August 31, 2004
some things a candidate could say ...
1. "The Bush Administration is planning to spend $53.1 billion over the next six years to defend the United States from a missile fired from another continent. No hostile country has such a missile, and if they did, they wouldn't fire it, because we would utterly destroy them in a counter-strike. There's only one foreign country whose behavior will change if we mount an effective missile defense: China. The Chinese will build more ballistic missiles so that they can overwhelm our limited defenses, thereby preserving what they consider their nuclear deterrent. If China builds more ballistic missiles, then its rival India may follow suit. If India expands its arsenal, Pakistan will certainly try to match it. And the last thing we need is to spend $53.1 billion on a program that encourages Pakistan to build more nukes.
"Instead, I propose to redirect 100% of that money to protect us against a real and horrifying threat: small nuclear weapons that are smuggled into the US, rigged with timers, and set to explode in the heart of our cities. With $53.1 billion, we could actually inspect the freight that arrives on our shores."
2. "The American people owe 7 trillion dollars in national debt--that's $25,000 dollars per head--and we must pay that back with interest. The government has run up this debt, but now it's not the government's problem--it's our problem. To make matters worse, our population is aging, which means that a smaller number of working people will have to shoulder that debt while more people draw retirement benefits.
"I would very much like to do three things: hold down taxes, provide everyone with access to medical care, and pay down the debt. However, these three things simply don't add up. To govern is to choose, and I am ready to make tough choices--unlike the President, who has simply borrowed and spent and left the mess for others to clean up. I will reverse all the Bush tax cuts and pay down the federal debt, so that our fiscal house is in order and we can turn, several years from now, to universal health care."
3. "Our tax system is unbelievably complicated, and almost all of the complexity benefits special interests who have manipulated the law and IRS regulations and who pay expert advisors to find loopholes. If you're an average family that pays most of your taxes for Social Security and Medicare and uses the 1040EZ for your income taxes, you get no special breaks. In 1986, under a Republican president, the tax code was simplified somewhat, but complexity crept back in once the lobbyists and politicians got to work. We need to end the unfairness once and for all by creating a single tax form for everyone that's no bigger than a postcard."
4. "On September 11, Americans wanted more than anything else to pitch in, to serve their country. The President spoke of a 'nation awakened to service and citizenship and compassion'; he called for everyone to 'become a September 11th volunteer, by making a commitment to service in our communities.' Many do serve, especially in the military and as firefighters, police officers, and other 'first responders.' However, we have found very little for the rest of the population to do. Helping a kid to read is very important, but it isn't a response to terror. We need to tap Americans' skills, passions, and ideas to defeat our current enemies. Instead, the one federal program that supports sustained national service at home, Americorps, was brutally cut in 2003.
"There are many ways that people can serve, like collecting community health data, teaching and learning strategic languages, creating software that aids democratic movements overseas, and corresponding with people in troubled countries. I will make it a top priority of my administration to tap the expertise and energy of the whole American people to make us stronger at home and abroad."
5. "The President is very proud of No Child Left Behind, his big education bill. In fact, it was a grand bargain. Conservatives and many moderate Democrats got the accountability measures that they had been demanding for years, pressuring schools to demand higher test scores. Educators and state and local governments got a promise of more funding for schools. The act authorized $18.1 billion per year: not enough, in my opinion. But real spending has been closer to $13 billion. The result is a vast unfunded mandate: schools, teachers, and students face new demands but have no new resources. I will fully fund No Child Left Behind and keep the federal promise to children."
August 30, 2004
I don't pay too much attention to "point-estimates" in surveys (for example, Kerry is at 46% or Bush is at 47%). These results involve the usual margin of error, as in any random sample. To make matters worse, telephone surveys are becoming less reliable because many people have no land line or refuse to talk to pollsters. The unreliability is then literally multiplied because the point-estimate is a function of two questions, not one. Pollsters ask: "Are you a registered voter?" and then "Do you intend to vote for Bush or Kerry?" (They phrase both questions more carefully than this, of course.) Thus their bottom line is a crosstab based on two questions; and we know that the voter registration data are always quite inaccurate. Given these layers of bias, it's no surprise that even national polls conducted a few days before an election often fail to predict the popular vote.
While point-estimates are unreliable, trends in the same survey should be more meaningful. That's why I pay virtually no attention to anything except the Rasmussen Tracking Poll, which is the only public source of its kind. According to Rasmussen, the trend since August 1 is 2-3 points down for Kerry and 2-3 points up for Bush.
Why? Of course, no one knows. The only way to pursue this question seriously would be to find a random group of citizens who had changed their mind recently, and then ask them in-depth questions about why. In the absence of such information, we can only speculate. Some will claim that the shift is the fault of the Swift Vote Group--so Kerry should hit back hard. I think Ruy Teixeira has rebutted that theory. It's also unlikely that Bush has gained from the general news environment. On the contrary, the economic data, the situation in Iraq, and the fallout from Abu Ghraib have all been awful. Nor has the president said or done anything very impressive since August 1.
Rejecting those alternatives leads me to the theory that I want to believe anyway, for reasons of principle. I think the Kerry campaign has failed to look forward sufficiently. They have done an inadequate job of showing why the Bush policies for the next four years will be harmful, and--most importantly--they have failed to offer new policy ideas that are both plausible and inspiring. Tomorrow, I'll throw out some potential ideas.
Update: This is exactly the kind of backward-looking and negative message that I do not think Americans will swallow:
The Democrats do have a message but it's been submerged for most of the last three weeks. And that is the main reason why they've lost traction over that period.
The message is straightforward and explainable in ascending levels of specificity.
At its simplest: President Bush has screwed everything up.
August 27, 2004
the Internet & civil society
Way back in 2001 ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"), I wrote an article about the Internet and civil society. That piece has been reprinted in five versions, each updated and edited for a new occasion. The latest edition appeared just today: "The Internet and Civil Society," in Verna V. Gehring, ed., The Internet in Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 79-98.
I argue that the Internet is potentially good for civil society, but we need to worry about five problems:
The rest of the book is a useful contribution to debates about the political and social impact of the Internet. It's ideal for college courses, since it's small and priced at $16. It is a product, by the way, of my main institutional home, the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, which among other activities is generating a series of inexpensive paperback anthologies on public issues.
August 26, 2004
taking stock of blogs (2004)
Blogs are clearly the hot medium. They have scale: Technorati is tracking 3.6 million of them, and there may be many more. No one knows the size of the audience, but the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 3% of Americans with Internet access “read someone else’s web log or ‘blog’” on a typical day, and 17 percent have ever done so. (These survey figures were collected in February.) Since more than 60% of American adults have Internet access, that translates into roughly 3.6 million daily viewers in the United States.
(It’s just a coincidence that the best count of the world's blogs, 3.6 million, currently equals the number of US daily viewers, but this does suggest something important about the medium. It's "many-to-many." In contrast, the number of TV viewers is enormously larger than the number of TV channels.)
Blogs have impact. It’s hard to measure their effect on the “real world,” but (just for example) many believe that Trent Lott fell because of commentary in the blogosphere. We do not live in a time of very impressive social movements (at least in the US), but the ones we’ve got—among them, rigorous libertarianism, anti-globalization, and Christian Conservatism—have made effective use of blogs.
Blogs have limitations, too. They do not generate new information or policy ideas so much as they comment on the raw material generated originally by reporters, TV news crews, government agencies, advocacy groups, think tanks, and academics. The political blogs are mostly concerned with national and international issues, even though many important decisions are made at the local and state levels. Blogs may strengthen or even create networks within national and international affinity groups, but I do not know of cases in which blogs have enhanced “social capital” at a neighborhood, municipal, or regional scale.
Blogs are not institutionalized in conventional ways. There is no business plan that allows them to generate enough revenue to pay salaries. Some organizations have created blogs (notably, newspapers, magazines, and political campaigns), but these groups obtain their revenues from other sources.
The lack of institutionalization could mean that blogs will turn out to be something of a fad or bubble. I’m sure some form of regular self-publishing will persist, but 3.6 million blogs could turn out to be the high water mark. Bloggers are competing for a fairly small number of “eyeballs” right now and have to deal with unpleasant phenomena like “comment spam.” The word “blog”—which is exceptionally ugly—may fade and begin to connote a fashion of the early 2000s.
I can also imagine that blogs will be institutionalized, and the most influential ones will have their own salaried writers, support staffs, and stable audiences. Or, finally, I can imagine that blogs will persist and flourish without institutionalization, as purely voluntary and individual projects. That would prove that the Internet really is different: more of a large-scale voluntary commons than anything we have ever seen before.
August 25, 2004
why the "swift boat" controversy is sad
Jay Rosen has a thoughtful but almost anguished mini-essay entitled "Swift Boat Story a Sad Chord." He finds many aspects of the whole controversy "sad": the behavior of the anti-Kerry veterans, the boomers' inability to move past Vietnam, the poor response of the press, and John Kerry's effort to base his candidacy on his war record. I'll add an extra reason for sadness: I just can't manage to read and think "deliberatively" in circumstances like these. It's always important to listen to a wide range of opinions, to take diverse claims at face value and try to understand their underlying principles and goals. No one has the patience to listen to every crackpot, but there are worthy voices from across the spectrum. We need to stay open to these opinions or we'll end up in separate enclaves, echo chambers, or ... pick your cliché.
Yet the Swift Boat controversy is closing my mind. I know that there are serious and responsible bloggers on the right who think that at least some of the charges against Kerry are plausible. These are people I read and respect. Meanwhile, my favorite sources on the left are saying, forcefully and pretty believably, that the charges are a pack of contemptible lies. So what am I supposed to do?
1. I could delve deeply into the available facts about John Kerry in Vietnam (and Cambodia?) in 1968 and 1969, in order to make up my own mind. But I don't want to study this issue. I don't think it's important. I don't think it's relevant. I have other things to spend my time on.
2. I could just believe the side I'm closer to politically. But I'd have no real basis for that conclusion. Besides, I would have to assume that at least some people on the other side were acting outrageously, without any sense of judgment, honor, or principle. Then how could I read the rest of their opinions?
3. I could absorb everyone's views with equanimity. Believe me, I'm trying, but the cognitive dissonance is unbearable.
4. I could try to ignore the whole affair. But it's all over the newspapers and blogs I read, it's affecting the election, and it's revealing important truths about the news media, the Kerry campaign, independent political expenditures, the American public, boomers, blogs, and Bob Dole--to mention just some of the angles. In other words, it's a microcosm, a case study, just like almost anything else that gets column inches and broadcast time.
What I really want to do is shut off all news sources until November. Notice how sad that is. A campaign is supposed to be a time to focus on the great issues of the day. It's supposed to be the season when people who are usually concerned about other matters turn their attention to public issues and make up their minds. If someone like me--who happens to love politics and public life--wants to turn away from this campaign, then why should most people pay any attention to it?
Update, Sept. 2: Jay's latest post about the Swift Vote affair uses it as evidence that the mainstream press is losing control to more open and populist media like blogs. Professional reporters scrutinized the first Swift Vote ad, found it false, and assumed that their verdict would kill the story. However, as Jay writes, the "Swift Vets are capable of telling their own story on their website, publishing their own book and selling it to lots of people without benefit of good reviews, finding their own allies in the blog world (some of whom have large audiences), raising their own money, and of course running their own ads aimed at voters. ..."
So professional journalists are in some trouble, but I can't decide whether that's promising news or not. Back in February, Jay was optimistic about the future of politics once professionals began to lose their monopoly. In a comment on my blog, he explained that he detested official politics while it was dominated by campaign managers and pundits, but he hoped that the more interactive, participatory campaign of Howard Dean presaged something better:
Everybody has a tipping point, Peter, when it comes to despairing of politics. I was offended, as a citizen, by how dumb my country's presidential campaign had become by 2000-- dumb and rote and packaged and predictable and timid, one huge overdone regression to the mean. I thought the elites in the system showed fantastic confidence in their ability to contain elections within a tight formula.
By isolating the few people they needed to bother with in a few 'battleground' states, and treating the manuevers for the 5 percent as the entirety of the campaign for the other 95 percent, the professionals who run the process and narrate it as normal seemed to express unlimited confidence that things could go on this way. They had no insights into how closed the process had become. Interactive? That was not a universe known to them.
Alas, 2004 seems--so far--at least as bad as 2000 in almost every respect. The Democrats are mainly running on the basis that their guy served in Vietnam thirty years ago, whereas the incumbent has messed up Iraq and presided over a decline in jobs (although no president can influence employment within three years). The Republicans are running on the basis that Democrats are unpatriotic and weak. The mass media mainly report this tit-for-tat. Although I think the Republicans are the worst offenders, all sides patronize the American people.
Thanks to online self-publishing (blogs and other websites), the political debate is now more open and interactive than it was four years ago. But the results seem disappointing. The net effect of the blogosphere, I fear, is to keep a few fairly extraneous issues alive while shedding little light on more important matters. I recognize some excellent exceptions among the more than 3 million extant blogs; but it's the overall impact that troubles me.
August 24, 2004
how to get out the vote (what the research says)
When people try to mobilize voters (whether for partisan or ideological reasons, or simply to increase participation), they usually rely on at least an implicit theory about what makes people decide to vote.
On one hand, there are so many strong reasons in favor of voting that we might expect everyone to participate at every opportunity. Federal, state, and local governments collect about $2.9 trillion of our money each year and spend even more (pdf). They also make policy decisions of great importance, including the decision to wage war. By the simple and cost-free act of voting, each person gains an equal power to move this whole apparatus in the direction of his or her preferences. At the same time, voting influences who governs, thereby affecting the character, style, and principles of public leaders. Even if one ends up on the losing side of an election, a vote expresses a citizen’s values and signals his or her preferences to other citizens and political actors.
There are also strong moral arguments for voting. After all, almost all Americans see democracy as the best form of government; democracy requires widespread voting to be legitimate; and if many must vote, then no individual is morally exempt without a strong and specific excuse. By the same token, a member of an interest group or a political movement may want other members to vote so that the whole group can sway elections; but if you want others to participate, then you should vote as well. Perhaps because of these moral arguments, voting sometimes enhances or maintains reputation. People wear “I voted” stickers with pride. Finally, groups gain political power and status if their members are known to vote, which is why they often offer arguments or inducements in favor of participation.
On the other hand, there are so many reasons against voting that we might expect no one to participate. Although there is no financial barrier, voting does take time and effort—not only to go to register, go to the polling place, and cast a ballot, but also to glean enough information that one can make a choice in line with one’s own values and preferences. Since one hundred million citizens vote in a typical modern presidential election, the marginal effect of an individual’s ballot is negligible. Even in a local election where only a few thousand ballots are cast, the cost/benefit analysis may seem to favor staying home (especially given the limited power of local officials). Furthermore, we cannot influence policy or leadership in whatever direction we might want, because the choice must always be framed before the election. There must be a limited number of candidates and/or referendum questions. It’s no solution to allow every would-be candidate and proposal on the ballot, because then the winner will take much less than a majority of the vote and almost everyone will have supported a loser.
Finally, as a form of expression, the vote can seem rather imperfect. As Walter Lippman observed in 1925: “We go into a polling booth and mark a cross on a piece of paper for one of two, or perhaps three or four names. Have we expressed our thoughts on the public policy of the United States? Presumably we have a number of thoughts on this and that with many buts and ifs and ors. Surely the cross on a piece of paper does not express them. It would take hours to express our thoughts, and calling a vote the expression of our mind is an empty fiction.” Instead of voting, wearing a sticker or maintaining a website may seem a better form of political expression.
In practice, of course, about half of Americans vote in presidential years and about half do not. In the United States (but not in India and some other nations), participation rises with income and education. The usual explanation refers back to the cost/benefit calculation described above. Well-educated people and those with high social status can relatively easily obtain information about whom to support in an election, because they read the news for other purposes and they are on target lists for various advocacy groups. Thus the cost of participation is lower for them. The benefits may also be higher, since policy proposals and candidates tend to cater to their interests and values.
Those who try to increase turnout—of their fellow travelers or of citizens in general—have in mind these arguments for and against participation. They try to make it easier for people to make up their minds about whom to support, by providing arguments in favor of their favored candidates or relatively neutral information about the various contenders’ positions and backgrounds. Since it would take a potential voter time and effort to remember Election Day and the location of his or her polling place, phone banks provide a form of free information. Groups also try to reduce the cost of voting by registering people, driving them to the polls, and advocating time-saving reforms such as online or mail-in ballots. Celebrity appeals and door-to-door visits (or phone calls) by peers are ways to impart information and may also increase the sense that voting enhances one’s reputation and status—that it is cool. Appeals to ethnic solidarity or group membership remind citizens that groups need their members to participate if they are to be treated fairly.
I need to write an article about which of these strategies work and which do not. My sense is we know something about this question, but much remains to be learned. We know that direct appeals by peers work. Face-to-face visits are best, but telephone calls are equally cost-effective. The appeals that have been tested by academic researchers are always non-partisan, because non-profit money cannot be used to test partisan messages. Therefore, we do not know whether it works better to say, “Vote for A because he’ll cut your taxes/save your schools” or “Vote, so that you can influence the process.” All the appeals that have been tested have worked with about the same efficiency, whether they have called on people to vote as a moral obligation, as a way to express their views, or as a form of ethnic solidarity. It is not yet clear which aspect of these appeals makes the most difference: it could be the information about how to vote, the moral plea to participate, or the idea that voting is socially desirable.
Efforts to reduce the difficulty of voting increase turnout, but not by an enormous amount (pdf). A few states send everyone a free mailing with statements by all the candidates, and one study suggests that this raises turnout by a large amount, especially among young adults who have not attended college—a group that starts with an especially low level of knowledge. It is extremely difficult to test the effect of celebrity testimonials in favor of voting, but there is no evidence that they make a difference.
August 23, 2004
I recently came across a critique of Ralph Nader that Harry Boyte wrote several years ago. This is the best paragraph:
Ultimately, the problem with Nader-style populism is that it asks very little of citizens. It is based on a fairy land account of our nation's problems in which the people are innocents, the corporations are villains and democracy will come when we break them up. Instead of a populism of grievance and victimhood, we need a civic populism that teaches people how to work across lines of difference, how to understand problems in many-sided ways, how to listen to others with whom they disagree, how to think strategically and practically, not simply in emotive or righteous ways.
I think the criticism is accurate; and it applied even thirty years ago when Nader was a crusading lawyer instead of a presidential candidate. It also describes people like Venezuelan President Hector Chavez, media scholar Robert McChesney, and Michael Moore. I'm much more attracted to populism that has two important features: it recognizes that ordinary people are already creating and wielding power all around us (they are not just victims); and it recognizes the ways that popular attitudes, skills, and values could be improved. Corporations and governments are not the only things standing in the way of popular rule; sometimes people are uninterested in governing. But that's not an argument against populism. It's a challenge that makes you think hard about civic education, community organizing, and institution-building.
Speaking of which, Ned Crosby has posted a very useful long comment about the Jefferson Center and its Citizens' Juries on this blog.
August 21, 2004
another thought on charters
I commented earlier on the recent finding that students in charter schools perform somewhat worse than other students on standardized test. This finding was reported in a New York Times lead article that has prompted much criticism. A certain theme has emerged in some of the blog commentary on that article ...
Matthew Yglesias: "'charter school' doesn't really name a kind of school, so much as a kind of procedure for creating a school. Different charters are very different from one another and different jurisdictions have different rules for how a charter school can be created. Aggregate data about charter school performance, then, is much less useful than comparative data about what sorts of charter schools succeed (and what sorts fail) and what chartering systems tend to generate good ones (or bad ones)."
Chester Finn: [C]harter schools are astoundingly varied. We've known for ages that hanging a 'charter' sign over the door doesn't assure a good school, or predict a bad school, nor can one readily generalize about them. In fact, the variability among charter schools surpasses that of regular public and private schools. That's one reason they're hard to study—because having a 'charter' may be less important than the school's core mission, which might be dropout recovery, or the arts, or bilingualism, or giving new options to disabled children. Some of the best schools I've ever been in are charter schools, some of which are blowing the lid off test scores in such vexed communities as Boston, New York and Chicago. And some of the worst—and flakiest—schools I've ever been in are charter schools. Yet people are choosing them."
Fair enough--I agree with this. Whether a school is a charter or not isn't the important thing; what matters is the curriculum, the personnel, the leadership, the mission, the level of parental involvement, and so on. But note what this implies. Charter schools do differ from almost all conventional public schools in a couple of key respects: they compete for students and they develop their own rules and philosophies, independent of educational bureaucracies and teachers' unions. Many people believe that bureaucracies and unions are the problems in education, and that competition and choice are the answers. If that were true, then charters, as a category, should be substantially better than non-charters, even granting that there is variance within the charter category. Instead, they are no better, even controlling for student demographics.
Although EduWonk is much more critical of the New York Times story than I am, I agree with his bottom line: "Charters are about creating space for good providers of public education to enter the educational sector, there is nothing magical about the charter label per se. ... Is every charter school great? Of course not. Are there too many low-performing ones? Yes. However, the solution to that problem is not to do away with charters but rather to ensure that public policies rigorously weed-out the low-performers while not hamstringing the many high performing public charter schools changing the lives of youngsters every day. For that to happen though requires a détente on all sides of this debate and Eduwonk doesn't see that happening anytime soon since most charter critics don't want good charter schools, they want no charter schools and some in the charter movement don't seem to have much use for the 'public' aspects of public schooling."
August 20, 2004
the possibility of historical fiction
In the book that I'm writing about Dante, I observe that most forms of serious historical fiction are no longer tenable today. A century ago, dramatists like Stephen Phillips in England and Gabrielle D'Annunzio in Italy could still write critically-acclaimed verse dramas set in the middle ages. Churches and other public buildings (especially on college campuses) were still built to look gothic--even in the New World, where there could have been no genuine medieval structures. And there was still a living tradition of "history painting."
I argue that such fiction is untenable today because it embodies a kind of contradiction that we can no longer stomach. How can a scene from the distant past be depicted with the methods of the present? Victorian painters dressed their characters in medieval clothes, but their paintings were obviously conceived by nineteenth-century artists. If they had been eye-witnesses to the scenes they depicted, then they would have been medieval painters, and their style, as well as their subject, would have looked Gothic. Likewise, D’Annunzio’s Francesca da Rimini is full of historical details, but it is written in avant-garde free verse. It is obviously not a rediscovered medieval passion play, for it obeys the conventions of symbolist poetry and modern drama. D’Annunzio’s audience sat across a proscenium arch from a scene that was supposed to resemble a photograph of Ravenna taken in 1250—as if there could be any such thing. They were obviously in the hands of a modern playwright. As Paolo Valesio writes, “The more the author tries to give the color of historical faithfulness to his designs, the more those designs appear as what they are: dreaming silhouettes.” Nietzsche has earlier remarked: “Winckelmann’s and Goethe’s Greeks, Victor Hugo’s Orientals, Wagners’ Edda characters, Walter Scott’s thirteenth-century Englishmen—some day someone will reveal the whole comedy! It was all beyond measure historically false."
Recognizing the artificiality that's always involved in representing the past as if one were an eye-witness, modernists of the 20th century either abandoned the effort altogether or they made a topic of the artifice, as in Joyce's Oxen of the Sun episode.
And yet ... there are still many excellent and ambitious novels that represent episodes from the past as if from an eye-witness's perspective. Within the past few months, I have read three. Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower depicts a completely unfamiliar world: rural Germany during the Romantic era. The young poet Novalis, home from a sophisticated university, falls in love with a very ordinary 12-year-old neighbor. The values, beliefs, and behavior of the characters are plausible, even though we would never encounter anything similar today. The novel is a window into a different form of life, but its form is strictly modern.
I also read one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels: essentially genre fiction about the Napoleonic Wars, but very well researched and ably written, so that you feel that you are observing battles and love-affairs from the time of Jane Austen. And last night I finished Barry Unsworth's stunning Morality Play. This work also belongs to a modern genre--detective fiction; and the first-person narrator is obviously a 20th-century creature. He observes and describes the emotions of the other characters with detail and psychological insight that could only be modern (post-Freudian), even though he is a 14th-century protagonist. The plot is unpredictable and suspenseful, yet it relies on many conventions of modern crime fiction.
If anything, I think historical fiction is more likely to "work"--to satisfy readers--than it would have been fifty years ago. Historicism is back; modernism is out. This makes me wonder whether the modernists were right to reject representations of the past as artificial. Actually, their logic compelled them to doubt representation altogether. They believed that any form of representation reflected an arbitrary cultural style, so it could not be objective. If they were wrong and one can represent the present world (as most of our novels presume to do), then one can just as well represent the past. It simply takes a bit more research.
August 19, 2004
a milestone for civic education
I chair the Steering Committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Today the Campaign announced that we are making "six $150,000 grants to promote civic learning in the public schools of Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania." The press release explains:
The Campaign is a major national initiative to renew and restore a core purpose of public education – preparing America’s young people to be informed and active citizens in our democracy. It is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and managed by the Council for Excellence in Government in partnership with the Academy for Educational Development. The Campaign endorses a comprehensive approach to civic learning, with schools not only being places where young people acquire knowledge but where they also are exposed to all facets of citizenship through experiential activities that instill civic knowledge, skill, and behavior.
The grants were awarded through a rigorous national competition, with the six winning coalitions selected from 36 state proposals. Each grant covers a two-year period beginning in November and will help support the work of state-level coalitions organized to advance the cause of civic learning.
“This is a milestone for a Campaign that’s only six months old,” David Skaggs, Executive Director of the Campaign and former Congressman from Colorado, said in announcing the grants. “Over the next two years we expect these state coalitions to show what can be done to restore civic learning to a central place in our schools.” ...
The Campaign’s work is grounded in the Civic Mission of Schools report and is guided by a Steering Committee composed of representatives from some 40 national organizations active in the field. These organizations have a variety of missions and emphases but are working collaboratively to develop a richer, comprehensive approach to civic learning.
August 18, 2004
I've been worried about terrorists using weapons of mass destruction since the mid-1990s, probably because my family and I live 3.25 miles from the White House. Even before 2000, there was plenty of alarming news about Osama bin Laden, if you looked for it in the mainstream press. For instance, on July 17, 1997, The New York Times reported:
Mr. bin Laden, whose fortune is estimated at more than $250 million, became involved with the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970's. After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, he moved to Sudan, where he became more involved with anti-American Islamic groups.
"Osama is a very dangerous character," said Larry Johnson, a former State Department antiterrorist official now working as a private security consultant. "He has a lot of money, and he hates the United States."
Mr. Johnson said Federal investigators had information that showed Islamic fundamentalist groups, consisting mostly of legal noncitizen immigrants from the Middle East, had received money from Mr. bin Laden. ... Although it is not unusual for terrorist groups to raise money in the United States or to send money to supporters here, Mr. Johnson said, it is rare for foreign terrorists to carry out an attack in the United States.
"The level of terrorist activity within the United States is really very low," he said. Groups typically do not want to trigger the type of response that an attack in America would bring, he said.
"Osama," he said, "may not have the same constraint."
A few weeks before 9/11/01, there was an unannounced fireworks display for Mexican President Vicente Fox, and I was afraid that terrorist bombs were going off. Although I was as shocked and saddened as anyone by 9/11, I felt a small undercurrent of relief that Osama hadn't used atomic weapons. Now the publication of Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism has got me worried again. On the bright side, his site generates "blast maps" for any US address you choose, and I have determined that our own apartment is out of the range to be "ravaged by radiation and fires" should a 10-kiloton bomb explode outside the White House. I guess we should count our blessings.
August 17, 2004
the latest on charter schools
Charter schools are publicly-funded institutions that operate independently of the main educational system. Each one develops its own ideas about curriculum, governance, admissions, discipline, and financial matters, negotiates an appropriate contract with the local or state agency that will fund it, and recruits students to fill its classrooms. In an earlier post, I argued that charter schools were not very promising means to improve student achievement (as measured by standardized test), but they were valuable because they gave Americans opportunities to "propose solutions to public problems, band together voluntarily, and then work directly to implement [their] ideas."
Today's New York Times leads with the news that students in charter schools scored lower than other public school students on almost every part of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is a very preliminary finding. Possibly, charter schools are more effective than other public schools, yet they attract a more disadvantaged student population, and this is why their scores are lower. As Tom Loveless commented after the release of his earlier study of charters, "One possible explanation for the lower test results is that the charter schools are not doing a very good job ... But an equally plausible explanation is that charters attract large numbers of students who are struggling academically in public schools before ever setting foot on a charter school campus."
In any case, strong supporters of charter schools are evidently shocked by the raw difference in student performance. "'The scores are low, dismayingly low,'" said Chester E. Finn Jr., a supporter of charters and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who was among those who asked the administration to do the comparison." Finn and his colleagues apparently felt sure that schools that competed for students would dramatically outperform conventional public institutions.
The results reported in today's Times suggest that charters are (at best) only slightly more effective than standard schools; and they are probably less good on average. Since charter schools operate in a competitive market, this finding should worry people who believe that competition is the best solution to educational problems. I have always been skeptical of that theory. After all, by what mechanism should competition improve schools? Perhaps
1) ... by motivating teachers and administrators to work harder? Competition might force schools to shed the individual burn-outs and shirkers in their workforce. However, I doubt that a lack of motivation is the major problem in schools. Many educators are already overworked and underpaid. Nor will teachers and administrators be motivated to expand the size of their schools, since they don't profit from expansion, and it may weaken their institutions as communities.
2) ... by promoting experimentation and developing better models? Maybe, but this assumes that there are cost-effective, replicable "solutions" that could be developed in one school and implemented elsewhere. It is not clear that education works like that.
3) ... by providing more options to parents/guardians and students? Diversity and choice are good, but they can be provided in many ways--not only through competitive market systems. A typical suburban high school rivals a shopping mall in the number of choices it offers its students. My sense is that skillful and motivated kids benefit from choice, but kids who start on the wrong track simply make bad choices and get into worse trouble.
People like Chester Finn not only believe in competition; they also believe that most public schools--or at least most urban public schools--are scandalous failures. It certainly is true that graduates (not to mention drop-outs) of urban school systems are poorly prepared for a competitive labor market. But it is not clear that the schools themselves are doing a poor job with the resources they have. It's always worth asking: "Compared to what?" Compared to state-funded but competitive and innovative charter schools, standard schools appear to be doing fairly well.
Now that the raw difference in test scores has turned out to favor the non-charter schools over the charters, the government's attitude toward research seems to have changed. According to the Times:
In a significant departure from earlier releases of test scores, Mr. Lerner said the charter school findings would be formally shown only as part of a larger analysis that would adjust results for the characteristics of charter schools and their students.
In the 1990's, the National Assessment Governing Board had rejected requests from states for such analyses, with Mr. Finn, then a member of the board, contending that explanatory reports would compromise the credibility of the assessment results by trying to blame demographic and other outside factors for poor performance.
Although I haven't read Finn's remarks from the 1990s, I suspect he argued that it would be morally wrong to adjust test scores for factors like income and race, since that would imply that there was something intrinsically wrong with being poor or belonging to a minority group. Some conservatives advocate color-blind research as well as color-blind law and public policy. I'm sure they sincerely hold this view. I would respond that race is always only a proxy for something else; but we typically find differences by race, and we need to analyze them in order to develop appropriate responses. Likewise for family income, parental education, and gender.
Anyway, Finn and his colleagues expected that charters would perform better than non-charters on the NAEP. They may have feared that this advantage would be reduced once demographic factors were included in a statistical analysis. When charters scored worse than standard schools, there was suddenly an appetite for multivariate statistical models. The best hope of charter proponents is that those schools will score higher than standard institutions once we adjust for race, income, prior performance of students, urban residence, etc. However, an AFT study (pdf, p. 17) finds that charter school students are less likely to be poor than other students in the same districts. While much more research needs to be done, it appears that charter school students come from more advantageous backgrounds than other students, and yet score lower on the NAEP. I continue to favor charters because of their potential for democratic and civic renewal, but I wouldn't argue that they raise test scores.
Follow up: Robert Garcia Tagorda led me to the AFT's 2004 study of Charter Schools, which I should have seen earlier. In this study, charters performed no better, but not much worse, than non-charters, controlling for student demographics, location, etc. Tagorda and other critics of the AFT and the Times think that this report favors charters, because they performed almost as well as other schools; the gap reported in the Times article vanishes once when controls for demographics. [The previous sentence is not fair to Tagorda; see his comment.] But one could just as easily interpret the results as an argument against competition as a panacea. Even though charters compete for students, they get slightly worse test scores than standard schools with comparable populations.
Various bloggers--for instance, Togorda, EduWonk, and Daniel Drezner--see the AFT's fingerprints on the Times story and assume that the union is working against charters. Drezner says, "Shame on the Times -- and its editorial board, for that matter -- for buying the AFT spin hook, line and sinker." It does seem likely that the AFT prompted the story. But that doesn't mean that the union is an implacable enemy of charters. AFT President Al Shanker first proposed the whole concept in 1988. The people I know at the union remain generally in favor. Perhaps the AFT isn't trying to destroy charters but just wants more rigorous research, now that we've seen a sequence of relatively discouraging preliminary results.
If you were worried that charter schools were bad for education, then the AFT study suggests that you can relax. I wasn't worried about that--I guessed that they would be marginally beneficial. If, however, you believed that charter schools would quickly and substantially raise test scores, because they operate in a free and competitive market, then the AFT study should send you back to the old drawing board.
August 16, 2004
will the young folks vote?
There are reasons to think that youth turnout will increase in 2004, after thirty years of decline (pdf). Young people are clearly more attentive to news and issues this year, and more convinced that voting is important. Just for example, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, half of college students said in April 2000 that they would “definitely” vote. Four years later, that proportion has increased to 62 percent. As I recently told the (Spokane) Spokesman Review, "those in Generation Y – an age bracket generally considered to include those born in the 1980s and later – have grown up in an era of serious news. ... They're clearly paying more attention and are expressing more interest in voting."
Furthermore, political parties and interest groups seem to be shifting their campaign tactics and technologies in promising ways. Since the 1970s, they have generally preferred to target likely voters whose political views they know. In my New Progressive Era book (p. 127), I quoted several campaign consultants' advertisements that made sales pitches like this one:
Targeting Contributors, Targeting Voters, Targeting Issues, and Automated Dialing to Targeted Homes .... Automated dialing can be used both to identify supporters and key issues, and ... on election day to maximize key voter turnout. Sophisticated databasing techniques including desktop mapping are used to deliver mail and voice messages to specific constituency groups.
It's most efficient to target mail and phone messages to specific addresses, but television and radio ads can also be aimed at narrow demographic groups. Unfortunately, young voters are never on the target lists. They always vote at lower rates than older people, and their voting preferences are unknown. A vicious circle results: young people are not sent campaign messages, so they don't vote, so they are viewed as even less desirable targets.To make matters worse, no one needs their labor, because computers and technical experts can handle databases and mailings all by themselves.
This vicious cycle may be turning virtuous. The parties are in a deadlock, so they need every vote they can get. People are throwing away mass mailings and TIVO-ing their way past campaign commercials, so those techniques are less and less effective. Rigorous experiments conducted by Donald Green, Alan Gerber, and others have proved beyond a doubt that young people will vote if real human beings call them or knock on their doors, encouraging them to participate. Although the parties keep their precise campaign tactics secret, I have it on good authority that both parties, led by the Republicans, are pouring resources into face-to-face campaigning. And they are including youth on their target lists and as campaign workers.
Meanwhile, non-profit groups--some ideological and some interested only in youth participation--are spending many millions of dollars on advertising, events, and door-to-door canvassing aimed at youth.
This is the good news, and it's good enough that I'm hopeful about youth turnout in November. There are, however, some clouds in the sky. Most of the positive factors were already in place earlier this year, yet youth turnout in the Democratic primaries (pdf) was basically flat. Whatever major social forces have depressed youth participation in the United States and Europe may not vanish so quickly. I believe these factors include the weakness of parties and ideologies, the pervasive cynicism of the news media, and the tendency of schools to abandon their civic missions.
Also, candidates, parties, and ideological groups are clearly going to emphasize "battleground" states this year. Although they may spend money on door-to-door campaigning, they won't bother with California, New York, or Texas, large states where the result is considered certain. That's bad news for turnout. The question is how narrowly they define the "battleground." If they continue to see quite a few states as contested, then turnout should be as good or better than in 2000. If the list of swing states shortens, participation could actually decline.
Finally, I'm convinced that persuading people about the generic importance of voting is only one step in a two-step sales pitch. Prospective voters also have to decide to support or defeat a particular candidate. Youth turnout surged in 1992, and there were two reasons for that temporary increase: Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Both men attracted millions of marginal voters who would not have participated without them. It remains to be seen whether any of this year's candidates can motivate youth as strongly. Again, they don't have to be seen as heroes; sometimes voters turn out to defeat a perceived villain. But young people must feel that there is a clear choice. If the next ten weeks plant the idea that the 2004 race involves a flip-flopping professional politician versus an incompetent frat boy (who share the same positions on Iraq and the economy), then I won't be optimistic about youth turnout.
p.s. Surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press are showing that the percentage of young people who are registered to vote is flat compared to 2000.
August 13, 2004
the September Project (revisited)
I've mentioned the September Project before. It's an effort to organize discussions and other civic activities in local libraries all across America on Sept. 11, 2004. I'm delighted to report that 267 libraries in 42 states are now onboard, and there are opportunities for YOU to organize in your own community.
One of the best things about America (although it's not unique to us) is our tradition of gathering in local public spaces to talk about issues and common concerns. Meeting in that spirit on Sept. 11 is a great way to respond to terrorism and violence.
Eszter Hargittai announced the September Project on Crooked Timber back in April. Virtually all the responses were negative. One person wrote, "Do these people not realise that 'earnest' is a pejorative term?" Another was offended that the list of recommended topics for discussion did not include "Islamic terrorism." A third commented:
Uh hu…yay yay USA, go Team Democracy…that’s what I’ll be doing on 91104, I’m sure.
Libraries are best for subversive purposes, not to prop up an empire that needs to die. 911 has, ever since, been a shining example of some of the differences between liberal apologists and radical critics of power. I don’t mean to be too nasty about it, I’m usually a very personable fellow, but the patriotic left leaves me awfully dissapointed [sic].
It's never smart to take a few comments as representative of public opinion. However, I admit I was slightly shaken when I read these remarks several months ago. I guess I'm so deeply enmeshed in activities that resemble the September Project that I forgot how they can alienate some people. My first instinct was to wish that the person who wanted to discuss "Islamic terrorism" and the one who wanted America's empire to "die" could meet (preferably at a library, where shouting is forbidden) to hear one another's arguments. That's an awfully "earnest" hope, I realize.
(You could reasonably ask whether I plan to participate myself. The answer, unfortunately, is that I'll be sitting in a New York City skyscraper on Sept. 11, discussing "transnational student activism.")
August 12, 2004
what the next president will face
(continuing yesterday's thought .... ) Whoever wins in November will face the following dilemmas, I believe. It can be politically suicidal to discuss such grave challenges during an election. However, a candidate could lose a contest like the current one for failing to address the nation's most serious problems. And if he won, he would have no mandate to govern effectively. Therefore, at least in private, the candidates should be thinking about these dilemmas:
1. The fiscal crunch. The American people are demanding—and Kerry is promising—a balanced budget, major federal action on health care, and no tax increases for middle-income families. We can't have all three. Therefore, Kerry should be thinking about which two promises he'll actually fulfill. He should then decide whether he's going to make that choice now (and how he'll explain it), or whether he'll obscure the choice during the election and try to finesse it next spring. For his part, Bush has essentially chosen: no new health benefits and a lot of borrowing. Kerry's failure to present a truly convincing budget will make it easier for Bush to run on his indefensible platform. Even if Bush gets away with this and wins the election, he should be thinking about how he can govern for the next four years with huge deficits.
2. the manufacturing crisis. We have been losing manufacturing jobs since 1980 or even earlier. The slope has been smoothly downhill, regardless of tax policy (see this pdf. p. 24, table 619; or cf. the graph on this pdf, p. 3). Neither tax cuts nor tariffs are likely to fix the problem. Education is a solution in theory, but not an easy one to achieve, especially given the fiscal crunch described above. Remember that we'd need to retrain millions of adults, not just educate the next batch of kids better. Community colleges are the closest thing we have to an infrastructure for adult education, and they now handle about 11 million Americans annually. That's just 4 percent of the population—mostly not people who previously worked in heavy industry.
3. Iraq. I have no business speculating about how Iraq will look in six months or a year. I do believe that the hope of getting substantial assistance from foreign countries or the UN is unrealistic. They have other moral priorities: above all, Sudan. This doesn't mean that they will do anything about Sudan, but it gives them a pretty solid excuse for not helping with Iraq, where we've already committed our own blood and treasure. Besides, the US intervention is so unpopular that foreign leaders will take big chances if they support it. I'm sure that many would like Iraq's condition to stabilize and improve. But there are a lot of things they would like, and Iraq is one problem that they are happy for us to handle on our own.
(Nick Beaudrot's critical response to yesterday's post is well worth reading.)
August 11, 2004
reflecting on the Democratic Convention
The more I think about the recent Convention, the more it seems like an emormous missed opportunity. As I'm sure you have noticed, the country faces some pretty difficult challenges: a foreign war, a terrorist threat, a $7 trillion national debt, an annual deficit of almost half a trillion dollars, an aging population, 44 million people without health insurance, global warming, two million people behind bars (with all the crime and wasted lives that that figure represents), and a continuous loss of manufacturing jobs because developing countries have finally made up enough technological ground that their workers can compete directly with ours. I followed the Convention closely through newspapers and blogs, and I didn't learn anything new about how the Democrats would address any of these issues.
Right now, some liberal bloggers seem eager to show that Kerry gained support as a result of the convention. Conservative bloggers stress the stability of the poll numbers, which is pretty evident if you look at the Rasmussen daily tracking poll. I predict that the discourse will soon change. Unless the Republicans mess up their Convention, they will probably gain a few points of "bounce" in late August, thereby putting Bush/Cheney slightly in the lead for the fall. At that point, all the progressive pundits, bloggers, and grassroots activists will start complaining about the Democratic ticket and its failure to put forward convincing ideas about at least two or three major issues (for instance, Iraq, the deficit, and jobs). I believe it would be better to start that discussion sooner rather than later, and to do it in a constructive way. It's not simply Kerry-Edwards' fault that the Democrats are short of convincing proposals; the whole left-of-center hasn't been adequately focused on policy. They've depended to much on the manifold weaknesses of the Bush Administration.
August 10, 2004
I just spent my morning meeting with some representatives of a UK nonprofit and then some Australian Parliamentarians. The Brits are interested in starting a voluntary national service program; the Aussies want to improve e-government. It seems to be the season to come to Washington on fact-finding tours, and some people believe that I have facts to dispense. I did my best.
August 9, 2004
the 12th-century revolution
The division of history into periods can obscure as much as it reveals, emphasizing change only at the cusps of eras, and continuity everywhere else. For example, we are accustomed to dividing the "middle ages" from the "renaissance." This periodization (a modern choice) conceals important shifts before 1400 and exaggerates the rate of change thereafter.
In particular, it misleads us into ignoring the radical break that occurred during the 1100s (which we assume to be just a typical "medieval" century). Consider that the following elements of European civilization were widespread in 1200 but absent, or only nascent, a century before: law, understood as a consistent and comprehensive system to be refined by experts, not dictated by lords; the gothic style in art and architecture; cities with large urban populations; colleges and universities; chartered corporations; scholastic philosophy and theology, with conspicuous roots in ancient thought; popular institutions for health and education, mostly founded and staffed by mendicant friars inspired by St. Francis and St. Dominic; ideological arguments about church and state, wealth and poverty; republican government in many Italian city states but also in some northern towns; chivalric orders; elaborate Arthurian mythology as expressed in several rapidly developing modern languages; European imperialism, as exemplified by the Crusades and various forays against the Moors and Slavs; and organized nations with princely courts and secular bureaucracies. The rupture with the past was enormous, and there was more continuity than change thereafter.
(I'm influenced here by Harold Berman's Law and Revolution I. I realize that our technology-obsessed culture tends to see the invention of the printing press (ca. 1450) as the revolutionary moment. But I have previously given some reasons not to view moveable type as overly important.)
August 6, 2004
academics who promote democracy
I lead a peculiar professional life, one that's hard to describe to acquaintances; but I'm hardly unique. There are distinguished and successful people who are much further along a similar path than I--to name just a few, Harry Boyte, Barbara Ferman, Lew Friedland, Archon Fung, Bill Galston, John Gaventa, Liz Hollander, Jenny Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, John McKnight, Karen Pittman, Jay Rosen, Carmen Sirianni, and Linda Williams. These are all scholars who promote democracy in practical ways. I like to think that my blog describes how one can live that sort of life, in case other people want to try it. My own activities are by no means exemplary, but I often report on what my colleagues are doing.
In brief, they are serious scholars who are developing elaborate worldviews in articles and books. But they draw a lot of their knowledge from hands-on work outside the academy. That description would also cover plenty of academics who are experts in fields of policy and advocates for particular positions. For example, there are hundreds of science professors who promote green policies in conjunction with advocacy groups. That is a completely appropriate form of engagement. But the people I mentioned above are more interested in the democratic process. Specifically, they are concerned about citizens' capacity to form their own opinions and to shape the world accordingly.
Their scholarly work concerns various aspects of civil society or democracy, not (for the most part) particular fields of policy. The values they advocate include--in various mixtures--participation, voice, deliberation, community development, political equality, civic knowledge, and public work. The institutions that concern and interest them include the press and the mass media, legislatures, political parties, nonprofit associations, development agencies, schools and colleges (as civic actors), and community networks.
Although it's fine to advocate political positions, I think that promoting democracy fits more naturally with the educational function of a university. A good educator does not indoctrinate, but tries to put his or her students in positions to make good independent judgments and to act effectively. We can think the same way about our work off-campus--with citizens' groups, communities, and institutions.
The people I have mentioned are not pundits. I can recall significant opinion pieces by several of them, but those are side-products. The pursuit of fame presents moral dangers for scholars. My role-models take more seriously their rigorous analytical work and their partnerships with practitioners.
Certain practical consequences follow if one leads this kind of life. It requires funding, and there are only so many sources of money--mainly a half dozen private foundations. Grant-writing and negotiating with these donors are big parts of this work. Also, one must spend a lot of time (often enjoyably) at meetings: not academic conferences, but roundtable discussions of programs and strategies.
A constant challenge--and opportunity--in such work is to balance tactical and normative thinking. Tactical thinking assumes the ends and asks, 'How can we get there quickly with the resources we have?" Normative thinking asks, 'What ends should we pursue?' People who work full time in practical jobs rarely have the luxury for serious normative reflection. But scholars who never leave the academy are not disciplined by the need to be tactical. The people on my list of role-models spend plenty of time thinking normatively, but they also write planning memos, review strategic plans, consult with funders, develop measurable indicators of success, and otherwise help practical organizations to get from A to B.
This way of life has an unexpected and rare advantage: we are rewarded for offering unremunerated, voluntary assistance. For example, I am asked to itemize the groups I have assisted each year, as part of my reports to my employer and its funders. This means that I don't just try to help groups out of the goodness of my heart; it's what I'm paid for. Yet no money has to change hands between me and a partner organization. This is an extremely satisfying way to operate. I sometimes think that it reproduces the advantages that someone like Jane Addams enjoyed a century ago. She could serve and cooperate with others freely because she had independent wealth. I can do it because I'm paid for it; and the same is true for many of my colleagues.
Finally, this kind of engagement is a way to understand certain aspects of the real world that no other kind of research can grasp. For instance, Friedland and Sirianni's Civic Innovation in America is an indispensable guide to a whole quiet movement that's changing our communities for the better. Carmen and Lew could not have written their book if they hadn't attended a hundred meetings with practical organizations and funders--not intentionally to study them, but to play a role in the movement. The same could be said of essential work by Gaventa, Ostrom, and Mansbridge, among others.
August 5, 2004
comment spam revisited
Last night I received another 140 spam comments, and these were advertisements for photos of rape, incest, and torture. (I'm quoting verbatim from their own descriptions.) Anyone who can place 140 horrifying comments on my site can place 1,400, and completely shut me down. Therefore, instead of posting something substantive today, I've spent my blogging time trying to protect this site from the true scum of the earth.
I wanted to follow Nick Beaudrot's good advice to install a "visual filter" or "captcha" that would test whether those trying to post comments are (sighted) human beings. Despite an ethical qualm about blocking access to blind people, I will install such a filter if it proves necessary. However, a quick search didn't turn up any user-friendly versions. There are scripts available online, but they lack installation instructions simple enough for dummies like me. Therefore, I have followed the advice on this page, which basically suggests creating non-standard names for software files to fool automated spammers. As a result of the changes I've made today, you must now pass through two steps to leave a comment, but it's straightforward.
August 4, 2004
(Warning: if you have a blog of your own, you already know what I'm about to say, and this may be boring.) My blog usually gets hit four or five times a day by "spam." People post ads, often for extremely unsavory products, as comments. Their motive is to generate links to their own sites so that they will rank higher on Google searches. Spammers use software to place their comments, so that they can post many in a short time. Last night, I was hit by more than 100 separate comments, all advertising a particularly disgusting and illegal form of pornography. These comments are difficult to remove with MovableType--it takes five clicks plus a certain amount of waiting to get rid of each one. MoveableType allows you to block particular computers from posting comments, but spammers now hide their identity by using fake IP addresses. Every one of last night's spam comments had a different address.
There are solutions. For example, you can change the technical structure of your site so that it's much harder for programs to "know" automatically how to post comments. This kind of change is not easy for someone like me to make, however--it would take me at least an afternoon, and I would probably mess it up at first.
The other kind of solution essentially involves restricting public uses of one's site. I could, for example, block all comments on old entries. However, I like the serious remarks that periodically appear on archived posts. I could get rid of comments altogether and tell people just to email me. But that barrier might discourage participation. So it's a dilemma, and it exemplifies the dark side of all open networks.
If any spammer reads this (and I'm sure they won't), I would make one request. If you are going to advertise some kind of exploitative sex involving minors as a response to one of my earnest comments about civility or civic education, please don't compound the insult by writing "Nice site," or "Good point" in the comment field. It drives me nuts.
August 3, 2004
"News for a New Generation"
Susan Sherr has written an important paper by that title, which is on the CIRCLE website. She interviewed producers of newspapers, magazines, tv shows, and websites that are specifically aimed at youth. She also conducted focus groups of the youth themselves.
The producers believe that young people have very short attention spans, are easily impressed by fancy visual presentations, and are mainly interested in practical news about local issues--things that may affect them directly. One said, "So for instance while most papers might lead with something really important that happened in the UN that day, we're more likely to focus on, you know, a rapist caught in a neighborhood where a lot of our readers live." Another said, "like on the money page, it's not going to be about stock, company mergers, and you know the New York Stock Exchange guy resigning, it's going to be about how to keep a job, how to get a job, what to do if your boss is a jerk, are they reading your e-mail, things like that."
Participants in the focus groups suggested that the producers are largely but not completely correct. The young adults claimed that they want more local news and more positive news. "I'll pay attention more to the things that pertain to New Jersey or New York. ... Anything that is global, I don't really pay attention to, I don't know why. If it has anything to do with the president I don't listen to it. It just doesn't interest me."
However, these young people despise tricks, such as visual effects designed to exaggerate the importance of stories or "teasers" that promise a topic that is then delayed. They claim to be turned off by elaborate graphics. They have a low tolerance for statements that they believe they have heard before (for example, that the "war on terrorism" will go on for a long time).
Many of the young adults in these focus groups could not identify Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, but they reacted extremely negatively to both men. "He looked, like, constipated all the time. He wasn't moving his mouth, he didn't seem like, it kind of is like when you call up and you need help and they don't help you. And they act like they hate their job, that is what he sounded like."
August 2, 2004
teaching the teachers
I'm just back from Washington College in Chestertown, MD (a classic liberal arts college), where I taught social studies teachers a little about liberalism and classic republicanism--a standard topic in political theory. I presented liberalism as the combination of the following five ideas:
1. "Individualism," meaning (specifically) that each and every government institution must make every individual better off than he or she would be otherwise, or else it is oppressive.
2. Politics is a necessary evil, the price of living in a community.
3. The private realm can be clearly distinguished from the public realm, and only the latter may be regulated.
4. The state should not make people good, nor do we need good people to have a good government. A decent polity can instead be preserved through checks-and-balances and other constitutional mechanisms.
5. The government should be neutral with respect to various ways of life, unless those ways of life involve one person violating the rights of another.
Civic republicanism is then a particular criticism of liberalism that says:
1. Political communities have intrinsic value, and are not merely "cooperative venture[s] for mutual advantage” (John Rawls).
2. Politics is desirable and advantageous, because it's the only place where people can exhibit certain excellences, such as public spiritedness, eloquence, and patriotism.
3. The so-called private realm is often a legitimate public concern. For example, the state should support educational institutions that (to some degree) shape private opinions and beliefs.
4. A good government can only exist where citizens are fairly virtuous; and promoting virtues is an appopriate role for the state.
5. The government should favor certain ways of life over others. Above all, the state should honor lives of public service and civic engagement.
Although almost everyone feels some affinity for both sets of propositions, it's much harder to make civic republicanism plausible for an American audience than to persuade them of liberalism.