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October 31, 2008

me, briefly, on CNN

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October 30, 2008

media bias and election outcomes

The conservative world is abuzz with the idea that liberal news media are either hurting McCain or making his polling results look worse than his real support in the public. I know plenty of liberals who believe that the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News accounts for conservative electoral victories after 1992. These two claims don't cancel out; one or both could be true. But a full statistical model of election outcomes would have to factor in at least:

a. The fit between candidates' positions and public opinion
b. The candidates as communicators/symbols
c. Strategic and tactical political decisions by campaigns
d. Grassroots activity by citizens
e. Campaign finance
f. Changes in the real economic and social circumstances of voters before the election
g. The real performance of the incumbent administration
h. Media bias

I can imagine that (h) would account for some of the variance in election results. But I don't think it can explain too much, because there is a lot of evidence about the importance of (f). Specifically, changes in inflation-adjusted, disposable household income before an election remarkably predict whether the "in" or "out" party wins. And people know their own income; they don't need the media to tell them.

We should wish that (a), (d), and (g) would explain most of the variance in election results. Those are the democratic inputs. Political reforms should maximize the importance of these factors. (H) is unfortunate, but I doubt it's very important once the other factors are considered.

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October 29, 2008

a new progressive era?

A reporter asked me yesterday whether a hypothetical Obama victory might mark the beginning of a "new progressive era" (which happens to be the title of my 2000 book). It occurs to me that, yes, we might see a new progressive era, as long as we understand that phrase in a certain way.

In my view, the original Progressive Era was not defined by one agenda or set of policies, such as the launch of new federal regulatory agencies. It was defined by some very vigorous debates among people who called themselves progressives but had quite different orientations. They all agreed about some problems, such as the human suffering and environmental degradation that accompanied industrialization. But they disagreed profoundly about such essential matters as the role of expertise versus citizen participation; the conflict between centralized and local power; the value of cultural pluralism as opposed to some kind of unified natural culture; the organization and methods of the press; and the proper role of "special interests" (including unions, parties, and ethic associations) versus nonpartisan "public interest" associations such as the League of Women Voters. People who called themselves "progressives" could actually take diametrically opposite positions on these issues.

So a New Progressive Era would mean a reopening of such debates among people who were generally dissatisfied with the performance of the market but who disagreed about other important matters. Like their Progressive forebears, they would have to invent or develop new institutions and modes of social organization appropriate to a new economy. In general, these new institutions should be flatter and more open than the bureaucracies of the mid-20th century.

It's my sense--perhaps it's only my hope--that Barack Obama would stand on the side of his Midwestern Progressive forebears, people like Jane Addams and Robert LaFollette, as opposed to the technocrats of the Progressive Era (most of whom happened to be Easterners). One could trace a lineage from Addams to Obama, two organizers of Chicago neighborhoods, although obviously Obama has had many other influences.

I thought that the central questions of the Progressive Era figured in the primary campaign between Obama and Clinton. Obama took the populist side when he expressed skepticism about a national health system and when he argued that it was the grassroots Civil Rights Movement that had achieved voting rights in the 1960s, from the bottom up. Clinton, in contrast, had tried to create a complex, expert-driven, national health-care system in the 1990s. She dropped that goal only for pragmatic reasons. In debating the Civil Rights Era with Obama, she argued that professional politicians had played an essential role. Neither position is obviously wrong; but I found the difference interesting.

In the 1912 presidential campaign, the progressives were Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert M. LaFollette. All three went on the record decrying centralization, arrogant professionalism, bureaucracy, and the loss of neigbourly community. But Wilson's administration (1913-1921) permanently increased the power of experts and bureaucrats in Washington. LaFollette criticized this trend from the Senate, but he had lost the presidential campaign, and his own home state of Wisconsin drifted in a technocratic direction while he worked in Washington. We never had the opportunity to see what a Midwestern populist pluralist would do if he actually won the White House.

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October 28, 2008

"where is democracy headed?"

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium recently published a report by this name that summarizes what we know about practical deliberative democracy--processes that convene representative citizens to develop policies or strategies to address public issues. The report had an unusual origin. Lars Hasselblad Torres and I organized a wiki (a shared online document) to allow several dozen authors to work on the report together. We enriched the text by interviewing about 20 people and pasting their responses as quotes into the wiki. Finally, we edited and reorganized the whole document for publication. So it's a deliberative document about deliberation. I don't think the PDF is online yet, but we are doing a webinar to summarize the findings later today (1 pm Eastern), and you can still sign up for it.

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October 27, 2008

the youth vote story

This is a good story from Al Jazeera yesterday.

I'm the dour-looking egghead near the end. (I find this format difficult. You sit waiting in a dark room, facing only an unmanned camera, with a picture of the city behind you. You listen to some technical talk on a headset, and then hear some of the news story. Almost without warning, a question pops into your ear from someone you can't see. It doesn't bring out my smiley side.)

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October 24, 2008

where were our business schools?

There's some blogospheric talk about the failure of economics (the academic discipline) to predict, explain, or help to remedy the current financial crisis. Economists are being blamed for using mathematically complex but empirically ungrounded models instead of studying things that matter. They have, for example, little to say about whether it's wise to inject public money into banks during liquidity crises.

Economics probably is excessively theoretical and too enamored of complicated math instead of observation and application. But at least economics contributes powerful methods and theoretical models, some of which turn out to be useful (or at least provocative) across the social sciences. For instance, even though Don Green has shown that game theory is incompatible with empirical facts, it remains a powerful and insightful conceptual scheme. So it wouldn't be the worst thing if economics departments were irrelevant in times of crisis--as long as they were great centers of theoretical inquiry.

The most obvious place where professors should study public issues related to business is not the econ. department--it's the business school. Businesses can pay for their own training. Yet we subsidize business schools and provide a whole structure of benefits and protections, such as tenure, for their faculty. Why? I can only think of three rationales:

1. To equip disadvantaged students with skills that make them more competitive in the job market;
2. To give their graduates some kind of ethical orientation or concern with the public interest; and
3. To provide citizens, policymakers, and consumers (overlapping groups) with reliable and independent--and sometimes critical--insights about business.

I'm not sure how well business schools are doing with #1 or #2. They certainly seem to have failed with #3. Last year, if business school professors were having serious discussions and conducting research on the roots of today's crisis, they failed to share the results in a timely or prominent way.

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October 23, 2008

what difference will the '08 youth turnout make?

All the leading indicators suggest that youth turnout will reach about 50%--or maybe a little higher--which will come close to the record set in 1972. From a nonpartisan point of view, that's a good thing because it means that more young people are interested and involved, which benefits them and society. Voting is a form of expression and it correlates with other forms of engagement, such as volunteering and following the news.

Of course, 50% is the proverbial glass that's half-full and half-empty. We will still have a long way to go to match the youth turnout rates that are standard in other democracies. There will probably be 20-point voting gap between young people who have college experience and those who don't--a clear equity problem.

From a partisan perspective, the higher the youth turnout, the better for Barack Obama. But Obama is currently far enough ahead that he wins under any plausible youth turnout scenario from most pessimistic to the most optimistic. This chart, from Gallup, shows the proportion of all voters who would be young, given various turnout scenarios, and what that would mean for the results of the election:

Obama wins under all these scenarios. But if the national race tightens by about 4 points, then the difference between Gallup's lowest and highest youth turnout estimate will be the difference between President Obama and President McCain. (Or more precisely, it will determine who wins the popular vote.)

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October 22, 2008

turnout data from CIRCLE

We will release estimates of young people's voter turnout early on November 5th. Meanwhile, we have released a final fact sheet with historical turnout stats; a map of turnout trends in each of the states; detailed fact sheets about selected states that we expect to be newsworthy, and a fact sheet that shows which voting laws are in place in each state and how those laws affect youth voters. Finally, the earliest of returns from states like North Carolina (based on people who have voted already) show high youth participation.

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October 21, 2008

at Google

I happen to be in a meeting at the Google headquarters in DC. The place is hip and techie enough that I feel moved to try a little live-blogging, but without quoting or citing any individuals. So...

2:26: Picture an ordinary office building not far from the White House. The interior space has--I suppose deliberately--been left largely unfinished. There are heating ducts everywhere, simply wrapped in foil. There are also a half-dozen large hanging monitors in view, plastic blocks for playing with, and free soft drinks in an open kitchen. Most of the people in room have federal grants for service projects in schools, colleges, or nonprofits. One could imagine a bit of a cultural gap between the audience and the space we're in, although I don't know my peers well enough to guess how they feel. Right now, we are listening to a presentation about Google for Non-Profits. The speaker is wearing a YouTube fleece.

2:32: Just heard about Google's election page, which seems fairly cool overall and has a nice feature that tells you where to vote.

2:45: The Google guy is telling us about how Google Maps can be used to organize a neighborhood cleanup. The Google corporation itself has done that, enlisting its own employees. It interests me that cleaning parks is the inevitable example of a service or volunteering project. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, cleanups are limited because they are episodic, completely noncontroversial, and not very educational. On the other hand, litter in public spaces is a classic collective-action problem, and it is interesting to find new ways to address such problems.

2:52: We're getting a dose of advertising for Google's various software offerings. No complaints from me, but I just wonder whether my peers--community-organizers and activists--like this or not. Twenty years ago, they would have been reflexively anti-corporate.

3:15: OK, that's enough. I'm not sure I'm a live-blogging kind of person.

P.S. Later on I figured out the iconography of the Google office design. All the wiring and pipes have been left exposed. Transparency--get it?

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October 20, 2008

the politics of Wind in the Willows

I recently read Kenneth Grahame's classic to my 9-year-old. As you may remember, Toad is the heir to the local manor and fortune and the one character in the neighborhood with an advanced education. He begins as an awful person--arrogant, selfish, pretentious, wasteful, lazy, and a menace on the road. He takes some hard knocks and finally learns to be a good squire. His transformation is shown by two major signs: his behavior at a banquet in his own Hall, and his friendships. Whereas in the bad old days Toad used to make risibly arrogant speeches at dinner parties, the new Toad, "by pressing delicacies on his guests, by topical small talk, and by earnest inquiries after members of their families not yet old enough to appear at social functions, managed to convey that this dinner was being run on strictly conventional lines." Meanwhile, he shows genuine respect and admiration for his three main friends--the acknowledged best of whom, Mr Badger, speaks with a notably uneducated accent and dresses roughly.

(As for Toad's friend Mole--he is a wonderful caricature of a provincial middle-class suburbanite. "On the walls [of his garden] hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary--Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy.")

This is a conservative vision. No one gains any rights vis-à-vis Mr. Toad. He is not compelled to act better, nor to renounce any of his wealth or prestige. He isn't (for example) taxed to fund better education for the myriad little rabbits who live in the Wild Wood. Instead, he helps to restore the ancient social equilibrium by acting responsibly and generously and thereby winning the respect of the neighborhood.

It's not my ideal. I'm glad the real Mr. Toads of England had to pay inheritance taxes, and the real Moles and Rats got subsidized access to higher education. But The Wind in the Willows has a moral core as well as charm. In our era of billionaire celebrity heiresses, we could do worse.

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October 17, 2008

the stages of fame

According to the Washington Post' obituary of John R. Reilly, he was a classic Washington player who--among many other roles--held the switch to turn off the microphones at the great 1963 March on Washington if he decided that things had gotten too incendiary. He was ready to drown out Martin Luther King or A. Phillip Randolph with Mahalia Jackson's version of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Mr. Reilly also lobbied and advised national Democratic leaders from 1968 through 1992. Patricia Sullivan writes:

I had heard this story second-hand and retold it on my blog in 2004. The irony is, I didn't know who Mr. Reilly was when I wrote that post. I only learned his full name and biography when he died. I guess that proves that he had reached the fourth stage of notoriety--or (more accurately) of fame and respect.

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October 16, 2008

Democracy 2.0

Mobilize.org--an organization of some 35,000 young Americans, founded and led by talented Millennials (who happen to be friends of mine)--has released its Democracy 2.0 report. They wrote it collaboratively and deliberatively--much in keeping with their philosophy of democracy.

They depict themselves as a generation that is tech-savvy, tolerant, and educated, but also sometimes lazy, selfish, and image-conscious. I'd say they understand college-educated Millennials but don't describe the one third of their cohort who drop out before completing high school, or their many peers who are quite baffled and intimidated by technology.

They are enthusiastic about democratic, deliberative, and participatory processes such as youth commissions. They call themselves "all partisan" and are notably non-ideological, in traditional terms. They decry the bad performance of government in cases like Katrina, but overall do not come across as angry or cynical.

It's kind of fun to compare Democracy 2.0 to another statement written by young people who had a strong sense of generational identity:

Maybe we could call the Port Huron Statement "Democracy 1.5." These two documents are similar, although there is much more angst in the former statement, and more ambivalence about technology. The Port Huron Statement mainly decries technology for putting people out of work, although the authors do see some potential: "How should technological advances be introduced into a society? By a public process, based on publicly-determined needs. Technological innovations should not be postponed from social use by private corporations in order to protect investment in older equipment."

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October 15, 2008

from the Vita Nuova of Dante

Here is a poem from Dante's Vita Nuova (xix, 31-36). I originally translated it for my book-in-progress that I'm calling Ethics from Fiction: Philosophy and Literature in Dante and Modern Times. I recently deleted this particular poem from the manuscript because I decided it was a digression. I don't actually like it all that much, and I'm not sure that Dante did, either. Ever since Mark Musa's Dante’s Vita Nuova: A Translation and an Essay (Bloomington, 1973), some have interpreted the Vita Nuova as Dante's self-critique. His main problem is that he doesn't know the object of his love poems, Beatrice, so his poems are self-indulgent. Here he uses the theme of the "Lady Passes" to praise a woman who is a distant figure him:

My lady is desired in highest heaven
And I want you to discern her virtue too.
If you’d seem a noble lady, I say: Go,
Walk with her as she passes through the streets,
For into villainous hearts Love drives ice,
And all thoughts freeze until they perish;
And anyone who dares remain and watch
Must become a noble thing, or else he dies.

It is better in Italian--click below.

Madonna è disiata in sommo cielo:
or voi di sua virtù farvi savere.
Dico, qual vuol gentil donna parere
vada con lei, che quando va per via,
gitta nei cor villani Amore un gelo
per che onne lor pensero agghiaccia e pere;
e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere
diverria nobil cosa, o si morria.

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October 14, 2008

Washington memories

I spent this morning in DC (speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center) and was back in my new home of Boston by mid-afternoon. It was a two metro-system day. DC is where I lived from age 22 until last July, and it's where I experienced most of the "transition to adulthood": my last graduation, first full-time job, first apartment, first mortgage, first publications, marriage, kids, and even one kid's graduation from high school. Needless to say, it is full of nostalgia for me. Here are some of today's experiences that triggered memories: fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, African American voices and faces (relatively very scarce in Middlesex County, MA), the "Style" section of the Washington Post, Southern accents, huge expanses of sidewalk, knots of people in suits with government ID's hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, the Metro coasting quietly between stations, and commuters on their way from places I have been--exurban subdivisions in Loudoun County, million-dollar cottages in Chevy Chase, condos in Silver Spring, and row houses in Shaw.

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October 13, 2008

celebrity politics

My blog posts (one and two) about celebrity politics--written before the 2008 election season began--caught the attention of USA Today writer Maria Puente, who quotes me in an article that starts, "Sometimes you have to wonder if the presidential candidates are running to be First Celebrity — or maybe Entertainer of the Year." She writes:

(I'm on a roll with USA Today. Last week, I was quoted in Jill Lawrence's cover story on young voters.)

*I actually meant Obama's education plan, which was released on the same day as the lipstick-on-pig flap. But the point holds either way.

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October 10, 2008

top ten things you can't say if you're running for president

10. The Iranians will probably obtain nuclear weapons, but deterrence (Mutually Assured Destruction) will probably prevent them from using them.

9. It would be great to close down certain large federal programs, such as Agriculture and Commerce, but even to hint at such an idea would cost me the election.

8. In the Senate, I voted for many provisions that I disagreed with--and for some that were totally indefensible--because they were packaged into bills that I thought were worth passing. This will continue to happen in my administration.

7. The differences in the economic proposals of my campaign and my opponent's represent, at the most, just a few percent of GDP.

6. If you put no money down on a house and then lost it because you couldn't make the payments, you didn't lose any investment. You're just like a renter who had to miss rental payments or move because the landlord raised the rent. But I'm not going to equate renters with owners because home-ownership is sacred.

5. Osama bin Laden will probably die of natural causes. If we find him, it will not be attributable to anything I do as president.

4. Since the mean income for a small-business owner is almost $250,000 per year, lots of them are white-collar professionals and yuppies, and taxing them is a good way to reduce the deficit.

3. The following things just don't work: criminal penalties for marijuana possession; abstinence education; handgun bans.

2. Israel is a foreign country with a powerful military and interests that sometimes diverge from ours; and its two leading political parties are deeply flawed.

1. I have no idea what's going to happen in the financial markets over the next year.

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October 9, 2008

how many social networks?

For practical reasons related to my work, I have recently joined two social networks that function roughly like MySpace or Facebook: The Five Freedoms Project Network and TakingITGlobal. A third such network is Puget Sound Off. I wouldn't join this youth site, but I have an official advisory role to Puget Sound Off and spent a few days last week visiting its organizers. And then there's always my regular old Facebook page.

Joining lots of social networks is a bit of a drag. For instance, I have my various passwords saved in one place and don't always have ready access to them. And every time someone pings me through one of these networks, I have to log on. I wondered why these other groups couldn't just use Facebook or MySpace (or both)--as we intend to do when we build a network for college-student volunteers and activists in the Boston area. The answer seems to be that there are quite a few practical barriers to doing political or civic organizing within the major proprietary social networking sites. It can be expensive to build applications for these sites, and the owners can change their policies or even shut you down.

I'm one who tends to defend corporate products that function openly or democratically. The fact that they are privately owned and profitable doesn't turn me off--in fact, I'm glad for the investment. But there seems to be a question about whether the really big commercial social networking sites are sufficiently open to support democratic activism.

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October 8, 2008


I am grateful that my job pays me to crisscross the country listening to Americans talk about politics, social issues, service, and the news. Since the beginning of last week, I have heard more than 200 different people talk about these topics--in a meeting room at the University of Washington, Seattle restaurants, a classroom at Tufts University in Massachusetts, an airport hotel conference room near Baltimore, and a focus group space in downtown Baltimore. Here are some of the faces and voices that I recall ...

A middle-aged white man in a checked shirt and glasses, with a James Stewart drawl, who is trying to organize discussions in his Kansas town of 750 about how to stem population-loss. An African American Baltimore mother, about 20 years old, who--after saying that she doesn't do anything related to politics, volunteering, activism, or "giving back"--adds that she once "made a difference" to someone else. Her own childhood was scarred by drug abuse, but she found a younger person in the same plight and took in her in, "even though we just have one room to live in." A distinguished professor defending his provocative thesis about citizenship in a room full of people whose open laptops are bedecked with bumper stickers about "free culture" and Obama '08. A young Baltimore woman who says she wouldn't ever vote because of the risk of jury duty; but she did once help to build a Kingdom Hall. A New Orleans community organizer who complains that public discussions of land-use and zoning issues suppress the topic of unions and other mechanisms for raising incomes. A Latino community organizer (one of two Hispanics among all the people I'd met) who pleads for other Latinos to be included in future discussions. A Tufts undergraduate who explains that she understands the financial crisis (better than I do) because her father took hours to explain it to her.

Say what you will--it's a most remarkable country. I can report savage gaps and terrible wastes of human gifts; yet people of every kind want to make things better.

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October 7, 2008

what to do with sixty votes

(Baltimore) FiveThirtyEight says that there's just over a 20% chance that the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the Senate. If that happens, it's pretty much guaranteed that Barack Obama will be the next president and Nancy Pelosi will be Speaker. It's an unlikely scenario, but an interesting one to think about.

If the Democrats have 60 Senators, I'd like to see the president and the congressional leadership gather privately, develop a major economic reform bill, and then jam it through Congress on the first week of the session. That's not deliberative, but I've never been a zealot for deliberation. Our system has plenty of checks to prevent rapid change. At their best, these checks promote "the mild voice of reason" by requiring discussion before the government can act. At their worst, they frustrate popular change and make policies muddy and confused, so that no one can evaluate what the government is trying to do. A clear-cut, dramatic shift in policy might actually help to broaden the public discussion and make politics appear more tractable. In any event, I'd support dramatic reform if it was fair and wise. Some elements might include:

None of these reforms would empower citizens politically or embody the November Fifth Coalition philosophy that "we [citizens] are all the change we need." They are top-down, national policies. I guess when it comes down to it, I'd claim that there are crucial tasks--such as educating the next generation--that must be done by citizens and communities in partnership with the government. But there are other crucial tasks, such as stimulating the economy and making it more fair, that only Washington can lead.

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October 6, 2008

youth engaged from coast to coast

(on the way to Baltimore) I spent the weekend in Seattle learning about youth media projects there. I flew back home (near Boston), and am now heading down to Baltimore for two purposes: to meet the Case Foundation's grantees in their Make it Your Own competition (which we are evaluating) and to participate in a CIRCLE focus group of young Baltimore adults who have never attended college. The latter is part of a much more ambitious project to talk to young working class adults across America. If you ask them whether they engage in traditional forms of politics, such as voting, most say "no"--but we are looking for alternative forms of politics and social activism that do engage them.

Meanwhile, here's a souvenir from Seattle. The young woman who speaks at the beginning of this excellent video was one of the high school students I met over the weekend. She is involved with Reel Grrls, a Seattle organization that teaches teenagers to make social and political media. At the same time that this video attacks the consolidation of corporate media, it also embodies an alternative.

We need to think about how programs like Reel Grrls can become much larger and more common. (Today they are tiny boutique programs for self-selected leaders in progressive communities.) Youth media production could be incorporated more widely into school curricula, or funded as part the national and community service programs, or supported by universities, public broadcasting stations, or municipal governments.

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October 3, 2008

the meaning of American democracy in a time of crisis

(posted in Seattle)

The Division of United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Taube Philanthropies invite you to attend the first in the Taube Discussion Series on American Values. Speakers:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008, 9:30-11:30 a.m. (Continental breakfast available at 9:00 a.m.)

6th floor Flom Auditorium, Woodrow Wilson Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, DC Directions are available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/directionsPlease allow extra time for security; a picture ID is required. This is a free public event, but RSVPs are required. Please respond with acceptances only.

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October 2, 2008

civic learning online

I'm heading out to Seattle this evening for a conference at the University of Washington's Center for Communication and Civic Engagement. The topic is how youth can use the new digital media to learn active citizenship. The Center has a separate site on that topic and some practical work underway that I'll learn more about when I arrive out there. Several of the other participants are bloggers--at least Allison Fine, Howard Rheingold, and Eszter Hargittai. There is also a good project blog, Engaged Youth, to which we'll all be contributing.

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October 1, 2008

nationalism as the enlargement of human sympathy

I finished Bleak House last night. It's such an enormous and complex novel that one could talk or write about it forever. But I have a job. So I'll just offer one thought about Dickens' moral imagination.

I read Bleak House as nationalistic. Of the many dozens of characters, I believe only one is foreign: the French maid Hortense. She is completely wicked and a Francophobe caricature with her ridiculous accent and irrational passions. A more important character, Mrs Jellyby, foolishly engages in charity work overseas while neglecting her own English household and community. In the end, she is "disappointed in Borrioboola-Gha, which [turns] out a failure in consequence of the king of Borrioboola wanting to sell everybody--who survived the climate--for rum." The model of British manhood, Allan Woodcourt, is forced by economic necessity to travel abroad, where he experiences a "terrible shipwreck over in those East Indian seas." He plays the hero in this crisis and "saves many lives"--presumably British lives.

This drawing of boundaries and discounting of outsiders is unappealing. But Dickens may also be skeptical about the wisdom of trying to help people whom one doesn't know. (This is Esther Summerson's explicit view, and she is the moral center of the novel.) The nationalism of the novel is not by any means imperialistic. It is isolationist, and perhaps driven by modesty.

Besides, the drawing of boundaries can mean an enlargement rather than a restriction of one's moral commitments. Bleak House dramatizes the interconnections among British people. One could cite literally hundreds of examples, but one stark one [warning: plot spoiler coming] is the death of Lady Dedlock. She has been the most fashionable and elegant aristocrat in the land, but she expires in a pauper's graveyard dressed in the clothes of a peasant whose baby had died from preventable disease. Her body is literally mistaken for that of someone at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The leading idea of the novel is that all British subjects are one family and they must take care of one another. This is nationalism as mutual responsibility. It's not a state-centered nationalism that favors political leaders or big bureaucratic programs. In fact, Bleak House seems disturbingly cynical about Parliament and the government as possible sources of reform. Instead, the ideology (if there is a single ideology in this polyphonic book) is one of non-fundamentalist Christian solidarity. That's not my favorite ideal for our times--but we'd be better off if we had it.

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