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May 29, 2009

Project Vote Smart

I'm two and a half hours southeast (I think) of Missoula, Montana, amid dramatic alpine mountains, getting ready for a meeting with the good folks at Project Vote Smart. This is where scores of college interns come every summer to crunch data about American politicians and enjoy the fishing, hiking, and the black bears, one of whom ran across the property earlier today.

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May 28, 2009

hard-wired political traits

Nicholas Kristof in today's New York Times:

These are depressing findings. We believe we are reasoning about Judge Sotomayor's judicial opinions--or at least about the relevance of ethnicity and gender to a judicial appointment--when all that really matters is our visceral reaction to authority figures and sharing drinks. This research reminds me of the application of birth-order theory to politics. Supposedly, first-borns are conservative; younger siblings are more radical. That's another example of a basically immutable trait that shouldn't have any relevance to our political views, but that seems to affect them.

But such theories have two huge limitations. First, they do not explain historical change. Maybe the French revolutionaries of 1789 were more comfortable than their royalist opponents were with slapping their fathers in jest and sharing glasses. But there are always people with these traits. So we need an entirely different explanation for why the French Revolution happened in 1789 instead of 1750--or never. We also need a different kind of explanation for why the Revolution took the course that it did. Immutable traits won't explain change, unless the distribution of those traits shifts, which would itself require an explanation.

Second, these theories don't explain the content of our political views. Today, liberals tend to favor legal gay marriage, and conservatives tend to oppose it. Fifty years ago, liberals tended to favor racial intermarriage, the opponents of which tended to be conservatives. The psychology of this debate may have remained the same over the fifty years. That is, opponents of "miscegenation" in 1950 might have had the same attitudes toward sharing glasses of water that opponents of gay marriage do today. But it makes an enormous difference that interracial marriage is now a settled issue--as gay marriage will likely be in another 20 years.

I am open to the possibility that immutable and non-rational traits help determine who takes which side in political debates at any given time. But what the two sides believe and who wins the debate must be determined by other factors. We should hope that the strength of arguments is one of the factors that counts.

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May 27, 2009

with the League of Women Voters

I'm speaking tonight at an annual meeting of the League of Women Voters in Winchester, MA. I have actually been a member of the League (which doesn't discriminate by gender) since I was in my twenties. I was then working for Common Cause--frequently a coalition partner of the League--and writing a book about the Progressive Era. I love the fact that the League was launched by suffragists at the end of the Progressive Era, just when they were sure that the 19th Amendment would pass and women would be able to vote. Their immediate response was that women should vote well, which would take work. Note the combination of equality (votes for women as well as for men) and quality (voting after talking and learning). That remains the essential combination. I also appreciate the combination of governmental reform and grassroots civic action.

The Winchester chapter has asked me to talk about generational issues. The rising generation offers a lot of promise for American democracy and shares some traits with the generation that launched the League in 1920. (Idealism, enthusiasm for consensus and deliberation, and some leeriness about political parties.) It is a different question whether the new generation will choose to populate and sustain the League itself. I don't have an answer to that, but I hope to discuss it.

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May 26, 2009

express your views on transparency in the federal government

The White House has created a platform for public discussion of "how to make our government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative." The process is in its first stage, "brainstorming," and you are invited to participate here.
I have posted my own idea about engaging young Americans and an idea about "public work." I would certainly welcome anyone to click through to my ideas, comment on them, and consider voting for them. [Added later: a mini-idea about deliberations on public holidays.]

Meanwhile, AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, and Demos have been organizing discussions of the same topic involving (among others) senior civil servants. AmericaSpeaks has posted their seven top ideas on the White House site and is encouraging visitors to support those proposals and to comment on them. Entering through the AmericaSpeaks page guides you to those strong proposals. (For full disclosure: I serve on the boards of AmericaSpeaks and Everyday Democracy.)

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May 25, 2009

a college curriculum defined by active citizenship

This is a complete list of the departments and subject areas that would be offered at an imaginary college. The idea is to provide all the most important fields of study that people need if they want to sustain and improve a community to which they belong. (That's my definition of "citizenship." The community can be anything from a small religious congregation to the earth.) Each student would major in one of the first four departments. There would be mandatory courses in all seven.

Department of Ethical Reasoning
Courses in moral philosophy, normative political and social theory, literary criticism and history (with emphasis on ethical analysis), religious ethics

Department of Cultural Interpretation
Courses in cultural history, literary criticism, cultural anthropology, history of art, musicology

Department of Institutional Analysis
Courses in economics (markets as institutions), political science, public law, institutional history, organizational sociology, social psychology, and abstract methods of analysis such as game theory and network theory

Department of Policy
General courses in policy analysis and focused courses on international relations, education, environment, health, etc.

Office of Community Partnerships and Placements
Providing an array of internships, research, and service opportunities; also, courses about the local community based on accumulated research by students

Department of Methods and Tools
Courses in statistics, psychometrics, foreign languages, qualitative research, accounting, evaluation methods, rhetoric (written and spoken), and pedagogy.

Department of Natural Context
Courses in environmental sciences, cognitive science, human development, and health, all taught with relevance to questions of active citizenship

I do not believe that this civic focus is the only valuable one. If all colleges and universities adopted this model, the natural sciences, aesthetic values, and such abstract fields as mathematics and metaphysics would become too marginal. I dissent from the instrumental pragmatism of reformers like Mark C. Taylor, who wants to focus all education on addressing "important problems."

On the other hand, I admire coherent educational programs--both for individuals and for whole communities of scholars and students. No student can learn everything; breadth degenerates into superficiality. A large university can offer practically every field of study in some depth, but then there is no common set of issues and values for everyone to debate. "Great books" colleges, religious programs, experiential curricula, and Mark Taylor's "zones of inquiry" are worthy examples of attempts to bring some coherence and focus to undergraduate education. We badly need more experimentation and more diverse models, and this "civics" curriculum seems a promising one to add to the mix.

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May 22, 2009

Pople Benedict on pluralism

According the Ethan Bronner in The New York Times, "On Sunday in Jordan the pope argued that Christians had a role here in reconciliation, that their very presence eased the strife, and that the decline of that presence could help to increase extremism. When the mix of beliefs and lifestyles goes down, orthodoxy rises, he implied, as does uniformity of the cultural landscape in a region where tolerance is not an outstanding virtue."

If this is true, it's a great argument in favor of Muslim immigration into Europe and for the importance of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs on that continent. I wonder how many people who take their cues from Benedict on cultural issues will recognize that implication.

(By the way, the conclusion that Bonner identifies is more implicit than explicit in the speeches of Benedict that I could find online, e.g., this one and this one.)

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May 21, 2009

Leo Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche

One advantage of a blog is the opportunity to rebut. I recently came across the following passage in Catherine H. Zuckert, Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (2006). (Strauss, by the way, was a highly influential and interesting emigré political theorist, several of whose followers played significant roles in the Bush Administration.)

Trying to maintain a civil tone, I will say:

1. In my book, I fully acknowledge Leo Strauss' explicit critique of Nietzsche, Heidegger, historicism, and nihilism. That is how I begin my section on Strauss.

2. I quote Strauss' essay on Nietzsche not to assert that Strauss was endorsing the views he attributed to Nietszche, but in order to show that Strauss considered Nietzsche a historicist. There are many other interpretations of Nietzsche, and I wanted to show that this was the Nietzsche whom Strauss had in mind.

3. My argument that Strauss actually held the views he attributed to Nietzsche is not based on the assertion that he rejected those views but was "obviously" an esoteric author. The key evidence is "his deployment of devices he finds in or attributes to the writers he identifies as esoteric." That last sentence is quoted from Zuckert--from the paragraph in which she describes "much better attempts" than mine to read Strauss as esoteric. But the method she accepts is precisely the one I employ. I show, for example (pp. 263-4), that key nihilist quotations, ostensibly rejected by Strauss, appear in the precise centers of his own texts without rebuttal--a technique that he attributes to other authors who are esoteric. One of those authors is Nietzsche. Strauss argues--and I agree--that Nietzsche used esoteric writing techniques such as numerology. Those are the same techniques that we find in Strauss.

4. My point about Plato is not that Strauss rejected Platonic idealism. So do most authors, including myself. My point is about Straussian hermeneutics. I write, "Strauss says that Plato cannot have been serious about the doctrine of Forms, which is 'utterly incredible, not to say ... fantastic.'" Aristotle certainly disagreed with the Platonic theory of Forms, but he did not claim that "the Republic was actually a veiled warning against the tyranny of Socratic men." That claim of irony or duplicity is Strauss's and is hardly orthodox.

My reading of Strauss was not especially original and probably was clumsy. When I read that section now, it strikes me as poorly organized. Some of the key evidence is buried in footnotes. But there was much more to it than Zuckert noticed, understood, or was willing to acknowledge.

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May 20, 2009

a darker As You Like It

Celia and Rosalind are about to hide in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind will receive silly, lovesick poems, tease her besotted admirer, and arrange rustics' marriages in disguise. It will all be very merry under the greenwood tree, which makes As You Like It a perennial choice for high school productions.

Except that painting one's face black and going into the forest or common land was a traditional mode of peasant revolt, later specifically made a capital offense by the Black Act of 1723. There was also an old tradition of peasant women leading rebellions dressed as men. Maid Marion, the mythic model, had real imitators, such as the "troop of lewd women" who blocked the enclosure of Rockingham Forest in 1602. To these two traditional modes of insurrection--black-face and cross-dressing--could be added poaching deer (a way of punishing gentry who had evicted tenants to create deer parks), wearing antlers, and marching through the forest making deliberately cocaphanous music as a threat.* Exactly that combination is enacted in Arden, where Jaques associates it with ancestral traditions:

Wearing the horn was not a thing to laugh at, because it could precede violence. Peasant violence had occurred as recently as 1596, a famine year. (As You Like It was probably written in 1599-1600.) The Queen's own Privy Council acknowledged that the "raysing of the prices of graine" had driven the poor "to very great myserie and extermitie." Some of the poor believed that the cause of these rising prices was the enclosure of common lands to raise sheep for the international wool market. "Shepe and shepe-masters doeth cause skantye of corne." In a typical complaint, they charged that a gentleman had "inclused much of our Comon, .. converted all his ground which he had by exchange to pasture ground. ... He turns out his tenents as soon as their Leases are expir'd, and setts out ye land at rackt rent to others; and he hath depopulated the Town." The leaders of the 1596 rising set out to "cutt off the heads" of such gentry and knock down their fences.**

In As You Like It, Celia and Rosalind are disinherited. So is Orlando, forced to flee by his rapacious landowning brother Oliver. Oliver also dismisses the old retainer Adam, treating his labor as a commodity and ignoring his family tie. The Old Duke is in Arden because he has been cast off his land. Even Corin the shepherd has lost his ancestral rights. He succinctly describes Karl Polanyi's "Great Tansformation" from the old economy based on family bonds, inherited status, and gifts, to the new one based on private property, contracts, profits, and exchange:

Many of these people are hungry. "I almost die for food," says Orlando. The hunger of Act II could be played lightly: townsfolk out in the woods forget to pack enough food and really want their dinners. But I don't think their hunger would have seemed a laughing matter in 1599, especially in conjunction with all the lines about enclosure and disinheritance. People were starving and taking to violence, as Orlando does in Arden. ("He dies that touches any of this fruit.") As You Like It is closer to Lear than to Midsummer Night's Dream.

Arden is not the "desert" that Orlando first takes it for. It is populated with cottagers and outlaws from the town. The Elizabethan map-maker William Harrison said that all England was divided between champaign ground, where each house was connected to a road and the land was fenced, and woodland, where "the houses stand scattered about, each one dwelling in the midst of its own occupying."* Arden is woodland. But it is under threat, subject to enclosure. Carin's farm, for example, is now "a sheep-cote fenc'd about with olive trees." That is the future of the forest, unless the various denizens can resist.

As You Like It is a comedy. Despite the grievous social ills it evokes in Acts I and II, everything ends well. Rosalind buys Corin's enclosed farm and treats him as a generous landlady should. The two main usurpers have amazing conversion experiences and yield their ill-gotten lands. In one rite that symbolizes a restoration of the communal order, Duke Senior is able to marry four couples who span the English social spectrum.

Some authors* see Shakespeare as reactionary. He replaces injustice with a fantasy of upper-class generosity. And that may be. But I wonder ...

First, what to make of the preposterous ending (which requires a hungry lioness, among other improbabilities). Isn't the middle part of the play more "real"? That's where a few motley exiles uphold ancient carnivalesque folk norms against the relentless market.

Second, what to make of Jaques. He is the one character who refuses to go back to the realm of markets and laws when the carnival ends. He opts to join "the religious life," not in an organized monastery that might own land, but hermit-like, in a cave. He likes fools and riotous poachers. He is partial to economic metaphors: "tax any private party"; "a material fool." Seeing a flock of deer abandon a wounded member of their company, Jaques chides those "fat and greasy citizens" for leaving the "poor and broken bankrupt there." This sounds like a metaphor of city-dwellers' inhumanity to those who fail in the market. Is Jaques a "materialist" critic of the Great Transformation? He cannot envision any satisfactory alternative for the society as a whole, but he wants no part of it himself. Perhaps the play makes his final choice an alternative worth respecting. In that case, the end is hardly comic.

*Richard Wilson, “‘Like the Old Robin Hood”: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 1-19.

**John Walter, “A ‘Rising of the People’? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past and Present, No. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 90-143.

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May 19, 2009

in praise of books

I'm a big fan of the Internet, spending hours a day online, for fun as well as work. I don't have a Kindle or any other electronic text reader, but I'm sure that I'll read novels and nonfiction books on a digital device some day. Many of the advantages of books can be replicated with electronic devices. Yet I want to say a few words in favor of the old-fashioned codex.

It doesn't bug you with urgent needs to be updated, upgraded, or recharged. It doesn't even ask to be opened. If you leave it alone, it doesn't bother you.

It looks good on a shelf.

It stays the same for decades, so that if you reopen a volume that was important to you when you were young, all the letters and pictures and stains and folds are still there to reconnect you to your past.

You're allowed to give it away, mark it up, lend it, trade it. If you throw it away, there's no ghostly version still in your house. It's really gone.

It's hard to destroy. Sure, you can lose your copy of a book, or spill tomato soup all over it. But once a pile of copies is printed and distributed, no government censor or computer virus can find them all and wipe them out.

It's self-reliant. No one has to remember to pay the monthly hosting fee, keep it plugged in, or upgrade it to the new operating system. It just patiently waits to be opened.

Its design is redolent of a particular time and place. No one can decide that the font looks dated and try to make it look current.

It's long--long enough to absorb you and take you out of your own world. External noises and events can interrupt you, but the book itself will not. It will let you read all the way through, if you have the time for it.

It has a smell, a weight, and a texture. It has been handled by other people. It has been places.

It was finished (or abandoned). There was a point of closure, a decision to stop. It is not "under construction." Its pages are finite. You can finish it and know that you've read it.

Someone else has written it. You can escape with it into another person's consciousness. It isn't generated or shaped by your demographic background, browsing history, or revealed preferences. It doesn't keep you trapped in a hall of mirrors where you keep seeing distorted views of yourself.

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May 18, 2009

Legislative Aide: a civics simulation

I haven't yet blogged about one of our significant activities this spring. We've helped partners at the University of Wisconsin to develop a game or simulation for teaching civics in high schools. Students play the roles of aides in a fictitious US Representative's district office. They receive emails from senior staff asking them to take various steps in researching a local problem and developing solutions. At the heart of the simulation is the same mapping software that we are using in Boston with college students. It represents the mind of a community organizer or civic leader, who views local civil society as a working network of people, organizations, and issues. Our game combines fiction (the imaginary legislative office) with reality (actual issues and real interviews with community leaders, who are sources of information).

We have been pilot-testing the software and curriculum--called Legislative Aide--in schools in Tampa, Florida (which explains my occasional visits down there). This movie provides an overview:

Legislative Aide from Jen Scott Curwood on Vimeo.

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May 15, 2009

Luban in the torture hearings

Here is my friend and former colleague David Luban being questioned about torture by Senator Lindsey Graham. The caption about "browbeating" is not mine; this was the only video clip I could find online, and I would leave viewers to make their own judgment.

Before this exchange, Luban had argued that the Bush Administration's lawyers (Bybee and Yoo) violated legal ethics by providing extremely incomplete surveys of relevant law to their client, the President of the United States. Here Senator Graham asserts that Luban forgot to mention cases on the other side of the issue; thus if Yoo was unethical, so was Luban. That's like receiving a bad grade because you forgot to mention several crucial facts in an exam. Your professor shows you what you left out, and you reply that he is just as bad because he forgot to mention some points in favor of your conclusion. But he's not writing an exam; he's grading yours. I guarantee that David Luban could provide a complete and balanced summary of torture law if that were his job. (Senator Graham wouldn't like the conclusions, however.)

Here is David patiently explaining why the "torture memos" violated legal ethics. And this is David being questioned on the same topic by Rep. Jerrold Nadler in a House committee hearing.

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May 14, 2009

White House Office of Public Engagement

Since 1974, the White House has had an Office of Public Liaison. On May 11, it was renamed the Office of Public Engagement. The President said, "This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country.” The front page of the website quotes the president: "Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know."

This is an exciting development. All my work is premised on the belief that open-ended public discussions yield valuable and morally legitimate results that cannot be predicted in advance. I also believe that our most serious challenges require public work and that we are burdened by poor relationships between citizens and government and among citizens. So it will be very valuable to have diverse, constructive, open-ended conversations that involve the American people and the executive branch.

We know today how to organize such discussions. Practical tools and insights come from groups like AmericaSpeaks, the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, and Everyday Democracy; from the more flexible and pragmatic community organizing groups; from local governments that have engaged their own citizens effectively; from certain successful projects in federal agencies like EPA; from other countries, like Brazil and Uganda; and from the Obama Campaign's online tools.

So I salute this development. I do, however, see two risk that we outside the Administration should monitor and help with. First, there is the risk that an office named with the phrase "public engagement" could actually turn into a PR and persuasion office of the administration. That would be a blow, because it would cheapen an important concept. The Administration has a right to sell its proposals; but that is not "engagement."

Second, I fear a tendency to reduce "engagement" to two-way communication. The President talked about "the difficult work of changing this country." But the next sentence in the OPE press release glossed his comment thus:

I am skeptical that people (including me) are motivated to discuss issues--or are adequately informed about issues--if their only opportunity is to "offer stories" and "share views." We also need concrete opportunities to work on projects. Work is motivating and educating. Today, it may involve typing or talking rather than digging or cleaning, but it needs to feel like a direct contribution. That is why I would tie the public engagement function of the White House to the tangible work that Americans are doing with stimulus funds.

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May 13, 2009

nonviolence and the Palestinian cause

For several months, I have been thinking of a post about nonviolent resistance in the Palestinian territories. I'm finally writing now because of a thoughtful and well informed article on that very subject: "The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King in the West Bank," by Gershom Gorenberg in the Weekly Standard.

I recommend the whole piece. It reinforces my sense that a nonviolent struggle could produce a Palestinian state on somewhat more advantageous terms than are now available. One could say that Israel is "vulnerable" to a nonviolent strategy, but equally Israel needs to escape from the nightmare of occupation. The Jewish State seems incapable of achieving a resolution by itself--which may be the nature of a master/slave dialectic--so a nonviolent victory for the Palestinian cause would also be the best thing that could happen to, and for, Israel.

Gorenberg documents what I already knew in less detail: there are, and have long been, nonviolent Palestinian resistance efforts. They are usually small-scale and always overshadowed by violence. That is hardly surprising. Nonviolence takes tremendous commitment, coordination, and discipline. Nonviolent efforts are very easily broken up, discouraged, or overshadowed by forces on either side of the conflict that prefer violence. Successful nonviolent campaigns are exceedingly rare. The Palestinian case is typical rather than strange.

For me, the core principle is not nonviolence. I'm glad we invaded Normandy in 1944, and I hope the Taliban loses on the battlefield. I'm not a pacifist, but I do think that self-limitation is crucial. Lord Acton was right; unlimited power corrupts. Revolutionary struggles (the ones that aren't crushed) typically end in tyranny or fratricide, because their leaders can't stop using the tools that have brought them to power.

We could even view liberal democracy as a device for promoting limited political movements. There are enough openings at different levels of a democracy--and enough civil rights--that political causes don't automatically fizzle out. Yet each movement is always checked by its rivals, causing it to be limited and disciplined. The Palestinians don't have a democratic context in which to organize. Their leaders and partisans must limit themselves, must set their own rules. Fatah is a case study of what happens when they don't. Within its own sphere, it is corrupt and violent. Beyond its domain, it is weak. If Fatah somehow wins, the Palestinian people will have to struggle to get a decent government out of it.

Nonviolence is an example of a self-limitation, but it is not the only one. The American revolutionaries of 1776 fought with guns, yet they showed admirable restrain that paved the way for a successful republic. In the First Intifada, the Palestinians managed to avoid guns and bombs in favor of stones for the better part of two years. The signature of the Intifada was children throwing things at tanks. As Gorenberg writes:

I think the tactics of the First Intifada could be effective today, but true nonviolence would be better. I say this not because of an ethical scruple but because of the nature of collective action. To get people to do something very hard, and all at the same time, requires a very clear definition of what they must all do. You need a bright-line test, or else individuals will start pushing the limits, and discipline will break down. "Don't ever hurt anyone physically" is a clear rule, a bright line. Using stones and Molotov cocktails but no bombs is too vague and ad hoc; it invites escalation.

Of course, a clear definition of rules is not the only condition of success. Leadership is also essential, although I think Gorenberg somewhat overestimates the individual contribution of Martin Luther King. (There were many other key leaders in that movement.) He does recognize the importance of a third factor: ideological commitment to nonviolence itself. When we face brutality and oppression, the temptation is overwhelming to strike back. ("I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.") It helps enormously if participants in a social movement believe in nonviolence (or in other serious restraints)--not just as wise precautions or clever tactics, but as deep moral imperatives. For instance, it helps if they think that God wants them to turn the other cheek.

Islam is not more violent than Christianity or Hinduism. All three religions are generally soaked in blood, and Islam has modeled tolerance and restraint as often as the others have. But it helped both Gandhi and King that there were minority traditions in their own faiths that were extreme and radical about pacifism. As King asked rhetorically from the Birmingham Jail, "Was not Jesus an extremist for love? 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.'" Franciscans, Quakers, and others before King had made rigorous pacifism a tradition that he could evoke. Although there are certainly peaceful and peace-loving traditions in Islam, I'm not sure there is anything as uncompromisingly and ascetically pacificistic as we find at the margins of Christianity and Hinduism.

But Palestinians have an opportunity to create their identity out of nationalist, ethnic, religious, and cosmopolitan strands. As for their majority religion, Sunni Islam, it is dynamic and flexible, as all faiths are. Gorenberg shrewdly writes:

If Palestinians could develop the pacifist possibilities that are available in their various traditions, the future could be much better for them, and for the world.

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May 12, 2009

straight out of Dorchester

I was at U-Mass Boston today, watching videos produced by students in the Asian-American Studies Program. The videos were autobiographical and effectively raw: stories of child abuse, drug addiction, bullying. The students presented their work as a political act. They had made media instead of consuming it, thereby telling their own stories their own way.

I agree: although the personal doesn't exhaust the political, to present yourself publicly is an important aspect of politics. As Hannah Arendt argued, to inhabit an identity fully and to have full individuality requires being able to display it for others in a public space--something that mass media culture frustrates. "In acting and speaking, men [and of course also women] show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world."

The students whose videos I watched were self-conscious about defying ethnic and gender stereotypes, but one could say more generally that whenever human beings tell their personal stories--even briefly and simply--a challengingly complex reality emerges. I will give just one example of the complexity I learned about today. Several of the videos were made by Vietnamese-American men from the Boston area. They spoke in, I would say, a pervasive and credible version of an African-American urban youth dialect. They used the n-word to describe one another and said things like, "we all be gangbanging." Vocabulary could be borrowed superficially or clumsily, but I noted subtler influences. For example, one young man was describing a fight that had led to a fatal shooting. On camera, he relived his own efforts to stop the violence. As he said, "Yo, calm down," in a deep, serious voice, he partly raised one hand, palm outward; his eyebrows rose; and his eyes locked onto the viewer in a way that reminded me profoundly of an African-American man in a similar situation. But the murdered teenager was given a proper Vietnamese burial back in his birth country. Out of such mixtures and borrowings, parodies and homages, we make meaning, identity, and community.

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May 11, 2009

Steve Teles' The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement

Steve Teles' book The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement was the subject of a recent symposium on Crooked Timber. It's a fine book, specifically about the movement that pushed the federal judiciary rightward after the 1970s, and generally about why political movements succeed and fail. I think it's especially valuable reading for liberals, who could learn many detailed lessons and at least three major points.

First, it's a mistake to think that the conservative legal movement was successful because it was very well funded or especially canny and disciplined. Actually, funding for liberal legal scholarship, advocacy, and teaching far exceeds what conservative intellectuals ever had (especially if one counts the salaries available to liberal law professors); and the conservative movement made many tactical and strategic mistakes. They had diverse strategies and goals that were never very coherent. Some of their success came from what Teles calls "spread-betting." They put money and effort into law-and-economics, into religious conservatism, into original-intent jurisprudence--mutually inconsistent ideologies--and every now and then they hit the jackpot.

Second, we on the outside of conservatism tend to associate it with powerful figures like Bush, Cheney, and Scalia; we argue that their views are favorable to the interests of the richest and most powerful tycoons and corporations; we observe them win on specific issues; and so we presume that we are dealing with a dominant, even hegemonic force. Whether conservatism actually has a privileged position is open to debate; it certainly loses many of its central causes. In any case, conservative thinkers do not feel dominant. On the contrary, they see the world much as other marginal movements do; they believe that the rules of evidence, the framing of questions, and such practical issues as who gets tenure and grants, are all stacked against them. Influenced by Steve Teles, I have previously made an analogy between conservative legal thought and feminism in the 1970s. Even if you are only trying to understand conservatism as an enemy, you should grasp its proponents' psychology. Overall, I think they feel much more beleaguered and defensive than hegemonic.

Third, Teles makes some shrewd observations about how conservatives spend money. In the Crooked Timber symposium, he writes:

My salary has been largely paid by "liberal-ish" foundations for nigh on twenty years, and I would certainly be glad if there could be simpler proposals, less evaluation, and more funds for core operating expenses as well as projects. In short, I would be glad if the liberal-ish foundations just bet on people--assuming I were one of the people they bet on. But that probably wouldn't happen. My narrow self-interest may be better served by the current system of elaborate proposals, self-evaluation plans, and lots of little projects--because that's the game I know how to play. Of course, liberal causes might do better using the conservatives' investment strategy: my self-interest doesn't necessarily coincide with the greater good. But it does strike me that grantmakers and successful grant-seekers have a mutual interest in the status quo, which partly explains why it doesn't change.

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May 8, 2009

setting a poor example

Many Americans believe that politicians are unprincipled and self-interested. Politicians, they assume, always try to maximize their chances of being reelected or promoted to higher office. That theory doesn't make too much sense psychologically. Politics is a hard job, and there are easier ways to become rich and secure. I think that politicians are often pretty substantive. Their goals may be opposed to mine, or they may be too parochial. (Coming out of local communities, they sometimes just want to get stuff built and funded in their home towns.) They definitely want credit for what they achieve--or even what they touch. But it's not fair to say they only want to be re-elected.

That's why it's unfortunate when a major politician acts blatantly opportunistically; it reduces respect for representative democracy to below what it deserves.

For instance, in explaining his shift to the Democratic Party, Senator Specter spoke briefly about "principle"; he claimed that his views were now more closely aligned with the Democrats than with the Republicans. But later in the same speech, he sounded like a professional athlete whose goal was to win and who had switched to a stronger team so that he'd have better odds. He said, "In the course of the last several months ... I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak."

It seemed that nothing could be more nakedly self-interested; but then came the Senator's interview with The New York Times Magazine:

The evocation of "justice" made the Senator sound briefly principled, but he soon took it back, saying, “In the swirl of moving from one caucus to another, I have to get used to my new teammates. ... I’m ordinarily pretty correct in what I say. I’ve made a career of being precise. I conclusively misspoke.”

I suppose one could give Specter credit for candor, but I think his motives are worse than average, and these glimpses into his soul hardly do him credit.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 7, 2009

two paths to abstraction

1. At first, artists depict the world as they think it actually is. They even show heaven and other eternal and transcendent scenes in terms of their own times, places, and styles. Then they realize that they have a manner, a method, and a style of representation; and many such styles are possible. They learn to imitate art from distant places and times, which requires a certain sympathy or compassion. Their ability to represent the world as depicted by others reduces their attachment to their own style, which begins to seem arbitrary. For example, it seems arbitrary that the center of a flat piece of art should always appear to recede into the distance, and that one side of each object should be visible. Why not show all the sides at once, as in cubism? Gradually, artists' enthusiasm for any form of representative art diminishes. One important option becomes renunciation, in the form of minimalism and abstraction. Showing the world in any style means embodiment; but the mind can transcend the body. True art then becomes not the naive representation of the world, nor a sentimental imitation of someone else's naive style, but just a field of color on a canvas. That seems the way to make the artist's arbitrary will and narrow prejudices disappear, and beauty appear.

2. The Buddha's "Karaniya Metta Sutta," translated by the Amaravati Sangha:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

The image is Ad Rheinhart, "Abstract Painting" (1951-2). (Rheinhart, influenced by Zen through his friend Thomas Merton, sought to make painting as “a free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon.”)

Posted by peterlevine at 10:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 6, 2009

what the Dickens?

"I don't care whether I am a Minx or a Sphinx"
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Tired of those ugly and complicated web page addresses? This site will convert any URL into a random quotation from the works of Charles Dickens. For example, instead of using the awkward address of my blog, you can enter http://dickensurl.com/7e94/I_dont_care_whether_I_am_a_Minx_or_a_Sphinx and find yourself right back here. Bookmark it!

This is a silly example, but there are significant issues regarding domain names. When I first became interested in technology policy around 2000, I thought that simple, memorable names were going to be scarce resources that the rich and powerful would monopolize. I still think it is valuable to own, say, Boston.com (even though the current owner is the poor beleaguered Boston Globe). But it turns out that there are so many billions of web pages--often automatically generated from databases--that people can't remember URLs or tell them to each other. Instead, we rely on tools to find sites, and the most influential tools are search engines. A high Google-ranking is more valuable than a catchy domain name. That means that the policies and algorithms used by the major search engines deserve constant scrutiny.

Posted by peterlevine at 6:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 5, 2009

making the youth voting problem go away

CIRCLE was founded in 2001 because of widespread concern that civic engagement was in decline, and a feeling that youth were the heart of the problem. Although everyone defined "civic engagement" as more than voting, the voting trend was a common symbol of the issue. The graph below shows turnout for young and older adults between 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18, and 2000, just before CIRCLE was launched. Older adults' turnout stayed pretty steady, but under-30s were in steady decline. A straight line would track the actual youth trend pretty closely and would decline by almost one point per year, or 3.58 points per election cycle. (If you discard 1992 as an outlier, the r-squared is .89.) We seemed to have a generational problem.

But 1972 could be considered an anomaly. Young people had just won the right to vote, with much hoopla. There was still a draft and the Vietnam War was deeply unpopular. So we might discard 1972 as a baseline year. Besides, we now have data from 2004 and 2008. This is how the trend looks if we chose to run it from 1976-2008.

Ipso presto, the youth voting decline has vanished! No straight line can track the youth trend very well, but the best-fit line hardly declines at all (one tenth of a point per year). It now looks as if the norm is a steady youth turnout rate of around 48%, and the late 1990s represented an unusually low period that could be attributed, perhaps, to the specific campaigns and politicians of that era.

Well, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. We shouldn't be allowed to make a problem appear or disappear by changing the parameters of a graph. But I would venture that declines and other changes over time are not nearly as striking as stability. We don't seem to be able to get more than half of young people to vote. Just about half of young people attend college, and education and political activity correlate--not perfectly, but strongly. College attendance hasn't risen; and within families, socioeconomic status tends to replicate itself. To me, the central issue is neither decline nor growth, but deep and persistent inequality.

(Another problem--harder to quantify but described in Harry Boyte's editorial from yesterday--is a lack of civic opportunities other than voting.)

Posted by peterlevine at 10:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 4, 2009

we're the ones we've been waiting for

Harry Boyte wrote an op-ed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Sunday entitled "The work before us is our work, not just his." Boyte begins:

The Administration needs our help making a rhetorical shift back toward "we," and matching that rhetoric with real programs and policies that will allow Americans to play more active and constructive roles. The Kennedy Serve America Act is a step in the right direction--although high-quality implementation will be a challenge. But much more ambitious initiatives are necessary, and they need to go beyond "service."

Posted by peterlevine at 8:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 1, 2009

what shape is a field of vision?

At an idle moment recently, I was wondering what shape my field of vision has. A quick Google search took me to Alexander Duane's and Ernst Fuchs's 1899 textbook of ophthalmology, which is online. I am sure there is much more recent work--both empirical and conceptual--but I didn't explore it. Instead, I began to speculate that this is a fairly complicated question.

My first responses were in terms of two-dimensional spaces--for instance, I thought that perhaps my field of vision was an oval with a perturbation around my nose. It's oval rather than round because I have two eyes, and each has a separate field like the one pictured here. Putting them together creates an oval. So if you wanted to represent what I can see, you would take a wide-angle photo from my vantage point and cut out a roughly oval shape.

But my retinas are three-dimensional, as is the world they see. So should we say that my field of vision is a section of an ovoid with some irregularities created by my nose, eyebrows, and hair? Even that that answer seems oversimplified, since my eyeballs are capable of focusing at different depths (and even rolling around, although that might be forbidden in a test of one's field of vision); and the world itself is not pasted on the inside of an oval--it extends into the distance. If we said that the shape of my field of vision was roughly ovoid, how big would that ovoid be? The night sky that is sometimes part of it is awfully far away. And I haven't even mentioned that we see moving things and bright colors more easily than stable, dull things. By now, it's beginning to sound as if my field of vision has no shape. But surely that can't be right; my vision has limits and moves as I change my orientation. We've begun talking about the world, not what I see of it.

By the way, it is interesting how easily we accept a photograph as a representation of vision, even though it is flat and rectangular, whereas our field of vision is--at the very least--irregular and vaguely bordered.

Wittgenstein seems to want us to dispense with the goal of analogizing inner experience to something else, as if everyday experience required some explanation on terms other than its own:

For Wittgenstein, I take it, a field of vision has no shape, and we only feel that that's strange because we are in the grip of a model of vision as inner photography. It's actually something else entirely. And yet I keep returning to my initial thought that what I see is an oval with my nose intruding from the bottom.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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