November 30, 2005
I'm flying to California today by way of Detroit. I don't think I'll be able to post anything substantive.
November 29, 2005
universities and civic education
A 1911 committee of the American Political Science Association recommended that elementary school students should cooperate with local government agencies or community associations to beautify vacant lots, as a way of learning civic skills. They also suggested that high school students should become critics of their own education and be asked to write papers on topics like these:
"What changes have been made in your high school course of study in the last ten years? ... What changes would you suggest in the content and methods of teaching the studies you are taking to make them more useful to you?"
In 1906, a distinguished political scientist recommended that boys be sent to live on empty land near town for several summer weeks. The boys would form a self-governing and self-sufficient "republic" of adolescent farmers and thereby learn democracy. These facts come from Hindy Lauer Schachter, "Civic Education: Three Early American Political Science Association Committees and their Relevance for Our Time," PS Online (1998).
I'm reading this and other articles to prepare for a meeting that CIRCLE has organized along with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Political Science Association's Civic Education Committee. The subject is the civic role of universities. We will be looking at statistical studies of the civic effects of college education. So far, however, I have been reading historical papers.
The received wisdom is that American colleges were primarily dedicated to moral and civic education until the early years of the 20th century. As the anecdotes in Schachter's article reveal, many leading academics favored a highly experiential approach to civic education--both for k-12 students and for undergraduates. However, under the influence of German research universities, the leading American institutions gradually devoted themselves to objective, scientific research and specialized professional training. A 1914 APSA Committee recommended that citizens "learn humility in the face of expertise." As universities focused on the education of experts, they lost their moral and civic focus (for better or worse). They ceased recommending or implementing the kind of experiential civic education described above.
This is now a fairly standard story. Some of the best recent scholarship complicates it, noting, for example, that there was a powerful civic vision embodied in the new research universities. See William Talcott's "Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship," which is CIRCLE Working Paper # 39 (pdf).
November 28, 2005
political neutrality in schools
In Vermont, an English and social studies teacher gave his students this item in a vocabulary quiz. They were asked to choose the correct word in the parenthesis:
I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes. (AP story via Kevin Drum)
In Madison, WI, third-grade students were told to write letters to public officials that "encourage[d] an end to the war in Iraq." According to the Wisconsin State Journal:
Students were to write a letter a day for 12 days to other students, the state's U.S. senators and representatives, the president of the United States, and the secretary of the United Nations 'urging them to press for peace,' as well as to the media.
If the war did not end in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.
Parents were asked to provide 10 postage stamps and 12 envelopes.
An alternative assignment was to be provided for students whose parents did not want them to participate.
Before I complicate this issue and discuss some of the subtleties, I'll give my verdicts. The vocabulary quiz is funny, and it's good to inject some humor into teaching. Moreover, the teacher is a professional who ought to have freedom of expression and whose every move should not be scrutinized. I wouldn't support disciplining him in any way; yet I wouldn't tell that joke myself to a high school class. The risk is too great that there's a small minority of Republicans among the Vermont students who would be offended by the implication that they or their parents are stupid (not just wrong about some particular issue).
The anti-war letter assignment crosses an important line from civic education to advocacy. It is an illegitimate activity in a public school. Students should discuss the Iraq war and be encouraged to write letters about it. (Letter-writing is a civic skill). But they must be exposed to multiple perspectives and allowed to write their own opinions.
Now for the complexities.
First, public schools are not ethically or politically neutral. Every day they teach values: punctuality, obedience, authority, discipline, competition, sometimes tolerance and pluralism. The courts have held that public schools cannot explicitly teach any particular religious doctrines. They can--and many do--teach patriotism, respect for military mores, environmentalism, and/or religious and ethnic tolerance. To left-radicals and Christian conservatives alike, the distinction between permissible and illegitimate values can look pretty arbitrary. Why can you advocate environmentalism but not monotheism in a public school? (The argument that environmentalism is based on science does not convince me, but that's another story. In any case, why can you teach scientism but not a religion?)
There are developmental pyschologists who argue that a politically neutral stance is not helpful when teaching children and adolescents. It communicates the idea that there is no way of knowing what is right, or that mature adults have no political views, or that there are so many sides to every argument that it doesn't matter which side prevails. Some psychologists believe that it is better to expose kids to a strong set of beliefs and arguments that seem to matter to the school and its teachers. An education that is rich in explicit values will not brainwash kids. They will form their own opinions--sooner or later. Meanwhile, they will understand that mature adults hold views and act on them.
For some, the best civic education takes place in Catholic (often Jesuit) schools that demonstrate a commitment to social justice, explicitly link that commitment to their religious faith, but do not attempt to convert their students--often Protestant African Americans--to Catholicism. Their graduates understand that one can be seriously committed to a moral worldview that influences every aspect of one's life.
We make a choice when we try to put all kids together in a "common school" that's neutral about values and ideologies. Alternatively, we can have a system of universal, publicly funded education that's pluralist. Then some kids may receive an Afrocentric curriculum; others, a libertarian one. In Philadelphia's Chinatown, some public school students attend a school that is devoted to "democracy," "self-governance," and the "creation of community"; it is "consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist." Other public schools are so "materialistic" that they imitate corporations.
The most radical and controversial way to achieve pluralism is to fund schools through vouchers. However, pluralism can also be achieved by giving families choices within a public school system, or by devolving educational policy to the local level. If local systems make up their own curricula, then the values that are transmitted in a Madison or Vermont school will be very different from those in a rural "red state."
Too little is known (to my knowledge) about the differences in ideological orientations among schools and teachers and what impact that variation has on kids. However, it seems safe to assume that the "common school" is a myth and that students are mostly sorted into fairly homogeneous communities where the teaching reinforces their families' values.
Is this homogeneity bad? Diversity of viewpoints may help to produce deliberative citizens who recognize and respect perspectives other than their own. On the other hand, some research suggests that the more ethnically diverse a school is, the less students discuss controversial issues, perhaps because such issues become too hot to handle. (PowerPoint.) In any case, viewpoint diversity may not help to motivate young people to act politically. A lot of successful mobilization comes from preaching to groups of like-minded individuals. If we demand neutrality and diversity in our schools, then we may produce students who are highly tolerant of diverse views but politically passive.
Finally, there is the question of what the Madison school assignment meant. Perhaps it's acceptable to tell students to write letters in favor of peace, because everyone (including Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld) says that peace is the goal. "We saw peace as a common good," one Madison teacher said. "We were just advocating that people keep working toward peace."
Participants in public debates generally state their views in phrases with which everyone else is supposed to agree. For example, everyone supports "life," and everyone values "choice"; both sides in the abortion debate try to capture the common ground. Likewise, everyone favors peace, but everyone also wants to "stop terrorism." Most people want to "support the troops" and "enhance human rights." If a teacher had told all her students to write letters "supporting the troops," that assignment would have seemed uncontroversial to some but biased to others (including me). The same is true of the pro-"peace" assignment.
Ultimately, I don't like the letter-writing assignment because I fear a backlash. We do want students to discuss current events and to learn civic skills, including the skill of writing letters to public officials. If teachers give assignments that appear politically biased, the most likely result will be rules blocking all controversial discussions in classrooms. One angry grandparent in Madison says of the schools, "They're supposed to teach the facts and not opinions." Opinion-free education is impossible, but it's very easy for the authorities to provide education that's free of all social studies and civics.
November 25, 2005
In the National Gallery this morning, I was looking at a Madonna and Child by Antonio Rossellino (I show a detail here). It's a low-relief sculpture carved about 1475. Look at the pillow at the bottom right, on which the toddler Jesus stands. This is a representation of a squarish object, depicted in linear perspective. To work correctly as a representation, it must be viewed from straight ahead. The marble pillow is also a three-dimensional object. You can look at it from several angles. If you were allowed to take it down off the wall, you could hold it, feel it, slide your finger behind it. It would not be a square but kind of a fat trapezoid. There is something quite strange about a three-dimensional object whose purpose is to look like an object of a different shape if viewed from a particular angle. What shape is it really?
November 24, 2005
Too much turkey and talk to post anything here today. I endorse Russell Arben Fox's defense of holidays like this one.
November 23, 2005
Galston on the Democrats
The graph to the right shows the popularity of the Democrats and Republicans as recorded in NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. Note the decline for the GOP and the failure of the Democrats to budge upwards even a tick. In essence, Americans have gone from favoring the Republicans to favoring no one.
My boss, Bill Galston, is leaving us in January to go to the Brookings Institution. I don't think any other academic in America has as much political influence on the Democratic Party. When he and Elaine Kamarck released their latest strategy paper recently ("The Politics of Polarization"), both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran news stories describing it. Bill and I very rarely talk about partisan or ideological politics, because our shared professional work is strictly non-partisan. However, he gave a public talk yesterday on his new paper, and I attended it.
We have intellectual freedom at the University of Maryland, so I reserve the right to disagree with my boss. Nevertheless, I'd like to emphasize part of the Kamarck-and-Galston argument that I particularly strongly endorse. This argument says that you can't get people to vote for you unless you have a plausible and coherent answer to national problems. No amount of skillful leadership and rhetoric and "framing" can paper over incoherence. Between 1988 and 1992, the Democrats had big internal fights over welfare and macroeconomics. I'm not certain that the best side won, but there was a decisive conclusion. Bill Clinton took control of the national party and balanced budgets and reformed welfare. As a result, the public's opinion of the Democrats on economic and social issues changed fundamentally and for the better.
However, the Democrats never resolved their profound disagreements over foreign policy. They won pluralities of the national vote in 1992, 1996, and 2000 without taking clear positions on difficult international and defense issues. They got away with that because foreign policy was less important between the end of the Cold War and 9/11/01 than at any time since Pearl Harbor. They cannot get away with it now. The Democratic Party includes genuine Peaceniks, John Murtha-style tough guys, Madeleine Albright internationalists who say "use it or lose it" about the US military, "bring America home" types, and everything in between. They will have to fight it out until one faction wins. They will then be able to present the public with a clear alternative to the Bush position.
Yesterday, Bill described John Kerry as the perfect representative of his party in 2004. Voting for the war and then against the bill to fund it put Kerry precisely at the median of the Democratic coalition. That is why he defeated primary opponents whose positions were more consistently pro- and anti-war. It is also a big reason why he lost in November.
The current unpopularity of the GOP means little. In 2006, they will be protected by the safety of congressional districts. In 2008, they will put up an entirely new face as their presidential candidate; he will probably criticize the Bush administration. The only thing that matters for the future of partisan politics is whether the Democrats can increase their support. Since the public is seriously concerned about foreign policy, the Democrats need a positive international vision with some detail and some bite.
Two competing visions might be considered:
1. Lower our international profile. Make concerted efforts to reduce dependence on mideast oil. Reduce defense spending over time and use the savings on domestic investments. Deal with issues like Israel-Palestine and the Korean peninsula only as part of coalitions. Disentangle from Iraq. Concentrate on remaining a major economic power that can afford a dominant but defensive military.
2. Aggressively pursue terrorists and rogue states. However, disentangle from Iraq, where too many of our troops are pinned down in unfavorable circumstances. Pursue Rumsfeld's pre-9/11 military reforms and use a lighter, quicker, more flexible military in North Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and wherever the situation favors us.
November 22, 2005
options for Iraq
Nothing is more important than having concrete alternatives for America's future in Iraq. There cannot be a useful--or even a barely dignified--debate until there are choices on the table. If the debate is only about whether Bush lied and whether the Democrats are cowards, then we are all guaranteed to lose.
The Murtha resolution has put a basket of general strategies on the table for our consideration:
Section 1. The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.
Section 2. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S Marines shall be deployed in the region.
Section 3. The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy.
These ideas are separable, and each one is subject to interpretation. For instance, the "earliest practicable date" could be defined in many ways--from the moment when we can extract our forces safely (i.e., very soon) to the day when the Iraqi military is capable of ensuring order (i.e., maybe never).
The "quick-reaction" force could be deliberately located inside Iraq and deployed at the request of the Iraqi government (subject to US consent). Or it could be deliberately located outside of Iraq in order to signal that we have no ambitions to establish permanent bases there. It could be large or small, aggressive or basically just a deterrent force.
"Diplomacy" (mentioned in Section 3) is a good word, but a very vague one. With whom would we engage in dialogues and negotiations, and with what purpose? We could talk to the Iranians and Syrians about not supporting the insurgency; whether that would achieve anything depends on how important those countries are to the insurgents and whether they are open to negotiating. We could talk to the insurgents themselves, or persuade Iraq's Shiite leaders to do so. We could talk to the Europeans about providing more military forces and reconstruction assistance. I'm not sure what incentive they have to comply in a serious way. It would be interesting, however, if leading Americans outside the administration could work out hypothetical plans with leading Europeans and leading Arabs for a joint response to the Iraqi mess. They could then advocate this response in public forums in their respective countries. (By the way, that is a very appropriate role for leading Democrats between now and 2008.)
In general, our citizens could talk to Iraqis and people from other Arab and Moslem countries outside of governmental channels. Such dialogues are surely desirable, but not likely to produce enormous benefits in the short term.
Finally, in principle, we could try to organize a Mideast summit that considered Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and the Kurds all together. That sounds like a herculean task, perhaps best undertaken after years of preliminary work. Furthermore, it doesn't seem promising for the US to be the official convener.
November 21, 2005
Two emails arrived over the weekend that advertised important civic work.
First, in hard-hit industrial northeastern Ohio, the Knight Foundation is supporting an elaborate process called "Voices and Choices." Through this process, thousands of residents will help to set a new course for the region. The centerpiece of the project is a deliberative forum called a 21st Century Town Meeting, organized by the great people at AmericaSPEAKS. I'm from the Rust Belt myself (Syracuse), and I think nothing is more challenging and important than creating good jobs and a general sense of optimism in such places. On a visit to Youngstown, OH during the trial of former Rep. Jim Traficant, I was struck that civic problems may be partly responsible for the region's economic deficits. Far too many Youngstown people were proud of Traficant as a colorful local character who had stuck his finger in the eye of the rich and powerful. But he had done nothing for Youngstown, and I thought his popularity was evidence of civic hopelessness and defeat. If the "Voices and Choices" process builds civic confidence and capacity, it will be enormously valuable.
Second, J-Lab, the Center for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, is once again offering funds for "innovative citizen media projects." I helped to pick the first round of projects in 2004; they were a fascinating mix of youth-media websites, community blogs and podcasting services, online civic databases, and other good ideas. Up to $17,000 is available for each project that receives New Voices funding from J-Lab.
November 18, 2005
Redeem the Vote: evangelical politics in a civic vein
I just had a good conversation with Randy Brinson, chairman of Redeem the Vote, with whom I've talked several times before. If you look at the Redeem the Vote website, you'll see a strongly conservative political organization that questions evolution, favors Judge Alito, and otherwise takes positions consistent with the "Christian Right." However, there is a huge difference between Redeem the Vote and some of the more partisan political groups on the religious right. It is the difference between principle and partisan expediency--a difference that also distinguishes groups on the left.
Redeem the Vote wants to help citizens solve what appear to them to be public problems. I disagree with some of the "problems" on the organization's list. For example, I don't think it's bad when schools exclusively teach evolution. Nevertheless, I recognize genuine democratic problem-solving when I see it, and I believe it contributes to our civic life.
In practice, this means that ...
1) Redeem the Vote registers young voters in all demographic groups and communities. As a result, a substantial proportion of their registrants are Democrats. They want people to vote "pro-life" and otherwise conservatively on social issues. They make conservative arguments while canvassing. But their approach is open-ended because they are willing to take the chance that they may register people who will vote on the other side, which happens a lot. This is an authentically democratic and civic approach. By the way, Redeem the Vote seems to have turned out a lot of new voters, a majority of whom supported Bush in the end, even though many chose to register as Democrats. That shows that when you give people an opportunity to make up their own minds, they tend to trust you and listen to your arguments--which is a lesson for activists on all sides.
2) Redeem the Vote works with strange bedfellows. For example, they have released a paper on the freedom to teach about religion in public schools. They distributed it jointly with the Alabama chapter of the National Education Association, normally seen as a bedrock liberal organization. The paper was originally written by my friends at the First Amendment Center, who are staunch civil libertarians. All agree that it is legal to teach about religion in schools. Redeem the Vote has also worked with anti-poverty groups to try to support economic supports for pregnant women that may lower the abortion rate.
About a lot of American politics, we can say what James Madison wrote of Pensylvania's government in Federalist #60. He wrote that "it was split into two fixed and violent parties. ... In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on their opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer ... that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions." By the same token, today's Republicans and Democrats tend to line up on opposite sides of all issues, even when there is no principled reason why they should. In contrast, when people "exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them." It is a sign of Redeem the Vote's civic responsibility that they quite often "fall into different opinions" from Republicans.
3. Redeem the Vote uses civil language. That's not just a matter of good manners: it has an impact on the political culture. In a public statement, Brinson defends the Bush judicial nominees but takes the trouble to say:
We as people of faith should never put political ideology above principle, we should never convince ourselves that if we only subscribe to certain political principles that we can somehow prevent certain moral failings in our country. These values are not owned by one particular philosophy or political party, but have been forged by people of many political perspectives who have come together and do what is right.
Since the election of 2004, I have had the distinct honor and privilege to address a number of diverse groups (Common Cause, People for the American Way, Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, Democrats for Life, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, MTV, etc.) as well as individuals from all walks of life across America. This experience has given me a truly unique perspective on the wonderful country we live in. I, today feel equally comfortable talking with a conservative group as addressing a group that may not agree with me but on only a handful of issues, but it is the process of finding "common ground" that is so important.
4. Brinson has the courage to criticize other elements of the Christian Right for not being (as I would say) "civic." He argues that Redeem the Vote's approach "is in stark contrast to many of those conservative Christian organizations that seek to develop a partisan mentality and approach to problems that have solutions beyond partisan rhetoric." He suggests that some don't want to develop "a working relationships between Democrats and Republicans" because "it would be difficult to raise ... large sums of money" if there were "no battle to be fought, or political enemy to be slain." Brinson concludes, "Our hope is that we can engage evangelicals to support a broad agenda that embraces the common good of all Americans."
I believe that there are a substantial number of Randy Brinsons out there. Most readers of my blog will not agree with them on some issues. But these evangelicals are building a network of citizens who are dedicated to solving problems and are not owned by any party. This is crucial. It opens the possibility that we can make real progress on issues that concern people across the political spectrum. Often, these issues cannot be resolved by law or government. An overly sexualized popular culture, tolerance of bullying in schools, hyper-consumerism, racist attitudes--these are serious problems that people worry about across the political spectrum and that only can be addressed through voluntary action in civil society.
November 17, 2005
ethics of international intervention
This afternoon, I will guest-teach a public policy seminar for a friend who's in Venezuela on a Fulbright. The topic of the day is international intervention. When is it appropriate (or obligatory) to impose sanctions or invade another country to promote human rights? Click below if you want to read my whole class plan.
The reading for this seminar is:
Decisions about whether to intervene involve three conflicting principles: human rights, national self-determination, and state sovereignty. My strategy is to consider each principle in turn, as if it were our only guide. We will then be able to see the pros and cons clearly.
I. Human Rights
Imagine a principle like: "Honor human rights in foreign policy." Or "Act in the interests of human rights." Or, "Act to maximize human rights." Or, "Human rights are the only important things in the world."
Q. Why might one act according to these principles?
A. ["A's" refer to answers that I hope to get from students]: Human beings have infinite intrinsic worth. States and other institutions have no intrinsic value.
Q. What are the implications for country A if there are human rights abuses in country B? What if the human rights abuses are minor?
Q. Would proportionality apply? (Proportionality is an idea from just war theory. It recognizes that the perpetrators of human rights abuses also have rights) Just war theory also provides other criteria listed by Amstutz on p. 188, including: right intentions; limited objectives; doctrine of double-effect. What do we think of these criteria?
Q. Would pragmatic considerations apply? How would one assess them?
Q. What are problems with acting only according to this principle?
A. #1: Cultural relativism
Human rights are only beliefs of particular cultures, not to be imposed on others.
Q. What does David Luban say about that?
Q. Is Luban right?
A. #2: Neo-Imperialism
Enforcement of human rights is likely to be conducted by "Western" countries. Why isn't this imperialism, as when British imperialists intervened in India to prevent suttee?
A. # 3: Rights imply duties. But human rights cannot imply duties across borders.
If I have a right to life, then everyone must refrain from killing me--fair enough. If I have a right to education, someone has a duty to pay for it. Who? My parents? My local community? My country? The world? We generally say that Americans have a right to education, implying that other Americans have a duty-to-pay. But we don't say that a Haitian child's right to an education implies a duty for Americans to pay for it. Maybe we should.
Likewise, my right not to be tortured imposes a duty on everyone else not to torture me. But does it impose a duty on everyone else to rescue me from being tortured? Even if it puts them in danger?
A. #4: Rights, to be real, must be enforced
Q. Who should enforce them?
Q. Is Luban right?
Intervention abroad requires democratic consent at home.
Intervention may have to be violent, since sanctions don't seem to work
Q. If human rights are unenforceable, then are they rights?
Luban prefers to argue from shame, rather than rights-and-duties. Shame is appropriate when we stand by as others suffer. One implication of his view: We don't have to help everyone. If we are helping some appropriate victims, then we needn't be ashamed.
II. National Self-Determination
Now the principle is not, "Honor human rights," but rather, "Let nations govern themselves."
Q. What does this mean?
Perhaps there are two theories ...
A. #1: a nation (defined as some homogeneous identity group) ought to be independent
This need not require the consent of the majority, let alone of all individuals. Spain under Franco was an independent nation. All the Spanish people were part of a political entity that no one else governed. They had self-determination, according to this first definition, even if Franco was unpopular. He was one of them. (Q. does any state actually enjoy consent?)
Note: National self-determination is often an argument in favor of minority rights, when the minority in question lacks its own state. E.g, the Basques under Franco and under the new Spanish democracy.
A. #2: When a government is democratic, "the people" rule, so outsiders should not intervene. Here the emphasis is on democratic procedures
Then "the people" need not be homogeneous. They need not belong to one "nation." Cf. Belgium—-one regime with two peoples—-or many African states with arbitrary borders, or the USA, which increasingly defines membership in legal rather than cultural terms. To be American is to have a vote in the USA.
But why should people within one geographical boundary determine their collective fate by voting? Why not draw the boundary differently? The democratic definition of self-determination usually relies on some sense of common nationhood, as in the US.
The democratic conception of national self-determination does not support minority group rights.
Q. why should we favor self-determination?
Consider the US. We have capital punishment and permit people to be sentenced to life imprisonment for cocaine possession. Others see these actions as barbarous.
Q. Would it be good if some foreign country with 10 times our military power invaded us and forced us to abolish the death penalty?
Q. What are some problems with self-determination?
Overrides human rights. Consider, for example, the case of Argentina (popular regime commits atrocities against unpopular minority.)
Overrides minority rights (unless we think that the minority is a nation, in which case we may invoke national self-determination in their defense).
The leaders of a state can bind their own people in ways that seem unjust, for example, by selling assets or borrowing deeply.
III. State Sovereignty
Here the principle is: There are 170 states that are members of the United Nations. No state is to make war on another, even for moral reasons. Regardless of whether states represent nations or peoples, they are entities that have rights to operate on their own territory.
Q. Why might one hold this view?
A. #1: A "romantic" view of the state
It's hard for Americans and many other moderns to understand this view, because we have a social contract theory of the state. (It is an association formed to advance individual interests.) But many people have seen states as having intrinsic moral worth. They are not just contracts among citizens. If you have the opportunity to die for France, that is an honorable thing. You are not dying for all the people who belong to France, but for La Patrie. Do any Americans feel this way about the USA?
Note: identity is very important to politics, and it's an analytical mistake to assume that we always have the identity of private individuals. We can and do adopt broader identities, and nations have often provided those.
A# 2: A pragmatic defense of sovereignty
Intervening in other UN members' territory is a recipe for constant warfare. Cf. the Treaty of Westphalia. Reliably preventing all states from attacking all other states is the most pragmatic route to peace.
Q. What are some problems with state sovereignty?
IV. Where do we stand?
One answer might be: We care about human rights, but concerns about national delf-determination and sovereignty cause us to impose limiting conditions:
(cf. Amstutz, p. 135)
Perhaps it is self-evident that we should only intervene when the prospects of success are good. But the "last-resort" limitation only applies if we care about sovereignty or national self-determination
V. Other issues
Q. What is the morality of sending someone else (e.g., a soldier) to intervene in defense of human rights and not going oneself? What if there's a draft? What if there isn't?
Q. Should we try to have "clean hands"? For example, is it right to divest from a wicked country even if the effects are neutral, or negative, just so that we don't trade with bad people?
November 16, 2005
Amy Harmon has a front-page New York Times article today entitled "Young, Assured and Playing Pharmacist to Friends." All of her sources are youngish adults who obtain mood-altering or performance-enhancing drugs by sharing stockpiles, buying medications online, or lying and exaggerating to their doctors about their symptoms.
On the one hand, the article seems important to me, because it raises significant issues. For instance, is it generally a good idea to self-prescribe, relying on public information, peers, and personal experience for information? Or is it generally better to rely on physicians? When is it right to treat mild depression, undesired weight gain, or insomnia with chemicals? Is that cheating, or is it smart? Why are these young adults unhappy, to start with? Are they just overly sensitive? Or is there something (perhaps consumerism and careerism, or the way dating and courtship are structured today) that is responsible for their discontent? Finally, is the advertising and R&D of pharmaceutical companies responsible for overuse of medications, or should we hold individuals responsible for their own consumption?
On the other hand, I was struck by the difference between Amy Harmon (as a journalist) and any academic researcher. Harmon talked only to young people who self-prescribe pyschotropic medications. She did a great job finding these informants. But she could say nothing about how typical they are in the overall population. Implicitly, the article implies that many--or most--young people obtain mood-altering controlled medications without legitimate prescriptions. Is this true? Or are there many young people who would never do such a thing?
An academic researcher would almost certainly start with some larger, more representative population--not necessarily a sample of all youth, but a sample of some demographic group or community. The researcher would then describe a range of behavior and attitudes. The results would be less compelling, less alarming, less attention-grabbing than this article. They would provide more reliable guidance, however.
November 15, 2005
citizens' role in diplomacy and conflict-resolution
Picture a classic diplomatic scene--perhaps Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill side-by-side at Yalta, or Nixon and Mao in China. It's easy to interpret these scenes according to a "realist" theory of politics. The leaders have power and are in a position to make decisions. They represent their countries, so it is almost as if the nations themselves were sitting down to negotiate. The countries' interests are their own security, prosperity, and influence. The leaders negotiate rationally to maximize those interests.
Hal Saunders, a senior American diplomat who flew with Kissinger himself on the "shuttle" flights that advanced peace between Israel and Egypt, is very familiar with that kind of politics. In a forthcoming book entitled Politics is about Relationship (Sage), he argues that the "realist" model has never been adequate, either as an explanation of the way the world works or as a normative framework for deciding what we should do. Inadequate even in situations like the "carefully managed" relationship between China and the United States of the early 1970s, the realist theory fails utterly to explain such critical developments as the construction of a democratic society in South Africa, the sustainable economic development of poor countries, or the evolving relationship between the US and China today.
The "realist" account is in fact quite unrealistic, because it ignores the following factors (among others). First, political identity is complicated. Roosevelt at Yalta and Nixon in China did not represent a unitary entity called the "United States" with a known set of interests. Rather, these men had complex identities (as individuals, members of parties and administrations, representatives of their countries, and human beings). Insofar as they represented the United States, its identity was complex and constantly contested. They, like their fellow citizens, had choices about how to define America and its interests. Subjects of totalitarian states have fewer evident choices. Yet even the Russians and Chinese had identities that were subject to change. As soon as Soviet diplomats stopped identifying as representatives of Communism or of the USSR and began seeing themselves as Russians, the Soviet Empire was over.
The realist picture also focuses too narrowly on the few people who hold the conspicuous power to issue orders--especially orders to armies and navies. There are always other players and other forms of power. Again, the US opening to China represents an apparent example of "realist" politics, since just four men initially drove the diplomatic process, operating in near secrecy, and thinking mainly of national security interests. Yet it mattered enormously that US public opinion had already turned in favor of peace with China. That means that millions of Americans were players. Moreover, the relationship between the United States and China had already been launched by decades of missionary activity, immigration, trade, and cultural exchanges. These interactions created perceptions, stereotypes, habits, and modes of relating between the two nations that had enormous impact on Kissinger, Nixon, Zhou Enlai, and Mao, despite the apparent power and freedom of these leaders.
What was true when Nixon went to China applies much more clearly today. Now that the Chinese government has relaxed control over many aspects of Chinese life and there is a net annual flow of $75 billion from individual American consumers and firms to Chinese companies, the relationship is evidently between two complex "bodies politic" and not simply between two sets of national leaders. Identity, culture, perception, and modes of interaction are essential.
In Chapter IX, co-written with Philip D. Stewart, Saunders examines the evolving relationship between Russia and the US since 1989. By observing public deliberations about Russian-American relations, Saunders and Stewart learned that a major issue is the enormous consumption of US popular culture in Russia. Hollywood-produced movies and music threaten to erode Russian civilization; at the aame time, they present the US in a light that many Americans may resent. (In our movies, we appear to be violent, sexually prurient, and spiritually vacant). The flow of pop culture is a significant problem, but not one caused by states. "While American companies certainly produce these films, it is Russian television executives who choose to show [them]. These decisions are normally made on commercial grounds, that is, the anticipated audience the film can draw, and thus advertising revenues. In this case, the influences on a most sensitive aspect of relationship--Russians' pride in their culture--are multisided, complex, and not subject to direct or central control by either side."
One Russian citizen says, "Yes, America influences our lives, but why do we permit them to influence us to such a degree?" If there is a solution, it will necessarily involve creative work by thousands or millions of citizens in both countries, who find better ways to represent themselves.
Saunders also devotes chapters to the democratic transformation in South Africa after apartheid, the peace process in war-torn Tajikistan, and public deliberations on issues like domestic violence in West Virginia. Each chapter plays an important role in the overall argument. The South Africa case clearly demonstrates that "realism" is unrealistic. The apartheid government possessed the only army and police force in the country; it seemed to have all the power. Stalin asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?" and he could have asked the same patronizing question about Nelson Mandela in his prison cell. Nevertheless, the apartheid regime crumbled (much against the wishes of its leaders) and a new society was born without a bloodbath.
The explanation must lie, first, in the capacity of white South Africans to modify their identities, their understanding of their own self-interests, and their stereotypes of Blacks. Second, there were dialogues among the White, Colored, and Black populations that took place over a long period in various venues, with various purposes and styles. The result of all that talk was a deep, complex, difficult, but substantially positive relationship among three (or more) peoples. Third, there were valuable cultural resources in Black South African culture, especially a traditional commitment to peaceful consensus, the philosophy of ubuntu, which understands human value in terms of relationships, and Christian ethics.
The Tajik case exemplifies the role of a fairly formal and organized "peace process" among belligerent factions that applied Saunders' principles. A joint team of Americans and Russians had experienced the "Dartmouth Process" during the Cold War. The "Dartmouth Process" refers to a long series of meetings between Soviet and US delegations that took place outside of formal government. Applying their experience from forty years of Dartmouth dialogues, Soviet and US diplomats encouraged Tajiks to think broadly about the relationships among their communities. They decentralized the Inter-Tajik Dialogue by organizing deliberative forums at the local level. And they linked talk to action by encouraging local deliberators to design micro-enterprises together and apply jointly for grants.
Finally, Saunders' domestic American example, which focuses on the West Virginia Center for Civic Life, demonstrates that it is important for some people to be deliberately and self-consciously concerned about the civic infrastructure. To be sure, democratic politics and international affairs are mostly interactions among people who hold particular values and views. Political energy comes from people who want something--not always money or power, but sometimes a particular vision of their community. Nevertheless, some citizens should strive for neutrality so that they can create trusted forums in which other citizens can talk and work. The West Virginia Center for Civic Life is a perfect example.
Betty Knighton is the Center's director. I happen to know and admire her. She says, "We have defined the Center for Civic Life as aggressively neutral." As I argued recently, Knighton's stance might be better described as "open-ended." She surely has goals for her state; she's not neutral. The work that she promotes is likely to favor certain political outcomes over others. Nevertheless, Knighton is willing to create a good democratic and deliberative process and then let the chips fall where they may. One of Saunders' South African sources, Pravin Gordhan, similarly "insists" that the peace process that ended apartheid "was a way of acting, not a well defined or carefully masterminded strategy." Such openness is crucial.
In my view, Saunders brilliantly demonstrates the power of citizen politics in the 21st century. The most "realistic" view is that millions or billions of people now shape international affairs through their talk, their opinions, and their behavior. It is, however, a different question whether citizen politics is inevitably better than state-centered power politics.
South Africa is an inspiring example, but it's also worth considering Yugoslavia. Under Marshall Tito, a few bosses met to negotiate scarce economic goods. The country was undemocratic and not very dynamic, but it was at peace. Once many Yugoslavs became involved in politics, once national identity became a topic of discussion, and once people began to think about their overall relationships with other ethnic communities, hell broke out.
In general, citizens don't negotiate fine details; they consider fundamental problems and debate their own identity. Unfortunately, for many Serbs, the fundamental "problem" was the alleged trampling of Serbian identity ever since the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389.
To be sure, Saunders would have handled the dialogues among Yogoslavs infinitely better than Slobodan Milosevic and his peers. He would have worked for relationships "based on equality, mutuality, accountability, input, access to decision-making, shared and accountable stewardship of resources." Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that the civil war in Yugoslavia accompanied an increase in the role of citizens and a broadening of public discourse to include identities and relationships.
Saunders defines politics as "relationships among significant clusters of citizens to solve problems in a cumulative, multilevel, and open-ended process of continuous interaction over time in whole bodies politic across permeable borders either within or between communities or countries." Serbian and other Balkan nationalists used a "cumulative, multilevel, and open-ended" process to "engage" with rival populations across permeable boundaries. Unfortunately, some of engagement included ethnic cleansing and mass murder. We might be tempted to say that Serbs had common interests with Kosovars and Bosnian Moslems, so they should have worked together. That's true insofar as their interests were prosperity and security. But some of them were more interested in cultural domination. I can imagine a darker version of Saunders' book, one that predicts a shift from elite economic negotiations to broad citizen engagement on matters of culture and identity--with lots of bloodshed along the way.
Before Saunders gets to his examples, he argues for a "new paradigm" in political science. To support this argument, he tells the following story. First, Newtonian physics created a model for all sciences--abstract, quantitative, general, and concerned with mass and force. Political scientists adapted this model, and were naturally led to focus on coercive power as an analogy to Newtonian force. Since the main bearer of coercive power is the state, political scientists narrowed their attention to governments.
Next, natural scientists began to discover deep complexity, unpredictability, relativity, and the interdependence of systems. Finally, Saunders and colleagues followed the lead of the new "holistic" natural scientists by developing a new paradigm of politics that is less reductive than "realism." This new paradigm emphasizes relationships among "bodies politic," much as natural scientists look at whole organisms and ecosystems.
This is an effective story, but I could tell an entirely different one that omits natural science altogether. In my version, political scientists between 1930 and 1970 focused on the coercive power of the state because states were remaking the world--solving social problems in the case of the New Deal and the European social democracies, and creating disasters in the fascist and communist states and many of the post-colonial regimes. A few political scientists wrote about political culture, but culture and human relationships seemed relatively inconsequential compared to the behavior of governments, which were transforming societies overnight, manipulating public opinion, and launching world wars.
Then came the social movements of the 1960s and afterwards, which (as Saunders notes in Chapter VIII) had enormous impact even though they were non-coercive. The most powerful states in the world--those of the Communist bloc--collapsed altogether; civil society played a role in bringing them down. Even the old social democracies seemed incapable of handling a new generation of problems that arose in the 1970s. Under these circumstances, political scientists naturally turned their attention to social movements and, more generally, to non-governmental, non-coercive forms of politics.
This trend was already evident in the 1970s, when scholars like Elinor Ostrom and Jane Mansbridge were deeply influenced by the success of social movements. Mansbridge, Ostrom, Robert Putnam (with his analysis of "social capital"), and Theda Skocpol (with her historical narrative of American associations) are as influential as anyone in the profession. Benjamin Barber, Harry Boyte, Bill Galston, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, and many others have provided theoretical arguments for the importance of civil society and political culture. In none of these developments do I see an important influence from natural science.
In short, I found the analogy to science interesting but unnecessary, and I thought that the book was excessively optimistic in places. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of what Saunders has achieved through his experimental engagement with actual citizen politics on several continents, his clear-sighted and eloquent analysis of cases, and his overall theoretical framework.
November 14, 2005
the new sans-culottes
Some French intellectuals really believe it. They are convinced that the Arab and African youth who are rioting in their suburbs are completely French, totally committed to the traditional ideology of the French leftist working class, which includes the great republican trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Culture, race, and religion are irrelevant, although certain ancient French values inspire the immigrant youth. What we see in France are young citoyens taking to the barricades to defend the Rights of Man against Anglo-Saxon inequality and cultural separatism.
See, for example, this priceless interview that I translate from yesterday's Le Monde:
Emmanuel Todd (historian and demographer): But I see nothing in the events themselves that radically distinguishes the children of immigrants from the rest of French society. I see exactly the opposite. I interpret the events as a rejection of marginalization. None of this could have happened if the children of immigrants hadn't embraced a few of the fundamental values of French society, such as, for instance, the dyad of liberty-equality. Among other actors--the police led by the government, the local authorities, the non-immigrant population--I have seen maybe some exasperation, but no wholesale rejection.
Q: You want to say that the youth are revolting because they have accepted the republican model and believe that it doesn't work?
Todd: Exactly. I read their revolt as the hope of equality. French society is wrought by the rise of inegalitarian values that touch the whole developed world. Well enough accepted in the United States, where its only political effect is the rise of neoconservatism, this global inegalitarian tendency goes over badly in France. It collides with an egalitarian anthropological value that has been at the heart of peasant family structures in the Parisian basin. That substrate, which rose up in the 17th century or earlier still, is not found among the English peasantry, for whom the inheritance of land was unequal.
When you are at the top of the society, you can get used to this inegalitarian trend, even if it is against your principles; that is not too uncomfortable. In contrast, the popular center and middle classes take it very badly. They give votes to the [National Front Party of Le Pen], which has an egalitarian component, with its ability to say shit to the elites, and an inegalitarian component, with its tendency to look below for a scapegoat, in the immigrants.
These kids from the suburbs, from African or Maghreb origins, they are not at all in the same situation as the Pakistanis of England or the Turks of Germany. For the daughters of Algerians [in France], the rate of mixed marriages hovered at the beginning of the 1990s at around 25%, when it was at one percent for the daughters of Turks [in Germany] and infinitesimal for the daughters of Pakistanis [in Britain]. The simple ethnic mixture of bands of youth in France is inconceivable in Anglo-Saxon countries. Obviously, I'm not meaning to give an idyllic vision of the France of 1789, which put to work the national republicans' dream with its assumption of a Universal Man.
The last sentence protests too much: M. Todd does indeed see the present in terms of 1789. His bare facts appear to be correct. For example, I checked the inter-marriage rates among Pakistanis in Britain and found (somewhat to my surprise) that they are as low as Todd claims. (See pdf, p. 15) However, it seems wrong almost to the point of lunacy to claim that immigrant youth in Paris are influenced by the 17th century peasant culture of the same region. Todd wants to combine a passionate French nationalism with an anti-racist and universalist ideology. Thus he claims that anyone born in the Ile-de-France, regardless of color or creed, is essentially French and thus morally superior to the perfidious Anglo-Saxons with their tolerance of inequality. If the rioters are classic Frenchmen, no wonder the police fundamentally accept them; no wonder they intermarry at high rates.
Some grounds for skepticism: (1) France has not been notably egalitarian in modern times. As measured by GINI coefficients, France is less equal than Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Spain, and only slightly more so than Britain. (2) The "global inegalitarian trend" reflects enthusiasm for liberty. Liberty is always in tension with equality. Indeed, the French revolutionaries of 1789 were profoundly committed to free markets and private property--values that they tried to export to the whole world. "Neoconservatism" is not alien to France. (3) Notwithstanding the low intermarriage rates among British Pakistanis, "ethnic mixing" is very common in London and New York--at least as evident as in Paris. (4) Despite Todd's fondest hopes, race, religion, and culture surely matter to young Moslems of color--and to French police officers and local authorities. Embracing the rioters as the authentic heirs of 1789 is touching, but I don't think it has much to do with reality.
November 11, 2005
how to cut federal spending
Moderate Republicans have beaten back an effort to cut federal spending by $54 billion, partly because the proposed cuts would have hurt poor Americans. However, it is both possible and desirable to cut federal spending that benefits special interests. Although the following cuts would be very difficult for politicians to support, we should demand them:
Close the Commerce Department (too much corporate welfare), retaining the Bureau of the Census, the Patent Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as independent agencies ... save $4.9 billion.
Cut federal highway aid in half ... save $17.3 billion.
Close the Small Business Administration (too much corporate welfare), preserving only "direct disaster loans" ... save $20 billion.
Cut "commodities and international" spending from the Agriculture Department budget; also cut farm loans ... save $6.3 billion
Cut the NASA budget by $6 billion by narrowing the agency's mission to research using unmanned spacecraft
Total savings: $54.5 billion [Source: GPO]
November 10, 2005
21st century skills
I'll be spending today at a meeting of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a broad coalition that includes businesses and the teachers' unions. The meeting began last night with some speeches about the need to increase math and science skills in the face of global economic competition. I'll be sticking up for civic skills, which are already included in the Partnership's list but could be overlooked.
November 9, 2005
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an amazing novel about the "return of English magic" during the Napoleonic era. It resembles books in which the author conducts research into some occult or supernatural beliefs and then pretends that these beliefs are true. That mix of historical research and make-believe is evident in Umberto Eco's novels, in the Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and (to name two less successful examples) in my Something to Hide and Tongues of Fire. However, Clarke's book is different. As far as I can tell, the scholarly research that appears to underlie the novel is entirely invented. Clarke has made up the historical tradition that she seems to have rediscovered. That tradition is so richly imagined and so multidimensional that it seems real.
At the same time, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a compelling, suspenseful story. Despite being about magic, it's for grownups. Adult relationships (especially a marriage and the competition between two professionals) are at the heart of the book. I read it jealously, since I would rather have written it than done any other kind of work. But my jealousy--which also happens to be a big theme in the book--did not prevent me from enjoying it thoroughly.
November 8, 2005
A good citizen may certainly fight hard for a political position. However, there is also an important kind of political work that does not pursue any particular policies. It attempts to strengthen our capacity for self-government by being deliberately open-ended. Instead of defining problems and solutions in advance, such work creates open forums, networks, and institutions in which diverse groups of citizens can make their own decisions and act effectively.
Often we think of discussions, meetings, and other deliberative processes as examples of open-ended politics, because good democratic conversations are open--not constrained by predetermined outcomes. However, talk is not the only political activity that can be open-ended. People can also work together on practical projects without committing to predetermined ends. For example, they can found, fund, and physically construct a library or a school without deciding all the purposes that it will serve over the long run.
"Open-ended" seems a better term than "neutral," because neutrality is something of a chimera. Most political interventions have more or less predictable consequences for left and right. For example, someone might register young voters to increase participation. However, if one registers students on my campus, experience suggests that 70 percent will vote Democratic--a partisan consequence. Even in a simple public discussion, someone must issue an invitation that may somehow shape the ensuing conversation.
Nevertheless, there is surely a difference between trying to inspire, persuade, or manipulate people to adopt a view, versus helping them to form and promote decisions of their own. For example, imagine that a community must decide whether to build a mall or a school in a location downtown. An individual who favors the school could respond in the following ways, among others ...
These options grow increasingly open-ended. That doesn't necessarily mean that they get better as we move down the list. If a school is objectively superior to a mall in this situation, then the last two options may be a mistake.
Indeed, if one endorses a full-blown political ideology (complete with appropriate policies, arguments, institutions, constituencies, and tactics), then it may seem morally compelling to further that view rather than to promote open-ended civic processes. However, I doubt that any of the available ideologies, from libertarianism to socialism, is in good enough intellectual condition today to merit anything more than lukewarm support. In that situation, pragmatic, open-ended, participatory civic work is especially important.
In would be unwise to adopt an open-ended approach to politics if public opinion generally reflected deep inequality of knowledge, status, power, and other resources. We would have to reform the economic structure of society before we could trust public deliberations to reach just or wise conclusions.
Indeed, there is such a thing as "false consciousness"—a set of views contrary to people’s own interests that they adopt because they are manipulated by cultural norms, status differentials, advertising, state propaganda, schools, religious bodies, and other large forces. However, we are not respectful of our fellow citizens if we diagnose them as having been so manipulated. It requires a remarkable belief in the superiority of one’s own views to attribute false consciousness to others. Again, given the weak intellectual condition of all major ideologies today, such arrogance seems misplaced. Besides, it is generally more effective to begin with a sincere attitude of respect and, having genuinely listened, then to express one's own dissenting views.
November 7, 2005
trying to look at Las Meninas
Last week in Madrid, I spent a long time staring at Las Meninas by Velazquez. I soon realized that some of the other tourists, especially those accompanied by professional guides, were deliberately looking at the painting in pocket mirrors. I went to the museum gift shop and bought myself a small mirror. I thought I was clever to find one, but on reflection I suspect that the Prado stocks mirrors just so that people can use them to view Las Meninas.
I don't know precisely why people look at Velazquez' masterpiece in a mirror. To me, however, the reflection of the painting looked extraordinarily three-dimensional--more real and natural than the tourists who constantly passed in front of it. Velazquez depicts light coming from three angles, the back, the right, and the front; and all the resulting shadows and highlights create a startling illusion of depth when viewed in a small mirror.
Many of the tourists behaved in the following way. They rapidly approached the painting, planted one of their party in front of it, took a digital picture of this person, and then walked away. I often saw this in my mirror.
Las Meninas shows Velazquez looking back at us, so to speak. He has been painting a large canvas that we cannot see. It blocks his view, so he looks around and directly at the middle of the crowd of tourists. Several of the other people represented in Las Meninas also look in our direction.
What is Velazquez painting? There is a mirror behind him on which appear the faces of the King and Queen of Spain. So perhaps the mirror reflects the canvass that Velazquez has been working on. In that case, we are viewing a double royal portrait reflected in the mirror. There is no reason to assume that the King and Queen still stand before Velazquez at the moment depicted in the painting. He might be working on the background or applying a varnish after his sitters have left.
Alternatively, perhaps the King and Queen do stand in front of Velazquez, just where I stood with my mirror and the other tourists posed for their snapshots. Then the mirror behind Velazquez shows the two live Royals. He might be painting them, or he might be painting something else while they happen to visit his studio.
In fact, the royal couple could be visiting Velazquez while he paints Las Meninas, which is a portrait of their daughter and her attendants. Then, on the canvas in front of him, Velazquez would also appear--painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, in a mise-en-abime. All these theories have been advanced and defended.
When I was in the Prado, Velazquez appeared to be looking--not at the King and Queen--but at the backs of tourists, who faced the viewfinders of cameras, which appeared in my mirror as I stood with my back to Velazquez looking at him. It was a very "post-modern" moment, made even more self-referential by the fact that Foucault himself wrote a famous essay about the self-referentiality of Las Meninas.
Why were the tourists taking pictures of Las Meninas? Because it is a Masterpiece. Walter Benjamin explained that when a unique object is reproduced thousands of times over, the original gains an aura. It alone is "real," and all the coffee table books, documentaries, postcards, coasters, and candles that reproduce it are fakes. People want to be able to go home and see themselves in a reproduction of Las Meninas that proves that they were near the actual object, the one that Velazquez himself made. Velazquez, after all, was a Great Artist--which happens to one of the messages of Las Meninas. The artist shows that his genius has made him the peer of great aristocrats.
Las Meninas is a Masterpiece for several other reasons: the excellence of the illusion, the air of mystery, the striking ensemble, the self-portrait (which ties the image to its genius-maker), the perennial appeal of a princess and her life at court, and even the remoteness of Madrid in the 19th century, which allowed visitors to report that there was a great painting in the Prado that people couldn't appreciate unless they went all the way to Spain to see it. "Las Meninas" had an aura even when it could only be reproduced in lithographs.
I have spoken of "tourists." I want to make clear that I was also a tourist in the Prado, also standing in front of the artifact to be near it and blocking others' view. I would never take a snapshot of myself in front of a painting; I'm too much of a snob for that. But I am writing a souvenir right now, wanting to remind myself what it was like to be near Las Meninas. While I was there, I had so many meta-thoughts that I'm not sure how well I saw the thing-in-itself.
One kind of tourist wants to do what is typically done by tourists. The goal is to experience the classic experience. In contrast, we academics are trained to be original. We get no credit for writing something that has already been written. For us, Masterpieces like Las Meninas become imposing, they gain a kind of aura, because so much has been said about them in the past that there is surely nothing we can add. Ortega y Gasset argued that Velazquez had established the nobility of painting by depicting himself as a courtier-painter. Foucault declared Las Meninas to be the death of representation. John Searle declared Foucault to be wrong. Svetlana Alpers took issue with both Foucault and Searle. And legions of specialists have isolated the pigments, analyzed the perspective lines, traced Velazquez' influences, and identified the figures in the painting. What else is there to say?
Actually, if I had time to play the academic in relation to Las Meninas, I would look at what has been written about the dog (hoping, of course, that no one has written anything, because then I could leave my mark). Pets are domesticated nature, and nothing could be more domesticated than a large hunting dog that allows a dwarf to step on its back without moving. In Renaissance terms, court dwarves are natural (as opposed to supernatural), but also unnatural (as opposed to normal); and they are part of the King's domestic scene. Painting, too, is domesticated nature: it is infinite, shifting space reduced through magical artifice to a flat, motionless surface.
In Las Meninas, everyone is looking at someone or something: everyone except the dog, whose eyes seem to be closed. We look at nature; nature doesn't look at us. We look at paintings, and usually paintings don't look at us. But Las Meninas is an unusual painting, one in which the artist has to peer around a large canvass to look in our direction, and in which a mirror pointed in our direction eerily reflects the King and Queen of Spain. Las Meninas is a piece of canvass with some paint on it; it is also an artifact with a sacred aura. Viewed in a mirror, it looks more real than reality. All this is enough to make you wonder how natural the painting really is.
November 4, 2005
speaking in Madrid
I just gave my speech on "Education for Democratic Citizenship" to an audience in Madrid. The text is here.
Speaking in a large auditorium is always a surreal experience: the strong lights block out the audience and one's voice sounds strange on the p.a. system. In this case, there was also a massive video image of me playing behind me as I spoke. Since unfortunately I don't speak Spanish, I had little sense of the context--what the other speakers had said or what the audience expected. The geographical context (a vast conventional center near the airport) was also mysterious. Adding to the inevitable surrealismo, I have been running a fever since Monday. I seem to have a 'flu that I have probably imported to the E.U. along with some ideas about democratic education.
One nice man told me afterwards that he appreciated hearing an American give an alternative perspective (meaning an alternative to G.W. Bush's view). If others felt the same way, then the speech was worthwhile.
November 3, 2005
the monastery of the royal shoeless
Yesterday, before my conference began, I explored Madrid and took a tour of El Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. This is actually a Franciscan convent, which is why the nuns are "shoeless." They were originally "royal" because the institution was created to house princesses and other aristocratic women who (thanks to dynastic politics) were not destined to marry, or were widowed, or needed to retreat from court scandals.
Franciscan nuns are called "Poor Clares" after their founder, Chiara of Assisi, the daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso. Chiara (or Clare) renounced all her considerable worldly goods in order to follow the example of her personal friend, Francis of Assisi. In her struggle to become poor, she had to contend first with the hostility of her father and then with a series of popes who wanted the nuns who followed her to hold property in common. Other orders held vast quantities of joint property, but radicals of Clare's day believed that such wealth, even if it technically belonged to the group rather than to individuals, corrupted the Church. Clare persuaded Gregory IX to change his own prior written instructions and grant her the Privilegium Paupertatis, the "privilege to be poor." He knew this was a radical and subversive idea. For if the "Clares" were poor, why might the Church be rich?
Anyway, the Royal Shoeless of Madrid, although Poor Clares, have certainly held some collective wealth. Their monastery contains numerous chapels and halls arrayed around a tranquil, two-story cloister. Practically every inch of the interior is covered in religious art: paintings, sculptures, frescos, reliquaries, gilt altarpieces, and dioramas made of porcelein figurines. Most of the art is distinctly second-rate, although there seems to be a fine Titian and some magnificent Flemish tapestries executed to designs ("cartoons") by Rubens.
I am very accustomed to religious art and love a great deal of it. I have also been in nunneries built for aristocratic women, such as the Beguine-houses of Bruges. But I must admit that the sentimentality of the art at the "Descalzas" put me over the edge. Picture cloistered virgin princesses spending their lives worshipping before images of the Mother and Child. I presume they see Mary as the ideal woman because she represents motherly charity without sex. Then notice that underneath several of the Madonnas in the Descalzes are wounded babies laid out on crosses or tombs. In each of these images, a Baroque putto has been crucified to foreshadow his tragic end.
The "Descalzas" also contains an extraordinary collection of saintly relics in elaborate containers. They are said to be the body parts of tortured and murdered Christians, displayed for adoration. Then there are whole rooms full of Hapsburg portraits--the men depicted in armor--and some elaborate allegories of Catholicism versus heresy.
Sentimentality, opulence, aristocratic pedigrees, vows of poverty, military violence, images of torture in a home walled off from all worldly evils ... the mixture is hard to take. Not that I envy the nuns of the Descalzas. There was something about the walls--scrubbed clean but last painted a long time ago--the bare electric lighting, the stern signs, and all that didactic art that made me think of a hospital, a scary old boarding school, or even a reformatory. We never saw the nuns themselves; they hide away while the tours go through.
November 2, 2005
(Kennedy Airport, Tuesday evening) I'm flying business class for the first time in my life, thanks to the good people in Spain. The Business Lounge in Terminal 7 is quite a scene. There's a bar, a marble fountain, a spa, a bank of free computers, a counter with free snacks, a conference room, and on the walls, the "British Airways Collection" of original drawings by the likes of Sol Lewitt and Christo. I guess if you're rich, you don't have to pay for things like food and Internet access. Also, we are invited to leave our bags unattended in a side room. I guess rich people don't steal stuff. I got in here through a separate security checkpoint where the line was short and--maybe it was my imagination, but the Transportation Security Agency people sure seemed deferential. I guess if you're rich, even the government offers you efficient and friendly service.
November 1, 2005
CIRCLE research competition opens
Today, CIRCLE (which is my organization) has released a research Request for Proposals (RFP). Thanks to Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have $500,000 to fund research projects on the civic development of high-school-age youth.
Meanwhile, I'm on my way to Spain today, for an education conference. I'm not sure whether I'll post from there; I may. I'll be back in the USA on November 7.