November 30, 2004
I'm going to be speaking and then travelling today, so I will probably not get a chance to go online. However, Marcus Stanley has contributed some very useful "content" to my blog in the form of a critical comment about Harry Boyte. In my hotel room last night, I replied with a defense of Boyte. The same "comments" page also contains Nick Beaudrot's remarks on Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?.
November 29, 2004
college students in the '04 election
I'm on my way to Madison, Wisconsin, to talk to social studies teachers. Meanwhile, CIRCLE will be releasing a really interesting poll of college students. Visit the CIRCLE homepage around noon to see all the details. Among other things ...
November 26, 2004
justice in industry standards
This is a topic that I would write about if I suddenly had three free months and could actually study the facts of the matter. Lacking those months (but having a blog), I hereby offer my untotored thoughts ...
For centuries, companies and entrepreneurs have negotiated voluntary standards that spread throughout industries, so that (for example), you can buy a lightbulb and know that it will fit into your lamp back home: the sizes and shapes are standardized. Traditionally, the precise choice of a standard has been arbitrary--it doesn't matter how many milimeters wide lightbulbs are, as long as they're the same. To the extent that traditional standards raise issues of public concern, the main ones are safety (a really dumb standard can be dangerous) and antitrust (incumbent industries can deliberately create standards that are unnecessarily hard for competitors to replicate).
In the new world of networked computers, antitrust remains a concern, but there are many additional issues of great importance. Since standards are what allow computers to communicate and software to run on multiple "platforms," they must be very detailed. It is in the standards process that the key design choices are made that shape email, webpages, document formats, and digital movies. Just for example, I once heard Tim Berners-Lee speak in Washington, and he said that he wished he had written the standards for the World Wide Web so that no information could be transmitted from visitors to owners of websites. That choice would have prevented privacy violations, but it also would have blocked many useful functions, including virtually all e-commerce. So I suspect we're better off with the standards that Berners-Lee actually created. In any case, his choice to allow two-way communications had enormous consequences.
Market libertarians may view any standards as acceptable, since they result from voluntary negotiations. But even free-marketers should worry when monopoly companies dominate the standards process. Civil libertarians should want standards to protect constitutional values like privacy and free expression. Following Lawrence Lessig, they should view computer "code" as parallel to legal "code"; either one can abridge freedoms. Communitarians may see standards as opportunities to protect community interests, for example, by preventing viruses and terrorists' messages from being encoded in picture files. Strong democrats may distrust a powerful process that isn't overseen by elected governments. Advocates of the commons may view voluntary standards (which are "contributed" by hard-working code-writers) as a form of common property, except when standards are designed to protect narrow economic interests. And all observers should be interested that today's standards often pay explicit attention to two issues--disabilities and privacy--but not to any other normative questions.
November 25, 2004
(No blogging today--too much turkey to eat and too many little tots to play with.)
November 24, 2004
progress toward an information commons
Since 2002, some colleagues and I have been working slowly to create an "information commons" for Prince George's County, MD. A real information commons would be a voluntary association devoted to creating public goods and putting them online. These goods might include maps, oral histories, historical archives, news articles, discussion forums, research reports, calendars, and directories. If community groups preferred to maintain separate websites, they could link to features on the commons site and thus "distribute" the commons across the web. The association would also lobby locally on issues like the "digital divide" and broadband access; and would provide training and support. Information commons in various communities would form networks and share software.
We decided not to start by creating an association, because we were afraid that community people wouldn't see the need for such a body or the advantages of joining. Instead, we hoped to create enough exciting and useful content on one site that it would draw traffic and interest. We would then ask participants if they wanted to "own" the site formally by creating a non-profit governing board.
Progress has been slow for two main reasons.
First, we have chosen to work with high school students, and for the most part ones who are not currently on the college track. This has been extremely rewarding work, but it's also a relatively slow way to generate exciting content. For instance, students spent a whole summer gathering excellent audio recordings that documented immigration into the County, but we haven't figured out how to use that material online. It sits on a CD. Likewise, the kids took a very long time collecting information for "asset maps," and the result was a relatively small set of incomplete (and now dated) maps.
Despite the slowness of this approach, I intend to continue to invest the majority of my discretionary time in the high school, because I find it extremely satisfying to work directly with kids.
The second obstacle is financial. We have had great difficulty raising money for the core concept of an "information commons." Instead, we have raised funds from foundations with specific interests in, for example, history or geography. As a result, we haven't had money or time to develop the commons itself. Instead, we have lurched from one project to another.
Ideally, we would always be busy with three tasks: 1) teaching high school (or middle-school) students to create digital products for the website; 2) working with college classes, churches, and other adult groups to help them to create content; and 3) installing and managing interactive features for the website itself, such as an open blog, a "wiki," or a map that visitors could annotate. These features would have to be carefully monitored or else they would be vulnerable to spammers and cyber-vandals.
To date, we have only had sufficient resources to do the first of these tasks, and that only on a small scale. Recently, I've been thinking hard about the second job: recruiting independent groups to produce their own content. Based on some recent conversations, I am optimistic that by the spring we will have three groups feeding content into the commons site: the high school class, a college class, and possibly a group of teachers.
November 23, 2004
Boyte on Lakoff
I haven't read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, although it's been urged on me more than once. His book and Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? seem to be the two most influential works on the left right now. Amazon says that people often buy them together. I shouldn't criticize something I haven't read, but Harry Boyte's critique rings exactly true. (This is from the latest Civic Engagement News. I don't think it's on the web yet, but it will go here, with the past issues.)
Liberal "527" groups on the Democratic side took their cue from George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who has become a Democratic guru for what is called "frame theory," or the idea that politics needs to convey simple metaphors. To counter what he calls the Republican view of "government as punitive father," Lakoff argues that the core progressive message is "government as nurturant parent" that expresses its care for the citizenry through social service safety nets and regulation. In Lakoff's view "protection is a form of caring. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child* and protection of innocent and helpless children is a major part of a nurturant parent's job." Government-as-nurturant-parent protects against "crime and drugs, cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on." ...
Government-as-nurturant-parent is a crisp summation of the idea of benevolent institutions taking care of citizens through service. It also reflects the shift of the Democratic Party's center of gravity from working people to professionals. Yet "service" means one thing in the context of close-knit, personal relations in communities. In large bureaucracies with thin transactions between experts and clients or customers, it has an entirely different set of resonances. It sounds to many like disingenuous self-justification. It also calls to mind the displacement of community networks, what scholars such as Robert Putnam term "social capital," by impersonal ties. Ferdinand Tönnies called this the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.
The ideology of service means "the able" taking care of "the needy." But citizens are not children and many resent being conceived as full of deficiencies. The paternalism of service politics goes counter to the ideal of a free, self-reliant citizenry that uses government as its instrument but is not awed by government as its savior - an ideal that has been the wellspring of America's democratic tradition.
In contrast, Republicans offer a politics of grievance against government run by experts. Thus, Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation declared that "Americans are sick and tired of being told they're incompetent to run their own affairs. They're sick and tired of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientists, therapists, professionals and bureaucrats." Such sentiments shaped Mr. Bush's 2004 charge that John Kerry was a "big government liberal." I could hear the echoes on conservative radio stations as I drove through rural areas this fall. "The Democrats make us sound like victims," said one woman on a Christian radio talk show. "They act like we can't do anything for ourselves."
The politics of grievance is full of dangers. It ends up weakening government and threatening all public goods, including schools and public universities, once understood as part of the commonwealth. Yet there are also signs of an explicit alternative both to service politics and to the politics of grievance.
Harry proceeds to describe the very powerful model of service politics that Colgate University has created. I heard Colgate's Dean, Adam Weinberg, describe the Colgate model last spring, and his written description is here.
November 22, 2004
why the Democrats are slipping into minority status
It's possible that we're a fifty/fifty nation, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the last two elections have been so close that they only prove we're tied. But I don't believe it. A powerful current is moving us rightward. It has helped Republicans to gain control of both houses of Congress, to appoint most federal judges, and to control seven more governors' mansions than the Democrats do. (State legislatures are still about evenly split, with 19 completely under the control of each party, and the rest divided.) In the national exit poll, 34% of voters called themselves conservatives compared to 21% who identified as liberals. The ideology score is nothing new, but the balance of power is startlingly different from 20 years ago. It is possible that the rightward trend will stop of its own accord at the current point, but I wouldn't count on it.
Progressive parties demand more of voters than conservative ones. To start with, they demand more taxes. Under favorable circumstances, progressives can reserve their tax increases for a wealthy minority, but people won't vote to tax anyone unless they believe that the revenue is likely to be well spent. Progressive parties also need low-income people to turn out, something that is relatively hard for them to do because the "costs" of voting (becoming informed and taking time off to go to the polls) are relatively onerous for poor citizens. Besides, poor people have little reason to trust politicians enough to vote for them. Finally, the modern Democratic party is (rightly) committed to a set of unpopular moral values, so it must convince people to overlook those commitments in return for other benefits.
Historically, American progressive parties (usually Democratic, but occasionally Republican) have won elections when they have identified the really important issues that concern majorities of voters, and have directly addressed those issues. People will vote to raise taxes--their own or other citizens'--if they think the money is needed for critical purposes. For example, the nation faced a deep depression in 1932. One of its causes appared to be malfeasance in the financial markets. And even before the depression began, people risked becoming indigent if they lost their jobs. Roosevelt responded with employment programs to stimulate the economy, market reforms, and Social Security. We can argue about whether he solved the problems that the country faced in 1932, but there was no question that he pursued policies that directly addressed the country's needs.
In the 1960s, there was less consensus about the need to wage a "war on poverty," given that most families had become relatively affluent. But there was wide agreement that the country had to move past racial segregation. Liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans who tackled discrimination won elections.
Today, the traditional problems have not disappeared. De facto racial segregation is worse than it was 25 years ago; losing your job can still be very bad news. But for most Americans, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to invent new solutions to these old concerns, which are manageable. People support the traditional progressive programs, but they need not vote Democratic to preserve them; Republicans also swear oaths in defense of Social Security and Medicare. In any case, Americans are now more concerned about a new set of problems, including the lack of decent jobs for those with high school diplomas; persistent violent crime that we barely control by jailing millions of our fellow citizens; reliance on foreign oil; and the coarseness of popular culture, especially as it affects kids. While the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government probably doesn't worry people as much as these other issues, the deficit does matter because it makes it hard to propose expensive policies.
No doubt, some people are also worried about issues that Democrats cannot and should not define as "problems," such as immigration and increased diversity, gay weddings in San Francisco, or the legal right to abortion. But Democrats would have a fighting chance if they addressed a different set of important concerns. Otherwise, people will vote conservative.
I basically gave up on this year's Democrats when they failed to address any serious problems at their convention. They seemed to think that Americans would vote for a Democrat because Bush had made mistakes and Kerry was personally macho. I think a Kerry administration would have been at best a holding-action; at worst, a last stand. A considerable part of me is relieved that Democrats (and McCain-ite Republicans) now have four years to come up with a plausible program.
November 21, 2004
humanistic versus technical philosophy
My two good friends from as early as kindergarten, the brothers Marcus and Jason Stanley, are guest-blogging with Brian Leiter. Lately, they have considered the very question that I have been writing about lately as I try to finish my current book-in-progress: the distinction (if there is one) between humanistic and technical philosopy.
My expertise, to the extent that I have any, is strictly limited to moral and political questions. In those fields of philosophy, there are not two distinct camps, the humanists versus the technical analysts. But there are two poles in a continuum. The same continuum defined moral philosophy in the Renaissance, when humanists (writers and teachers who practiced the studia humanitatis) challenged the highly technical Scholastics, who saw philosophy as a science. I believe that we should move closer to the humanistic pole today, reviving certain aspects of Renaissance humanism. [Warning: The rest of this post is long, because I've pasted a section from my book into it.]
"Technical" moral philosophy resembles medieval scholasticism in several important respects. First, technical ethicists (like the Scholastics) usually analyze raw materials that come from outside of contemporary academic philosophy. For the most part, they analyze intuitions--i.e., the judgments and opinions of contemporary people, especially those who are socially and culturally similar to the author--or canonical doctrines from the past, such as Kantianism and utilitarianism. Philosophers strive to make these raw materials more consistent and clear and reject any aspects that prove fatally contradictory.
In my view, however, philosophy is unsatisfactory if all it does is to analyze exogenous data, whether modern intuitions or doctrines from the past. The best moral philosophy has been synthetic and generative rather than merely analytical. Philosophers have proposed new and challenging moral ideas. Today, analytical moral philosophers sometimes achieve novel results by applying canonical doctrines in new ways. (For instance, Peter Singer showed that certain forms of utilitarianism bar the exploitation of animals.) At least as often, they debunk received moral opinions by showing that these ideas cannot be stated in highly clear and consistent language. But we need moral opinions, even if we cannot state them in perfectly clear and mutually consistent ways. Indeed, clarity and consistency are easily overrated. We are better off wrestling with a set of incompatible, partial, but demanding truths, rather than retaining only the ones the fit comfortably together. In any event, it is unlikely that our store of canonical theories and conventional judgments is satisfactory, even once analyzed and made consistent. To renew its traditional role, philosophy must generate and defend moral ideas, rather than merely refine or reject existing ones.
Second, technical ethical philosophy is ahistorical. Philosophers are, of course, aware that cultural change occurs. Yet their efforts to refine and restate pre-modern philosophy often resemble Aquinas’s reconstruction of Aristotle. For instance, a “reconstructionist” reading of Kant’s moral theory does not ask what Kant meant to say. He was a pietist from eighteenth-century Riga who held many superannuated beliefs that need not concern us. Rather, the point is to develop a true doctrine by retaining and clarifying persuasive aspects of Kant’s writing while jettisoning the rest. This was exactly the Scholastics’ approach to Aristotle.
Again, I think this is a largely misguided method for moral philosophy. It may make sense in other fields. For example, Strawson wrote: “When I allude to the system of Leibniz, I will scarcely be troubled if the doctrines I discuss are not at each point identical with the historical doctrines espoused by the philosopher called Leibniz.” Leibniz was simply a good aide for Strawson as he considered metaphysics. However, the raw materials of moral analysis—the intuitions of the present and the philosophical doctrines of the past—are always reflections of local circumstances. They arise because of people’s experiences in the world, including the representations and stories that they have found persuasive. Moral ideas are never self-evident, axiomatic, or self-justifying, although they may appear self-evident to people who have narrow horizons. Nor are moral ideas and judgments self-contained: they always assume and imply numerous other ideas. Philosophers should treat intuitions and philosophical theories as cultural phenomena that must be understood before they can be judged—and that can only be understood in context.
Third, the style of analytic philosophy is third-person exposition. There is no reason to wonder whether the author whose name appears on the title page actually holds the views that are described, as unambiguously as possible, in the contents. Nor is there much reason to wonder about the context, audience, or motivation of the work. To learn that the author has a hidden agenda or fails to follow his own moral advice is merely to engage in gossip; the value of a book lies exclusively in its arguments. Note, however, that this was not true of some of the best moral philosophy of the past, in which questions of irony, intention, and context were complex and essential.
Finally, "technical" moral philosophy adopts an implicitly superior position vis-ŕ-vis the narrative arts, such as history and fiction. These arts generate stories; moral philosophy decides whether the judgments and intuitions supported by such stories are correct. The superiority of moral theory was more explicit and uncontroversial in the Middle Ages. Then, most writers described the various disciplines not as independent ways of thinking, but as parts of an overall hierarchy of knowledge. For instance, theorists constructed many rival lists of the “seven liberal arts,” but all lists described a progression from the elementary disciplines of the trivium (from which we derive the word “trivial”) to the advanced sciences of the quadrivium. Some theorists placed moral philosophy and theology in the quadrivium; others saw them as higher pursuits than all seven of the liberal arts. But consistently, medieval theorists assumed a progression from grammar and rhetoric toward philosophy. The former disciplines were simply tools for communicating truth (or falsehoods). They were taught by exposing students to Latin stories and speeches. Students were expected to master grammar and rhetoric early, so that they could proceed to study truth as revealed by philosophy and theology. These disciplines, in turn, were abstract and encyclopedic, not concrete or based in narrative.
Renaissance humanism ultimately undermined the medieval system. We sometimes think of it as a new set of philosophical doctrines about the dignity and value of human beings. On this view, Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is central text. But Pico was neither original nor highly influential. His ideas would have been broadly familiar a century earlier, although he knew more Greek and wrote better classical Latin than his medieval predecessors. He was part of a philosophical tradition that continued for at least the next century—mystical, eclectic (in the original sense), and speculative—but he had little to do with “humanism.”
A better way to understand humanism is as a revolt of the trivium. The first people to call themselves “humanists” were independent tutors who provided advanced undergraduates with instruction in grammar and rhetoric. They taught what they called the studia humanitatis on the side, while the university’s formal curriculum emphasized logic and theology. Parents paid for this “humanistic” instruction because they wanted their sons to learn eloquence to succeed at court or in the law. Humanist pedagogy consisted of reading and imitating ancient narrative authors, with attention to style and form, plot and character.
The truly innovative and representative works of renaissance humanist philosophy do not consistently endorse the dignity of human beings. If they have anything in common, it is not any doctrine, but rather a similarity of form. Many are “literary” texts that are explicitly concerned with character, context, voice, irony, and plot. In each case, the role of philosophical argumentation is itself a theme. Thus, for example, Thomas More’s Utopia contains a blueprint of a society, complete with arguments for why that polity is ideal. In this respect, it resembles Rawls’ Theory of Justice. However (just as in Plato’s Republic) the account of an excellent society is set in a complex and deliberate literary and rhetorical frame. The narrator, also an Englishman named “Thomas More,” is visiting Flanders on a mission for his king. He meets a friend and colleague named Peter Giles, who is talking “by accident” with an old and somewhat ragged man whom More takes for a sailor. “‘But you are much mistaken,’ said Giles, ‘for he has not sailed as a seaman, but as a traveler, or rather a philosopher.’” (He is later described as a “friend of Plato”). This man’s name turns out to be Raphael Hytholday, and he relates how he had debated economics with a lawyer in the very household in which More had been raised: that of Cardinal John Morton. The scene retold by Hythloday involves not only his opponent (the lawyer) and the even-handed Cardinal, but also an incompetent jester who speaks truths, and a hot-tempered friar.
More is so impressed with Hythloday’s recollected arguments that he tries to persuade the wise traveler to become a counselor to princes—as More is. Hythloday responds that his advice, based on philosophical arguments and experience, would be so radical that no one would pay him any attention; so he prefers a private life (the opposite of More’s). Several times in the course of this discussion, Hythloday alludes to a superior society that he had visited called Utopia (No Place). The character Thomas More doubts Hythloday’s philosophical position—which is an attack on private property—but he seems to recognize that the concrete existence of a real superior to modern England might be persuasive. Thus he “earnestly begs” Hythloday to “describe that island very particularly to us.” There follows Hythloday’s description of Utopia.
The Praise of Folly is a book by More’s friend Erasmus. (In fact, the Latin title, Encomium Moriae, could be translated as “Praise of More,” an inside joke.) It is a speech by Folly eulogizing herself. Self-praise is always foolish, and anything that fools say is the opposite of wise; so one might assume that every claim that comes out of her mouth is the precise reverse of the truth. Thus, for example, when Folly calls scholastic theologians her servants and praises them for interpreting scripture and history as illustrations of abstract truths—without concern for literal details or authorial intentions—it seems clear that this is Erasmus’ attack on those methods. However, Folly is extraordinarily learned (if fallible); and some of her arguments resemble those that Erasmus made elsewhere under his own name, for instance, his critique of monastic orders. She even quotes and compliments him.
Finally, consider Machiavelli’s Prince. This book looks like a treatise on government, an argument in favor of tyranny. But it is also a letter written by the exiled and recently tortured author to a particular prince at a particular moment. Therefore, some readers have long suspected that Machiavelli was deeply ironic. As Rousseau wrote: “Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country’s oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim.” This may not be an accurate theory of Machiavelli’s motives, but the fact remains that “Machiavelli” is a character in the Prince, living in particular historical circumstances, writing with particular motives, and not necessarily identical to the author. It is possible that he is as much of a fool as Folly—or Hythloday, or Erasmus, or More.
Each of these works invites us to ask whether the author agrees with the doctrines that are expressed inside its complex narrative frame. There is a layer of ambiguity that violates the modern (or Scholastic) philosopher’s preference for clarity. We cannot paraphrase a humanistic work without losing its significance, whereas a modern philosophical argument is supposed to be subject to restatement and summary. In order to assess the intended purpose of these books—which is only one of several questions we might pursue in interpreting them—we must explore the immediate context in which they were written. For instance, Machiavelli’s real relationship with the Medici is relevant to interpreting The Prince.
I believe that the humanists meant something very serious by adopting the forms that they did. They assumed that philosophical arguments were important, but not universally binding. Moral arguments were appropriate to particular people in particular settings. They were always partial truths, because other people, differently situated, could legitimately hold and believe different values. This did not mean that ethics was a matter of individual preference and taste. But readers always had to ask whether the reasons and conclusions of any speaker were relevant to them. This question required a holistic judgment of the circumstances described in the text and those of the reader. Since all the circumstances had to be considered together, humanist authors described settings, personalities, and even facial expressions as well as arguments.
Humanists derived all of these literary devices from classical philosophy. They were able to do so because they paid attention to the literary qualities of texts by Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch, their favorite moral philosophers. Whereas a Scholastic reader would consider a doctrine of Plato (probably via a medieval Islamic treatise), the humanists debated the character of Socrates, his rhetorical figures, and his behavior under various concrete circumstances. Since their greatest books made use of dramatic irony, it seems likely that they treated Plato’s dialogues, too, as possibly ironic.
Today, moral philosophy could take at least four forms if it became more of a humanistic discipline. First, philosophers could tell stories with moral themes. Fashioning plausible and moving fiction is a special skill not often possessed by people who are also good at philosophical analysis, although Iris Murdoch, Rebecca Goldstein, and a few others have shown that this combination remains possible. In any case, philosophers have another option, which is to write true stories in order to highlight moral themes. A philosopher’s version of a narrative would be distinctive. Compared to historians and novelists, philosophers are more explicitly concerned with moral analysis and more likely to put theoretical arguments in the mouths of characters; but they can still write concrete and particular narratives. An extraordinary example is Susan Brison’s autobiographical Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.
Second, philosophers could closely read fictional and historical stories and legal testimony in order to elucidate moral themes. A fine example of a philosopher’s close, sensitive, and original narrative interpretation is Richard Rorty’s chapter entitled “The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty.” Rorty uncovers a subtle but moving subtext in Lolita and uses it to illustrate the theme of moral obliviousness, which (in turn) motivates his form of liberalism.
A moral philosopher who reads narratives ought to borrow some methods and concerns from the other humanistic disciplines. Thus, for example, Rorty rightly considers “literary” issues such as point-of-view, style, and irony, as well as “historical” issues such as context and audience. At a more practical, everyday level, professional interpreters ought to read their texts in the original languages (whenever possible) and trace allusions and other intertextual references. Whereas a conventional modern work of analytical philosophy is meant to be self-contained, narratives almost always incorporate other stories “by reference.”
On the other hand, moral philosophers need not simply replicate the methods of literary critics and historians. Critics examine single works or combinations of texts that share common authorship, genre, or provenance. They often (and appropriately) investigate matters that have little bearing on moral judgment. Historians study periods, traditions, or communities—and, like critics, they often investigate non-moral questions as well as moral ones. In contrast, moral philosophers should look for common moral themes, not only in literary texts and episodes from the past, but also in legal testimony, contemporary newspaper accounts, and hypothetical cases. Furthermore, moral philosophers have a comparative advantage when they analyze the explicitly theoretical statements that literary and historical characters and narrators often make. While these statements and arguments should be understood in the context of the overall genre and purpose of the works in which they appear, they should also be analyzed—a task that philosophers can perform especially well.
A third approach to “humanistic” moral philosophy is to look for patterns and developments in the history of ideas. For example, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre tells a story about the progressive loss of teleology—of a sense that human life aims toward some knowable end—in Europe after the Middle Ages. More modestly, Seyla Benhabib once showed that classical liberals, despite their claim to reason a priori from the state of nature, actually drew a line between the public and private spheres that mirrored the traditional distinctions between male and female work-roles. MacIntyre and Benhabib both practice genealogical criticism, arguing that widely shared assumptions are based on suspect moves made at particular points in the past.
Finally, philosophers who are humanists can help to recover attitudes and frames of reference from past or distant places that challenge widespread current assumptions. Clifford Geertz writes, “The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding their sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said.” Anthropologists are very good at this, as are historians and critics; but sometimes it takes a philosopher, steeped in the distinctions of moral theory, to recognize the hidden moral assumptions of a distant time or place. An example is the concept of “moral luck”—incompatible with both Christian and liberal thought—that Bernard Williams discovered in Greek tragedy. It is possible to describe moral luck as a doctrine: We are not in control of our moral condition, but can be made better or worse by chance. However, I find it much more fruitful to see moral luck as a theme, a tendency in particular circumstances for individuals to become better or worse by sheer luck. Williams’ analysis of moral luck does not prove that it is a correct theory (which would imply, in turn, that Kantian and Christian ethics are fundamentally mistaken). In fact, the contrast between Greek notions of moral luck and modern ethics seems fairly intractable. But Williams performed a major service in revealing a lost theme.
November 19, 2004
notes on the mideast after Arafat
I have a colleague who's an excellent guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost uniquely qualified to explain it. I can't reconstruct his crystal-clear summary of recent events, but I think I can accurately recollect a few key points:
1. Before Arafat died, there was some potential for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and selected parts of the West Bank. Sharon had decided to go that route, and he, perhaps alone of all Israeli politicians, had the stature to confront the settler movement and achieve some degree of withdrawal. After all, he was the architect of the settlements, so he could argue that some of them must be removed. Further, there was a consensus in Israel that Arafat was not a possible negotiating partner. Paradoxically, this made the left despair about fundamental negotiations and support modest Israeli withdrawals. In general, the Israeli people want negotiations, but not with Arafat. That desire created political momentum for an alternative strategy of unilateral separation. (Whether a withdrawal could possibly have led to a fair and sustainable outcome is another question.)
2) With Arafat dead, the Israeli right is now calling for negotiations with his successor, and playing on popular hopes that somehow the two sides will be able to reach an overall agreement. This stance will help them block Sharon's strategy of unilateral withdrawal.
3) But Arafat was never as much of an obstacle as most Israelis have believed. His successor will inherit the same basic situation. Moreover, the Israeli right is calling for the Palestinian authority to wage a civil war to defeat Hamas, as a precondition for sitting down with Israeli negotiators who are not pre-committed to any particular position. This is an utterly unrealistic expectation.
4) So there is little ground for hope, and the death of Arafat has probably made things worse (although hardly anyone mourns him as a human being). The best path is probably still for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, in which case it is conceivable that the Palestinian authority and Hamas will work out a modus vivendi to govern the area, will converge ideologically, and will be able to negotiate together with Israel. The likelihood of that outcome strikes me as very low. But every other scenario I can imagine seems worse.
November 18, 2004
how deep is cultural diversity?
"Historicism" is the view that our values are phenomena of our cultural backgrounds and contexts; and contexts differ from time to time and place to place. Although even the ancient Greeks recognized some degree of moral diversity, true historicism was a discovery of the nineteenth century.
However, modern natural and social science have suggested that some important aspects of psychology are common to all members of homo sapiens, the results of our evolved physical natures. For example, it appears that all people place a higher value on a certain gain than on a probable gain of much greater worth; but they have the opposite view of losses. For related reasons, people will go to great lengths to save $5 on a $10 purchase (“fifty percent off!”), but will not inconvenience themselves to save exactly the same $5 on a $125 purchase. A loss of money reduces happiness more than an equivalent gain increases it.
I mention these findings because we are told that they emerge consistently in studies from around the world; they may reflect mental heuristics that evolved when people were hunter-gatherers. Robert Wright tells us that “people’s minds were designed to maximize fitness in the world in which those minds evolved,” our ancestral state, which apparently resembles modern life among the !Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert or the Inuit of the Arctic.
However, even if such claims are true, they do not negate the existence of deep diversity in other aspects of psychology and moral judgment. If our physical natures directly determined our answers to all moral questions, then we would not debate ethics or literally wage wars over differences of principle. Besides, many of the features of human psychology that are universal are not moral. Perhaps we evolved to be aggressive toward competitors and altruistic toward relatives. Yet we also have the capacity to limit our aggression and to generalize our altruism beyond family and tribe. People disagree about when aggression is appropriate and in what circumstances one must be altruistic. These differences are especially evident when one compares individuals from long ago or far away. Thus the natural basis of aggression and altruism does not in any way reduce the importance of moral diversity and disagreement.
Finally, the very science that generates findings about human nature is embedded in a particular time and society. This does not mean that truth is inaccessible to science or that its findings are arbitrary. It does mean that we should ask whether the questions and methods of recent science are at least somewhat limited by our local interests and capacities. In sum, Isaiah Berlin was right: “human beings differ, their values differ, their understanding of the world differs; and some kind of historical or anthropological explanation of why such differences arise is possible, though that explanation may itself to some degree reflect the particular concepts and categories of the particular culture to which these students of this subject belong.”
November 17, 2004
trust and reliability online
I recently published an article in which I described the following "troubling example":
In June 2004, if you went online to learn about “cholesterol,” you might have typed that word into Google, the world’s most heavily used search engine. Google would have quickly returned a list of more than five million websites containing the word “cholesterol.”
The first ten websites would appear immediately before you; the remaining five million would take progressively more time and patience to find. The eighth result would be a page within MedlinePlus. This is an elaborate website created by the National Library of Medicine, a department of the United States government that has an annual budget of US $250 million, a mandate from Congress to inform the public about medical issues, more than a century of experience, and a highly professional staff of scientists and librarians. ...
Somewhat higher up on the Google listing, at number five, was a site written by Uffe Ravnskov , MD and PhD, who described himself as the “spokesman of THINCS, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics.” His site announced: “The idea that too much animal fat and high cholesterol are dangerous to your heart and vessels is nothing but a myth. … If you think this is written by another internet crackpot, take a look at Dr. Ravnskov’s credentials and the reviews of his book”—which was for sale on the site.
I am not competent to judge whether Dr. Ravnskov’s claims about cholesterol or his own credentials are accurate. However, it is remarkable that an individual with a low-budget website—registered to the “.nu” domain, which belongs to the New Zealand protectorate of Niue in the South Pacific—should be able to beat the National Library of Medicine of the United States in the competition for prominence on Google.
Dr Ravsnkov has, understandably, sent me an email complaining of his treatment in my article. I went back to his personal page and the Thincs website. To me, they raise interesting, complex, and ambiguous issues. Indeed, I meant to explore those issues in my article, although I confess that my tone was disparaging toward Dr. Ravnskov. These are the points that "trouble" me:
1) None of us can tell directly whether "animal fat and high cholesterol are dangerous to your heart and vessels." We all rely on trusted authorities. People like me are completely dependent on others' expertise. But even a scientific specialist in this field would have to trust the instruments he or she used and the reliability of past research. So the issue is not whether Dr. Ravnskov's argument is right (I'm not qualified to judge that), but rather whether we should trust him or the medical orthodoxy that he is challenging.
2) In general, there are some good reasons to trust medical orthodoxy. Scientific method makes sense. Randomized, double-blind, clinical trials really are the "gold standard" of research. Not only that, but academic and government-paid researchers are supposed to work for institutions with integrity that reward truth and not profit. It worries me that anyone can create a website and say anything at odds with the medical establishment, and potentially convince lots of people to ignore the standard advice.
3) On the other hand, it is perfectly plausible that all those white-coated folks at NIH could be wrong about a particular topic. "Group-think" could have set in. Worse, they could have been more or less corrupted by the pharmaceutical companies that are making huge amounts of money from anti-cholesterol drugs. Newspapers and medical journals are full of distressing stories about distorted medical research.
4) Dr. Ravnskov's websites look a little amateurish, and they advertise a book that he is selling. They list articles and other books in support of his position; but many are not peer-reviewed. Facts like these are sometimes taken as signs that a website is untrustworthy. However, some of the articles he cites are peer-reviewed. More importantly, the conventional signs could be misleading. Maybe Dr. Ravnskov's sites look amateurish because they are low-budget; and they are low-budget because he has integrity. Maybe MedlinePlus isn't more reliable, just more slick.
4) I feel that if I were worried about cholesterol (which I'm not, especially), then I could look into the issue and decide which sources are really credible. I could take the time to read the links on Medline and on Dr. Ravnskov's page, and I believe I could make decent judgments. However, I (arrogantly) assume that I have better-than-average skills in the interpretation of research. How should we tell a 9th-grader to sort out reliable and unreliable claims?
All of this underlines the deep importance of ethics in medical research. I would quickly dismiss a critic of medical orthodoxy if it weren't for all those stories about financial conflicts-of-interest.
November 16, 2004
Here is a great, if difficult, war poem. It's from the first page of La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things), a book that Eugenio Montale began in fascist and Nazi-occupied Italy during the Second World War and published in 1956. My amateurish English translation follows. Click for some commentary and the magnificent Italian text.
Princes have no eyes to see these great marvels
Their hands now serve only to persecute us
--Agrippa D'Aubigne, Ă Dieu
The storm that drums on the hard
leaves of the magnolia its long March
thunder and hail,
(the sounds of crystal in your nocturnal
nest surprise you, of the gold
squandered on the mahogany, on the gilt edge
of the bound books, a sugar grain
still burns in the shell
of your eyelids)
the flash that candies
trees and walls and surprises them in this
eternity of an instant--marble manna
and destruction--that you carry
carved in you by decree and that binds you
more than love to me, strange sister,--
and then the rough crash, the sistri, the shudder
of the tambourines above the ditch of thieves,
the tramp of the fandango, and above
some gesture that gropes. --
just like when
you turned around and with your hand, cleared
your brow of its cloud of hair,
waved at me--and went into the darkness
(See the online Italian text here.) This poem makes repeated, if oblique, reference to Canto V of Dante's Inferno. Like Paolo and Francesca, the narrator and the tu of "La Bufera" are bound together in a hellish storm for an unchanging eternity by something that resembles love, without exactly being love. Like Montale's you, Francesca was a "strange sister," since she was both Paolo's sister-in-law and his lover. The tu in Montale's poem has been sentenced ("condanna"), just like one of the damned in the Inferno. Finally, Montale chooses for his title "la bufera," a highly unusual word for "tempest." Given the rareness of the word, it clearly alludes to Canto V (lines 31-33):
The hellish tempest that has never stopped
whips the spirits in its passion:
a twisting, hounding, mad assault.
La bufera infernal, che mai non resta
mena li spirti con la sua rapina
voltando e percontendo li molesta
Several features of "La Bufera" are typical of the poems in Montale's three major books, which he presented as a trilogy comparable to the Divine Comedy. The diction is stark, astringent, and basically informal, although there is much specialized vocabulary. (For example, "sistri" is the Latin word--retained in both Italian and English--for the rattles shaken by ancient Egyptians.) Occasionally, Montale uses traditional forms such as the Shakesperean sonnet, but usually, as in "La Bufera," he prefers free verse that is distinguished from prose by density of imagery, heavy alliteration and assonance, and significant line endings and breaks. Like many of his poems, "La Bufera" consists of a list of objects and actions; it is not a complete sentence, because there is no main verb. As in all of Montale's writings, there are layers of reference to past literature. Finally, the poem is an intimate address to an unnamed "you," a female who is known to the narrator and who shares private references and memories with him. This "tu" frequently appears, and the narrator always has intense difficulty communicating with her.
One way to read "La Bufera" is biographically. Montale knew an American scholar named Irma Brandeis in Florence before the War. Later, both parties were reticent about the nature of their relationship; we do not know that it was romantic. When Brandeis left Italy in 1938, Montale lost contact with her and may have feared that she was dead. Brandeis was a Jew, and Montale was aware of the Holocaust. Thus the storm of "La Bufera" is fascism, the War, and Nazism. Brandeis is the "you" who is surprised by the breaking of crystal (perhaps a reference to Kristalnacht) and who disappears in the last line of "La Bufera," bound to the narrator more by fascism than by love. (The subject of the phrase "binds you to me" is the "flash" of lightning that stands for tyranny or war.) For the rest of the book, she is absent--just as Brandeis was actually away while Montale wrote--but she acquires profound symbolic meaning. Already in the title poem, she combines Jewish and classical references ("marble" and "manna"); these recur throughout the book, and there is an additional sense that she has become a Christ-figure or a Christ-bearer, suffering to redeem a sinful Europe. The narrator struggles to understand her, sometimes resorting to angry, misogynistic complaints about her absence and infidelity; sometimes worshipping her. I suspect that there is dramatic irony in both extremes; there is no reason to think that the author shares the narrator's full range of emotions.
There is plenty of evidence to support this biographical reading, including Montale's own notes. It is, however, only one layer of meaning. The "you" of the poem is also a kind of avatar of Beatrice, Francesca, Laura, and the other famous lovers from Italian poetry. Montale's predecessors had had trouble understanding the women they loved and usually failed to win their faithful attention; but in La Bufera e altro the problem is no longer moral. It is not the narrator's unworthiness or the lover's infidelity that prevents the two from communicating. Now the problem is political and epistemological: political, because the fascists have driven Irma Brandeis out of Europe and imposed silence and fear on all Italians; and epistemological, because moderns know that nothing can be represented or understood realistically. Connecting with "you" is the narrator's moral and spiritual goal, yet it is impossible. As Roberto Unger writes, "The modernists often combine acknowledgement of the supreme importance of personal love with skepticism about the possibility of achieving it or, more generally, of gaining access to another mind."
The book La Bufera e altro has been compared to a novel and analyzed for its plot and characters. But if it is a narrative, it's a strange one. The reader cannot tell what literal events have occurred or in what order, or even how many major characters there are. (Is the "you" always the same person? Is the narrator always identical?) Montale admired novels and operas, but in La Bufera, he indicates that he cannot tell a coherent story. All he can do is to string together fragmentary, personal images in a poignantly failed attempt to depict another human being and express his love for her.
Montale belongs to school of Modernism in which literal truth is treated as elusive, and the attention of the reader or viewer is directed instead to the work of art itself. It is very easy to notice and enjoy the sounds of Montale's words, but difficult to concentrate on what, if anything, is being described. The opposite is true in more traditional poetry. Usually, writes, Charles Rosen, "first we take in the text visually, and we understand it almost as we take it in, and afterward we find it interesting or beautiful." So we immediately know what Pope or Wordsworth is writing about, and we must force ourselves to notice the poet's technique. But StĂ©phane MallarmĂ© and his successors stood "the classical way of reading poetry on its head" by making their subjects and plots very hard to decode. "Withholding the referential meaning concentrates attention initially upon the technique of representation: the poem refuses to allow the reader to substitute immediately the concept for the description. To understand we must return over and over again to the lines. MallarmĂ© fixes the attention of the reader where it properly belongs--on the words of the poem, the assonance, the rhythm, the juxtaposition of images, the emotional associations." The same could be said of Montale. However, while MallarmĂ© (and Rosen) think that it is right to focus on the form of poetry, Montale appears to struggle to use his poetic language for representation. He wants to tell us about his "you," even though what we see most easily is the poem's assonance, imagery, and the shape of the lines on the page. Although the aesthetic aspects of Montale's work are the most accessible, he is against aestheticism--for moral reasons.
The best Italian text is in Jonathan Galassi, ed., Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1954 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 268. Unger, from Passion: An Essay on Human Personality (1984), p. 38. Chares Rosen, from "MallarmĂ© the Magnificent," The New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999
November 14, 2004
a story about universities and communities
I thought the following was the most interesting story told at the Penn State conference last weekend. (I'll relate it in an anonymous paraphrase, since I don't have the speaker's permission to name her or her institution.) The story takes place at a major research university that's near a deeply impoverished city. Don't try to guess which one--there are lots. An administrator gathered a group of socially engaged, committed professors to meet with representatives of the community. The community members listed a set of pressing concerns, one of which was the huge trucks that rumble through their city. It came time for the professors to respond, and one by one, they all said that they knew nothing about trucks. The community members replied (in effect), "Well, it looks like we'll have to deal with this on our own. But what good does it do us to have a world-class research university here?"
Like all good stories, this one prompts many thoughts, not all mutually consistent. My colleagues at the meeting made some interesting points, and then I came up with other ideas on my way home. In particular ...
"gay in a red state"
Since the election, I have repeatedly heard sophisticated liberals make extraordinary statements about conservative America, statements that verge on hatred and panic. One senior colleague, for instance, thinks that the election was basically about race; according to him, a hard-core 30% of Americans are fundamentalist Christians who regularly hear KKK-like speeches in their churches. I'm sure that there are equally extreme stereotypes on the other side of the Red State/Blue State divide. That doesn't make it OK for liberals to lash out; nor are massive misinterpretations a good basis for rebuilding the Democratic Party. Even when stung by a bitter defeat, liberals, of all people, need to keep their minds and ears open. Anne Hull's Washington Post article, "Gay in a Red State," is a good place to go for some nuance.
Several weeks ago, I argued that the New York Review of Books should not have illustrated an article about American conservatism with a photo of Fred Phelps, an elderly reverand holding a "God Hates Fags" sign. I wrote that Phelps was essentially a cult-leader whose doctrines contradicted the mainstream teachings of evangelical Christianity. I said that using his face to illustrate an article about conservatism was like putting Castro's picture next to a critical piece about liberalism.
Today, Anne Hull tells what happened when Phelps arrived in Sand Springs, OK, home of the 17-year old Michael Shackleford. Shackelford was previously the subject of Hull's article about being gay in small-town Middle America. After reading this earlier story, Fred Phelps and his coterie came to Sand Springs to demonstrate, armed with signs saying, "Fags are Worthy of Death," "Fags Doom Nation," and other charming slogans.
Shackleford's mother and pastor, convinced that homosexuality is a sin, were intent on "saving" him. His church's sign said, "I hate the sin but love the sinner--God." If this message was directed at Michael Shackleford, it suggested a lack of tolerance. Michael Shackelford's community fundamentally disagrees with me and my community about the young man's nature and its moral significance. They think his soul needs "saving"; I think he's fine just as he is. There is a cultural divide in America.
However, Phelps was enraged by the church's sign and told the Post, "It's a play on words, the sin and the sinner. You can't separate the two. There are some people in this world who are made to be destroyed." Michael Shackleford's neighbors knew that this was wrong. They knew it instinctively and passionately--not because they are liberal (although they are actually very liberal, by global and historical standards), but because they are Christian.
A truck driver shouted at Phelps, "Let he who cast the first stone ..." A "burly man with a crew-cut" approached Shackleford in church and gave him a thumbs-up. Another congregant (holding his Bible) told Shackleford, "Man, you be who you are. We got your back." His mother let him go to Washington for a Human Rights Campaign dinner. There, he visited a gay bookstore to buy a book for her, a book "on being a Christian parent of a gay child."
There is deep moral disagreement in America. I passionately believe that the other side is wrong and doing harm, maybe even contributing to the suicide and murder of gay kids. However, there is also a great deal of commonality--and flexibility. Michael Shackelford's mom, for instance, hopes that her son will be "saved" from homosexuality, but supports his educational journey to the alien big city. She is a better citizen than a liberal who forms hostile opinions of American fundamentalist Protestantism without actually listening to any fundamentalists.
November 12, 2004
to Penn State
I'm on my way to Penn State University this morning for a "National Public Scholarship Conversation." We'll be talking about ways to conduct what Harry Boyte would call "public work" in a land-grant, state university. When scholars do public work they somehow collaborate with fellow citizens to generate ideas and information of public value. We'll also consider "the university's role in the development of democratic principle and practice" among students. I know and admire many of the participants, and the moderator will be NPR's David Brancaccio. So this should be fun.
November 11, 2004
the "ideas" we need most
There are now several standard views about how progressives should recover from the 2004 election. One approach is to develop "new ideas." That phrase, however, can mean various things, from innovative policy proposals to grand rhetorical statements that might unify the standard laundry list of progressive policies. James Carville and Bob Shrum are seeking a progressive "narrative" to counter the dominant conservative story about America. That sounds like a good thing to me, but I don't believe it will be credible unless progressive candidates can also explain exactly how they will implement their vision. Policy ideas are indispensable.
Let me suggest, however, that we don’t need proposals as much as models. A proposal is something that a professor, a think-tanker, a Member of Congress or a congressional staffer, or a columnist might invent on the way to work. It’s an “idea” in the basic sense. Examples include auctioning the broadcast spectrum to pay for free online material, giving all high school graduates cash, or (from the other side of the aisle) privatizing Social Security. Such ideas can make a difference, although it’s relatively hard to think of progressive proposals that have actually come to pass and achieved their intended goals. I think it’s easier to implement libertarian proposals, because ideas like privatizing or tax-cutting don’t require new institutions or cultural changes. Much more than ideas are needed to create institutions and change cultures.
Indeed, all the great moments of American progressivism have occurred when national leaders have “scaled up” concrete experiments that had first developed at the local or state level. In other words, they haven’t relied on proposals as much as real-life models. For instance, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to interpret the New Deal as the New York State welfare system writ large; and New York State had built its system by expanding settlement house programs that had been pioneered earlier by the likes of Mary Simkhovitch at Greenwich House on the Lower East Side. Simkhovitch and her colleagues had ideas, but they also had concrete experiences.
Greenwich House (like Hull-House in Chicago, or like a good charter school today) was a problem-solving institution embedded in a cultural and social context. It was much more complex than any idea that could be written on a chalkboard. It couldn’t be replicated automatically in other places. Any persuasive analysis of why it was successful would be a long story about many individuals and their overlapping and conflicting goals. But even if Greenwich House couldn’t be cloned and distributed to other communities, it did serve as an inspirational model, an opportunity to develop leaders and learn relatively general lessons, and a node in a politically powerful network. Whereas ideas cannot implement themselves, institutions can grow and spread.
Building experimental institutions is a much slower process than dreaming up new proposals. In the short-term, clever ideas would probably help progressives to win elections. But we don’t have ideas that can actually tackle our deepest problems, such as the lack of satisfactory jobs for high school graduates, our awful incarceration rate, global warming, or the "Red State"/"Blue State" cultural divide. If national policies are to address such problems, they must be built on concrete experiences and networks of citizens. That’s why I think that short-term electoral defeats—and victories—are much less important than most people believe. Long-term, patient, self-critical, participatory experimentation is the road to progressive revival.
The purpose of politics is to address problems, not to win elections. George W. Bush is likely to make some problems worse. Above all, he is likely to undermine further the fiscal condition of the federal government. But John Kerry had no plan or possible mandate to solve our deepest problems. So let's keep our eyes on the real target and not allow ourselves to be distracted by what happened last Tuesday.
November 10, 2004
the youth vote: a final thought
I know I'm in danger of beating a dead horse here, but I have to make one more point about youth turnout. John Kerry would have lost the popular vote even if every single citizen between the ages of 18 and 29 had voted--a completely unreasonable expectation. Assume that all 40.7 million under-30s had participated, and they had voted in the same proportions that actual young voters did last week: i.e., 54% for Kerry vs. 44% for Bush. Then John Kerry would have received a boost of 1,927,000 votes, net. (There would have been roughly 10.4 million more votes for Kerry, but also approximately 8.47 million more for Bush.) In reality, the Democratic ticket lost the popular vote by 3,510,358. Therefore, even with 100% turnout among the 18-29s, Kerry would have lost the election by 1.58 million votes.
Moral: youth turnout wasn't the problem for Democrats. They lost because Americans preferred the Republican ticket in '04.
November 9, 2004
latest on the youth vote
We've had a wild week at CIRCLE. Many early news stories claimed that youth turnout was 17% (for under-30s) or 10% (for under-25s). Many reporters and pundits (especially on TV) concluded that just one in ten young people had participated. Academic experts were fed that number and asked to comment; they opined sagely about the fecklessness of youth. In fact, these statistics represent young people's share of the electorate. Turnout--which means the percentage of young citizens who voted--was 52% for under 30s and 42.3% for under 25s. In other words, more than half of people under the age of 30 voted, reversing more than 12 years of decline and surpassing all reasonable expectations. Their share was unchanged from 2000 because all age groups voted at higher rates, although the change for young people was proportionately higher (the same percentage-point change on a smaller base).
We struggled hard to change the dominant news story, and began to succeed by the end of the week. Just for instance, I'm quoted in today's Washington Post as part of a positive and accurate story. Meanwhile, we have been able to conduct more fine-grained analysis. According to a fact sheet that we released this morning (see pdf):
There are still people saying that Kerry lost because young people didn't turn out for him. For instance, Bob Herbert speculates that the Democrats would have won if "those younger voters had actually voted. ..." We are a nonpartisan organization, and our concern is youth participation, not helping Democrats. However, I would say this to the Dems: 1) Young people did turn out. 2) They chose Kerry by a fairly narrow margin, as everyone's pre-election polling had predicted. After all, they are politically diverse. 3) All older groups preferred Bush. So blaming young people for failing to vote just won't wash.
November 8, 2004
the commons and economic equality
To what extent would a strong defense of the "knowledge commons" or the "public domain" increase economic equality? Some libertarians are enthusiastic proponents of the commons, so there could be an interesting coalition of left-liberals plus libertarians for the public domain, if it turned out that free knowledge helps the poor. This could be a global coalition, since information that is free is free for everybody.
Today's population has a gigantic advantage over our predecessors. We are able to produce many times more real value per hour of work than ever before. The main reason is a set of discoveries and inventions bequeathed to us by human beings from the past. Since we did not achieve these advances ourselves, we ought to share their fruits. However, even though most of our wealth and income is a result of inherited knowledge, it is held by a small minority of the population. One percent of Americans own 40% of the nation's wealth; and the world's richest 200 individuals own $1 trillion worth of stuff, roughly the same as the poorest 500 million people put together (pdf).
Why do some people benefit from accumulated knowledge so much more than others? I see three explanations, which are not mutually exclusive:
1) To make money from knowledge, you must have it in your head. Thus education is crucial for wealth-generation in today's knowledge economy. In order to increase economic equality, we need to improve the education of less advantaged people--paying attention not only to their schools, but to their whole environments. This is very difficult to do. Money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
2) To make money from knowledge, you must own equipment or organizations that embody knowledge: factories, firms, computers. It doesn't even matter what you know, if you are lucky enough to inherit a substantial share of a profitable firm. To the extent that this is true, there is nothing especially new about the "knowledge economy." People still need real property that generates wealth for them--but now the best objects to own are computers and supply chains instead of cattle and acres of land.
3) To make money from knowledge, you must have effective access to it. You must be able to walk into a library or museum or log onto the Internet, find answers to your questions, and create new inventions or artistic expressions based on what you've found. To the extent that this is true, we need a very robust "public domain" consisting of free information. In order to "incentivize" new creativity, we must allow people to monopolize their own inventions for limited periods, so that they can profit from what they have made. But as quickly as economic efficiency permits, their ideas should become public.
If (3) is important, then the obstacles to equality include corporate efforts to extend copyright backwards, to patent business methods and software, and to block the use of legitimate public-domain works by shutting down networks for the sharing of files. Government secrecy is another problem, as is the patenting of government-financed research results. Still another problem is the poor condition and funding of libraries and museums. But there are also great opportunities, such as the Internet itself and open-source software.
The most radical libertarian/egalitarian program would involve: relaxing legal controls on intellectual property; abolishing all ownership and control of the broadcast spectrum and allowing people to share it freely with an Internet-style wireless communications system (Yochai Benkler's proposal); and relaxing or even abolishing professional monopolies. Instead of requiring people to attend medical school and hold licenses to practice medicine, we could create "distributed" systems for evaluating people who provided various forms and aspects of medical care.
November 5, 2004
the "People's House"
Until 1913, with the passage of the 17th Amendment, Senators were selected by state legislatures. Since there was widespread corruption and class bias in state governments, Senators tended to be millionaires or puppets of specific corporations. The House of Representatives, however, was directly elected and much more accountable. It was the "People's House."
Today, the situation is almost precisely reversed. The Senate is imperfect because its "districts"--the states--vary enormously in size. Alaska has the same number of seats as California. However, Senate races are often competitive and unpredictable; Senators must pay attention to the voters or they can easily be defeated. In contrast, House districts are completely uncompetitive, thanks to the way state legislatures have drawn the maps. Indeed, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy:
The House of Representatives has reached a breathtaking level of non-competitiveness. More than 95% of seats were won by margins of more than 10%--a record. Only four incumbents outside of Texas [where the districts were redrawn] didn't win by at least 4%, and only three were defeated. The House has changed partisan control only once since 1954--and unless Republicans suffer major setbacks in the 2006 midterm election, it almost certainly won't change hands anytime soon.
In short, the House election was over many months ago, as soon as the state legislatures finished selecting who would serve. How depressing that we should have less direct democracy in the House than 100 years ago. It's time for a reform as bold as the 17th Amendment.
November 4, 2004
the election: assessment and aftermath
1) The election from a civic perspective
Viewed from a nonpartisan, little-“d” democratic perspective, this election had good points and bad ones. On the negative side, the candidates failed to discuss many of the most important issues facing the nation, from Guantanamo to urban poverty. Many of their proposals (especially Bush’s, but also Kerry’s) didn’t add up, so the public was asked to choose between two platforms that could not possibly be implemented as advertised. There were many negative, personal, and utterly irrelevant claims and messages.
On the bright side, the turnout was huge—better than any year since 1968. To get all those people to vote, the parties mobilized a huge number of volunteers at the grassroots level. There is a lot of latent political energy in that pool of people. The parties are going to be accountable to them and to the much larger base of donors who now fund politics. These activists may be more ideological and polarized than average Americans, but I think that’s OK. They are participating in democracy. (And the logic of the median-voter theorem will exert pressure on the parties to move to the center).
Furthermore, I didn’t notice racist or racially divisive rhetoric. I may have missed it—in which case, please tell me. However, I think Republicans mobilized conservative whites not by appealing to racist motives but by stressing social issues on which many African Americans also hold conservative values. This doesn’t mean that our political leaders have suddenly become enlightened about race or that the second Bush administration will be good for African Americans. It does mean that society has become relatively less racist, to the extent that it now pays to court Black voters rather than use racist rhetoric to drive up white turnout. And that’s a good sign.
2) The election from a progressive perspective
From a progressive perspective, the election was a disaster. An incumbent with a truly weak record and low approval ratings won the popular vote by a healthy margin. I did not predict the outcome; I thought it would be close and Kerry had better odds of winning. However, I have been worried since last winter that Democrats were not interested in developing a positive agenda, consisting of a set of policy proposals united by a broad philosophy of some kind. Instead, they seemed content to attack George Bush. If John Kerry had been elected president, he would have been the first progressive president in American history to have won simply because the previous incumbent messed up. No one would have known what he stood for.
Very soon, an angry debate will begin as segments of the Democratic Party and progressive organizations fight about who’s at fault and how to proceed. Here’s my advice:
No excuses. The Republicans didn’t outspend the Democrats by much. They weren’t bailed out by the Electoral College or voting irregularities. They didn’t win because Democrats stayed home. In fact, they didn’t get many lucky breaks at all. Conceivably, the news media helped them a bit, but overall the reporting was damaging—not deliberately biased against the Republicans, but full of embarrassing and troubling stories about the administration and its policies. So the Republicans won by putting forward a more appealing package of candidates and policies than the Democrats did. The only way for Democrats to win in '06 and '08 is to improve their package, starting with policies.
Don’t root against America. It’s going to be very tempting to hope for defeat in Iraq and serious economic problems, such as a balance-of-payment crisis. But it’s wrong to hope for the country to suffer, and people can smell that hope from far away. Besides, Democrats need to win by articulating a positive vision. If they count on Bush to fail, they will not have the discipline to develop an agenda of their own.
Ideological “positioning” isn’t the issue. Moderates will say that Democrats need to move to the right to pick up middle-of-the-road voters. Liberals will say that the Party needs to move left to provide a clearer alternative. Sometimes, this debate is useful. Not this time. Neither moderates nor liberals have compelling lists of great policy ideas that hang together coherently. What we need are good proposals; we can then combine the liberal ones with the moderate ones, or choose among them on an issue-by-issue basis.
November 3, 2004
youth turnout was huge
Starting with an AP story late last night and blog posts by Daily Kos and Josh Marshall [but see below for his change of mind], the story has been going around that youth didn't turn out. Some are saying that Kerry lost because the youth vote failed to materialize. This is flatly false--and offensive. From CIRCLE's release:
Youth Turnout Up Sharply in 2004
Many more young people cast votes yesterday than in 2000, and a far higher proportion of young people voted. Youth turnout was especially strong in contested, “battleground” states.
According to final national exit polls and an early tally of votes cast, at least 20.9 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in 2004, an increase of 4.6 million compared to 2000. (The 20.9 million figure will increase as more ballots are tallied.) The percentage of eligible young people who voted also increased, from about 42.3% to approximately 51.6% yesterday. This percentage is the turnout rate, and it is up sharply—by 9.3 percentage points—since 2000.
“This is phenomenal. It represents the highest youth turnout in more than a decade, 4 percentage points higher than the previous peak year of 1992,” said CIRCLE Director William A. Galston.
Because young people participated in considerably larger numbers than they had in the past, they kept pace with the higher turnout of Americans of all ages. Voters under the age of 30 constituted the same proportion of all voters as they did in 2000 (about 18%) even as overall voting increased.
Young people voted at a much higher rate in contested, “battleground” states. In the ten most contested states, youth turnout was 64%, up 13 percentage points from 2000. In the battleground states, the youth share of the electorate was 19%. In the remaining 40 states and the District of Columbia, youth turnout was 47% and the youth share of the electorate was 18%. One explanation for the higher rates of participation in the battleground states is that there was greater voter outreach and political advertising in these states. Current research shows that youth participate when they are asked to do so.
Young people chose the Democratic ticket of Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards over Republicans George W. Bush and Dick Cheney by a 54%-44% margin, according to national exit polls. They were the only age group to prefer the Democrats.
Update: Josh Marshall has graciously corrected his criticism of youth (possibly because I emailed him late last night, although others probably contacted him too.)
November 2, 2004
I'm as distracted as anyone else by the looming decision. We waited more than an hour to vote and met some of the local candidates while we ate school bake-sale muffins. It's inspiring to be part of that long virtual line of citizens that's snaking across America. My five-year-old thinks that it's time for John Kerry to have a turn at being president, if he wants to do it. I'll bet hers is the consensus view in the 3-8 age cohort (an overlooked demographic). They don't believe in giving anyone two turns in a row if someone else wants to "go."
Meanwhile, CIRCLE will calculate the youth turnout rate as soon as possible--probably very late tonight. Check in with us if you're dying to know whether the 18-29s participate.
November 1, 2004
[On the plane returning from the American Library Association meeting in California]. The American Library Association (ALA) is committed to protect and expand the "public domain" or "knowledge commons"—that vast and growing heritage of information, ideas, and culture that has traditionally been free, but that is now threatened with excessive control as companies try to copyright old material, patent new software, and develop technology to block the lending and sharing of ideas. The public domain is a classic example of a public good—it benefits everyone to a fairly small and intangible degree, but a few special interests benefit much more from controlling it. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to mobilize a mass constituency to preserve it.
The same could be said of most causes I work on, especially political/electoral reform, civic renewal, and civic education. Since the 1970s, the progressive national organizations have developed a toolkit for mobilizing people in favor of these public goods—and other ones, such as environmental protection. Their classic tools include: boiling down a complex message into a short slogan or statement, testing that statement in focus groups, advertising it, finding celebrities to endorse it, persuading allied groups to promote it, identifying cases and examples that boldly illustrate it, attacking enemies who oppose it, incorporating it into school curricula, and scaring people into thinking that it's a crucial cause. At a more practical and operational level, their toolkit includes mass mailings to raise funds, grants from foundations, mini-research reports, conferences, websites, bumper-stickers, news alerts, and lobbyists.
I have ethical objections to this approach; I find it manipulative and often arrogant (because the promoters of a message assume that they know the truth about their issue). But even if my ethical qualms are overly squeamish, there is another problem with the standard progressive toolkit: it no longer works. True, the environmental movement used all the tools I've mentioned and succeeded in changing Americans' thinking and public policy. But we have only so much attention and time, and environmentalists now occupy a big piece of it. There is less room for other public interests.
An alternative strategy is to encourage and organize ordinary people to experience public good directly and creatively. For example, the base of the environmental movement consists of people who know and love nature from personal experience. The base of the movement for better civic education is social studies teachers. Likewise, we need to get people organized to enjoy—and contribute to—the public domain of knowledge and information. If we are successful, people will not have to be mobilized, but will seek out a "message" and a "policy agenda" from groups like the ALA. They will have enough direct experience that they will be able to analyze and criticize this message and agenda; thus the national organizations will be accountable to them. If people at the grassroots accept the message, then they will be motivated, knowledgeable, and organized enough to promote it effectively.
This strategy depends upon institutions with deep roots in communities. Libraries are perfect examples. That is why I (as a non-librarian) am interested enough in the ALA to have attended several meetings. It is also why I would be disappointed if the ALA put its scarce resources into "messaging" instead of organizing people to create public goods in libraries.
Update: Brad Rourke made a similar argument in the Christian Science Monitor recently. And be sure to check out Harry Boyte's comment on this post. Frederick Emrich has an interesting and persuasive reply to this post.