« September 2009 | Main | November 2009 »

October 30, 2009

Istanbul melancholy

The theme of Orhan Pamuk's autobiographical book Istanbul: Memories of the City is hüzün. That is a Turkish word for melancholy, but it doesn't mean a private sadness that causes one to retreat by oneself. It is a communal sadness, a shared feeling that is perfectly compatible with mass gatherings or everyday sociability.

The special hüzün of Istanbul comes from the juxtaposition of historical grandeur with poverty and decay. It is the massive Byzantine walls of the city, crumbling next to crooked Ottoman houses that burn up or fall down one by one. It is "a cobblestone staircase with so much asphalt poured over it that its steps have disappeared," "marble ruins that were for centuries glorious street fountains but now stand dry, their faucets stolen," "seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain," "little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby."

The word hüzün is Turkish but the idea that Istanbul was melancholy was invented by European visitors in the 1800s. They provided the descriptions of the city, both verbal and visual, that are most influential in Turkey today. And their patronizing, sympathetic, appreciative, critical reaction weighs heavily on Turks like Pamuk. It actually causes the city to change, because when Westerners decry Turkish traditions, Turks repeal them. The Western eye also makes reality seem sad: grandeur in decay. "What I have been trying to explain is that the roots of our hüzün are European," Pamuk writes. "So why is it that I care so much ... about what ... Westerners have to say about Istanbul?"

I have visited this great city twice, for a total of more than 10 days. In what turns out to be traditional style, I have wandered with a scholarly European guidebook through the poor western quarters of the Old City, finding Byzantine ruins, old mosques, and leftover Ottoman wooden houses whose upper stories lean over the streets. I have relished the hüzün that Pamuk has lived with for half a century. Pamuk both shares and criticizes that reaction.

My one disagreement with Pamuk concerns his use of the categories of East and West. Obviously, he knows his city better than I. But my sense is that Istanbul is not uniquely caught between East and West or between Europe and Asia (despite its literal location on that arbitrary border). Rather, the tension is between tradition and modernity.

For instance, Pamuk grew up in a modern apartment building, each floor of which was equipped with pianos that no one played and china in cabinets than no one opened. The whole building was occupied by members of his family, who left their doors open and visited constantly. They were using a modern apartment building to house a traditional Turkish extended family. You could interpret this case as East meeting West. But apartment buildings with pianos are not traditionally "Western." Our American and European ancestors didn't live that way. These are innovations of modernity.

It may be that we have a different relation to modernity in America because it seems more "ours." When an airplane flies overhead, it symbolizes long-distance travel, which is modern and disruptive. But we know that two brothers from Dayton invented that machine, so it doesn't feel as alien as it might in Turkey. Still, the spatial location of the inventor is only one aspect of this technology. The airplane has similar effects in Chicago as in Istanbul.

In general, I am suspicious of the concept of the West, or of Western Civilization, because it seems so vague, internally diverse, and porous. Here are some famous "Westerners": Daniel Boone, Karl Marx, Torquemada, Oscar Wilde, Heidegger, Edison, Malcolm X, Hildegard of Bingen, Catharine the Great, Andy Warhol, Erik the Red, Phyllis Schaffley, Albert Einstein, Paris Hilton. If they have anything in common that a typical Turk does not also share, I'm at a loss to identify it.

I say this because I doubt that the melancholy Pamuk feels (especially as a sensitive and somewhat alienated writer) is as specific to Istanbul as he thinks it is. I suspect the hüzün of Philadelphia and Baltimore is actually rather similar. Like Istanbul, these can be great places to live, and one can love them. But it is hard to escape a sense that their greatness is past and that some kind of alien modernity (or post-modernity) has disrupted their traditions.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 29, 2009

Congress considers civic legislation

From my inbox recently:

For those following at home:

Posted by peterlevine at 10:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 28, 2009

upcoming panel on community organizing

2009 marks both the centennial of the birth of Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky and the inauguration of another Chicago community organizer as President of the United States.

"Alinsky" and "community organizing" trigger very strong negative responses among conservative activists right now, as a quick Google search will reveal. On the other hand, our survey research finds that few Americans have any opinions at all about community organizing, and the most common responses are vague and positive. Those who actually study Saul Alinsky and/or modern community organizing know that the legacy is complex. Community organizing comes in many forms that are sometimes in conflict with each other. Alinsky himself changed his views substantially during his long career.

We will explore these issues on Friday, November 6, 2009 from 12:30pm - 2:30pm in the Crane Room, Paige Hall, Tufts University. It's an open session. An RSVP isn't required, but it's helpful and you can reply here. There will be free food. I will moderate.

Panelists Include:

Cheryl Andes
chief organizer, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization

Sanford Horwitt
author of "Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy"

Danny LeBlanc
CEO, Somerville Community Corporation

Penn Loh
Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, School of Arts and Sciences, Tufts University

Juan Leyton
executive director, Neighbor to Neighbor

Susan Ostrander
Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences, Tufts University

Posted by peterlevine at 9:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 27, 2009

the right way to do a town meeting

Last summer, Democratic Members of Congress fanned out across the country to conduct "town meetings" on health care. They already knew which policies they supported, so these events were not actually the public deliberations that the term "town meeting" implies. They were opportunities for highly motivated individuals to sound off, one at a time, with an elected official in shouting range and cameras rolling. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and not only for the Democratic politicians who organized the "town meetings." I presume that most of the citizens who attended--including the most conservative ones--were pretty dissatisfied as well.

Not long before, the Congressional Management Foundation and a crack team of researchers had conducted an entirely different kind of congressional town meeting--on the equally controversial topic of immigration. People were randomly invited to participate, so as to create a representative group. Balanced materials were provided, and the discussions were moderated. Members of Congress participated but did not moderate. Everything took place online.

The researchers evaluated this experiment carefully, using a randomly selected control group. Here are the findings that I found most striking:

Use a sham process, and you will pay a price. Risk a real discussion, and people may agree with and respect you.

Download Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century here. And here are some related blog posts by me and others: why have town meetings at all?, responses of the deliberation community to last summer's events, and another important academic study by the authors of the new "Online Town Meetings" paper.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 26, 2009

an alternative history of 20th century liberalism

From the 1940s to the 1960s, American liberalism had everything that an ideology should: millions of active adherents, heroes and leaders, supportive organizations (from the AFL-CIO to the ACLU), legislative victories and an unfinished legislative agenda, empirical theories and supportive evidence, and moral principles. The principles could be summarized as the famous Four Freedoms, but we could spell them out a bit more, as follows: The individual liberties in the Bill of Rights trump social goods, but it is the responsibility of the national government to promote social goods once private freedoms have been secured. The chief social goods include minimal levels of welfare for all (the "safety net," or Freedom from Want), equality of opportunity (achieved through public education, civil rights legislation, and pro-competitive regulation in the marketplace), and consistent prosperity, promoted by Keynesian economic policies during recessions.

These ideas had empirical support from sociology and economics and could be developed into a whole philosophy, as John Rawls did in The Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls' theses of the "priority of the right to the good" and "the difference principle" really summarize the whole movement.

Rawls hardly mentions modern history or policies, but he cites and argues with major theorists, such as Kant, Mill, and John Harsanyi. So we could tell a story about American liberalism--understood as a set of ideas--that emphasizes its origins in theoretical debates. Franklin Roosevelt constructed a monument to Thomas Jefferson because he wanted to show liberalism's debts to that enlightenment philosopher; the inside of the Jefferson Monument is bedecked with quotes favorable to the New Deal. Other parts of the liberal synthesis can be traced back to Jefferson's less popular contemporary, Hamilton. Keynes, Brandeis, Gifford Pinchot, and Felix Frankfurter were more proximate intellectual sources. We could understand the New Deal as a development of Victorian liberalism that added arguments in favor of federal activism to combat monopoly, environmental catastrophe, and the business cycle. A story of liberalism as a set of principles, theories, and proposals implies that a revival will require new ideas and a new intellectual synthesis.

But I would tell the story an entirely different way--as the "scaling up" of concrete examples and experiments that were undertaken originally in a highly pragmatic vein. Think, for example, of Jane Addams in 1889. She is a rich and well-educated person who has no possibility of a career (because she is a woman) and who is deeply troubled by poverty in industrial cities. She is impressed by the concrete example of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. She and Ellen Gates Starr move into a house in a poor district of Chicago without a very clear plan for what to do. They launch projects and events, many of which have a "deliberative" flavor--residents come together to read challenging books, discuss, and debate. Out of these discussions come a kindergarten, a museum, a public kitchen, a bath house, a library, numerous adult education courses, and reform initiatives related to politics and unions. Some 2000 people come to Hull House every day at its peak, to talk, work, advocate, and receive services.

In the 1920s, when progressive state governments like New York's start building more ambitious social and educational services, they literally fund settlement houses and launch other institutions (schools, state colleges, clinics, public housing projects, welfare agencies) modeled on Hull House and its sister settlements. Then, when Roosevelt takes office and decides to stimulate the economy with federal spending, he creates programs like the WPA that are essentially Hull House writ large.

Here, thanks to Nancy Lorance, is a WPA-funded recreation worker singing with a group of children who live in the Jane Addams public housing project in Chicago during the New Deal:

The combination of culture, education, public investment, and the very name "Jane Addams Housing Project," pretty much sum up this story of American liberalism as discussion, followed by experimentation, followed by public funding. At the heart of the ideology, so understood, is not a theory but a set of impressive examples.

This is not to deny the intellectual achievement of the movement--Jane Addams, for instance, was an extremely learned and insightful writer. But it suggests that intellectual reflection follows practical experimentation, not the reverse. Even John Rawls can be read as a defender of the concrete reforms of 1930-1970, although he never mentions them. If you find The Theory of Justice persuasive, it's not because you have imagined yourself in the "original position" and reasoned your way to a set of principles that would apply anywhere. It's because you think that a government can make a positive difference by guaranteeing the First Amendment, taxing people to a substantial but not overwhelming extent, and spending the proceeds on education, welfare, and health. If you agree with those theses, it's because of what the actual government has done. The basis of The Theory of Justice is thoroughly experimental.

Today, we have different challenges from those that FDR's America faced in 1932. Climate change, terrorism, de-industrialization, crime, the lack of social mobility over generations, the close association between economic security and educational attainment, and rising health-care costs would make my list of our challenges. If it's right to see mid-twentieth-century liberalism as an expansion of pragmatic experimentation, then we should be looking to today's charter schools, innovative clinics and health plans, land trusts and co-ops, and socially minded business for the concrete cases that merit expansion. We are less in need of major theories than of what Roberto Mangabeira Unger calls a "culture of democratic experimentalism."

Posted by peterlevine at 8:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 23, 2009

the romance of production

This is a tiny scene from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which I visited last week with my 10-year-old.

The museum contains 27,000 square feet of model train layouts, the largest collection in the world. The tracks and dioramas seem to be built and maintained mostly by older men with leathery skin and buzz cuts, although there are opportunities for kids to help. What fascinates me is the nature of the scenes they have chosen to represent. In England, a model railroad museum would show steam engines chugging through picturesque villages, with gothic churches, cricketers on green fields, and grazing cows at every turn. Not so in San Diego, where the trains pass an urban railroad yard, a port, a Western gypsum mine, and an Imperial Valley agricultural town from the 1950s.

The layouts seem realistic to me, complete with dusty access roads, utility shacks, blasted hillsides, barbed wire, abandoned machinery, and guard dogs on chains. It doesn't look like anywhere I'd want to visit, let alone live and work. These are places in serious need of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, or maybe the Wobblies to organize the old gypsum mine. But obviously the men who have hand-made these scenes in loving detail do like such places. Mass production, the extraction of raw materials, and the transformation of nature have a romance for them. Laboring at one 87th of actual size, they respect the manual labor of the real farmworkers and miners and admire the engineers and executives whose orders transformed the West on a vaster scale. It's a legacy that's easy to criticize but worthy of respect.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 22, 2009

the separate conservative base

While I was away last week, Democracy Corps published a study based on focus groups of core Republican voters in Atlanta and Independents in Cleveland. The core or "base" Republicans held several beliefs that really separated them from other voters. They thought that Obama and the Democrats were deliberately trying to destroy the American economic system to pave the way for an authoritarian takeover. They believed that they had special information or insights because they watch people like Glenn Beck who report news that is deliberately hidden by the rest of the media. They felt an obligation to spread this news to other Americans, because the only thing keeping most of their fellow citizens from resisting the Democratic Administration was a lack of information. In contrast, Independents were dissatisfied with and skeptical about the Obama Administration so far, but they believed the president was trying to do a good job and shared their basic values.

According to the Democracy Corps, "the conservative Republican base represents almost one-in-five voters in the electorate, and nearly two out of every three self-identified Republicans." That would imply a major tactical problem for Republicans. Participants in the Democracy Corps focus groups were highly skeptical of the GOP and will demand evidence that the party really shares their views. They will want to hear Republican candidates and party leaders say very explicitly that Obama (or at least Pelosi and Reid) are trying to destroy America. But those claims are exactly what alienate Independents and moderate Republicans.

For the Democrats, the lesson of the focus groups would basically be to ignore the Republican base, who mainly pose a threat to the GOP. Democrats should be careful not to let themselves believe that their important critics are right-wingers who see Obama as a socialist who was born in Kenya. The critics who matter to Democrats are Independents who see Obama as a good and smart American citizen who's trying to help--but who has spent too much money too fast on things like auto and bank bailouts.

I think this is the right advice for Democrats, but I also suspect that the Democracy Corps study overestimates the prevalence of the views they found in the Atlanta focus groups. Participants in those groups matched about one in five voters in their answers to specific poll questions. That's the basis for saying that they represented 20% of the electorate and two thirds of Republicans. But the focus group participants also expressed "adulation" for Glenn Beck. "More than half of the respondents in our conservative Republicans groups indicated that they try to watch or listen to Beck on a daily basis, with some going to great lengths to ensure they (and their families) do not miss a thing." Beck's daily audience is less than 3 million. The number of ballots cast in 2008 was 131 million. John McCain got 60 million votes. So even if you triple Beck's daily audience to estimate the number of voters who closely share his views (and if you assume that all his viewers are eligible to vote), you still get a proportion of the electorate that's more like 7% than 20%--and a proportion of Republican voters that's more like 15% than 66%. That's good news for Republicans because it means they can ignore their own relatively small "base" without as serious a penalty as the Democracy Corps study suggests. For Democrats, it just underlines the importance of addressing the criticisms of moderates, not the attacks by extreme conservatives.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 16, 2009

progress on building a Boston civic network

I am in DC and heading for California for several days of family vacation with our college kid. I'm going offline--no blogging or Facebook notes until about next Thursday. Meanwhile, my Tufts students and I have been mapping the civic networks of Somerville, MA and planning a public website though which people will be able to coordinate their service and civic activities in the Boston area. Our progress is chronicled on this class blog. Most recently, we have been trying to choose a name for our project and make some aesthetic decisions about the planned public site. Comments by friendly outsiders are welcome.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 15, 2009

what makes high quality service?

(Washington, DC). I am here for the annual grantees' meeting of Learn & Serve America, the federal program that funds community service as part of education ("service-learning"). In my own Tufts class last week, funded by L&SA, I asked my students to read the "Starfish Story," which is very widely used to motivate service. (I have previously satirized the story, here).

I asked my class to compare the Starfish Story to some principles that have adopted by our Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts. We say:

Some of the differences that my students identified ...

The guy in the Starfish story doesn't "plan." He doesn't appear to work in a community where he has roots or can be held accountable to the recipients of his service as fellow citizens. He doesn't collaborate with the starfish. He doesn't have standards of quality, certainly not ones that the starfish have helped to develop. There is no connection to research to learning. If the man in the story benefits from his actions, he is not conscious of the benefit.

Posted by peterlevine at 5:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 14, 2009

you're a parrot

From Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg (which I'm not reading, but my wife Laura is):

I have no idea what was really going on in Alex's brain, but I do believe I understand why this story seems so touching. Alex learns that he happens to be a parrot. I happen to be a human being--and not just any human being, but exactly the one who happens to look back at me in mirrors (and who's about as gray as Alex was). It all seems a matter of luck. You could be you, you could be someone else, you could be a very smart African gray parrot, or you could be a sea slug. I imagine a creature walking, crawling, or flapping through life until the point when it is suddenly told what it is. What a blow that could be! Our identity seems completely vulnerable to the whims of chance, not even slightly under our control. I only hope that Alex--if he really learned what he was--was glad about it. That's about the best we can hope for.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 13, 2009

Elinor Ostrom wins the Nobel!

The Nobel Foundation announced yesterday that Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel prize in Economic Sciences. She is the first woman to win the prize and surely one of the few non-economists. When Lin was president of the American Political Science Association, she was a strong voice for civic education and has been a consistent supporter of CIRCLE--a coauthor of our paper on civic education in universities and co-editor of a book that includes my chapter on youth-led research. She was one of the small group of political theorists who originally envisioned the Summer Institute of Civic Studies that we finally turned into a real course at Tufts last July. She is a model practitioner of collaborative community-based research who combines patient, low-profile interactions with practitioners and high-level theory--each enriching the other. She has built an institution, the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, that I see as an ideal model for all "engaged" universities. Before the Nobel Committee snagged her, we awarded her the 2009 Tisch Research Prize.

I started last summer's Institute by reading aloud Margaret Mead's famous exhortation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

I noted that Mead's statement is false, because many other things (wars, governments, floods, plagues) have also changed the world. Mead is also wrong to imply that committed citizens always succeed, or that when they do the results are necessarily good. Mussolini and his fellow fascisti were committed--and even thoughtful in their way--yet they made the world a lot worse. I said that what we need is a real study of active citizenship that includes: (1) empirical evidence about when small groups of citizens can change the world; (2) moral analysis that tells us when their methods and their results are good; and (3) strategic advice about how to support and encourage their most effective and beneficial efforts.

Such research is scarce because social science tends to think first of institutions and macro-level changes, being skeptical about the impact of small-scale, deliberate, citizen politics. (In fact, we citizens have relatively modest effects. But what we do is the most important factor for us to understand; everything else is context.) Further, social science still cannot comfortably handle arguments about values. For their part, moral philosophy and political theory address values but cannot handle strategy. Yet a value or an ideal that has no practicable strategy is worse than nothing.

In my opinion, Elinor Ostrom is one of a small number of thinkers about citizenship who combine empirical insights, moral arguments, and strategies. The ideal for Lin Ostrom is a group of people who manage to overcome collective action problems, such as the "tragedy of the commons," through voluntary action. The tragedy of the commons is enormously important--if we perish as a species, it may be because we fail to address such problems as climate change that can be understood this way. Yet Lin has shown empirically and with great rigor that people can voluntarily overcome collective-action problems--using appropriate rules and techniques, under appropriate circumstances.

Promoting such achievements requires a whole set of strategies, from constitutional and other legal provisions, to reforms of institutions, to research that reveals effective techniques, to civic education that imparts the necessary skills. As just one example of her many reform proposals, Ostrom argues that we should reverse the trend toward consolidating school districts, because each school board teaches its members participatory skills. Going beyond mere proposals, Ostrom has helped to build and lead institutions that promote and embody these ideas. The Nobel Prize will surely help endow the Workshop that she and her distinguished husband Vincent Ostrom have created.

In my ideal university, Ostrom's methods and topics would be right at the heart of the whole enterprise. There is no more important question than "How can we improve the world?" The scarcity of really rigorous answers--not to mention the marginality of the very question--is a scandal. Ostrom's work is a shining exception that richly deserves recognition. As one of my colleagues wrote last night, "this is the first Nobel Prize for civic studies."

Posted by peterlevine at 9:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 12, 2009

young Latinos and the decision to pursue college

According to a new report by my friend and former colleague Mark Hugo Lopez, "Nearly three-quarters (74%) of all 16- to 25-year-old [Latinos] who cut their education short during or right after high school say they did so because they had to support their family." Almost ninety percent of Latinos "say that a college education is important for success in life," a higher rate than in the population as a whole. Yet Latinos' actual college attendance rates are low, and their expectations of going to college are not much higher. (Only 48% "say that they themselves plan to get a college degree.") It sounds as if a significant part of the problem is a tradeoff between the short-term necessity of contributing to family income versus the long-term need for higher education. This is a trap if there ever was one.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 9, 2009

skepticism about youth and diversity

Today's young Americans--the Millennials--think of themselves as remarkably tolerant and appreciative of differences, including differences of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and country of origin. They are conscious that their generation is the most demographically diverse in history and that the public worlds of entertainment and politics have grown more diverse. Young people are extremely unlikely to oppose interracial marriage, to favor segregated neighborhoods, or to say that they wouldn't vote for a Black presidential candidate. Those are traditional measures of racism--developed in the days of Jim Crow, when whites frequently gave what I would call the racist responses.

But young Americans do not hold particularly liberal views about race and policy, especially in contrast to their strongly liberal views on economic regulation, government support for education, and environmentalism. In last year's National Election Study, when young white Americans (age 18-29) were asked their opinion about government assistance to Blacks, 59% were against (27% strongly so) and 18% in favor (2% strongly). A small majority (53%) thought the federal government should help Blacks get fair access to jobs.

Young Americans today are less likely to interact regularly with peers across the white/black or white/Hispanic line than they were when I was young. School-level racial segregation has increased. Monoracial religious congregations remain the norm as well. Thus most young white people have "mediated" rather than personal relationships with African Americans and Latinos--via news and entertainment.

I would propose the following rather pessimistic hypothesis. If you grow up in direct, daily contact with people of different races from your own, you may have various complex feelings that include negative prejudices, resentments, and memories of unpleasant experiences. But you may also have a realistic view of racial issues and some commitment to making things better. If, on the other hand, you grow up thinking that your world is highly diverse--but you have little actual contact with people of different races--you can convince yourself that you're wonderfully tolerant and appreciative. Yet you can have no sense of the difficulty of actually working with people across racial lines.

Two pieces of evidence feed this suspicion. One is research about the negative correlation between perceived discussions of politics and racial diversity. For instance, in a CIRCLE working paper, David Campbell found that, "as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools." Campbell proposes that teachers shy away from controversial issues in diverse classrooms. But I and others have suggested an alternative theory. We think that when classrooms are homogeneous, students think that they have discussed difficult issues. When classrooms are diverse, students know that they have barely scratched the surface.

The second piece of evidence is autobiographical. I attended schools that were quite well integrated in the sense that the numbers of African American and white students were roughly equal. But those schools were internally segregated in terms of social networks, courses, activities, and trajectories after graduation. I think that experience--not uncommon in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was in school--left me with fairly complex but also realistic views about diversity, segregation, and the persistence of racism. I remain pretty self-critical and unsatisfied when it comes to racial issues. I am also quick to reject what I consider simplistic solutions. It worries me that Millennials may lack that sense of struggle.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 8, 2009

who wants to deliberate?

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey have written a really important paper entitled "Who Wants to Deliberate - and Why?" It is a rich and complex document that reports the results from a new national survey plus an experiment.

Overall, the paper complicates and challenges the "Stealth Democracy" thesis of John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (my review of which is here). The "Stealth Democracy" thesis is that people have the following preferences:

On the basis of their survey data, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse conclude that "getting people to participate in discussions of political issues with people who do not have similar concerns is not a wise move." Deliberative democracy "would actually do significant harm." According to the new paper, however, citizens hold ambivalent and complex feelings about each of the options listed above; and they are quite supportive of a fourth choice--deliberative representative democracy (a conversation between citizens and elected officials.)

One way to get a flavor of this fascinating paper is to compare survey questions from Hibbing and Theiss-Morse with new questions from Neblo et al:

By asking questions that are opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's items, Neblo et al. reveal that even most people who hold anti-democratic views are actually quite ambivalent. Most of those people also hold pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people are in favor of real dialog and deliberation, but unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress. That, by the way, would be roughly my own view.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. They were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they don't reject deliberation in principle but dislike the official debates that they hear about or watch on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if they showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, "95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are 'very valuable to our democracy' and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues." These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments. So are the open-ended responses of participants:

The short answer to the question, "Who wants to deliberate?" seems to be: "A lot of people, but especially those who are most alienated from politics as usual." That suggests that real deliberative democracy, as organized by the National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, and others, may be the best antidote to deep skepticism and alienation.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 7, 2009

Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy

Last summer, about 100 representatives of various strands of democratic reform work came together in Washington, DC to create a common agenda. Among the participants were advocates of electoral reform, voting rights, and campaign finance reform; practitioners of public deliberation and advocates of consulting with citizens; federal civil servants who have created and managed programs that involve collaboration with nonprofit groups and communities; grassroots community organizers; activists for participatory democracy overseas; and educators who are concerned about teaching civic skills to students and to communities.

Thanks to remarkable facilitation by AmericaSpeaks President Carolyn Lukensmeyer and a small team of other leaders, the whole group was able to pull together a single agenda after just two very long and intense days of discussion. The result is here .

I do not think this agenda is completely comprehensive--it's mostly focused at the federal level and it's perhaps not strong enough on culture change--but it is an extremely important document. If we can achieve this agenda, we will transform American democracy.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 6, 2009

War and Peace: an ethical interpretation

The moral backbone of Tolstoy's War & Peace seems to be a distinction, or maybe a continuum. Simple, authentic virtue is at one end, and complexity, affectation, and vice are on the other:

simplicity/authenticity/virtue ‹------› complexity/affectation/vice
Peasants, especially Karataev, who "had no attachments, friendship, or love ...; but he loved and lived lovingly with everything that life brought his way, especially other people--not any specific other people, but those who were there before his eyes" (973). Aristocrats, especially salon-goers like Kuragin and Anna Pavlovna Scherer; also rakes and seducers
Russian culture (e.g., Natasha's peasant dance) French civilization (a ball)
Russian intellectual humility: "A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it is possible to know anything fully" (639). "... the sweeter it was for [Marya] to think that the wish to understand everything was pride, that it was impossible to understand everything ..." (659). German philosophy and theory; English competence
The country, the regiments, Moscow, the Church The court, the general staff, St. Petersburg, the Masons and philosophers
A military commander as fatalist, merely trying to prevent complicated efforts that might make things worse (Katusov) A military commander as genius, employing grand strategy (Napoleon)
The Russians at Borodino (saving the fatherland) The Russians at Austerlitz (trying to achieve glory)
The "national war" of Russian partisans against the French invaders (1033) A traditional war of armies on battlefields
Peaceful idleness. "Biblical tradition says that absence of work--idleness--was the condition of man's first blessedness before the fall" (488). In "his ability ... to sit motionless and think, doing nothing, Pierre semed something of a mysterious and supreme being" (1014) Pointless activity. "No one in the house ordered so many people around or gave them so much work as Natasha. She could not look at people indifferently. without sending them somewhere" (518). This period leads to her moral crisis.
Silence: "A continual restraint of speech" (1075) Speech, chatter
Fatalism: "this very absence of purpose gave him that full, joyful awareness of freedom which at that time constituted his happiness" (1103) Purposive action, striving
Limitations/deprivation. "A superfluity of life's comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one's needs, and ... a greater freedom to choose one's occupation the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position--precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult" (1013). "One had to wait and endure" (1015). Apparent freedom, choice. "All unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity" (1060).

At first, I read with great resistance, because this moral scheme seems wrong to me. If you have the choice, shouldn't you be bilingual rather than monolingual, curious rather than ignorant, and ambitious for the good rather than fatalistic and passive?

But then I began to realize that the moral scheme is more complicated. Complexity and artifice are always bad in War and Peace, but they have several alternatives--as symbolized by the fates of the main characters:

If Pierre is the moral heart of the novel, I can find a spirit here to endorse.

(All quotations from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage, 2007)

Posted by peterlevine at 9:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 5, 2009

worthless art?

Background: According to Richard Dorment in The New York Review, Andy Warhol had a picture of himself taken in a photo booth in 1965. He had the image transferred to acetate plates so that he could turn it into a silkscreen print. However, at the suggestion of a friend, he decided "to send the acetates to a commercial printer for silkscreening." As a result, he never touched the prints, although in 1969 he signed one and dedicated it to his dealer Bruno Bischopfberger. Later, it became Warhol's standard practice to have his works manufactured commercially and then sign them. In 1970, the same self-portrait was reproduced on the cover of Warhol's catalogue raisonné (a book purporting to show all of an artist's authentic work). Presented with this volume, a delighted Warhol signed his name across the cover.

Nowadays, there is an "Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc." that determines whether individual objects are genuine "Warhols." The Board has denied that the self-portrait of 1965 is genuine. "It is the opinion of the authentication board that said work is NOT the work of Andy Warhol, but that said work was signed, dedicated, and dated by him." When the Board has physical control of a disputed work that it rejects, Dorment writes, the work "is mutilated by stamping it in ink on the reverse with the word "DENIED"—thereby rendering the picture unsaleable even if the board later changes its mind."

Dorment launches a fierce attack on the Board. But how can its actions make objects "worthless"? If you think a Warhol is a striking image that would enliven your wall, you can buy one and prize it even if the back has been stamped "DENIED." In fact, you can make your own version of this perfectly reproducible object and it will be as striking as the one Warhol had manufactured in 1965.

If you think a Warhol has value because the physical object is directly connected to the late artist of that name, the connection that you prize is real (or not) regardless of what the Authentication Board says.

If you bought a Warhol at auction, you may fear that the "DENIED" stamp will cause its resale value to plummet. But the resale value is just a function of what other people think about the object. Why should you substitute their opinion for yours?

For myself, I would much rather have a Warhol with a DENIED stamp applied by a Pynchonesque "Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc." To me, the stamp would not be a "mutiliation" of the original object, but a consummation of the original concept. In fact, if a DENIED Warhol were available for cheap, I might buy it on the bet that those stamps will become priceless.

The conceptual art of Duchamp and Warhol made theoretical points that really couldn't have been argued in prose. These two forced us to acknowledge that a work of art is a physical object, basically like a toaster; and the magical aura that we associate with it because it was hand-made by a genius is a bit of a joke. They played with use-value, market-value, authenticity, creativity, originality, fame, and mechanical reproduction. I think their points, having been made, can now be pretty much left behind. Beautifully crafted individual objects remain worth making and appreciating. But if you're going to collect Warhols, I don't think you can be too upset if some officials dispute their authenticity. This whole business requires a sense of humor.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:50 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 2, 2009

conservatism in the Obama administration

I'm interested in the following rule published recently by the Federal Corporation for National and Community Service:

The Corporation has been bitterly criticized for allegedly brainwashing young people to be supporters of President Obama's radical socialist agenda. But this rule couldn't be much more conservative. It would be a balanced policy, in my view, if it supported education on "heroes" and "military history" and on social movements and concepts of justice; or if it stressed the "importance of service" and the importance of social reforms and governmental programs. But it is almost entirely in the rightward side.

I'm glad to see that Corporation funds will be used for civic education. I think that the projects supported under this provision may be valuable. I'm only supportive, however, because I am personally open to relatively conservative approaches to civics. From a political perspective, I think it's noteworthy that the Obama Administration would publish such a conservative rule. The people who should be mad about the president's service agenda are not conservatives, but liberals.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 1, 2009

assessing higher education

I used to think that a "good" college or university was one where the students had excellent skills and the professors published lots of fine scholarship. But colleges and universities can select students and faculty who are already great before they show up. An institution that has very strong market position basically uses its admissions office to guarantee a talented student body and its hiring committees to produce an illustrious faculty. It doesn't have to educate well.

One might hope that the way to attain a strong market position is to provide an excellent education. But I think that's only one factor among many. Imagine two schools:

1. Low Budget State starts with no reputation. It has a fairly drab campus; entering students have low average SATs. The dedicated faculty and staff have really thought about curriculum and pedagogy and deliver a great education, appropriate for their students. Prospective applicants may realize that the teaching is good, although this is a little hard to tell because test scores and job prospects are not too impressive. What's more, prospective students know that they won't get much reputational advantage from attending this school, nor will the amenities be very comfortable, nor will the other students be especially stimulating, nor will they enter powerful alumni networks. So the best qualified students may turn their attention to ...

2. Legacy University, which was was founded in 1750. Its campus is on the Register of National Historic Treasures and three of its alumni have become presidents of the United States. People have heard of it as far away as China. It only accepts one in 20 of its applicants and is able to screen for very high SATs. The faculty and staff are quite uninterested in undergraduate education. However, there are tremendous amenities, including the palazzo in Venice and the observatory at the South Pole. Discussions among students are very stimulating and educational, because the university is so selective. Graduates run the country, thanks to the advantages of a diploma.

This imaginary example hints at some real problems. The system provides few incentives for actually teaching students. Young people from advantaged background have a huge leg up in the admissions process and thereby reap most of the advantages. Public subsidies (grants and tax deductions for alumni donations) help to underwrite this stratified system. The whole thing might be justifiable if it were the best way to generate high-quality research and culture. But I am not sure this works, because it is easier for Legacy University to hire established scholars than to develop their scholarly skills. As for Low Budget State--its faculty have little time for publishing and are locked out of prestigious scholarly networks.

It's modestly helpful to have alternative rankings that don't use reputation or entering students' SAT scores, as US News and World Report does, but instead try to measure "value added." Washington Monthly is the leader here. But such alternative rankings won't help if there are rational reasons for students and faculty to opt for reputation over impact.

Another approach is to evaluate the impact of teaching and scholarship and let incentives (such as tenure, salary, and government grants) go to those who add the most value. This strategy makes professors nervous because they imagine someone giving a simplistic, multiple-choice assessment of subtle material. For instance, if the purpose of reading the Phaedrus is to spark in the student's soul a yearning for wisdom, can you imagine a pre/post survey that measures what's important? ("Mark the answer that comes closest to your opinion. 1. My soul completely shuns wisdom. 2. My soul is indifferent to wisdom. 3. My soul is strangely drawn to wisdom ....") There are also valid concerns about restrictions on intellectual freedom--not to mention illegitimate concerns about having to work harder.

I think it's incumbent on us to figure out better ways to assess impact. That won't solve the problem, but it will at least help prospective students and faculty who want to go where the education is best.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Site Meter