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November 30, 2007

youth, media, & civic participation

(From the Deliberative Democracy Consortium meeting in Bethesda, MD): Last summer, Lance Bennett of the University of Washington convened an online discussion about young people, the Internet, and civic/political participation. It was a rich dialog, representing numerous opinions, and it's worth reading if you're interested in such issues. The PDF is online.

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November 29, 2007

public deliberation: research & practice

I'm attending (and helping to host) the third in an interesting series of annual meetings. The Deliberative Democracy Consortium has convened researchers and practitioners who organize and/or study public deliberations. At each conference, the whole group develops a research agenda that would be useful for practice, forms small teams to work on projects, and actually funds the projects. All of this is done deliberatively. This year, to get ourselves started, some of us have written a report about the meetings and projects so far and what has been learned about public deliberation. This report is on a "wiki" (an editable, online document). This afternoon, in small groups, conference-participants will edit and add to the wiki, which you can also read if you are interested in public deliberation.

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November 28, 2007

the next national service agenda

Proponents of the national civilian service programs (AmeriCorps and its relations) tend to feel that the service movement has stagnated. AmeriCorps itself was based on a series of bargains struck early in the Clinton administration. For instance, the number of volunteers was capped to satisfy labor, which was concerned about job displacement. The Clinton-era programs also had a particular rationale: moving beyond entitlement programs and providing financial help to those who worked.

Today, each existing program is associated with a particular president, which means that no future president will get a lot of glory by expanding them. (Peace Corps = JFK; VISTA = LBJ; Points of Light = Bush I; AmeriCorps = Clinton; USA Freedom Corps = Bush II.)

If one assumes that voluntary national service should be expanded substantially--and there is evidence that the programs work--then we need a new bargain, a new rationale, and a new spirit to inspire a new administration.

One argument would go like this: Young people want to serve and address problems, but they are very entrepreneurial. They don't want to serve in government bureaucracies or pile up specialized credentials in preparation for public work. Therefore, we should give them opportunities to work together on public problems through the national service programs. These programs will be training grounds or launching pads for social entrepreneurship. But then government needs to be reformed so that it is more open, flexible, and entrepreneurial. Otherwise, the training grounds will not train for anything. To reform government, we'll need new policies:

1. Despite a somewhat mixed performance record, charter schools certainly provide opportunities for creativity and entrepreneurship within the public sector. Could they be improved, and could a similar approach be used in other areas of public policy? For example, foreign relations and international development are crucial issues today. Could the United States Agency for International Development (AID) use a “charter school” model to run overseas development projects?
2. The No Child Left Behind Act could be amended so that communities, with substantial public participation, are permitted to create their own assessments and accountability measures.
3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are planning a national deliberation on how to respond in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak. Other agencies could use similar processes to address issues that involve serious value conflicts, thereby building genuine legitimacy.
4. AmericaSpeaks (on whose board I sit) has a detailed plan called “millions of voices” for a national deliberation on a public policy issue, using a variety of formats and methods. Congress could convene such a deliberation on an issue like climate change or health and promise to hold hearings on the results.
5. The rulemaking/regulatory process could be transformed if proposed rules were posted online in a format that allowed the public to create discussion threads and wiki-like documents.
6. Several countries have achieved enormous gains in efficiency and cut corruption by involving members of the public in auditing and monitoring government expenditures. This approach could be implemented in the US to improve the performance of schools, public health agencies, and other government programs. One tool for “public accountability” is participatory budgeting, wherein citizens are able to allocate portions of a local capital budget and then track expenditures.
7. FEMA could be required to create a process for convening broad public deliberations in the aftermath of any disaster. Then we would not only see tremendous outpourings of individual volunteerism (as in response to Katrina), but also public participation in setting policies and priorities.
8. Problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, are venues for social entrepreneurship and could be expanded.
9. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities could focus attention on collaborative, community-based projects.
10. All proposed legislation could be evaluated for its potential impact on civil society and public participation, as a kind of “civic impact statement.”
11. As proposed by Paul Light in 2004, each federal agency could have a “Citizen Liaison Office” that would review existing procedures and programs for barriers to citizen participation. (AmeriCorps members could serve in these offices.)

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November 27, 2007

intangible wealth and international equity

If, by sheer dumb luck, you happen to be born one mile north of the Rio Grande, you have economic advantages that you'd miss if you were born one mile south of the same river. According to estimates by the World Bank, the total wealth per capita in Mexico is about $62,000. It's about $513,000 in the USA. If we imagine that everyone got an equal share of national assets, then simply by changing your citizenship from Mexico to the US, you would multiply your wealth eight-fold. Of course, that's a false presumption: wealth is very unevenly shared. Merely receiving a US passport does not give you access to $513k in assets. However, lots of per capita wealth is floating around in the US, which offers some trickle-down benefits to the poor and allows the state to afford a lot of public services. Even for the least advantaged, it's generally better to live in a country with eight times more per capita wealth.

Because one's location at birth is an accident, this difference seems unjust. One response is to open borders so that people can move; another is to redistribute wealth across borders. Both ideas are highly unrealistic politically but worth considering as moral principles. The World Bank's study, however, casts some doubt on both. That's because the Bank attempts to disaggregate national wealth. According to its analysis, the vast majority of a nation's per capital wealth is due to "intangible" assets such as education, social capital (trust and human networks) and rule of law. In the USA, for instance, natural resources contribute about $15,000 to per capita wealth, physical capital (including buildings, machines, and urban land) contribute about $80,000, but intangible assets contribute $418,000. In Mexico, natural resources contribute $8,000, physical capital adds $19,000, but intangible assets are worth $34,000. The big gap, in other words, is in education, social capital, and governance.

This means that the wealth gap is largely attributable to institutions and culture/society, not to natural resources or accumulated factories and machines. As Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation wrote, "It's the polity, stupid."

This does not mean that we "deserve" the advantages we have. I didn't build my country's rule of law, education system, and social networks, any more than I put oil and coal under the earth. To profit from what other human beings have constructed is morally equivalent to benefiting from nature: it's a matter of luck. Thus it seems to me that if we can make life better in Mexico, we have an obligation to do so, even if it costs us wealth. The World Bank study does, however, raise doubts about whether we could achieve much by simply transferring cash or opening borders. That's because the path to prosperity lies through social and political reform. Cash would only help if it were very well invested, and emigration might hurt.

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November 26, 2007

digital nativism

(Wisconsin) I am not a "digital native," someone who grew up with computers from infancy. Instead, I am an immigrant to the land of the digital--but I arrived here early. In mid-elementary school, my Mom took me and a friend to the Syracuse University computer lab, where we played around with a mainframe machine that used punch cards. Around the same period, one of my aunts had a friend who owned a store in New York City that sold robots and home computers. I visited the store and probably had some contact with a desktop computer.

By seventh grade, some of my friends knew a bit about how to use our middle-school's work stations, which were networked with the downtown machine by way of old-fashioned modems. (You put the phone receiver in a velvet-lined box, closed the latch, and then dialed.) That year, I remember a friend telling me about computer viruses. By ninth grade, I owned a Commodore 64 for playing video games and programming a little in BASIC.

I arrived at college with a portable, manual (non-electric typewriter) which served me through freshman year. By the time I graduated, I was composing all my papers on one of the college's shared Apple Macs.

As an immigrant to the land of the digital, I can still remember the Old Country and probably speak computerese with a slight offline accent. But I function well. I would be highly uncomfortable in a pre-digital world, and I have more experience with computers than the young digital natives whom I meet in high schools and colleges.

You can tell those who immigrated much later in life and who still long for the old country--the digital exiles. They may, for example, work from a single Word file, which they erase and rewrite every time they need a new document. That way, they don't have to save and quit, which they have never quite learned to do. Another telltale sign: keeping all of one's email in the inbox (forever) and only writing to people by replying to old emails. Using the email subject line "From [your name]" is also a mark of the digital exile.

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November 21, 2007

interacting with "the media"

(We're heading west for Thanksgiving, and this will be my last post until Monday.)

I have minuscule impact on the news media, but I do have interesting experiences with journalists.

For example, yesterday at 7 am, I walked the halls of XM Radio in Northeast Washington, DC. XM Radio produces 170 separate channels of audio programming, mostly for specialized audiences. I was on my way to be interviewed for "POTUS '08," a channel that talks about nothing but the presidential campaign, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I should note that the questions turned out to be very good; they went far beyond the usual horse-race analysis. But what struck me were all the studios for the other radio channels, visible through glass windows along the groovy curving halls as I walked to my interview. Baseball jerseys and bats covered the walls of one studio, where three guys were talking into mikes. Another studio looked like a business suite with leather furniture and copies of the Wall Street Journal. It all seemed like a Monte Python skit. I expected to see the "Yo-Yo Channel" around the next corner, with people in beanies keeping their Imperials in motion, 24/7.

Later in the same day, a crew came to interview me for a documentary about the future of democracy (not about my book of that name; about the actual future of our actual democracy). The crew is also filming the interview process to create a video blog about making the documentary. That explained why there were two cameras, one filming the other one. Again, I should note that the interview questions were very thoughtful.

Finally, not long ago, a foreign TV crew came to interview me about KidsVoting USA. This is a fine program that involves discussing a campaign in school and then conducting a mock election. A rigorous study has found that participants' parents actually vote at higher rates, because the program stimulates discussion of politics around the dinner table. The TV crew had gone to Duluth, Minnesota (i.e., the heartland) to film a KidsVoting class and some dinner-table conversations. After the interview, the reporter told me privately that she was so moved by what she saw in Duluth that she was thinking of quitting her job to start KidsVoting in her home country. She wanted my advice about fundraising.

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November 20, 2007

civic leadership

I'd like to reply to two thoughtful recent comments. First, Harry Boyte responds to yesterday's post and helps to develop the connection between hyper-partisanship and divisive politics, on one hand, and technocracy or arrogant expertise, on the other. These two problems are not linked in most of the public discussion--on the contrary, technocrats are seen as apolitical, and populists are depicted as divisive. Harry has been arguing that technocracy and divisiveness are actually part of the same problem.

This, by the way, is a response to Sean Wilentz' argument that Senator Clinton is the best prepared candidate because she understands and relishes "politics." Harry would say (I think) that Clinton practices politics in a specific way that is both partisan and technocratic (and therefore not at all like the politics of the New Deal, which Wilentz admires).

Second, Scott Dinsmore (who has a good blog) asks, "What are the pros and cons of populist campaigns and movements carrying the civic renewal banner?"

These are some of the "cons," in my opinion. There's a risk that any specific strategies or policies for civic renewal will become identified with a particular candidate, who will inevitably have idiosyncratic interests, values, followers, and frailties. Other candidates may shy away from civic themes, thinking that a competitor has already staked that ground. The version of civic participation that one candidate offers may be thin, limited, or even fake. And then that politician can lose, creating the impression that civic renewal is a loser of a platform.

Now here's the "pro" side of the argument: There is more than one flavor of civic renewal, so it would be possible for many candidates to stake out civic ground and compete over who is most likely to empower and respect citizens. There can be a "service" version, emphasizing the national and community service programs in and out of schools; a decentralization version, favoring charter schools and local autonomy; a patriotic version, stressing knowledge of the constitution and military service; and a deliberative version, which puts process first. I'd love to see a healthy competition among these "flavors."

Compared to past decades, we have a richer set of civic experiences and practices at the local level; Bridgeport is just one example. National leaders who understood grassroots civic renewal could bring it to public attention and create supportive national policies.

John Edwards proposed some good ideas for civic participation and explicitly cited the November Fifth Coalition, even though it is a fledgling organization with no money (yet). This was exciting but also risky for us and our friends and allies. We don't want to depend on any one politician to carry our water, but we must welcome their attention.

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November 19, 2007

the case for Nehamiah

Here's a stark contrast:

1. Paul Krugman, "Played for a Sucker," New York Times, Nov. 16: "On Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want. We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists--which is the case for many issues today--you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama."

2. Harry C. Boyte: "Our Passive Society Needs Some New Nehemiahs," Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, Nov. 16: "In today's America, as we have come to look to others -- experts, great leaders, celebrities -- to save us from our problems, we have similarly become afflicted by civic illness. Our bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers.

"We need new Nehemiahs who call forth America's democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry, leaders who tackle tough issues in a collaborative way and reject the rescuer role. Such leaders would tap the talents of citizens to address public problems on which government is necessary but not sufficient, from climate change to school reform. They would challenge us to create healthy communities, not simply provide access to health care. They would recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box.

"The great leaders in our history -- from Abraham Lincoln to Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. -- have always called upon citizens to address common challenges, and in the process helped the nation remember its democratic soul."

I'm with my friend Harry, and here are four reasons. First, Krugman treats the Republican Party and conservatism as monolithic, imagining that every member of those large conglomerations plays from the same disreputable script. (Cf. all these comments on Think Progress.) In fact, Republicans and conservatives are quite diverse, and some are very discontented with Karl Rove's style of politics.

Second, Krugman's argument is ad hominem. Instead of saying, "Senator Obama, you are wrong about Social Security; it's not really in crisis," Krugman says, "Senator Obama, you are a sucker for trying to meet conservatives half way." Maybe compromise isn't even Obama's intent. He may actually believe that Social Security is in crisis. (Many people do.) When we stop giving arguments and reasons and start calling people "suckers," it's very hard to move forward.

Third, it's going to be impossible to solve any of our real problems unless someone builds a broad constituency. The ruling coalition must be wide enough to embrace some conservatives and some Republicans. Fifty-one percent is enough to knock things down (if you are ruthless), but it is not enough to build things up.

Finally, Krugman's political strategy presumes that liberal leaders can win elections and then implement smart policies that will make the country better. I think this is a long-term strategic error. No policies can solve problems without public support and public participation. In order for liberalism to fly, Americans are going to have to feel genuine connections to public institutions. They will not feel truly connected to government until (a) it seems to reflect some consensus and some civility and (b) it addresses their cultural discontents, which are deep and valid. The majority of Americans have genuine worries about a coarse culture, and unless liberal leaders can address their concerns in an inclusive, bridge-building way, liberalism is doomed.

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November 16, 2007

putting real citizenship back into the immigration debate

Immigration is evidently a huge issue, and one of the few that may play to the advantage of conservatives in 2008. Here's a response that's available to Democrats and Republicans who don't want to shut the doors and deport people:

"We're talking about 'citizenship' as if it's just a matter of who can get a driver's license or tuition benefits. We're acting as if you're a 'citizen' if you don't have to worry about the INS.

"Throughout our history, we have always understood citizenship in a much deeper and more demanding way than that. It means the obligation and the power to work together to make America a better place than when we found it. It means voting and volunteering, discussing issues, supporting organizations, defining and solving community problems, creating public art and culture, serving in uniform, raising the next generation, and preserving the environment.

"Some of the people who have come to this country illegally are fully involved in those ways. Many legal immigrants are very active citizens. But a whole bunch of people who were born in the United States--and whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were born here--are not very involved. They are not truly acting as citizens, even though they have a birthright to a US passport.

"Some may just be couch potatoes, but some feel forced out of citizenship. They believe they cannot make a significant difference in education, the environment, or crime because the big bureaucratic structures that we have created don't welcome their participation. As we debate citizenship for immigrants, let's reform our institutions and strengthen our communities so that all Americans can once again be fully active and responsible citizens."

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November 15, 2007

civic renewal in Bridgeport

The folks at Public Agenda--specifically, Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, and Lara Birnbeck--have published a very important study of Bridgeport, CT. I remember Bridgeport as something of a basket case in the 1980s: the city was literally bankrupt, the leadership had a reputation for corruption, and the population was very hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Bridgeport is now doing much better, to the point (for instance) that its school system was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in both 2006 and 2007. The Public Agenda team makes a strong case that the reason for Bridgeport's renaissance is civic participation.

They start the story with the Connecticut Community Conversations Project, a series of public discussions of the type that John Gastil and I cataloged in The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. According to Public Agenda, the discussions of school reform led to many other such projects; deliberation is now a habit in Bridgeport. Citizens have shown that they are capable of making tough choices: for instance, shifting limited resources from teen after-school programs to programs for younger kids. There is much more collaboration today among businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The Public Agenda report quotes several business leaders who describe themselves as converts to public engagement, whose willingness to invest in the city has risen as they have gained trust in their fellow citizens. There is also a high rate of direct participation--for instance, mentoring.

Everyone feels that they share responsibility; problems are not left to officials. The School Superintendent says, "I've never seen anything like this. The community stakeholders at the table were adamant about this. They said, 'We're up front with you. The school district can't do it by itself. We own it too.'"

Now, if we could only inject such examples into the national political debate.

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November 14, 2007

our built environments

Europeans and Americans tend to agree about at least one point: the built environment of the US is much newer and more homogeneous than that of Europe. Europeans, we assume, live in towns that date back to Roman times and have developed in their own, richly idiosyncratic ways for millennia. Meanwhile, we Americans live in suburbs that were designed by developers since the Kennedy Administration. That's why we get out our cameras and guidebooks and head across the ocean for history.

There is some truth to this, but it can be exaggerated. As tourists, we get a biased sample of European communities because we choose to visit the oldest and best preserved ones. And Europeans get a somewhat biased picture of the US from TV. Most of the populous European cities and metropolitan areas are basically outgrowths of the industrial revolution. They expanded dramatically between 1830 and 1914. Then most of them were badly damaged by wars or social upheavals in the twentieth century and heavily rebuilt. Meanwhile, the great Eastern and Midwestern cities of the United States date back to the 1800s and often developed rather conservatively since World War One.

For example, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the British Empire at the time of Independence. That means that only London had more houses in Ben Franklin's day. In both London and Philadelphia, many of the buildings that stood in 1776 were subsequently knocked down by developers, fire, or--in the case of London--by German bombs and missiles. I suppose London still has more buildings left over from the 18th century, and it has a few prominent relics from the middle ages and renaissance. But 281,000 extant structures in the Philadelphia metropolitan area were built before 1919 (pdf, p.15). This partly explains why Philadelphia--like Chicago, Charleston, and Cleveland--has a highly distinctive culture.

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November 13, 2007

the Swift Boat analogy

There's a powerful storyline beneath the Democratic primary race that goes like this:

1. John Kerry lost the 2004 election because of the Swift Boat Vets attacks, which epitomized a particularly Republican form of nasty politics that is relatively new to politics.
2. Therefore, Democrats should nominate whoever can best handle the swift boat attacks of 2007.
3. And probably, that is the candidate who has the most experience with taking personal hits and dishing them out in return. Thus, for instance Mathew Yglesias on Obama:

There's perhaps no holder of comparable office who's had less experience tangling with the Republican Party [emphasis is Yglesias'] than Barak [sic] Obama. This worries me. Now, on the other hand, it's true that he's a very appealing person in any number of other ways. What I'd like him to see is to find some way to get himself down in the muck--put himself in a position where he's leading some kind of fight and the GOP feels compelled to try to take him down a notch or two.

I'm not expressing a preference for any presidential candidate, but I think the narrative summarized above is all wrong.

1. John Kerry was extremely, almost uniquely, vulnerable to a Swift Boat-style attack because he had no positive vision. He did not explain what he would do about Iraq. He had a health care plan, but he never talked about it. His whole rationale was that he had fought in a war and George Bush had not. He might as well have announced: Let's debate my Vietnam War record and you can vote for G.W. Bush unless you decide that I was a moral and military hero whereas he was a shirker. In reality, anyone's war service will involve elements of ambiguity and complexity. Kerry was simply asking for those elements in his own story to be broadcast.

2. Bitter personal attacks, while they have been conducted effectively by modern Republicans such as Karl Rove, are by no means a GOP monopoly, nor an innovation. Yet strong candidates have often won elections without counter-punching. When an attack comes, it's by no means obvious that the best response is to respond in kind (or to respond at all). I thought that Kerry needed to articulate a reason for electing him. Failing that, he at least needed to reply to the Swift Boat Attack with humor (a powerful political asset) or with dignified personal reflection.

Thus the question for Democratic voters this time is not: Who can dish it out? It's: Who has something else (other than personal flaws) to talk about?

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November 12, 2007

revisiting the argument for small schools

In the Washington Post, Lonnae O'Neal Parker has written a fine series about Jonathan Lewis, a young man who graduated last year from Washington's Coolidge High School--barely, years late, after scraping through the required courses. He is smart and he has supportive parents, but he rarely attended class or completed assignments, and he aimed for D's.

Jonathan walks toward the cafeteria doors. A question follows him: If you want to make your mother proud, if you know you can do the work, if you swear to everybody you see that you want to graduate, why don't you go to class?

Jonathan stares silently for a few moments.

"I don't know," he says quietly. "I really don't know."

With due humility about my ignorance of Jonathan's situation, I'd propose an answer. The whole structure of a school like Coolidge is inappropriate for his social and economic context. It's a huge high school, with numerous classes and cliques of students and corridors longer than football fields (as Parker observed). The onus is really on individuals to get to class and to concentrate. That is very difficult if most of the other students are not focused; there are too many distractions and temptations, too little order.

So why do large high schools work in other contexts, such as affluent suburbs? And why did Coolidge itself work better when Jonathan's mother attended it, 30 years ago? Because there used to be a social contract in which working class people had dignified and stable jobs. Their children could also obtain those jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without even graduating from high school. Because most adults had working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for kids to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent.

We have a social contract today, and it is not without merit. If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it's a long way from Coolidge High School to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it's pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through a school like Coolidge. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see.

That's why, despite mixed evaluation studies, I remain interested in the new small high schools that provide one coherent, specialized curriculum for all their students. In a small high school that was focused on media, or engineering, or cooking, Jonathan wouldn't have to choose between the halls and a classroom. There would basically be no halls. The school would be an organized work environment with limited numbers of teachers and students who all knew one another and had tasks to accomplish together. The gap between this place and the professional work world would be much smaller.

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November 9, 2007

a new self-consciousness in art

Traditionally, artists work within a style, but they don't think of themselves that way. They either equate their style with art itself (believing that they depict nature as it always has been depicted), or else they offer abstract and universal reasons for their stylistic choices. For example, classical styles were often defended on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered universal principles of beauty and representation.

Then, at a certain point, it became obvious that all art depicts the world through a style, that styles differ from time to time and place to place, and there is no independent aesthetic standard that makes one better than all the others.

Since then, to make a picture has been an entirely different matter. You must start by picking a style. The most obvious move is to use someone else's style, which is why revivalism became the major mode in the early nineteenth century, the age of Gothic revival and the troubadour style; of Greek revival; and of orientalism. There have been various efforts to avoid style altogether--abstraction, minimalism, surrealism--but they have all quickly become styles of their own.

I have been convinced of this Hegelian story for more than twenty years, and I have seen a lot of images in that time. I'm always looking for the moment when full stylistic self-consciousness begins. As of our last trip to Paris, I'm pushing the onset back a few decades. The Musée Jacquemart-André owns a fresco that Tiepolo painted in the mid-1750s to depict the arrival of King Henri III (of France) at the Villa Contarini, near Venice, in 1574. (Click for a large image). Tiepolo chose to paint this image in the style of Veronese. He didn't copy an actual Veronese--something that might have been done centuries before. Instead, he painted the scene as Veronese would have seen and shown it. I don't think that choice would have occurred to any artist before 1750, and once it happened, art was on its way to modernism.

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November 8, 2007

on spin, partisanship, conflict, and other bad words

We say, on the basis of our national focus-group report, that college students in the United States are hungry for political conversations that are authentic, involve diverse views and are free of manipulation and 'spin.'" That finding can provoke a skeptical response, as follows: Young people say they don't like the national political debate, but they have naive and unrealistic standards. The standard tactics of communication (such as negative political ads) work with young people; thus we should discount their distaste for political rhetoric.

I'd like to break this issue into parts. What are young people against?

1. Partisanship:
Almost half of our sample said they were Independents. I recall none who spoke up for the value of parties. A Princeton student explains, "I'm trying to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s ethically acceptable, and pulling my views from so many different places, it’s hard to put myself into one particular party." I'd say: This response is understandable, especially given how badly our actual parties behave. However, parties play an essential role; it is good for them to compete; and we need people to devote care and attention to the party of their choice, albeit not at the expense of the common good.

2. Conflict: No one likes it, but it's inevitable. Suppressing it can be dangerous. Our sample actually agreed with this. About one quarter said, "the political system is filled with unnecessary conflict," but 39 percent said, "there are so many competing groups in politics that conflict is unavoidable."

3. Negativity: The students don't like negative campaigning, but negative campaigning works. What to make of that? One answer is that some harshly critical discourse is valuable, yet the overall balance (in both the paid and unpaid media) is too critical--yet there's not much we can do about that, except to build good news organs that strive for an appropriate balance.

4. Spin and manipulation: Here's where I think the kids are saying something novel and important. They are the objects of unprecedented efforts to persuade them--powerful entities hire professionals to get them to buy stuff, to vote, to believe one side or another. These efforts are extremely sophisticated and often effective. But there is a brewing backlash against the whole idea of sophisticated mass persuasion. Most individuals see no alternative except to tune out completely. Still, there is an appetite for genuinely open-ended, diverse conversations in which most participants don't have a predetermined agenda.

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November 7, 2007

disparities in college opportunities

Today, CIRCLE releases a major report based on 47 focus groups, with a total of 386 student participants, conducted on 12 four-year college and university campuses. The report contains many interesting findings and documents a hunger for open-ended, civil conversations.

Although this is not our main finding, I am personally struck by the tremendous disparities among colleges. The "Millennial Generation" or "Generation Y"--those are abstractions. Individuals of the same age differ dramatically from one another depending on the institutions they attend.

Predominantly White students at a northeastern urban public university have extremely negative views of politics and government, seen as manipulative and controlling. They see both the college and the government as wasteful of their money and unresponsive. To the extent that they can list political acts that they have taken, these acts have often proved discouraging (even frightening, in one case). They believe that if you get involved in politics, you will pay a very heavy price. At first, they cannot think of any policies that affect them, but then they say that they are victims of the government, as welfare recipients and as immigrants. They believe that government would have a better reputation if it helped anyone effectively. Their volunteer activities appear episodic and not very educational, although one person was involved in local politics. Their efficacy is low.

In a historically black private college in the South, the students have deep distrust for the institution, the media, and the national government. They refer to powerful people in the government and the college as an undifferentiated "they" that wastes their money and treats them unfairly. The students use words like "evil" in relation to the government and fear surveillance and manipulation. They mention few political acts that they have taken. One man says that politics is a game that's already been decided: "So it's like why play the game[?]" Some take positions that might be identified with the right, such as a belief in self-help and a strong opposition to welfare and foreign aid. (These are pervasive themes.) Several believe that the curriculum is too focused on slavery and Black history in general.

They can mention very few opportunities for civic learning in high school or college and are pessimistic about all approaches to social change except (perhaps) organizing on the model of the Civil Rights Movement. However, they like the discussion in the focus group itself, seeing it as "political" (in a good sense). "And it's not necessarily the gift card or the food that got me here. I just wanted to come and express my opinions so somebody else will know."

In contrast, students at two highly selective private institutions have learned a lot about politics in college--not only from classes, but also from political speakers, events, the campus newspaper, lengthy, organized travel, and fairly intense informal discussions, including political conversations with faculty. These students are aware of their own privilege. Their complaints about the government and politics are analytical rather than passionate. They criticize the government for mistreating other people, not themselves. One Ivy student says that she wanted to be "in politics" (as a career) since high school; most are already "in politics" (as an activity) in college. One says that politics is "fun."

They are quite sophisticated; for example, one or two students in each of the three groups recognizes a candidate (Senator Snowe) among the photos they are supposed to use as prompts for conversation. They have had civic and political opportunities from early on--an Ivy student whose father is a prominent elected official is only an extreme example. They almost all provide direct voluntary service, but often their work has a direct policy link as well. For example, one student has lobbied in Congress. Several have conducted elaborate research projects on social issues. Most of the students from both schools are liberals and equate the words "liberal," "activist," and "political"--basically seen as positive adjectives. The lone conservative student in the one of the groups complains about liberal bias but says he has moved toward the center in college.

In short, these undergraduates seem to have chosen campuses that are activist and predominantly liberal and have then received deliberate civic opportunities that have cemented their political identities.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:24 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 6, 2007

Paris from the moon

When we were in Paris last week, I wondered what's behind the facades of the big buildings that line the boulevards. The reason I wondered is that most of the blocks of Paris are oblongs or triangles formed of large buildings, with no breaks for visible alleys. A triangle leaves a lot of space near the middle--in contrast, for example, to the narrow rectangular blocks of Manhattan. If you fill a triangle with buildings, no light will reach most of the interior--especially near the middle of each block, where the shape is widest.

Thanks to Google Earth, one can see what is going on from above. The picture to the left shows the block where my wife and I stayed last week. Like most of the blocks of the Right Bank, it is actually filled with trees. Paris is a much greener city than you can tell by walking its streets, but half of the green is private and hidden behind the lovely stone facades.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 5, 2007

social accountability in the USA

In Paris last week, I met a senior minister from Uganda who said that not many years ago, 83 percent of Uganda's education budget was wasted or stolen--not spent on education. I also met a Filipino activist who said that in his country, textbooks were often stolen or lost before they reached classrooms. Both countries have achieved enormous improvements by involving citizens in monitoring and assessing school budgets and administration. According to independent evaluations, 80 percent of education funds now reach schools in Uganda, partly because the money is tracked by citizens.

It occurred to me that in the District of Columbia, about 71 percent of the education budget is not spent on schools. Some of it may be properly used for such purposes as special education. But most of the 71 percent is lost in the downtown bureaucracy. The Washington Post has printed photos of stacks of textbooks that were never distributed to schools; electronic equipment is routinely delivered without software or support. These statistics and stories are very reminiscent of Uganda and the Philippines, and indeed of most of the world.

The obvious question is whether we could use public participation in the US as a tool to reduce serious corruption and waste. This would be a great achievement because ...

1. One of the worst sources of disadvantage in our society is the dramatically unequal quality of education. An obvious way to improve education for Washington's least advantaged students would be to seize some of the $7,200 per student that is currently being used/wasted in the downtown bureaucracy so that it could be spent instead on smaller classes and better facilities.

2. Getting the public involved in accountability might shift the attention away from test scores and toward administration. Today's high-stakes tests are supposed to motivate teachers and students to work harder and more effectively--that is the main strategy for improving education. When students fail the tests, we start to wonder whether public schools can possibly achieve success (or whether our kids can possibly succeed). If citizens could audit or review the performance of their schools, they might shift the pressure away from teachers and students, who, after all, receive less than 30 percent of the budget in DC. Citizens might conclude that the marginal impact of reforming central school systems would be much greater.

3. Public participation would be an alternative to the main accountability measures that are currently used or contemplated in our schools today. We test kids and punish them for failing; and we allow parents to take their kids out of schools. In Washington, roughly half of the student body has already left, either for the suburbs or for charter schools; but we don't see better performance in the public system--nor are the charters very successful. Maybe it would work better to get citizens directly involved in school reform.

4. Students could help to monitor their own schools, which would be a powerful form of civic education.

5. I believe that the Achilles heel of the American left is the poor performance of public institutions, such as the DC Public Schools. At some level, all of us--including left-liberals--know that such systems are deeply flawed. We lose political struggles, not because Americans love corporations, nor because voters are blind to social needs, but because they don't believe that public institutions are effective and trustworthy tools. It would be politically powerful to acknowledge this problem and to propose innovative solutions that tap the energy of citizens, like those used in Uganda in the Philippines.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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