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July 31, 2008

take them seriously

Joe Garofoli in the San Francisco Chronicle and Jeff Brady on NPR's All Things Considered both recently quoted me on whether funny advertisements and web-based games are smart ways for campaigns to mobilize young voters.

I am not aware of research or public data that would allow us to compare the effectiveness of a sarcastic or silly ad versus a serious and information-rich one. Nor have I seen evaluations of games that are designed to promote voting, whether the games are silly and parodic or challenging and educational. (The campaigns may have tested games and various broadcast messages, but they never share the data from such experiments.)

My hunch is that anyone who tries a very light approach is making a mistake. Remember that less than half of the youth population will vote. Heavily represented in that group are young people who are seriously concerned about issues, from their own economic prospects to the future of the planet. Voting is not much fun, but it is rewarding if one feels one can make a real difference by casting a ballot. Potential voters are likely to be people who believe they can make a difference, or at least are open to the argument that the election is important. This is true of all citizens, but young people are especially likely to say that they need more information and explanation before they can vote. Often, in focus groups and polls, they say that the main reason they may not vote is that they feel inadequately informed to make such a serious choice. Thus I suspect that an information-rich, explanatory ad or game could be very effective. But a jokey approach is likely to make young people feel that the election is unimportant (thus lowering turnout), or may offend them by patronizing them.

This doesn't rule out some use of humor and amusement in various media. But one should always take the audience seriously.

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it's a tough job ...

... but someone has to hold up the balconies and lintels of Prague. One of these is 600 years old, one is a Communist, one is grotesque (in the original sense of the word), and several are magnificent Baroque specimens from 1648-1720.
This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Prague caryatids. Make your own badge here.
(To view this as a slideshow--my preference--click this link.)

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July 30, 2008

a road not (yet) taken?

Michael Calderone of Politico reports that the McCain campaign tried to hire an AP reporter and editor, Ron Fournier, as a senior adviser. Fournier has been criticized by liberals for being allegedly too personally friendly with McCain and also Karl Rove. But Mark Salter, who works for McCain, said "that Fournier was an attractive target because of his knowledge about the political process, not because of his ideological or partisan leanings. Salter says he still does not know what, if any, those are."

Here's another theory. Ron Fournier has some interesting and explicit ideological leanings, but they aren't conventionally liberal or conservative. They are populist in a particular way: enthusiastic about local self-government, deliberation, and public participation. I say this because of an opinion piece that Fournier wrote, based on a survey that I helped to design and analyze for the National Conference on Citizenship. He wrote:

John McCain could make an interesting appeal to this civic core. He has a lifetime record of service and leadership and could broaden those ideas by explaining how ordinary civilians can also lead and serve at home. He could criticize arrogant bureaucrats and judges (conservative targets) but also strongly support programs that expand opportunities for civic work--charter schools, voluntary national service programs, the Peace Corps, and community development corporations. I haven't seen him do any of this yet--at least, not effectively--but it may explain why he was interested in Fournier.

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July 16, 2008

to Prague

Having just landed in Belmont, Massachusetts, with our bags and boxes hardly unpacked, my family and I are off to Prague and other parts of the Czech Republic tomorrow morning. I will be treating my Internet addiction by not going online to check the latest polls or to post anything here. I think I will be able to stay disconnected, because apparently "Places remote enough are in Bohemia" [Winter's Tale, III:3]. Back on July 30.

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July 15, 2008

get thee to a nunnery

We bought our new house in Belmont, MA, yesterday. For the two weeks before that, my family had remained in Washington while I lived in a Tufts University dorm room. Colleagues seem surprised and amused that I, gray and 41, should choose to live in a dorm. I thought it made practical sense: no commute, no shopping, no cooking. Of course, I could have had floor-mates who were a little more--shall we say?--lively late at night than I am used to in my staid middle age. At first, however, there was no one else on my floor--just rows of open doors and swept-out rooms that reminded me a little of "The Shining." Then the doors were all closed and there were subtle signs of human habitation. The bathroom light, for instance, would be on in the middle of the night, when I had definitely switched it off before going to sleep. But no sounds. Who else could be living on the third floor of South Hall?

I found out one evening when I shared the elevator with a dozen Spanish-speaking nuns. A half-a-dozen more couldn't fit on and had to wait for the next one. They wore gray habits and none was taller than my shoulder. They were so quiet and tidy that I can truly say: when it comes to floormates, better nun than none.

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July 14, 2008

worrying about "love"

What is the meaning of a principle like "causing needless pain is bad" or "lying is wrong"? These principles are not always right--think about the pain of an athletic event or lying to the Gestapo. Various explanations have been proposed for the relationship between such principles and their exceptions. Maybe lying is wrong if certain conditions are met, and those conditions are common. Or maybe lying is really the union of two concepts--"mendacium" (mendacious untruths) and "falsiloquium" (blameless misleading), to use medieval concepts. Or maybe lying and pain-causing are always bad "pro tanto"--as far as that goes. They are always bad but their badness can be outweighed.

Mark Norris Lance and Maggie Little have another theory: "defeasible generalization."* The following are defeasible generalizations taken from science: Fish eggs turn into fish. A struck match lights. These assertions are certainly not always true. In fact, very few fish eggs actually turn into fish, and I rarely get a match going on the first try. Nevertheless, a fish egg turns into a fish unless something intervenes. Even though the probability of its reaching the fish stage is low, to do so is its nature. The privileged cases are the ones in which the egg turns into a fish and the struck match catches fire. All the other outcomes, even if they are more common, are deviant. To understand that something will normally or naturally turn into a fish is to realize that it is a fish egg.

Lance and Little make a close analogy to moral issues: "Many key moral concepts--indeed, the workhorses of moral theory--are the subjects of defeasible moral generalizations. ... Take the example of pain. We believe it is important to any adequate morality to recognize that defeasibly, pain is bad-making." In other words, it is correct that causing pain is bad, even though there are exceptions that may turn out to be common. "To understand pain's nature, then, is to understand not just that it is sometimes not-bad, but to understand that there is an explanatory asymmetry between cases in which it is bad and cases in which it is not: it is only because pain is paradigmatically bad-making that athletic challenges come to have the meaning they do, and hence provide a kind of rich backdrop against which instances of pain can emerge as not-bad-making, as not always and everywhere to-be-avoided." Moral discernment is grasping the difference between paradigm cases and aberrant ones. We learn this skill, but it is not just a matter of applying rules. It may not be codifiable.

This seems plausible to me. But I do not think that every moral issue works this way. Take the absolutely crucial concept of love. We might say, as a defeasible generalization, that love is good. We know that in some cases love is bad. Adultery, obsessive love, and lust are common examples (although each of these bad categories admits counter-examples that happen to be good). But maybe it is true to say that love is good just in the same way that it is true to say that fish eggs turn into fish. This principle (arguably) reveals an understanding of the concept of love even though many cases are exceptional.

Here is my worry. I do believe, as a statistical generalization, that most cases of love are good. However, I also believe that we have a tendency to overlook the bad side of love, especially if we are the subject or object of it. We have biases in favor of love that presumably arise from our biological desires for sex and companionship and from the legacy of a million stories, poems, paintings, movies, and songs in which the protagonists fall in love and are admired for it. So the principle that love is good, if treated as a defeasible generalization, a default position, or a rebuttable presumption, is likely to mislead.

And we have an alternative. That is to say that love is nearly always morally significant. It is rarely neutral. Yet you cannot know, without looking at the whole situation, whether love is a good or a bad thing. Given the important possibility that love may be bad, or that a good love may have some element or danger of bad love (or vice-versa), it is not right to make any presumption about its moral "valence" until you hear the whole story.

This is exactly the position that Jonathan Dancy calls "particularism" (and Anthony W. Price has called "variabalism"). Dancy says at times that it applies to every reason, principle, or value--none has a good or bad "valence" that we can know in advance. Whether anything is good depends on the context. I would argue that particularism or variabalism applies to love--but not to lying or causing pain. Still, this is only a minor setback for particularism, because love is a hugely important issue and is unlikely to be the only one that behaves this way. In fact, I suspect that most of Aristotle's list of virtues (courage, temperence, liberality, frindliness, patience, etc.) are like love. We can make the defeasible generalization that they are morally significant. That shows that we understand these concepts. But to say that they are good means jumping to conclusions, even if we insist that there are exceptions.

Incidentally, there are various alternatives to particularism about love that I have not addressed here. Most alternatives would involve categorizing types of love or explaining the general conditions under which love is good or bad. I think these are, at best, heuristics. Love is relatively unlikely to be good if Emma loves Rodolphe while Emma is married to Charles, for example. But there are plenty of real and fictional stories in which adulterous love is a good thing. The differences between good and bad love are unlikely to be codifiable, and the effort to divide "love" into its good and bad forms misses a basic fact about it. Love just is something that can be great, or can be awful, or can be both; and you have to be careful about it.

* See Mark Norris Lance and Maggie Little, “From Particularism to Defeasibility in Ethics," in Mark Norris Lance, Matjaž Potrč, and Vojko Strahovnik, eds., Challenging Moral Particularism (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 53-74. This chapter is very similar, but not identical, to Mark Norris Lance and Margaret Olivia Little, "Defending Moral Particularism," in James Dreier, ed., Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 305-321.

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July 11, 2008

positioning an academic argument

In free moments, I'm revising what I call my "Dante book," which is actually an argument about the moral value of literature. The peer reviewer said that I should explain how my project fits in with recent academic debates about philosophy and literature. My readers will be familiar with at least some of these debates and will want to understand where I stand in relation to other authors.

I have usually resisted doing too much of that sort of "positioning." I don't like to assume that readers already know a given academic literature; I prefer to assume a broader or more public audience. I don't like to read mainly or only works that are currently influential. (My Dante book is heavily annotated, with 460 footnotes, but many of my sources are obscure and old.) Sometimes positioning strikes me as an alternative to argument. A writer may say, "My stance is more communitarian than Rawls but more liberal than Sandel." That makes him or her look reasonable, but it doesn't add anything to our knowledge or understanding.

Yet, in this case, I have found the reviewer's advice useful. There is value to engaging with a current discussion, and doing so explicitly. Also, I have had to do more systematic reading on the ethical uses of fiction. Inevitably, I have learned from this reading. Above all, I have realized that there is much more current interest in ethical interpretation than I knew. (See, for instance, Amanda Anderson.) That means that some of my claims in the earlier draft of the manuscript were false. I wrote it as a manifesto for a new kind of criticism, but exactly that kind of criticism is being widely practiced now. In other words, I was already engaging with a current debate, but I had mischaracterized it. If you are going to comment on the state of argument, you should at least do a thorough literature review first.

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July 10, 2008

the ACORN scandal

I was amazed to read that a senior official at ACORN ("the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people") embezzled nearly $1 million in 1999-2000. Instead of being fired, he was reassigned and asked to pay the money back on a generous installment plan: $30,000/year. No one was told what he had done, not even the board. This man happens to be the brother of the organization's founder.

I think about the times I gave money to ACORN when canvassers in my neighborhood played on my guilt. I was always reluctant or ambivalent. I didn't (and still don't) have the full picture of how ACORN operates. I acknowledge my limited understanding and don't see myself as an informed critic. But there were times when the organization seemed to make poor people look like sheer victims, instead of developing and celebrating their agency. ACORN seemed to divide the world into the victims, their protectors, and their enemies, which is not a way to learn from other people or build communities.

Now we read that millions of dollars of contributions were actually paying for embezzlement and a cover-up. Founder Wade Rethke "said the decision to keep the matter secret was not made to protect his brother but because word of the embezzlement would have put a 'weapon' into the hands of enemies of Acorn .... 'We thought it best at the time to protect the organization, as well as to get the funds back into the organization, to deal with it in-house,' said Maude Hurd, president of Acorn."

This was obviously a mistake. Ethically, it meant putting the interests of the staff and the organization ahead of the donors and people served. Practically, it was foolish because the scandal had to come out, sooner or later. It reflected the division of the world into heroes and enemies that I mentioned above. It also presumed that the heroic ACORN was indispensable, so that any embarrassment to the organization had to be avoided at all costs. No organization is above reproach, none can be allowed to police itself, and none is indispensable.

Even today, the ACORN website makes no mention of the embezzlement. Recent news items highlighted on its home page include: "Landmark ACORN Foreclosure Bill Becomes Law in California" and "ACORN Helps Launch $40 Million Healthcare Campaign Nationwide." An apology would help, although for me personally, it is too late.

[Update, July 11: ACORN now has a formal apology, which they sent to me.]

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July 9, 2008

inequality in online civic engagement

Most kids are now online, but inequalities persist in their online civic engagement. I just posted a comment on this topic over at "Engaged Youth: Civic Learning Online," which is a blog worth visiting.

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July 8, 2008

talkin' 'bout generations

Ian Shapira has an article in the Washington Post about how to define today's younger generations. Are they "Millennials" or "Gen Y"? What year is the cutoff for each generation? What generalizations can we make about today's youngest group? Are they idealistic, pragmatic, anti-hierarchical?

People are born continuously, so generations are arbitrary constructs. The study of generations began in the 1920s (as far as I know), in response to perhaps the world's single most traumatic event, WWI. Both men and women who were born between 1884 and 1902 were affected by the war in dramatic ways that permanently distinguished them from those born before 1884. Not only did millions of them die, but the social and political structures that had formed them collapsed, especially if they lived in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or Ottoman Empires. They shaved their faces, raised their hemlines, and in every other way they could imagine, differentiated themselves from their Victorian parents.

That was a generation gap. All the other gaps since then have been subtler, and some have been imaginary--mere marketing hype. It's particularly dubious to define a whole generation on the basis of how its first members act when they are young adults. Conventionally, a generation extends over twenty years of births and then lasts throughout its members' lives. So it really makes no sense to generalize about the Millennials today when the youngest are four years old and may live as late as 2104. Do we imagine that they will be notably idealistic in 2090 just because their older siblings voted at high rates in 2008?

On the other hand, it is true that we are more malleable when we are young than later on. Therefore, major political events and social conditions that we experience before age 25 affect us and turn us into permanent groups or cohorts. Therefore, the analysis of generations is not mere hype, although one has to be careful about it.

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July 7, 2008

California Speaks

I'm proud to be a member of the board of AmericaSpeaks, which organizes very large deliberative town meetings, facilitated by technology, in which groups of citizens discuss pressing social issues and reach decisions. The organization is busy with numerous projects. One of the recent ones was "CaliforniaSpeaks," a simultaneous discussion of health care reform that involved 3,500 citizens in eight California cities. This short evaluation of the event is interesting because it is written by a tough-minded and independent scholar, Taeku Lee from Berkeley, and it appears on the World Bank's blog for civic participation. (The very idea that the Bank has a blog, let alone a blog on democratic engagement, may shake some stereotypes.) Lee finds that participants--representative of California citizens--held highly sophisticated discussions of health reform and came to have more trust in politics and more political engagement.

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July 4, 2008

defending national and community service

Senator Obama's national service plan got lots of attention when he re-announced it this week, in contrast to the original announcement in February, which got no press coverage at all. I guess a proposal is more interesting if a nominee offers it than if it comes from one Democratic candidate among many--although I was surprised by the complete lack of interest in Obama's $3.5 billion plan when he introduced it last winter. The current version is very popular in my circles and has drawn interesting endorsements. (For instance, my friend John Bridgeland, formerly a senior adviser to George Bush, supports it.) But the influential liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias calls the "underlying idea ... bad and illiberal." He provides an amusing video parody of national service as a kind of softcore fascism, and gives the Obama plan a pass only because it is so "vague" as to be "harmless."

National and community service plans have a great progressive heritage (from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal to the Lyndon Johnson's Job Corps and VISTA), but they do require a justification. Sometimes, when I am deep into a strategy meeting in which everyone assumes that we need to increase the numbers of paid federal volunteers, I start to wonder whether this is the right goal, after all. So I welcome Yglesias' challenge--but I believe it can be met.

Paid community service opportunities are good for those who serve. The evidence is quite strong. As a dramatic example, on entering Youth Build (a federally funded program) the new volunteers estimate their own life expectancies at something like 40 years. By the time they leave the program, they expect to live three decades longer. Having an opportunity to do something constructive is a powerful way to build skills and to enhance confidence and self-worth. For the much more academically successful citizens who enroll in competitive programs like the Peace Corps, the benefits are also powerful, but different. They learn about social problems and about working with people who are different from themselves.

It is also important that the people who are served benefit; otherwise, a service program is artificial. (No one will develop confidence and skills from "serving" if the service itself is pointless.) There have been evaluations that find strongly positive impacts on communities. But I disagree with Yglesias that "the relevant test should be effectiveness of outcomes (does TFA help kids learn, does the PeaceCorps help build the American brand)." That is an important but secondary consideration.

The national and community service programs also help to break down the wall between government and the public, or between officials and citizens, by enrolling thousands of citizens in temporary public service jobs. I think this is essential for progressivism. Citizens' intense distrust for government reduces public support for national health care, environmental protection, and education. If citizens have some experience working on public issues in collaboration with the government, their opinions will be better informed and will probably be more favorable. (And if direct experience with the government makes them less supportive, then we obviously need to reform the state before we can expand it.)

Finally, the national and community service programs are important for Obama, because the core of his message is empowerment--we can make a difference working together. He needs to explain how we can make a difference after the election. Helping to elect him cannot be our only way to participate. Community service programs symbolize his commitment to public participation--and also underline the best parts of his own biography. For instance, Barack was a founding board member of Public Allies, an Americorps program, and Michelle directed its Chicago office.

For all these reasons, progressives should be excited about the Obama service plan and should see it as fairly central to his campaign. I am afraid that their skepticism reveals a basic lack of sympathy with Obama and the people who surround him.

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July 3, 2008

PBS' "Your America"

PBS (the public broadcasting service in the USA) has a new book and broadcast series entitled "Democracy's Local Heroes." It draws attention to citizens who work with others to address public problems. I have not seen the show or read the book, but I am grateful for the website. It provides good short definitions of civic activism and related concepts and a great selection of links, including a prominent one to the November Fifth Coalition.

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July 2, 2008

good lives

Friends returned recently from Alaska, where they had encountered people who prefer to live alone and "off the grid," with as little interaction with the United States as possible. I don't think this is a great form of life. I admire people who provide more service to humanity. Also, I'm not impressed by a way of life that must be denied to most other human beings (for we simply don't have enough space on the planet to allot each family many acres). It's possible that some day we'll all gain benefit from Alaskan survivalists--we may need their special knowledge. But that would make the case easy. Let's keep it hard by presuming that they will never do any practical good for anyone other than themselves.

This example is an opportunity to try to make sense of three premises:

1. Some ways of life are better than others.
2. It takes many types of lives (each with its own prime virtue) to make a livable world; and
3. It's a better world if it contains many different types of character and virtue, rather than a few.

I take 1 as pretty obvious. If you don't agree with me that Alaskan survivalists lead less meritorious lives than hospice workers, you must at least concede that hospice workers are better people than Storm Troopers. It might sound pretentious to assert that some lives are lived better than others. But the alternative is to deny that it makes any difference how we live, and that makes life a joke.

I think 2 is also pretty obvious. If we didn't have people who were committed to practical organizing work and productive labor, we'd starve. If there was no one who was concerned about security (and willing at least to threaten legitimate force on behalf of the community), we'd be in grave danger. Were it not for curious scientists, we would live shorter lives. But what follows from these examples? Not that several different kinds of lives are equally meritorious. Aristotle knew that it took many types of people, including manual laborers and soldiers, to sustain the polis. He nevertheless believed that the life of dispassionate inquiry was the single best life. He could hold these two positions together because he was no moral egalitarian. For him, it did not follow that if we need laborers and soldiers as well as philosophers, therefore all three are equally valuable. Moral egalitarianism is not self-evident or universal, although I certainly endorse it.

One can combine 1 and 2 by saying that there is a list of valuable ways of life, which includes all the necessary roles (e.g., producers, protectors, healers) plus some that have less practical advantages: for example, artists and abstract thinkers. This is a limited kind of pluralism. It supports moral distinctions but admits more than one type of goodness.

I'm inclined to go further and say that the world is better if it includes forms of life that are neither essential nor intrinsically meritorious. Our environment is simply more interesting if it contains Alaskan survivalists as well as productive farmers and cancer researchers. Thus I would propose that an individual who goes off the grid is probably not leading the best possible life for him; yet it is better that some people do this than that none do.

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July 1, 2008

at Tufts

This is my first blog from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University in Medford, MA. Effective today, CIRCLE is part the Tisch College and I am also research director of Tisch. I am deeply absorbed in trying to get my old calendar system to sync with my new calendar, but I encourage you to explore Tisch, which is (I believe) still the only whole college devoted exclusively to civic engagement.

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