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June 30, 2006

the meaning of Hamdan

The Hamdan decision is one of those texts whose meaning will only become clear once it has been thoroughly contested. Certainly, the 5-vote majority struck down the president's unilateral authority to create tribunals like the ones established for Guantanamo prisoners. That means that Congress must now act to preserve the tribunals, or else they will close. But what is the broader significance of the decision? It seems to me that everything depends on how the public interprets the case and digests bigger questions about presidential power and terrorism.

According to Public Agenda, "Polls taken when the idea was first proposed consistently showed majorities favoring tribunals over civilian courts in terrorism cases, but surveys since then have shown results changing when the question is rephrased. That's a classic sign of public uncertainly in survey research and a signal that the public is still working through its views on this tactic in the war on terror. When public opinion is firmly settled on an issue, changing the wording doesn't make much difference."

The unsettled state of public opinion makes several outcomes possible --and will encourage activists and ideologues to try to shape the public's interpretation of the Supreme Court's decision.

I can imagine, first, that Hamdan will become a watershed case, standing for the principle that the executive is a dangerous branch, especially when the country appears to be threatened. The executive has guns, jails, and interrogation rooms; it has the capacity (unlike Congress) to make secret decisions. It is prone to overreach and violate individual liberties. Hamdan could represent the idea that the president must obey laws, including such international treaties as the Geneva Convention. George W. Bush could become an illustration of a dangerous president who was brought under control by the court.

If public opinion crystallized around that view, then Congress would not pass legislation to preserve the tribunals. Many Members would share Rep. Adam Schiff's view that the Hamdan decision should not only close Guantanamo, but also end warrantless wiretapping. (As Jack Balkin notes, the administration's use of wiretaps without court orders had the same justification as Guantanamo: the use-of-force resoluton). It is even conceivable that prominent people would start clamoring for prosecutions of men like Donald Rumsfeld for violating Article 3 of the Geneva Convention in contravention of US law.

I can also imagine, however, that Hamdan will be wrapped together with the New York Times' leaks of banking surveillance and the Democrats' criticisms of the Pentagon. People will believe that various "elites" are putting the country at risk by following foreign opinion and hamstringing the president. Under those circumstances, Congress will feel safe in reinstating the Guantanamo tribunals by statute. The status quo will resume and the Hamdan decision will become a footnote. It will be cited when people want presidents to consult with Congress, but the executive will feel confident in refusing to do so. (For this scenario, see my colleague Mark Graber on Balkinization.)

One of my conservative friends, a supporter of executive power, believes that Bush botched that cause by overreaching. If, at the height of the president's popularity, he had sought congressional authorization for military tribunals and warrantless wiretaps, he would have won by large margins and established powerful precedents. Instead, he has provoked a fight over the principle that the executive needn't consult Congress--a fight that he is losing. That's a variation of Randy Barnett's view.

On yet another version of the future, the Administration will benefit by closing Gitmo without losing face. "The court really rescued the administration by taking it out of this quagmire it's been in," said Michael Greenberger, who teaches the law of counterterrorism at the University of Maryland law school.

I certainly hope that Hamdan moves the public to support the rule of law and human rights. I also hope that it establishes the principle that the US government acts in our names, so we're responsible for what it does. As long as the government acts secretly, we can avoid a feeling of complicity. However, if Congress now votes to allow military tribunals--or "waterboarding" and other forms of torture--that will be on our shoulders. I hope that citizens accept that resposibility.

Balkin emphasizes the shift of accountability to Congress. "What the Court has done is not so much countermajoritarian as democracy forcing. It has limited the President by forcing him to go back to Congress to ask for more authority than he already has, and if Congress gives it to him, then the Court will not stand in his way." That's correct, but since Congress acts in public and faces election, we could equally say that the Court has forced the President to go to the people for support. That's truly "democracy-forcing."

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June 29, 2006

kids, communities, and online popularity

I am concerned that we are setting kids up for disappointment when we tell them that the Internet gives everyone the equivalent of a broadcast studio with which one can reach many people and change the world. Even if some kids are highly successful, most will not draw a significant audience.

Yochai Benkler's excellent book the Strength of Networks (which is available free online with interactive features) is a useful starting point for considering this problem. In this post, I draw on Benkler's Chapter 7.

Some early enthusiasts for the Internet assumed (with the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU) that everyone with a computer could become a "pamphleteer," putting ideas into the public arena that would reach audiences simply in proportion to their relevance, value, or popularity. In that case, the popularity of websites would follow a bell curve, with more sites near the median than near the tails.

But Benkler rejects such "mid-1990s utopianism" (p. 260). A few sites are enormously more popular than the median, and there is a long tail in which sites show little evidence of an audience at all. For example, the median blog currently tracked by Truth Laid Bear (a popular ranking service) has two incoming links, whereas the top blog has 4,201.

Early papers that discovered this "power-law" (see graph, below) took a skeptical or critical line. The Internet was not a democracy or a meritocracy. Rather, people and search engines linked to sites that were already popular, thus making them more so. The rich got richer, regardless of merit.

But Benkler summarizes findings that are more optimistic than a pure power law-theory would imply. Mathematical models of the web suggest that unknown sites do rise in popularity and popular ones fall. There are many stories about innovations in tactics, techniques, or ideas that spread very rapidly. For instance, BoycottSBG--a response to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group's alleged Republican bias--obtained enormous participation within a week. As Benkler says, "it was providing a solution that resonated with the political beliefs of many people and was useful to them for their expression and mobilization" (p. 247).

Benkler observes a "self-organizing principle" on the World Wide Web. People with strong mutual affinities find one another and link their websites or leave comments on each others' pages. Within these affinity groups, some sites become more popular than others. But (a) there are many affinity groups, and (b) the popularity curve is not always steep within a group. "When the topically or organizationally related clusters become small enough--on the order of hundreds or even low thousands of Web pages--they no longer follow a pure power law distribution. Instead, they follow a distribution that still has a very long tail--these smaller clusters still have a few genuine 'superstars'--but the body of the distribution is substantially more moderate: beyond the few superstars, the shape of the link distribution looks a little more like a normal distribution." (p. 251)

Clusters of affinity groups then aggregate, often through sites that are or become "superstars." We thus see a highly skewed distribution of popularity on the Internet as whole, yet the Web remains plural and open because of all the smaller groups. As Benkler says, "There is a big difference between a situation where no one is looking at any of the sites on the low end of the distribution, because everyone is looking only at the superstars, and a situation where dozens or hundreds of sites at the low end are looking at each other, as well as at the superstars" (p. 251). On Benkler's model, "filtering for the network as a whole is done as a form of nested peer-review decisions, beginning with the speaker’s closest information affinity group" (p. 258). Lively dialogues begin "with communities of interest on smallish scales, practices of mutual pointing, and the fact that, with freedom to choose what to see and who to link to, with some codependence among the choices of individuals as to whom to link, highly connected points emerge even at small scales, and continue to be replicated with ever-larger visibility as the clusters grow" (p. 252).

Thus Benkler contends that the Internet is considerably more "democratic" (i.e., pluralist, open, and responsive to spontaneous popular opinion) than the traditional mass media, even if it is not utopian. I can share those views, yet I continue to worry about ordinary kids in ordinary settings who are asked to express themselves through the World Wide Web.

1. Most kids will not draw substantial audiences, because most websites remain in the tail of the distribution. If you have a less popular site, you get little feedback from your readers and viewers. Kids who create such sites may feel that they are failures, in a culture that prizes popularity.

2. Kids are unlikely to obtain a substantial audience through sheer talent or innovation or by "resonating" with public opinion. Some kids will, but the average won't.

3. Kids may not belong to tight affinity groups, differentiated from the mass youth population. Benkler mentions "communities of interest on smallish scales" that conduct peer-review and create audiences by linking to one another. But adolescents do not automatically have such communities. The typical US high school is a massive and anonymous institution to which students do not feel attached. Kids have common concerns, but they tend to share them with millions of others. Mass media culture is profoundly homogenizing.

I suspect that the solutions to these problems do not lie primarily online. For example, the current movement to create small, "themed" high schools to replace large comprehensives would put kids in cohesive communities. Many students would care about shared local issues. They would then be interested in one another's online products. But that change would begin with a "breaks-and-mortar" reform: building smaller schools. Likewise, when students throughout Hampton, VA, are recruited to sit on the city's various boards, kids develop a common interest in their geographical community. But that interest starts with a policy change.

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June 28, 2006

it takes all kinds

I'm trying to meet a deadline on a big project, but meanwhile experiencing various subcultures. The Supreme Court, which I visited on Monday, was one. It offers a striking combination of grand and lush architecture, palpable power and respect, and a professorial style epitomized by Justice Breyer, who acted as if he were teaching smart law students.

That same afternoon, I taught a three-hour class on leadership for young Naval, Marine, and Coast Guard officers. They are different in superficial ways from their civilian counterparts. (For instance, they call professors "Sir"). But they are also different in more important respects. Almost all of them thought that voting was a duty, a moral obligation created by sacrifices in previous wars. In contrast, when we surveyed a national sample of youth in 2002, 34 percent said that voting was a choice; 20 percent called it a responsibility; and only 9 percent said it was a duty. For better and worse, the broad US society has moved from citizenship-as-duty to citizenship-as-choice. The military remains different in that respect.

Finally, I had an intense conversation yesterday with an Egyptian, a proponent of liberal democracy and civic education. He was passionately pro-Western and hostile to political Islam. He had come to get my advice, but I kept resisting, doubting that I have ideas relevant to Mubarak's Egypt. As I told him, there's nothing worse than advice that begins "In my country ...." But he insisted that the US has models and ideals that Egypt should adopt.

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June 27, 2006

the campaign finance decision

I happened to be in the Supreme Court chamber yesterday when the campaign finance decision was announced. Campaign finance law has been an interest of mine since I worked for Common Cause in the early 1990s; it's the topic of chapter four of my New Progressive Era. But it was a coincidence that I was present for yesterday's announcement. My friends Diana Hess and Lee Arbetmen, who teach Streetlaw's Supreme Court Summer Institute for Teachers, had invited me to sit with the teachers for yesterday morning's session in the Court.

The justices produced six separate opinions, of which Justice Breyer's became the judgment of the court only "because it was the narrowest reasoning in the majority," as the Post explains it. (See the pdf of all the opinions.) Moreover, Justice Breyer--who's thought to favor campaign regulation--seems to have attracted the votes of Justices Roberts and Alito on the basis of stare decisis, the doctrine that a past decision should normally be allowed to stand. Both of the new justices invoked that rather Burkean principle during their confirmation hearings, allowing them to imply that they might uphold a right to abortion even though they are against it. In yesterday's case, their respect for precedent put them on the opposite side of Justices Scalia and Thomas and produced two votes for the basic status quo.

The main results of yesterday's case are as follows: (a) states cannot limit the amount that campaigns may spend; (b) states may limit the size of contributions to parties and candidates; but (c) some limits can be too low to be constitutional. Part (a) was already the law under Buckley v. Valeo (1976). Vermont had then passed spending limits in a deliberate effort to overturn Buckley. That was a risky strategy, since the Court might have taken the opportunity to overturn all campaign finance regulations, as Justices Thomas and Scalia argued yesterday. Instead, the court basically preserved the structure of Buckley. Part (b) was already the law. Part (c), however, is a new wrinkle.

I agree with yesterday's decision that contribution limits can be too low--designed to cut off almost all funding for campaigns and therefore protecting incumbents against serious challenges. I also believe that contribution limits can be too high--allowing rich people and organizations to put their favored candidates in office and render the public debate irrelevant.

In his folksy, unofficial presentation yesterday, Justice Breyer noted that Vermont's contribution limits were so low that a party would quickly exhaust its permissable budget by buying coffees at a few events. He noted that his judgment about Vermont's limits could be wrong, but the lack of an index for inflation meant that "even if we are wrong now, we will be right soon enough." (That's an inexact quote.)

It is troubling that an unelected court can start with the grand generalities of the Constitution and end up deciding that a $200 limit is too low, given the current price of a cup of coffee. Justice Thomas writes: "the plurality does not purport to offer any single touchstone for evaluating the constitutionality of such laws. Indeed, its discussion offers nothing resembling a rule at all. From all appearances, the plurality simply looked at these limits and said, in its 'independent judicial judgment,' too low."

But the grand generalities of the Constitution do require competitive elections that provoke robust debate and that are not controlled by a rich elite. Those values can be undermined by either too much or too little private money in campaigns. Legislatures should uphold the Constitution by passing campaign finance reform with appropriate spending limits. But they canot be trusted to set rules that so profoundly affect their own careers without indepedent judicial review.

Thus I think there is no alternative but for federal courts to review contribution limits and decide, case by case, whether they are too low. I wish that courts could order appropriate limits when there are none, just as I wish that courts would require redistricting procedures that maximize competitiveness. But mainstream opinion seems to hold that the judiciary, while it may strike down overly burdensome campaign regulations, may not create rules that strengthen democracy.

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June 26, 2006

group blogging for democracy

Joe Goldman has launched a new blog called The Democracy Movement. It's a group effort, devoted to deliberative democracy and related themes. I've signed up to contribute regularly, along with fellow academics Archon Fung and Abby Williamson from Harvard, John Gastil from the University of Washington, and Francesca Polletta from UC Irvine/Columbia University; Lars Hasselblad Torres, Evan Paul, and Joe Goldman from AmericaSpeaks; Martha McCoy, Pat Scully, Matt Leighninger, and Amy Malick from Study Circles; Taylor Willingham from the National Issues Forums; Bill Potapchuk from the Community Building Institute; Michael Weiksner from e-thePeople; and Jed Miller, now at the ACLU and formerly at Web Lab.

There's also a new service-learning blog with regular news from the field and some excellent contributors.

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June 23, 2006

the effects of canvassing--on canvassers

Canvassing is a common experience, especially for young activists on the left. In a 2002 survey available from CIRCLE, people were asked, "Have you worked as a canvasser--having gone door to door for a political or social group or candidate?" Seven percent of young people (and 11 percent of the young people who were involved in politics) said that they had.

Dana Fisher wrote a Working Paper, funded by CIRCLE, that examined the canvassing experience. She has now expanded her paper into a book entitled Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. I blurbed it (along with Senator Bradley, Ralph Nader, Harry Boyte, Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center, and Doug McAdam). I said:

For idealistic young progressives today, there is basically only one paid entry-level job left in politics: canvassing. Dana R. Fisher is the first to study this crucial formative experience. Essentially, she finds that the canvass is an alienating and undemocratic experience. As a result, we are squandering the energy and ideas of a whole generation. What's more, a progressive movement that relies on regimented canvassing is doomed to defeat because it lacks an authentic connection with citizens. Unless we take seriously the rigorous evidence and acute arguments of Activism, Inc., the future looks grim

Never having been on a canvass, I can't guarantee that Fisher's very critical portrait is comprehensive or fair. But I am sure that her account should trigger a robust debate about the effects of canvassing on young progressives. Indeed, Greg Bloom has kicked off that debate by writing a thoughtful series on DailyKos that makes similar points to Fisher's. The comments that veterans of canvassing have made in response to Bloom have been very interesting and, in the main, support his critique. See also this response by a canvass organizer.

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June 22, 2006

roots of American inequality

The Economist has a useful article on inequality in America, but even more useful is the collection of academic papers on that topic that the magazine has provided online. I picked a paper by Miles Corak entitled "Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility" (pdf).

Corak's Table 2 tells a striking story. In the United States and the UK, half of a father's economic advantage is transmitted (on average) to his son. (The data are limited to males for technical reasons.) There is a very high monetary return from investing in college education: 18.9 percent in the US. And there is a high correlation between fathers' educational attainment and sons' performance on a standardized test. In Scandinavia, by contrast, less than one fifth of a father's economic advantage is transmitted to his son; there is a low rate of return to college (7.9% in Denmark) and not much of a correlation between fathers' educational attainment and sons' test scores. The other countries in the sample fall in between the US/UK and Scandinavia on all these measures.

Corak's data are consistent with a picture of America as a highly competitive society in which those who perform well in school win great rewards. The best performers are the hardest working and smartest young people; thus the system feels like a meritocracy. However, high-performers usually have well educated and wealthy parents.

There cannot be law of nature that academic performance is heriditary, since the father/son correlations are much weaker in Canada and Europe. Instead, I suspect that American parents are able to effect their kids' chances of success in the meritocracy by how they raise them.

For example, the size of a kid's vocabulary is a valuable resource in school, yet Betty Hart and Todd Risley have found that three-year-old children of professionals have larger vocabularies than the parents of three-year-olds on welfare. There are profound differences in the way language is used, by social class. These differences are attenuated in European societies where the state is more likely to provide good daycare and where schools aim at equality.

I also wonder whether middle-class American parents work especially hard to give their children competitive advantages, because they realize the high stakes. Annette Lareau has found that suburban adults (without regard to race) try to use every second of the day in a "strategy of concerted cultivation," to give their kids work- and school-related skills. Whereas working-class urban parents try to let their kids be kids--a strategy that would work much better in Sweden than in the USA.

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June 21, 2006

Las Meninas and mirrors

Last fall, after a business trip to Madrid, I posted a mini-essay about Velazquez' great, complex, and enigmatic painting, Las Meninas. My essay was mainly about the difficulty of looking at and enjoying a work so famous and so heavily interpreted--and how that same self-consciousness is a subject of Las Meninas itself.

Now Colin Dexter from London has written to propose a theory that, to the best of my knowledge, is original as well as plausible and attractive. As he puts it: "Surely the whole painting is a mirror image." See here for two slightly different versions of his theory.

In poking around for online histories of mirrors (to confirm that there could have been very large mirrors at the Spanish court in 1656), I found this fascinating excerpt from Glass: A World History by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin:

Some who have traced the rise of autobiographical writing during the Renaissance have suggested that this 'discovery of the self' was linked to mirrors. Likewise it is pointed out that Renaissance artists such as Dürer explored the inner man through the use of mirrors during their painting. This is an argument forcefully put by Lewis Mumford and he cites the self-examining portraits of Rembrandt as the high point in this artistic introspection.

The timing of the causal link is right; good mirrors developed in almost exact pace with the development of a new individualism between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The geography is right; the epicentres of Renaissance individualism in painting and other art forms were Italy and the Netherlands, two of the most advanced areas of mirror-making and their use. The psychological link is plausible; people saw themselves in a new way that detached them from the crowd and allowed them to inspect themselves more carefully. We can see the process at work in a number of great artists. Yet as with all supposed connections there are doubts. Most cultures have mirrors of some sort and one wants to know more about how mirrors are used, the relative clarity of metal and glass mirrors and so on.

On the question of use, it is clearly important to discover the way in which mirrors were regarded. In the west they were largely looked into to see the person. This was both a cause and consequence of growing individualism. In China and Japan and perhaps other civilisations mirrors were used for different purposes. It is worth examining one example in some detail to see the differences that mirrors and culture could make.

A number of analysts, both foreign and Japanese, agree that in Japan mirrors were traditionally used in a very different way from that in the west. They looked through the mirror image and through the 'observing self.' The mirror was not an instrument of vanity and self-assessment, but of contemplation, as can be seen in Shinto shrines where the mirror is the central object. The individual does not gaze into the mirror to see a rounded portrait of the physical and social person in front of the mirror, but to gaze through the physical into the innermost, mystical self.

I like the idea that mirrors were both a "cause and consequence" of individualism--the kind of individualism that we see so strikingly in Las Meninas. It makes sense to me that the technology of reflective glass would have different effects depending on the cultural context. Likewise, I reject the simple theory that the invention of printing increased freedom and undermined authority. There was a complex reciprocal relationship between technological and cultural change in the era of Gutenberg--just as there is today.

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June 20, 2006

looking for deliberation in new places

I recently came across a very interesting paper by Nina Eliasoph entitled, "What if Good Citizens' Etiquette Requires Silencing Political Conversation in Everyday Life? Notes from the Field." It's drawn from a large project and contains numerous insights, making it hard to summarize but worth reading all the way through. The title does not do justice to its breadth.

Eliasoph starts with Michael Schudson's four types of good citizen--ideals that Schudson finds dominant at various points in American history. The "loyalist" citizen was a dutiful member of a community, contributing to collective projects (like barn-raising) without arguing or expressing explicit self-interests. The "partisan" citizen belonged to a movement with an ideology, and loved to compete as a member of his team. The "knowledgeable" citizen of the Progressive Era formed judicious, independent judgments on matters of public policy. And the "rights-bearing" citizen of today understands that the personal is political and constantly monitors institutions (including the family) to protect his or her rights.

The problem that Eliasoph observes is our inability to combine these forms of citizenship, at least in the obvious settings. For instance, in the voluntary associations that she observes (such as PTAs), members are supposed to be consistent loyalists; disagreements and expressions of self-interest are considered inappropriate:

Volunteers assumed that the purpose of speaking in meetings was to encourage each other and other people in the community to think that regular people really can make a difference on issues that are close to home. As one volunteer put it to me, more than once:

"The way to get a volunteer is to say 'who has a drill bit and can drill 8 holes on Saturday. Maybe you'll get someone who's never volunteered and maybe they'll come again.'"

Information was considered something that people might have unequal access to, as well, so discussing something that might require too much knowledge would be elitist and therefore not good for promoting this fellow feeling

So this goal of creating solidarity meant avoiding talking about issues that might be divisive, that might require debate; and it meant avoiding exposing people's ignorance about politics or their inability to be articulate; and it also meant avoiding noticing everyday politics.

On the other hand, in settings where self-identified "activists" operate, participants are expected to express nothing but self-interests. Opponents of a toxic incinerator privately hold complex and nuanced views. They tell Eliasoph that they don't want to practice NIMBY politics. They care about other neighborhoods and want to find basic solutions to environmental problems. However, they are only familiar with a script for public participation in which one expresses self-interest:

Americans assume that people who speak in public contexts--demonstrations, meetings, press conferences--are, just by the very fact they that are speaking in public, acting self-interestedly. There is, in American culture, no other obvious reason for speaking in public; the public sphere is a "spoiled moral environment" (as Vaclav Havel put it, describing pre-1989 Czechoslovakia) and anyone who enters it must be, according to conventional wisdom, be doing so for immoral reasons. The implicit etiquette for public speech demands that speakers "speak for themselves" and only for themselves. Speaking in terms of self-interest is the only way to enter the public arena; and that talking in terms of rights in public was not moral--they could not figure out how to get from "rights" to "justice" (as Pitkin puts it).

Each form of citizenship is flawed on its own. "Colonial [i.e., loyalist] citizenship without the others too readily avoids discouragement and debate; partisan politics without the others becomes self-righteous and too separate from fellow citizens (and is too easily controlled by money, if citizens are not already firmly organized in opinion-forming groups or independently mindful); information is too discouraging without the other two; personalized, rights-bearing citizenship without the other three could be too isolating." What we need is to combine the benefits of solidarity and loyalty, partisan debate and mobilization, judicious reasoning, and concern for individual interests.

Our public institutions do not encourage or even allow such combinations; nor do we learn useful habits in schools or from the media. However, Eliasoph finds partial combinations in unexpected places. For example, "In public library-sponsored story hours for pre-schoolers, parents often debate the politics and morality of the stories." On their own email lists, librarians "endlessly" discuss whether telling stories about the Holocaust and other horrors will cause children to despair, or whether omitting such stories would be dishonest.

These debates are political and concern profound moral questions. They do not occur, as conventional political theories would predict, in the voluntary associations of "civil society," nor in the press, nor in a legislature. Librarians are not volunteers; they are "paid by the state." However, even though the library is a state institution, storytime is connected to the "intimate domestic sphere."

Eliasoph asks whether it is adequate to have genuine public deliberations, but only about intimate matters such as which stories to read to small children. On the one hand, many of our problems--Eliasoph cites consumerism, workaholism, sexism, and racism--have cultural dimensions and must be addressed by the way we raise our children and interact with our peers. Deliberations among librarians, parents in playgroups, and officemates can address these issues without either disrupting solidarity or suppressing genuine differences. But, as Eliasoph notes, such discussions are not adequate for generating power, which is one of the chief virtues of political parties, unions, churches, and other conventional elements of "civil society."

I wonder whether it would make a difference if we had better political leadership. Today's official political debate is indeed a "spoiled moral environment." It provides few models for public speaking that are partisan or controversial but also concerned with the common good; that acknowledge interests but also seek solidarity. RFK's Indianapolis speech, which I described recently, was an excellent model, and so were other important speeches of that era. Barack Obama gained renown for his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention because people are hungry for such examples.

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June 18, 2006

how to enjoy Venice

I love Venice. My family and I just returned from an idyllic week there and are mourning our departure. However, we noticed that a lot of the other visitors didn't look very happy. Maybe they were having a better time than it seemed as we watched them trudge across the Piazza San Marco. I'm sure that some of them enjoy activities that I don't happen to like (such as shopping), and that's great. But I also know from overhearing their conversations that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit this small city every day are quite unhappy.

Venice is a city of crowds, of heat in the summer and dampness in the winter, of bad smells. The tourist industry, which arrived in the eighteenth century, is virtually the only business today, and that means inflated prices and sometimes mediocre food. The crowds--to which we contributed our own four bodies--contain very few Italians. There's nothing wrong with masses of Americans and other stranieri, but it isn't a novel cultural experience for us to hear American voices.

So why go there at all? Because there is an indescribable richness of art, architecture, and political and social history in every Venetian neighborhood. I don't think that any other spot on earth has the same concentration of beauty and interest. (It's amazing to know that an estimated 96% of its paintings permanently left Venice during the French and Austrian occupations of the early 1800s. So many remain.)

It takes a fair amount of information and background to reveal that beauty. If you rely on a Fodor's guide or the equivalent, then you will go where everyone else goes--to places like San Marco, where the crowds are most intense. Behind the crowds, the gondolas, and the water, you will see a multi-colored, variegated, architectural backdrop. You may like that setting, or you may not, but you probably won't like it enough to compensate for long lines, high prices, and difficulties getting your restaurant bill or finding the right vaporetto.

In a bid for readability, guide books typically provide anecdotes about each location. But why do you need to stand outside the jail from which Casanova escaped? The story is just as good if read more comfortably from home.

What you need is some way to make sense of all that decoration--not to mention what's hidden away in remoter Venetian neighborhoods and inside all those the buildings. Works of art and architecture are deliberate and specific statements of meaning, not just efforts to be pretty. They are solutions to specific problems. As with nature, so with art: you need to understand before you can appreciate.

Unfortunately, you would need a vast amount of knowledge to make sense of Venetian art, which was excellent from the ninth century to the nineteenth. (There are also fine Greco-Roman, modern, and post-modern works in the city.) The scope and variety is intimidating.

Here, then, are some ways to narrow the focus. Even if you could only do one or two of these activities, I think you would enjoy the city more than if you tried to hit the top-ten list from Fodor's.

  • Go around the city contrasting Veronese and Tintoretto. Their lives overlapped for 60 years. They had the same influences, the same set of skills, some of the same patrons, and the same basic ingredients. But Veronese was decorative, sunny, apparently more interested in pretty women, clothes, and architecture than in religious subjects--or at least so the Inquisition thought. Whereas Tintoretto appears, on the evidence of his painting, to have been an obsessive, tortured, and deeply spiritual genius. Often they painted similar subjects, which makes for direct comparisons. (E.g. Tintoretto's "Marriage of Cana" in S. Maria della Salute versus Veronese's "Banquet in the House of Levi" in the Accademia--great to see on the same day). In addition to the other paintings by each artist in the Accademia, and Tintoretto's harrowing cycle in S. Rocco, it would be important to visit each man's parish church, where he painted a great deal and was buried. (It's S. Sebastiano for Veronese; Madonna del'Orto for Tintoretto.)
  • Focus on the major scuole, charitable fraternities for bourgeois Venetian laymen. You can obtain an introduction to the history of Venetian art by visiting the following scuole in this order: the Scuola Grande di S. Marco (hard to get into, but the facade is an experiment in early Renaissance architecture and scientific perspective); the Scuola Grande di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with charming early Renaissance paintings by Carpaccio); room 21 of the Accademia Gallery (equally charming Carpaccios taken from the Scuola di Sant' Orsola), room 24 of the Accademia (a whole preserved chamber from the Scuola della Carita with a high-renaissance masterpiece by Titian), the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco (Tintoretto's cycle from the end of the Renaissance), and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini (with elaborate and cheerful rococo ceilings by Tiepolo).
  • Consider the facades of a dozen Venetian churches--there are more than 125 still standing--as efforts to solve a common problem. The typical Christian church has a high central nave and two lower side aisles. This is a design borrowed from Roman law courts, which were called "basilicae." Many people find the plain front of a basilican church an ugly shape: a high box with two smaller boxes on either side. So the architect must cover, conceal, or soften it without tacking on a completely different shape. There are dozens of solutions to this problem in Venice, some original, and each reflecting specific values. For example, Palladio, wanting to imitate classical aesthetics, started with two Greek temples. He put the larger one in front of the nave and sliced the smaller one in two, putting each half in front of an aisle. He used this solution at least four times in Venice, and it's interesting to compare the subtle differences.
  • Buy a Chorus Pass, which provides admission to 20 Venetian parish churches. Each participating church provides laminated cards that identify the significant works of art. Visit as many of the churches as you can. The cards won't help to distinguish works that are commonly considered masterpieces from ordinary paintings and sculptures. But maybe that's an advantage. Decide which works you like best, and keep a record of your favorite artists.
  • Take the King James' version of the Bible along and read the passages that are illustrated in so many works of art, starting with the fine early Christian objects in Torcello and the Basilica of S. Marco. For instance, all artists who portray a scene called "The Annunciation" choose a specific phrase from Luke 1:28-38 to illustrate; which phrase they choose makes a significant difference.
  • Sit alongside a picturesque stretch of canal and consider the buildings opposite, one by one. It would help to have a detailed guide, like Alta Macadam's Blue Guide to Venice, and some schematic drawings that distinguish Byzantine, gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architectural elements. Each facade tells a story. For example, two columns incorporated into an old window may be of Greco-Roman origin. The arch over the same window, if it's Venetian gothic, reflects powerful Moorish influence. (Venice grew rich trading with the Moslem world.) The little round opening below the window may be modern, cut to accommodate an electric fan. The next window was perhaps used for loading freight onto boats; now it's bricked in. The whole scene is a record of human adaptation and expression over scores of generations.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 3:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 8, 2006

    getting out of town

    We're leaving today for a vacation in Venice. For the sake of my sanity, I'm not going to bring my laptop, and I'll try to resist the temptation to open a browser if I see an Internet-equipped computer. So there will be no posts here until June 19.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:09 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 7, 2006

    why I'm not a zealot about church and state

    We saw a student production of Godspell last weekend in my little daughter's Washington, DC public school. In a different DC public school years ago, I attended a PTA fundraiser that was pervasively religious, all of its rhetoric drawn explicitly from the evangelical Black church. I've argued here that it should be constitutional to teach intelligent design (even though it's bad science and worse theology). In these three cases--and others like them--I'm not zealous to keep religion out of public schools.

    I'm not saying that authority figures in state schools like the ones we have today should make sectarian, religious pronouncements while they perform their official duties. To mention an easy case, the principal of a neighborhood public school should not get on the P.A. system and tell all the kids that they must embrace Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But in closer cases, I'm inclined to tolerate religion in public schools, for these reasons:

    First, the purpose of public schooling is to reproduce and enhance a culture (not simply to produce economic "returns" for graduates). Because cultural reproduction is a common good, we need to subsidize it with public funds: otherwise, many people will leave the expense to others. Of course, "culture" is heterogeneous and controversial. That is why citizens need to participate in shaping their schools. The debate about what values we should teach is not a cost, but an opportunity to create our common future. By the way, there must be some local control over education, because a national debate about culture will produce the lowest common denominator.

    Education should not be conceived as value-neutral, because that is impossible, and the effort to strip it of overt values has negative consequences--such as those that I mentioned yesterday in reference to civics textbooks. I am not terribly offended if some of the values taught in public schools are religious, in part because I think almost all modern norms have religious roots.

    As Eugene Volokh's recent post and the replies indicate, the founders of the United States favored public schooling largely in order to inculcate values. I would reject their assumption that religion was a necessary foundation of public morality. (The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.") But I would endorse the premise of the Northwest Ordinance that certain virtues are important for good government and public happiness, and that public schooling should promote those virtues. If my fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, so be it.

    Second, I would rather have the freedom to participate in a robust debate about the content of our children's education than to see courts dictate a position, even if I agree with it. For instance, when a judge rules that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional, we cannot seriously discuss the issue. Likewise, if a court were to rule that public schools may not produce Godspell, we would have less scope to debate that play.

    Third, Harry Brighouse argues in On Education that there are some perverse, unintended consequences from the American policy of barring religion from all state-funded education. A substantial group of parents is uncomfortable with secular public schools, because those institutions are materialistic, highly individualistic and competitive, and tolerant of premature sexuality. Brighouse (pp. 87-88) describes the typical high school:

    It is a 2000-plus student institution, in which no individual knows every other individual; in which many children never have any teacher for more than one year of instruction; in which the prevailing values include pep rallies for sports and a slavishly conformist loyalty to school and neighbourhood. These schools maintain a deafening silence about spiritual or anti-materialist values, take sides in the Cola wars, and accept as a given the prevalence of brand names and teen-marketing. Religious parents often, with justification, believe that their own beliefs are at best ignored, at worst actively worked against by the schools. ...

    I suspect that in the US many parents are drawn to private religious schools not by any interest in having their chidren indoctrinated, but by their horror at the experience of the shopping-mall high school, and, in fact, an unarticulated sense that the values of the peer group, tolerated by the school, threaten, rather than serve, their children's prospective autonomy. Religious parents fear that schools that do not incorporate strong moral values, and which treat spirituality as just another lifestyle option ... endanger their and other children's prospects for a balanced and satisfying life.

    In most foreign countries, these parents would opt for state-funded religious schools. Some are not fundamentalists (or even necessarily believers), so they add diversity to religious schools by enrolling their own children. In most countries, state-funded denominational schools are regulated so that, for example, they must teach core democratic principles and tolerate non-believers.

    In the United States, however, we have pervasively secular public schools that aim for value-neutrality (sometimes with bad consequences); and we have religious schools without any access to state money whose curricula are completely unregulated. The religious schools may draw religiously zealous parents who are hostile to the mainstream culture. When this happens, their students become a homogeneous group, deprived of diverse influences.

    American Catholic schools, although not state-subsidized, give a taste of what would happen if public schools could introduce more religion--or if private religious schools could get state money. After Vatican II, Catholic educators chose not to proselytize, but instead to teach a set of values that are highly compatible with secular democracy. They also draw diverse student populations. They appear to do a better job of secular civic education than the public schools--on average. Thoughtful observers like Jim Youniss and David Campbell believe that modern Catholic education succeeds because it is grounded in strong moral commitments.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:26 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

    June 6, 2006

    textbook politics

    A paper by Sharareh Frouzesh Bennett confirms my unsystematic impression of the leading high school textbooks for civics and government (pdf). Bennett analyzes the big three, which are published by Prentice Hall, Glencoe, and Holt. She finds that they present American government as a well-organized system for implementing what the people want. Voting is by far the most commonly mentioned form of civic engagement, which makes sense if the government is basically satisfactory, and majority-rule is the essence of democracy. Since the existence of profound disagreement is not acknowledged in any of the leading textbooks, little is said about tools available to electoral minorities, such as "boycotts, lawsuits, protests, and civil disobedience." Because the government is portrayed as capable of handling all public issues, virtually nothing is said about citizens' roles in social movements, voluntary associations, and (more generally) civil society. "The Holt text refers to civil disobedience during the section on the civil rights movement and indicates that the method was used in the past to defy laws that were thought to be wrong." Overall, politics is portrayed as a formal system that offers a limited role for citizens (basically, voting). It is not described as a struggle over contested issues.

    If young people study the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, but they are not made aware of any particular controversies about economics, war, or moral issues, I would predict no impact on their interest in politics. Surveys tend to find a positive relationship between taking a civics class and political participation. Perhaps that relationship is misleading. (Maybe students who are already interested in politics are more likely to take civics classes.) Or perhaps courses really boost interest in politics--but no thanks to the textbooks.

    Bennett's findings are consistent with our surveys, which find that most students are taught about the excellence of the American political system. Only 5.2% recall studying "problems facing the country today." Contrary to the fears of conservatives (who dwell on scattered anecdotes about leftist teachers), most students receive a civic education that is "conservative" in a particular sense. Textbooks do not introduce them to right-wing ideas, such as reducing the size of government or banning abortion. That's because textbooks contain few political ideas of any kind. Instead, students are taught that the status quo is desirable and uncontroversial--a form of conservatism that both right and left should reject.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 5, 2006

    a few cheers for bipartisanship and comity

    I knew Zach Clayton back when. As a high school student, he was one of the two young people who contributed to the Civic Mission of Schools Report, a consensus document otherwise produced by 58 non-youth, including me. Now Zach is helping to organize Unity08, which proposes to field a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2008. David Broder writes in the Washington Post:

    [Lindsay] Ullman and [Zach] Clayton, former presidents of the National Association of Student Councils, certainly are right when they say that many of their contemporaries are frustrated by the spectacle of both parties catering to entrenched interest groups and ideological extremes. Even though a senator from his home state, John Edwards, was on the Democratic ticket, Clayton said many of his friends 'didn't like the choices and didn't vote' in 2004.

    Notwithstanding Zach's personal experience, I have to disagree with his theory that partisan disagreement generally suppresses turnout. The '04 election was a fierce competition between left and right, and voter participation was the highest since 1968--another year of political polarization. The increased competition seemed to have an especially beneficial effect on youth turnout, which was sharply up, above all in the "battleground" states.

    I also disagree with the principle that we should avoid sharp disagreements between the national parties. On the contrary, voters deserve clearly defined choices. There are real disagreements in the population, not just in Congress. Politics is how we address those differences, and we shouldn't paper them over.

    However, there are reasons to favor a dose of bipartisanship at this particular moment. In Washington today, there is true partisan enmity: mutual hostility that prevents the parties from making progress even on those issues on which they happen to agree. Neither side is willing to make any sacrifices (e.g., to promote their own economic principles), because they know that the other will exact a political price for anything that causes short-term pain.

    We need more "comity," which does not mean agreement or cooperation, but a spirit of mutual respect. As my colleague Eric Uslaner has shown, when there is more comity in Congress, more legislation passes. By the way, the ability to pass legislation will be especially important for Democrats, should they win Congress. Democrats need the federal government to have a generally good reputation, and for that, they must pass bills. Besides, Republicans already have their priorities in place and don't need major legislation.

    The Republicans have reduced comity since they won two branches of government, respectively, in 1994 and 2000. But that decline had started before '94. To reverse it, one side or the other should make an overt gesture of comity. For example, if the Democrats take the House in '06, they should amend current House rules in such a way as to improve the situation of the minority. They should then continue to cooperate, but only if the Republicans follow suit. This is the strategy that game theorists call modified tit-for-tat; it is often very successful.

    Unity08 proposes a more radical idea: to run a bipartisan presidential ticket whose platform, as Steven Benen argues, would resemble Bill Clinton's. Others have noted practical problems with this idea. (Who would finance the ticket? How would the Republican and Democratic partners decide who would be president and who would be VP?) For me, the biggest problem is ideological. I'm not enthusiastic about the principle that we should seek "moderation," defined as an average between the two parties.

    If the Democrats stick to their current positions, they will tend to lose, because they have an electoral minority. If they split the difference with Republicans, they will lack principle and will narrow the range of choice for voters. The best plan, it seems to me, is to find legitimate issues that do not fall on today's ideological spectrum at all. Civic renewal and cultural creativity are examples.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 2, 2006

    on sincerity in public life

    There is obviously a hunger for politicians who speak from the heart. That's the theme of Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, which evokes the (supposed) sincerity of Bobby Kennedy in contrast to the falseness of today's leaders. I have not read the book, but this excerpt is impressive.

    I think Klein is exactly right that techniques for understanding audiences have become more sophisticated since 1968. The public "has been sliced and diced by ... pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups." People know that they are being analyzed, sorted, and manipulated (by politicians as by corporations), and they resent it.

    At the same time, citizens have more information about politicians. All the public remarks of public officials are online and searchable, which makes them more cautious. In the name of "accountability," pressure groups force candidates to sign pledges and then keep track of their votes. In this context, unscripted authenticity is especially dangerous.

    But politicians have never been known for widespread sincerity. Lear, for example, imagines that Gloucester is a "scurvy politician" who "seem[s] to see the things thou dost not." Politicians, whether in Shakespeare's time or ours, are people who compete for favor. That competition is desirable in a democratic system. But it is abidingly difficult to win favor through straightforward honesty.

    Furthermore, there are virtues of leadership that militate against sincerity. For instance, I think a full and honest appraisal of the alleged massacre in Haditha would be complex. It would recognize the extremely difficult position in which the Marines were placed, yet it would put moral responsibility on their shoulders (if they really massacred civilians). I'm not sure, however, that we want a president to lay out all these complexities. It may be better for him to state clearly that the United States has no tolerance, and makes no excuses, for murder.

    Another example: I like rhetoric that calls us back to ostensibly traditional, American values of multilateralism and human rights. However, I couldn't use such rhetoric myself in full sincerity. The United States has a long tradition of unilateral military adventures and human-rights violations. But saying so doesn't call us to our best values, as good leaders do.

    Klein uses Bobby Kennedy's Indianapolis speech as an example of honesty and courage. Indeed, Kennedy took a huge risk when he broke the news of Martin Luther King's assassination to an unsuspecting Black audience. As Klein notes, Kennedy couldn't know in advance how they would react, and that uncertainty gave his speech an authenticity that is absent today. Klein is also correct that Kennedy respected his audience, which is the opposite of today's manipulative campaigning.

    However, consider statements like the following from the 1968 speech: "But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land." Was that literally true? Was it the whole story? Or was Kennedy trying to move his audience to support his ideals (and his candidacy) by appealing to their sense of their own virtue?

    Kennedy quoted Aeschylus that night, calling him his "favorite poet." If Kennedy really did prefer Aeschylus above all other poets, then he admired a pagan who believed that goodness lay beyond our control and that implacable fate was amoral. Yet Kennedy cited a passage from Aeschylus' Agamemnon in a translation that made it sound Christian. ("Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.") Invoking divine "grace" was perfect for the occasion, but it was not what someone would believe who truly loved Aeschylus.

    Obviously, that's not a valid criticism of Kennedy's speech. We ought to prize courageous moral leadership without making sincerity its hallmark. I suspect that we seek authenticity partly because of modern celebrity culture, with its public confessions and disclosures. We're used to people who have nothing much to say but who are willing to expose their private lives and feelings. Most celebrities do not claim to be good, only to be candid; and the very fact that they are lying causes us to value sincerity. But candor is not the highest virtue for politicians. We ought to judge them on the content of their speech, not the fit between what they say and what they believe.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    June 1, 2006

    civic bankers

    Otis White is nostalgic for the days of "strong and engaged local bankers," men who worked their way up to become the "capi di tutti capi of civic leaders in most cities. ... They ran important companies, but that wasn't why they were powerful. Their power came from their continual involvement in civic work, an intimate knowledge of their communities and their occasional boldness." (New York Times, June 1.)

    I immediately thought: "redlining." I don't know for sure, but I suspect that those "civic bankers" of old helped to keep African Americans and Latinos confined to poor neighborhoods by refusing home loans. If that's true, it should be part of the story.

    Nevertheless, Otis is right that there was a positive side to the old banking industry--and all forms of commerce that are rooted in localities. As my colleague Stephen Elkin argues in a new book (Reconstructing the Commercial Republic: Constitutional Design after Madison), a free market always generates a politically powerful class. Perfect political equality is incompatible with the economic freedom that generates prosperity. However, it matters who holds disproportionate power because of their wealth. Madison counted on an agrarian elite, whose investments were tied up in land. Because they could not easily move their capital, they would have to worry about their communities and their reputations.

    The same was true for banks in the 1950s-1980s. As Otis notes, "The law prohibited bank companies from owning banks outside their home states and sometimes even outside their home counties. So Citizens and Southern [National Bank] could grow only if Atlanta grew too." Thus you could count on bankers for civic leadership, especially in dire situations like natural disasters. But today, "the top three banks in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington and scores of other cities are owned by companies headquartered elsewhere. (In New Orleans, only one of the top three is owned locally.)"

    Even the redlining example illustrates how incentives have changed. Discriminating against minority borrowers was completely immoral and indefensible. It was also economically irrational, but it supported a community norm (racial discrimination). Today's international corporations, with their mobile investments, cannot advance any value--moral or immoral--other than maximum returns for their shareholders. When a Hurricane devastates New Orleans, the banks' best response is to take their capital away, not to help rebuild the city.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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