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December 29, 2006

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

We had a wonderful pre-Christmas trip to the little Bavarian city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It is an old Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire, a municipal republic like those of medieval Italy, very well preserved within its walls from the days of the meistersingers. In the weeks before Christmas, all decorated for the season, it is almost unbelievably quaint. We also drove up and down the "Romantic Road" (die Romantische Straße), which connects villages, castles, and walled cities, mostly in western Bavaria. I've made a movie to illustrate our visit. I don't really anticipate regular readers of this blog watching it (it's five minutes long), but I have posted it for people who are Googling "Rothenburg" to decide whether to visit.

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December 15, 2006

to Germany for a week

We are leaving today for a family vacation in Germany. I won't post again until shortly after Christmas.

We're going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a little medieval town in northern Bavaria. It's one of many German towns that have Christmas Markets. The streets are filled with stalls, decorations, lights, music, and outdoor food and drink for several weeks in December--or so we're told.

We visited another Christmas Market accidentally in 2004. I was invited to a conference in the Netherlands, and while I was there, my family stayed in Bruges/Brugge (Belgium). The whole town was decorated for Christmas. There were jovial crowds of European tourists, and the streets were lined with shopping stalls. Our kids got a heavy dose of yuletide cheer and we all saw some art. It worked so well that we decided to try another Christmas Market this year. It turns out that there are scores, or perhaps hundreds, of them across Catholic Europe. So we are trying Rothenburg and will report back in the New Year. Meanwhile, happy holidays.

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December 14, 2006

why Obama has lit a fire

There is a remarkable gap between Senator Obama's actual speech in New Hampshire last weekend (click for video) and the endless coverage and commentary that I have read about it. Reporters and bloggers uniformly take the line that Obama presented himself as someone "new"--as a "change"--and New Hampshire Democratic voters liked him for that reason. Supposedly, they saw him as "new" because of his recent arrival in Washington, his relatively young age, his career in grassroots organizing, and even his race and immigrant background, which make him different from all the other contenders--and worlds apart from the incumbent president.

Novelty would be a superficial reason to "swoon" for Obama; that feeling would soon wear off. But reporters really didn't pay attention to his speech, which is why they don't grasp the source of his popularity.

Now, listen, I have to confess that there has been a little bit of fuss about me lately. And I have been a little suspicious of it, because I actually come from a background of community organizing and grassroots organizing and mobilization and empowerment, and so--a lot of reporters of late have been asking me, 'Well, why are you coming to New Hampshire? What does this mean? You've got big crowds. Does this definitely mean you're jumping in? And this and that and the other.'

What I told them during a press event earlier here today, and what I want to say to you--Obviously it's flattering to get so much attention, although I must say it's baffling, particularly to my wife. I actually think that the reason I'm getting so much attention right now has less to do with me and more to do with you. I think to some degree I've become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represented. And it's a spirit that says we are looking for something new. [applause] ...

It's a spirit that says we are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time, that we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn't depend on one person. That doesn't depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you.

There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. And that, I think, more than anything is what the election here in New Hampshire represented on Nov. 7. And that is the tradition of New Hampshire, not just in presidential primaries but each and every day: the idea that all of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate, and as a consequence of everybody ... doing just that, we had an outstanding election here in New Hampshire. So I'm here to get some tips from you. [Applause] I'm here to soak up some of that energy. [Growing applause.] I'm here to bask in the glow of the great work that you have done. And I want you guys to remember that. You're the story, not me. Now that's hard to understand, because that's not the politics we have seen just lately.

The Senator then talks about his work trying to "rebuild and renew America"--especially low-income America--through grassroots organizing. He connects his own work to American history, which he sees as a series of popular uprisings led by "pastors, organizers, agitators, and troublemakers" who have had the audacity to hope.

In each and every juncture of our history, there has someone who has been willing to say that we can do better. ... We can create a country where everybody's got a shot, where every child can dream. ... And I think what's been happening over these last several months is people have realized that that kind of spirit has been lost over the last decade. [Applause.] It's not that ordinary people have forgotten how to dream big dreams; they just think that their leadership has forgotten. [Applause] ... And so what happened in this election, not just here in New Hampshire but all across the country, is that voters decided to start paying attention. They looked up and they said, 'We're in a serious mood, we're in a sober mood, and we want to know, how can we rekindle that spirit?'

Pundits have ignored everything in the speech after "we are looking for something new." (You literally can't find the rest of the speech with a Google search.) Reporters assume that Obama's words about citizenship were just throat-clearing, or crowd-pleasing rhetoric, or false modesty. Thus they can't grasp why people love him.

The public is hungry for more opportunities to participate in solving our grievous problems. It is not only the depth of our challenges that upsets us, but also the sense that we have been shut out of civic life and cannot be part of the solution. A candidate who can genuinely empower citizens will ignite powerful enthusiasm--not among all Americans, but among the politically active who dominate primary elections.

Obama has most of the ingredients he needs to run a persuasive "empowerment" campaign--much more so than Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton. As a community organizer, he has the right resume. (His "home town" of Chicago has been the epicenter of grassroots civic work since the time of Jane Addams.) He speaks eloquently and insightfully about civic participation. What he will need is a list of serious policy proposals for civic renewal. By connecting his rhetoric of empowerment to concrete reforms, he may be able to persuade reporters and other elites to take that rhetoric seriously. They will realize that he really means what he says. And then the fire that he has kindled may begin to burn.

... and that's my obligation, to make sure that I'm willing to partner with the American people on the common-sense, pragamatic, not ideological agenda that they're hungry for to meet the challenges that we face [Applause.]

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December 13, 2006

a model of anti-Black racism in the USA

This is a very sketchy model, based on nothing more than personal observations and reflections. The arrows are supposed to be causal, although I can't estimate the strength of these relationships. Thus, for example, the human instinct to distinguish in-groups from out-groups, plus skin color differences, yields economic disadvantage for African Americans.

The overall idea is that certain background factors predispose people (including some African Americans) to anti-Black prejudice. Actual prejudice is triggered by particular factors, such as skin color and accent. The results are harmful behaviors, some of which reinforce the background factors in a feedback loop or vicious circle.

Some things that are missing from this model: capital-accumulation, political participation and relations to government, minority status (in the sense of being outvoted by the more numerous group), and religion.

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December 12, 2006

support for abortion rights: a generational story

For a talk this afternoon, I quickly looked at attitudes toward abortion rights by age cohort. I think the story is interesting. In brief, each generation came of age with more favorable attitudes toward abortion than the cohorts that preceded it--until the Xers arrived. They were less favorable than the Boomers. At about the same time that Xers became a substantial part of the adult population, there was a decline in support for abortion rights within each generation. As a result, fewer people have favored abortion rights since 1994.

The Millennials are not numerous enough in the adult population to show a trend. Anna Greenberg found that 63% of Millennials supported a woman's legal right to abortion, but her question didn't specify the conditions under which abortions would be allowed. Surveys of college students typically find strong support for abortion rights, but most young people do not attend college.

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December 11, 2006

a healthy debate about civic renewal

I believe that current forms of politics are, in general, too manipulative. Americans recognize that they are being focus-grouped, polled, canvassed, frightened, divided, titillated, and provoked; and they don't like it. They want opportunities to share ideas and develop solutions.

However, when we ask why citizens have been sidelined and what to do about it, we offer various answers that reflect our political views. That's fine; there are many valid "flavors" of civic renewal. Nothing would be more useful than a competition or debate among political parties and candidates who vied to put "citizens back at the center."


A libertarian version might favor vouchers so that citizens could create and run their own schools. It might recommend allowing residents of urban neighborhoods to form associations that could purchase their own municipal services. And it would strive to remove regulations on nonprofit organizations.

A cultural-conservative version might strive to reduce the influence of courts and the federal government so that citizens would be more involved at the local level in debates about, for example, teaching evolution. This version would support civic education that emphasizes patriotism, knowledge of the Constitution, service, and responsibility. It would recognize military service, including ROTC and the National Guard, as forms of civic participation. And it might favor public funding for faith-based social services.

A progressive version might favor unions, community development corporations, land trusts, co-ops, and other alternative economic institutions that encourage popular participation. It would emphasize electoral reform and "alternative" (i.e., non-commercial) media. This progressive version would support civic education that emphasizes critical thinking, political skills, and social justice.

A deliberative version would be resolutely neutral about ideology but might support investing public funds in public deliberation (both online and face-to-face), granting power to citizens' advisory panels, and providing civic education that emphasizes deliberative skills.

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December 8, 2006

new work from AmericaSpeaks

I'm especially proud to be a member of the board of AmericaSpeaks at this moment, when the organization has completed two remarkable projects.

In Northeast Ohio, deep in the Rust Belt, there is an urgent need for vision, coordination, and civic participation to reverse decades of economic decline. (I know that general scene from my own experience growing up in Syracuse, NY.) AmericaSpeaks recently convened 21,000 citizens of 16 northeastern Ohio counties to deliberate about their region's future. "Voices and Choices" was an intricate project with numerous components and partners. The final report is here.

In New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, profound controversies about values, tradeoffs, and cultural identities immediately arose. There was a crucial need for public deliberation, or else decisions would be made by elites--or mere inertia would prevail. As it turned out, the various layers of government did little to engage citizens. But AmericaSpeaks planned and launched an elaborate series of public deliberations involving 2,500 citizens. It took courage to begin this project without firm funding or commitments from local institutions. No one else was ready to step into the breach, and AmericaSpeaks succeeded. The organization produced an overall report from "Community Congress II." Readers of this blog may be especially interested in the work with youth; see the video report of deliberations among New Orleans high school students. See also Joe Goldman's personal report on "The Democracy Movement."

This work can be filed under "deliberation" and "reflective public opinion," but it is at least as valuable as community organizing and civic education.

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December 7, 2006

Emilio Estevez' Bobby

I was very moved and impressed by the movie Bobby, which we saw last night. It is not really about Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The director, Emilio Estevez, tries to depict the American people at a particular historical and political moment. He puts citizens at the center of his story. This is a very unusual and insightful approach to political fiction, and it's especially surprising to find in a Hollywood movie.

In the film, Robert Kennedy is shown only in real television footage and heard only in real recordings that sometimes play as voiceovers while the fictional events unfold. Estevez may have chosen this device out of admiration for Kennedy. But it has the effect of distancing the Senator; we only hear his public statements to crowds of people far from the scene of the movie, which is the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. We have no insight into his motives or feelings.

Although Bobby is far away, we are close to a bunch of ordinary Americans. Like the American people as a whole, they are old and senile, young and foolish, prejudiced and suspicious, idealistic and kind. They fight and they love one another. They register voters and drop acid. They make great music and stand by while their country carpet-bombs Vietnamese villages. In short, they combine flaws and virtues in numerous combinations that Estevez has obviously chosen to illustrate our vast range and complexity.

Estevez sees Bobby as a great leader and is deeply nostalgic for 1968. But why was Robert Kennedy so great that year? We know that he was a highly flawed human being. His words in the film are eloquent, but mainly because of the way they are juxtaposed with the action on screen. His speeches are not terribly well written, nor beautifully delivered.

Bobby was a great leader in 1968--so I believe, and so the movie suggests--not because he was a better person than everyone who holds public office today. He was great because many dedicated and talented people worked for him, and some of his staff are shown in the film. He was great because he represented several grand social movements: the civil rights struggle, the anti-war campaign, and especially mid-20th century liberalism. These movements were built from the grassroots up; they made it possible for national leaders to achieve greatness by using their ideas and rhetoric. Bobby was one of the last to do so, because all those movements were running down by the time of his final campaign.

Finally, Bobby was great because several million very diverse Americans, despite having much else on their minds, invested some hope in the man. He was a phenomenon, in other words, of something going on in the public. He didn't make history as much as he represented it. The movie brilliantly illustrates this by telling the stories of ordinary Americans while the Senator appears on their television screens and moves ever closer to the place where they happen to work. His tragedy is intensely moving just because it is about so much more than one politician.

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December 6, 2006

an embassy from Hugo Chávez

I took these notes while listening to Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela's Ambassador to the United States. He was speaking at the University of Maryland, as part of my Institute's effort to develop a project that would address Venezuela's deep internal divisions and learn from its vibrant political debate. (See Phronesisiacal for more.)

The Ambassador began with a complaint. The administration and the media blame the Chávez government "for everything," he said. It is "basically the media" that sets the agenda concerning Venezuela in the United States. The American Congress cannot think past "2+2=4"; they don't have time to go beyond what the media tells them. (Later he added: "if you watch the media in Venezuela for even half an hour, you will think that the country is in a civil war.") But last week's "huge" electoral victory shows that the people support Chávez.

The Ambassador drew a distinction between "civil society" and "the people." He explained: "For us, 'civil society' [means] organized sectors of society very much connected to big business. 'The people' [means] marginalized people, people who are not connected" to the economy. Later he said that the whole point of the Bolivarian Revolution is to give the power back to the people.

"We don't have anything against representative democracy, but who is represented there? Basically, the elites." After the crisis of the two traditional parties in Venezuela, he said, "no one was expecting that the people themselves would take over." But that is just what happened in Venezuela's "constitutional moment." Although the Ambassador did not clarify when this moment occurred, I assume he meant Chávez' electoral victories and the Constitution of 1999, which was ratified by a plebicite.

Bolivia has even gone further than Venezuela. "We are westernized," the Ambassador said, but in Bolivia, "indigenous people are taking over completely" from the colonial state. "People say, if you let the people participate, you are a demagogue and you are not rational." But we are ready for mature democracy.

"People are always saying: "[Venezuela] is a polarized country.' Well yes, but it is a polarized country because of wealth." The elites who traditionally controlled the oil wealth fomented a coup and then massively sabotaged oil production.

"We will always try to favor direct or participatory democracy," Mr. Alvarez said, "over representative democracy." He conceded: "Of course, you always need representative democracy, because we understand that minorities have the right, for example, to exist."

The Ambassador said that "neoliberalism" favors civil society over the government. "Part of the neoliberal agenda is, you destroy the state." But in the Andean countries, civil society was corrupt ("unions, etc."). "We decided, let's try to create a new state." Cuba provided 20,000 doctors "to do the job that [our] own doctors don't want to do." Now the Cuban doctors are training Venezuelans.

The Ambassador ended with a call for North-South dialogue: "More than half of the problems are not because of the United States, they are because of our own elites." "We need people who could open a different dialogue. I would urge you to put together thinkers ... and social movements" to develop a common agenda for North and South America.

In the Q&A, he defended community councils as a vehicle for participatory democracy and claimed that they were increasingly out of the party's control--evidence of the "excitement" of participation.

I welcome the call to dialogue, the rhetoric of empowerment, the experiments with councils--and those Cuban doctors. I sympathize with this former professor who probably doesn't get a fair hearing in Washington. And I grant that economic elites have been repressive and corrupt throughout the Andes, as elsewhere. However, I left the speech more suspicious than ever that Chávez represents a false populism that equates "the people" with the party, that disparages pluralism, and that blames the media and elites for all criticism. So far, charisma and oil revenues have kept the government popular, but what happens next?

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December 5, 2006

universities, civic engagement, and the global market

If I were asked why most universities do not put a lot of effort into civic education or civic work in their own communities, I would say that it's because they compete for students. Prospective students and their parents want credentials that are valuable in the job market. What affects the value of a diploma is not what the student learns in college, but how competitive it was to enter the university in the first place. Thus admissions offices do most of the economic work of universities, by selecting and sorting applicants.

However, to attract top students, universities need the assets that enhance their reputations, which include famous and sought-after faculty and well endowed facilities. Universities do whatever it takes to draw top faculty and donors, and neither group is particularly concerned about civic education or engagement. In any case, institutions make few important decisions about their own priorities. The critical decisions are made elsewhere in the academic labor market. For example, faculty are promoted when other institutions try to lure them away. Thus, even if a university decided to reward professors for civic engagement, the actual rewards would go to those with high market value.

Thorstein Veblen already recognized this situation in 1918 (see The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men). But conditions are worse in a globally competitive economy wherein risk has been individualized and each student feels that his or her economic future will be determined by credentials--not by family networks, unions, welfare systems, or even genuine learning.

Why then do I not argue, at least in passing, that the problem for civic engagement is contemporary capitalism? (Or I could say "globalization," or "neoliberalism".)

First, because I think we can fight the problem I have outlined above without battling capitalism. We can organize faculty who are dissatisfied with a life shorn of civic or public significance. We can bring colleges and universities together in consortia such as Campus Compact to resist competitive pressures. We can develop forms of civic education that appeal to prospective students because they may confer job skills. And we can press for changes in goverment policies, such as the proportion of federal work study grants that are reserved for community-based jobs.

Second, I am not willing to call capitalism "the problem," because it seems to me to combine a mix of positive and negative features. Global capitalism undermines traditional cultures and democratic sovereignty (see last Tuesday's post), but it also unleashes human creativity and freedom. A university insulated from the market might be a refuge for high culture, critical thought, and civic engagement. Or it might just consume public funds and tuition dollars without any accountability for outcomes.

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December 4, 2006

guest blogger: Lt. Brandon del Pozo

I've been corresponding with a reader who is a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department as well as a doctoral candidate at CUNY. Brandon del Pozo also holds an MPA from Harvard and an MA from John Jay. The following is a guest post by him concerning torture and combat:

The principal, recurring, line of argument against torture is that it is different from acts of harm and killing in combat and law enforcement in a way that makes the very framework of justification for these acts inadequate for justifying torture as well. This inadequacy is not meant to be one of degree; the argument is not that torture is too extreme a form of injuring and killing to be permitted. It is instead that torture is crucially different in a way that makes the conceptual extension of these justifications inappropriate in the first place. Given what torture is, justifications for how we act in war and self-defense cannot be invoked to do the work of describing the morality of torture. People who wish to talk about the torture must therefore do so without invoking justifications for combat injuring and killing, which are already thought to be arguments that define the outer limits of how we are permitted to treat other people. Unless a person can talk about the justification for torture in a different way that accurately accounts for its special nature, it must be placed beyond the pale.

This approach fails because it does not appreciate just what we seek to do when we make war against people. Henry Shue, and more recently David Sussman, describe at length the way torture violates the person in an extremely sinister way. They talk about the way torture makes a person feel, the vulnerabilities it exploits, and the way in which it turns the very substance of personhood against itself. It uses a person’s extension in the physical world to enslave her consciousness, devolving her personhood to a state where it is no more endowed with dignity and rational agency than the most primitive sentient being, all the while subjected to the most severe forms of distress, fear and agony that sentience permits. Sussman argues that “through the combination of captivity, restraint, and pain, the physical and social bases of rational agency are actively turned against such agency itself... [a] perversion of the most basic human relations.” Making clear that in his view this cannot be justified by our present understanding of when and how we may cause harm, he concludes that “whether such objections could ever be overcome by legitimate military or punitive interests is a question that waits upon more comprehensive understandings of the morality of punishment, warfare, and self-defense.”

The description of torture above is accurate. The problem, however, is that in both the case of Shue and Sussman it is simply presumed that this description alone, when done well, is enough to make the case that torture is different from combat not by degree but by nature. In order to make the best argument possible, it would be necessary to do at least two things. The first would be to accurately describe what torture is. The second would be to affirmatively show that combat is not the same in nature as what has been described as torture, and that it does not differ only by degree. Prior work has done a good job of the former, but seems to have ignored the latter, as if describing torture has made the prima facie case that it is different from combat by its nature.

If we do not acknowledge the prima facie case and instead consider this second premise as something that must be proven, then the argument becomes much less certain. If an exercise could demonstrate that is possible to torture someone without causing any pain or significant physical discomfort at all, then the crucial element of torture is the mental state it produces in the person who is tortured. Consider this question: if I threatened to painlessly remove the limbs and organs of a person in the course of a carefully supervised surgery, pausing between procedures to allow her to consider submitting to my will, would I be torturing her? It seems that I would, and because of the mental state I have produced in her more so than anything else.

This point can be mated with an account of combat that sees torture as its extreme case, because the definition of combat and torture differ only in ways that, when described accurately, allow for assimilation. Philosophers of torture have very precisely described the ecology of the torture act, and it seems that their argument, if we look at it carefully, is that torture is different than other practices because its ecology—both as it is manipulated and as it simply prevails—generates certain key moral differences. If the ecology of warfare can be shown to be related to that of torture by degree only, then the difference between torture acts and war acts may only be a matter of degree as well. The failure to appreciate or take seriously certain features of warfare may in fact be a neglect of its ecology, among other things. What is warfare, after all, but an attempt by one army to control and shape a battlefield’s ecology so that it not only kills the enemy, but induces mental states in the survivors that produce capitulation? Battle, when “properly done,” produces intense feelings of isolation, hunger, and exhaustion. It induces extreme fear, deprives of sleep, and causes a person to consider abandoning convictions that are deeply-held enough to fight and die for only for the sake of escaping misery and suffering. It seeks to exploit every type of physical weakness in a person in order to enslave her soul to them, so that she will give anything she is asked for rather than persevere. If war planners had a completely free hand, and the proper means, they would design a battlefield to be a torture chamber for those soldiers who are not directly killed. Lacking the control necessary to do so, they instead strive for close approximations.

Torture should still not be permitted, but not because it is a morally special act. Instead, it should not be permitted because the requirements of justice and our own ethics do not allow for its coherent practice. We must build requirements of certainty into our justifications for actions that harm others, and we have established certain thresholds before which we will not consider exercising certain harmful options. These thresholds and requirements grow in proportion with the magnitude of the harm we might inflict. These requirements are not only in effect in domestic settings, in cases concerning fellow citizens, but also in international settings, and in war, as well as in private transactions. They are designed to respect our own feelings of empathy for fellow human beings, to safeguard ourselves from the damage done to us as a person when we ignore them, and they also acknowledge the dignity and rational agency of others. If we honor these requirements, then we cannot construct a torture policy that would plausibly indicate its use. War gives us levels of certainty that are not present in torture; we can kill a man with a certain uniform, for example, because the uniform is meant to convey knowledge of his status, but we can almost never know if the person we may torture possesses the knowledge we seek, or if torture will produce the end we want, for all of its awfulness. To put it most simply, when applied to torture, justice and our ethics create practical epistemic and policy problems that simply cannot be solved.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 1, 2006

the new INS citizenship exam

(Dayton, OH) Today the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued a new citizenship exam. This is the test that immigrants must pass to become US citizens. The revision is being reported as a big improvement. The Washington Post says,

Want to become a citizen? Get a copy of the Bill of Rights. The U.S. government is revising the new citizenship exam so that it emphasizes applicants' grasp of American democracy over their knowledge of trivia -- such as the name of the president's house or the colors of the flag.

The old exam was problematic. Instead of asking questions that tested people's capacity to be active and responsible members of the political community--"citizens"--it posed nitty-gritty factual questions that you could memorize without any understanding. For instance, you had to be able to state the date on which the Constitution was written, without knowing what the Constitution said.

On a memorable evening in 2001, I helped a Hmong immigrant in St. Paul to memorize answers from the INS's practice book. He had no idea what the answers meant, nor could he ever use the information he had memorized in his own interest or to help the United States.

Also in the Twin Cities, immigrant students from the Jane Addams School made a video about this problem. They asked shoppers in the Mall of America (i.e., "Middle America") to answer questions from the citizenship exam. The rate of correct answers was low.

We should probably congratulate the INS for rewriting the test, but I'm not sure how much progress has been achieved. Sample questions from the pilot version are online. I like these: "Name one right or freedom from the First Amendment." "Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy." And "What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?" However, I'm not sure it's useful to ask: "The House of Representatives has how many voting members?" Or "How old must a President be?"

We know that people who know this kind of fact are also more engaged in politics and civic life. However, I suspect that's because they have gleaned knowledge from discussions, meetings, and using the news media. It's not clear that making people memorize such facts would increase their engagement.

We also know, from CIRCLE's recent survey, that younger American adults would mostly fail the new exam if they had to take it.

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