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October 31, 2005


Autumn, at least in cultures influenced by Europe, is supposed to be the final season in the annual cycle, an elegaic time in which we savor the last warmth and last color before winter's death and spring's rebirth. If fall has any advantage, it is only Shelley's "deep, autumnal tone / Sweet though in sadness."

But not for me. I think of fall as the first season, the time of rebirth and renewal, when the annual cycle starts anew with its fresh faces, when careers (academic, judicial, athletic, and political) are launched, and when the sticky mid-Atlantic heat finally dissipates so that we can venture out of air conditioning, quicken our pace, clear our heads.

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October 28, 2005

Rosa Parks: two thoughts

1. Until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation systems in the South bolstered white supremacy through de jure segregation. Today, Montgomery runs 16 integrated buses, but the larger Alabama city of Birmingham has no public transportation system at all. Those facts exemplify a more general trend. In the 1950s, we had a fairly robust public sector and substantial economic equality, although African Americans were excluded and, in institutions like the Alabama bus systems, flagrantly denigrated by the state itself. Today the government is mostly careful not to discriminate on the basis of race. But it provides totally inadequate public goods for everyone.

2. The following is pretty well known but bears repeating: Rosa Parks was not just a nice lady who was tired one day and suddenly refused to give up her seat. She was also a skilled activist for social justice. The evening that she defied Jim Crow, she was on her way home to mail materials about the local NAACP election. Membership in an Alabama chapter of the NAACP was a radical step that required physical courage. Moreover, Parks had gone to the Highlander Folk School to study nonviolent social change with an interracial group. Highlander was then directed by Miles Horton, a great radical American who, as Nick Longo shows (pdf), was a direct disciple of Jane Addams. Addams, in turn, had learned politics from her father, an associate of Abe Lincoln. Parks' political lineage could equally well be traced back to W.E.B DuBois and the other founders of the NAACP.

Dr. King said that Rosa Parks provided a good example for the desegregration struggle because she was recognized as "one of the finest citizens of Montgomery--not one of the finest Negro citizens--but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery." It is important to notice what "citizen" meant in this case. Parks was not just a volunteer, a member of civic associations, and someone who wanted to vote. She was a self-conscious and sophisticated political activist who belonged to a powerful political network with a long history. Thus the story of Rosa Parks is not only about individual acts of courage and principle; it is also about organization, theory, and tradition.

[In an earlier version of this post, I implied that Rosa Parks' civil disobedience occurred in Birmingham, which is not the case.]

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October 27, 2005

criminalizing policy

I don't know how many people agree with the following letter in yesterday's New York Times, but it expresses just the view that worries me most right now:

This investigation [of the Plame case] is not simply about the disclosure of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. operative or politics as usual. It involves the lies and deceit of an administration in taking this country into a war of incredibly stupid proportions in which the mainstream media, including your newspaper, played an important role.

The writer wants to make the criminal investigation of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby (and perhaps others) into a literal prosecution of the Bush Administration for its conduct in the Iraq war. Of course, I realize that the invasion was an enormously consequential decision: consider the 2,000 American dead and the more than 25,000 dead Iraqi civilians. At least in retrospect, it looks like a terrible choice. I also realize that the administration was dishonest in the prewar argument. However, politics is generally a serious business. Whether we provide military aid to Colombia, whether we permit or ban abortion, whether we prohibit or legalize cocaine, even where we set Medicaid reimbursement levels--these are decisions with life-and-death consequences. Moreover, participants in these debates quite routinely lie. It is crucial that we handle even the most consequential (and even the worst) of these decisions democratically, by arguing for one side and trying to mobilize popular opinion. Bringing criminal charges is a way of evading the democratic process.

Furthermore, I reject the diagnosis that we had a poorly informed national deliberation about whether to invade Iraq because some administration officials resorted to malicious leaks and general dishonesty. That's true, but it's far from the whole story. Even given the advantages that an incumbent administration holds in debates about foreign policy, the Bush team could have been challenged by the Pentagon, Congress, the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton and alumni of his administration, the Blair Government, academic experts, the press, and average citizens. The failure of almost all these groups to mount a challenge is evidence that we have a deep and widespread problem. Prosecuting people in the Plame case will do nothing to fix it.

I am not arguing that Patrick Fitzgerald should refrain from indicting anyone. He may conclude that laws were broken, and then the rule of law requires accountability. What I object to is the interpretation that the Plame investigation has put the Bush administration on trial for the whole Iraq war. That would be a dangerously undemocratic development--not to mention an excellent way for everyone else to dodge responsibility.

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October 26, 2005

deliberative democracy in the Wikipedia

Most readers of a blog will know what the Wikipedia is. For those who don't, it's an extraordinary encyclopedia whose entries are written by anyone who wants to participate. There are no editors--just peer editing by the millions of people who visit. The quality is quite high and it's a model of a certain kind of deliberation.

Until this weekend, the Wikipedia's entry on "deliberative democracy" contained this paragraph:

It is usually associated with left-wing politics and often recognizes a conflict of interest between the citizen participating, those affected or victimized by the process being undertaken, and the group-entity that organizes the decision. Thus it usually involves an extensive outreach effort to include marginalized, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results. In this form it is a complete theory of civics.

The Green Party of the United States refers to its particular proposals for grassroots democracy and electoral reform by this name.

I disagree with this slant on deliberation and consider it potentially damaging. In fact, I've heard of a situation in Oklahoma in which some people were trying to organize a deliberative event and encountered opposition from residents who had Googled "deliberative democracy" and found the paragraphs quoted above about left-wingers and Greens. Therefore, I added the following to the Wiki entry:

On the other hand, many practitioners of deliberative democracy attempt to be as neutral and open-ended as possible, inviting (or even randomly selecting) people who represent a wide range of views and providing them with balanced materials to guide their discussions. Examples include National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polls, and the 21st-Century Town meetings convened by AmericaSPEAKS, among others. In these cases, deliberative democracy is not connected to left-wing politics but is intended to create a conversation among people of different philosophies and beliefs.

This was my first foray into the Wikipedia, and I decided to be respectful of the existing text. If you think the page should be written differently, click over there and edit away.

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October 25, 2005

walking backwards

Ever since I was about eight years old, my routine has always included frequent walks. Even now, my daily commute involves about 50 minutes of walking as well as a Metro ride. The time that I spend alone on the sidewalks of Washington and Maryland seems continuous with the walks that I started as early as 1975. Personal identity is nothing but a story we tell ourselves; we select a few instances from the countless events of our past and make them definitive of an "I" that is, in reality, less distinctive, consistent, and separate from its context than we like to believe. As I tell myself a story about my self, I can find no deeper continuity than the series of walks I have taken since childhood and the meandering thoughts that have accompanied them.

As I grew up, my family mainly alternated between Syracuse, NY and London. I think I first walked alone frequently in Syracuse, going to school (often with friends but sometimes on my own) or strolling in the neighborhood. And what did I think about as I walked on those steep sidewalks cracked by old roots, past hippy group houses or the Arts-and-Crafts bungalows of faculty families--or between high heaps of dog-stained Syracuse snow? Mostly fantasies of adventure, I think. I also puzzled through questions of history and politics, addressing that silent inner student whom I suspect we all use as our primary audience.

One of our periods London began in June 1975 and ended in August 1976, if my calculations are correct. I turned nine that winter, and we lived in a Regency row house in South Kensington (which would now be as far out of my family's reach as Buckingham Palace; rents have risen). I was allowed to take excursions on my own to certain approved destinations. For instance, I could walk to South Kensington Station, descend into an old tunnel that connects it to the Natural History Museum, emerge in the Museum, and spend hours looking at musty specimens and obeying a self-imposed rule to read every label. Or I could walk to an Indian gift shop that smelled of incense and stocked objects like fans and candles that I could afford for family birthday presents.

We were back in London frequently; I especially recall the long walks I used to take through Westminster when I was 12 and 13, and the days during graduate school when I would ride the bus from Oxford to London's West End and then make my way on foot all the way to the Docklands of the east. Once, in Jack-the-Ripper's old neighborhood--subsequently flattened to build Stalinist public housing and recently gentrified--an ancient Cockney lady with a beard stopped me and said, "Enjoy yer life, son. You're still young."

Although nowadays few middle class parents would allow their kids to go far alone in New York City, back in the more dangerous 1970s I used to spend vacation days wandering from my great-aunt's apartment in Greenwich Village to midtown to meet a parent at a museum or book store.

In the spring of 1984, when I was finishing high school, my family spent the semester in Florence and I enrolled in the Syracuse University Program there. Since the city is magnificent--and since I had a limited social life as the only high-school student in a program for college juniors--I used to walk constantly. I got to know the narrow stone streets intimately. My favorite walk wound from our neighborhood north of Santa Croce across the Arno and then up the steep hill to San Minato al Monte, from which there is a sweeping view. For my courses, I was reading and thinking about Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Erwin Panofsky, and Jan Huizinga; they all remain extremely interesting to me today.

Later, as a young adult in Washington, I used to walk occasionally across the Potomac and up into Arlington Cemetery. Although the souls of Washington and Florence are vastly different, there is a strange similarity in their basic layouts: the Capitol stands in for the Duomo, the Washington Monument for the Bargello, and the Old Post Office for the Palazzo Vecchio. Certainly, my unconscious mind has confused them; I frequently dream that I am walking across Florence and find myself in Arlington, or vice-versa.

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October 24, 2005

Justice O'Connor

At last week's Steering Committee meeting of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, we were honored by a visit from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. I don't want to quote the Justice verbatim, because I'm not sure if what she said was meant to be on the record. However, she spoke eloquently about the importance of civic education and youth civic engagement.

Several members of the Steering Committee argued for an experiential approach to civics. They said that we should help young people to play significant roles in their communities right now, and not wait until they become adults. The Justice seemed very supportive and even recalled her own experience in high school. She said that she was afraid and alienated there until she became part of extracurricular organizations.

She stayed with us for more than 90 minutes and asked probing questions. She was much gentler than she might be in oral argument at the Supreme Court, but much tougher and more acute than one would expect from a mere courtesy visit. She wanted to know what was working and what chance we had of succeeding with our advocacy campaign if we employed various strategies. I think she's completely serious about this topic and ready to add her very powerful voice to the movement for youth civic engagement.

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October 21, 2005

a new map of civic renewal

Several times before, I have made "maps" of the civic renewal movement, using software to diagram the links among websites in the civic field. (See this effort and then this one.) Web links are not reliable evidence of collaboration. However, people create links because they consider another site interesting or important, and that means something. Network-mapping software starts with a short list of sites that you provide as examples of a field or movement. The software analyzes web links among those sites and clusters them together depending on how closely they are interlinked. It also finds other sites that have many links to the ones you started with, and adds them to the map. By examining the final product, you can draw some inferences about what organizations belong in a field, which ones are central or peripheral, and where gaps exist.

I previously used TouchGraph's GoogleBrowser, which is cool and easy. This week, however, I tried again with IssueCrawler from the Govcom.org Foundation in Amsterdam. IssueCrawler is more sophisticated and flexible. After "crawling" hundreds of linked sites, it generated a cluster map of civic renewal and a circle map of civic renewal. The cluster map is best for showing which organizations are central. The circle map shows the density of links within the network: a very dense community would look like a ball of thread. (Note: You may need to install a browser plug-in to view these .svg files: you can get it here.)

Overall, the cluster map shows a set of youth engagement and volunteering organizations that are linked, on one side, to foundations (which fund them) and on the other to government agencies (because they link to official information and interact with the state). A few commercial news sites also appear.

Alas, I forgot to save a list of my initial nodes. However, I'm sure that I started with sites that represented deliberative democracy, community economic development, civic education, and voluntary service. Among the good sites that disappeared from the analysis were the Civic Practices Network and the Pew Partnership for Civic Change. This doesn't show that these sites are unimportant; only that they don't connect to the world of civic education and community service that the computer decided was central.

I'm not terribly impressed by the product of this particular IssueCrawler search, although it may show that the civic renewal field is less unified than I had previously thought. If the maps mean anything, they indicate that the world of youth civic education and service is unconnected to deliberative democracy and community development--and that would be bad news if true. In any case, the software is useful and powerful, and I want to learn to use it better.

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October 20, 2005

network organizations

Today and yesterday, I'm participating in steering committee meetings ofthe Deliberative Democracy Consortium. Tomorrow, I'll be chairing the steering committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. I also participate in three or four other organizations that have similar forms. They all have small paid staffs that are funded by grants from foundations. Individuals and ex officio representatives of nonprofit groups serve on their steering committees and do quite a lot of the work, on a voluntary basis.

I love this kind of organization and donate, I suppose, thousands of hours per year to them in the aggregate. They have great potential. They also face some characteristic challenges, including:

  • competition for limited funds between the staff of each network organization and its various members

  • unclear lines of authority, since the staff are accountable to the funders, but they are also expected to be "steered" by their steering committees

  • unequal and sometimes sporadic contributions of voluntary effort from steering committee members

  • a tradeoff between trying to create a "big tent" and pursuing a focused agenda
  • A combination of these challenges has made the National Alliance for Civic Education, which I helped to found, basically moribund. The groups I'm meeting with this week are in pretty good shape, as are Imagining America and the umbrella organizations in service-learning. All these organizations need to learn how to use new technologies to get more people involved in doing their work; and they all need to expand their revenue sources so as to diminish competition for funds. But it may be that the challenges that these groups face are perennial, and that's why civil society is constantly "churning"--generating new networks while others fall apart.

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    October 19, 2005

    New Orleans: a youth-led rebuilding project

    At CIRCLE, we plan to fund some young New Orleanians who were displaced by Katrina to conduct research on the experience of the disaster. The youth we're working with happen to have been homeless before the storm, so their perspective will be interesting. Meanwhile, I have received the following appeal by email. Knowing some of the people involved, I believe I can disseminate it in confidence:

    Amid all the confusion in New Orleans, inspiring grassroots projects are taking shape. One inspiring example is the work of students at Frederick Douglass High School who are rebuilding the social fabric of their community in the low-income 9th Ward. A group called Students at the Center, originally a creative writing program based at Frederick Douglass High, a predominately African American school, has dedicated itself to rebuilding their inner-city school and neighborhood.

    A core group of these Frederick Douglass students, teachers, artists, and parents currently displaced across the country has stayed in communication, and wants to meet face to face in New Orleans so they can assess the damage and plan their next steps to save their community. It is our goal to raise $10,000 to enable 15 to 20 of them to reconnect November 11-13.

    "The people of New Orleans will make the decision" of which schools to rebuild or abandon, according to Education Superintendent Cecil Picard ("New Orleans Public School Enrollment May Be Halved," Times-Picayune, 10/13/05). If the families at Douglass High are to have a voice in these decisions, they need your support now. This is a poor neighborhoods without political clout or the resources to travel.

    Please contribute $25, $50, $1,000, whatever you can, either by check (see below) or by PayPal on the New Village Press website One hundred percent of your donation (we will pay for PayPal processing) will go directly to airfare, ground transportation, food and lodging for the 3-day gathering. Make checks payable to New Village and designate it for Rebuilding New Orleans Community. We'll keep donors informed about the progress of this project.

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    October 18, 2005

    on overestimating the impact of the press

    Paul Krugman wrote in last Friday's New York Times:

    Many people in the news media do claim, at least implicitly, to be experts at discerning character -- and their judgments play a large, sometimes decisive role in our political life. The 2000 election would have ended in a chad-proof victory for Al Gore if many reporters hadn't taken a dislike to Mr. Gore, while portraying Mr. Bush as an honest, likable guy. The 2004 election was largely decided by the image of Mr. Bush as a strong, effective leader. (Article now available by subscription only.)

    Many people on both the left and right agree with Krugman's causal hypothesis. They assume that journalists have some choice about how to portray the characters of politicians, and their choices affect voting decisions. It is because people buy this theory that they expend enormous energy looking for bias in the major news media and trying to influence mainstream coverage. A belief in the power of journalists' implicit judgments raises the temperature; it encourages people to be highly critical readers who focus on the "spin" in news stories.

    Of course there must be something to the theory. (And the 2000 election was so close that anything could have changed the outcome, including a rain storm or fewer earth tones in Al Gore's wardrobe.) However, I believe the importance of journalists' implicit character judgments is often overstated. Most surveys find that average voters are quite inattentive to the news, to start with. News coverage is always diverse, even when there seems to be an overall tilt like the one that Krugman detects in 2000. Moreover, the spirit of news coverage is not completely under the control of journalists. Al Gore, for example, had some potential influence on the way Al Gore was covered in 2000; this wasn't simply a discretionary call by reporters.

    Finally, we can almost always explain a presidential election as a result of economic indicators, leaving news coverage aside. Larry Bartels has argued that 2000, like most US national elections, was determined by the change in disposable per capita personal income (dpi) over the twelve months prior to the election. It follows that Al Gore would have won in 2000 if the Clinton administration had decided to cut taxes, thereby raising people's dpi. Instead, they decided to pay down the national debt, thereby increasing the odds that Bush would win. If anything, it is surprising that Gore got more popular votes than Bush.

    If I'm troubled by anything, it's not anti-Gore (or pro-Bush) spin, but rather the way that our democratic system seems to reward borrowing and punish fiscal responsibility. By the way, Bush's popularity until now may have a lot to do with the billions he has borrowed and spent.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:44 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 17, 2005

    Karl Rove and the first amendment

    Some time ago, I wrote a post entitled "Why I Don't Care About Karl Rove" that provoked passionate criticism on a few other sites. I was concerned about all the excitement that the Plame investigation was causing on the left, because I thought the scandal was a distraction. The Bush administration is on its way out, and the only thing that matters now is the national debate about issues and ideologies.

    The problem with the administration has always been its overt priorities and decisions, not the secret behavior of key players. If Rove is convicted of a crime, that will have little effect on the future of politics, because he and his chief client will not be on the ballot in '06 or '08. I doubt very much that voters will draw the conclusion that Republicans are law-breakers. They have plenty of experience with Democrats who have been convicted of more mainstream crimes. Instead, they will be reminded that politics is a hard-ball game played by crafty Washington professionals that has little to do with ideas and makes little room for citizens.

    Those were the important points, but I realize that I have another qualm about the Plame investigation. If Karl Rove did identify Valerie Plame to reporters, then he shared information with the press. Our presumption should always be that such speech is protected by the First Amendment. It is precisely when we despise the speaker and his motives that we should be most careful about constitutional rights.

    There is a law ("section 421") against revealing the name of a covert CIA agent "when the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." I guess this law is constitutional. However, I'm not sure I like it; I'm not sure I like any law that is very little known and hardly ever enforced, especially if it prohibits the release of true information to the public. If the statute is enforced in this case, then it must apply to everyone who leaks the names of covert agents--not just political operatives like Karl Rove, but also patriots who want the press to know that the CIA is involved in bad behavior. If the Special Prosecutor ignores section 421 and instead uses a broad conspiracy or espionage charge, then we should be even more concerned about an expansion of state power and new restraints on the press.

    William Kristol seems to think that Democrats are deliberately trying to criminalize conservative leaders, as shown by the ongoing investigations of Frist, DeLay, Rove and others. I don't see how that can be true, since several of the investigations are controlled by Republican appointees or civil servants working in the Bush administration. Harry Brighouse has a simpler answer: Lots of criminal investigations are underway "because there seems to be prima facie evidence that prominent conservative Republicans were up to their eyes in criminal activities."

    My thought: People who are under investigation are innocent until proven guilty. The political consequences of any convictions would probably be bad for Bush, although they might provoke a backlash favorable to his interests. In any case, it is crucial not to focus on the short-term political consequences for any person or party, but rather on justice and the long-term consequences for law and our political culture. To be sure, failing to investigate people like Rove, Libby, Frist, and DeLay could create a culture of impunity. On the other hand, targeting politicians for prosecution can be just as damaging, if it makes public service appear dangerous, if it convinces the opposition party to rely on criminal convictions rather than arguments about policy, or if it causes us to ignore constitutional principles (as was clearly the case in the Ken Starr investigation). Rove has done "collateral damage" to American political culture, but that doesn't excuse prosecuting him in ways that would make matters even worse.

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    October 14, 2005

    "education for Democratic Citizenship"

    This is a speech on that I delivered in Madrid on November 4, 2005, to an audience of educators from the Spanish-speaking world.

    Thank you very much for asking me to speak. I apologize for talking in English. Perhaps you know the old joke:

    What do you call someone who knows three languages? Trilingual.
    What do you call someone who knows two languages? Bilingual.
    What do you call someone who knows one language? American.

    As it happens, I am not monolingual, but unfortunately I have not yet learned Spanish. I hope to begin studying it within the next few years. In the meantime, I am grateful to the translators for making it possible for me to speak here today.

    I want to talk about education for democracy or civic education. I will end by discussing how schools can help make adolescents into effective citizens. I will cite data from several countries, especially Mexico, the United States, Colombia, and Chile.

    "Civic education” sometimes sounds like a rather specialized or optional matter--especially at the beginning of the 21st century, when we are desperately trying to make all our students competitive in a global economy that values mathematics, science, and literacy. Under these conditions, it seems necessary to explain why civic education is not a luxury that can be considered only after we are satisfied with our children’s basic literacy. Quite the contrary--I believe that civic education is a critical component of an international struggle to sustain democracy itself.

    Half of Latin Americans believe that democracy is the best of all systems, but the percentage who hold that view has fallen in 18 of the Latin American countries since 1996. Young people have been the least likely to support democracy in these annual surveys.
    In Europe, we hear deep concerns about a "democracy deficit." The defeat of the proposed European Constitution in France and the Netherlands reflected the unpopularity--perhaps deserved--of that proposal; yet the status quo is also unpopular and relies on unaccountable institutions in Brussels.

    In the United States, many citizens are concerned about an angry and unproductive struggle between left and right, low trust in government, and restricted democratic liberties after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

    I will not call this situation a "crisis,” because that word is overused. I suspect one could find a speech from every year since 1900 in which someone declared a "crisis of democracy," and I don't want to join the list.

    However, it is right for every generation to be concerned. Democracy always faces threats and challenges; we overlook them at our peril. When the Constitution of my country was drafted in 1787, its authors emerged onto the hot streets of Philadelphia, and an onlooker named Mrs. Powel singled out Benjamin Franklin for a question. "Well, Doctor," she asked, "what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" "A Republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it." Maintaining our democracies is our responsibility, and it requires constant work.

    Many observers believe that the worst threat to democracy today is globalization and the rapid movement of capital. Elected governments have limited scope for choice if investors are free to move to the most profitable locations. When a democratic government decides to raise taxes, businesses may simply relocate. Even if you favor low taxes, you may still believe that a representative government should be free to set its own economic policies. In a competitive global marketplace, states are not free--especially not if they are deeply indebted.

    On the other hand, it is interesting that the top seventeen "most competitive nations" in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, are all robust democracies that compete by providing good public services, not by reducing the size of their governments. The US is on the list, but it is surpassed by Finland and followed by Sweden and Denmark. Thus I am not sure that globalization is necessarily bad for democracy. States seem to have the power to compete even if they govern their own economies intensively, as long as they have strong democratic systems that protect against corruption and bias.

    However, one form of global commerce creates particular problems. Increasingly, cultural products--books, movies, images, and music--move across borders and look the same everywhere. A self-governing people must be able to create its own culture; that is as important as setting its own economic policy. It is a matter of identity, and identities are threatened when everyone consumes an identical pop culture.

    My country was recently defeated in a UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. The vote was 158-1. The US government tends to look out for the economic interests of Hollywood and the publishing industry, which want free access to all national markets. However, let me suggest that it's a diagnostic mistake to see global pop culture as an American problem. Although some of the big media companies are headquartered in the US, others are located in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. In any case, the demand for their products is global, which means that the cultural problem is universal, not merely American. Besides, the United States has always been a country of great internal diversity and vibrant, creative local communities. Most of us are proud of that heritage and concerned that Big Media, wherever its corporate headquarters may be located, is taking away our voices.

    Pop culture exemplifies another problem that, I believe, deserves more attention. Usually, talented and beautiful celebrities and highly trained experts work together to create best-selling cultural products. Millions of people would like to be movie stars or recording engineers, but the market is incredibly competitive, and only a few people actually occupy those roles. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value.

    The same pattern has occurred in the fine arts (not just pop culture), and also in government and civic life. Increasingly during the 20th century, we saw public problems as technically complex and expected experts to address them. The offices of the European Union and the IMF and World Bank are full of such experts. A recent survey in Mexico found that half of recent secondary-school graduates define "democracy” as government by experts. Meanwhile, national political leaders have become charismatic celebrities, featured on the same pages with movie stars and models.

    Indeed, expertise and talent have their place, but they create a tension with democracy. In a world that values outstanding talent and specialized knowledge, most people have a limited role to play beyond that of consumer. However, people who have little direct experience in governing their own communities will not be able to select good representatives (because they won't know what it is like to make judgments and defend positions on public issues). They may have unrealistic expectations for government--either too high or too low. They may support democratic governments when times are good but prefer authoritarianism when the economic news is bad. Not having a personal stake in democracy, or much direct experience with it, they will evaluate it only for what it can deliver in the short term.

    Besides, experts don't know everything; they are subject to corruption; and they have nowhere near as much potential creativity and enthusiasm as the population at large.
    Thus vibrant and effective democracies require civic participation. To participate, one needs experience. And ordinary people can have experience only if experts and professionals leave them some space.

    We need everyone to create and distribute cultural products that collectively (although not homogeneously) define their communities. We also need ordinary people to be able to address community problems together, whether their problems are war, poverty, crime, or traffic jams. From their experience in working together at a human scale, individuals can develop the skills and passion to be effective citizens of Chile, Venezuela, the USA, or the European Union.

    I have said that we live in an era of globalization, technical expertise, and celebrity culture. The most powerful politicians (in my country and elsewhere) combine all three problems: they are celebrities, they play to global audiences, and they use an arsenal of sophisticated techniques to manipulate public opinion. Under these circumstances, it is easy to be discouraged about civic participation.

    At the same time, however, we live in an age of civic innovation, when people are creating new ways to participate, appropriate for the 21st century. As part of my job, I try to observe these innovations in the United States, but I usually find that each excellent project is part of an international network. Sometimes, the global leaders come from countries like Brazil and South Africa, relatively new democracies with extraordinary records of civic experimentation.

    The civic work that I admire most has the following features.

    First, it is open-ended. In other words, it doesn't attempt to drive people to any pre-determined views, but helps them to develop their own positions. It takes seriously the ideas and experiences that people actually have; it doesn't assume that they have been manipulated by capitalism, religion, the state, the mass media, or any other force to adopt views that they should be disabused of. In short, it is respectful--and respectful of everyone, including those traditionally left out (even teenagers). A single word for such respectful, inclusive discussion is "deliberation."

    Second, good civic work combines deliberation with action, because talk alone is frustrating. People must be able to consider an issue together, listen to one another’s ideas, and then actually do something about it.

    Third, the actions that people take are often creative. I realize that our interests sometimes clash; then we must negotiate our differences or compete for power and scare resources. Disagreement and competition are unavoidable, but they are not the whole of politics. People can also be creative together, building new institutions, increasing public assets, strengthening networks, and developing our shared culture.

    Fourth, civic work occurs at a human scale, not merely in bureaucratic national organizations or the mass media.

    And finally, civic work pays attention to young people, who must be deliberately supported and guided as they learn to participate in civic life.

    I could provide many examples of excellent civic work that takes place in communities around the world. For instance, thousands of citizens in Brazilian cities like Porto Alegre meet to allocate a percentage of their municipal budget to priorities that they set themselves--using a model that has been borrowed in other Latin American countries. Corruption is down and efficiency is up as a result of broad public participation.

    In many nations, new forms of cooperative agriculture, housing, and manufacturing are springing up and prospering. Some of these organizations are impressively competitive. For instance, the Mondragón worker cooperative network in Spain had ten billion US dollars of sales in 2003. These organizations are firmly rooted in particular geographical communities and give ordinary people plenty of opportunities to become involved.

    I could also mention numerous examples of nonprofit media that take advantage of the openness of the Internet and the cheapness of video and audio production today. It is possible to create an elaborate and impressive news channel with virtually no money, as long as one can harness the volunteer contributions of many citizens.

    However, today I want to emphasize work with young people, and especially work that can realistically be expected to take place inside fairly conventional schools. Few national ministries of education will be enthusiastic about engaging their students in creating alternative media channels or allocating government funds. These ideas are too radical. However, there is worthwhile civic work for students to do that is more palatable to the authorities.

    A mass of evidence from developmental psychology shows that what we experience during adolescence has long-term effects on our civic skills and behaviors. What a 14-year-old believes about politics is not as important as her experiences working with others on social issues. Such experiences teach skills, they generate habits, they introduce individuals into networks of people who are busy working on civic problems. Above all, they help to create an identity. People who have a habit of being civically active begin to believe that they are responsible citizens: that is their nature. Actions like voting, participating in meetings, volunteering time, collecting information, and expressing one’s views then come naturally.

    All sectors should be involved in civic education--not just teachers and schools, but also parents, religious leaders, journalists, judges, and politicians. However, schools play a crucial role.

    To an extent, all education is civic education: data consistently show that people who have had more years of schooling are more skillful and confident in political settings and more favorable toward democracy. Thus, it is critical to broaden educational attainment for all young people. In the United States, where a high school diploma is considered essential for full participation in the economy, only two-thirds of young people complete high school. Only about one half of students who identify themselves as "Latino” receive diplomas. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, less than half of the population that’s of age to be in secondary school is actually enrolled.

    While all good education has civic advantages, we should not overlook the power of programs that are deliberately designed to prepare democratic citizens. Increasingly, we understand how to make civic education work in schools. Data collected from multiple countries shows the following relationships:

    First, students who belong to clubs in the schools at age 14 or 17 are much more likely than other people to be involved in civil society--even 40 years later. These findings underline the importance of school clubs and other student organizations. Chile and Colombia are among many countries in which data show that most students belong to some kind of school group (yet many do not). Elected student governments and school newspapers may be especially valuable, but sports clubs also seem to help.

    Second, students who study government, history, or law know more about those subjects than other students. Knowledge is not sufficient by itself, but it is useful. One cannot participate very effectively in politics or civil society without a baseline of facts. Probably, those who have some political knowledge at age 17 are able to acquire more throughout their lives, because they are capable of understanding the news and participating in discussions. Those who have little knowledge at age 17 may be permanently left out.

    Third, discussions of current issues in schools give students a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communication skills, more civic knowledge, and greater interest in discussing public affairs outside of school.
    Reading the newspaper is a powerful predictor of civic engagement among young people. This relationship has been found in studies in the US, Colombia, Chile, and Portugal, among other countries. However, reading the newspaper is hard. Reporters expect their readers to have a foundation of information and skills. Therefore, it may be very worthwhile to devote time specifically to teaching young people to read a newspaper.

    By the way, students should learn to assess news critically. In Chile, only 5 percent of 14-year-olds say that they always trust the national government; but more than 25 percent always trust TV news.

    Fourth, students who have an opportunity to combine academic study with practical work on social issues sometimes develop civic skills and even change their identities so that they see themselves as active citizens. In the United States, a practice called "service-learning” is very common. Service-learning means a deliberate combination of unpaid community work (for example, helping elderly people or cleaning up a park) with academic study of the same topic. The phrase "service-learning” does not translate very well and is not used much in other countries, but many cultures have vital traditions of combining education with service.

    Fifth, students benefit if they feel they have a voice in their own schools. To have a "voice” means that school authorities will listen to you if you express opinions in a responsible way. Students who feel that they have a voice in their schools are more civically "proficient”--they understand democratic concepts better and consider themselves more likely to participate as informed voters.

    Promoting student "voice” does not mean abdicating adult responsibility or allowing kids to run a school. It does mean reducing the authoritarianism that is traditional in most countries’ educational systems, and that often makes teachers as well as students feel powerless and voiceless. Many democratic countries claim to support democratic voice in their schools. For example, a Resolution issued in Colombia in 1994 calls for all schools to operate in a democratic spirit and to include students in their Directive Councils. In the same country, the Escuelas Nuevas represent promising experiments that give a strong voice to students and teachers.

    Nevertheless, authoritarian and arbitrary governance remains common in the educational systems of all countries with which I am familiar, including my own. If students are taught that democracy is excellent, but everyday they see that it does not exist in their own institutions, they are unlikely to develop into democratic citizens. Indeed, adolescents in Chile and Colombia are mostly able to describe democracy as an ideal but tend to see it as irrelevant to their experience. In Colombia, the more students that know about politics, the less they trust institutions such as schools and courts.

    Finally, although I am not aware of data that proves it, I think it is likely that students who create plays, literary publications, music, or videos that have political or social themes will gain civic skills and confidence.

    In short, good civic education has all of the features that we expect of good civic work for adults. It is open-ended--allowing students to form their own conclusions about political issues and respecting their opinions. It is inclusive and democratic. In combines deliberation and reflection with work. It is creative and has a cultural dimension.

    Any democracy must pay explicit attention to the development of its young people’s civic skills, habits, and attitudes. We human beings do not instinctively develop the skills necessary for democracy. We are not automatically capable of working together with others on common problems. We do not naturally understand alternative perspectives. Unless we are taught to care about other people, we are unlikely to show concern from anyone beyond our immediate circle of family and friends.

    Citizens are made, not born. Civic education is the process by which we teach young people to be effective and responsible members of democratic communities. Increasingly, we know how to make civic education work in our schools. Nothing is more important to the future health of our democracies.

    Some sources: The Latinobarómetro poll, summarized in "Democracy’s Low-Level Equilibrium,” The Economist, Aug 12th 2004; Felipe Tirado and Gilberto Guevara, "Educación Cívica: Un Estudio Complemenatrio,” México (2005), quoted in Fernando Reimers and Eleanora Villegas-Reim,ers, "Educating Democratic Citizens in Latin America,” in Lawrence Harrison and Jerome Kagan (eds.), Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change (Routledge, 2005), pp. ; UNDP statistics from 2002/3; Judith Torney-Purta and Jo-Ann Amadeo, "Stengthening Democracy Through Civic Education: An Empirical Analysis Highlighting the Views of Students and Teachers,” Organization of American States (Washington, 2004); Alvaro Rodrìguez Rueda, "Education for Democracy in Colombia,” in Judith Torney-Purta, John Schwille, and Jo-Ann Amadeo (eds) Civic Education Across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project (IEA, 1999), p. 141; Judith Torney-Purta, Carolyn Henry Barber and Wendy Klandl Richardon, "Trust in Government-related Institutions and Political Engagement among Adolescents in Six Countries,” Acta Politica, vol. 39 (2004), p. 396.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 13, 2005

    could manufacturing back the Democrats?

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party without possession of Congress or the White House must be in need of some rich donors. I wish this weren't true; for two years, I worked for Common Cause, advocating campaign finance reform. But private money still runs campaigns, and so the question is, on whom will the Democrats depend for funding in 2008?

    Hollywood and trial lawyers, among the Democrats' most important sources in recent cycles, are problematic sources. Many Americans believe that we live in an overly litigious society with a coarse popular culture. It is a liability to be bankrolled by lawyers and movie moguls, even if one believes that lawsuits sometimes promote justice and that movies are covered by the First Amendment. As for unions, they can't give much hard money, and their independent funds should be used to pursue their own agendas, not the Democrats'. Above all, labor should use its money for organizing in the private sector.

    Would it be possible for Democrats to enlist the financial help of some major manufacturing firms? This idea may seem naive, but donors have realigned before, and right now industry has extraordinary reasons to rethink its support for the profligate GOP. First, Democrats could boldly propose to cut the costs of manufacturing by providing universal health care. If General Motors spends $1,500 per car on health insurance, then health care reform would cause an enormous redistribution of wealth from taxpayers to manufacturing companies and their customers. That reform should also benefit most Americans, because we would pay less in health-related taxes than we do today for insurance premiums and deductibles.

    Second, Democrats could pledge to cut the annual deficit (in part by raising taxes), which would help to keep interest rates relatively low and reduce the percentage of corporate taxes that are wasted on debt service. Third, I suspect that manufacturers want better educational outcomes and would support paying for them (although I'm not sure whether their leaders find Democrats or Republicans more credible on education).

    But aren't progressive Democrats and big manufacturing companies natural enemies? All else being equal, a firm has a fiduciary responsibility to minimize the costs of labor, whereas Democrats have traditionally wanted to maximize labor's return. Therefore, Democrats and corporations are traditional opponents on matters like the minimal wage, unionization, and outsourcing. However, labor and capital are not in a zero-sum relationship. If the whole manufacturing sector is in decline, unions and firms both suffer. Companies can try to avoid the US job market by outsourcing, but that has its own costs and headaches. (Note that firms in the Nordic countries, which are highly competitive, don't have to outsource, because their workers are well educated and healthy.) If average American wages go up, that's good for manufacturing, as long as profits rise as well. Especially under the present circumstances, when manufacturing is taking a beating and issues like health care seem to be a big part of the problem, it should be possible to achieve win-win solutions for labor and capital. Both benefit if workers have good educations and health insurance provided by the state.

    Environmental protection is another traditional area of conflict. Business people (even if they happen to like nature) must try to externalize the environmental costs of manufacturing--for example, by letting smoke into the atmosphere and trying not to pay for it. Although they may suffer if they degrade the ozone layer, so does everyone else; and they capture all the profit. A cost-benefit calculation--which they have a fiduciary duty to conduct--will tell them to pollute and to oppose regulations. Democrats (along with some Republicans) have tried for many decades to force business to internalize the costs of pollution and other environmental damage.

    So the environment is a point of conflict, and it would very bad if Democrats got so cozy with manufacturing that they abandoned their greenish heritage. But environmental protection is subject to negotiation; it is not a matter of clashing absolute principles. The costs of preventing x amount of pollution can be divided between taxpayers and businesses in various proportions. And there is some money to be made in cleaning up the environment.

    Congressional Democrats could start quietly courting manufacturing industries right now. I suspect that they would have to shelve vague and meaningless party platforms like the one on Nancy Pelosi's website (via the Decembrist) and start developing a contract with real costs and real benefits. It would have to encompass tax increases and spending cuts if it were also to include universal health insurance and investments in education.

    There are clear dangers to this strategy, above all that industry could acquire too much leverage over the Democratic Party. However, let me suggest that relying on Hollywood, trial lawyers, and (yes) unions isn't a pure strategy either, nor has it been a very effective one.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 12, 2005

    Mobilizing American's Youth (MAY)

    I had an inspiring meeting this morning with folks from Mobilizing American's Youth. MAY has more than 25 "mobilizer teams" across the country that bring together youth of diverse ideological perspectives to discuss issues and develop common agendas. They train these teams, partly using their Mobilizer's Guidebook. They also have an online Youth Policy Action Center that provides information about issues and easy ways to make one's voice heard. MAY is a perfect example of the core values of the "civic renewal movement," as I'm calling it. MAY is ideologically open-ended and pragmatic, deliberative, collaborative, committed to political engagement (voting and beyond), and oriented to the civic development and leadership of the next generation. Whenever you are about to despair about our political culture, you need to interact with a group like this one.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 11, 2005

    thoughts about game theory

    The Nobel Prize for Tom Schelling (which is enormously exciting for everyone in Maryland's School of Public Policy), makes me think of a few points about game theory:

    1. It's a form of political theory that harkens back to classical authors from Hobbes to Rousseau (with echoes of Plato's Crito and other ancient works). That is, it makes certain assumptions about the preferences and goals of "players"--usually individuals or states--and then asks what must happen when they interact. This is the same method that led Hobbes to believe that individuals, motivated by the goal of minimizing pain, would kill one another absent a state. Hobbes' conclusions were rejected by other theorists, but his method remains alive in modern game theory. There is a rival tradition of political theory that treats people as deeply embedded in cultural contexts. For Hegel, Nietzsche, Dewey, Foucault, Habermas, and others, the important question is how and why culture has changed, not how individuals will act under specified theoretical conditions. Some results of game theory seem to generalize across all existing cultures--which wouldn't have surprised Hobbes or Locke.

    2. Since game theory starts with players and models their interaction, it can handle markets, wars, and votes equally well. Schelling's work is typical in that it doesn't fit within the borders of his own field (economics), but could equally belong to political science or--in the case of his famous model of racial "tipping points"--sociology. There is something impressive about a theory that explains human behavior without arbitrary limits.

    3. Some people assume that the "players" in game theory are selfish. That is not true. A game-theoretical model can work very well to explain behavior driven by any motives. Usually, altruism makes human interactions turn out better, and then games are uninteresting--but not always. Consider, for example, the bad outcomes that can result when X and Y are picking a restaurant, and X only wants to eat at Y's favorite place, and Y only wants to go where X wants to go. They may withhold information about their own preferences, causing a big mess, even though their motives are selfless.

    4. If game theory has a limitation, it is not an assumption of selfishness but rather a presumption that the players have preferences and identities prior to interacting. For instance, if the players are the USA and USSR (as in Schelling's classic work), then their identities are those of the two nations and their goals are assumed to be security, or domination, or whatever. However, a person's identity as a representative of the USA or the USSR is not just given; it is forged as a consequence of social and historical change, and it can fall apart. Soviet officials were supposed to bear the identity of "international Communists"; they really identified with the USSR or narrowly with their individual security interests; and then suddenly around 1990 most began to see themselves as Russians or even Europeans, but not as Soviets. This was a massive political change.

    Even given players with fixed identities, it is not obvious that they will want any particular goals (such as security, pleasure, dominance, honor or salvation). We may start wanting one thing and persuade ourselves to value something different. It's not clear that these processes of identity-formation and preference-setting can themselves be modeled as games. When we deliberate about who we are and what we want, the reasoning is not strategic in the same way. However, this is not a criticism of game-theory, simply an argument that it belongs in a broader context.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    October 10, 2005

    en route

    I try to post something substantive here every workday. In fact, I've addressed one topic or another for the last 700 days except during family vacations. However, as Monday, Oct. 10 begins, I'm waiting for a delayed midnight flight from Atlanta to Columbus, OH. (We were in rural Georgia for a true Southern family reunion, complete with a pig roast. I'm going to Columbus for a meeting on service-learning that John Glenn will address.) I feel tired enough, as I await this late flight and the prospect of two days of meetings, that I don't expect to be able to manage a substantive post until Tuesday at the earliest.

    PS, By the time I got online and had a chance to post this, I learned some news that's exciting to acknowledge. The great Tom Schelling, a colleague at the Maryland School of Public Policy, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. He joins Amartya Sen as one of my two favorite winners ever. He's not only a brilliantly original social scientist who has wrestled with the vital questions of the day (from nuclear war to global environmental threats); he's also a beautiful writer and a true gentleman.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 7, 2005

    all the news that's fit to print

    Jay Rosen captures one's attention with the lead to his latest post: "Just one man's opinion, but now is a good time to say it: The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the least year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position." (And this from a quintessential New Yorker!)

    Here is what I take away from Jay's argument. First, the Times represents a traditional conception of the daily newspaper as an institution that tries to extract significant information from politically powerful people and present it to a judicious public. This is not the only valid conception of a newspaper's role; I have defended a rival view (that journalism exists to promote public participation). However, if the Times has a claim to excellence, it is the conventional one.

    Jay cites a series of disturbing recent cases in which the accuracy of the Times' news coverage has been found wanting: the "breakdown in controls in reporting Weapons of Mass Destruction, ... Jayson Blair, Wen Ho Lee, Paul Krugman's correction trauma." But everyone makes mistakes, and an outsider could imagine that the Times must now be tightening its internal controls.

    The Judith Miller story reflects a deeper problem than mere error. As she investigated the Valerie Plame case and faced a subpoena for her information, Miller became part of a classic Washington story about the secret behavior of powerful people. The extraordinary list of her visitors in jail (John Bolton, Bob Dole, Tom Brokaw) illustrates how close she has come to power, and how tightly linked are our media leaders and politicos. Jay notes that "Miller is a longtime friend of the [Times] publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. They socialize. It's not a scandal, but it is a fact." Indeed, it is the Times' traditional role to get close to the powerful; to offer coveted space in its news columns in return for information. Thus Sulzberger, Brokaw, Bolton, Dole, and others like them move in similar circles, as do reporters like Judith Miller. Readers potentially benefit from those connections, when the Times presses to reveal as much as possible from its exalted sources. That, after all, is the heroic story of the Pentagon Papers and Times v Sullivan.

    Miller, however, became a newsmaker, a decision-maker, someone with information that she could deploy strategically. She did not choose that role: a subpoena dragged her into it. However, her contacts, her friendships, and all of her tactical choices underlined her close connections to insiders and "newsmakers." This impression presented a challenge to the Times, whose role is to explain what decision-makers are up to. We want to assume that some have power and others gather independent knowledge about them; the state and the press do not mix. But here, through no deliberate choice of Miller's, the lines were blended.

    It was then the responsibility of the Times to show that it was a trustworthy explainer. Every instinct should have pressed the newspaper's editors and staff to extract information about its own reporter and to explain what she had done. Instead, the Times' coverage of Miller's legal predicament has been confusing, low-key, half-hearted, and passive. Its columnists have been virtually silent. And it is has issued no meaningful public statements or press releases.

    The implicit deal that the Times offers is this: We will cozy up to the power-brokers, but we will do it in your interests, so that we can keep you informed about their wheeling and dealing. When the Times becomes a power-broker itself, the deal comes into question. At that moment, the editors should understand that their whole justification is at stake, and they should rush to serve the public's "right to know." Failure to do so raises fundamental questions about the value of the New York Times that go far beyond any cases of misreporting or run-of-the-mill bias.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:55 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 6, 2005

    philosophy, the profession

    On Crooked Timber recently, Harry Brighouse observed that graduate students in philosophy are wise not to publish too much. If they do choose to publish, they should reserve their work for prestigious journals. He wasn't too sure about the hierarchy of prestige, but Ethics and Philosophy & Public Affairs were clearly top venues in his field (which is also, nominally, mine).

    This whole discussion fills me with a vague anxiety that I rarely feel at my current stage of life. It transports me back 10 or 15 years to my days as a grad student and aspiring professor. I was extremely fortunate in some ways: for example, my doctorate was free. However, studying abroad and very much on my own, I received absolutely no tactical advice about how to play the academic game. So the idea that you shouldn't publish would never have occurred to me.

    Brighouse's post provoked some discussion of the major journals. I admire the work that appears in venues like Ethics and Philosophy & Public Affairs. I must have read 50 articles from those publications in my life. Most have been difficult, challenging, and rigorous. But I don't read the journals regularly or keep up with the overall discipline of philosophy in any organized way.

    The comments on Crooked Timber describe strengths, weaknesses, and trends in various journals. I lack the experience to join in this conversation. Already in graduate school, I read to investigate certain themes that lay far outside contemporary philosophy. For instance, for my dissertation, I constructed an argument about historical thought in Nietzsche's time. For that purpose, I read a great deal of nineteenth-century German history. For secondary sources on Nietzsche, I was as likely to consult authors from the 1800s as those from the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, I spend more time with developmental psychology. Whatever my interests, I have always found articles in Ethics and PPA as the result of subject searches, not by reading those publications regularly.

    None of this would cause me any anxiety or regret if I disparaged contemporary ethics and political theory. Then I would simply be glad that I landed in a job that allowed me to wander far afield. It is because I recognize the excellence of Brighouse's profession that I wonder whether I have been wise to drift away from it.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 5, 2005

    the Meiers nomination and the opacity of political motivation

    A a general rule, I strongly oppose the kind of political analysis and argument that asks about the motivations of decision-makers. People's motives are often mixed or downright mysterious, even to themselves. Motives may be irrelevant: politicians often do good things for selfish reasons and bad things with good intentions. When we look for leaders' motives, we must rely on insiders (who are powerful and rarely trustworthy). They become authorities, and citizens are mere spectators. If, in contrast, we consider whether a policy is good or bad on its face, we can make up our own minds based on public documents and evidence. Finally, the search for motives in a second-term presidency is genuinely baffling. GW Bush cannot be reelected; he may not care particularly about the outcome of the 2008 election; his financial backers have no leverage over him; he may not trust the "history books" to treat him fairly, whatever he does. So what does he want? You can go crazy guessing.

    The nomination of Harriet Miers is, unfortunately, something of an exception to the rule that we shouldn't think about politicians' motives. That is because of what my Maryland colleague and friend Mark Graber calls the information advantage: "What both John Roberts and Harriet Miers have in common is that the administration knows a lot more about them than the rest of us." Graber subscribes to "a political regime theory of the judicial function. On this view, the constitution may be plausibly interpreted in different (not infinite) ways so presidents (and senators) are authorized by election to seek federal justices who share their constitutional vision." If that's the case, then it's crucial for presidents or their nominees to explain their visions, so that we can hold them accountable at the next election. But Bush won't say what his vision is, beyond uttering "cliches about modest justices and judicial restraint. In short, President Bush is clearly moving the court in a particular direction. He just isn't telling us what that direction is other than vaguely conservative."

    Since we cannot debate Bush's or Mier's theory of the Constitution, which is unknown, all we can do is speculate about the president's motives. The blogosphere is great for such speculation, and in this case, it provides many options. For example:

    Jack Balkin: The ruling conservatives want policies friendly to business, meaning "stability, comfort, predictability, and an agile, productive, submissive and demobilized population." They don't really care about divisive social issues that might mobilize voters. Hariet Miers is a corporate lawyer. While she may vote conservatively on issues like abortion, she doesn't have a big plan for moving the country rightward on those questions--and that's fine with business and with George W. Bush.

    Kevin Drum:
    The President wants to avoid a fight; he wants to "fold." If he picked a well-known moderate, that would be folding too obviously. Harriet Miers, because she is a cipher with no relevant record, gives him the opportunity to back down without actually saying "uncle." (The implication, which Drum doesn't spell out explicitly, is that Bush would be disappointed and surprised if Miers made controversial decisions from the Court on his watch.)

    GreyBlog (and others): Meiers is personally loyal to the president. Bush's biggest concern is a Supreme Court case involving his administration, say, on a matter of corruption or something to do with presidential powers. Miers is a safe vote if his interests are at stake.

    David Bernstein: The President's priority is the War on Terror (including Guantanamo and the Patriot Act), just as FDR's priority was the New Deal. Roberts, because of his appelate rulings, and Miers, because of her work in the Bush White House, seem two of the most likely candidates to uphold the Administration on those issues.

    These are some of the most interesting theories, but there is also plenty of speculation that ... Miers is willing to overturn Roe and Bush knows it; Miers is a relatively uncontroversial woman and Bush wants a female appointee; Miers is nice and respectful to Bush and he just likes her. Who knows, and--I would normally say--Who cares? But in this case, it seems impossible to have any more intelligent conversation than the snippets quoted above. It is now up to the Judiciary Committee to force Miers into a discussion of the Constitution, so that we can stop worrying about what GWB wants.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 4, 2005

    the "inverted pyramid" and other barriers to comprehension

    I worked yesterday with a small group of undergrads who wanted me to help them follow current events. I asked them to read the lead article in the New York Times, because I thought it exemplified certain journalistic conventions that make it difficult for novices to understand the news.

    The lead story was entitled "Macabre Clues Advance Inquiry in Bali Attacks." It began with the gruesome discovery of three heads widely separated from their feet and without extant torsos--evidence of suicide bombers. The story then mentioned the bombing in Bali that had occurred two days earlier. Next came a body count and a mention of the seven wounded Americans. The story gradually widened to include some discussion of the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, a splinter of which may be associated with Al Qaeda. After that reference came some discussion of the previous attacks in Indonesia in 2002, mixed with detailed descriptions of the wounded Americans. And finally the article explained that Bali is a Hindu island in predominantly Moslem Indonesia.

    Using a version of the "inverted pyramid" style, the writers had begun with the latest facts and then widened to provide context, with the most general information saved for the very end. However, they never explained anything about Indonesia's history, politics, economy, or religious culture, or the structure and goals of Al Qaeda.

    Daily newspapers are written for daily readers. I don't want an article to start with facts about Indonesian history and end with the latest from the Balinese forensic investigation. I read the news on Sunday and already know what happened then. But for a newcomer, the Times' lead story, like most of its coverage, is perplexing. The necessary factual base is either withheld until the very end or never provided at all; and the narrative logic of the story is completely shattered.

    I asked the students whether the story belonged in the newspaper at all. Every day, about 153,000 human beings die. Thus it's not immediately obvious why we should all read about the 19 people murdered in Bali (or the 21 drowned on Sunday on Lake George). Publicity is just what Al Qaeda wants, and that's reason enough to question whether the bombing should be an international lead story.

    By the time I had explained that it is difficult to read a standard breaking news article, and I had raised questions about whether the story was appropriate in the first place, I'm afraid I had driven these young people away from newspapers. I tried to explain why I read the Post and Times every day, but I'm afraid I wasn't too convincing (because I wasn't too convinced). I said that we each possess a general view of the world. We may see it as threatening, or divided between Islam and the West, or full of needless suffering, or stricken by Western imperialism, or united by a common humanity. Each significant news story helps us to shape, revise, and develop that worldview. In turn, our attitude guides our daily actions and choices. This is what I said, but none of it proves that the Times should have led with gruesome facts about the bodies of suicide bombers.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 3, 2005

    resume-padding and risk

    My friends Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto have published a new CIRCLE working paper (pdf) that ought to interest a broad audience. Friedland and Morimoto found that anxiety about college admissions is a major aspect of adolescents’ lives, affecting almost all students, from those on the honor roll to ones who are having trouble staying in high school. This anxiety is so pervasive that it cannot be separated from other motives that are driving youth to volunteer in record numbers. In other words, young people do not simply volunteer in order to get into college, but that goal is so central to their lives, and so fraught with apprehension, that it colors and shapes all their choices. To a disturbing degree, they cannot articulate other values or purposes of the volunteering that they do.

    Because our business is youth civic engagement, we have packaged this working paper as an exploration of service in high schools. But it could be read in a much broader sociological context. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck--whom, unfortunately, I have not yet read--argues that risk has been individualized. People individually bear the long-term consequences of their performance at each stage of their lives, including early adolescence. Families, communities, and associations no longer protect them as much as they used to. For "high-performing" students, including those who are female or members of racial minorities, opportunities have probably improved. But the obverse of opportunity is risk. There are serious disadvantages to raising young people under circumstances of high (perceived) risk, even if they have a chance to obtain excellent outcomes through hard work. One disadvantage of individualized risk is a kind of hollowing-out of adolescence, as activities that should be deeply satisfying become merely instrumental. Volunteering is just an example. Learning, athletics, and religious participation can also lose their intrinsic significance if students feel they must "perform" at optimal levels at all times in order to maximize their economic opportunities.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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