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September 29, 2006

Luban on torture

My friend and former colleague David Luban effectively summarized the torture issue and achieved a blogger's trifecta. First, he posted a strong piece--bitterly funny yet substantive--on Balkinization. Then Slate reprinted it virtually verbatim. And finally, Senator Dodd cited it on the floor of the US Senate. Dodd said, "There was an article written recently by Professor Luban, a professor at Georgetown University, titled 'Forget Nuremberg--How Bush's new torture bill eviscerates the promise of Nuremberg.' I ask unanimous consent that the entire article be printed in the RECORD." (There being no objection, the blog post was printed; but Dodd lost the vote.)

Luban begins:

The burning question is: What did the Bush administration do to break John McCain when a North Vietnamese prison camp couldn't do it?

Could it have been "ego up"? I'm told ego up is not possible with a U.S. senator. That probably also rules out ego down. Fear up harsh? McCain doesn't have the reputation of someone who scares easily. False flag? Did he think they were sending him to the vice president's office? No, he already knew he was in the vice president's office. Wait, I think I know the answer: futility—which the Army's old field manual on interrogation defined as explaining rationally to the prisoner why holding out is hopeless. Yes, the explanation must be that the Bush lawyers would have successfully loopholed any law McCain might write, so why bother? Futility might have done the trick.

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September 28, 2006

service and resume padding

We know from Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto's work (pdf) that many high school students believe they should volunteer in order to increase their chances of being admitted to college. Friedland and Morimoto note that this is even true of students who are not likely to apply to competitive colleges. The perceived need to volunteer for college admissions may partly explain the big increase in the volunteering rate.

Someone asked me today how many colleges actually consider applicants' service records. I don't think anyone knows for sure, but I suspect that it's mainly the smaller, more selective, private colleges that pay any attention at all. A report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling includes a survey in which colleges rated the importance of various factors in determining undergraduate admissions decisions. Only 8 percent gave "considerable importance" to the whole category of "work/extracurricularactivities," of which service would be a subcategory. This compares to 73.9 percent that mentioned grades and 59.3 that mentioned standardized tests (p.30). The report adds: "Smaller colleges are more likely than larger colleges to consider an interview and counselor or teacher recommendations. They are also slightly more likely than larger colleges to consider a student's essay and their work/extracurricular activities as important factors." It appears (from table 32) that the most selective colleges pay the most attention to work and extracurriculars.

I find it interesting that the survey did not ask about volunteer service as a separate category. Service doesn't seem very prominent on the agenda of college admissions people. Apparently, most high school students have no need to volunteer in order to improve their odds in the college-admissions game. If they volunteer, it should be to change society, to learn, and to help others.

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September 27, 2006

pitching the vote

Wonkette (not that I read her, or anything) thinks that this expensively produced ad will actually turn off young voters, because it's corny and unrealistic. It shows voting to be a "pointless charade enjoyed by gullible old people."

I'm not certain what to think. On one hand, the spot advocates voting: for no particular purpose. I assume that people vote for or against something (often something controversial); but there is no hint in the ad of what those issues might be. The arguments it gives for voting are all personal and all positive, which makes it quite different from real political discourse. Also, I must say that I'm always suspicious of generic appeals to vote. Since voting per se is uncontroversial, a pro-voting ad is a safe way to promote a brand name without alienating anyone.

On the other hand, evidence from field experiments shows that young people are more likely to vote when someone tells them to--including when they are given nonpartisan messages that emphasize civic duty (pdf). This broadcast spot might work as well as a phone call; and we know that calls boost turnout. The URL advertised at the end leads to information about registering and voting, although there's nothing on the site about issues or candidates.

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September 26, 2006

torture: against honor and liberty

In the Hamdan decision, the Supreme Court said that torture was our responsibility. We couldn't allow the president to decide secretly whether and when to obey the Geneva Convention. There would have to be a public law, passed by our representatives, subject to our review at the next election.

Alas, the Congress appears likely to pass legislation that will permit torture, buoyed by polls that suggest the American people prefer to sacrifice our ancient common law principles in favor of spurious security. Our national honor and liberty are at risk. Those are old-fashioned terms, more securely anchored in conservative than in progressive thought. Yet they are precisely the correct terms, as I shall argue here.

Torture is dishonorable because of the perverted personal relationship that it creates between the torturer and the victim. That is why people of honor do not torture, and nations with honor do not condone it. As David Luban writes: "The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim--in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim's body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim's spirit."

Torture may not be the worse injustice. To bomb from 30,000 feet can be more unjust, because more may die. To imprison 5.6 million Americans may be more unjust, because one in 37 of us spends months or years in dangerous, demeaning, state-run facilities. But there is a difference between injustice and dishonor. Bombing people and locking them up are impersonal, institutional acts. Torture is as intimate as rape. It sullies in a way that injustice does not. That is why the House of Lords ruled in 2005: "The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it."

Torture threatens liberty because it gives the state the power to generate testimony and evidence contrary to fact, contrary even to the will of the witness. It thus removes the last constraint against tyranny, which is truth. Torture was forbidden in English common law since the middle ages, not because medievals were sqeamish about cruelty--their punishments and executions were spectacularly cruel--but because a king who could use torture in investigations and interrogations could reach any conclusions he wanted.

Torture is personal, yet torture is an institution. One cannot simply decide to torture in a one-off case, a hypothetical instance of a ticking time bomb. To be effective, torture requires training, equipment, expertise, and settings. The bureaucracy of torture then inevitably seeks to justify and sustain itself--if necessary, by using torture to generate evidence of its effectiveness. As Phronesisaical says, "Torture requires an institution of torture, which ... entails a broader torture program than the administration would have us believe." Again, the Lords were right:

The lesson of history is that, when the law is not there to keep watch over it, the practice is always at risk of being resorted to in one form or another by the executive branch of government. The temptation to use it in times of emergency will be controlled by the law wherever the rule of law is allowed to operate. But where the rule of law is absent, or is reduced to a mere form of words to which those in authority pay no more than lip service, the temptation to use torture is unrestrained.

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September 25, 2006

being Pope means never having to say you're sorry

I have now read the full text of Pope Benedict's Sept. 12 lecture, a passage of which provoked global controversy and violence. I read it with an open mind and genuine interest, but it seems to me that the section on Islam is gratuitous and rather poorly argued.

As the Pope said in his quasi-apology, he meant his discussion of Islam to be incidental to his main theme, which concerns the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity. This is the skeleton of his argument:

The Greeks, being philosophical, decided that God could not (or would not) act "unreasonably": in other words, against logos. On this basis, Socrates and other sophisticated Greek thinkers rejected myth, which had described gods acting arbitrarily. Their equation of divinity with reason already influenced Jewish thought before Jesus' time. The Hebrew Bible evolved from mythical thinking toward an abstract, rational, omniscient deity (first evident in the words from the burning Bush: "I am"). The association of reason with divinity was also essential in the Gospels, as shown by John's prologue: "In the beginning was ho logos."

According to Benedict, the union of faith and reason naturally took place in Europe, where reason had been born, not in the irrational East: "Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe."

However, faith and reason have come apart in Europe since the 16th century. First Protestants tried to strip the Bible of Greek metaphysics and treat it only as a sequence of literal events. Liberal theologians (including some Catholics) reinforced this tendency when they advocated a "return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization."

It is a mistake to drive philosophical reason out of religion, Benedict argues, because God is rational and can be understood by means of philosophy. It is also an error to imagine science without faith:

[The] modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.

Because modern rationality assumes that nature has a mathematical character, science hints at transcendence. But because it views empirical verification as the criterion of rationality, it rules out the possibility of God. This is a contradictory position, Benedict thinks. He recommends that we "acknowledge unreservedly" the benefits of science, yet we must "[broaden] our concept of reason and its application" so that it can encompass faith. By reuniting faith and reason, the West will reopen a dialogue with "profoundly religious cultures," which cannot fathom "a reason which is deaf to the divine."

All of the above seems fairly mainstream for a conservative Catholic theologian. But the Pope chooses to illustrate his argument with a digression about Islam. He says that for the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, "spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul." This "statement is self evident" to "a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy." In contrast, for an "educated Persian" who debates Paleologus, "God is absolutely transcendent ..., not bound even by his own word."

This is a very odd example to support Benedict's major point. Did Paleologus really emphasize that conversion by the sword was "unreasonable"--incompatible with logos--and thus alien to God? Or did he simply say that it was wrong? Did the Persian really reply that God was "absolutely transcendent," and therefore it was appropriate to convert people forcibly despite the dictates of reason? Or did the Persian agree with the Emperor about forcible conversion, citing Qur'an 2:256: "There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way."

Benedict calls this passage from the Qur'an "one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat." Later, according to Benedict, Mohammed preached holy war. I am not competent to assess that interpretation of the Qur'an. But I would note a resemblance between Paleologus and the young Mohammed: both led groups who were very vulnerable to conquest. Indeed, Byzantium soon fell to a Moslem army (one that tolerated Christians and Jews). On the other hand, when Christians have been triumphant, they have not always been eager to argue that faith must be voluntary.

David Cook writes, "Islam was not in fact 'spread by the sword'—conversion was not forced on the occupants of conquered territories—but the conquests created the necessary preconditions for the spread of Islam." One could write exactly the same thing about Christianity. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes the advantages enjoyed by the first Franciscans in Mexico: "The fact that they had found the territory conquered, and the inhabitants pacified and submissive, had greatly aided the missionaries; they could, moreover, count on the support of the Government, and the new converts on its favour and protection."

The Catholic Encyclopedia denies that Mexican natives were converted by force, but there were certainly wars declared for the purpose of converting countries to Christianity. As the Encyclopedia itself states: "The meaning of the word crusade has been extended to include all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow, and directed against infidels, i.e. against Mohammedans, pagans, heretics, or those under the ban of excommunication. The wars waged by the Spaniards against the Moors constituted a continual crusade from the eleventh to the sixteenth century; in the north of Europe crusades were organized against the Prussians and Lithuanians; the extermination of the Albigensian heresy was due to a crusade, and, in the thirteenth century the popes preached crusades against John Lackland and Frederick II."

Thus I can imagine the "educated Persian" (a patronizing description, by the way) arguing that mass conversions to Christianity have often followed conquest. He could have observed cases in which Moslems tolerated Jews and Christians and cited the Book of Revelations to illustrate Christian bloodthirstiness: "And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God."

The Pope was widely criticized for his lecture. As we know, he issued a new statement:

At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.

I by no means condone violent reactions to Pope Benedict's lecture. However, it strikes me that:

1) The digression about Islam and violence was gratuitous in an essay supposedly about faith and reason;

2) The Emperor Paleologus was obviously quoted to express Benedict's personal thoughts;

3) The equation of Europe with reason (and the East with arbitrariness) is disturbing; and

4) It shows bad faith to depict Islam as a religion spread by the sword without at least noting the advantages that Christianity has reaped from violence.

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September 22, 2006

the many faces of Peter Levine

During conference calls today, I idly searched for myself on Google Images. Here I am--at least, these are the search results for "Peter Levine." You're looking at a successful pop psychologist, the chairman of Lloyds of London, a cowboy singing dude, a rugby player, a runner, and a chef, among others.

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September 21, 2006

"Citizens at the Center"

Cindy Gibson has published a White Paper, funded by the Case Foundation, entitled "Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement." It's groundbreaking because it asks funders, policymakers, and others to look beyond individual acts of civic participation, such as voting and volunteering, and instead to consider people's collective work in naming, discussing, and addressing problems. If taken seriously, Cindy's paper would cause major changes in philanthropy and policy throughout the fields of "service" and "citizenship." I have posted somewhat more detailed comments on a discussion page that Case has set up; many others have weighed in as well.

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September 20, 2006

civil society versus the private sector

(Newark, NJ): At Monday's launch of America's Civic Health Index, Bill Galston said that Katrina demonstrated a failure of government and political leadership, but also of civil society, because it displayed our inability (or unwillingness) to work together across differences. Nina Rees, formerly a staffer for Dick Cheney, replied that the "private sector" had performed very well after Katrina, as revealed by the massive amount of philanthropy directed toward New Orleans and the Gulf. I'm with Bill, because I think there's a difference between the total amount of individual voluntary effort (also known as "the private sector") and civil society.

New Orleans is rich in groups and associations that operate within discrete neighborhoods and ethnic communities--including the extraordinary African American mutual benefit societies. But there is, and was, a dearth of civic institutions. New Orleans had few voluntary associations that crossed community lines so that they could coordinate efforts, allocate resources fairly, monitor the government, organize deliberations about justice, encourage citywide solidarity, and develop plans for redevelopment. In the absence of an encompassing civic infrastucture, New Orleans got bad government and ineffective or piecemeal private aid. Thus the Katrina disaster illustrates the importance of decent political leadership, but also the need for a strong civil society that goes beyond charity and volunteering.

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digital media and learning

I'm in Newark, New Jersey for a MacArthur Foundation conference on "Digital Media and Learning." MacArthur is supporting a whole series of edited volumes on various aspects of this broad topic, including a book organized by Lance Bennett on digital media and civic engagement. For that volume, I have drafted a chapter about the benefits of using electronic media for civic purposes in schools. I also discuss the barriers to that kind of work. I examine a wide range of barriers, including the lack of training for teachers and limits on political advocacy; but I focus on the difficulty of building an appropriate audience for students' products.

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September 18, 2006

a Civic Health Index

Today's the day that the National Conference on Citizenship releases its new Civic Health Index and an accompanying report entitled Broken Engagement. My colleagues and I at CIRCLE analyzed the data for the Index--combining 40 different measures of civic participation--and helped to write the report, which depicts an erosion of public life over the last quarter century. Particularly striking to me is the big drop in the proportion of Americans who say that they work with others to address community problems--down from about 45% in the 1970s to about 25% in the current decade. The rate of membership in groups has not fallen. Put those two facts together, and it seems that groups have become less likely to promote community problem-solving. We belong to more mailing lists and dispersed professional associations, but fewer grassroots organizations.

Speakers at the launch of the report will include Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; former Senator Harris Wofford; Harvard professor Robert Putnam; John Bridgeland, formerly of the Bush administration; columnist E. J. Dionne; and Irasema Salcido, founder of the Chavez Charter School in Washington. I have several radio interviews scheduled to discuss the Index, and here is a Time Magazine piece about it.

[See also Amy Goldstein's piece in the Washington Post.]

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September 15, 2006

in the Holocaust Museum

I'm at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is hosting a summit for National Youth Leadership Organizations. Last night, we were given guided tours of the Museum's main exhibition in order to promote serious thinking about moral leadership. Two ideas occur to me.

1. It's very tempting to identify ourselves with the victims. We see German officers brutally beating a Jewish prisoner in a death camp (the purpose of which is to kill him), and we identify with the man on the ground. We imagine the "counterfactual" that we were born Jewish in Europe in 1900 or 1910. Perhaps that's especially easy for me, since I'm a person of Jewish orgin; but I suspect that almost all visitors place themselves in the same role. To imagine being victimized is upsetting, but it's also a bit consoling, because one takes the moral high ground. However, I am not a Jew born in Poland or Ukraine in 1900. It would be just as realistic to imagine myself as a gentile German of the same age. If that had been me, statistics suggest that I would have participated in the Holocaust or done nothing to stop it. It's an indulgence to imagine that I would have been one of the very few to oppose the Nazi regime.

2. The building is a basically modernist structure by James Ingo Freed. Modernists eschew decoration, which is thought to be inauthentic, arbitrary, and frivolous. Form is supposed to follow function. As a result, modernist buildings aren't pretty, although they may be sublime. However, to make the Holocaust Museum a kind of representation of the Shoah, Freed included elements that allude to gas vents, train tracks, and prison bars. These elements are a bit disturbing, but also quite attractive. The result is a modernist building that is more decorated, and perhaps prettier, than most. For example, I find the Holocaust Memorial Museum more attractive--and more comfortable--than two nearby buildings by I.M Pei that are settings for commerce and art: L'Enfant Plaza and the East Wing of the National Gallery.

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September 14, 2006


I'm chair of a search committee for as many as three positions in the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. That has been my home for a dozen years, and I have enjoyed it very much. An applicant needs a professional-level interest in philosophical issues, but a doctorate in philosophy is not necessary; law, theology, or any social science would be fine, as long as the candidate conducts research on normative or conceptual issues in public policy. Up to two of the positions can involve regular teaching in the School of Public Policy.

Job description here.

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September 12, 2006

the other side

Yesterday, I was interviewed (briefly) on an Oklahoma radio station about youth voting. While I waited for the interview to begin, I listened to Rush Limbaugh--not my usual entertainment. Limbaugh facetiously argued that we should "celebrate" 9/11 the same way we recognize other national holidays, with fire sales, days at the beach, and shopping trips. It was actually kind of funny as a satire of materialism. Limbaugh ended by saying (in a rough paraphrase): If you don't like that idea, you should be even more angry that the left in this country always forgets about 9/11, except for once a year.

I could respond that I am on the political left and I am still grieving for my fellow human beings who were murdered on that day. Two cities that I love still bear its scars. Or I could note that I ride the Washington Metro for 90 minutes a day and fear being blown to bits by terrorists, a fate that is a lot less likely in red states.

But there's no point in responding. I mention Limbaugh's remarks only as a reminder to myself, as a proponent of deliberation, dialogue, cooperation, bipartisanship, etc. There is a conversation going on that's divisive to the point of abusive. It feels like an attack--not on my opinions--but on my fundamental identity as an American.

I generally don't like to focus on Limbaugh and his ilk, because there's a very worthwhile conversation to be had with America's many principled conservatives. Highlighting people like Limbaugh makes it easier to ignore the responsible right. Besides, there are leftists with minds as crabbed and closed as Limbaugh's. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore him, because we might fool ourselves into thinking that everyone (despite their differences in values and perspectives) wants to coooperate, deliberate, and address common problems. In fact, some people--including some who have big audiences--just want to slash and burn.

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campaigning: what works

I just voted in the District of Columbia primary election, having been personally approached by at least five candidates (mostly at my Metro stop), called at home by three live volunteers, sent countless letters, and barraged with a dozen or more "robocalls" (automated phone messages). Which form of outreach works best?

With help from CIRCLE, Young Voter Strategies has released a publication called Young Voter Mobilization Tactics (pdf). The heart of the report is a list of findings about the cost-effectiveness of various forms of campaigning, when directed at people under 30. We are able to present estimates of the extra votes cast per dollar spent in various ways. These estimates are based on genuine field experiments, in which organizations contact a random group of potential voters and leave the rest carefully untouched. They then compare actual voter records to see the difference in turnout rates. They also keep track of expenses. By dividing the expenses by the difference in turnout rates, we can estimate the efficiency of each method.

Top findings:

1. Youth can be efficiently mobilized. Costs can be as low as $8/additional vote, which is very attractive: campaigns generally expect a much lower yield from broadcast advertisements.

2. The more personalized and interactive the contact, the more cost-effective it will be. Door-to-door campaigning is highly efficient. Robocalls are a complete waste of money. They certainly make me mad. I would almost vote against the candidates who purchased them, except that I fear dirty tricks. (Pretending to send a robocall on behalf of your opponent might work quite well.)

3. Despite repeated efforts to find more effective messages, it appears that the medium matters, not the message. For example, if you organize a phone bank, it doesn't matter whether your callers use positive or negative scripts, simply provide information, or invoke civic duty. I find this a strange result, because calling someone is a communicative act, and I would think that what is communicated would matter. But perhaps the very fact that people are contacted makes them feel valued and encourages them to vote.

We do this kind of research, by the way, as part of a larger strategy. We hope to convince parties and candidates that it pays to mobilize young people. When young people are contacted about elections, they are more likely to discuss issues, understand the system, and feel efficacious. Therefore, giving them more attention in elections should make them more active participants.

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September 11, 2006

Plamegate is over (I hope)

It turns out that the original leaker in the Valerie Plame case was not Karl Rove or another Administration heavy or hawk, but rather the relatively independent and distinguished diplomat Richard Armitage. It is still possible that Rove, Scooter Libby, and others tried to use secret information about Plame to impugn Joe Wilson. However I have been arguing since at least July 2005 that the whole Plame story is a snare and a distraction for the anti-war side.

The critical questions have always been obvious and public. Was the invasion ever legitimate? Was it ever wise? Was the US plan adequate? What is to be done now? Democrats and other potential critics of the Administration failed to persuade the public to see those questions their way in 2004 and 2005. If the public is outraged now, it's too late.

The opponents failed, I think, because they could not articulate an alternative policy for Iraq that was clear and persuasive. Having failed to win in the court of public opinion, some critics of the Administration were eager to prevail in a literal court--on criminal charges that might exemplify or symbolize the Administration's bad behavior. But ...

1. That approach would never address the crucial public issues: especially, What is to be done?
2. If someone had been indicted and convicted, it's not clear how the public would have responded. People might have concluded that Federal politics is not worth paying attention to, because it's an obscure battle between elites and lawyers. Or they might have assumed that liberal judges had once again victimized Republicans who were trying to be tough on America's enemies. Or they might have decided that they were hopelessly confused, because something complicated had happened, involving people with obscure roles and names like "Scooter." Or people might have concluded that the Bush Administration was generally dishonest about the War. But that should have been obvious already.
3. A prosecution in the Plame case would criminalize the disclosure of information. Although some leaks are criminal, and many are unethical, our strong presumption should be that information belongs in the public domain and speech is protected by the First Amendment. I was always uncomfortable with the precedent that might be set if Administration officials were prosecuted for leaks.
4. Resting hopes on the Plame case meant assuming that Joe Wilson was reliable and that Karl Rove and/or Scooter Libby had broken the law. It is always a bad idea to place bets on individuals based on their ideologies. Wilson sounds like an impressive diplomat with the correct views about foreign policy. He comes from a general milieu that makes me comfortable--I'd have a latte with him at Starbucks if he wanted to. In contrast, I loathe some of the Administration's principals. And yet Karl Rove may have done nothing illegal in respect to Valerie Plame, and Joe Wilson may have lied. People with good ideologies often act badly, and vice-versa.
5. Above all, the rule of law depends on making criminal cases out of specific, intentional violations of statutes--not behavior or policymaking that is generally harmful to the country or the world. We must address bad policy through public debates and elections, and leave courts to deal with actual lawbreaking. To confuse the two is dangerous, even when the people in the dock happen to be odious.

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September 8, 2006

Tongues of Fire

A few years ago, I wrote a lightweight thriller called Tongues of Fire. I wrote it for fun and my wife's entertainment, and after an unsuccessful attempt to publish it, I put it on this website for free downloading. In August, the main page of the novel received 917 visits. In July, there were 804. I know those are not huge numbers, and I realize that they include repeat visits, hits from "bots," mistaken referrals from Google, etc. Still, as the nerds say, I'm getting a "nontrivial" number of visitors. As far as Google knows, there's only one external link to the novel--and that's just an item on a long list of free books. No one ever emails me about it or leaves a comment on the webpage. I'm trying to guess: Who visits? Why? What do they think?

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September 7, 2006

"the precedence of inside authority"

Yesterday, I argued that communities always need strong civic participation before they can benefit from government aid, philanthropy, and other forms of outside help. Walt Whitman put the same point more grandiloquently in the following lines from Leaves of Grass (81:121 ff.):

Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons;
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority;
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and what not, are agents for pay;
There the great city stands.

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September 6, 2006

beyond warm and fuzzy

Toward the end of Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol lists some recommendations that emerged from the National Commission on Civic Renewal (of which I was deputy director) and Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. She mentions proposals for strengthening human interactions at the local level and enhancing civic education. Skocpol writes:

Such prescriptions evoke warm and fuzzy feelings in all of us caught in increasingly frenzied worlds of demanding work and hard-pressed family life. But as strategies for the revitalization of U.S. democracy, recommendations so preoccupied with local social life--remedies that ignore issues of economic inequality, power disparity, and political demobilization--are simply not plausible. ...

Improving local communities, and social life more generally, will not create sufficient democratic leverage to tackle problems that can only be addressed with concerted national commitment.

The state of Maine, for example, is a wonderfully civic place, scoring near the top of Putnam's cross-state index of social capital. No surprise, for Maine has strong civic traditions, a progressive Clean Elections Law, and relatively high voting rates. The state boasts remarkably neighborly towns; active nonprofits and citizens' groups; elected officials readily available for personal contact; public radio and television stations plus the Bangor Daily News practicing civic journalism at its best; and native wealthy citizens (above all novelist Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha) who give generously and wisely to community undertakings everywhere in Maine. But Mainers still need to be part of a broader national community and democratic politics with real clout. Over the decade of the 1990s, four-fifths of Maine families have experienced a steady deterioration in real incomes. What is more, the erosion of health insurance marches forward inexorably as more and more Maine businesses and middle-class as well as poor people suffer from the rate-setting practices of nationally powerful insurance companies. Despite local civic vitality, in other words, many Maine communities and people have been badly hurt by the erosion of active democratic government in the United States.

I fully agree with all of this. I also share Skocpol's view that civil society ought to be political as well as social, and national as well as local. In other words, voluntary groups should have national agendas as well as social and service functions.

Still, the importance of a strong civic culture is not negated by the trends Skocpol mentions: declining real income and access to health care. It's true that a government could (and, in my opinion, should) cover everyone's health insurance and raise real family incomes through changes in tax rates. However, those redistributive policies will not address many of the problems that are uppermost on people's minds in Maine and elsewhere--such as how to make public schools work for all kids, or how to cut the crime rate, or how to generate satisfying and secure jobs. Government has a crucial role in addressing those problems, but it will almost inevitably act through independent grantees or local public institutions such as neighborhood schools. Much depends on how well those institutions perform, which--in turn--depends on how well they tap the passion, energy, and experience of local citizens.

Moreover, we have to ask why people don't demand policies like universal health care. Such proposals are reasonably popular in surveys but do not motivate mass political action. I think there are two main reasons. First, as Skocpol has argued, people lack the civic infrastructure through which to influence the government. They need associations with national influence but also local roots so that they have ways of entering civil society and developing political skills and identities. Second, people are suspicious of big institutions such as schools and health systems. To some extent, that is the result of anti-government propaganda. But to some extent it is because big institutions are unresponsive and rather ineffective. Thus it seems to me necessary first to build participatory, responsive, local public institutions--such as those in Maine--and then to ask people to vote for redistribution.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 5, 2006

expectations for the next Congress

What should we expect if the Democrats gain control of the U.S. House in November? If we're dreaming, we could imagine that they would propose an agenda to renew democracy at home and abroad--one that could also attract a few Republican votes. But there is no sign of that agenda on the House Democratic Leader's webpage. (Her statements on "issues" are almost completely negative, and virtually all of her proposals involve modest increases in federal spending for existing programs, or tax cuts.) Therefore, if we are realistic, we ought to hope for the following benefits:

1. More competent and efficient administration as a result of Congressional oversight. That assumes, however, that the Democrats will do a good job overseeing.

2. Justice, in the form of investigations that uncover genuine malfeasance in government. Congressional committees are not generally very good at investigating crimes. They are prone to grand-standing, bias, and bad strategy. But it's better to have imperfect congressional investigations than none at all.

3. Fiscal sanity, if Democrats block further tax cuts and Republicans block big spending increases. The Democrats could also achieve efficiencies by rewriting the prescription benefit. On the other hand, the existing tax cuts will remain in place, protected by the president's veto. At worst, we will see a bidding war with rival proposals for tax cuts and spending increases. (The House Democrats' webpage promises "middle class tax cuts" and tax breaks for businesses "to hire the unemployed.")

4. Generally more "conservative" politics, in the root sense of that word. Republicans will be less likely to achieve radical changes in the social contract, such as partially privatizing Social Security or deporting illegal immigrants. At the same time, all the proposals on Nancy Pelosi's website are highly incremental, fairly traditionalist--and have low odds of becoming law.

I think that divided government is desirable; and the Democrats' priorities match mine more closely than the Republicans' do. However, for anyone who is deeply troubled by our staggering rates of incarceration, the fact that only half of our minority children complete high school, or the threat of global warming, the present Democratic leadership promises relatively little. At best, a Democratic victory in November would be a small step in the right direction. Actual solutions will involve much deeper and longer-term change.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:34 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 4, 2006

good writing

Last week, in bed with the flu, I read four detective novels whose dates of publication ranged from 1938 to 2003. There was stylish writing in all those books: rhythmic, observant, atmospheric--and various, too. For example:

When I thought of Germany I thought of parades, of swastika banners flapping from tall poles, of loud-speakers, of stout field-marshals and goose-stepping men with steel helmets, of concentration camps. When I thought of Russia I thought of dark, stupid Romanoffs, of the Winter Palace, of Cossacks, of crowds streaming in terror, of canopied priests swinging censers, of Lenin and Stalin, of grain rippling in the breeze, of the Lubianka prison. (Eric Ambler, Cause for Alarm, 1938)

The magnificent stones, symbols of courage, cruelty, and betrayal, stood sentinel at the one cleft in the ridge of the Purbeck Hills as they had for a thousand years. As he ate his solitary picnic, Dalgliesh found his eyes constantly drawn to those stark embattled slabs of mutilated ashlar silhouetted high against the gentle sky. (P.D. James, The Black Tower, 1975)

He ordered another scotch and told the guy who came in and sat next to him at the bar he'd won 470 bucks at Spade's Boardwalk. Just like that, in about three minutes. The guy said, big fucking deal; you want to keep it, get out of town, fast. The guy was a blackjack dealer at Resorts International, across the street. He had been a floorman at Tropicana, but he'd tapped out a dealer for looking away from the cards and it turned out the dealer had more juice than he did, so listen to this, he got fired for doing his job. Politics, man. Who you know. You'd don't party with the right people, kiss your ass good-bye. (Elmore Leonard, Glitz, 1985)

He turned the radio on and moved the dial to PGC. The Super Funk Regulator was on the air, talking to a woman who had called in from her car.

"Where you at right now?" asked the DJ.

"I'm on Benning Road, heading home from work."

"Who you goin' to see?"

"My son Darius," said the woman giggling, obviously hyped to be on the radio and live. "He's ten years old."

"You have a good one," said the DJ. "Thanks for rolling with a brother."

"Thanks for lettin' a sister roll."

Strange smiled. He did love D.C. (George Pelecanos, Soul Circus, 2003)

Posted by peterlevine at 8:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 1, 2006

The Future of Democracy

I mailed off a book manuscript yesterday that's entitled The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens. It was commissioned by University Press of New England, which will now have the fun of editing it. I wrote it within the last twelve months; chunks appeared on this blog when I believed they might be interesting as stand-alone essays. There is a chapter on each of these questions:

  • What is "civic engagement"?
  • Why should we want many people to be engaged?
  • Why does it matter if young people are engaged?
  • How are young people engaged today?
  • What are the barriers to civic education?
  • What works inside schools?
  • What works in community-based organizations?
  • What works in colleges and universities?
  • What broader political reforms do we need to make citizenship worthwhile and rewarding?
  • Throughout, I explore two basic theories. One assumes that there are problems with young people's civic skills, knowledge, confidence, and values. These problems are not the fault of young people. Hardly anyone would hold a sixteen-year-old personally accountable for lacking interest in the news or failing to join associations. If we should blame anyone, it would be parents, educators, politicians, reporters, and other adults. Nevertheless, the problems are located (so to speak) inside the heads of young people. We should therefore look for interventions that directly improve young people's civic abilities and attitudes. Such interventions include formal civic education, opportunities for community service, and broader educational reforms that are designed to improve the overall character of schools. The government, the press, and political parties can also enhance young people's civic commitments and skills by directly communicating with them.

    The second model assumes that there are flaws in our institutions that make it unreasonable to expect positive civic attitudes and active engagement. For example, citizens (young and old alike) may rightly shun voting when most elections have already been determined by the way district lines were drawn. They may rightly ignore the news when the quality of journalism, especially on television, is poor. And they may rightly disengage from high schools that are large, anonymous, and alienating. If this model holds, then we do not need interventions that change young people's minds. Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. Instead, we should reform major institutions.

    There are valid arguments in favor of both models, although they sometimes conflict in ways that I explore. In my view, we need a broad movement that improves civic education while it also reforms the institutions in which citizens engage. We must prepare citizens for politics, but also improve politics for citizens. Neither effort can succeed in isolation from the other. Educational curricula, textbooks, and programs, if disconnected from the goal of strengthening and improving democracy, can easily become means of accommodating young people to a flawed system. But political reform is impossible until we better prepare the next generation of citizens with appropriate knowledge, skills, habits, and values. Students should feel that they are being educated for citizenship, but also that they can help to renew American democracy.

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

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