March 30, 2007
The Future of Democracy
My book of that title now has its own website with some blurbs and cover art. It is on course to be published in June.
March 29, 2007
what I believe
(In Albuquerque) For whatever it's worth, here are the most basic and central positions I hold these days. The links refer to longer blog posts on each idea:
Ethical particularism: The proper object of moral judgment is a whole situation, not an abstract noun. Some general concepts have deep moral significance, but their significance varies unpredictably depending on their interplay with other factors present in any given situation.
Historicism: Our values are deeply influenced by our collections of prior experiences, examples, and stories. Each person's collection is his or her "culture." But no two people have precisely the same background; one culture shades into another. A culture is not, therefore, a perspective (i.e., a single point from which to observe everything), nor a premise or set of premises from which our conclusions follow. There are no barriers among cultures, although there are differences.
Dialectic over entropy: Cultural interaction generally leads to convergence. Convergence is bad when it is automatic and the result is uniformity. It is good when it is deliberate and the result is greater complexity.
Narratives justify moral judgments: We make sense of situations by describing them in coherent, temporal terms--as stories. Narratives make up a large portion of what we call culture.
Populism: It is an appropriate general assumption--for both ethical and practical reasons--that all people can make valuable contributions to issues of moral significance that involve them. (Note that ethical particularism rebuts claims to special moral authority or expertise.)
Public deliberation: When judgments of situations and policies differ, the people who are affected ought to exchange ideas and stories under conditions of peace and reasonable equality, with the objective of consensus. This process can, however, be local and voluntary, not something that encompasses the whole polity.
Public work: Deliberation should be connected to action. Otherwise, it is not informed by experience, nor is it motivating. (Most people don't like merely to talk.)
Civic republicanism: Participation--the liberty of the ancients--is not only a means to an end; it is also intrinsically dignified.
Open-ended politics: We need a kind of political leadership and organizing that does not aim at specific policies or social outcomes, but rather increases the prevalence of deliberation and public work. Like other forms of politics, this variety needs strategies, messages, constituencies, and institutions.
The creative commons: Many indispensable public goods are not just given (like the sun or air) but are created by collective effort. Although there is a global creative commons, many public goods are local and have a local cultural character.
Developmentalism: Human beings pass through a life course, having different needs and assets at different points. Development is not a matter of passing automatically through stages; it requires opportunities. Active citizens are made, not born. They acquire culture and help make it.
Associations: Voluntary private associations create and preserve public goods, host deliberations, and recruit and teach the next generation.
Some of these ideas fit together very neatly, but there are tensions. For example, how can I be skeptical about judging abstract moral concepts and yet offer a positive judgment of "participation," which is surely an abstract idea? As a matter of fact, I don't think participation is always intrinsically good; I simply think that we tend to undervalue it or overlook its intrinsic merits. But how weakly can I make that claim without undermining it entirely?
March 28, 2007
(Santa Ana Pueblo, NM) I feel pretty far from news and opinion out here in the desert, and for once unmoved to comment on any controversies, social issues, or moral dilemmas. We're in a resort built on the land of the Tamaya Pueblo Indians, who own a majority stake in the hotel. Outside our window is a stretch of grass, a thin forest of cottonwoods, the Rio Grande, and then Sandia Mountain with snow on its craggy slopes. We're at 5,000 feet, and Sandia rises another 5,000 feet above us. A warm wind whips across the vast open space. The night air is clear, dark, and cold.
After dinner, three men in enormous feathered headdress walked by, drumming. It turned out that they were not Pueblos, but visiting Aztecs from Mexico. A Native American elder from Oklahoma, here for the National Service Learning Conference, blessed us; I hoped we were worthy of his eloquent blessing and song. He asked the earth and water to protect us, and it was impossible not to recall the harm we do to them. Then a Pueblo from Tamaya, Shkeme Garcia, told us folktales and sang Indian reggae songs that he has also performed in New Zealand, Hawaii, and elsewhere among the world's indigenous peoples. He spoke Keres, the language of Tamaya and some other pueblos, which is unfortunately not used by anyone under the age of 40.
There is no shortage of problems, issues, events, achievements, choices, and controversies in this place. But I am largely ignorant of them. What I see with my tourist's eyes is sublime and apparently timeless.
March 27, 2007
(Near Albuquerque, NM) I'm at a retreat with "emerging leaders" in the field of service-learning. The Kellogg Foundation is behind this initiative, which aims to develop more culturally and ethnically diverse young leaders for a field that has been dominated by older white people. Many of the students who do service-learning in our schools (in other words, those who perform community service connected to academic learning) are minority youth. But the gatekeepers, standard-setters, and researchers are white and middle class. Kellogg and its main grantees--The National Youth Leadership Council and the National Service-Learning Partnership--are addressing this problem in a really serious way. They have identified dozens of diverse younger people in responsible positions within organizations, such as CIRCLE, that work on service-learning. They have paired each of these "emerging leaders" with a mentor. At the end of a two-year process, the emerging leader should have "emerged." I'm a mentor, which is why I'm here.
Two quick observations occur to me after the introductory session. First, this kind of retreat is the antithesis of the hiring process that I complained about the other day. Instead of selecting one or two competitors for a single position (which inevitably requires comparative judgments), here we are celebrating and supporting everyone and trying to expand the circle. Such an effort is easy to parody--but important to do well.
Second, I have tip for people who direct nonprofits. (I try to implement this advice within my own organization and as a member of various boards.) One of the major self-interested motivations in the nonprofit world is fame--public acknowledgment and recognition. I presume that most people in the business world do not feel that motive as strongly, because even rather senior and powerful businesspeople often have hardly any presence on the Web. You cannot even find their biographies and photos on their own corporate websites. But people who work for nonprofits very often want the opportunities to make speeches, talk to reporters, publish, or see their profiles on a website.
Thus my tip is simple: empower as many of your employees as you can to speak and write publicly. They may not always express themselves as you would, but sometimes their version is better; and in any case, they have to learn from experience. Public recognition will make them happier and more satisfied than they would be otherwise, and you can thereby help them to emerge as leaders.
March 26, 2007
Joseph M. Levine
(Flying to Albuquerque, NM) I was in Atlanta over the weekend. A panel discussion at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was devoted to my father's work. It seemed fairly miraculous that he could attend the session, since he has had major surgery five times within the last year and was still in the hospital only one month ago. But the prognosis is good, and he was able to participate actively in the discussion. Seven peers and former students gave short papers about aspects of his work.
My dad's colleagues and students described an empirical historian, a painstaking scholar with a very concrete, pragmatic bent. His field is intellectual history (also known as the "history of ideas"), with a focus on the history of historical thought in England. His job is to interpret books, letters, speeches, and works of art. Many of his readers are literary critics and art historians who are interested in these texts and objects. Dad treats the works that he studies as events--akin to battles, expeditions, trials, or legislation. In other words, he understands cultural products as intentional human acts, occurring for specific, traceable reasons in particular contexts. That assumption drives him to consider local and specific historical circumstances. Unlike the "new historicists,' who often understand books as examples of periods, "discourses," cultures, or traditions, my father tends to see texts as acts performed for specific purposes under specific conditions--for example, to counter something that another author has said. That was how he was taught to practice history even before he decided to specialize in the history of ideas.
Often, great authors were not merely influenced by canonical figures who still interest us today because of their intrinsic merits. Most of the famous authors were also involved in debates with allies or adversaries who were not geniuses and who are mostly forgotten today. Books like Utopia, The Prince, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were written for, against, or in response to much more ordinary contemporary works. An empirical intellectual historian reads those other works and uses them to reconstruct the intentions of the authors of the classics.
An empiricist is someone without strong ideological or philosophical motives, one who merely describes some external reality and follows the evidence where it leads. My dad is not a positivist, because he is a narrative historian, and a narrative is a form of interpretation. But his colleagues and students described him as someone who has no agenda other than to recover past thinking and to make it coherent through narrative.
I think in this respect they may have overlooked a certain political purpose. After all, even a pure empiricist must choose which topics to study. Dad’s work reconstructs the origins of some of our contemporary institutions, such as academic history and intellectual freedom. He studies them because he values them. A particular kind of skeptical but humane liberalism is also implicit in his effort to recover the intentions of past human beings without quickly imposing grand ideas on them. Even my father’s method, which encourages him to study quarrels, controversies, and debates, reflects an enthusiasm for free speech and the marketplace of ideas.
Liberalism is an ideology, to be sure. The very idea that individual human beings' intentions are important rests on metaphysical and moral assumptions. Still, there is a skeptical form of liberalism (well developed in our time by Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty) that makes minimal presuppositions and that shuns abstractions in favor of deep respect for varied human individuals in their particular contexts. That kind of liberalism is not only implicit in my father’s method; it is also the subject of his work. One of the main sources of such liberalism was the skeptical, empirical, pragmatic, human-centered, literal, narrative form of history that arose with Renaissance humanism.
March 23, 2007
an opportunity for graduate students and new faculty
(En route to Atlanta) This is something to pass along to colleagues and students:
CIRCLE, along with colleagues at Brandeis and University of California, Berkeley, will hold a special conference this summer on work-in-progress in K-12 service-learning research. Emerging scholars (graduate students and post-doctoral researchers within 7 years of their doctoral degrees) may apply to participate. Applications are due no later than April 23, 2007. Click here for more information.
March 22, 2007
consequentialists should want torture to "work"
I ended yesterday's post with the question, "if killing is worse than torturing, why should we ban the latter--especially if it proves an efficient means of preventing casualties?" I said "if" because this is a controversial empirical hypothesis. Human rights groups argue that torture does not work. It does not prevent terrorism or other grave evils, because those who are tortured can lie or can change their plans once they are captured. It generates false information that justifies even more torture without actually serving national security or any other acceptable end.
This sounds at least plausible. But it isn't impossible to imagine a situation in which a particular form of torture (duly limited and overseen) actually has beneficial net effects on human happiness. That is, the few people who suffer under torture may--in this hypothetical world--cough up enough true information that there is less terrorism, tyranny, or war. Their suffering is far outweighed by the increased security of numerous others.
What I find interesting is that I don't want this scenario to be empirically true. I believe in universal human rights, which rest on a sense of the dignity and intrinsic worth of all people. I also think that virtue excludes the use of torture, which is dishonorable. However, I am not so much of a "deontologist" that I'll stick to principles regardless of their consequences. I won't say "fiat lex pereat mundus"--let the [moral] law prevail even if the world perishes. Instead, I hope that the effects of torture prove harmful, because then arguments about consequences will line up with arguments about principles and virtues and the case will be easy.
One could, however, be a consistent consequentialist and argue that we should institute torture (with appropriate safeguards and limits) if and only if its net effects are positive. If that is your view, you should actually hope that torture is highly effective. If any practice, P, has both costs and benefits, a consequentialist should want its benefits greatly to outweigh its costs and should then press to institutionalize P. A consequentialist should oppose torture if, as the human rights groups say, it doesn't work. But I see no consequentialist grounds for hoping that it doesn't work.
March 21, 2007
is death worse than torture?
John Yoo, who wrote the official memo justifying the use of torture, still thinks that there are situations when torture is acceptable. "Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don't see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don't have an absolute prohibition on killing. Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified. But that, in some circumstances, it is justified seems to me to be just moral common sense. How could it be better that 10,000 or 50,000 or a million people die than that one person be injured?"
I think that's a serious question, and I'm not fully satisfied with any of the five answers that occur to me:
1) There is a very old tradition of granting rights to prisoners. In war, that tradition goes back at least to the days of chivalry and is often seen as a mark of honor. In criminal law, the tradition goes back to Magna Carta with its rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and so on. But a tradition, by itself, is not an argument. Maybe the distinction between prisoners and others was arbitrary, or maybe it is obsolete in an age of strategic bombing and weapons of mass destruction.
2) Arguably, since we have unlimited power over prisoners, there must be checks on our power. Those checks include due process for criminal suspects and the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war. But note that we also have unlimited power over the people who are sitting below the bomb bays of our airplanes. Certain restrictions govern who may be bombed, but these rules are much weaker than due process. In fact, we can usually assume when we drop bombs that non-combatants (and non-criminals) will be injured, maimed, and killed.
3) Perhaps being tortured or held indefinitely is a special nightmare, more fundamentally dehumanizing than being blown to bits. Then John Yoo's premise is wrong; torturing one person is worse than killing ten. Perhaps--but I worry that our ability to imagine one person's torture exceeds our capacity to imagine the clean and rapid deaths of hundreds or thousands of people. Even our own demise is hard to conceive. That means that we may make an arbitrary distinction between prisoners and people caught on a battlefield.
4) There is a set of workable institutions for safeguarding limited rights for prisoners. These include courts, judges, defense attorneys, writs, treaties, and the Red Cross. These institutions work because there is time, once someone has been captured, to go through procedures and call on neutral parties. We have no workable institutions for safeguarding the rights of people on the battlefield. There just isn't a neutral judge who can be summoned to decide whether it is acceptable to open the bomb bays. That seems true enough, but we have to wonder whether our institutions are adequate and appropriate. Maybe if the English nobility had been worried about civilian casualties as well as their own fates in the king's dungeons, they would have created institutions to protect rights on the battlefield (not merely in the courtroom).
5) We have a good reason to safeguard the rights of captives: our own government can take us prisoner. If we lose habeas corpus for suspected terrorists, we can lose it for ourselves. That is certainly a concern, but it doesn't excuse acts of war on foreign lands that may cause individuals to suffer worse than they would under torture. A pacifist replies: War is never acceptable. But what about in 1940? Or 1861? Or 1776? If war is ever justified, then we will sometimes kill people. And if killing is worse than torturing, why should we ban the latter--especially if it proves an efficient means of preventing casualties?
March 20, 2007
Wittgenstein in the kitchen
Wittgenstein used "game" as an example of a word that we can use effectively even though the examples are highly various. Some games are competitive, some are fun, and some have rules-- but some have none of these features. Indeed, Wittgenstein thought that there was no defining feature of "games," but there were many individual games that were similar to many others. The word marked a cluster of cases that one could learn to "see" without being able to identify a common denominator. It might be right or wrong to call a given object a "game," but the test would not be whether the game met any particular criterion.
My favorite example of such words is not "game," but "curry"--a kind of hobson-jobsonism derived from a Tamil word meaning "sauce or relish for rice." But there are plenty of curries served without rice, and plenty of rice sauces that aren't curries. Webster's defines the English word "curry" as "a food, dish, or sauce in Indian cuisine seasoned with a mixture of pungent spices." But there are millions of curries that don't come from India, and some Indian curries are not particularly pungent.
Here are the ingredients for two curries, taken from cookbooks in our house. 1) Whole chicken, onions, blanched almonds, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, pepper, yogurt, salt. 2) Flank steak, peanut butter, coconut milk, basil leaves, fish sauce, sugar, cumin, white pepper, paprika, galanga root, kaffir lime leaves, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, lemon grass, garlic, shallots, salt, and shrimp paste. These recipes both contain coriander and salt, but it is not hard to find other curries without the coriander, and you can leave out the salt. It is hard to find any two curries that share absolutely no common ingredient. Yet the ingredients that any two share may not be found in a third.
If "curry" cannot be defined by its components, perhaps it refers to some cooking method? Many curries involve pastes or thick sauces composed of ground ingredients. But that's also a good description of romesco sauce from Catalonia, pesto from Italy, or chile con carne. No one would call a minestrone with pesto a curry. We could try to define "curry" by listing countries of origin. But there are dishes from India that aren't curries. "Country captain" is arguably a curry of English origin. And what about adobo from the Philippines or a lamb stew from Iran? Curries or not?
In short, you can teach or learn the correct meaning of "curry" (albeit with some controversial borderline cases), but you cannot define it in a sentence that will communicate its meaning. Learning requires experience. I believe the same is true of "love," "happiness," and "virtue"--but that's another story.
March 19, 2007
making comparative judgments
Prof. Brian Tamanaha says that that he's "losing [his] stomach for honest academic exchange," meaning that he no longer wants to write critical reviews of peers' work. He writes, "I feel like a coward, shirking my responsibility as an academic." I can sympathize, having been deeply involved lately in making comparative judgments. I'm the chair of a job search committee that's choosing among more than 225 applicants for--at most--three jobs. That inevitably means making comparative judgments about publications and presentations. I also do a fair amount of peer-reviewing. And I'm on the other side of the table all the time, with plenty of pending articles, grant proposals, and other applications of my own. A book manuscript of mine was recently rejected after a 15-month wait because of a negative peer-review.
It is our academic duty to make such critical judgments. My Institute cannot give jobs to all 225 applicants, so we must judge their merits, or at least their "fit" for our positions. Publishers cannot print even a small proportion of the manuscripts they are offered; they must try to pick the best ones. Even the search for truth requires critical judgments. If you argue that P and I believe that not-P, we cannot both be right. To establish whether P or not-P is the case, I should try to show why you are wrong. I need to do that in public so that you and others can follow and assess my arguments.
Still, making comparative judgments of merit is only one mode of academic interaction. We can also cooperate and learn from one another. Even if you argue P when P is not the case, I may be able to get a lot out of your argument, your evidence, your methodology, or your style. I share Professor Tamanaha's feeling that making comparative critical judgments is one of the worst parts of academic life--a necessity, but not a pleasure.
March 16, 2007
open-ended politics and the evangelical movement
The Rev. Rich Cizik has won a fight within the National Association of Evangelicals and will be able to work against global warming and torture. This is probably good news for liberals, but I also see a different kind of benefit. Consider, as a simplification, three types of politics:
1) The partisan variety. Here the goal is to put one's favored party in charge of the government. Parties do serve crucial functions, and to work for one of them is a valid form of participation. But clearly there is a moral hazard: a party should be a means, yet it can become an end. Religious Right leaders like James Dobson and Gary Bauer are often called "partisan," meaning precisely that they treat the GOP as a good in itself. I'm not certain that charge is fair, but it would be serious if true. To put it in Protestant theological terms, obedience to a party is idolatrous.
2) The strategic variety. Here the goal is to advance a particular policy or social outcome, using arguments, coalitions, tactics, and political parties as means. Strategic politics is effective, and therefore it would be idle to denounce it. Besides, when people arrive at legitimate policy ends for reasons of principle or valid interest, they are entitled to pursue their goals using legal means. Much of the energy in politics comes from such efforts. The problem arises when we assume that our ends are definitely valid and have preeminence. Strategic politics can preclude listening to other perspectives, learning, and balancing various competing goods.
Whether or not the Religious Right's leaders are partisan, they clearly are strategic. They have a narrow set of goals and are willing to use partisan tactics, wedge issues, discipline, and power to achieve them. That is clear from their letter opposing Rev. Cizik: "Cizik and others ... are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children."
Such disciplined, strategic, goal-oriented politics is also common on the left. It makes a difference that the left's goals are better (in my opinion), but there is still often a lack of learning and balancing.
3. Open-ended politics. In its purest form, this means that diverse people come together to choose their goals without regard to party or previous commitments. Of course, they bring values and experiences, but they are interested in learning from one another. It seems to me that Rev. Cizik represents this kind of politics. He may not be any more moderate than the Religious Right's leaders, but he is more open-ended.
There is no reason why evangelicals can't be open-ended about their politics. In fact, deliberating with others is a way of being morally serious and reflective and avoiding idolatry. The Bible offers guidance, but it does not specify policies, let alone rank them. Thus one can be guided by scripture yet open-ended. That posture increases the odds that new ideas and opportunities will develop and make the world a better place. Open-ended politics won't end disagreements, but it can reduce invidious stereotyping. After all, if you oppose someone on abortion but collaborate with her on global warming, you can't see her as wicked.
It would be a good thing--and not only for liberals and moderates--if the evangelical movement became more open-ended. There are plenty of liberal and moderate groups that should make the same shift.
March 15, 2007
gun control: the cultural dimension
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently overturned Washington's law against keeping a gun inside one's home. That's my city, and I'm for the law--rather passionately. Here I propose that courts and national legislatures should generally respect local norms and rules (such as our gun law) that have strong cultural dimensions. That principle argues for gun control in Washington, DC, but against it in Montana or rural Texas.
If gun control prevented significant numbers of murders, the benefit to human life and welfare would strongly argue in its favor, everywhere. But the empirical evidence is controversial.
The Court of Appeals did not consider such evidence, but asked a constitutional question. Does the Second Amendment imply an individual right to gun-ownership? If so, what does that right entail? "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Reasonable people can reach various conclusions as they stare at this 18th century sentence. My only stricture would be to interpret the Second Amendment in the same way that you read the rest of the Constitution. Thus, if you are a strict constructionist, an originalist, a balancer of interests, a federalist, or a believer in congressional supremacy (to name just a few positions), that should guide all of your constitutional interpretations, not just some of them. This stricture seems correct, but it makes life difficult for people like me who are inclined to be near-absolutists about the First Amendment. We cannot use the Bill of Rights to legalize various exotic forms of expression yet ignore the right to "keep and bear arms," which does (whether we like it or not) appear in the text.
Since the Constitution informs but does not decide this debate, I turn to the question of culture. In some parts of America, gun-ownership is a rite of passage. People expect to protect their own homes and not rely on the police, who may be far away. Hunting is a common recreation. Military service is admired. Kids play with toy guns and later with real ones. In other parts of America, guns are never seen in public except in officers' holsters or during the commission of felonies. Children are taught to despise them. Even toy guns are seen as symbols of violence.
I'm not a cultural relativist. I do not assume that all cultural values have equal merit. There are good moral reasons, for example, against guns. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about imposing general principles on diverse communities. The values and norms of each place tend to hang together. We cannot isolate and change one part of a local culture without altering the other parts in unpredictable ways. When some outside force (such as the national legislature or a court) bans a traditional norm, it doesn't just disappear. We often see noncompliance, backlash, resentment, and various substitute habits arise that may be even worse than the one that was banned.
This is an argument for respecting my local culture, which is urban, predominantly liberal, and very anti-gun. I'm saying that the DC Circuit should leave DC alone. By the same logic, Congress should not restrain traditions of gun-ownership in Middle America.
The same reasoning would also argue against Brown v Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court overruled racial segregation that had been deeply entrenched in many communities. I'm strongly in favor of Brown. But we shouldn't draw a hasty general lesson from it: namely, that whenever a local value is bad, a national law should ban it. There are two major reasons to view desegregation as a special case. First, separate and unequal schools for minority children egregiously violated core constitutional values. Second, desegregation was not merely imposed from without; there was a vital indigenous movement in favor of it--the Civil Rights Movement, which was rooted in the most segregated parts of America. Even given these special circumstances, desegregation has been a partial failure. There was much noncompliance and resistance, and most schools are still de facto segregated today. The results might be worse if we either banned guns everywhere or imposed a universal right of individual gun-ownership.
March 14, 2007
in "good faith"?
Most of today's newspapers quote the Attorney General's remark, "mistakes were made," which William Schneider wittily calls the "past exonerative." It was indeed a Nixonian grammatical construction, an inept attempt to evade accountability and moral judgment. But Mr. Gonzales' phrase is not the one to which I would award the Tricky Dick Memorial Prize for Talking Like a Crook While Saying that You Aren't One. That badge of shame belongs to his former assistant, D. Kyle Sampson, whose memo on tactics ended with a wonderfully self-damning use of scare quotes:
I think we should gum this to death. ... Ask the Senators to give Tim [Griffin, the administration's choice for federal prosecutor in Arkansas] a chance, meet with him, give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. If they ultimately say "no never" (and the longer we can forestall that the better), then we can tell them we'll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All this should be done in "good faith" of course.
What is the meaning of "in good faith" in that last sentence? I think it precisely means "in bad faith," but I'm open to correction.
March 13, 2007
demographics of the blogosphere
These are interesting results from a representative national survey.
Blog readers skew young, which isn't a surprise. (And despite the higher rate of reading among youth, probably most readers are over 30.) The male majority among visitors to political blogs is striking and not self-evident. Women are politically engaged, representing 51% of voters in 2006, according to exit polls. But men aren't only drawn to blogs; they also read newspapers more (44% of men versus 38% of women were regular readers in 2006).
The left and right seem to be about equally drawn to the blogosphere. But that doesn't mean that liberals and conservatives are equally prevalent as blog-readers. Self-described liberals are significantly outnumbered in the national population, never surpassing 20% of American adults. That means that even if the same proportions of liberals and conservatives read blogs, there are more conservative eyeballs trained on the blogosphere. Moderates seem relatively uninterested in blogs--maybe because blogs tend to be strongly ideological, or maybe because some self-described "moderates" simply lack interest in politics.
Finally, well educated and privileged people are the most likely to participate.
March 12, 2007
policy ideas for civic renewal
I've written before about the need for concrete policies to support public engagement. The government cannot create an engaged democracy through law, but it can play a supportive role in civic renewal. Also, debating concrete legislation can help people to understand what "engagement" is and could be. It makes the whole topic seem serious and pressing.
I recently pasted some policy ideas on a private "wiki" (an editable webpage) for a group that I'm involved with. They have begun to edit it, and the following is the current version. Your suggestions (in the comments field or by email) are welcome.
Amend the No Child Left Behind Act so that communities, with substantial public participation, are permitted to create their own assessments and accountability measures. Provide lifetime access to Veterans Health Administration benefits in return for a year of civilian service through USA Freedom Corps programs. Use this approach to expand health coverage. Pass the Community Broadband Act to safeguard the legal right of municipalities to offer Internet access. Encourage communities to debate the pros and cons of becoming service-providers. Support charter schools as opportunities for public participation in the governance of schools. Provide opportunities for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to work together to address problems in the US, including veterans services and benefits. Redesign the process for providing online comments to proposed federal regulations so that it is truly interactive. Make the public comments into searchable discussion threads. Double the small ($37 million) federal Learn & Serve America program so that instead of reaching 1.47 million students who participate for about 17 hours each, it serves 2 million students with more intensity and quality. Double the appropriation for the Education for Democracy Act (now funded at $29.1 million) and open the program to competitive proposals. Incorporate civic education in No Child Left Behind on a par with science. Require regular assessments of civic knowledge and skills with no increase in the total hours of testing experienced by each child. Raise the minimum percentage of Federal Work Study jobs that involve community service from seven percent per institution to 20 percent. Contract with selected nonprofits to organize public deliberations in the wake of disasters. Use these deliberative forums to guide reconstruction and resettlement. Initiate a new round of "reinventing government" to change norms, training, and procedures in the federal civil service. This time, the goal should be public engagement, not merely efficiency. Include questions on the Immigration and Naturalization Service citizenship exam that concern active participation. Support programs that help candidates for citizenship to prepare for these questions. Provide funds for community-based art with local artists mentoring young people in the creation of public art.
March 9, 2007
a brief history of community engagement in education
Arnold F. Fege has contributed an excellent overview article to the current issue of the Harvard Educational Review entitled, "Getting Ruby a Quality Public Education: Forty-Two Years of Building the Demand for Quality Public Schools through Parental and Public Involvement." Fege's narrative introduces seven views about public involvement, which I have numbered sequentially below. All of these views contain at least fragments of truth and should be considered as we begin the debate about revising No Child Left Behind (which is the main federal law governing pre-college education).
(1) President Johnson believed that poor children received inadequate educations because local authorities either lacked sufficient money or preferred to spend it on other kids. Thus he designed the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965) so that it earmarked funds for poor students. But Senator Robert F. Kennedy believed that money was not the only problem. School systems could be discriminatory or corrupt. His solution (2) was to require school systems to "collect objective measures of educational achievement ... at least annually" so that parents of poor kids could assess how well their schools were performing and organize for reform. This was an explicitly political strategy. It was included in ESEA at his insistence.
Apparently, good data were rarely collected--partly because schools received no help in measuring outcomes, and partly because there were no penalties for failing to assess. Between 1965 and 1982, Congress tried a new strategy, which was (3) to support parental involvement in schools, especially by requiring parental advisory councils. The most significant version of this reform was the Educational Amendments of 1978.
However, critics charged that (4) these councils were dominated by small groups of parents with axes to grind--special interests that didn't represent their communities. Activists organized themselves around special programs or needs, not to represent broad concerns. On the other hand, a later analysis by the esteemed scholar Tony Bryk apparently found that (5) the councils actually did build civic and political skills, especially over the long term.
In any case, Congress increasingly lost faith that school districts would spend public money effectively to benefit disadvantaged kids. Congress also lost confidence in organized parents' groups. Instead, No Child Left Behind (6) required that assessments of outcomes be written by professionals at the state or federal level and allowed parents to remove their own children from schools found to be failing under those assessments. I think Congress sincerely wanted to empower parents--but as individuals, not as members of communities.
Arnold Fege--like my emeritus colleague Clarence Stone, David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, and a few others--believe that (7) community participation is essential and must be written into the next version of No Child Left Behind. Only community participation can create public support for school funding plus accountability so that the money is well spent. We can build on 40 years of experience to do this right. Above all, we need to require--and enable--school systems to generate valid data, but these data must be understandable, relevant, broad, and responsive to public concerns.
March 8, 2007
Libby and the First Amendment (continued)
I suppose the most favorable summary of the Libby prosecution would go like this:
(1) The Covert Agent Identity Protection Act is narrowly tailored and not a threat to legitimate whistleblowers.
(2) Nevertheless, there were plausible reasons to suspect that members of the Bush Administration had violated the Act by releasing Valerie Plame's name. Hence an investigation was appropriate.
(3) A serious investigation required official FBI interviews, subpoenas, and testimony under oath.
(4) In the course of his interviews and testimony, I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby lied, thereby committing felonies that had to be prosecuted.
In my view, this four-part argument must be weighed against the precedent-setting interference in personal liberties that (3) implies. To be hauled in front of a grand jury and required to testify is an expansion of governmental power, and it will not be limited to the Plame case, nor to the Bush Administration. One can easily imagine pacifist whistleblowers triggering the same process.
Much depends on whether (2) is valid. And that seems a close call. If the Act truly has limited scope, then perhaps it was pretty obvious that no one had violated it. Then no investigation was necessary (and civil libertarians, despite our abhorrence of the Bush Administration, should have opposed the appointment of a Special Prosecutor). If the Act is pretty broad, then I'm not sure I like it, because it could sweep up courageous whistleblowers as well as Cheney staffers.
March 7, 2007
Scooter Libby's civil liberties
Before you read this post, you have to say the title 10 times fast.
Seriously, as a civil libertarian, I find the prosecution of Libby troubling. The whole case started with allegations that members of the administration had leaked true information to reporters. That was an act of speech that involved the press, thus implicating two clauses of the First Amendment. Our first instinct should be to protect such expression.
To be sure, Congress may forbid federal employees from leaking secrets--as in espionage cases. But not every statute that is constitutional is also welcome or wise. This one clearly constrains freedom of speech and the free flow of information, and we should ask whether the price is worth paying.
I am not defending the particular leak that began this case. It supported atrocious behavior: the launch of a disastrous and unnecessary war. I was under the impression, however, that in a free society, the law is blind to the merits and demerits of speech. Moral judgments about expression are to be separated from legal judgments.
Daniel Ellsberg calls the leaking of Plame's identity, "a very bad leak," whereas his unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers was heroic because it helped to end the Vietnam War. But both were acts of speech that could be called "whistleblowing." We should be careful that by criminalizing some leaks, we don't criminalize them all.
For example, according to Raymond Bonner in the New York Review of Books, a blond American woman was present in several foreign countries when individuals who had been transported there by the CIA were tortured. I would rejoice if a whistleblower revealed this woman's identity so that she could be investigated by Congress and the press and we could explore our government's responsibility for the torture. But if she is a government agent, then revealing her name would violate the same statute at issue in the Libby case.
Libby was not charged with leaking Plame's name. He was charged with lying to government investigators and a grand jury as part of an investigation of the Plame leak. I will not condone lying, especially under oath. But it is always an expansion of governmental power when someone is forced to talk about Allegation X, for which he is never charged, and then indicted for lying to the police. This is a net that could catch a lot of innocent people.
The leak of Plame's identity allegedly caused her material harm by ending her career as an undercover agent. The remedy for such damages would seem to be a civil lawsuit. Indeed, Plame and her husband have sued Cheney, Rove, and Libby. That seems perfectly appropriate to me, and if their suit succeeds on the merits, I hope the damages are steep. But a civil lawsuit is entirely different from a criminal prosecution.
Finally, I am relieved to read that the jury did not discuss "the subtext of the trial--the decision to go to war against Iraq. 'This was not a question about who can we punish for going to Iraq,' said Mr. Collins, 57, a registered Democrat [and a juror]. 'We just never allowed ourselves to go there, and I am not going to go there now.'" The decision to go to war was probably the worst--the stupidest and most immoral--act of the United States government in my lifetime. But there was no law against it. Nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without a [clear, written, public] law): that is a bedrock principle. We have no hesitation in upholding such principles when we admire the individuals involved. The test of our commitment to civil liberties is how we respond when abhorrent people are in the dock.
March 6, 2007
deliberative democracy in California
I missed a big meeting last week at Pepperdine in California. (I couldn't afford the air fare.) The conference combined talk of electoral reform with discussions of public deliberation. Electoral reform was on the agenda because our legislative districts have been drawn to minimize competition and accountability. Public deliberation seems a powerful response; it can generate reform ideas that have legitimacy because representative citizens have chosen them (whereas all elected officials have some kind of stake in the status quo).
The Canadians have some useful experience in this area. The British Columbia Citizens Assembly proposed a redesign of that Province's electoral system. Gordon Gibson covered the Pepperdine conference from a Canadian perspective for the Globe & Mail:
One of the most surprising things is that randomly selected panels (drawn, say, from the voter's list) are actually far more representative than the so-called representatives we elect. If you look at the face of Canada, you do not find it reflected in the House of Commons. And, for some things, these random panels are far better than elected representatives or groups of experts. They are not partisan and they do not play games.
This is not to disrespect elected representatives, who will and should do the bulk of the work of governance. They are paid to be experts on our behalf. But citizen panels on policy issues can be highly imaginative. They have been used on environmental cases in Texas, on what to do with the Roma in Bulgaria, on reconstruction planning in New Orleans and on public works prioritization in China (really - and it worked). A gathering of 600 "ordinary citizens" is scheduled to appear in the European Parliament chamber in June to discuss the future of the union.
The big excitement, however, is likely to come down south, just because the United States is so big, so powerful and so governmentally messed up. The key will be to use citizen panels as we have done in B.C. and Ontario to get around the conflicts of politicians and reform the very machinery of democracy. For the good of the world, that most needs doing in the United States.
March 5, 2007
blogs that make you think
Richard at Philosophy, et cetera has kindly selected this page as a "blog that makes you go hmmm." In this game, if someone tags you as a "thinking blogger," you're supposed to recommend some other blogs that make you think. These days, I mainly read high-traffic political blogs that don't need any more incoming links. But here are some interesting, quirky, thought-provoking sites:
Bridging Differences is an extraordinary venue for conversation between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. These are two truly distinguished thinkers about American education. They would normally be seen as representatives of opposing, even antagonistic, ideological camps. But they had a very moving exchange in EdWeek last May that demonstrated an ideal interaction between people of good will who disagree. They didn't suppress their differences in the name of politeness, but they acknowledged the weaknesses of their own positions and the validity of the other person's views and pledged to address common problems together. Now they have taken the courageous step of starting a joint blog. Counting only the time since Meier founded Central Park East School and Ravitch obtained her PhD, these women have 65 years of combined experience as leading thinkers. I hope their joint blog flourishes and lasts.
In Medias Res is always good. It's political, but Russell Arben Fox posts longish essays on political theory rather than ephemeral comments on the day's headlines. His position is distinctive and challenging. For a sample, see his recent summary of communitarianism.
The Citizens Symposium is just getting started, and I don't know if it will work. But the idea is to solicit and "compile" a set of thoughtful essays on a common topic and then promote discussion.
I just came across Extra Credit last night. This is James Forman, Jr.'s blog about "education, race, kids, and justice." It so happens that Forman has recently given space to my friend and downstairs neighbor, Colin Bane, and to my friend and former colleague, Arthur Evenchik. But seeing their names was a complete surprise; I started reading this thoughtful new blog because of the seriousness of the topic.
March 2, 2007
history and race as seen by young and old
An article in yesterday's Washington Post begins, "Ask older residents of historic North Brentwood their recollections of the town, and they go into a reverie about kids playing house-to-house and about how the town was self-contained with businesses and shops. Mostly, it was black, and the generations who had lived there gave the place its essence. But 'change comes,' said Eleanor Traynham, 71, who was born and raised in the town, in Prince George's County, and returned in 1992. And 'you have to be able to adapt to change.'"
North Brentwood is part of the urban core of Washington, DC but located across the state line in Maryland. It was founded by and for African Americans in the days of legal segregation. It is now a major arrival point for Latino immigrants.
It so happens that a high school class and I interviewed the same Ms. Traynham in 2003. Some colleagues and I had organized a program in which the students used oral history to reconstruct the history of their own school, Northwestern in Hyattsville, which had gone from de jure white, to integrated, to de facto African American and Latino over five decades. The class created an interactive website to present their findings and provoke discussion. You will see that both the students and their African American informants were ambivalent about state-sponsored integration.
I have pasted our class notes from Ms. Traynham's interview below the fold, because they represent a fascinating record of local history--and an example of the good questions that contemporary kids come up with.
Eleanor Thomas Traynham
(Community activist and retired Postal Service Employe . Graduated the all-Black Fairmont Heights HS in 1953. Sister of Bill Thomas [whom we also interviewed]. Interviewed on January 8, 2003 at Northwestern High School.)
I was born in North Brentwood in Prince George’s County and raised long before integration. I grew up when there were only two high schools in the County for African American students. To go to junior high school I had to catch a bus and ride a long way to Lakeland Junior High School, past many schools that were for white children only. Fairmont Heights--a new high school for black students--opened in September of 1950 and I graduated from there in 1953. I attended Bowie State--it was then Bowie Teachers’ College--for 2 years, but decided I didn’t want to be a teacher. The little kids were often spoiled and the older kids thought they knew everything, and I decided maybe I didn’t have enough patience to manage other people’s children.
I brought this book African American Heritage Survey (1996, about Prince George’s County) because I thought you may want to see which has pictures of the schools I attended. In 1949, the school was a wood building, later it was remade in brick.
When I was in school, there was no talk of integration at all. … I had to ride the bus from North Brentwood to College Park to a little school called Lakeland. When Fairmont Heights opened, it was a long ride but it was a beautiful high school. We had to ride all the way there, but we didn’t mind it.
My younger brother and sister came up just as integration arrived. I have a brother who was the first African American here at Northwestern. My sister also was among the first to integrate Mount Rainier Junior School. By the time they went to integrated schools, I had already graduated. My brother was very independent, and after he graduated high school he went to University of Maryland and was one of very few African Americans, and received a degree in Chemical Engineering in four years. It was not an easy task. There were a lot of mean spirited people, although I don’t believe people are born with this kind of hatred in their hearts. They learn it.
The children in the community taunted my brother and sister, saying they were trying to be better than everybody else by going to these white schools. But my siblings stood up to whatever anybody might say, because my mother had instilled in them that education was the most important thing. Eventually after two years my sister caved in and transferred to go to high school with the rest of the kids at North Brentwood, and did just fine.
When I was in school, I was not aware of the fact that the students in the Black schools got the second-class books and materials. I had my older brother’s books and I just figured you received hand-me-down books. I was not aware we got old white school books until years later. But, I think it’s not good to dwell on these things. They happened. Lots of young people did well even with older materials. I think it’s how you apply yourself.
What do you think about segregation in retrospect?
When I was in school, we had real dedicated teachers who took a great interest in young people. I remember a teacher who always talked to us about Hampton University which she loved, and told us great stories about life at Hampton University so we would be inspired. In college, I went to school with lots of people who were not dedicated teachers, and lots of people I wouldn’t want teaching my kids. Between the time I left Bowie and the time my baby sister went – there was an 18 year difference between us – it was different. And now some teachers are more dedicated than others. School is a lot different now. But, I still maintain that you have to put something into it to get something out of it—whatever you do. I got good grades, although it was a bit difficult in college because my mother wasn’t there to keep me going. After I decided that teaching wasn’t for me, I got a job in the Postal Service.
I worked for the US Postal Service for 30 years and 10 months, in the customer-service branch. One thing I learned there is that no matter how they humiliate you, the customer is always right.
How do you feel personally? Do you feel like white Americans stole a piece of your life, a piece of your history?
I don’t personally feel that way. … I have watched movies about how people were treated in the South, and it hurts me, but you can’t live with hatred in your heart. … Hatred is a thing that sort of makes you old and tired, I think. Not all people are bad, and there were a lot of whites who worked with us and for us-- going all the way back to the Underground Railroad. And there are some Blacks who will try to hold you back. So you will end up hating all colors and races. We were dealt a low blow, but lots of us have been successful. There are so many African Americans we can be proud of -- too many we only hear about during Black History Month.
What do you think happened to the African heritage that’s been lost, and have you done anything to bring it back?
I am one of the people on the African American Heritage Museum project. We did an oral history project. My family has traced our ancestry back to certain slaves in Anne Arundel County who had come from Africa. A lot of us don’t know anything about our African heritage. But, there are a lot of people who are ashamed because of what they saw in movies and on TV [about Africa], but that is because they don’t read, haven’t gone to museums and don’t study other cultures. My mother always stressed the importance of reading. She only went to school through the 8th grade, but was one of the smartest people I know. She was one of ten kids, and needed to help. She worked in a white family’s house and learned all she knew by reading books in their house. I also work with the Community Center in North Brentwood to try to bring culture from many countries to the Center. We’ve brought African singers and dancers, and also performers from Mexico and Taiwan. I am working with the Gateway Community Development Corporation, which has instigated an Arts District in the four cities along Route 1, and they have brought a lot of artists. I also work on a share food program and with the Historical Society. I used to be very involved with the church also, but not as much anymore.
Did you ever get harsh comments or racial comments growing up?
Yes. Not in school, but our community was next to a white community, and there was a Sanitary Supermarket - later became a Safeway - on 34th in Mt. Rainier. We’d have to walk through the white community to get to it. One night at dusk my friends and I met up with a group of men who warned me: “Nigger don’t let me catch you here after dark.” And we never went there after dark. Some would let their dogs out to chase us. The boys in our community would be chased out of the white community at any time of day. But the same thing happens today, and it’s not always a “racial thing”—sometimes it’s a “clannish” thing. We also had it. If the black boys from DC came up to date girls in North Brentwood, our boys would chase them out.
What was your reaction to the name calling?
I think I was scared to death and I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. But, I was mainly a very happy child growing up and I didn’t hold grudges or anything.
How did you feel about Brown v the Board of Education?
From what I remember, it was a very frightening thing, to see kids have to go to school with the National Guard. You’d see the violence, and I’d say these kids should just go back to where they came, and not risk it. But, I was already out of school at that time. I remember my younger sister being terrified, but I will let her tell her own story when she comes to see you.
Was it hard to get a job?
It was difficult getting a job. I was a big girl and so I was up against two hard things – my color and my size. I couldn’t waitress or work behind a counter because they would say there wasn’t enough room. When Prince George’s Plaza first opened I got a job at Hot Shops as a vegetable cook. Then I passed the Post Office exam, and I went and worked there.
Was your mom making decisions on her own or were other parents in favor of integration too?
Not a lot of people that I knew of in our community felt that integration would equal a better education. My mother sometimes thought that our schools were second class. I don’t know if there were other people in our community who also felt that way. In the long run, in all instances, desegregation was not a better thing.
Would you have desegregated the schools, if you had been in charge of the school system?
I probably would have kept them segregated, and I would have demanded that the Black schools be given equal funding. I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools were much more dedicated than some of the teachers I have seen since, and most of the Black teachers that I know would have preferred to stay in the Black schools.
Do you think segregation still exists in some form, like financially or in terms of Fairfax County vs. Prince George’s County?
There is still financial segregation, and I can see it in changes in the opportunities offered to Prince George’s County students. When I was young, we used to take field trips to the Smithsonian and now there’s no money and no buses for such things. The buses are being used to drive students all day long back and forth from home to school.
What do you think can be done to improve schools?
Parents used to work a lot more with their kids. If the parents don’t work with their children at home, it just doesn’t work. You need the support of parents. Also, if a teacher knows the parent is supporting them, they teach better. But, right now there are no parents in the PTA. There needs to be more money for the schools and smaller class sizes, but in order to get smaller classes you need the money. I’ve kept hoping that Prince George’s County would get more money to dedicate to education, but it’s just not happening, and won’t especially now with the State’s money crisis.
March 1, 2007
wake up, candidates
Here is a "wake up call" from Mikva Challenge students, addressed to Chicago's municipal candidates. Click to play: