December 22, 2010
could we crowdsource civic renewal?
I am professionally and personally committed to "civic renewal": strengthening the capacities of citizens to solve problems, influence government, and create public goods. In the past, citizens gained those capacities as members of organizations, but we have lost most of the relevant ones. On the other hand, we now have the Internet and all its tools for online engagement. Could we bypass organizations and create a loose, self-organized, completely voluntary network for civic renewal?
"Crowdsourcing" means issuing an open call to collaborate on some common task, such as improving open-source software, contributing entries to Wikipedia, or detecting fraud and abuse in a government's budget. Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a sophisticated statement of the crowdsourcing idea, albeit without a specific focus on civic renewal.
Helpfully, Shirky invokes Ronald Coase's "theory of the firm," first proposed in 1937. Coase set out to explain why firms existed, since one might expect that in a market, individuals would simply come together to produce and sell goods. In fact, that occasionally happens: some independent movies are made by ad hoc teams that hold together only for the duration of the production. But independent films are unusual; much more important in the global marketplace are relatively durable companies that have administrative hierarchies, clear boundaries, fairly stable personnel, and offices that serve regular functions, such as payroll, legal counsel, and sales.
Coase explained that the transaction costs necessary to put together ad hoc teams were usually too high; firms were more efficient, even though their bureaucracies introduced costs. One could say the same thing about not-for-profit associations in Coase's era. Like firms, the NAACP, the Knights of Columbus, and the League of Women Voters saved transaction costs for individuals who were interested in working together.
However, as Shirky argues, information technology has now reduced transaction costs to the point that it is often no longer necessary to create firms or other organizations. He offers (pp. 31-33) a compelling example: the "extravagant and weird" Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, New York. This annual event is evidently worth documenting and describing in detail. Decades ago, it wouldn't have been covered unless media companies sent reporters or someone organized a newsletter just for the parade. They would have needed funding, personnel, and an audience. But now, anyone who takes a picture or writes a blog post about the Mermaid Parade can cheaply give it away online. Moreover, if people use common phrases to identify ("tag") all descriptions of the parade, then anyone who searches for those tags will find a whole anthology of descriptions and photos. The most popular material will rise to the top in the search results.
In this case, the traditional functions of a magazine are rendered superfluous by technology. So we should consider whether we could avoid the challenges of creating or strengthening civic organizations by issuing an open call to "crowdsource" civic renewal. In past eras of reform, organizations were certainly essential. The League of Women Voters was founded by women's suffragists in 1920, on the eve of their winning the right to vote, as a durable mechanism for improving the quality of American democracy. In the same era, the great reform senator Robert M. La Follette tried to spark civic renewal with the People's Legislative Service, the Progressive Party, and the NAACP, all groups that he founded or played a role in starting. Almost 50 years later, Ralph Nader launched Public Citizen and John Gardner founded Common Cause with similar methods and motivations. In each of these cases, leaders recruited members to contribute dues that paid for professional staff and overhead.
But in January 2010, a documentary filmmaker and political theorist named Annabel Park simply wrote a short manifesto on her Facebook page against the Tea Party, the conservative grassroots movement that had sprung up soon before. She defined her opposition not to conservatism but to divisiveness and negativity. Many thousands of people joined her on Facebook and began to form the alternative network that she recommended, called the Coffee Party. In less than a month, Park also had a video on YouTube that called for a movement, and within weeks, more than 400 face-to-face meetings of the Coffee Party had been held. By voting online, members of the free and open movement chose financial reform and campaign finance reform as their priorities and began to lobby Congress.
At first national meeting of the Coffee Party, in Louisville, KY, the legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig electrified the audience with a proposal to "crowdsource" campaign finance reform. In contrast (although not in opposition) to the traditional campaign finance reform organizations, such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, Lessig had created a loose, online network called Fix Congress First to lobby for reform. Visitors to his website were asked to organize local house parties, "spread the word," pledge not to contribute financially to any federal candidates who refused to back reform, and contact Members of Congress. Because of a combination of its goal (nonpartisan political reform) and its format (loose, voluntary, and viral) Fix Congress First was a perfect match for the Coffee Party.
It would be risky to make any predictions about these developments so early in their history. I certainly hope they succeed and believe that they will contribute to the goals I care about. Yet I doubt it is fully possible to crowdsource civic renewal. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor who has deep understanding of democratic theory and civic themes, has been experimenting with crowdsourced journalism projects: efforts to generate valuable news and information by issuing open calls to volunteers. He has observed three preconditions for success. First, in a crowdsourced project, because people no longer sit together to discuss assignments, you need "extreme clarity about tasks and goals." Lawrence Lessig, for example, asks volunteers to call specific members of Congress to ask them to support particular legislation. Rosen has had equal success posting lists of people who need to be interviewed and asking volunteers to conduct the interviews and post their notes online. But asking people to construct a whole news article, design legislation, or govern a local asset would require too much discussion and deliberation to succeed by crowdsourcing.
Second, an open call for assistance must go to a pre-existing group with a "shared background narrative." In Rosen’s example, participants in the liberal blog Talking Points Memo were able to collaborate online on very short notice to scan a ream of leaked Justice Department documents to find embarrassing evidence about the Attorney General. They were successful because they already agreed on that goal, its importance, and what would count as relevant evidence. Most of the prominent examples of successful crowdsourcing come from domains such as software design, in which the goals are fairly self-evident. But politics is laden with values and is profoundly contentious, so that virtually no two people have exactly the same political objectives and beliefs. If their relevant values and ideas differ, they need to talk before they collaborate. They can certainly talk online instead of face-to-face, but their conversation needs structure and moderation. They can only crowdsource a problem once it has become a discrete element of some larger political project that they already share.
Finally, the example of Talking Points Memo points to a condition that is somewhat less explicit in Rosen’s presentation. The people who receive an open call must know and trust the person who sent it. As Rosen says, "If people have been following you, then you can enlist them." For example, when the British newspaper The Guardian asked its readers to examine former Prime Minister Tony Blair's financial documents to determine the sources of his income, they did so because they had expertise to contribute, they had received a clear request, they disliked Blair, and they trusted The Guardian. If I issued a call to help with some aspect of civic renewal, my friends might help. But my friends are not very numerous, and other people would have no reason to trust me or even to notice my call. The examples of successful "viral" messages, like Annabel Park's manifesto for the Coffee Party, are vastly outnumbered by messages that no one reads but our own narrow circle of friends.
For civic renewal, these requirements create serious challenges. We do not have many people or organizations that are capable of issuing calls for help to large numbers of loyal followers. The hep they need is subtle and complex: developing ideas for legislation rather than simply calling members of Congress to vote for it. And even within the nascent civic renewal movement, differences of values, priorities, and tactics are profound, so participants would (understandably) want to debate before they acted. If the Coffee Party can morph into an organization, I will be excited. It has not shown that organizations are superfluous.
In short, I think crowdsourcing techniques will be valuable once we have moved to the point where we agree that we need information, money, or people to contact government or boycott particular industries. Those do not seem our most pressing needs at this point, except in areas like campaign finance reform where appropriate legislation is already before Congress. (But note that even a large number of phone calls will probably not get such legislation passed against the interests of major industries and incumbent politicians.)
December 21, 2010
12 good signs for the new year
Nancy Thomas of the Democracy Imperative has collected 12 positive and recent news items about civic engagement, youth, and education. In lieu of my own post on this surprisingly busy day, I recommend Nancy's list, which is especially valuable at a moment when spirits seem to be lagging.
December 20, 2010
Ian McKellen's Now is the winter of our discontent
I admire unexpected, imaginative stagings of Shakespeare that are not stunts but that reveal meanings in the original text. There are many such moments in Ian McKellen's film version of Richard III (1995). He has cut and edited Shakespeare's text heavily, but his reading is powerful and illuminating.
This clip shows the first 8 minutes, including Richard's famous opening soliloquy, "Now is the winter of our discontent ..." The movie actually begins with a preceding, wordless scene in which Richard murders Edward, Prince of Wales and Henry VI to put Edward IV ("the son of York") on the throne. That scene vividly conveys that we are in England around 1930. There has been a fascist takeover, involving the military officer corps and the aristocracy, with the royal family as at least titular rulers. And there has been a bloody split among royal factions. The analogy to the Wars of the Roses five centuries earlier is provocative.
The clip opens with quick shots of several buildings that will serve as scenes and symbols in the film. Among others, these include St. Pancras Station, a great Victorian building (transported in the film to Westminster), which is Edward's seat of government, and St. Cuthbert's church in London, a fantastic example of late-Victorian Arts and Crafts style architecture, where a "merry meeting" will occur. These buildings stand for the old world (pre- World War I) that is Edward's. Richard will govern from the fascist-looking, quasi-modernist Senate House building of the University of London. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a big band rendition of Marlowe's "Come Live with Me and By My Love," which nicely marries the music of the 1930s with the language of the 1600s.
Before anyone speaks, we are quickly introduced to all the major characters. To name just a few, the loving Queen Elizabeth is shown playing and dancing with her innocent young son, later to be murdered in the Tower. The King is shown as a sick and aging Edwardian. The Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-puffing magnate, conspiring with the uniformed Richard like a Weimar industrialist with Hitler. Earl Rivers is the dissolute fellow leaving a tryst with a cabin attendant on a Pan Am flight.
Richard's opening lines are presented as a public speech, not a soliloquy. From "Now is the winter ..." to "... fright the souls of fearful adversaries," he is addressing the court with a toast. (See 5:39 to 6:44 on the video.) These sentences are usually presented as sarcastic--delivered privately by a venomous, hunchbacked villain to himself or the audience. But they are literally words of praise, and in this rendition, Richard addresses them smilingly to the Yorkists.
But then, with "He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber" (line 22), Richard is alone, standing before a urinal and then a men's room mirror. These are the kinds of private places where we rue our own deformities of body and of spirit. Richard then catches our eye in the mirror, turns directly to the camera, and tells us the truth: that he is "determined to prove a villain." Throughout the movie, Richard will almost always dissemble to other characters but speak truthfully into the camera. Finally, around line 32, the scene moves to the Thames Bankside where Clarence is being transported to prison, and Richard becomes a narrator of events happening in real time.
McKellen has shrewdly divided the 35-line soliloquy into four rhetorical sections, delineating them with changes of settings and perspective, and thus revealing what I think is the real structure of the speech. The whole film is rich with such insights and recovers some of the original shock value of Shakespeare's over-quoted but under-appreciated early play.
December 17, 2010
doing the same thing again and expecting different results is not insane
Is it just me, or are people suddenly citing the following quote all over the place: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results"? It is variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain, but may actually come from mystery writer Rita Mae Brown. In any case, it's false because:
1. Even if it is an example of insane behavior, it is not the definition of it.
2. It is often not insane, or even unwise. Any time there is a less-than-100-percent chance of obtaining a great outcome by doing something, you should consider repeating that something until you get the payoff. Quitting after a few attempts would be--if not insane--dumb.
(People who repeat this phrase seem to expect good results even though stating it hasn't achieved anything in the past. That does not make them insane but it does make them inconsistent.)
December 16, 2010
federal policy and civic skills report
Last April, CIRCLE convened scholars, civic leaders, and federal officials met in Washington to develop a federal policy agenda for civic skills. Thirty-three of the participants (not including any federal officials) jointly wrote and signed a report that we released yesterday. Some highlights:
"American citizens and communities can address our nation’s fundamental problems. But to do so requires civic skills, especially the ability to gather and interpret information, speak and listen, engage in dialogue about differences, resolve conflicts, reach agreements, collaborate with peers, understand formal government, and advocate for change."
"Civic associations—among other institutions–have developed their members’ skills throughout American history. But these associations are in deep decline (notwithstanding some important new forms of online association), and therefore we cannot count on the public’s civic skills to be adequate in the decades ahead."
Among the recommendations:
"Across federal agencies, develop common principles, values, and language that help build the civic capacities of civil servants and that nurture authentic public engagement. This objective may require both an inter-agency working group on skills within the federal government and convening others outside the government to develop common principles and strategies."
"Redirect service-oriented programs and opportunities so that they become civic-skill-building and community-capacity-building programs. Go beyond the 'service' language. At the same time, recognize that some service and service-learning programs already have strong records of developing civic skills."
Read the whole thing in PDF here.
December 15, 2010
on public work and alienation
Neighbors love a local stream and are concerned about its health. Thanks to them, a pedestrian footbridge is built over it to provide access and to reduce car pollution. It doesn't matter much whether people cause the bridge it to appear by lobbying the local government to build it, persuading a private company to donate it, or physically erecting it themselves. So long as the bridge was their idea and the fruit of their collective discussion and effort, several advantages are likely to follow: 1) Because they designed it, it will meet their needs and reflect their talents. 2) Because they made it, they will feel a sense of ownership and will be motivated to protect it. 3) Because they are formally equal as neighbors, not ranked in a hierarchy, each will feel a sense of dignity and status. 4) In shaping their public world together, they will gain a feeling of satisfaction and agency that is available nowhere else. And 5) By combining discussion with collaborative action, they will develop skills, relationships, and political power that can transfer to other settings.
None of these outcomes is guaranteed, nor would I ignore the possibility of arguments, tensions, and downright failures. But some of the advantages are impossible to obtain in other ways.
The bridge is just a metaphor. We don't need to burden the earth with unlimited numbers of new structures. Restoring nature is equally valuable, as are various forms of non-tangible and non-permanent goods: events, performances, ideas, cultural innovations.
I don't think that who owns the good is of fundamental importance. There are five basic options: no ownership at all (which is the case with the high seas), government ownership, an individual owner, a for-profit corporate owner, or a nonprofit corporate owner. These legal arrangements are relevant, but they do not determine whether people can do public work together. Other factors, such as motivations, norms, expectations, and rewards, interact with the legal status of goods in various complex ways.
Thus a great example of a publicly created space might be a coffee house, papered with posters for local events, populated by a cross-section of the community. That coffee house may belong to and profit one person, who (along with his or her customers) can rightly feel responsible for building a common space. Meanwhile, a government-owned underpass nearby may be the most forbidding and hostile, anti-public space in town.
As Elinor Ostrom noted in her Nobel Prize Lecture, how people manage a common-pool resource depends in part on whether they are organized as (for instance) “private water companies, city utilities, private oil companies, and local citizens meeting in diverse settings.” Their behavior differs, too, depending on the rules of the game: for example “when they meet monthly in a private water association, when they face each other in a courtroom, and when they go to the legislature.” Despite these differences, Ostrom and her colleagues have begun to build one overall framework for understanding the management of common-pool resources--a framework that tends to downplay the dichotomy between state and private sector that seems fundamental in other theories. One could say that in this framework, citizens are at the center and they have available a plurality of institutional forms and combinations of forms.
Still, I think there is a sense of "public" that makes the creation of public goods particularly precious. My imaginary bridge and coffee house may have different legal status, but they share the advantages listed in the first paragraph above. The outputs of government bureaucracies and private corporations usually lack those advantages, which is why people are alienated from the world that those entities jointly create. Governments can incorporate public creativity and work into their operations, and that would be the best way to make people like the government more. Unfortunately, it is not the main trend in public administration anywhere in the developed world.
December 14, 2010
federal leverage as an employer, and higher education
The federal government provides full-time employment for 2.8 million civilians. In a given month, the feds may hire 50,000 new employees. Imagine if they said: "We are looking for people who have civic skills, who can analyze complex public or social issues and problems in collaboration with other people, including lawyers, scientists, and laypeople. Moreover, we propose to measure those skills in our potential employees--either by giving evaluations to individuals, or by evaluating the educational programs that they have completed." The result would be a scramble to provide more effective civic education at the college level. Private employers might also take the government's lead, since many civic skills are also job skills useful in the private sector.
December 13, 2010
I support the tax deal
(Washington, DC) My inbox is full of denunciations of the Obama/GOP tax deal, but I support it. Until very recently, additional Keynsian stimulus seemed politically impossible. No one was even talking about it. Now we can have a stimulus package larger than the one enacted in 2009. About 32% is devoted to maintaining the upper-income tax cuts, which are unfair and inefficient as stimulus. But even that part of the bill is likely to have some stimulative effects, and the rest of the package will be better. I'd rather see spending on infrastructure and a small increase in the upper-income tax rate, but those aren't options. The realistic alternative is preserving the status quo, which is worse.
It's fine with me if liberal groups attack the upper-income tax rates. Their critique is valid on its face and could help when the cuts come up for reauthorization in 2012. And it's fine with me if many Democrats in Congress vote against the bill. It's almost always better to vote against an economic package: you can claim you favored something better. So why not let the Republicans take the heat for voting "yea"? But I hope the bill passes and I hope the president gets some credit on the left for it.
I could certainly be wrong in my overall judgment of the bill. I am, however, fairly sure of two points. First, it's a general mistake to evaluate legislation as a "win" for one party and a "loss" for the other. Government isn't a game, and most legislation is either win-win or lose-lose, not zero-sum. The question is whether Americans will benefit, not which party won. Second, it's a mistake to assess this deal as an indication of whether President Obama will be nice or hostile to Republicans. The deal is the deal: it provides little or no information about the future of relations in DC.
December 10, 2010
the philosophical foundations of civic education
Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro and I have published an article under this title in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly. It is actually a version (with due permission) of a chapter we published in The Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, edited by Lonnie Sherrod, Judith Torney-Purta, and Constance A. Flanagan (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). Here it is online.
We note that educating young people for citizenship is an intrinsically moral task. Even among reasonable people, moral views about citizenship, youth, and education differ. We describe conflicting utilitarian, liberal, communitarian, and civic republican conceptions and cite evaluations of actual civic education programs that seem to reflect those values. We conclude:
With a few exceptions, such as Facing History and Just Communities, one cannot find much explicit moral argumentation in either the justifications or the evaluations of civic programs. Disclosing one’s own ethical judgments as facts about oneself is relatively straightforward. Defending them is harder, especially if one does not resort automatically to utilitarianism. Moral argumentation requires a shift out of a positivist framework, as one gives non-empirical reasons—reasons that go beyond observable facts— for one’s positions. Moral philosophy and normative social theory—as we have argued—provide rich resources for arguments about the values that society should hold and that it ought to try to transmit through civic education to future generations.
Alas, references to influential and relevant schools of philosophy, such as the capabilities approach of Sen and Nussbaum, are entirely missing in the empirical literature on youth civic engagement. The problem, however, goes both ways. Recent academic philosophy in all of its schools has not benefited enough from reflecting on innovative youth programs, a method that Plato, Erasmus, Rousseau, Dewey, and others found generative in earlier times.
December 9, 2010
Matt Leighninger on a vital moment
You should read Matt Leighninger's paper for the Bertelsmann Foundation, "Vitalizing Democracy Through Public Participation: A Vital Moment" (pdf). Here are some quotes to give a flavor, but the whole argument is important:
Obama was educated in the same community organizing tradition that has influenced the broader evolution of democratic governance and local politics. His campaign speeches were full of civic language. “I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States,” Obama said while campaigning in Iowa. “This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”
The confusion and unexplored questions about the Obama administration's approach to governance have been evident from the beginning. Soon after the 2008 election, tensions arose around the fate of Obama for America, the campaign‟s vast infrastructure of organizers and volunteers (and the massive database of email addresses they built). Amidst strident objections from people like Marshall Ganz, the longtime community organizer who helped direct the campaign, Obama for America was renamed Organizing for America (OfA) and incorporated into the Democratic Party.
This shift in the mission of OfA reflected one vision of active citizenship: At least some leaders within the White House saw participation activities primarily as a vehicle for encouraging citizens to support the president‟s legislative agenda. ...
While the fate of OfA was being debated in the months after the election, another set of administration staffers was experimenting with online tools to solicit ideas for how the president should govern. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) initiated an online brainstorming session aimed at producing a “Citizen's Briefing Book,” engaging thousands of people in developing and prioritizing policy proposals. The effort generated negative publicity when the two policy ideas with the most votes turned out to be the legalization of marijuana and a request for an investigation into whether Obama had in fact been born abroad (which would make him ineligible to serve as president). ...
These online participation efforts embody a somewhat different vision of citizenship: the citizen as a consumer and analyst of online data, who then uses that information to formulate new proposals for how government should function.
A third conception of citizenship evident in the White House is the vision of the citizen as volunteer. Soon after taking office, the president signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which tripled the size of AmeriCorps and provided opportunities for 250,000 Americans – mostly young people – to serve for one year as volunteers in various charitable causes. ...
These three visions of citizenship – as legislative supporter, as online data-consumer and as volunteer – are being advanced by three different sets of people within the Obama administration, and their formulas for democracy reform rarely seem to intersect. One reason for the success of the Obama campaign may have been that it offered all three opportunities for active citizenship, combined in the same structure and the same experience. Without that holistic appeal, the administration has lost much of the power of its message about democracy, and much of the civic momentum it generated during the campaign.
December 8, 2010
the folklore of communications and messaging
"If three Americans were dropped from an airplane at 10,000 feet, by the time they had reached the ground they would probably have formed an association and elected themselves president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer," wrote E. Digby Baltzell years ago. Today, the plummeting Americans would turn themselves into a communications committee and brainstorm "messages" to "get the word out" or "raise awareness" of their plight before they hit the ground.
Messaging is second nature. If you ask kids to pick an issue that concerns them and do something about it, very often they will choose a bad behavior and develop a communications plan against it. They have learned that style of engagement from their elders.
"Strategic communication" (trying to get other people to do something by sending them some kind of message) has its own folklore. We assume that effective messages are short, simple, and memorable. They stress benefits and don't complicate matters by mentioning any drawbacks. If a message mentions opponents, it disparages them. Ideally, the message comes from famous and cool supporters. The more repetition, the better.
We borrow these techniques from commercial advertising, the medium in which we swim. But commercial advertisers want people to do things that are (1) conceptually simple, (2) available, (3) normally free of organized enemies, and (4) of tangible value. Tropicana, for example, wants us to fork over cash for an available good that affords some pleasure and health benefits and that may have competitors, but that no one is advertising against. To be sure, the value of the Tropicana brand is non-tangible, and the cost of their product may be too high. They address those challenges by appealing to emotions.
Political campaign face a similar situation and borrow most of the same techniques. Like buying orange juice, voting is conceptually simple and available. Most candidates are in zero-sum struggles for votes, a situation that encourages far more negative advertising than we see in the commercial world. Also, the benefits of voting are non-tangible, which is why candidates either resort to nebulous sentiments or try to make their impact appear more concrete than it is. But most of the principles of commercial advertising apply.
The principles apply, too, if you want people to buckle up or not to drink and drive. Those are concrete choices, available to all who have cars in the first place.
But the normal forms of strategic communication cannot work if:
- What you want people to do is unavailable. Individuals cannot join labor unions if there aren't any, for example.
- What you want them to do is complex and requires experience to grasp and to value. For example: "Understand American history" means nothing unless one understands something about American history already.
- What you want to communicate is complex, ambiguous, or sensitive to context, and a simple message is worse than none.
- People don't trust you. OR
- You can only afford to purchase a tiny slice of the public's attention, and competing or even contrary messages occupy much more time
Most of the things that I care about--civic engagement, deliberation, literature and the humanities, effective public institutions, social justice--face all of the challenges listed above, which is why I am generally skeptical about the advantages of a "communications" strategy. Organizing and recruiting people to have tangible and rewarding experiences is much more promising.
December 7, 2010
working-class people versus elites on education
(Dayton, OH) I have been listening to preliminary qualitative research: focus groups of working class adults from several communities (almost all people of color). Asked to discuss "youth," they identify behavioral problems: violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves. Asked to propose solutions, they cite family and community, not schools or government. When one of the researchers explicitly asked them about the government, the respondents (in this case, African Americans between 18 and 25) uniformly said that the government was irrelevant. Finally, despite some economic anxiety, many said they were optimistic that young people would have good economic futures because they are savvy about technology.
Meanwhile, there is a whole official debate about youth that focuses on schools (which are government-run or government-funded institutions) and their graduates' inadequate preparation for economic competition. This is the expert or elite discourse of tests, standards, teacher quality, "the achievement gap," charters, vouchers, and unions.
A hypothesis: It is bad for progressive politics that core Democratic constituencies do not see the government as the solution to the problems that matter most to them. And the reason they don't see the government as a solution is that the government has defined a different set of problems from the ones that concern them. That doesn't mean that working people are right and elites are wrong; but the gap creates a serious problem for both.
December 6, 2010
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall was my favorite book of 2010. It is a miraculously sympathetic story about Thomas Cromwell, the man most famous for engineering Henry VIII's divorce, dissolving the English monasteries, making Henry head of the English church, passing legislation requiring everyone to swear that those acts were just, and executing people who failed to swear. The standard punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered--just about the worst way to go. Yet in Wolf Hall, Cromwell emerges as a practical, reasonable man of the world, trying to hold his family, business, and country together in a humane fashion.
Mantel vividly conjures early 16th-century England. The narration is present-tense, and the environment is economically and unpretentiously but sensuously described. The language is consistently modern. Sometimes, we can presume that we are reading translations of dialogues actually conducted in Latin or French; but even the chatter of English commoners is rendered in modern idioms--heightening the feeling of proximity and naturalness. The narration is third person, and Mantel goes to great lengths to avoid using the proper nouns "Thomas" or "Cromwell." "He" is the subject of most sentences, or else the narration slips into "free indirect speech" (with Cromwell's thoughts and style coloring the third-person voice.) At first, the device of avoiding Cromwell's name confused me. There may be four men in the room, but "he" always refers to the hero. I got used to the technique, which allows Mantel to stay very close to her protagonist's consciousness without using the first person singular. (For how could Thomas Cromwell write a 21st-century narrative?)
I think there might be a handful of anachronisms in Wolf Hall. At one point, Cromwell observes that Homer's existence is doubtful, yet my quick scan of recent scholarship suggests that the "Homeric Question" was not raised in Cromwell's time. (E.g., Philip Ford, "Homer in the French Renaissance"; and Filippomaria Pontani, "From Budé to Zenodotus: Homeric Readings in the European Renaissance.") The fact that I could find a couple of slips just reinforces the verisimilitude of this long and wide-ranging story.
Above all, it is fun: full of humor, vivid characters, and dramatic events. Representation affords pleasure, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago. Difficult feats of representative art can be especially pleasurable, and what could be more difficult than to represent the inner state of a long-dead lawyer best known for judicially murdering St. Thomas More? I enjoy representation most of all when the author treats her subjects with affection, and Mantel is humane toward virtually all her creations, even the ones who hate one another.
December 3, 2010
youth civic engagement and economic development in the Global South
I will be talking later today about this topic. Since I am far from an expert on the subject, I intend to facilitate a conversation rather than lecture. I will put some points on the table for discussion:
1. According to the World Bank (2007), "Today, 1.5 billion people are ages 12–24 worldwide, 1.3 billion of them in developing countries, the most ever in history." Incorporating that enormous population into political and civic life represents a challenge and an opportunity. ("Civic and political life" means voting, activism, service, belonging to groups, deliberation, careers in the public and nonprofit sectors, production of media and culture--and I would not exclude revolution or war under extreme circumstances.)
2. Among those 1.3 billion young people are many millions who have been involved in criminal gangs or conscripted as child soldiers. The challenges and opportunities are particularly dramatic in those cases.
3. In countries where the age distribution is skewed toward the young, investing adequately in children and teenagers is very difficult. The older generations lack sufficient cash, and even time, to provide for youth when the youth/adult ratio is too high. This is a vast and probably insoluble problem, but it's important to look for high-impact strategies.
4. From evaluations of youth development programs, we know that when "at risk" young people are given opportunities to deliberate, serve, and act politically, they learn, develop healthy personal behaviors, and integrate successfully into society. A moving example from the United States: On entering YouthBuild, the participants--young American adults without high school diplomas--estimate their own life expectancies at 40, on average. Upon completing the program, they have raised the average estimate to 72: evidence that they have gained a sense of opportunity, optimism, and purpose by working together, building houses and studying and discussing social issues.
5. Older people make political decisions that are far from optimal for youth. They pour public money into retirement benefits and health care at the end of life while under-investing in education and preventive health care. Also, entrenched elites (who are, by definition, older) tend to make corrupt decisions. Many countries are experimenting with "social accountability" as a tool for more equitable and less corrupt policy. That means giving the power to make decisions to citizens, organized in deliberative forums. In some places, youth are specifically included in social accountability. For instance, in Fortaleza, Brazil, 50 young people helped shape the municipal budget (PDF, p. 53). Hampton, VA has created a whole pyramid of engagement for its young people, capped by empowered youth councils. Although I don't think we yet have evidence that youth participation produces dramatically better social outcomes, that is highly plausible given (1) the persuasive evidence for social accountability, plus (2) examples in which young people have participated effectively in public processes.
6. Other policies that affect youth civic engagement, for better or worse, include: the extent and content of primary and secondary education; conscription and national service (which sometimes includes civilian alternatives); the criminal justice system and how it treats juvenile offenders; and the rules of the electoral system (including when the voting age is set). These policies can be deeply harmful: for example, when young Americans are permanently stripped of the right to vote because of felony convictions. Or they can be helpful--as when universal schooling supports civic learning.
7. There is nothing intrinsically good about youth civic engagement. Fascism was basically a youth movement. But some societies create a healthy dynamic in which young people introduce new energies, interests, and ideas, while older people maintain institutions and transmit values and experience. Other societies discourage constructive engagement, and the consequences are almost always harmful.
December 2, 2010
French post-War intellectuals: some generalizations
I am reading Richard Wolin's The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s in preparation for his visit to Tufts on Dec. 10. It's a great story about how almost all famous French intellectuals became Maoists between 1968 and 1974. They knew little about the actual Chinese Cultural Revolution, and their infatuation with a movement that was actually tyrannical, murderous, and conformist paradoxically helped them to move toward the libertarianism of the late 1900s.
Although most of the following points are not explicit themes in Wolin, reading about a large number of post-War French intellectuals suggested some distinctive features that they shared (which set them apart from leading thinkers in the US and Britain).
They were almost all radical critics of their society, political structure, and culture, yet they held extremely privileged positions in state-sponsored institutions. So they might actively favor the Soviet Union and the rebels in Algeria, which were literal enemies of France, while teaching at the École Normale Supérieure, which provided status, leisure, and a comfortable salary at the French taxpayers' expense. This situation is easy to satirize and has been seriously criticized. There might, however, be some value to state-sponsored "gadflies."
They were internationally famous, chic or cool, with huge student followings and celebrity status, even though their work tended to be theoretical--with much more metaphysics (or anti-metaphysics) than moving narrative.
Despite their deep disagreements, they formed a dense and closed network. In all times and places, famous people tend to know other famous people. For example, in yesterday's Times, we read that Christopher Isherwood socialized in Los Angeles with: "W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Alec Guinness, Hope Lange, Marlon Brando, Terence Rattigan, Truman Capote, Francis Bacon, Gore Vidal, Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Igor Stravinsky, Mick Jagger and Jeanne Moreau." That's an impressive list, but it represents a tiny percentage of the world's cultural figures at the time. Many of those individuals probably did not know one another. In contrast, I suspect that a French post-War intellectual like Louis Althusser or Simone De Beauvoir had direct interactions with every other French intellectual of comparable status. They all lived in the same neighborhoods of one city, and most had been educated in the same small university programs, by the same teachers.
Writing was their job. To be sure, Lacan was a psychoanalyst, Lévi-Strauss collected some field data in Brazil, and Foucault haunted archives and prisons seeking material for his histories. But "the text" and the way it was constructed was their central interest. Because they were writers more than specialists or experts, they could switch genres while maintaining their distinctive styles. Sartre led the way by writing drama, systematic philosophy, literary biography, political polemic, and memoir--all of it immediately recognizable as Sartre's writing.
They were remarkably subject to fashion. Existentialism, Stalinist communism, structuralism, aestheticism, Maoism and Trotskyism, post-structuralism and deconstruction, identity politics, and human rights rose and fell in quick succession between 1955 and 1975. The major thinkers--people like Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, and Foucault--were relatively independent, and one can explain their development as a result of intellectual struggles and discoveries. But other intellectuals seemed mainly interested in staying current, trendy, and avant-garde. That is how Wolin depicts Julia Kristeva and the influential editor Phillipe Sollers. I was left thinking that these people acted just like experts on fashionable clothing or interior decoration, except that their writing was even more pretentious. They also reminded me of some kind of popular and mean high school clique that arbitrates what is "in" and disparages what isn't.
December 1, 2010
house cleaning co-ops
Yesterday, the Tufts Community Research Center, of which I'm a member, gave an honorable mention award to the Brazilian Women's Group. Faculty from Tufts and community leaders have described this group's co-op project in a research article that they wrote together. The co-op is a business that provides house-cleaning services, with fair wages and benefits for the workers and green cleaning products. It has proved a successful model locally, and I see huge potential for workers' co-ops in the cleaning business. The Brazilian Women's Group also provides a clinic, education, legal services, and lobbying--a mix of functions that is typical in the nonprofit sector and highly productive.