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August 29, 2008

Barack Obama and Joseph Schumpeter

I love many aspects of the Obama Campaign, but until recently, I had been thinking that its "change" slogan was pretty much empty. Then it occurred to me that the slogan could reflect a particular conception of democracy--if not intentionally, at least in the way it is being received. This is that idea that the people's job is to vote the incumbent party in or out, depending on recent performance. As Joseph Schumpeter wrote in 1942:

Applying Schumpeter to the 2008 election would mean saying that the Republicans and Democrats are "would-be leaders," and the Democrats are asking to be chosen because the Republicans have messed up. That could be a good way for Democrats to get elected, assuming (a) that Americans act like Schumpeterians and (b) that we render verdicts on parties rather than individuals.

There are two big problems with Schumpeter's theory, however. First, immediate past performance is often a poor predictor of future performance. Schumpeter believed that citizens voted on the past record because they simply couldn't make rational predictions. But that's bad news, if true.

Second, limiting voters' role to an up-or-down verdict is very much at odds with the other rhetoric of the Obama Campaign, which (pace Schumpeter) is about the people actually ruling. Perhaps "change" means a new way of tapping the energies and ideas of American citizens. If that's the intention, it must be made very clear.

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August 28, 2008

two sides of civic renewal

My first job was at Common Cause, one of the main lobbies that seeks to improve formal American politics by reforming the way campaigns are financed, voters are registered, electoral districts are drawn, and regulations are approved. Even then, I was also interested in the citizen side of politics--how people organize themselves, deliberate, learn from one another, give time and money, and obtain power. I've always wanted those two topics to be more tightly connected in theory and especially in practice. In fact, that was the theme of my 1999 book The New Progressive Era. Government reform can stimulate or enable public engagement, but the nature of the engagement will differ depending on the reform. Therefore, it's crucial to consider what kind of democracy you want. Is your goal equality of power? Involving as many people as possible in creative public work? Mixing people with different opinions and backgrounds? Improving knowledge and understanding? Each goal requires somewhat different reforms. In turn, how citizens organize themselves will determine which reforms pass Congress and will also affect how people use any new rights and opportunities.

In late July, a mix of political reformers and organizers of citizen activities met in Washington. I had to miss the meeting because we were in Europe, but Demos, a reform group, has now posted notes online (PDF). The group converged on ideas drawn from the political reform world (such as "public financing of state and federal elections") plus proposals from the world of public deliberation (e.g., "a Public Participation Act that eliminates obstacles preventing Federal agencies from using higher quality public participation practices"). The lead idea is a new "White House Office of Participation" to bring it all together.

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August 27, 2008

public participation helps environmental policy

Four powerful agencies that deal with environmental regulation--the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture--wanted to know whether involving citizens improves their decisions by tapping local knowledge and energy and increasing the legitimacy of outcomes, or whether citizens merely make things worse because they lack scientific knowledge. So the agencies (without a touch of irony) asked the experts at the National Research Council to review the evidence about public participation. The experts' verdict was favorable: well-designed processes that involve the public produce better outcomes.
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August 26, 2008


Listening to Michelle Obama last night, I thought about a conversation we had in October 2006. I hesitate to report it because I am a strong critic of the kind of politics that prizes personal interactions with leaders--as if other citizens cannot make good judgments based on the public record. Besides, no one should rely on the accuracy or fairness of a reporter, a staffer, or someone else who gets close to the famous--even if he gains access by accident, which is what happened to me.

On the other hand, Mrs. Obama made a strongly positive impression on me, and it has been seriously bothering me to see her misrepresented over the last six months. This is not only unfair to her as an individual; it also has consequences for women. Because she has been presented as an angry and challenging figure, she is going to have to compensate by coming across as completely nice. That will circumscribe her ability to lead.

The irony is that I found her very nice, indeed. She was the moderator of a panel at Campus Compact's 20th Anniversary gala. I was a panelist, and we chatted for maybe 10 minutes as we waiting to go onstage. She seemed somewhat tired--short of sleep and exercise because of her demanding job, her two kids, and her husband's constant travel. But she didn't complain; this came up in the context of a dialog about being parents, in which she focused on my life as much as hers.

She professed not to feel at all comfortable in the glamorous DC scene. I smiled inwardly a bit, because she and her husband were already the most glamorous couple in town--she wasn't going to have to stand by the cheese platter at a cocktail party, hoping someone would talk to her. But I took her insecurity as completely genuine, because she presented it as a shared problem. Neither of us would feel comfortable at a glitzy reception, she seemed to be saying--even though she would be mobbed by admirers and job-seekers whereas I would be very surprised to be admitted.

Above all, I remember talking about kids. I've got a daughter who falls right between Sasha and Malia Obama in age. Whatever you may think about having a First Lady who is thoroughly committed to her own children, Michelle Obama is that person.

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August 24, 2008

the moral evaluation of literary characters

I'm on p. 521 of Dickens' Bleak House--hardly past half-way--but so far Mrs Jelleby is proving to be a bad person. Like many of my friends (like me, in fact) she spends most of her days reading and writing messages regarding what she calls a "public project"--in her case, the settlement of poor British families on the left bank of the River Niger at the ridiculously named location of Borrioboola-Gha. Meanwhile, her own small children are filthy, her clothes are disgraceful, her household is bankrupt, her neglected husband is (as we would say) clinically depressed, and she is casually cruel to her adolescent daughter Caddy. Caddy finds a man who pays some attention to her, but Mrs Jellyby is completely uninterested in the wedding and marriage:

Mrs Jellyby's friends dominate the wedding breakfast and are "all devoted to public projects only." They have no interest in Caddy or even in one another's social schemes; each is entirely self-centered.

Within the imaginary world of Bleak House, Mrs Jellyby is bad, and her moral flaws should provoke some reflection in the rest of us--especially those of us who spend too much time sending emails about distant projects. The evident alternative is Esther Summerson, a model housekeeper who cares lovingly for her friends and relatives and refuses to interfere with distant strangers' lives on the ground "that I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated ...; that I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others ..."

Fair enough, but we could also ask why Dickens decided to depict Mrs Jellyby instead of a different kind of person, for instance, a man who was so consumed with social reform that he neglected his spouse, a woman who successfully balanced public and private responsibilities, or a woman, like Dorothea Brooke, who yearned for a public role but instead devoted her life to the private service of men. Both the intention and the likely consequences of Dickens' portrait are to suppress the public role of women.

The general point I'd like to propose is this: the moral assessment of literary characters (lately returned to respectability by theorists like Amanda Anderson) requires two stages of analysis. First one decides whether a character is good or bad--or partly both--within the world of a fiction. And then one asks whether the author was right to choose to create that character instead of others.

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August 22, 2008

student political engagement

PeerReview is a magazine published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The current issue is devoted to students and political engagement. My Tisch College (Tufts University) colleagues Rob Hollister and Nancy Wilson and I have an article, and there is a nice mix of other pieces on everything from civic engagement at a historically Black college to Facebook and politics .

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August 21, 2008

momentum for service policy

Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama have now agreed to participate in a summit on national and community service in New York City on Sept. 11. This will be their first joint appearance after the conventions--not a debate, but a pair of in-depth statements by the candidates. For those of us who have floated around the "service" world for a long time, this is pretty exciting. (I was one of two token college students at a Wingspread summit on service in 1988, so I've been in it for 20 years.) There are important debates about whether the federal service programs should be rethought and also whether "service" is the best word or concept to advance the highest values of the movement. There is also a big question about whether Congress will fund a major expansion of service programs in an era of deficits, even if it authorizes an expansion. But it's clear that service has momentum right now.

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August 20, 2008

McCain in a prisoner's dilemma

David Brooks argued yesterday that "[John] McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them. They have been compelled, at least in their telling, to abandon the campaign they had hoped to run. ... The man who lampooned the Message of the Week is now relentlessly on message .... The man who hopes to inspire a new generation of Americans now attacks Obama daily."

This column provoked derisive responses from some liberal readers. Tom Fornholtz summarizes Brooks thus: "The American people have forced John McCain to run a dishonorable campaign." It's as if there were two possible culprits to blame for the strong negativity of the McCain campaign--the candidate or the audience--and Brooks was blaming the latter.

Clearly, the candidate bears some responsibility. But blame can also fall on the situation--the logic of the game. A presidential campaign is strictly zero-sum: a vote against Obama is a vote for McCain. Only one of the candidates can win the White House. By attacking the other person, you can improve your relative standing; witness the way that negative opinions about Obama have risen and his margin has fallen--for example, according to the LA Times--as McCain has attacked him. "All the negative attacks from the McCain campaign seem to have been paying off," said [LA] Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

Now if you think that tearing down your opponent is morally bad, and the only reason you're doing it is to enhance your own personal prospects, then you shouldn't do it. But that's not McCain's situation. He no doubt believes that: (a) the attacks are at least partly justified and therefore actually informative, (b) there are principled reasons why he (McCain) should win the presidency; (c) thousands or even millions of people are resting their hopes on him; (d) negative campaigning works; and (e) negative campaigning is the norm and is likely to come from the Democratic side as well, sooner or later.

This is a classic situation in which two players are likely to harm the overall atmosphere in the pursuit of their own interests. One will attack the other, if only as a preemptive strike; and then his opponent will attack back. One way to mitigate the situation is to build up mutual trust through private and candid conversations. But that's almost impossible for two competitors in the glare of national publicity. Another way is to put principle above self-interest, but that is always rare, and is especially unlikely when some principles seem to favor negative campaigning.

The solution lies not in blaming either the candidate or the public, but in structural reforms. The idea that McCain floated for numerous joint appearances--while obviously in his own self-interest--might also have mitigated the impact of negative campaigning in the race. Another idea is the kind of election coverage pioneered by public journalists in the 1990s: newspapers can stop reporting on campaign tactics and ads and start explaining policy differences. Finally, if the Obama "ground game" (thousands of paid local organizers) wins the election for him, it will show that increasing turnout through grassroots action is more effective than using ads to tear down one's opponents. That may change the next election for the better.

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August 19, 2008

a wooden house at the edge of campus

Last Friday, I visited the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership. This is an important organization that provides "classes, global research, internships, workshops, simulations and international symposia" for Tufts students and for many other people in the US and overseas.

But I don't want to write about the Institute today; I want to mention the building. It's a modest-sized wooden house near the edge of Tufts. It contains meeting spaces with chairs pulled up in circles, cubbyholes with young people hunched over computers, and lots of books, framed photos, news clippings, and gifts of art from around the world. When I visited, Kurdish folk music was playing on the speaker.

The Institute's building is more attractive than most of its type. TGI focuses on documentary photography, so many of the pictures are stunning. Its international programs have yielded handsome works of art. And someone with an aesthetic sense has helped pull it all together. But what struck me most was the familiarity of this place. I have enjoyed visiting similar institutes and centers in former private houses on the margins of campuses from Berkeley to Oxford. I think especially of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana; or Telluride House at Cornell, where I spent my 18th summer; or the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers. These are my favorite parts of academia. In contrast to most teaching departments, they house collaborative projects that provoke intense debate, reflection, and interaction of people from different backgrounds on common issues.

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August 18, 2008

broadening philosophy

Moral philosophy (or ethics) forms a diverse and eclectic field, about which few accurate generalizations can be made.* However, I think I detect a very widespread preference for concepts whose significance is always the same--either positive or negative--wherever they appear. In defining moral concepts, philosophers like to identify necessary and sufficient conditions, such that if something can be done, it will always be obligatory, praiseworthy, desirable, permissible, optional, regrettable, shameful, or forbidden to do it. These moral propositions may have to be considered along with other valid propositions that also apply in the same circumstances. For instance, honesty may be obligatory (or at least praiseworthy); yet tact is also desirable. Honesty and tact can conflict. Hardly anyone doubts that we face genuine moral conflicts and dilemmas. Yet the hope is to develop general moral propositions, built of clearly defined concepts, that are always valid, at least all else considered.

But what should we say about complex and ambiguous phenomena that have evolved over biological and historical time and that now shape our lives? I am thinking of concepts like love (recently discussed here), marriage, painting, the novel, lawyers, or voting. We can't use these words in a deontic logic made up of propositions like "P is necessary." They are sometimes good and sometimes not. We could try to divide them into subconcepts. For instance, love could be divided into agape, lust, and several other subspecies; painting can be categorized as representational, abstract, religious, etc. Once we have appropriate subconcepts, we can say that they have a particular moral status if (and only if) specified conditions apply.

The urge is to avoid weak modal verbs like "may" and "can" or other qualifiers like "sometimes" and "often." Love can be wonderful; it can also be a moral snare. Paintings sometimes invoke the sublime; sometimes they don't. Lawyers have legitimate and helpful roles in some cases and controversies, but not in others. A core philosophical instinct is to get rid of these qualifiers by using tighter definitions. For example, agape (properly defined) might turn out to be always good and never a snare. You always need and have a right to a lawyer when you are arraigned. All paintings by Giorgione or similar to Giorgione's are sublime. And so on.

My fear is that the pressure to avoid soft generalizations prevents us from saying anything useful about a wide range of social institutions, norms, and psychological states. They don't split up neatly into subcategories, because they didn't evolve or develop so neatly. They won't work in a deontic logic unless we allow ourselves soft modals like "may" and "can." And yet, outside of philosophy, much of the humanities involves moral evaluations of just such concepts. For example, a great nineteenth-century novel about marriage does not claim that marriage is always good or bad, or always good or bad under specified conditions. The novel evaluates one or two particular marriages and supports qualified conclusions: marriage (in general) can be a happy estate, but it also has dangers. It is wise, when contemplating a marriage, to consider how events may play out for both partners. "Marriage," of course, means marriage of a specific, culturally-defined type (monogamous, exogamous, heterosexual, voluntary, permanent, patriarchal, and so on). That institution will evolve subtly and may be altered suddenly by changes in laws and norms. The degree to which the implied advice of the novel generalizes is a subtle question which the novel itself may not address.

Much contemporary philosophy has a forensic feel. The goal is to work out definitions and rules that, like good laws, permit the permissible and forbid the evil. I do not doubt the value of forensic thinking--in law. I do doubt that it is adequate for moral thinking. It seems to me that the search for clearly defined and consistent concepts narrows philosophers' attention to discrete controversial actions (abortion, torture, killing one to save another) and discourages their consideration of complex social institutions. It also directs their energy to metaethics, where one can consider questions about moral propositions, rather than "applied" topics, which seem too messy and contingent.

*I am struggling a bit to test my claims about what is central and peripheral, given the enormous quantity of articles and books published every year. If you use the Philosopher's Index (a fairly comprehensive database) to search for words that have been chosen as "descriptors" for books and articles, you will find 2,131 entries on utilitarianism, 445 on Kantianism, and 541 on metaethics; but also 2,121 on love and 351 on marriage. Given what is typically taught in philosophy departments, I was surprised to find a moral topic (love) almost matching a philosophical approach (utilitarianism.) Closer inspection reveals much diversity. There are articles in the Index on classical Indian philosophical writing, and articles on Victorian novels that seem more like literary criticism than philosophy. (The Index encompasses some interdisciplinary journals in the humanities.) There is much contemporary Catholic moral theory that seems to be in conversation mainly with itself. I will stick to my claims about what is most influential, highly valued, and canonical in the profession today, although I acknowledge that people with jobs as philosophers have written about practically everything and in practically all imaginable styles.

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August 15, 2008

erasing the people

IMG_0473On our recent trip to Prague and Český Krumlov, we took lots of photos of places that are mobbed with tourists. Like everyone else, we would often wait until crowds parted a little to snap our pictures, showing either empty spaces or our own family, surrounded by old buildings. Other visitors sometimes politely stopped to allow us to shoot pictures without them in the frame.

All this bothers me a bit. We're erasing one another from our images, creating ghost towns out of crowded old cities and depopulating our natural wonders. It might be interesting to make a photo essay out of the tourists, or at least to write about their behavior in relation to the objects they observe. (I did a bit of that once in Madrid.)

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August 14, 2008

the Obama youth appeal as challenge and opportunity

Here are two recent articles suggesting that Barack Obama's strong appeal to youth may alienate older voters:

These articles ring true to me. They explain and--to some extent--excuse the McCain ads that link Obama to Britney and Paris. The ads that were used against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in 2006 were racist; they stoked white sexual fears by suggesting that a black candidate might have sex with a young white woman. But the McCain ads in this cycle don't sexually link Obama to Britney and Paris; they equate him with those two celebrities. The charge is that he is merely "cool"--attractive, popular, and good on TV--and that he doesn't deserve to be a leader or a role-model. McCain is trying to turn Obama's popularity with hip young people into a liability by invoking legitimate discomfort with our media-obsessed, superficial, pop culture.

But the ads are fundamentally unfair. Obama himself is a very serious guy--not a superficial celeb but an intellectual and a social activist. Moreover, his core young supporters are not superficial and media-obsessed. Something like 15 percent of young Americans voted for him in the primary. (25 percent voted, but some chose another candidate.) We know that they were disproportionately college students, and I suspect they were disproportionately "civic"--experienced with volunteering, political discussions, and membership in voluntary groups.

That means that they were not the young folks who bother Mr. Rutherford by hanging around malls in Lancaster County (PA) and hassling security guards. In fact, young people who are alienated from adult life and hang around malls have little voice in politics and government. They hardly voted in the primaries, and no one is talking about their issues.

The core Obama supporters are unlikely to think much of Paris and Britney. Their tastes in music and entertainment are probably much more socially-conscious, multicultural, and sophisticated. Nor are they disrespectful of authority and tradition. One of the hallmarks of young social activists today is politeness. They are close to their parents and deferential (sometimes to a fault) around people like professors and business leaders.

An opportunity arises for Obama because he offers answers to the problems that bother Mr. Rutherford and other older Americans. First, Obama is not a youth phenomenon. He is an intergenerational figure: a parent and an experienced college teacher and community organizer with roots in churches and service programs. Second, the kinds of programs he most passionately supports are the ones that connect youth to older people. They are antidotes to the problem of teenagers hanging round malls. And third, his moral and spiritual beliefs allow him to criticize the superficial, commercial, and sexist aspects of youth culture with authenticity. (By the way, most of the young people who support him will share that critique.)

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August 13, 2008

communism, in context

Walking along a street in Prague, I overheard an American say loudly, "They all eat lunch at 1 o'clock here. It's because of Communism--the inefficiency still exists." I hadn't realized that getting lunch at 1 made you a commie, but now I'm sure to eat mine before 12:30 pm.

Seriously ... visiting a recently communist country makes you think about the legacies of that system. And it was an awful regime. "The people" never owned the means of production; a few thugs controlled all the valuable stuff and used it for their own benefit. The story of Milada Horáková, a feminist, socialist, and democrat who was judicially murdered by the regime, serves as a fitting summary.

IMG_0365But it's not as if communism was the first authoritarian system in the country. The Nazi occupation lasted from 1939-1945. The Austrian Empire ruled from to 1620 to 1918. Even older and more consistent was feudalism, a system under which serfs were bound to the land and required to give their surplus produce to landlords who were also their political and judicial rulers. Serfdom was abolished in 1781 but its effects lingered. If one wants to feel a glimmer of sympathy for communism, it's worth thinking about the serfs who paid for the State Castle of Český Krumlov and so many other "stately homes." My photo shows only the corridor from the residential quarters to the baroque theater, built over an enormous ravine for the convenience of the resident Eggenberg family. They and their successors owned all this property not because of their creativity and industry, but because their distant ancestors had wielded big swords.

Of course, the solution to feudalism was not communism, but democratic and legal land reform, which the inter-war Czechoslovak government undertook. At that point, the State Castle became a public asset, and a charming one. But it is worth noting that communists were not the first to monopolize power in their own interests.

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August 12, 2008

Charles Franklin on the youth vote

For readers who follow this blog out of an interest in youth voting, a must-read post is Charles Franklin's at Pollster.com. His graphs are illuminating and detailed. He acknowledges that mobilizing young voters in 2004 made a significant difference to their turnout and kept Kerry in the game. But he argues that young voters always vote at such low rates that it is better to campaign to the elderly. Besides, older voters--contrary to their reputation for being set in the ways--actually swing more from Democrats to Republicans, which makes them prime targets for outreach.

To be sure, older voters are prime targets. No one would advise a campaign otherwise. The question is where an extra dollar of campaign money makes the most difference. I would not be surprised if the marginal impact is actually greater among the young. Youth voting rose proportionally in 2004 and made a difference in the campaign. That happened despite very modest levels of investment in youth voting by the Democratic Party and nominee. It's quite plausible that each dollar spent on youth paid off quite nicely. (See our estimates of cost-effectiveness here; although unfortunately we cannot compare impact by age group.)

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August 11, 2008

what Obama could say about the "celebrity" charge

(The following is an imaginary speech by the Democratic nominee): "John McCain has been running ads associating me with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He has been criticized for those ads, but I believe they reflect a deep concern that I share with him.

"Modern celebrity culture is a terrible thing. I can hardly believe that my daughters, growing up two generations after the height of the women's movement, should be exposed to relentless news about someone who happens to be thin, blond, rich, deliberately uneducated past high school, without any apparent interest in a regular job, and who intentionally acts dim and vapid in order to appear attractive. I sometimes feel as if we have slipped 50 years backward.

"And I can hardly believe the appetite for news about Paris and Britney--and now Angelina and Beyonce--when there are wars going on, and the earth's climate is shifting dangerously, and our people are losing jobs and health coverage. Not only are there serious problems to read about; there are also wonderful people doing amazing things to solve our problems. They work together at the grassroots level, leading organizations, cleaning up the environment, mentoring kids, creating art and culture. But these real, active citizens get one thousandth of the attention of a single Hollywood star breakup.

"The celebrity culture is sexualized to a point that threatens anyone who tries to raise children to be responsible and caring human beings. It is superficial and wasteful. It is spiritually bankrupt. It is fundamentally undemocratic in its fascination with heiresses and moguls. It is obsessed with personal behavior, especially sexuality, to the exclusion of social issues and institutions; and it sets ridiculously low standards for personal ethics.

"I recognize that my family and I are in some danger of being sucked into the celebrity culture. By definition, the presidential nominee of a major party is famous. In today's climate, becoming famous means that suddenly the public is interested in our personal lives. I was never a celebrity until I ran for president. It is exciting for us, but also troubling. At some fundamental level, it feels wrong. I know from years of community organizing, college teaching, and working in a legislature that what really matters is not what celebrity gossip is about. Real work is done by serious people working together out of the limelight, not by a few people who have become famous for being rich and sexually active.

"The government cannot ban or censor celebrity culture. It can support local civic engagement, education, and arts as alternatives. And our leaders can speak out against the culture. In this, I would gladly join my Republican opponent."

[I have written before, in my own voice, about celebrity culture and politics, and about Princess Diana as a case study.]

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August 8, 2008

studying discrimination

I've come across a fine small college with this requirement: "The race and ethnic studies requirement assesses the systematic discrimination and exploitation of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans that have figured so critically in the history of this country. This requirement is met by taking one course that focuses primarily on one or more of these four groups in the United States."

I'm glad when students study the history and cultural contributions of minority groups in the United States. I'm not so happy when the lens with which we study their contributions is discrimination and exploitation. The injustice has been very severe (taking the form, indeed, of mass murder as well as mere "discrimination"). But to study a topic like African American literature to satisfy a requirement related to injustice seems to make the authors into victims rather than creators and leaders.

Furthermore, this requirement is somewhat parochial. If the issue is discrimination and exploitation, there are many cases to pick from that lie outside of the borders of the US or that involve class, religion, and ideology rather than race/ethnicity. Probably, however, the motive behind this requirement is what I would call "civic." In other words, graduates of this college are expected to become active members of the United States as a political community (voters, advocates, volunteers); and the college is especially eager that citizens reflect on racial discrimination.

I too want American citizens to understand discrimination. But I also want them to understand voting, alternative forms of civic participation, the rights and powers they have under the Constitution, real and possible political institutions, and mechanisms of social change. Surveys typically find very low levels of such knowledge even among students at selective universities. Thus I'd only support a requirement to study discrimination as part of a civics curriculum if students also had to study democracy, citizenship, and law.

I find myself falling between the ideological stools here. I'm more enthusiastic about racial and ethnic diversity than most conservatives are (although I see such diversity as an asset, not just as a stimulus to guilt). At the same time, I'm less inclined than most campus lefties to emphasize discrimination as the essence of civic education.

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August 7, 2008

the importance of young voters

We study and promote young people's participation because engagement is good for young people and the political system. But it also affects who wins. It turns out that the Gallup poll from last week that showed McCain ahead of Obama included youth as only 10 percent of the sample, when they represented 16-18 percent of voters in 2004. This is because Gallup includes only "likely voters" in its results. Young people are truly less likely to vote, but they are especially unlikely to make it past Gallup's screen for "likely voters," because they cannot say that they have voted in many previous elections.

This is partly an issue of measurement: Gallup probably needs to count more young voters. But it is also relevant to campaign strategy. If young people actually vote at the rate Gallup predicts, McCain is ahead. If they vote at a higher rate, he loses--unless he persuades them to vote for him. Game on.

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August 6, 2008

who should advise the next president about civic engagement?

If the next president were willing to hire one person--and also perhaps an advisory board--to help him to engage citizens, who should that be? Provide your answer in a survey, and the November Fifth Coalition will publicize the results. I think "civic engagement" requires changes in federal law and policy, not just good public relations. Therefore, in my opinion, the presidential adviser should be able to push for changes in election law, federal communications, HUD, No Child Left Behind, and many other legislation and programs.

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August 4, 2008

classrooms never change, part ii

"In mathematics during Hussein's rule, students learned multiplication tables by calculating the casualty count of shooting down four planes with three US pilots in each plane." (Tina Wang, Harvard Educational Review, January 1, 2005)

A 7th Century (AD) exercise for Armenian schoolboys: "In the times when Armenians were fighting the Persians, Zarwen Kamsarakan performed memorable feats of prowess. Attacking the Persian army, he killed half on the first attack…a quarter on the second…and an eleventh on the third. Only 280 Persians survived. How large was the Persian force before he laid them low?" [Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom, quoted in a review by Robin Lane Fox.]

It seems that the math was harder in 7th-century Armenia; and the casualty counts were higher.

(I'm collecting these examples of the remarkable persistence of educational approaches over millennia.)

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an introduction to Prague

Prague from Hradčanská (2)I think few people really enjoy visits to beautiful old places, and they're not helped by most guide books and tours, which just attach dates, artists' names, and styles to the objects on view. Guides also tell anecdotes about events that happened to occur where one is standing. The result is history as one thing after another, which is fundamentally tedious. Much more compelling is some kind of explanation that presents works as intentional efforts to solve problems within their cultural contexts.

I am unqualified to explain Prague in those terms. I don't speak the language, haven't read most of the acknowledged classics of the literature, and have only spent a total of 14 days there. But this is a blog, so qualifications are waived. Here is my brief introduction to the city, based on four of its historical figures and their contexts.

1. Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378)

To imagine the Prague of 1350, think of the high middle ages: of ladies in tall conical hats, troubadours, sophisticated theologians. Also remember plague victims and open sewers; but it's a mistake to think of those times as ignorant and backward (as in Steve Martin's "Theodoric of York" skit). Progress was never linear or uniform; life was probably better in Central Europe in 1350 than in 1640, during the wars of religion. Certainly, the culture was highly sophisticated and developed. Looking out over the city, one can pick out the medieval parts (mixed with some modern imitations) by looking for angular spires, pointed arches, and steep triangular roofs. IMG_0193

Prague became the capital of the whole of central Europe whenever the local monarch was elected Holy Roman Emperor, which happened on several occasions over the centuries. (Its status as an occasional capital helps to explain its magnificence.) When Charles IV was elected, he became the highest figure in the vast hierarchical system called feudalism. Each piece of land was assigned simultaneously to serfs, a local lord, a major lord, often a king, and the emperor; and each of these had different rights and duties. The whole system was circumscribed by law; and the feudal law reflected general principles that could also be discerned in ecclesiastical law, municipal law, and even the rules of chivalry and courtly love. The same way of thinking was also evident in theology, which Charles IV studied at the great university of Paris as a youth. Medieval Europeans loved hierarchies and patterns generated by distinctions and rules; but within each cell of a pattern, they welcomed improvisation and elaboration. A clear illustration is a Gothic church, with its regular pointed arches and windows, each heavily and uniquely decorated. All of this took work: one intentionally brought diversity into order and then embellished the results.

Charles IV personally made Prague a city of greater sophistication, elaboration, and order by founding the university that bears his name and commissioning major works of architecture. To explore his city, one could climb the medieval Jindřišská gate tower and look for other Gothic tours and spires, walk through Old Town Square with the Týn Church and famous clock, visit the university and bridge both named for Charles as their founder, and ascend to the Royal Castle, within which is St. Vitus Cathedral--substantially built under Charles' patronage by a great Gothic master, Peter Parler.

The Cathedral is good place to think about the Czech people and what has defined them, in Charles' day and thereafter. One answer emphasizes the Slavic side. Czechs were originally a group of Slavs not sharply differentiated from other Slavs. (It is the human condition to belong to groups not sharply distinct from others.) Today their language is defined by dictionaries and grammars and is different from Slovak or Polish. In the middle ages, Bohemia was already a province, along with the other Czech province of Moravia. It had a quasi-mythical founding figure, "good" king Wenceslas (Vaclav; pronounced "vatzlav") who was expected to return, like Arthur, to serve his people. Thus Czechs were of the tribe of Vaclav. That was also Charles' given name, before he ascended to the imperial throne, when he became Karel/Karl/Carolus. But the population he ruled included many who spoke German or Yiddish. That remained the case in Bohemia until 1948. Thus another answer is: Czechs were a multi-ethnic people in a melting pot. Charles himself spoke German and Czech along with Latin, French, and Italian (and all five languages have had deep impact in Prague).

2. Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612)

Rudolf held the same offices as Charles, plus others. He was a Hapsburg, thus of German extraction, although he too spoke several languages. The political system he oversaw was still feudal; serfs on huge estates paid for the massive and numerous Renaissance and baroque palaces that crown Hradčany hill. But this was the beginning of the age of absolutism. Although Rudolf was not an absolute monarch like Louis XIV somewhat later on, he had more power and a more effective bureaucracy than Charles IV had possessed at the high point of feudalism.

We are now in the Renaissance, whose definition is the recovery of Greco-Roman culture. At the peak of the Italian Renaissance, the result is simplicity, clarity, and still perfection. A Madonna by Raphael is an idealized woman in a peaceful and transparent three-dimensional space, often framed by classical architecture. But the recovery of ancient civilization also dredged up all kinds of odd and esoteric ideas and practices: magic, religious cults, speculative philosophies, and strange and deliberately distorted works of art. Renaissance Europeans were always interested in the eccentric side of the ancient world, but this interest rose in Rudolf's time and especially in his own circle. He made his court the world's center for occult and cabalistic studies, collected a huge museum of strange objects, and patronized the style of art we call Mannerism. This style deliberately eschewed clarity and perfection and made an issue out of the artist's personal style ("maniera")--the odder the better. Mannerist architects played with the classical rules, using traditional elements of Ionic or Corinthian orders but deliberately turning them backwards or upside-down.

IMG_0270Magic and the occult were not yet distinguished from science. Rudolf brought both Kepler and Brahe to Prague and made it the greatest scientific center of the age. We could see his era as a struggle (not perhaps fully conscious) between the transparent and the secretive, and between classical norms and personal eccentricities.

It would be hard to conduct a walking tour of Rudolf's Prague, since he locked himself in his castle to avoid assassins; and not much other Renaissance architecture survives. Better to look out of the Castle windows at the subjects' houses below. There is also some important Mannerist art in the Sternberg Palace.

Rudolf provides a good opportunity to think about religion. In Charles IV's day, all of Europe north of the Alps was Catholic, with the exception of the Jewish ghettos, of which Prague's was particularly important. But the Protestant Reformation came especially early and strongly to Bohemia, thanks to the influence of the pre-Protestant religious reformer Jan Huss. During Rudolf's reign, as religious wars raged in France and the Low Countries, tensions simmered in Prague. Everyone had to take a side and could easily be burned at the stake for taking the wrong one--unless one were the Emperor. Rudolf seemed neutral or perhaps committed to his own strange and unorthodox beliefs. After he died, religious conflict dominated Central Europe and may have killed 20 percent of the whole population. The Thirty Years War ended with Bohemia under Austrian rule and mandatory Catholicism.

III. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (in Prague 1786-9)

Mozart was not a Czech; he was a German-speaking subject of the Austrian Empire. But he did some of his most important work in Prague and especially liked the city. He is a representative figure from an era in which Prague was a provincial Austrian capital and German was the only official language.

Mozart found a Baroque city. There had been an enormous investment in religious art and architecture as the authorities tried to institutionalize Catholicism after 1648. They naturally commissioned Baroque works, that being the style of the era. Baroque artists were learned in the classical orders, but they changed them to make them dynamic and dramatic. Every surface (pilaster, column, lintel, frieze, and cornice) might be bent and decorated. Buildings were situated for theatrical effect, emerging surprisingly from crowded streets or looming dramatically above. Paintings and statues were likewise situated within and around buildings for dramatic impact.

Baroque is an art of ornament. The real structure of an object is concealed with embellishments. Windows are hidden to allow the light to play mysteriously on painted surfaces. In its final phase, rococo, the ornament becomes the art. Gilt frames break loose from paintings and flow all over walls in abstract, plantlike forms.

Rococo seemed to reflect the artifice and inauthenticity of a culture dominated by feudalism and Catholicism, when the most sophisticated people (such as Mozart) were republicans and free-thinkers. So rococo contended against at least two major alternatives: neoclassicism and romanticism. Mozart dramatically reduced the ornamentation typical in Baroque music; instead, he combined several musical themes in related keys to build ordered and transparent musical structures. Don Giovanni, the transcendent example of his classical style, was first performed at the Neoclassical Estates Theater in Prague.

This was a city, then of Baroque theatrical propaganda versus Enlightenment and Neoclassicism; of absolutist feudalism and revolutionary thinking; of artifice and critique.

IV. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Kafka was an unobservant Jew, a Czechoslovak citizen with a Czech name who spoke German, and a potential victim of the German State if he hadn't died prematurely. He was alienated, skeptical, detached. These are hallmarks of modernism, of which Prague was a major center. It was the only place in the world where Cubist buildings were constructed (see Josef Gočár's Cubist House of the Black Madonna with Gothic spires in the distance); and it was the seedbed of literary theory. IMG_0278

One could contrast Kafka to the highly talented and abidingly popular Czech artist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). Mucha was a Czech nationalist and a Slavophile (although not at all antisemitic). He thought that the Czech people had an essential character that could be celebrated in art. The way to celebrate it was to illustrate dramatic episodes of Czech history in a realistic yet idealized style. His illustrations decorate, for example, the Municipal House, a shrine to Czech culture and language that was deliberately built at the head of Na Prikope street--am Graben to Kafka--which was the center of Prague's German-speaking cafe and theatrical life. In contrast to Mucha, Kafka didn't fit in, didn't believe in the essential character of any nation, couldn't complete any public project, and didn't think that he could or should tell straightforward stories. I emphasize the negative, but of course he invented some of the greatest stories of our age.

A day devoted to Kafka might begin with the old Jewish synagogues, because he was interested in his heritage and the Prague-Jewish traditions of Cabala. It is then possible to see some of his old cafes, plus many important Cubist and other modernist buildings. There is even the world's only Cubist lamppost on Wenceslas Square.

Reading the City

A final photo posted below shows a Gothic arch from the Middle Ages still embedded in a house that was given a Baroque facade in the eighteenth century, behind a modern commercial sign in the new international language of English, and a guy on a cell phone. This is Prague, endlessly fun to interpret if one begins to learn its codes.


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