correctly, candidate Bill Clinton essentially fudged the same choice, indicating that he would be able to provide universal health coverage and a balanced budget while also holding down taxes. He deferred the tough choices until after the election. This is a tempting model for Kerry, since Clinton defeated a Bush. But after his inauguration, Clinton did make tough choices for which the country was unprepared, and I believe that his very rocky start helped to elect a Republican congressional majority that may govern the country for a generation. Mark Schmitt notes that "Clinton's governing agenda ... was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's." I think we need to beware of doing that again.
Can we make a new case for government intervention in the economy? In comments on this blog, Jonathan Goldberg and "Kilroy Was Here" both try to do this. Kilroy argues that we need governments to preserve competition, and Goldberg notes that state spending is often productive. I think both are right, although I'm not sure how much of an agenda this adds up to. We certainly should remind people that tax revenues don't just vaporize; they are spent in the private sector. NIH and NSF make especially efficient investments, but even big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare put funds right back into private hands.
Gary Sauer-Thompson connects my argument to the thesis of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I can't comment intelligently on that link, since I haven't read Empire yet.
Finally, only one argument has been made with which I strongly disagree. Rich Puchalsky writes on "the Decembrist" forum: "Our civic culture is a sham, and should be destroyed." You can't find our civic culture on television, but that's the fault of broadcast journalists, not civil society. Although it is threatened, it is thriving and impressive. Just look at the wonderful and powerful examples described in Civic Innovation in America, or consider the civic development of cities like Chatanooga and San Antonio, or visit organizations like Campus Compact or Study Circles (and too many more to name).
April 16, 2004
a debate about revitalizing the left
I spent the day--very enjoyably--at a meeting of people who have come together to create an advocacy Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. I'll write more about that next week. When I got home, I found that my post about revitalizing the left had provoked two extremely interesting responses on other blogs: an essay by "The Decembrist's" Mark Schmitt, and one by Matt Stoller. I haven't had time to absorb their arguments (or the various responses posted by visitors to their blogs), but I'm certainly open to their criticisms.
In my original essay, I accused leftish bloggers of failing to develop a positive vision. A reader told me about Mark Schmitt, whom I would definitely cite as a creative and substantive blogger on the Democratic side. See, for example, his defense of John Edwards, which is an argument for a moral and optimistic populism. I now look forward to exploring Matt Stoller's The Blogging of the President as well.
My blog gets moderate, steady traffic--but few comments or "trackbacks." I meet regular readers, and they mostly turn out to be people who don't visit blogs, but who come to this site because of my civic education and democracy themes, which concern them professionally. These are not people who naturally participate in public, online discussions. Neither do I, for that matter, so I don't blame them at all. But I must admit that it's enjoyable to provoke discussion in the "blogosphere." I look forward to pondering Schmitt's and Stoller's comments and responding.
April 15, 2004
Manet's "Old Musician"
Yesterday, I was rereading part of Legal Modernism, a book by my friend and former colleague David Luban, and I remembered that it was thanks to this book that I first saw Manet’s “The Old Musician” as one of the greatest and most interesting paintings ever painted. It’s in the National Gallery in Washington, where I live, and I often force friends and relatives to look at it with me.
Here’s the argument for its enormous significance (drawing heavily on Luban and on Charles Fried, but with some wrinkles of my own):
Modernism arrives in any art or discipline when practitioners regard the present as the dead end of a long historical tradition. This happens partly because they come to believe that no further progress is possible along traditional lines. For instance, for centuries European artists pursued a great adventure in representing all kinds of three-dimensional scenes on two-dimensional surfaces; they mastered perspective, chiaroscuro, oil paint and other media, modeling, the representation of artificial light, everyday urban life, nudes, exotic landscapes, and movement. This was an exciting and aesthetically satisfying drama of discovery, but it seemed played out by 1900. There were no frontiers to cross. The same could be said of narrative prose or “classical” music at that time.
Modernists in any discipline also face a more profound problem. They begin to view the tradition itself as arbitrary. It has pursued certain values and made certain core assumptions, but it could have started elsewhere. The careful study of works from distant cultures underlines this point. So modernists, in a neo-Kantian spirit, ask “Why should we do art or philosophy this way—or any other particular way? What justifies or grounds the assumptions of our discipline?” They regard Enlightenment as freedom from prejudice, and they condemn as immoral the continued production of art that rests on unquestioned assumptions. Unfortunately, there is no art (or any other human creation) that doesn’t rest on groundless values provided by some kind of tradition. That is the modernist dilemma.
There are a set of available responses. For example, one can try to create works that are not arbitrary because they are based on changeless nature, mathematics, or science. This is the impetus behind the functionalist architecture of the Bauhaus (no style, just engineering). That impulse created some lasting works in several arts, but it soon became patently obvious that “scientific” forms of art were actually time-bound styles, instantly datable.
Another option is the sophisticated reactionary art of a T.S. Eliot or a Richard Strauss. These men could make modernist art, but they deliberately preferred to work in the pre-modern tradition, for ideological reasons (at least in some of their work).
Yet another option is common in postmodernism, which often treats any serious attempt to create something authentic as a bit of a joke, and provides irony in place of beauty or truth.
Manet’s “Old Musician” represents the final option, one rarely achieved in any art, but characteristic of the greatest High Modernism. Manet makes a work of art that is successful as such (in other words, it is moving, beautiful, and memorable), but it happens to take as its theme the End of Art. Six figures and an infant stand before a sketchy background. It turns out that each of these figures represents a classic work of art, from an antique sculpture of the philosopher Chrysippus to Manet’s own “Absinthe Drinker” (1858-9). The whole painting, then, is an anthology of the history of art. The frame awkwardly truncates part of one figure and a vine—reminding you are observing a framed picture on a flat surface, hanging in a museum. The figures seem isolated and inert. Not one meets another’s eyes, and none is doing anything. The Chrysippus figure in the middle has put down his violin, and there is a powerful sense that the music that once animated and coordinated these figures has stopped. The Old Musician, strikingly, stares directly at the viewer.
Isolation (or alienation, or anomie) became a 20th-century cliché, presumably because of the reality of life in a modern metropolis, where (for the first time in history) we don’t know most of the people we see. In “The Old Musician,” the figures incorporate portraits of displaced people from a cleared slum near Manet's house. But in this work, the theme of isolation is more than a valid criticism of modern social injustice. I think Manet cannot find a place for himself in the trans-historical community of artists, because he has achieved a painful “Enlightenment” in realizing that all art is conventional and arbitrary. At that point, all the past moments of art look disjointed (not stages in an inevitable progression), and there is no room for Manet to join the tradition. Instead, he steps outside of the story, where we are standing, and declares it over. The result is moving, strange, and unrepeatable, but there are analogies in other fields. I’ve argued that Ulysses plays a similar role in the history of narrative prose, and all of Nietzsche’s mature works are philosophical analogues to “The Old Musician.”
April 14, 2004
the White House press corps
Jay Rosen wrote an essay yesterday asking why George W. Bush, at a difficult moment in his presidency, would choose to hold a press conference instead of giving a speech. Jay suggests that maybe the White House counts on the press corps to look like a special-interest group, arrogant and hostile to the president and Republicans generally. Thus the administration expects that hard questions from this particular group will make the president look good. They rely on "the idea of press as foil, the useful idiot, so outrageously biased or pedantic, so carping and clueless, that by comparison Bush appears in a flattering light, and gets the people at home cheering when he handles the situation with ease. The President re-connects this way with the audience, which also detests the press."
Jay concluded his essay, however, by arguing that this strategy would be "folly." The president actually needs a "legitimate" and "representative" press to talk to. If reporters look like a special interest group, then there is no point in addressing them in a press conference; but if they look intelligent and ask the questions that people want them to ask, then the president is in trouble.
As it turned out, the White House press corps acted exactly like "idiots," "outrageously biased or pedantic," and "carping and clueless" to boot--or so I strongly felt as I watched the live performance last night. The president was asked: "Do you feel a personal sense of responsibility for Sept. 11?" "Do you believe the American people deserve [an] apology from you ...?" "Will [the Iraq war] have been worth it, even if you lose your job for it?" "One of the biggest criticisms of you is that ... you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism?" "After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?" "I guess I wonder if you feel you have failed in any way?"
Reporters basically asked the president, over and over again, "Do you feel bad for what you thought or did in the past? Do you feel that you are competent?" That kind of question makes reporters look like adversaries (the "liberal media"), but it's actually a total softball. What can the president say except, "No, I am not a failure"? There was virtually no chance that such questions would illicit interesting news.
So why didn't reporters ask more forward-looking questions? For instance, in whom will sovereignty be vested on June 30? Does Mr Brahimi get to decide? Can we negotiate with al-Sadr, or must he be destroyed? Will the Iraqi government have veto power over US military deployments? What changes do you anticipate making in US intelligence agencies? How will democracy be restored in Pakistan?
And why didn't they ask a few deep strategic questions? For instance, do terrorist groups still rely heavily on state sponsors? What is our policy toward repressive governments (such as Uzbekistan) that help us fight al Qaeda? Is terror a tactic or an ideology? Does Iraq need a multi-party democracy, and if so, what kinds of parties are acceptable? Is a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians a precondition for mideast peace?
A serious president would have no problem with these questions, which would be part of any decent administration's daily deliberations. I suspect that our fearless leader would have some trouble answering cogently, but that would be his fault, not the responsibility of a hostile press.
So why did reporters pose so few substantial questions? One answer is that they are thoroughly immersed in the campaign horse race. The way the current campaign is shaping up, it's a contest to see which individual gets to occupy the Oval Office. One contestant is reliable, passionate, but maybe arrogant, stubborn, and not too bright. The other is smarter and personally courageous, but he flip-flops a lot. Given this framework, the press mindlessly asks the first contestant, "Are you stubborn?" He says no, and they report that this proves the point.
I don't believe that bias against Bush or the Republicans explains these poor questions. If John Kerry were the incumbent, reporters would ask him, "Do you flip-flop too much? Your opponents say that you change your mind too often. Polls show that people are beginning to agree with this charge. How do you react? Does the fact that people call you a 'flip-flopper' show that you have failed to communicate your message effectively?" And Kerry's answers would be as weak as Bush's.
Another explanation of the bad questions is simpler, but I'm afraid I tend to believe it. Namely: White House reporters simply aren't very smart. They can grasp the story of the stubborn mule versus the liberal flip-flopper, but they cannot understand geopolitics.
I have been very hard on reporters and have passed over the president's own performance, which would certainly get no better than a B in a respectable undergraduate course. But we know what to do if we want to replace the president; there's an election in November. If Bush wins, the people have spoken--and so be it. Meanwhile, a small group of reporters will continue to monopolize the right to put direct questions to the Chief Executive--an enormous power. What can we do if we find them completely inadequate? I honestly have no idea, and this is a chilling thought.
Update (4/27): Jay has now posted a longer and more detailed essay on the White House versus the press that's worth reading carefully.
April 13, 2004
expanding a community website
Working mainly with high school students, we have begun building a community website. Our ultimate goal is more ambitious: to make the website part of a whole independent, non-profit association called an "Information Commons." The Commons would cooperate with peer associations in other communities, sharing software and ideas.
One of our latest ideas is to provide web hosting and design services to selected nonprofits that want to be nested within the Prince George’s Information Commons website. We would also offer several features to these local nonprofits--and to others that prefer to maintain independent websites.
Each feature would come in the form of an icon and some explanatory text that organizations would include on their own sites. The icon would incorporate our logo. Thus “The Prince George’s Information Commons” would include all sites that use these icons.
The available features might include:
April 12, 2004
trying to be a responsible observer of Iraq
As citizens (of the United States or the world) we want to understand what is going on in Iraq--not just the daily body count, but deeper questions like: How much needs to be done before the US can leave the country in Iraqi hands? Some percentage of the infrastructure that must be created before we can leave Iraq has been built, and some percentage was destroyed during the last week. ("Infrastructure" means buildings, power plants, army and police units, political parties, newspapers, etc.) From reading various observers, one might conclude that 10%--or 80%--of the infrastructure is now ready. It all depends on whether one looks at an aggregator of news stories who has an anti-war stance, like Juan Cole; a major news organ like the Washington Post or the BBC; a collection of Iraqi blogs; or a news-aggregator who supports the war, like Andrew Sullivan.
The truth is not just in the eye of the beholder; there is a reality to be understood. But we face extraordinary disadvantages in trying to understand it. Much of the important information is classified or otherwise secret. It is too dangerous for reporters to go everywhere and to talk to everyone. Eye-witnesses have narrow perspectives, and those with a bird's-eye view don't know enough details. The culture of Iraq is distant, complex, and internally diverse. There are also practical and logistical problems. For instance, I found this BBC poll of Iraqis interesting. (The results were mixed and complex, belying what many pro- and anti-war partisans might believe.) However, as someone who's involved in polling Americans, I know that survey samples are usually unrepresentative even when we can reach most people by dialing random phone numbers. In 2001, there were only 2.9 telephone lines per 1,000 Iraqis, so random-digit dialing is out of the question, and I have no idea how reliable any survey is.
All this leaves us with primitive methods for assessing information. We assume that eye-witnesses know something, so we hang on their words. (Yet eye-witnesses can be especially unreliable, over-influenced by the concrete sights they have seen). We prefer named sources to unnamed ones, even though people may speak the truth off the record. We discount positive news from officials and proponents of the war, even though they could be correct. (By the way, I spend a lot of time on the pro-war sites, because I desperately want things to work out OK, and the conservatives collect all the good news.) We believe those sources whose values most closely approximate our own, even though one can have the right values and be wrong about the facts.
As a general rule, I think citizens should avoid such shortcuts and try to use solid information. For example, you don't have to listen to Democrats and Republicans argue about the federal budget and discount each side because all politicians have selfish agendas; instead, you can actually look at federal budget data and make up your own mind. But the "fog of war" makes that kind of analysis impossible in Iraq.
In the absence of reliable information, we are especially likely to take refuge in ideology, to use ad hominem arguments (calling our opponents traitors or war-criminals), to deploy easy analogies, or to withdraw altogether from citizenship into spectatorship. Or, despairing about our ability to understand (let alone influence) this foreign war, we may concentrate on matters that we can understand, like the US election. But imagine what an Iraqi would think if she knew that Americans were following the uprising in her country because of its effect on their own electoral politics--this would seem the height of callous self-indulgence.
I don't really know the solution, but I think that all of us should be somewhat cautious about our own judgments and open to arguments from the other side. We should look for constructive opportunities rather than wish that our domestic political opponents are damaged by the war. And we should hold onto hope, even if we believe that the invasion and occupation were grave errors in the first place. (Incidentally, because the Vietnam analogy forecloses all hope, I oppose it.)
April 9, 2004
a local open-access journal
Here's an idea that some colleagues and I are going to try to promote at the University of Maryland. The University (or perhaps the University and Prince George's County, where we are located) would launch a peer-reviewed journal for high-quality research on the community. Anyone would be eligible to submit articles, maps, datasets, and images, but submissions would be peer-reviewed and publication standards would be high. The central administration of the University would promote the journal as a prestigious publication venue for faculty. Although this website would not have the status of a major disciplinary journal, its quality would be high and it would advance several core purposes for the University (see below). Therefore, the central administration would ask departments to treat it as the equivalent of high-status specialized publications for tenure and promotion purposes.
In order to increase the value of the publication for community residents, it could be linked to a website that also provided: research summaries written for lay audiences (perhaps in Spanish as well as English); basic information about the County; links to other online resources; and open forums for public discussion.
Universities are experimenting with new forms of free, open-access digital publication, motivated by the soaring costs of journal subscriptions and the enormous positive potential of free, online publishing. For example, the University of California has created the exemplary California Digital Library, and MIT provides its course materials free for the world to use, gambling that this giveaway of high-quality material will enhance its reputation. To the best of our knowledge, no other university has developed a free online publication focused on its own community, and this could become a model.
Any group that was involved in establishing this journal would need to discuss and answer the following questions:
What is the geographical scope: Prince George’s County; the Washington Metro area, or the State of Maryland?
What is the disciplinary reach: The social sciences? The social sciences and the humanities? All the liberal arts? The liberal arts and the fine arts?
April 8, 2004
Public Agenda's FirstChoice
Public Agenda has done what I once hoped to do myself: they have created a website with detailed background information on important public issues and self-diagnostic exercises that can help you to decide what policies you prefer--understanding that all policies have costs and risks, as well as advantages. The site says:
When politicians present their plans, they naturally play up the quick, easy, cheap part of their program and downplay the messy, expensive, risky parts. In reality, however, many problems don't get solved without facing harsh choices; the government can't avoid pleasing some people and offending others. First Choice 2004 is designed to help you make the most of your vote by having strong, informed opinions about what those choices might be.
Public Agenda is a careful, skillful, and truly nonpartisan organization. They have certainly done a far better job with the site than I could have done. If there were any way to get lots of people to use resources like this, our democracy would work much better. The New York Times and MTV are described as "partners" for the site, and they may boost its usage. Nevertheless, I presume that it will appeal mostly to very motivated and serious people. If only it could be used in thousands of high school social studies courses ....
April 7, 2004
undermining stereotypes in Hong Kong
I'm mainly thinking about the situation in Iraq, but I have no special information or insights about that deeply troubling matter. Meanwhile, on a somewhat lighter note, the Times' Keith Bradsher analyzes the political situation in Hong Kong for us. It seems that the Communists want to retain a constitution that allows only rich oligarchs to vote. Some of their main critics are Christian groups that are committed to preserving gay rights. At least these folks aren't hidebound ideologues.
April 6, 2004
kids, computers, and research
I haven't posted lately about our work with high school kids, because I've missed the class for several weeks in a row due to scheduling conflicts. With help from my colleagues and grad students, the kids have explored the issue of obesity, learned some geography skills, and deliberated about what maps they should make that will help explain (or even reduce) the obesity problem in their community. They have decided to select one small area that contains both food sources and exercise opportunities. They will collect data about food quality and price, the exercise options, and the "walkability" of the streets in that area, and then they will make GIS maps for PrinceGeorges.org This will be a pilot study that should lead to the comprehensive mapping of the whole community.
One thing I have learned from this work is that students are not automatically facile with computers just because they were born after the release of Windows 1.0. Many students with whom we have worked have spent little time in front of computers; they have only been taught “keyboarding” in school (this means typing, but with a word processor); and they have fairly low confidence in their own abilities.
The same problems show up on national samples. Analysis of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) by Jianxia Du and James Anderson reveals that consistent use of computers in schools is correlated with higher test scores for White and Asian students and for those who take advanced courses. Presumably, they are using computers to enrich their studies and to do creative, challenging work. But there is no positive correlation for young people in other racial and ethnic groups or for those of any background who take less challenging courses. “Disadvantaged children tend to utilize computers for routine learning activities rather than for intellectually demanding applications.” In fact, students who take computer courses perform worse on standardized tests than other students, ceteris paribus.
Mark Warschauer has compared two schools in Hawaii that intelligently integrate computers into their science courses. In both schools, teams of students use computers to conduct scientific research, guided by teachers from several disciplines. But one school serves an affluent and selected student body, 97% of whom go straight to four-year colleges, while the other serves a neighborhood with a per capita income under $10,000. At the selective private school, teachers have personal experience in graduate-level scientific research. They teach students to collect field data using held-held devices, download the data to computers, and then intensively analyze them (with help from the calculus teacher). Meanwhile, the students at the Title One public school take boats to outdoor locations, learn to grow seaweed, and then use computers to publish a team newsletter.
Both activities are worthwhile; both teach skills and knowledge and engage students in creative teamwork. But there is a fundamental difference in the kinds of skills taught and the overall purpose of the exercise. As Warschauer notes, “One school was producing scholars and the other school was producing workers. And the introduction of computers did absolutely nothing to change the dynamic; in fact, it reinforced it.” Teachers at the public school were very conscious that they needed to give their students the skills demanded by current employers—collaboration, responsibility, and teamwork—whereas the private school tried to place its graduates in demanding college programs where they would be expected to show independence, originality, and sheer intellectual excellence.
It is not easy for teachers to overcome this gap. Many of the students in our project write English at an elementary school level (although they may be bi- or even trilingual) and they have limited skills for searching the Web or reading text. It is hard to move them a long distance in a single course, and hard to set high expectations when their academic self-confidence seems fragile and they are far from achieving pre-college work. There are good reasons simply to teach responsibility and teamwork--attributes that really will help high school graduates in the workplace.
No wonder African American and Hispanic students are most likely to use computers in school for games, for drill and practice, or at best to create simple Websites with text and pictures; whereas White and Asian students are most likely to use them for “simulations and applications" (Wenglinksy, 1998). The "soft bigotry of low expectations" is a real problem, although individual teachers are hard pressed to solve it.
April 5, 2004
negative campaigning is a mistake in '04
Several factors have conspired to make many Democrats believe that the key to the '04 election is attacking the president:
This approach dismays me because it cannot create a mandate for positive change. I also think it's bad partisan politics. Liberal northeasterners use a set of heuristics ("prejudices" would be another word) that move them from disagreeing with the president to despising him. Since he's a born-again Christian, he must be intolerant. Since he hangs around with oilmen, he must be a predatory polluter. And since he speaks with a Texas drawl, he must be a redneck. Like all arguments from stereotypes, these are fallacies. One has to prove that the administration is intolerant, predatory, and stupid; and it isn't always so. Furthermore, many Americans draw the opposite conclusions from the very same "heuristics" that drive leftists to loathing. Since GWB is devout, his motives must be OK. Since he comes out of a corporate background, he must know how to get business done. And since he's from Texas, he must be unpretentious. In ABC News/Washington Post polls, between 52 percent and 71 percent of those surveyed have always said that Bush is "honest and trustworthy."
The lowest rating (52 percent) is also the most recent. So perhaps one can chip away at Bush's reputation by showing that he wasn't much of an entrepreneur--he was bailed out by his political friends and relatives. If the administration is ever caught in some literal corruption, this might shake people's faith in the president's good character. Yet liberals consistently overestimate how bad they can make Bush look, because they have detested him from the first time they heard him speak.
But I'm really worried about something else. Maybe liberals lack a positive message because they don't have anything compelling and positive to say. For anyone who is deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, the lack of alternatives would be the worst news of all. Then it would hardly matter who won in November. So instead of trying the "get the message out" that George W. Bush is a horrible man, why don't we put some energy into developing new solutions for America? John Kerry could sure use our help.
(See Brad Rourke's latest piece for a similar argument, referring to the new liberal broadcast shows and think tanks.)
April 2, 2004
the Scholarly Communications Commons
(Bloomington, IN) The category of "scholarly communications" includes books and journal articles; datasets, maps, images, and software; and informal exchanges such as discussions at meetings, emails, blogs, gossip, and even resumes and letters of recommendation. Almost all of this material can now be digitized and stored perpetually for anyone to use. Knowledge is a "non-rivalrous" good; if I take some, there isn't less for you. In fact, it is often cumulative: knowledge is worth more the more it is used, and each item becomes more valuable the more other items are also available. Thus knowledge can function as a "commons," a public resource. On the other hand, there are problems. The main one is probably the "provisioning problem": finding a way to pay for, or otherwise encourage, the creation of free goods.
It's easy to envision better forms of scholarly communications than we have today. For example, imagine that journals gave their articles away free online. They'd have to cover editorial and electronic-storage costs, but imagine that they charged their prospective authors submission fees--and universities and funders covered those fees for their own employees/grantees. The total cost to universities would be much lower than under the current system, in which academic libraries pay expensive journal subscriptions. Moreover, anyone with an Internet connection could get free access to all the published information.
But--how can we move from our current system to this superior one? At present, every university must subscribe to major journals; and every budding scholar must submit his or her best articles to the same prestigious publications. Universities cannot easily come up with more money to pay submission fees to new "open-access" electronic journals. Besides, if they do pay submission fees, then other universities will benefit from the free scholarship without paying.
This is just one collective-action problem. Consider another: If scholars, universities and/or publishers post free online copies of copyrighted articles (as I do on this site), then who is responsible for keeping these copies online at stable addresses for the long term? How will this be paid for?
Peter Suber runs an excellent blog on these questions.
April 1, 2004
Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis
I'm at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana. There's an excellent conference here on "Scholarly Communications as a Commons." I'm going to save commenting on that topic until tomorrow, when I'll have more time for blogging and I may understand the issues a bit better. For today, I would like to praise the Workshop briefly (as I have before, in print). It seems to me absolutely exemplary as a home for engaged scholarship. The work of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues involves close collaboration with communities; it generates information useful to those communities, while drawing on their knowledge; and it produces cutting-edge insights and methodologies of great importance to the social sciences. Ostrom's insights could not arise without her community engagement. Thus she demonstrates that engagement can be more than just "service," or a transfer of knowledge to people outside a university--it can be an essential form of inquiry.