October 31, 2004
discussing the commons
I’m in the Cerritos Public Library, waiting for the second day of the Information Commons meeting. There are several other bloggers here who are “covering” the discussions. Eli Edwards, who posts great comments on my blog and has a terrific one of her own, is posting detailed notes. Jessamyn West, who has been running librarian.net since 1999, is here, but she has been deferring to Eli and Fred Stutzman to blog about the conference. Rick Emrich, the founder of Commons Blog , is also here. I don’t go to a lot of techie conferences, so it tickles me that posts are appearing online as people talk.
The library is astounding. It’s new and cost the city $47 million. Disney designers from nearby Anaheim helped to plan it, and it’s a kind of public-sector Disneyland. The children’s section, for example, contains a full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and a huge salt-water tank with sharks and a coral reef. There’s a lighthouse big enough to sit inside and various high-tech gizmos such as tv screens that show the visiting kids in various exotic settings. There are also books.
Each section is “themed” in similar ways. There’s a baronial, gothic library with vaulted stone ceilings, leather chairs, leather-bound books, and a fake electric hearth. The large Asian book section is supposed to look like Shanghai circa 1930 (when Indiana Jones visited).
I wish I could take my kids here; they could have fun for a whole day. I’m impressed that a smallish community would put so many resources into a public facility devoted to learning (whatever you may think of their taste). However, this is a conference about the “commons,” and it strikes me that the Cerritos Library is almost antithetical to the ideal of a commons. The model here is a democratic-consumerist one. The city hired expert librarians to spend $47 million of public funds in the private sector to purchase tailored experiences for individual patrons. Because everything is finished to a high sheen, planned to the last millimeter, and high-tech, there are few ways for citizens or groups to contribute. In fact, the typical urban public library—with its dirty, peeling, whitewashed walls and aging collections—may actually make a better commons. Often the walls are covered by children’s art, the new purchases are funded by bake sales, and the special events are organized by neighbors. (My wife, for example, runs a weekly "Children's Book Bingo" event at our local library every summer.)
I don’t think it’s fair that Cerritos should have a $47 million library unless the libraries in South Central Los Angeles are also well equipped, which they probably aren’t. However, paradoxically, the people of this affluent community may have bought themselves out of the commons and deprived themselves of the satisfactions of public work.
October 29, 2004
I'm on my way to Cerritos, CA (in eastern Los Angeles County), where the new public library has won awards as a model community center or "information commons." This weekend, the American Library Association is holding a conference there. The subject is the commons, and I look forward to discussing intellectual property, the role of information in communities and civil society, the physical design of libraries, the place of youth in public libraries, and related topics. I will have a chance to present our work building a (strictly virtual) information commons for Prince George's County, MD.
The Cerritos conference is mentioned on Commons Blog, where there's also a relevant bibliography.
October 28, 2004
hopes for a Kerry administration
I think the odds favor the Democrats on Tuesday, although it will be close and nobody really knows who has the edge. If John Kerry is elected president, my hopes will be modest--not because I lack respect for him as a person, but because the situation is awful and good ideas are scarce. I will be more than satisfied if Kerry and a Republican Congress are able to get the deficit down somewhat; America is extricated from Iraq without a devastating defeat; and people in the executive branch and the congressional Democratic Party begin to work out solutions to problems that Kerry currently does not know how to solve. Those problems include:
This list could also include the 40 million without health insurance, al-Qaeda (and its clones), global warming, and nuclear proliferation. I think John Kerry's biggest contribution, just like Bill Clinton's, may be to keep the fiscal situation reasonably sound so that the government is able to act later on; and to veto the most dangerous ideas from the right. This would not be a small achievement, but it is disappointing that we have no better solutions to our deepest problems than we had 12 years ago.
October 27, 2004
A news crew from Uzbekistan interviewed the CIRCLE staff earlier today. They were nothing like Balat from the "Ali G. Show." For one thing, they only spoke Russian and had to use an interpreter. For another, they asked extremely serious and sober questions, like "What precentage of eligible voters are under 30?"
All interviews are one-sided affairs; and when everything has to be translated, you can't make small talk or ask irrelevant questions. As I watched, I wondered: What is it like being in a car with four Uzbeks and a State Department handler, driving around suburban DC for an interview with people at some "Center for Information ..."? Why do Uzbeks care about youth turnout in the US election? When we say that kids study "civic education" in American high schools, what scenes pop into their heads? What do they imagine goes on in a place like the University of Maryland? What are they going to say in Russian voiceover as they show my colleagues talking? Are they even paying attention?
In short, I found the news crew more interesting--but probably more mysterious--than they found us and our issue of American youth civic engagement.
October 26, 2004
medical information online
LIBRES (Library and Information Science Electronic Journal) has just published an article of mine entitled "What Should be the Role of Government-Supported Medical Websites?" I begin by noting that low-budget medical websites with crackpot advice can sometimes score higher than MedlinePlus on Google. MedlinePlus is a major product of the National Library of Medicine, which has an annual budget of $250 million and is supported directly by the National Institutes of Health. NIH, in turn, has a budget of $20 billion and employs 18,000 people, including 5-10 Nobel Laureates at any given time. The openness of the Internet means that official, white-coated medicine (as embodied by NIH) is losing its monopoly--and that is not necessarily a good thing.
I ask whether we should take various modest steps to push Web-searchers toward official portals like MedlinePlus. I conclude that we should, although this is not an easy question, since government sites have been known to manipulate medical information for political reasons, and drug companies have excessive power over the medical profession.
Peter Suber immediately noticed my article. Peter is probably the world's leading advocate of open-access publishing. Material is open-access if it is "digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions." LIBRES is an open-access publication: peer-reviewed, but available free on the Internet. Therefore, Peter monitors it. I asked him how he could track so many sites so efficiently, and he told me that he uses WebSite Watcher to "crawl" through 100 sites each day and notify him of all changes.
Peter says he agrees that government websites like MedlinePlus are great, but they would be better if NIH required all of the work it funded to be open-access. There is a serious proposal to make that happen: see Peter's FAQ page.
October 25, 2004
three paths to civic renewal
Right now, my email inbox contains announcements of three important civic initiatives:
Community news services housed in local nonprofits, "information commons" based in libraries, large-scale deliberations on important issues ... this could be the beginning of a true civic revival.
October 22, 2004
a powerful argument for civics
Excellent education in history and civics is necessary to achieve the reading goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That was a theme in today's discussions of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which I chaired. The argument goes like this:
1. You can prepare kids to achieve "basic" levels on the fourth grade reading assessment by teaching them skills such as phonics and decoding. But you cannot get them past "basic" at fourth grade, or to any level of competence at the eighth and twelfth grade, without giving them lots of good texts to read and comprehend. They need experience in comprehension. And they need a store of knowledge derived from reading--in other words, some form of "cultural literacy."
2. Therefore, achieving the reading goals of NCLB requires high-quality instruction in such fields as literature, natural science, history, social science, and current events. Indeed, it requires high-quality instruction in all of those areas, because a narrow curriculum will generate readers with narrow competence.
People who like NCLB should agree with this argument, but so should people who think that NCLB is too much of an unfunded mandate or that it puts too much emphasis on high-stakes tests. These critics also want students to read.
Philosophically, one might argue that teaching civics in order to enhance reading skills is putting the cart before the horse. Public schools were founded with a civic mission, and teaching history and social studies requires no justification other than a civic one. I suppose I agree with this, but I'm a practical person who just happens to hold a philosophy Ph.D. I see an enormous practical opportunity here for people who are concerned about the future of our democracy.
Policymakers want kids to read. They measure reading with the NAEP reading assessment (which I believe to be a good instrument). Students will score at "proficient" levels on the NAEP only if they learn to comprehend historical and social texts. So we'd better invest time and effort in teaching history and social studies. As a crucial side-effect, we will produce more capable political and civic agents for the future.
October 21, 2004
the Internet and youth civic engagement
The Summit Collaborative's Marc Osten and Katrin Verclas have written an important new paper entitled "The Power of the Internet to Engage a Generation."
The paper provides a bold vision for how to use digital networks to encourage civic participation--although the authors note that "technology alone will most often not motivate young people to become deeply engaged. Any initiative that relies upon technology as a tool for engagement requires complementary offline components as well."
Many young people have grown up online and "staked out the Internet as an alternative space for socializing, communicating, and information sharing--away from the eyes of parents and other adults." The voluntary network of the Net fits many young people's "anti-institutional" ideals. In some ways, their values are new (radically libertarian), but in other ways, their "ideas are a return to earlier concepts of grassroots politics. ... David Weinberger suggests, 'That is why the web, for all its technological newsness and oddness, feels so familiar to us. And that is why it feels like a return even though it is the newest of the new. The web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning."
However, the potential of the Web for reinvigorating citizens' networks is partly unfulfilled. Various advocacy groups use data mining and tailored messages to mobilize people, but these techniques (even when entirely well-intentioned) can be manipulative and can segment people into narrow, unreflective groups. There are tools for "augmented social networks" that give users more flexibility and discretion to find others with similar--or different--views and to develop reputations for tustworthiness. However, these tools tend to be proprietary, which means that they don't work together and they cannot be adapted for new social uses.
Thus Osten and Verclas call for a new suite of open-source tools for strengthening diverse networks among young people. These tools would help youth to create discussion spaces and self-publish; to identify other people by interest; to contribute to large stores of data (such as maps); and to meet one another offline. Osten and Verclas also discuss the need to identify and support youth who are serving as leaders or "network nodes."
A longer paper could go into much more concrete detail, but this is a great outline for further discussion.
October 20, 2004
bias at the Times
Last Friday, Daniel Okrent, the "public editor" of The New York Times, asked a conservative and a lefty to address charges of bias at his newspaper (link). From the left, Todd Gitlin argued that The Times is biased against Kerry because it insists on treating Republicans and Democrats as if they were equally dishonest and corrupt. Gitlin thinks that the Bush Administration is far worse, and the apparent even-handedness of the coverage actually gives the incumbents a free pass and encourages bad behavior: "The Times's decorous approach to the news has often helped President Bush in three significant ways: by equating his gross deceptions with Mr. Kerry's minor lapses; by omitting or burying news of administration activities and their consequences; and by missing the deep pattern of Mr. Bush's prejudices and malfeasances."
From the right, Bob Kohn argued that The Times is biased against Bush because its news coverage assumes the liberal answer to social issues. Kohn lists "same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, gun control, environmental regulation, capital punishment and faith-based initiatives" as topics on which news stories in The Times always assume the liberal perspective. For example, Okrent had earlier described the tone of news articles on same-sex marriage as "cheerleading." But Republicans are strongly against same-sex marriage. Thus "the president's views fly in the face of what are being presented as objective facts. No technique of bias is more powerful--more useful as a means of influence--than presenting a candidate's unadulterated views through a prism of advocacy passed off as hard news."
A blog is for sharing what its author thinks, so here are some of my responses:
October 19, 2004
social class and tolerance for gays
I was wondering whether people who are more educated and wealthier are more tolerant of homosexuality. According to the General Social Survey, the answer is yes. I guess this result is intuitive, but I always like to check.
Education and income each correlate with tolerance. I don't have the time right now to figure out whether the real driver is education (which may increase both income and tolerance). There could be a third factor underlying the relationship, such as urbanicity, age, religious denomination, or region. But just to dramatize the basic situation, here is a graph that contrasts upper-middle-class people who have college degrees (in blue) and lower-income people with no more than high school (in red). The difference in attitudes toward gays is pretty stark.
October 18, 2004
hope for reform of gerrymandering
Many political scientists view partisan gerrymandering as the worst flaw in our political system today, worse than campaign finance abuses or poor and biased journalism. By drawing districts that are reliably Democratic or Republican, incumbent politicians have basically stripped voters of their choice. In approximately 385 congressional districts, a vote really doesn't matter, because the lines have been drawn to preclude competition. Since challengers have virtually no chance, they tend to be weak and under-qualified. In these districts, parties and interest groups make little effort to mobilize voters, so turnout falls. Also, there is little discussion and debate within such districts, so people who live there don't grasp the diversity of opinion in America. They regard the debate in Washington as mere mud-slinging and believe that every reasonable person agrees with the views that are prevalent in their own districts. Jim Gimpel, Celeste Lay, and Jason Schuknecht show, in Cultivating Democracy, that growing up in an uncompetitive district has a lasting negative effect on one's civic engagement.
Until recently, I assumed that this problem was basically intractable. Incumbent politicians like things as they are. There is a public interest in competitive districts, but each citizen has relatively little to gain from reform, so it is difficult to mobilize people for this cause. Even if citizens do get mad about gerrymandering, their votes don't count in most districts. Finally, the courts seem basically tolerant of gerrymandering if the intentions are partisan rather than racial.
But a recent conversation with the lawyer Tom Geogehegan made me more optimistic. It turns out that all the existing case law on gerrymandering pits one major political party against the other. The plaintiff says: You gerrymandered too much, or with unacceptable motives. The defendant says, No we didn't. Neither party says: The current system for drawing districts violates the Constitution. If a public-interest group were to bring suit on broader constitutional grounds, it would be a novel and untested legal strategy--which means that there's a chance it would succeed.
By the way, there are several possible remedies for the existing system. One option is a nonpartisan electoral commission, as in Iowa. As a result of Iowa's reform, that small state has more competitive congressional districts than California and New York combined. One might worry that a "non-partisan" commission would ultimately by hijacked by stealth partisan appointees. An alternative is a computer algorithm that would randomly group citizens in compact districts. In drawing districts, it is necessary to weigh competing values (compactness, "naturalness" of communities, tradition, racial justice, and competitiveness). A computer cannot resolve this balancing problem neutrally. However, it can dramatically reduce the odds of seriously bad results. It can deliver what John Rawls called "pure procedural justice," which is an important basis for legitimacy.
October 15, 2004
food for thought
Here is a strange statistical result. My colleagues and I have been teaching high school students to investigate the causes of obesity in their community--as a form of civic education. This fall, they are going to conduct and tape interviews and create a radio show to publicize their results. To give them some data to work from, we surveyed all the students in the school's health classes. The response rate was poor, because students had to bring in parental permission slips before they could complete the survey; and there was no penalty for failing to participate. Nevertheless, we received enough surveys to draw tentative statistical conclusions. Here is the one that surprises me. None of the 17 kids who said that they ate fast food every day are overweight (according to their self-reported combination of height and weight). However, 43% of those who said they eat "hardly any" fast food are considered clinically overweight.
What's going on? Maybe a lot of kids are mistaken or dishonest, but it's strange that the relationship between fast food and body weight would be so linear and negative. The sample is too small for serious statistical analysis, but we noticed that immigrant kids are more likely to eat fast food, yet less likely to be overweight. So maybe immigrants eat good food at home but go out a lot to McDonalds.
There are more possible explanations. For instance, the Washington Post's "Kid's Post" section reported last Wednesday that young people order less healthy food at restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster than they do at fast-food places. So maybe it's good to go to McDonalds if it keeps you from ordering the "surf and turf" at a sit-down restaurant. But most of the kids we surveyed cannot afford regular visits to real restaurants.
In any case, the students' research task is a lot harder because of this result.
The Bonanza! Group
People who work to improve the quality of public culture deserve our attention and thanks. For example, Adrienne Schatz is one of the co-founders of the "Bonanza!" group. She explains that Bonanza! is:
a network of Republican and Democrat friends who've put aside differences - at least in this realm - to create www.bonanzag.com, a very comprehensive, accessible, and truly nonpartisan election resource. We emphasize fact-checking, and have compiled dozens of easily navigable links to information on candidates, issues, registration, voters' rights, poll monitoring volunteer opportunities, humor (if you haven't seen the shenanigans at www.jibjab.com, you should ...), etc.
October 14, 2004
the "global test"
Thomas Jefferson said it best: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to [do something drastic that affects the status of other nations,] a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them. ... To prove it, let facts be submitted to a candid world."
The founders of the United States asked for no one's permission to declare our independence (although they needed help from France). Nevertheless, they considered themselves obliged to submit "facts" in support of their decision. If their allegations had been false, then they would have failed the "global test," as the United States did in 2003 when we presented a false rationale for our invasion of Iraq.
October 13, 2004
the wrong kind of liberalism
I yield to no one in my commitment to the core moral principles of the center-left. In fact, I will support radical ideas if I am convinced that they will work. However, nothing annoys me more than sloppy argumentation and bad faith on the part of people who vote the same way I do.
A case in point is Joseph Epstein's "Mystery in the Heartland" from the Oct. 7 New York Review of Books. This is a review of Thomas Franks' What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a book that I have not read. (Thus my criticism is solely directed at Epstein, not at Franks.) The puzzle that Franks poses is why people in America's very poorest county, which happens to be located in rural Kansas, should vote for George Bush by 80%. Epstein's answer is that they hate and demonize "the latte-drinking, school-bussing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secularly humanist so-called liberal elitists, whose elders have been 'soft on communism' while they themselves coddle criminals, women, and same sexers, eat brie, drink chardonnay, support Darwin, and oppose capital punishment in defiance of the 'moral values' of ordinary, God-fearing, flag-waving, assault-gun-carrying Americans."
Why should people adopt this picture of the world? According to Epstein, deeply cynical conservative elites have fooled them into it, most recently by following Goering's advice at Nuremberg. Goering said:
people don't want to go to war.... But, after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship.... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.
Epstein invokes Goering's spirit in his critique of conservatism. There is also a huge photograph of the Reverend Fred Phelps to illustrate his review (in the print version). Phelps is an elderly Kansas pastor who holds a "God hates fags" sign.
But Epstein thinks that the real problem is deeper than cynical elites and hate-mongering reverends. In times of peril, people always turn to fundamentalism, to absolute certainty and stark moral simplicity. In such circumstances, liberalism tends to lose, because, as Learned Hand wrote, the spirit of liberty "is not too sure that it is right. ... [It] is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women." Liberals understand what Keats called "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."
I wonder if it has occurred to Epstein that he is absolutely certain about the advantages of mid-twentieth-century liberalism. He is a perfect fundamentalist who sees his opponents as wicked and ignorant and his own program as self-evidently superior to theirs. On point after point, he fails to understand the minds of his fellow Americans or to concede any possibility that he might be wrong. Viz ...
Surely a liberal in the tradition of Learned Hand would start by asking what's wrong with liberalism, before he excoriated his opponents in such a way as to make his side look completely blameless.
October 12, 2004
memories of high school
I graduated from high school two years after A Nation at Risk (1983). Although my friends and I had some fine teachers, the curriculum and standards were pretty slack back then. As I recall, we rarely had to bring homework home; it could be done during the lunch break. However, there were two good things about my schools in Syracuse, NY. First, the population was split almost exactly 50/50 between African Americans and Whites. That was fairly unusual in those days, and extremely rare today. Last year, I helped some students in Maryland to conduct an oral history of race in their high school, and they found that the late-70s was the high point of integration.
Secondly, I had several friends and classmates who were intensely intellectual, and specifically interested in the moral aspects of politics and public policy. In addition to me, three others are philosophy professors today, one is an economist who teaches public policy, and one is a lawyer who writes about American history. We wasted plenty of time back then, but we also spent some of the hours that today we'd have to devote to homework reading good books for fun and arguing about what we'd read.
We mostly read different things, of course. But philosophy of science was popular, and most of us read Thomas Kuhn and Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach and The Mind's I). I think the most popular fiction included Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and anti-totalitarian political novels by Koestler, Malraux, and Orwell. More than one of us read Solzhenitsyn, although I certainly didn't finish any of his novels. Mid-twentieth century American fiction was still influential: Faulkner and Hemmingway, especially. I read a lot of Freud's case studies. I didn't read much political commentary, but others subscribed to The New Republic and everyone read the New York Times, although I cannot remember how regularly.
Five years later, I enrolled at Oxford for a doctorate and discovered that the University offered very few graduate seminars, no qualifying papers, and no exams. However, there were many intense graduate students, and we organized ourselves in informal seminars. Once again, I missed the benefits of a rigorous and demanding curriculum, but found that free time can be deeply educational if your fellow students push you.
October 11, 2004
why the questions were good in Friday's debate
Commentators are saying that the Missouri citizens who asked the questions last Friday did a good job. They tend to note this with a tone of pleased surprise or patriotic piety. ("You see, ordinary American folks can do almost as well as professional reporters when the stakes are high.") My take is different. I think ordinary people will almost always ask better questions than professional journalists, not because Americans are particularly thoughtful and well-informed, but because reporters have been trained to avoid the most obvious--yet vital--questions.
It's extremely useful to ask candidates what they would do about a given problem in the future. This type of question is hard but obviously fair. It elicits information about knowledge and competence, values and priorities, and policy choices--in short, the "merits and measures" of public figures (to quote James Madison about what the press should report).
I count eight questions asked last Friday that were essentially about future policies. (Several more touched on the future while also mentioning character or past decisions.) In contrast, when President Bush gave an extremely rare White House press conference last April, the professional reporters who confronted him asked virtually nothing about current or future policies. Instead, they asked questions about the President's personality that cemented their reputation as the hostile "liberal media" without actually giving Bush any difficulty at all. If you are asked, in effect, "Why are you so stupid?" then you don't have to show any knowledge or address any difficult problems. You can just say something polite but forceful, and the reporter will look rude and biased.
It doesn't occur to ordinary people to ask that kind of question. And the reason is fairly simple. They are trying to make up their minds about whom they should choose in November. Thus they need to know about candidates' "merits and measures"--period. In contrast, journalists are trying to tell a story about the electoral conflict, the horse-race. For them, the interesting questions are: Who's down and who's up? How will candidate A reply to the charge made by candidate B? What tactic will A use? How does he intend to campaign from now on? What does he say about B?
A question or two of this type would be OK, but reporters' relentless attention to the horse-race cheapens politics, lets incumbents off the hook, and makes professional journalists distinctly worse than other people at conducting political interviews.
Selected questions from the debate:
Senator Kerry, the U.S. is preparing a new Iraq government and will proceed to withdraw U.S. troops. Would you proceed with the same plans as President Bush?
My mother and sister traveled abroad this summer. And when they got back they talked to us about how shocked they were at the intensity of aggravation that other countries had with how we handled the Iraq situation. ... What is your plan to repair relations with other countries given the current situation?
Iran sponsors terrorism and has missiles capable of hitting Israel and southern Europe. Iran will have nuclear weapons in two to three years time. In the event that U.N. sanctions don't stop this threat what will you do as president? In the event that U.N. sanctions don't stop this threat, what will you do as president?
Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain a military presence without reinstituting a draft?
Senator Kerry, we have been fortunate that there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Why do you think this is? And if elected, what will you do to assure our safety?
Senator Kerry, would you be willing to look directly into the camera and using simple and unequivocal language give the American people your solemn pledge not to sign any legislation that will increase the tax burden on families earning less than $200,000 a year during your first term?
Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical-cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?
Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who do you choose and why?
October 10, 2004
Derrida (the death of the author)
Jacques Derrida died on Friday. All the obituaries I have seen have fundamentally mischaracterized his thought and the movement he inspired, “deconstruction.” (The Times gets the biographical facts right but avoids defining deconstruction by stressing its obscurity.) I found Derrida annoying when, as an undergraduate, I watched him sign students’ t-shirts and then cross out his name to put it “under erasure.” I criticized him in my Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (pp. 175-181). After I finished that book in 1992, I ignored him. So did many others, for he became increasingly irrelevant—a fate that may have bothered him much more than angry criticism. So I don’t think much of Derrida; but we ought to associate his name with views that he actually held, not with the vaguely Marxist (materialist and historicist) opinions that are often pinned on him.
Derrida claimed that certain prejudices, which he called “logocentric,” are to be found in “all the Western methods of analysis, explication, reading or interpretation” [Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1974), p. 46.] These prejudices include a preference for the world over language, for reality over fiction, for sounds over letters, for the signified over the signifier, and for masculinity over femininity. A classic deconstructionist reading of a text involves (a) demonstrating that the text presumes these dichotomies and (b) calling the distinctions and value-judgments into question. For instance, one might very plausibly argue that Dante combines irrationality, verbosity, femininity, and falsehood in the figure of Francesca da Rimini, whereas God is male, rational, silent, and true. Drawing attention to this dichotomy would be deconstructionist criticism.
Derrida went beyond standard deconstruction, however—starting at the latest with Glas (1974). He knew that any argument against logocentrism would itself be logocentric, just because it would be an argument. He wanted to get outside a form of thinking that was, according to him, universal. To achieve “exorbitant” effects (ones that went outside the normal orbit), he played with styles of writing. For example, Glas consists of two parallel columns, one inspired by Hegel and the other by Genet. Hegel was a great systematic thinker who could incorporate all alternative views within his comprehensive system. Criticizing Hegel would be playing the philosopher’s own game. So Derrida analyzed a completely different author in the same book, discussed disgusting bodily functions, stretched puns beyond any reasonable limit, and said, in effect, “Philosophize this.”
Everything depends upon the universality of the “logocentric” prejudices that Derrida identified. If they are omnipresent and important, then Derrida was engaged in a radical project of some interest (but of doubtful value). I think, however, that calling the West “logocentric” was a massive oversimplification. There are binary oppositions in our thinking, but also trinities and unities. Some of us believe that written text is merely a representation of sounds, which are “primary”; but others disagree. If the thinking of the West is deeply diverse, then there is no way out of its “orbit.” In that case, Derrida invented a rather easy game for himself: escaping prejudices that plenty of people had always disagreed with. Some deconstructionist readings are trenchant and plausible, but Derrida’s own works mainly look ridiculous.
October 8, 2004
should the draft be an issue?
In our recent poll with MTV (pdf), we found that 78% of young Americans oppose a draft, but 32% think there probably will be one. Graffiti and posters on my campus suggest that there is a pretty widespread rumor that Congress is considering a conscription bill. The root of the rumors may be Rep. Charlie Rangel's legislation to start a draft. Rangel is a liberal dove who sees universal conscription as a way to spread the burden of war to wealthy people and reduce the chances of foreign interventions. Republicans scheduled a vote on Rangel's bill on Tuesday so that they could kill it (in a 401-2 vote) and try to end the draft rumors.
I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, young people have concerns about a possible draft, and those concerns are not foolish. If politicians seriously debated the issue of conscription (and more generally, who should serve in uniform), they would respond to young people's concerns and perhaps increase their interest in politics. Furthermore, there are serious arguments in favor of conscription, as summarized in my Institute's Quarterly (pdf).
On the other hand, I personally believe that there is zero chance of a draft. I know that the Pentagon is having difficulty meeting its recruitment targets, but only by a few thousand people. There are 3.5 million 18-year-olds. To increase recruitment by drafting a large proportion of the young population makes no sense. To draft only one in fifty thousand would create a "negative lottery" and undermine morale in the military and society at large. It would be far cheaper to increase the bonuses for signing up or lower the eligibility requirements a notch. To be sure, we could face a draft after a massive terrorist attack on US soil; but then conscription would be the least of our problems.
I'm somewhat unwilling to respond to youth concerns by demanding a public discussion of the draft, if there is no real prospect of conscription.
(Rock the Vote has been pushing the issue, but in a generally responsible way. See this page.)
Update: Matthew Yglesias cites even higher levels of concern about the draft among young people (51%) than we found and argues that there's a real risk of conscription if Bush is reelected. Yglesias is young enough to be called up, so no wonder he's worried.
October 7, 2004
the importance of being honest
Popular opinion holds that politicians are liars--generally. In my view, however, the Bush administration is different. They have repeatedly made extremely important claims that were false. In some cases, such as when they claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, I suspect that they were wrong at first, rather than mendacious. However, they failed to investigate and then correct the record, and this showed a damaging and blatant disrespect for truth.
So how is an opponent to respond? One answer is: fight fire with fire. It is crucial to defeat a reckeless and feckless incumbent, so you have to be extremely critical. Voters aren't well-informed or sophisticated, so you must make your accusations simple and dramatic. People don't believe politicians; they discount everything they hear by 50%; so you'd better inflate your claims.
I don't know whether anyone really believes this answer, but I certainly disagree with it. I think a challenger in 2004 stands to gain enormously by developing a reputation for scrupulous honesty. The Bush administration has made so many grievous mistakes and misjudgments that there are plenty of accurate charges that one can launch. However, if you make an issue out of the incumbents' dishonesty, then you must look like Abe Lincoln yourself, or else the "honesty issue" will become muddy. Even in our cynical age, some national politicians (Tsongas, McCain) have built reputations for truth-telling. In addition to being smart politics, there would be great civic advantages to a strategy of honesty that began to restore public trust in politics and government.
So why do Kerry-Edwards make factually dubious claims? Why do they say that we're spending $200 billion on Iraq? Using a figure of $157 billion would have exactly the same political impact, and it would have the advantage of being true. Why did Senator Kerry claim that "The President hasn't put one nickel ... into the effort to fix some of our tunnels and bridges and most exposed subway systems"? Funding for this category of work has been terribly inadequate, but quite far above one nickel. ($115 million seems to be a better estimate.) Why do they claim that Vice President Cheney has benefited financially from contracts with Halliburton made during the Bush Administration? There are countless other charges to be made against Cheney and Halliburton that happen to be true. Finally (to consider a more subtle issue), why do they say repeatedly that casualties are increasing by the month in Iraq? This is literally true but misleading, since casualties were higher several months ago. It would work just as well to cite the total number of US dead and wounded.
I do not imagine that millions of people were visiting sites like www.factcheck.org until Dick Cheney tried to send them there. But if such neutral referees consistently gave a candidate good marks for honesty and accuracy, I think that impression would gradually get across in the mass media.
In short, I wish that Kerry-Edwards had hired professional fact-checkers and let them edit every speech, ad, and set of talking-points. By now, the Democrats would be perceived as considerably more honest than the incumbents, and that would count in November.
Update: The Decembrist complains about the equal treatment that Cheney and Edwards have received in the press, and asks: "Why couldn't the headline be, 'Cheney Tells Dozens of Whoppers'? Because that is the story, and the glib journalistic cliché of 'both sides stretch the truth' merely obscures the actual story." I think the most accurate overall assessment would be: "Bush and Cheney tell massive and consequential lies, while Kerry and Edwards (who are not yet responsible for defending an incumbent administration) frequently resort to exaggerations and half-truths." If this is the reality, then it's no surprise that the actual headlines read "both sides stretch the truth." Kerry and Edwards could have avoided those headlines (and still have won their debates) if only they had been scrupulous.
October 6, 2004
I don't like to resort to listing blogs, but a lot of my readers are seriously interested in public deliberation, and they may want to consult other blogs specifically on that subject. I recommend:
October 5, 2004
the Guantanamo problem
In my opinion, David Luban's 2002 article in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly (pdf, pp. 9-14) posed the Guantanamo problem better than anything I have seen since. To paraphrase him very loosely: A state can legitimately hold someone against his will under two distinct circumstances. First, it can detain an alleged criminal in order to try him and prove that he knowingly committed a specific crime. If he is found guilty, the state may imprison him punitively, regardless of whether he poses any present or future threat. Second, the state may hold an enemy combatant during a war. The government need not allege or prove any violation of law, or even a hostile intention on the part of the individual prisoner. However, such confinement cannot be punitive, and it must cease immediately when hostilities end.
We do not want governments to cherry-pick the most convenient aspects of these two situations. But that is exactly what we see in Guantanamo, where prisoners are treated as combatants (insofar as they are detained without criminal charges or due process)--but also as criminals (insofar as they are held individually responsible for their actions and offered no hope of a negotiated release when the "war on terror" ends). This convenient mixing of two sets of norms certainly sets a dangerous precedent for civil liberties.
However, I think that the U.S. Government faces a genuine dilemma. (I'm now speaking for myself and not paraphrasing David Luban.) Hostile fighters picked up in places like Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be held for the duration of hostilities, because they don't belong to organized, hierachical groups with leaders who can possibly sign peace treaties. Nor can they be prosecuted as criminals under US law, which doesn't apply where they were captured. In many cases, they didn't even violate local laws. Yet some of them, surely, pose a genuine danger and can cannot simply be let go.
So what to do? I would suggest the following steps:
1) State very clearly and publicly that special circumstances arise when combatants who hold foreign citizenship are captured on foreign soil, fighting the US on behalf of loose networks instead of states. They cannot be accorded the full set of rights held by other categories of people, such as US citizens, people arrested for violent acts or conspiracies on US soil, or enemy soldiers fighting for formal organizations. The treatment of these Guantanamo-style prisoners sets no precedent for criminal law or the law of war. It is a regrettable exception.
2) Try to minimize the number of people held under these unusual circumstances, by (a) releasing anyone who is not a significant threat; (b) prosecuting anyone who is alleged to have violated US law; (c) turning over to foreign countries anyone who is alleged to have violated their laws, as long as these countries honor due process and human rights.
3) Accord appropriate but limited rights to the remaining prisoners. They cannot be tried in regular US courts, because they are not alleged to have violated US laws. But the government could be required to prove before a special tribunal that each prisoner poses a continuing threat. The prisoner should be able to rebut that claim. Furthermore, those who are held as potential threats should not be otherwise deliberately punished. They should be detained in reasonably comfortable settings.
I am aware that the US Government resists trying those Guantanamo prisoners who are believed to have committed actual crimes, because trials can disclose secret information. But this is where I think we should dig in our heels and say that the need for due process is more important than secrecy, even in a "war." If the basis for holding someone is a criminal allegation, then the prisoner should get a fair and speedy trial. Otherwise, everyone's rights are threatened.
October 4, 2004
legitimacy of NGOs
There was a time (I would say, the later nineties) when people who promote the economic and social development of poor countries were tremendously enthusiastic about non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Democracy, these people had discovered, meant more than voting; it required freedom of association, pluralism, and civil society. In practice, "civil society" boiled down to NGOs that could be funded. When there was a democratic state in place, NGOs could be supported as components of civil society. When the state was authoritarian and/or corrupt, NGOs could be funded as alternatives to the government. However, a strategy of funding NGOs creates problems as well as advantages. Michael Edwards's book Civil Society is a good guide.
I'm part of a research project at the University of Tillburg, in the Netherlands, that will investigate the legitimacy of NGOs. (I'm an unpaid member of the research team, which means that my main contribution will be advice, which is worth about what it says in the budget.) The Tillburg researchers, Anton Vedder and his team, rightly lay out some of the main concerns about NGOs. Nobody elects these groups. They are accountable to foreign funders but not to local governments or publics. And they tend to promote single issues, which means that they are poorly placed to weigh competing values (such as environmental protection versus economic development, or economic welfare versus democratic processes). The Tillburg project will begin, usefully, by interviewing numerous NGO leaders to find our how they define their own legitimacy.
October 3, 2004
I've been trying to figure out why my perception of last Thursday's debate was not especially favorable to John Kerry, when various polls and focus groups have consistently declared him the winner. Note also that the big liberal bloggers were lukewarm about Kerry's performance on Thursday night, but they have become more bullish since reading the polls. I suspect that the debate appeared very differently to people with different baseline assumptions about the candidates:
October 1, 2004
debating, the easy way
It's easy to debate if you have a day to mull over the moderator's questions and your opponent's statements, you can look things up on the Internet, and instead of speaking before an audience of millions, you can compose your thoughts on a computer. With those huge caveats, here are some answers that I would have liked to have heard last night. (My inventions are in italics; the rest is real.)
LEHRER: New question, Mr. President, two minutes.
Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?
BUSH: No, I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead. ...
KERRY: Actually, I would like to hear the President's answer to your question, Jim. You asked whether my election would increase the chances of a huge terrorist attack. His campaign, and especially Vice President Dick Cheney, have been implying repeatedly that the danger would increase if I were elected. They're basing their campaign on that idea.
I certainly disagree. The number-one threat to the United States is an attack at home, using smuggled nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or simple suicide bombs. It is outrageous that we are still not searching 95 percent of the ships that enter our ports. It is outrageous that we are not protecting aircraft against hand-held missiles or x-raying the cargo on passenger planes. Why aren't we? Because the Administration has had the wrong priorities. They've tied up all their energy and more than one hundred billion dollars fighting a reckless, optional war in Iraq; they've passed gigantic tax cuts that only benefit wealthy Americans. The President will tell you that they have also increased spending on domestic security. Of course they have--but not by nearly enough.
BUSH: ... And we've been effective. We busted the A.Q. Khan network. This was a proliferator out of Pakistan that was selling secrets to places like North Korea and Libya. We convinced Libya to disarm.
It's a central part of dealing with weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.
I'll tell you another way to help protect America in the long run is to continue with missile defenses. And we've got a robust research and development program that has been ongoing during my administration. We'll be implementing a missile-defense system relatively quickly.
And that is another way to help deal with the threats that we face in the 21st century.
My opponent opposed the missile defenses.
KERRY: A.Q. Khan was pardoned by the military ruler of Pakistan, General Musharraf. We were not permitted to interrogate him. He's a free man today. A.Q. Khan has been part of the Pakistani military elite for decades. He's not a lone proliferator; he's a state actor. And we rely on that same state, Pakistan, to fight the war on terror, even though its government is a deeply unpopular military dictatorship, they developed nuclear weapons and bought and sold nuclear materials on the black market, they continue to treat Dr. Khan as a national hero, and they funded and backed the Taliban while it harbored bin Laden. Saying that A.Q. Khan has been brought to justice is like saying, well, it's like saying that Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice.
Stabilizing Pakistan and moving it toward democracy would have protected us from terrorism much, much more effectively than invading Iraq. But the President chose a reckless course that made things more dangerous for us, rather than safer.
As for the missile defense system--what dictator is going to fire a missile at us and then wait for us to incinerate him with a nuclear counterstrike? All he has to do is mail the nuclear weapon to an agent in the US, who would put it on a timer and let it blow up one of our cities after he caught a plane out. We wouldn't know who to strike back at. The president has budgeted 50 billion dollars for a missile defense system. I'd spend that money on homeland security.