July 31, 2009
private opinion polls
These results from the latest New York Times survey are supposed to be evidence that "the public continues to be ill-informed and hypocritical."
People want lower taxes, no spending cuts, and a smaller deficit. It's like the citizen who was quoted in a newspaper many years ago saying, "It's the government's deficit, not ours. Why can't they pay it off?"
Others have already made the following technical point. Few individuals in this survey probably gave inconsistent responses. The overlap between those who wanted "no new taxes" and those who opposed spending cuts may have been fairly small. It was the aggregate result that was incoherent, and that was no individual's fault.
Which brings me to a second, more substantial point. We must aggregate public opinion to get democratic outcomes. But we can aggregate in many different ways. One of the stupidest ways would be to call people on their home phones, out of the blue, and ask them a series of abstract questions. "Do you want lower taxes, yes or no?" "Do you want service cuts, yes or no?" If you tally up the answers and call it public opinion, that is a recipe for incoherence. You will get much better results if, for example, you ask a group of people to think, talk, and develop a consensus plan.
Nina Eliasoph's comments from Avoiding Politics (p. 18) are relevant:
Research on inner beliefs, ideologies, and values is usually based on surveys, which ask people questions about which they may never have thought, and most likely have never discussed. ... The researcher analyzing survey responses must then read political motives and understandings back into the responses, trying to reconstruct the private mental processes the interviewee 'must have' undergone to reach a response. That type of research would more aptly be called private opinion research, since it attempts to bypass the social nature of opinions, and tries to wrench the personally embodied, sociable display of opinions away from the opinions themselves. But in everyday life, opinions always come in a form: flippant, ironic, anxious, determined, abstractly distant, earnest, engaged, effortful. And they always come in a context--a bar, a charity group, a family, a picket--that implicitly invites or discourages debate.
In the case of the New York Times poll, the context is a very cerebral, information-rich, nonpartisan, published forum in which authors and readers are expected to think like ideal legislators and make all-things-considered judgments under realistic constraints. In that context, you look like an idiot if you call for lower taxes, more spending, and a reduced deficit. Into that august forum are dragged innocent citizens who were telephoned randomly without notice and asked to say yea or nay to a bunch of sentences. No wonder that, when their responses are tallied, they look "ill-informed and hypocritical." I guarantee you that if the same people were told they needed to come up with a public position on the federal budget, their response would not only be better--it would have a human face and would be presented with some mix of seriousness, uncertainty, regret about difficult choices, and pride in their accomplishment.
To be sure, the poll gives meaningful information. It tells us what people want when they don't reflect--and most of us do not reflect on national policy very often. So the opinions in the poll pose real problems for national leaders, who cannot deliver desirable outcomes that are practically incompatible. On the other hand, people rate their own understanding of national policy very poorly. They expect good leaders to make tough calls. They realize that the situation is difficult and there are no perfect answers. If you conclude from these survey results that the public is stupid and should be treated accordingly, you misread their mood and their expectations.
July 30, 2009
reforming the humanities
Last week, I submitted the copy-edited version of my next book for layout and production. It is entitled Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante Through Modern Times, and it will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this year. The first paragraph says:
This is a book about ethics and stories. Ethics (or morality) encompasses what is right or good, what we ought to do, and how laws and institutions should be organized. I argue that a good way to make ethical judgments and decisions is to describe reality in the form of a true narrative. Fictional stories also support moral conclusions that can translate into real life. I argue that when the moral judgments supported by a good story conflict with general principles, we ought to follow the story and amend or suspend our principles, rather than the reverse. What makes a story “good” for this purpose is not its conformity to correct moral principles, but its merits as a narrative--for instance, its perceptiveness and coherence and its avoidance of cliché, sentimentality, and euphemism.
July 29, 2009
tactics, wonkery, values
Back in 2004, I wrote a long post on this blog, arguing that the problem for the left was not bad tactics, nor a lack of resources, but a lack of positive vision. This was part of the argument:
In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left—people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos—strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the Left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.
My post triggered thoughtful rebuttals by Mark Schmitt, Matthew Yglesias, and others.
I remembered this exchange recently when it occurred to me that Yglesias and other skillful left-of-center bloggers have become policy wonks. I spent 15 years in a school of public policy, yet occasionally even my eyes glaze over when I read Yglesias on transportation or Ezra Klein on health care. No one could rightly say that these people lack ideas about what should be done. They are as substantive as can be--as well as talented writers.
So perhaps when the Democrats were "out," bloggers on their side of the aisle were focused on getting them back "in"; and once Democrats won elections, the bloggers turned to policy. That would be a happy story and would make me apologize for my implication that the left blogosphere was superficial in 2004.
Except for one thing: I don't divide politics into tactics and policy. There is a crucial third element, which is the creation of some kind of moving storyline that embodies core values. I think that's much more important than getting one's policy proposals right, and it was a conspicuous failure in '04. An argument about values and a narrative arc are what Barack Obama contributed to the left in '08. The particular positions that he took could be wrong, but in any case, they do not seem to attract much attention or support in the liberal blogosphere. For instance:
Government cannot solve our problems; citizens must do that through their own work.
Our relationships are broken because of excessive confrontation and distrust, and we need to work together across differences.
We must take more moral responsibility for ourselves and our children.
July 28, 2009
deliberation and the California budget mess
A concrete proposal for a deliberative public forum made it to today's Times op-ed page. Chris Elmendorf and Ethan J. Leib call for a "citizens assembly" that would meet when the legislature deadlocks on a budget. The California legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass a budget and labors under many constraints created by initiatives. It has a chronic problem of failing to pass decent, reasonable budgets on time, a problem that reached a critical stage this year when the largest American state issued IOUs in lieu of real checks.
Other activists are causing for a constitutional convention--which could be called the "nuclear option" of public deliberation, because it would enlist a deliberative group in blowing up the whole constitution and starting over. The Elmendorf and Lieb proposal is much more modest. In fact, it might cause elected officials to propose moderate budgets in order to avoid a deadlock and then a loss of power to the citizen's assembly.
I presume citizen participants would be randomly selected and paid for their time. They would consider various alternative budgets, hear from experts, talk (a lot), and decide. As a populist reform, it beats the initiative and referendum on two grounds. First, it's deliberative--people exchange ideas and evidence before they vote. Second, the subject of deliberation is the whole budget, not an individual yes-or-no proposition like capping taxes or reducing class sizes. You're really not acting responsibly as a participant in self-government unless you are willing to make tradeoffs.
Whatever one thinks of this particular proposal, I would argue that California's problems are civic, not economic. Legislators could balance the budget by raising taxes and/or cutting spending; they don't need aid from outside, which would only encourage them to continue their irresponsibility. Their civic problems lie partly in the rules of the formal political system, but another cause is a relatively weak civil society. The newspapers that cover state and metropolitan issues are inadequate, for example. Californians have plenty of civic assets, as well, but they need to mobilize them much better.
July 27, 2009
(Madison, WI) The original starfish story, very popular among proponents of service:
Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.
The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.
As he came up to the person he said, "You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"
1. Once a man was walking along the beach, where he saw hundreds of stranded starfish. He said, "Starfish, what are you going to do to get yourselves off this beach?" The starfish replied, "There is nothing we can do. The natural action of the waves has deposited us here. It has always been thus, and thus shall it always be." The man said, "You are the ones you have been waiting for. Organize yourselves into a chain, pull yourselves back into the water, and then figure out a way to prevent this debacle from recurring." The starfish felt empowered, studied engineering, organized themselves into an effective construction crew, built a breakwater, and nothing as bad ever happened again.
2. Once on a beautiful day a man was walking along the beach when he saw another man going back and forth throwing simple echinoderms back into the ocean to save them. Over the course of a several hours, he saved about 3 percent of these brainless organisms, 47 percent of which were destined to die anyway due to their long exposure on the sand. Seagulls watched as this man reduced their main food source. Meanwhile, off in the distance, huge condos were being constructed on the fragile ecosystem thanks to lax environmental regulation. The first man, a developer, chuckled. It occurred to him that a good name for the massive casino he planned for this spot might be "The Starfish."
3. A man was walking down the beach, where he noticed a whole bunch of stranded starfish. He had read that starfish have market value, so he reached down to harvest one for his own profit. "Hands off, exploitative human," said a voice, which came from the very starfish he had touched. "We are not your property and we don't need your help getting back to the sea. We have second stomachs that can expand to engulf prey such as yourself when we are threatened. Come on, fellow asterazoa, let's use our hydraulic vascular systems to propel ourselves back into the watery global commons whence we came." The man watched slack-jawed as the starfish marched into the surf chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, greedy humans have to go."
4. A big mean shark was swimming close to the shore, eating starfish. The little creatures decided to go up onto the beach for awhile, because they can lie in the sun for a few hours without drying out, and the shark would swim away. Then a manic do-gooder started throwing them back in, one by one. Each starfish that he threw in was immediately gulped down by the ravenous leviathan. Finally, a brave little starfish reached out a foot and tripped the man, who fell face down in the surf and was immediately swallowed whole by the shark. Sated at last, it swam away to sea.
July 24, 2009
assessing the Obama civic agenda after 6 months
We had a panel discussion today at the Tisch College of Citizenship that was taped by C-SPAN for broadcast sometime in August. Our "text" was then-candidate Barack Obama's statement in 2007: "I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a central cause of my presidency." Our questions were: What did this statement mean? What should it mean? How is the administration doing so far? What has to happen next? What should we do from outside?
The panelists were Alan D. Solomont, Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service; Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship (videconferenced from Johannesburg); Archon Fung, Harvard University; Marshall Ganz, Harvard; Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, AmericaSpeaks; Xolela Mangcu, University of Johannesburg; and Carmen Sirianni, Brandeis University.
The discussion was rich, diverse, and spirited--in fact, passionate. Any summary is a bit presumptuous (and I didn't take notes, since I was moderating). But I think I detect something like a consensus that the Administration has moved far in some respects, and hardly at all--as yet--in others. The service agenda has moved very far, with the potential tripling of AmeriCorps. If that expansion is implemented well, it will generate not just philanthropic service, but also opportunities for diverse people to work on crucial public problems and learn skills. The transparency agenda has also moved along; we will have better access to more information about the government than ever before. (But we may not have more information about big private corporations; and the information about government may only be used for "gotcha" games.) Finally, the president has used his global podium to speak profoundly about active citizenship, from Los Angeles to Ghana.
But little has been done (or even proposed) to reform the administrative apparatus of the federal government or the legislative process to promote constructive civic engagement, to create conversations that bridge differences, or to invest in the development of civic skills.
This public panel was the final episode in our Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which was otherwise an intense graduate seminar. I did not think that the appearance in our seminar room of television cameras, lights, and a live audience reduced the candor or authenticity of the discussion at all. I thought it was a fitting conclusion to the 54 hours of private discussion that had preceded it.
July 23, 2009
the civic renewal movement (4)
In 2005, I wrote three consecutive posts that later became a published article:
- The Civic Renewal Movement (1) listed the main types of work that are happening under the heading of "civic renewal," from deliberative democracy to the defense of the "commons."
- The Civic Renewal Movement (2) identified essential principles, such as open-endedness and the combination of deliberation with action.
- The Civic Renewal Movement (3) argued that there is an increasingly well networked and strong overall movement that links these types of work and principles.
Today's post asks what we still need, and how we will know when we succeed.
I believe we need:
- An effective advocacy effort at the federal and state levels. This wouldn't mean one centralized organization; therefore, it would not subsume or replace existing advocacy groups like the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Instead, it would be a broad, strong, yet diverse advocacy coalition. It would not only lobby professionally but also encourage effective grassroots action.
- What Carmen Sirianni and Lew Friedland call (in their book The Civic Renewal Movement) "expansive civic careers." It should be possible for people to move intentionally from one job to another, and from one venue to another, within the movement. There should be educational programs that prepare people to enter these careers, and investment in professional development once you have a job. We need a strong "bench"--people who are ready to assume leadership positions within important organizations that are part of the movement.
- Broad gatherings in which people share ideas and inspiration. The recent No Better Time conference was a great example, as is the annual National Conference on Citizenship. But we need more regular and larger opportunities for interaction. Some of this can happen online if we develop more interactive and better websites.
- "R&D" for the movement, including more practically oriented research and experimentation; more federal data on civic engagement and youth civic development; and more "theory" that's appropriate for various audiences and interests.
- A coordinated strategy for spreading the news. One-way, mass communication is problematic, in general, but there is an important need for messages (in various media) that stimulate interest and attention. Jeffrey Abelson is working on this skillfully and pro bono; there is much more to do.
- More money, of course, but that really means a larger and more diverse set of funders, including major foundations, community foundations, wealthy individuals, and government agencies at all levels.
When the Obama Administration decided to cut Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), a model program for collaborative governance within EPA, civic advocacy groups would go ballistic. Groups concerned about civic education, transparency, community organizing, and other aspects of the movement would jump on this issue because CARE would seem important to them all.
Whenever a major institution--a government agency, foundation, university, or media company--expressed openness to civic engagement, we'd be ready with models, stories, potential partners, and experienced individuals who could help in the specific circumstances.
Hampton, VA has probably the best structure in the United States for involving young people in governance. It also has a very strong tradition of adult engagement in municipal government. Imagine (though heaven forbid this should actually happen) that some powerful politician decided to end Hampton's programs. We would know we had a strong movement if people from other cities that also have good civic engagement programs--like Chattanooga, TN--got on buses and came to defend their peers in Hampton. That sounds far-fetched, but it does happen when civil rights violations or environmental crises occur--because the civil rights and green movements are strong.
Today, conservatives in Texas are trying to remove César Chávez, Anne Hutchinson, and Thurgood Marshall from state standards in the social studies. There are already liberal groups, such as People for the American Way, that will defend mandatory teaching of such progressive heroes in public schools. (Cultural liberals may be weak in Texas, but they are stronger in California and elsewhere). The result is standards that are enormous lists of miscellaneous topics. If we had a strong civic renewal movement, there would be an organized effort to reform Texas standards so that kids could actually learn to be effective citizens. The civic movement would demand meaningful experiences, not lists of people to study. It would challenge left and right alike.
July 22, 2009
Congress is too small
The size of the US House of Representatives is set by an ordinary law; it's not a Constitutional matter. The number of Representatives has remained at 435 since 1910, even as the population of the US has tripled. The bigger the districts, the harder and more expensive it is to get into Congress, the more remote each member seems from his or her constituents, the harder it is to make districts fit natural or historical boundaries, and the worse are the tradeoffs between giving voice to minorities (racial or partisan) versus representing majorities.
It turns out that the size of legislatures around the world is usually the cube root of the size of each nation's population.* By that standard, our House should have 669 members instead of 435. The House of Commons in the UK has 646 members for a population of 61 million, seven times as many legislators per capita as we've got. The House of Commons generally works fine (the current scandal notwithstanding), so it seems perfectly possible to deliberate and make laws with more than 600 members.
I concede two points: 1) There are more pressing political reforms, such as a fair redistricting process and campaign finance reform; and 2) the very idea of adding extra federal legislators--with salaries and staffs--would probably be unpopular. Still, I think this is an important reform. It will be impossible, for example, to produce fully satisfactory electoral districts, even with a super-fair process, as long as each district is huge.
*Rein Taagepera, "The Size of National Assemblies," Social Science Research 1 (December 1972).
July 21, 2009
My latest enthusiasm--also a subject of discussion in our Summer Institute today--is the Danish professor Bent Flyvbjerg. His slogan is "social science as phronesis." The Greek word φρόνησις means "practical wisdom," prudence, or wise practical thought. It is always about a particular situation, because one acts in particular cases, not in generalities. (See my recent post on generic thinking.) Phronesis combines a view of what is, what can be, and what would be good. These are not strictly separable matters; norms influence facts and strategies. According to Flyvbjerg, phronesis should also involve a consideration of power: who is causing things to be the way they are, and who would benefit from changing them in various ways.
We deliberate about practical matters, not about abstract principles. Flyvbjerg recommends that social scientists contribute to practical deliberation by doing research that is closely attuned to particular situations. The social scientist's contribution will rarely be definitive; it will simply inform other actors by providing perspectives on what is, what can be, and what should be.
The opposite is social science on the model of physics--systematic, general, and predictive. I have not yet read Flyvbjerg's full argument for why social science cannot be like physics, but he is obviously skeptical of that idea and notes that "no predictive social theories have been arrived at yet" (PDF). He explains:
The epistemic model finds its ideal in the natural science model for doing science. Here the objective of the social scientist is to discover the theories and laws which govern social action, just as the objective of the natural scientist is to discover the theories and laws which govern natural phenomena. Praxis, according to the natural science model of social science, is social engineering which applies social theories and laws to solve social problems.
A classic simile for this type of social science is the so-called “moon ghetto metaphor,” named for social scientists who argued during the 1960’s and 1970’s that if natural science and engineering could put a man on the moon, surely social science could solve the social problems of the urban ghetto (Nelson 1977). History proved them wrong.
I was on much the same track in my June 26th post about the disappointing results of quantitative social science.
July 20, 2009
the irony of Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was not a major artist, in my opinion. He was a decorative illustrator who developed a distinctive and memorable overall style without producing any particularly memorable works. As Richard Dorment wrote recently in the New York Review, we value Chagall mainly for what he remembered and depicted. He painted nostalgic fantasies of the Eastern European Jewish world that was ruthlessly destroyed--along with almost all of its people--during his lifetime. In my view, Chagall's art, his biography, and the cataclysm around him combine to make something worthy of space on museum walls.
The irony is that Chagall--a poor kid from a provincial backwater--had the privilege of joining two sophisticated modernist movements: Cubism in Paris and then Suprematism in Moscow. (The Suprematists are most famous for Kasimir Malevich's "Black Quadrilateral on White," the first completely abstract painting.)
The Cubists and the Suprematists were committed to the great modernist project of transcending arbitrariness. When a traditional painter used a Renaissance style to depict the Virgin Mary in order to illustrate Catholic ideas, the modernist saw layers of arbitrariness. They asked: Why Mary? Why Catholicism? Why a vanishing point in the middle of the rectangular canvass? None of these questions had answers that would really count unless one belonged to the culture of the artist, sharing his biases and beliefs. One could appreciate such art from a cultural distance--but only because of its emotion and its form. So why not strip art down to those two essentials? Malevich wrote: "Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art that, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of 'things.' ... The new art of Suprematism ... has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling."
Chagall didn't paint that way, and it is possible that he did not even understand these ideas. Maybe he would fail an art history exam about the work of the masters whom he knew personally. Richard Dorment says so: "And just as he had assimilated Cubist form without, I think, necessarily understanding it, so now he appropriated Suprematist style without having the slightest idea that for Malevich abstraction was a means toward the elimination of the self in order to achieve a higher level of spiritual experience. Chagall wasn't an explorer and he wasn't an intellectual."
Right, but he was a witness with a memory, and we can appreciate his painted memoirs for what they depict. Meanwhile, Malevich is not interesting or important because of his monochrome rectangles. He is important because he created them, along with radical manifestos, on the eve of the Soviet Revolution. In other words, his pictures belong to an interesting story that also involves his biography and the historical context. If all art--including High Modernism--is contextual, contingent, embedded, narrative, immanent, and local--then it's hardly an accusation to say that Chagall illustrated his own past. Malevich did the same thing, unwittingly. He illustrated the moment of revolutionary ferment around 1914. The question is the quality of Chagall's illustrations (and about that, I must say I have mixed feelings).
July 17, 2009
a discussion of civic identity
This "in lieu of" a substantive post, since today was a long day of teaching and meetings. But I would like to recommend a conversation on a new blog called The Civic Development Network. Several scholars, including me, had an elaborate email discussion last spring about whether people can have "identities" as active citizens. My colleagues were mostly developmental psychologists who are sophisticated about what identities are, in general. The whole discussion is now being posted (with our permission) as a series of blog posts. This is the link to save if you want to follow the discussion or join in by commenting.
July 16, 2009
song of the citizen
(Move cursor after clicking play, and the tool bar will disappear.)
This video is provided courtesy of documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Abelson. It's part of his "Song Of Citizen" project -- a series of innovative Video Op-Eds for the internet exploring what it really means to be an engaged and effective citizen in modern times -- how we-the-people are measuring up -- how we can do better -- and why we must.
July 15, 2009
a reflection on the summmer institute of civic studies
We are now three days into the first annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service (Tufts University). We meet daily for four hours of seminar discussion and then a two-hour talk from a visiting scholar. On a personal level, I am finding the experience deeply gratifying and reinforcing. We sit in the main meeting room of a college of citizenship, decorated with posters about "engagement," "learning," and "democracy." Our students/colleagues are 16 people from around the US and four from other countries who have come together to talk about civic renewal. They are not paying anything, not receiving credit, not formally enrolled, and not being graded. They are here for the love of the subject, and many of them choose to spend their lunch hours and other "free" times continuing to hash out the issues in the readings. The assigned texts have been written by authors who, to a substantial degree, know one another. The first two visiting speakers, Carmen Sirianni and Archon Fung, are also prominently featured on our syllabus (PDF). It's possible that what we have here is an incestuous in-group; but I don't think so. I think this is a diverse but coherent intellectual community, and I feel very privileged to be part of it.
July 14, 2009
investing in democracy: the case of CARE
Investing in Democracy is Carmen Sirianni's extremely important book about how governments at all levels can help citizens and communities to collaborate in addressing public problems. Sirianni argues that "collaborative governance" can address problems that elude regulation and government spending or service, but it can't be done on the cheap. It takes investment in the form of meetings, training, evaluation, tools, methods, and experiments. A great example of how this can work is Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), a program within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CARE makes grants to communities that have formed local partnerships to address environmental issues and determined their local needs. CARE also provides training and technical assistance and puts an interdisciplinary EPA team in partnership with each community. The leadership of CARE rotates among the major departments of EPA so that it doesn't become a mere subsidiary of one department. According to Sirianni and the EPA's Hank Topper, CARE has built a culture of collaboration and has obtained very energetic and enthusiastic support from EPA staff.
However, as I understand it, CARE's funding has been cut by the Obama Administration. I don't see any external pressure for this kind of work, which is not "service," nor "deliberation," nor "transparency," nor online "interactivity." It is long-term governmental investment. CARE was supported by the environmental justice movement, but they cannot push for this kind of investment across the federal government--their interest is limited to environmental issues. In the conversations that I follow, this kind of work is largely overlooked because it involves the executive branch of government (specifically the federal government) and its regulatory and administrative functions. There is much more interest in discussions of legislative issues, in civic education, in grassroots community organizing, and in service.
July 13, 2009
no better time, no worse time
I still feel inspired by last weekend's gathering of 270 people who are committed to a better democracy. "No Better Time" was an open meeting, and not everyone knew about it or was able to come. But those who attended were talented and committed and they had incredible collective assets. They included distinguished scholars, leaders of strong nonprofits, experienced civil servants, clever young technologists, and passionate advocates. They met at a time of exciting opportunities, with the new White House Office of Public Engagement, local communities that are trying innovations such as "participatory budgeting," and the Council of Europe and the World Bank committing to civic engagement.
And yet many of my private conversations were about nonprofits in severe financial stress, even considering the possibility of closing. Both of the convening organizations--the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative--have tight budgets and unstable funding, although they have much potential to flourish. The death of organizations is by no means just a theoretical possibility. For instance, I used to work a lot with the Council for Excellence in Government, a major nonprofit whose size and stability was symbolized, for me, by its large suite of offices on K Street in Washington. CEG is gone. So are the JEHT Foundation and the Beldon Fund, two sources of money for my work over the years. A much bigger period of extinction is about to begin.
Meanwhile, the commitment of major institutions to our cause is both promising and perilous. I have no doubt that the people involved in "civic engagement" in the White House and the World Bank have good intentions and talent. I do have doubts about whether they will be successful, because they face many obstacles. If they fail, phrases like "civic engagement" could be set back for decades. And we are not in the strongest position right now to help them succeed.
July 10, 2009
Havel on the "spiritual or moral dimensions of politics"
(Durham, NH) I think that Vaclav Havel's 1992 speech in Poland is famous, but I am focusing on it for the first time because we have assigned it for our summer institute of civic studies, which starts on Monday.
Not long after the fall of communism, Havel argued that the special ethos of the democratic dissident movements was being lost, and he wanted to "breathe something of the dissident experience into practical politics." He explained:
The dissident movement was not typically ideological. Of course, some of us tended more to the right, others to the left, some were close to one trend in opinion or politics, others to another. Nevertheless, I don't think this was the most important thing. What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one's own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.
By politics with a spiritual dimension, I do not understand politics that is merely technological competition for power, limited to that which can be practically achieved and seeking primarily to satisfy this or that particular interest. Nor do I understand by it a politics that is concerned merely to promote a given ideological or political conception.
I am moved by the idea of politics that's not "technological"--which means, I think, that it's not about trying to get the goal you want (even an altruistic or idealistic goal) in efficient ways. Efficient politics leads to manipulation and social engineering. Havel later adds that the "aim of an ideology ... can be achieved." Ideologies have end-states, such as socialized medicine or a free market. Havel prefers something that can never be achieved, a "never-ending effort" to make the world better by acting well. Each good act leaves a benign "trace."
I am also moved by his understanding that "to follow this path demands infinite tenacity, infinite patience, much ingenuity, iron nerves, great dedication, and last but not least, great courage." That is even more evident 17 years later than it was in 1992, shortly after the great democratic revolutions in Europe and South Africa.
But I am not sure what I think about Havel's main claim--which I haven't quoted so far--that the heart of a better politics is achieving a personal "moral stance." Three possible responses occur to me:
1. The dissidents could be revolutionary by being personally moral in a courageous way, without risking controversy about what was moral. Communism in its later stages was so bankrupt (literally and otherwise) that by simply telling the truth, refusing government jobs, signing manifestos, and so on, one rebuked the system and helped to bring the whole rotten edifice down. Under those circumstances, Catholic conservatives, free-market libertarians, and even Frank Zappa fans could unite without controversy. But that moment ended when they inherited a complex, flawed, but not easily fixed democratic society. Then groups inevitably disagreed about what should be done, and simply being moral on a personal level could no longer repair the world. The dissident experience became basically irrelevant. Havel is nostalgic but not strategic.
2. Havel is right that all we need is to be moral, but the question is: What does morality demand? If you're comfortable answering that question with a phrase like "classical utilitarianism," or "Catholic social doctrine," then you have an adequate political theory. But obviously, it will be controversial, because everything really depends on your moral views. So there will be no consensus or harmony, just a conventional debate about moral positions.
3. Havel is onto something about the need to avoid ideological and technocratic politics, but his emphasis on personal morality is misleading--especially when he talks about "thousands of tiny, inconspicuous, everyday decisions" that are moral. That's not the path to an alternative politics. The right path involves carefully developing and then fighting to protect venues in which people can discuss and address common issues without pursuing pre-determined goals or following pre-determined scripts. It requires specific moral commitments: to equal respect, openness, and "negative capability." As Havel says, "all of this is easy to say but difficult to do."
July 9, 2009
no better time
I'm at the University of New Hampshire for a conference entitled "No Better Time: Promising Opportunities in Deliberative Democracy for Educators and Practitioners." By my unofficial count, more than 200 people [actually, 270] have convened here: college educators, grassroots community organizers, and scholars. The sponsors are the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative, two organizations whose boards I serve on. We're just starting but I am very excited by the group gathered here--its sheer size (considering that people had to pay their own way to get here) and its strength. Ten years ago, an open meeting with this framework would have drawn a much smaller and less experienced crowd.
July 8, 2009
a tendency to generic thinking
When we try to think seriously about what should be done, we have a tendency or temptation to think in generic terms--about categories rather than cases.
- In social science, quantitative research evidently requires categorization; it is the search for relationships among classes of things.
- In applied philosophy/ethics, most of the discussion is about categories that can be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions, e.g., abortion, war, marriage. Thinking about categories allows what Jonathan Dancy calls “switching arguments." For instance, you decide what is good about heterosexual marriages, and if the same reasons apply to gay marriages, you should favor them as well. By thinking categorically, you can switch from one case to another.
- In policy analysis, lots of research is about generic policies: vouchers, foreign aid payments, prison sentences. I should, however, note the important exception that some scholars study major individual policies, such as the decision to invade Iraq or the No Child Left Behind Act.
- In ideological politics, the underlying values are strong general principles, e.g., "markets are good" or "there should be more equality." Categories of policies are then used as wedges for advancing an ideology. For example, libertarians promote school choice in order to demonstrate that markets work better (in general) than governments.
I have a gut-level preference for particularism: the idea that, in each situation, general categories are "marinaded with others to give some holistic moral gestalt" (Simon Blackburn's phrase). That implies that applying general categories will distort one's judgment, which should rather be based on close attention to the case as a whole.
I will back off claims that I made early in my career that we should all be thorough-going particularists, concerned mainly with individual cases and reluctant to generalize at all. My view nowadays is that there are almost always several valid levels of analysis. You can think about choice in general, about choice in schooling, about charters as a form of choice, or about whether an individual school should become a charter. All are reasonable topics. But the links among them are complex and often loose. For instance, your views about "choice" (in general) may have very limited relevance to the question of whether your neighborhood school should become a charter. Maybe the key issue there is how best to retain a fine incumbent principal. Would she leave if the school turned into a charter? That might be a more important question than whether "choice" is good.
The tendency to generalize is enhanced by certain organizational imperatives. For instance, if you work for a national political party, you need to have generic policy ideas that reinforce even more generic ideological ideas. The situation is different if you are active in a PTA. Likewise, if you are paid to do professional policy research, you are likely to have more impact if your findings can generalize--even if your theory explains only a small proportion of the variance in the world--than if you concentrate on some idiosyncratic case. On the other hand, if you are paid to write nonfictional narratives (for instance, as a historian or reporter), you can focus on a particular case.
I'm inclined to think that we devote too much attention (research money, training efforts, press coverage) to generic thinking, and not enough to particular reasoning about complex situations and institutions in their immediate contexts. There is a populist undercurrent to my complaint, since generic reasoning seems to come with expertise and power, whereas lay citizens tend to think about concrete situations. But that's not always true. Martha Nussbaum once noted that folk morality is composed of general rules, which academic philosophers love to complicate. Some humanists and ethnographers are experts who think in concrete, particularistic terms. Nevertheless, I think we should do more to celebrate, support, and enhance laypeople's reasoning about particular situations as a counterweight to experts' thinking about generic issues.
July 7, 2009
the new media literacies
The old "media literacy" meant being able to understand a news broadcast or a commercial; having some idea how it was constructed and how it might manipulate you; being able to choose reliable and relevant broadcasts and avoid junk. Those are still good skills to have. But the new "media literacies" include things like "digital storytelling"--being able to tell a story using words, images, and sound on a website--designing a digital game, or writing a text document online with lots of collaborators.
These are active skills, befitting a more active media environment. They are also highly challenging, and it is definitely not true that "young people today" know how to use them effectively. Quite the contrary--teenagers are less likely than some older groups to spend time doing these things, and I have often found them intimidated by the combination of tech skills and civic/political skills that you need to be effective.
But here are two amazing toolkits people of all ages can use to learn the new media literacies.
2. The New Media Literacies Project at MIT has a large library of training videos and games that are designed to be combined, augmented, and amended by a community of users.
I think this field is in its infancy and we are just learning what skills are important and how to teach them. The best learning is experiential, and I've gained a lot from interactions with both of the projects listed above.
July 6, 2009
New Book: Engaging Young People in Civic Life
Vanderbilt University Press has published Engaging Young People in Civic Life, edited by James Youniss and me, with a forward by former United States Representative Lee Hamilton.
In the forward, Hamilton writes, "I can think of no task more important for the future of American democracy than teaching young people about our system of government and encouraging them to get involved in politics and community service. ... Engaging Young People in Civic Life is tough-minded, data-driven, and unsentimental. It is full of concrete policy proposals for schools, municipalities, service programs, and political parties. It offers all the appropriate scholarly caveats and qualifications. But at its heart, it is a plea to revive American democracy by offering all our young people the civic opportunities they want and so richly deserve."
Table of ContentsForeword - Lee Hamilton
Introduction. Policy for Youth Civic Engagement - Peter Levine and James Youniss
Part I. Youth and Schools
Chapter 1. A "Younger Americans Act": An Old Idea for a New Era - James Youniss and Peter Levine
Chapter 2. Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School - Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh
Chapter 3. Principles That Promote Discussion of Controversial Political Issues - Diana Hess
Part II. Political Environments: Neighborhoods and Cities
Chapter 4. Policies for Civic Engagement Beyond the Schoolyard - James G. Gimpel and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz
Chapter 5. Civic Participation and Development in Urban Adolescents - Daniel Hart and Ben Kirshner
Chapter 6. City Government As Enabler of Youth Civic Engagement: Policy Design and Implications - Carmen Sirianni and Diana Marginean Schor
Chapter 7. Local Political Parties and Young Voters: Context, Resources, and Policy Innovation - Daniel M. Shea
Part III. Policy Models from Other Nations
Chapter 8. Youth Electoral Participation in Canada and Scandinavia - Henry Milner
Chapter 9. Civic Education in Europe: Perspectives from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France - Marc Hooghe and Ellen Claes
Chapter 10. Strengthening Education for Citizenship and Democracy in the UK - David Kerr and Elizabeth Cleaver
Conclusion. The Way Forward - Peter Levine and James Youniss
July 3, 2009
Ward Just, City of Fear
I've taken a break recently from War and Peace (which is heavy to carry on planes), to read the much slimmer war novel City of Fear by Ward Just. This was my third Just novel, the others being Echo House and Forgetfulness. These three excellent books share some common themes. Just's big story is the evolution of official Washington from Kennedy's Camelot to the Reagan Era. The capital changes from a Cold War city--whose leaders were morally troubling but tough, ideological men on the federal payroll as soldiers, politicians, and spies--into a city of fixers: corporate lawyers who instead of litigating make phone calls and pull strings on behalf of clients. The main decline takes place during the Vietnam War, which Just covered and which is clearly a moral linchpin for him. Often the shift occurs within families, creating tensions between Cold-Warrior fathers and fixer sons. The fathers have Midwestern roots, usually in industrial Wisconsin or Downstate Illinois. The Midwest stands for America, in contrast to the "federal city"--which, however, Just evidently loves. Certain parts of DC receive particularly affectionate attention in his pages, especially a corner of Georgetown north of Q and east of Wisconsin that becomes a lofty refuge for several of his characters. Vietnam and France, where the author lives today, also figure repeatedly.
I have emphasized the commonalities, but these are wonderfully diverse novels, each intricately constructed even though a plot summary would retell a lot less action than you'd expect in a fictional book about spies and wars. (Marriages and father/son relations are central.) The narration involves frequent flashbacks, stories within stories, and ruminations told with implied indirect discourse. Sometimes I think the structure is contrived as well as simply complex, as when a character in City of Fear looks up from a conversation to see a relevant event playing on the TV. Then again, coincidences happen--especially to people near the center of power in media-saturated environments. Events really do revolve around them.
July 2, 2009
our dog can read (update)
As previously discussed on this blog, our dog Barkley can read. Here he is with my wife Laura, a certified reading specialist. Barkley's fluency and comprehension have improved since my last post about him, although his vocabulary seems to have hit a plateau at 10 months (similar, perhaps, to the fourth-grade slump found in national reading statistics). One possible explanation is the lack of cultural relevance in his home literacy resources. The first frame of the video shows that he has been looking at a stack of books. But many of the volumes in his home environment emphasize the dominant culture of middle-class humans. Barkley is a dog from very low-SES background. (He was a homeless stray in Alabama less than one year ago.) Perhaps his motivation will improve if he can find more culturally appropriate role-models in both the fictional and informational texts available in his home milieu.
July 1, 2009
I have been flying more days than not lately, and sometimes the process of checking in, lining up, boarding, riding, and waiting can take 13 hours or more--door to door. During that time, there is a constant background of trudging crowds, inane chatter on overhead TVs, music, repetitive warnings, commands, bellowed cell-phone conversations, mechanical welcomes, beeps, pings, shrieks. Sometimes it all seems like an intentional insult. They're saying: You are so mindless that you're better off with the stuff we broadcast than what might otherwise be inside your brains.
On Monday, CNN was covering a live car chase on the highways near Dallas. It had been going on for a long time, and the anchor had been joined by a Texan lawman as the color commentator. The two men occasionally remarked on the seriousness of the situation. "When you have a fugitive traveling at high speed, it's never optimal." "No, we never like to see this." But the chase was entertainment gold. The whole AirTran lounge began to stare at the monitors, faces tipped upward, until the sudden end. I'm not sure exactly what happened, because I wasn't watching the last moment, but I believe the fugitive left his car and was flattened by a truck. CNN showed instant replays with somber commentary and then switched to something else.
Tuesday, another lounge in another city. I'm on the floor with my laptop plugged into a rare socket. My flight is already three hours late, heading for five. Suddenly an offstage voice with maybe an Oklahoma accent barks out: "The remains of a serviceman are being transported. It would be appropriate to stand. Active service personnel and veterans, salute! Civilians, cover your hearts with your hands!" Soon everyone is standing in clusters around the concourse windows, staring at the tarmac. "Present arms!" Paunchy guys in shorts and flipflops salute the glass.
We go back to our air-traffic delays, with maybe a sense that frenetic noise is better than silence.