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July 31, 2004

an appetite for public work?

The Washington Post interviewed some undecided voters who had watched John Kerry's convention speech on Thursday. One viewer "said Kerry made her feel that she had a role to play as a citizen. 'He seemed to be saying we all have to make this happen. Give me a shovel. I want to dig,' she said. 'With Bush, it's like he's going to take care of it and we're supposed to go about our business." Another said: "He was energizing me. I felt like I need to go out and do something for the country."

I don't actually see much evidence of this theme in Kerry's speech; so far, I'm not convinced that he would substantially increase opportunities for citizens to create public goods or to protect America. However, I do find it heartening that people want those opportunities.

The public role of ordinary citizens has shrunk over the last century. This is partly because professionals and experts have taken over many traditional duties of citizens, from managing towns to setting educational policy to lobbying. (Lin Ostrom notes that four percent of American families included a member of a government legislature, council, or board in 1932, compared to roughly one percent today). At the same time, many civic functions have been privatized. For example, Americans often pay companies to provide neighborhood security or to watch their small children.

All that is left for citizens to do is to complain, vote, and volunteer. Volunteering can be valuable, but it is usually squeezed between work and family time. Moreover, conventional volunteering tends to mean direct, face-to-face service that does not change policies or institutions or grant much power to those who participate. A national survey of Americans conducted in 2002 found that many volunteered, at least occasionally, but only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a “social or political problem.” In a qualitative study of Minnesota citizens completed in 2000, respondents said that volunteering often consigned them “to positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lacke[ed] the capacity to work on big issues that impact the community.” At its best, public service is demanding, creative, responsible, serious business.

It is typical not only of the Bush administration but of modern government in general that no one could think of much for citizens to do after 9/11 other than volunteering to help neighbors; shopping to boost GNP; and possibly enlisting in the military. Our 2002 survey found that young Americans wanted to serve, but weren't actually doing anything more than they had in 2000--probably because no one was asking them to work in demanding ways.

A president who really wanted to increase opportunities for public work could implement many concrete policies to that end. (See "Idea #4" at the end of this mini-essay, and some proposals for getting citizens involved in national security, here.)

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July 30, 2004

deliberation when the stakes get high

John Gastil and I are editing a book that will be published early in 2005, probably with the title Handbook of Public Deliberation. Each chapter is written by people who organize a different form of meeting or online discussion about public issues. The authors constitute a small but impressive international community of practice.

I've been thinking about the future of this movement and the challenges it will face if it really gains traction. To date, most public deliberation in the US has low stakes. In some cases, there is no serious effort to change public policy to match the results of the public conversation. The goal of a meeting may be to build networks of citizens, to develop new ideas, to teach people skills and knowledge, to change attitudes--but not to influence government. In other cases, deliberation does have direct consequences for policy. For example, the budget of the District of Columbia is much influenced by the annual Citizens Summit organized by America Speaks. However, such cases arise under especially favorable circumstances, when the local political leadership is either very enlightened or has special incentives to share power with a deliberating group of citizens.

If public deliberation ever becomes a (non-partisan) political movement, then citizen deliberations will be able to achieve concrete influence even when the conditions are unfavorable. But then I think deliberation will face challenges that have not been difficult so far, because the stakes have been low.

First, who's at the table? In a low-stakes deliberation, it's fine to recruit volunteers, as long one aims for diversity of background and opinion. However, as soon as the stakes go up, organized interests will start to send their own foot-soldiers, armed with instructions. Interest-group politics is an acceptable and unavoidable part of democratic politics: "sewn in the nature of man," as Madison put it. But interest groups are not evenly distributed; for instance, there are effective national groups for developers and landlords, but not for renters or the homeless. Second, some groups are not internally democratic or transparent; they don't represent the groups in whose name they speak. And finally, because of basic collective-action problems, interest groups tend to form around narrow concerns rather than broad ones. Narrow concerns can be legitimate, but interest-group politics introduces a bias against general values.

We are used to these problems in conventional representative political institutions. Public deliberation is supposed to be an alternative. But interest groups may be at least as effective in high-stakes citizens' deliberations as in Congress or the town council.

Proponents of random-selection use all these points in their favor. Since meetings of recruited volunteers can be stacked with committed partisans, they advocate randomly selecting citizens to participate. But random selection has its own problems. It's expensive and practically difficult. It's not embedded in local networks and associations, so its legitimacy may be questioned. And even in the best cases, the agenda and framing of the discussion can be biased, or perceived as biased.

Then there's the problem of fairness and equality within a discussion. In a paper entitled "Against Deliberation" that should be read by everyone in the movement (see Political Theory, vol. 25. no. 3 [June, 1997], pp. 347-76), Lynn M. Sanders notes that “some citizens are better than others at articulating their concerns in rational, reasonable terms." Some are “more learned and practiced at making arguments that would be recognized by others as reasonable ones." Some people are simply more willing to speak; for example, studies of US juries show that men talk far more than women in deliberations.

Furthermore, some people “are more likely to be listened to than others." For instance, studies of US juries show that they tend to elect white males as forepersons. Studies of US college students show that white students have much more influence than Black students in joint collaborative projects, even controlling for age, socioeconomic status, height, and attitudes toward school.

I have observed the organizers and moderators of low-stakes public deliberations overcome these problems. They deliberately support participants who might be disadvantaged in the conversation. Today's public deliberations are likely to be more equitable than juries or teams of college students, because moderators are trained and focused on equality. But what about tomorrow's deliberations? When the stakes go up, individuals with more status or skill will fight back against efforts to support less advantaged participants. They will depict such efforts as "politically correct" or otherwise biased, and they will use their status, confidence, and rhetorical fluency to win the point.

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July 29, 2004

Barack Obama (part ii)

Barack Obama's speech was partisan, needless to say. It was delivered at a major party's national convention, it endorsed the party's national ticket, and it was rooted in the core values of the Democratic Party, more than in the legitimate but different values of the GOP. (I disagree with some conservatives who apparently believe that Obama's speech was to the right of the Democratic mainstream. In its elements as well as its overall spirit, it struck me as conventionally Democratic.) However, there is more than one way to be partisan, and some ways are better than others for our political culture.

In all my teaching and professional work, I am relentlessly non-partisan and aim to be neutral with respect to most of today's controversial issues. I'm professionally concerned about our political culture, not about particular policies. I have never before singled out for praise a partisan speech or even an individual politician. But I do believe in parties--and in intense partisan competition--as mainstays of democracy. Everything depends on how the partisans play.

So consider the most quoted passage from Tuesday's speech:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

There is a lot of simple truth in this, especially in the first paragraph. To be sure, Obama takes some shots at unnamed opponents who are allegedly exploiting the Patriot Act, who are cynical, and who won't admit that Democrats are religious or that Republicans have gay friends. In other words, he uses rhetoric against the other party, and I'm not sure that all his implicit charges are 100% fair. However, the critique is oblique and general, not scathing and personal, and for the most part he competes to be more inclusive and more unifying. His aim is to appear more positive about all segments of the American population than the other side is. He is also positive and optimistic about the main features of the political system itself.

Imagine that both major parties competed with this kind of rhetoric, instead of constantly imputing wicked motives to each other. Based on evidence like this, I strongly suspect that the rate of participation would rise. We might even see citizens trust one another more.

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July 28, 2004

Barack Obama

I haven't been watching the Democratic Convention, because I don't really watch TV. But a partial transcript of Barack Obama's speech sent me to the Web for a video of the whole thing. Three-quarters of the way through, I'm wiping tears from my eyes, feeling profound gratitude, and recognizing a basic yearning for really impressive leadership. All kinds of burdens are going to be piled on Obama, because he'll be the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, he's young enough to be a presidential contender, and he enters the national stage with incredible reviews. It won't be possible for him to meet these expectations--but I don't care about unfair pressure. Although I'll defend the American political system, today's politicians just cannot satisfy a fundamental need for inspiring, unifying leadership. Obama can do that; he has the talent, the instincts, the intellect, and the personal integrity for it. So he owes it to his country to spend the rest of his life trying to meet our expectations.

There are people who say that "nothing happens" at a convention, that it's all just an "infomercial" that needn't be covered. But a convention is an opportunity for political leaders to speak without filters to the American people. Doesn't "something happen" when a new national leader emerges?

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July 27, 2004

from Persia to 12th century France and the 21st century web

Here's a discovery from our family visit to France three weeks ago. It's a twelfth-century carving taken from a monastery in Burgundy. Unmistakably, it's influenced by Persian images of lion-kings, the most famous of which date from the time of Xerxes. Frenchmen ("Franks") went to the Middle East in the 12th century to fight the Crusades, so perhaps they saw carved Persian lions. Nevertheless, it's amazing that a stone-cutter back in Burgundy was able to capture the essence of an animal he never saw--and of Persian art. Perhaps he copied a piece of Crusader booty, something like this printed textile lion from 10th-11th century Iran.

One could find out more about this artifact. Art historians are industrious and prolific, and I'm sure there is specific work on this sculpture as well as general writing about the influence of pre-Islamic Near-Eastern art on medieval Europe. That is the kind of work, however, that tends not to find its way online. Most scholarly research doesn't go onto the Web because scholars want peer-reviewed publications, and there are few online professional journals. Most publications from before ca. 1995 aren't digitized. Besides, museums control the right to photograph the works they own. I know from personal experience (with the Bibliotheque Nationale in France) that they like to charge a lot for reproduction rights of obscure images. Giving pictures away doesn't fit their business plan. Therefore, there really aren't that many images online. For example, the label under this French medieval lion said that it was derived from Sassanid Persian models (AD 224-651). In fifteen minutes of assiduous searching, I found only one Sassanid lion on the billions of web pages that Google indexes.

On the bright side, it is amazing how people with unpromising motives and perspectives can contribute to knowledge because of the Web. I found the lion's gate at Persepolis thanks to a site that basically advertises a psychic. And I found the printed lion textile on a high school website.

Jamie Boyle, one of the leading proponents of the digital commons, writes:

If I had come to you in 1994 and told you that in the space of ten years, a decentralized global network consisting of a lot of volunteers and hobbyists and a ideologues and a few scholars and government or commercially supported information services could equal and sometimes outperform standard reference works or reference librarians in the provision of accurate factual information, you would have laughed. Your incredulity would surely have deepened if I had added that this global network would have no external filters, and that almost anyone with an internet connection would be able to "publish" whatever they wanted, be it accounts of Area 51, the Yeti, and the true authorship of the works of William Shakespeare, or painstaking analyses of Scottish history, how to raise Saluki dogs, and the internal struggles in the American Communist Party. Worse still, many inhabitants of this very strange new place will wilfuly and joyfully spread the wildest of rumours and speculations as facts, without going through the careful source-checking or argument-weighing that scholars are supposed to engage in. Your first reaction to this flight of fancy, (and the correct first impression of the World Wide Web as of its inception) was that this would thus be a uniquely and entirely unreliable source of information. And yet ... when your child last had a research question from school did you go to Google, or the Encylopedia Brittanica?

When I wanted to find a Persian lion to compare to this French one, I used Google and found some imperfect matches. I was somewhat successful because I was willing to go to sites created by psychics and high school kids as well as museums and archaeologists. (This demonstrates Boyle's point about the value of an open network.) On the other hand, I could have done much better in my university's library, if I'd had the time and patience. And I could have learned much more online if we had different legal and economic incentives for publishing images and research.

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July 26, 2004

should schools teach "media literacy"

I owe a paper on the reliability of online medical information. I'm thinking of the following title: "Misinformation in Online Medical Information: What is the Role of Schools?" My answer would be: Schools should have as small a role as possible, because we have already loaded too many responsibilites on them, and they are not well positioned to teach "media literacy." An outline follows.

I. There is an argument that schools should devote time and other resources to teaching students “information literacy” so that young people will learn not to be misled by false online information, especially concerning health. The argument goes like this.

1. False and misleading health information is common online, because anyone can post anything he likes. In some cases, false information is just as prominent as accurate information. 2. Cognitive psychology demonstrates that people often believe false information. They rely on heuristics to determine reliability, but these heuristics often fail and can expose people to deliberate manipulation. In one study, people who were already “familiar” with a topic learned less than people who were not “familiar” with it, suggesting that we have difficulty adding to or correcting an existing store of beliefs. Readers tend to believe documents that contain many claims more than documents with few claims. Unfortunately, some highly misleading websites provide long lists of statements. Likewise, audiences tend to believe claims that seem to convince many other people. On the Internet, large numbers of people believe all kinds of false information, supporting one another. It is also possible to exaggerate public interest in a website, even by such a simple mechanism as inflating the numbers on a “hit counter."

3. Believing false health information has costs for the individual and for society. For example, SARS “protective kits” were prominently advertised online in 2003 as a way to prevent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. They would not work. Purchasing and using such kits would waste money and could even increase the chance of infection and transmission. 4. It is probably more important than ever that average people have correct beliefs about health, because: the health system is less paternalistic and gives patients more choices; patients are required to manage their own treatment of such chronic conditions as diabetes and high blood pressure; pharmaceutical companies are more aggressively advertising their products; and there is a larger volume of (often conflicting) information and advice available about many conditions. 5. Since people with more education are better at avoiding misleading information, the widespread prevalence of misinformation may increase social inequality.

6. We should not (and probably cannot) reduce the amount of false information online by censoring it or removing it from the Web. The Internet is, and ought to remain, an open platform without centralized control.

7. Children may be especially prone to believing misinformation. 8. Children are a “captive audience” in schools and can be required to study information literacy. 9. Children and adolescents use the World Wide Web very heavily to do standard kinds of assigned research, so they will have to be taught information literacy if they are going to do good work in their regular courses. 10. For all these reasons, teachers and school librarians should deliberately teach students to distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information.

II. There are recommended pedagogies for Information Literacy

1. For example, students can be taught to look for lists of telltale signs that websites are untrustworthy. 2. Other approaches …?

III. However, there are serious limitations to teaching information literacy in primary and secondary schools.

1. Good education would not just teach students to distrust what they see online. Surveys show increasing levels of blanket distrust, especially among young people who (for instance) widely view all newspapers as untrustworthy. Blanket distrust is just as harmful as total credulity. In the health context, for example, someone might decide to distrust all nutritional information because advice seems to conflict, and then refuse to take such basic steps as reducing fat intake. So information literacy is partly a matter of teaching students that they should trust some sources. 2. Misinformation is a serious and immediate problem among people who have long since left school. Indeed, most subjects in a sample of older, well-educated, affluent Americans showed poor comprehension of health information. A school-based strategy cannot help these people. 3. Schools are being asked to address a huge range of social problems and inequities, ranging from illiteracy to a dearth of scientists and engineers, from unemployment to violence and teen pregnancy. We should not lightly pile on an extra responsibility. 4. Thus we should do everything we can to reduce the burden on schools.

IV. Fortunately, there is an alternative: actively promoting reliable sources of online information

1. For example, in the health area, the U.S. government funds MedlinePlus as a portal to reliable health information. 2. To the extent that health and science teachers and school librarians teach information literacy, they ought to tell students to use MedlinePlus (and why). However, they will not be able to reach most students with this message. 3. Therefore, the government should promote MedlinePlus. It should advertise the portal, particularly on those search engines that accept money in return for ranking sites more prominently. It should also spend adequate money to keep the site attractive, usable, and comprehensive.

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July 23, 2004

two doses of realism about democracy

I'm an egalitarian, participatory democrat (with a lower-case "d"). I believe that everyone should have as close as possible to an equal say in the political process. We can then decide fairly what scope we will give to markets. I also believe that participating in political institutions and community work can be intrinsically rewarding; therefore, as many people as possible should have the skills and opportunities to participate. Finally, I believe that everyone has knowledge, talents, and energies to contribute.

Nevertheless, political equality has two limitations that I think we should face squarely:

1. Business has a “privileged position," as Charles Lindblom noted long ago. Corporations shouldn't be able to buy influence through campaign contributions or control of the mass media. However, they will be influential in any commercial society—and I believe that that's what we have, by virtual consensus, in the United States. Without even seeking to affect government policies, they will allocate investments in communities and in nations that have favorable economic policies. Governments will compete to attract investment, and this competition will put downward pressure on taxes and regulation. Although there should be countervailing pressures, the influence of business is unavoidable in a commercial society.

If this is true, then we should be concerned about the degree of alignment between business interests and those of the rest of the public. Peter Peterson, Nixon's Secretary of Commerce, recently lamented the demise of "corporate patriotism" and the lack of "corporate statesmen" today. He recalled the essential role that business had played in passing the Employment Act of 1946, (attacked at the time as "socialistic"), creating the president's Council of Economic Advisors and the World Bank and IMF, and selling the Marshall Plan. Each of these reforms can be criticized for its substance, but each had broad support on the left.

We will be particularly suspicious of such reforms if we view the very idea of benign business influence as a myth and a sham. My sense is that business interests sometimes align sufficiently with public interests to allow compromises that are about the closest we can get to social justice in a commercial society. I also have the sense that such alignment is less likely today than in the period 1945-1970. Big businesses should be concerned about the federal government's long-term fiscal solvency, and also about extremes of wealth and poverty, since their broader self-interest is involved. Yet they have little tangible positive influence today.

I suspect that business interests are most likely to align with broader interests if (a) firms have a lot of “sunk costs” and cannot casually move their investments around; (b) the personal standing of their leaders is connected to their reputations for public service; (c) they are forced, by collective-bargaining and other arrangements, to consult regularly with workers and consumers, so that they are aware of other perspectives; and (d) they know that corporate “statesmanship” is valued by religious congregations, community associations, colleges, and the press. Each of these factors is weaker than it used to be because of globalization, market worship, and declining unions.

2. Civic engagement is a minority taste. All types of people can and do participate in politics and civil society, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, white or people of color, women or men, citizens, residents, or even illegal aliens. However, participation is not for everyone. Only a minority of any community will attend meetings regularly, closely follow the news, lead and form associations, and organize and motivate others.

If this is true, then we should care whether these civic activists are a diverse and representative group, whether their interests align with those of average people, what techniques they use to gain influence, and how public-spirited they are. We should also care what resources they have at their disposal.

This is an abstract argument, but it has concrete, practical implications. For example, I have argued in favor of some kind of separate space on the Internet that imposes civic norms (decided on by the participants) and that serves civic activists. One way to do this would be to have a separate .civ (“dot-civ”) domain in which websites would be governed by norms that they enacted deliberatively.

There’s an argument against such an approach. The “dot-civ” space would doubtless become a kind of walled-garden for people who are already civically active--uninteresting to those who go online for other reasons, including pop culture. Beth Noveck writes (pdf, p. 22) that my proposal was “roundly criticized and rejected by the group assembled” to consider it. I remember the same conversation as considerably more balanced. In any case, I would argue—as a general matter—that it can be more effective to provide resources and networks for the “civic tenth” in all our communities than to try to infuse small doses of civic values into mass culture. Again, we must be concerned about how diverse the active citizens are, but it’s a mistake to imagine that they will be very numerous.

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July 22, 2004

Paolo & Francesca

Among the most common keyword searches that lead visitors to this website are "Paolo" and "Francesca." I don't blog about those two doomed lovers from Canto V of Dante's Inferno, but I am (slowly) writing a book about them. It's an odd book (which may prove very hard to publish), because it combines rather detailed readings of the Inferno and various modern versions of Francesca da Rimini's story with a lot of analytical philosophy to build an argument for a certain way of thinking about morality. I've recently rewritten the Introduction to match the evolving content of the book.

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July 21, 2004

young people of color and "efficacy"

Yesterday, I talked to about 60 high school social studies teachers who are funded by the Annenberg Foundation to conduct an innovative civic education program. After I spoke, one teacher noted a chart in the Civic Mission of Schools report (p. 19), showing how many young people believe they "can make a difference solving problems in [their] community." The teacher noted that the statistics weren't too good for any group, but they were particularly low for African American and Latino students. He asked me why.

I said that it really is harder for most Black and Hispanic kids to make a difference, partly because of discrimination against them personally, but mainly because of the difficult problems they are likely to face in their home communities. If you ask an affluent suburban kid whether he believes he can make a difference, he'll think of a "community problem" and imagine addressing it. Perhaps it's the lack of a skateboard park; and if he really wanted to do something about that, he could talk to a friend of his mother's who's on the town council. So yes, he could make a difference. If you ask an inner-city kid, she thinks, "What are some community problems? Let's see, there's unemployment, homelessness, gun violence, drugs, and AIDS. What can I do?" Chances are, she'll be pessimistic about making a difference.

The problem is, "efficacy" (or more simply, hope and optimism) is a powerful predictor of actual participation. So if people lack efficacy, they don't vote or organize. Thus we want young people to develop confidence, yet we can't do it by preaching that they can easily "make a difference." That just isn't a plausible message. A lot of the discussion that ensued for the next half-hour concerned practical strategies for increasing efficacy (and persistence) without papering over problems.

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July 20, 2004

what's interesting about conventions (part II)

Yesterday, building off an essay by Jay Rosen, I argued that modern presidential nominating conventions are very interesting--not as part of the struggle to get 51% of the vote, but as rituals, performances, symbols.

Rituals, in turn, really affect politics and public policy. Political scientists and reporters typically try to explain politicians' behavior by assuming that they want to get elected and re-elected, or that they want to enact particular policies. But this analysis begs the question of why anyone would want to hold public office in the first place. Most people would rather die. It's no answer to say that politicians want "power." First of all, most people don't. Second, most political offices in the US don't come with much power; often their power is insufficient to achieve the outcomes that voters expect.

I think that some politicians are quite altruistic (contrary to what Nick Beaudrot says in a comment on this blog), and this partly explains their entry into politics. But to a large extent, I believe they want to participate in our public rituals. They want to hear someone announce them: "LAY-dies and gentlemen, the next great mayor of our magnificent city ... " They want to watch balloons rise up in a great hall when they take the podium. They want to cut ribbons and kiss babies and get interviewed on Nightline.

All this means that different people would enter politics if we had different rituals. (Likewise, different scholars would deliberately go into college administration if our academic rituals were different.) In this sense, ritual matters.

On our recent trip to Burgundy, I began re-reading one of my favorite books, Johan Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). Huizinga argues that chivalry (jousts, orders of knighthood, the cult of courtly love) was completely artificial by the fifteenth century. It didn't reflect the underlying reality of a commercial, urbanizing Europe. Yet people continued to "play" at chivalry very seriously throughout the century. In turn, chivalry mattered. It meant that political leaders had to be good at jousting. It caused some wealthy bourgeois (the "real" pillars of the society) to ruin their fortunes by marrying their children to poor nobles with good chivalric credentials. It certainly ate up a lot of social resources. And it served as an--increasingly inadequate--tool with which people tried to understand their world.

Modern political conventions are like the jousts of fifteenth-century Burgundy. They have lost their original purpose. In the long run, they are doomed. Yet they still matter.

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July 19, 2004

does anything happen at a convention?

As I recall, there's a passage in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise about the "most photographed barn in America." People go there because others do. You cannot see the actual barn, because it is surrounded by hordes of photographers, their cameras whirring and clicking. Their backs are the spectacle.

In one sense, modern (or should I say "post-modern"?) presidential nominating conventions are like that. Tens of thousands of people go because--tens of thousands of people go. Networks cover them because--so many important people are there. As Jay Rosen notes in Press Think: "nothing happens, as any reporter will tell you. But what does that mean: nothing happens? Nothing substantive. No new information revealed. Nothing said that hasn't been tested for acceptability to voters targeted long ago. No conflicts allowed, no intra-party debate. No surprises. No news. Just rah-rah and spectacle."

For Jay, this observation is itself a cliché, endlessly repeated by reporters eager to call the whole convention business (and campaigning generally) a sham. Jay quotes William Powers of the National Journal: "That's what modern presidential campaigns are, after all -- elaborately staged big-budget productions in which every line that's uttered, every piece of scenery, is carefully calculated to win over the public." Jay finds it "fascinating ... that journalists will still offer this observation today, at least twenty years after its SELL BY date, as if it they were tuned to something the rest of us did not grasp."

Once you think about it, a modern convention is fascinating, and something does happen there. But its interest isn't accessible if you look at politics in conventional terms, as a contest between two teams with contrasting personalities and proposals. From that point of view, it's unclear why reporters should cover the conventions at all. If either side gets a post-convention "bounce," it's arguably the result of press coverage, not of the convention itself. A responsible media outlet might choose to stay away from both parties' gatherings and use the same space to write about the substance of Social Security or Iraq.

But what if we see politics as ritual, spectacle, tradition, or even "convention" (in the broader sense)? Then we can ask: What do these ceremonies mean? Why do they linger past their original purpose? How does their symbolism change? Jay--more than half-seriously, I think--suggests that newspapers send their religion-beat reporters to the conventions this summer.

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July 16, 2004

why civility really matters

Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves have conducted fascinating experiments that demonstrate the serious effects of rudeness in our televised politics. (See "Videomalaise Revisited: Effects of Television Incivility on Political Trust," Journalism and Mass Communication Educator" Spring 2004, 59/1; not yet online.)

Some people (notably Hibbing and Theiss-Morse) have argued that Americans dislike disagreement and see it as unnecessary. Therefore, if our political system involves great debates about matters of substance and principle, many Americans will tune it out, just as they forbid discussions of politics and religion in their own homes. If this is true, it's bad news indeed.

Others have argued that a generally negative tone in news coverage and political advertising has turned people off--not only made them less trusting, but also dissuaded them from voting. This would be bad news, too, since we need hard-hitting investigative journalism and tough criticism of incumbents.

Mutz and Reeves develop a third thesis that I find generally more hopeful. They exposed people to videotaped debates (conducted by actors) that were identical in substance--point by point--but that differed in civility. In one debate, the actors introduced their comments with deferential and polite remarks, appeared to listen, and didn't interrupt; in the other, they used insults and rude facial expressions to demonstrate contempt. (Their behavior was well within the normal range for television shows, by the way.)

Viewers of the uncivil debates expressed considerably less trust in politicians and government after watching. Physiological instruments showed that they were emotionally aroused by what they saw. Viewers of the civil debate were less aroused and more positive toward the political system.

The authors assert that we react to behavior on television as we would to similar behavior by real people in our living rooms. Rudeness comes across as aggression and triggers very powerful and basic responses.

So why is there so much rudeness in televised politics? Wouldn't it pay to be polite, if you're a politician or a cable-news host? Unfortunately, participants in the experiment rated the uncivil debate as considerably more entertaining than the civil one, and said that they would be more likely to watch the same show again. Rude behavior lowers respect for politics and civic engagement, but it entertains.

That's a conundrum, but there's at least a ray of hope. Politicians have an interest in sustaining public support for the political system. Perhaps liberals need this support more than conservatives do, but even most conservatives don't like to be part of a loathed profession and institution. Therefore, while news hosts and producers will always promote conflict and incivility, politicians should think of their professional self-interest and act politely.

It's also possible, although Mutz and Reeves didn't test this hypothesis, that citizens trust individual politicians whom they perceive to be polite; that would create an incentive for civility. If I were a politician, I would care a little about the ratings of the shows on which I appeared, but much more about how viewers perceived me and my profession. I'd make sure to be extremely polite.

By the way, I'm not a big proponent of politeness or civility for its own sake. I take a much tougher view of what it means to be "civic." But this article suggests that civility matters to the health of our democracy.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:45 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 15, 2004

dulce et decorum est

Last week in Burgundy, we noticed that every single town had erected a stone cross with the names of its dead from 1914-18 and 1939-45. Even a village of 50 people (according to our Michelin guide) might list a half dozen killed. A few names were marked “déporté”—taken east to die in slave labor or death camps. Overall, France lost 1,368,000 men in the First World War and 563,000 people (civilians and combatants) in the Second. That counts only the dead, not those grievously wounded, psychologically broken, widowed, orphaned, or deprived of young sons. France lost 11 percent of its entire population in the Great War, compared to a death rate of 0.37% in the United States. Even in World War II, the French lost twice as many people as we did, out of a much smaller population.

And then I think of the people, my fellow Americans, who claimed that France opposed our invasion of Iraq because they lacked the courage for war; the French were “surrender monkeys,” in the phrase that certain hawks borrowed from “The Simpsons.” These people remind me of the ones Siegfried Sassoon described in “Base Details”:

IF I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:39 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 14, 2004

too close to call

I've previously advertised this impressive article by Larry Bartels and John Zaller, which finds that the change in real personal disposable income is the best predictor of an incumbent president's share of the vote. The ethical implications of this model bother me--rational people shouldn't vote for the incumbent just because their spending power has grown during a short period in the recent past. However, I can well believe that the Bartels/Zaller model accurately predicts mass behavior.

So who will win? As I calculate it (and my math is fallible) the annual change in real disposable income during the first five months of 2004 was 2.3%. Bartels and Zaller's regression line (see their figure 1) predicts that 2.3% growth would buy the incumbent just over 50% of the popular vote. But there's a substantial margin of error (because the model is based on a small number of cases). Besides, we don't know what will happen to real disposable income between now and November. Thus we ought to expect a very close and uncertain contest, but if current economic conditions are sustained, Bush has the edge. Most other election models give him a bigger margin.

(An interesting footnote: Bartels and Zaller claim that if Clinton had spent the federal surplus in the form of a tax cut, thus raising disposable incomes, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000. Policy won over politics.)

Posted by peterlevine at 12:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

the Institute of Development Studies

Almost two weeks ago, I attended meetings at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (England). I'll write about the content of those meetings at some later point. For now, I'd simply like to draw attention to IDS as an institution--and what it represents. The Institute says that it employs "some 40 full-time Fellows [and] nearly 20 Research Officers and Research Assistants." It also enrolls more than 110 graduate students, almost all experienced, mid-career people from the developing world. That's an enormous number of mature and sophisticated people who have come together to study and conduct research on international development. Core funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) keeps the place afloat.

DFID's American counterpart, AID, makes no such investment in research. Should it? IDS alone has an annual budget of about $22 million. That's money that could otherwise directly assist poor people around the world. However, the bulk of development assistance since World War II has been counterproductive and sometimes even catastrophic. Some has been badly intentioned--designed to prop up dictators or to subsidize special interests in the donor country. But even the well-intentioned aid has often been very unwise. So it seems to me that research is essential; we need to know what works before we spend millions.

Of course, everything depends on whether the research is good. A center could spend $22 million a year on jargon and fads. Some of the foolish aid decisions of the past were bolstered by sophisticated-looking academic research. My impression of the current work at IDS is extremely favorable, partly because there's so much consultation with the poor themselves.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 13, 2004

assessment woes

I’m on the advisory board of a program for adolescents that’s organized by Temple University in Philadelphia, the Middlesex County Community College in New Jersey, and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I went to Temple today to help plan the program’s evaluation.

This group faces the same problems that bedevil my colleagues and me when we try to evaluate our work with kids in Maryland. Their program is too short (at 50 total hours) to cause substantial changes in the kind of indicators that CIRCLE has collected. With so little instructional time, no one wants to spend hours on evaluation. Because it's a fairly small group of students, any changes in their responses to a questionnaire between the start and conclusion of the program are unlikely to meet statistical tests of significance. The population in the three sites ranges from adolescents with criminal records (in DC) to 5-to-12 year olds (in New Jersey), so it makes no sense to combine all the sites’ data. If students do improve, it’s impossible to tell whether the program is responsible. The best way to tell would be to recruit a larger group of students and to randomly assign some of them to participate in the program and some (the control group) to be assessed without participating. But there’s neither the money nor the will to organize a control group.

The goal of the project’s organizers is to make students more capable of sticking up for themselves politically. They want their students to become confident and to know where to go for political help. Graduates of the program should also be able to work effectively with peers in a political context. With these goals in mind, I suggested conducting the same educational exercise on the first and last day of the program, videotaping the results, and asking an outsider to reflect on any differences. Students would be asked to work in small groups to plan a response to a hypothetical local problem, such as a dangerous street corner or a lack of basketball courts. The small groups would report their plans to the whole class both in writing and orally. Between the beginning and the end of the 50-hour program, we would expect the students’ political plans to improve; we would hope that they would become more optimistic about their chances of success; and we would expect them to share the planning, writing, and oral presentation more equitably within their small groups.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 12, 2004

back from France

We spent last week in northern Burgundy. We chose our location because we had found a nice and affordable house to rent for the week. It’s a fairly typical corner of rural France, not an area that's especially famous for its art and history. I don’t mean that it’s remote or “undiscovered.” Tourists travel there for the Chablis wine, to ride by rented houseboat along the Burgundy Canal, and to see the old villages. Nevertheless, it’s not one of the top destinations in France; it’s less popular than Paris and its environs, the Loire valley, Provence, Normandy, and probably even Languedoc and Alsace. Within Burgundy, the most impressive and popular destinations are Dijon and Beaune, but those cities were too far south for us to visit. Almost all the other tourists we saw were French; there were virtually no Americans.

Yet, by driving within a 30km radius of the little town of Noyers, we were able to see (listed roughly in chronological order of their creation): Cro-Magnon cave paintings of human hands and wooly mammoths deep underground … Alesia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorix’s 250,000 Gauls and mastered France (later the site of Gallo-Roman city whose excavated ruins we visited) … a 7th century Christian church nearby, heavily restored but largely intact after 13 centuries of continuous worship … the great pilgrimage church at Vézelay, where medieval Christians believed that St. Mary Magdalen’s bones were kept; this is a vast, austere, but light Romanesque basilica with more than 100 vivid scenes carved on its capitals, also the venue of major sermons by St. Bernard (declaring the Second Crusade) and St. Francis … the monastery of Fontenay, built according to Bernard’s wishes without any decoration except one statue of the Virgin, God’s light streaming through its windows, and its pure, legible mathematical proportions … the medieval walled hilltop town of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, with its steep streets and stone buildings (where the movie “Chocolat” was filmed)… the medieval walled town of Noyers, half-timbered like a fairy-tale illustration and bordered by a lovely placid river … the little church at St. Thibault, lofty and lace-like with two layers of intricate Gothic stonework inside … the perfectly symmetrical, soberly classical Renaissance Chateau of Ancy-le-Franc, the only building actually constructed by Serlio, who was one of the most important architectural theorists of the age … the French baroque chateau of Tanlay, with its steep roofs and conical towers … and the substantial towns of Avallon, Semur-en-Auxois, Tonnerre, and Auxerre, each one rich in medieval architecture. These are the sites we saw; we passed by many more.

There are parts of Western Europe that are less dense with old art than this part of Burgundy. Northern France was more heavily industrialized (which makes it less beautiful but not necessarily less interesting than Burgundy) and was then battered by the two world wars. Germany sustained even more damage. Nevertheless, our week in an almost-random corner of France reminded me of the amazing density of beautiful and interesting sites throughout Europe. If I had barrels of money and not much civic responsibility, I could easily continue last week’s journey for the rest of my life, traveling slowly from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg (or from Oslo to Istanbul). That kind of life would contribute nothing to the world, but it would be endlessly interesting.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:07 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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