« December 2010 | Main | February 2011 »

January 31, 2011

installations that create conversations

At the University of Florida late last week, I heard a presentation by the staff of Local Projects, a design firm that creates interactive public installations that provoke constructive discussions. For instance, in StoryCorps, people enter a kiosk in pairs, interview each other, and their taped interview becomes part of a digital archive. When Local History created the installation for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, they asked people to contribute their own photos and text from 9/11 and produced a repository that is also accessible via one of the top iPhone apps. At the Contemporary Issues Forum of the National Museum of American Jewish History (shown below), visitors tape their answers to controversial questions. (The fact that participants' arguments are recorded along with their real names and faces inhibits incivility.)

Advanced technology helps but isn't essential. An early project involved a memorial in Washington for the New York City victims of 9/11. It was a large paper map of New York, onto which visitors could post their own hand-written notes on semi-transparent paper. Not only did the map become a repository of memories, but strangers had moving conversations.

There are precedents. In 1773, Philippe d'Orleans rebuilt the Palais-Royale in Paris with open arcades for cafes and entertainments. Throughout the Revolution, those spaces were bedecked with posters, pamphlets, and broadsides that prompted all kinds of conversations, including the famous speech of Camille Desmoulins that helped cause the Storming of the Bastille. Or consider the Egyptian Army tanks that are currently covered with democratic slogans. But despite these precedents, museum installations that create archives of visitors' contributions seem to me basically a new genre--and full of democratic possibilities.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 28, 2011

the good citizen and the good person

(In Gainesville, FL, en route to Orlando)--Yesterday, as I guest-taught a University of Florida class on "redefining citizenship," several questions arose that I found interesting. Here are the questions, with answers that the students suggested (or that I have added myself):

1. A life of very active civic engagement and commitment is ...

2. If you are a resident of the People's Republic of China today ...

Posted by peterlevine at 9:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 27, 2011

the Bob Graham Center for Public Service

Gainesville, FL--I am visiting the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida today. Senator Graham himself is a strong proponent of youth civic engagement and the author of a wonderfully practical book about how to organize a movement and influence the government: America, the Owner's Manual: Making Government Work for You. I will have a chance to meet him today, before he and William Reilly, who co-chaired the Oil Spill Commission, conduct a public event on the causes and consequences of the Gulf oil disaster. The Graham Center is an important institution in the field of civic education and engagement, and I am looking forward to learning more about their work.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 26, 2011

a typology of denominations

I think that in the Abrahamic faiths, guidance and inspiration come mainly from four sources:

Almost all believers will acknowledge all four authorities, yet the weight that they give each one varies substantially. That variation is so important that I almost think one can classify denominations by how they weigh the four.

For example, the Reformation doctrine of sola scritura (by scripture alone) implies, first, that the Christian Old and New Testaments have a unique status as the perfect and complete word of God, and second, that one needs no other guidance. The Bible is not part of tradition: it is the sole basis of tradition. It is not produced by institutions: it creates them. It checks and inspires personal prayer. Hence the reading of scripture is the most important religious act.

In sharp contrast, Orthodox Christians believe that the Bible is one manifestation of the true ("orthodox") religious tradition. The Bible is not fundamentally different from other fruits of tradition, such as the liturgy, the writings of the Fathers, the icons, and the shape and orientation of churches. St. Luke wrote the Gospel named after him, but he also painted the first portrait of Mary and Jesus, which is the model for subsequent icons. St. Basil was post-Biblical but he was inspired in the same way St. Luke was. The decision of a church synod is only valid if it is consistent with tradition and becomes traditional.

Meanwhile, Catholics take seriously the Bible, tradition, and personal devotion, but a defining characteristic of Catholicism is the belief that the institutionalized church (founded by Jesus and headed by St. Peter) is able to teach "magisterially," changing tradition, reinterpreting scripture, and redirecting belief.

Near the fourth corner of the graph would be denominations like the Society of Friends, which strongly emphasize the personal, inner voice of prayer and conscience. Quakers pray collectively as well as individually, but any individual may be moved to speak. They read the Bible but also other works that are seen as inspired, including (at least nowadays) non-Christian writings.

These are all Christian examples, but I think a roughly similar analysis would work for Jews and Muslims.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 25, 2011

"A Tale of Two Cities": comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagement

I am one of several co-authors of a new report released on January 24 in Miami by the National Conference on Citizenship and its Florida and Minnesota partners. According to Tale of Two Cities: Civic Heath in Miami and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami is the least civically engaged major city in the country, and Minneapolis-St. Paul is the most engaged metropolitan area.

In both communities (as elsewhere in the United States), people with more education and income tend to engage more in civic affairs. But individuals in Minneapolis-St. Paul who are in the lowest income group are more likely to volunteer, attend public meetings, work with neighbors, participate in politics outside of elections, and participate in associations than are people in the wealthiest tier in Miami. An individual with a high school education in Minneapolis-St. Paul is about as likely to be engaged as an individual with a college education in Miami.

The report finds that the civic culture of Minneapolis-St. Paul is oriented toward enlisting and empowering diverse people--paid employees as well as volunteers--in the common work of shaping the area’s future without abandoning their own cultural backgrounds and values. This culture of civic empowerment generates a widespread sense of optimism that people can shape their common future. Those norms are less evident in the Miami area, which appears to be more balkanized and less reliant on citizens to create a common future. Our colleague Harry Boyte provides a historical and interpretive portrait of civic culture in the Twin Cities that should inspire similar strategies everywhere.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 24, 2011

we can have political reform and equitable political engagement even if the economy is unjust

Justice Louis Brandeis is supposed to have said, "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Whether or not Brandeis uttered these exact words, it is reasonable to fear that democratic participation is fruitless and frustrating whenever a small number of people control major employment and production decisions through direct ownership and influence government by literally paying for the decisions they like (though campaign finance contributions) and implicitly threatening to move their investments if they dislike policies.

In 2007, the wealthiest one percent of American households held 34.6 percent of the nation's wealth. The assets of that top percentile consisted mainly of investments that gave them power over other people. Almost 90 percent of their assets took the form of non-home real estate (mainly business facilities and rental properties), business equity, stocks, and other securities—in other words, stakes in firms that employed their fellow citizens and made things. In contrast, typical families (those between the 20th and 80th percentiles) had sunk two thirds of their modest wealth in their own homes and were deeply in debt.

One could conclude that it is naïve to expect ordinary (not to mention poor) Americans to participate in the demanding ways that I advocate: attending meetings, forming groups, and influencing the government. If their participation threatens the economic interests of the rich, one would expect them to fail. It would appear that economic reform must precede political engagement.

A different version of the argument focuses not on the top one percent and their control of the "commanding heights" of the economic and political battlefields, but rather on the bottom 20 percent, who ostensibly cannot participate because they have more pressing and immediate needs than civic engagement. According to Abraham Maslow's theory of a "hierarchy of needs," people will not participate in politics until they have sufficient safety, welfare, and love. "When millions lack health insurance, live at or below the poverty level, face racism is their lives, it is no wonder there is disengagement." [quoting David A. Shultz, "The Phenomenology of Democracy: Putnam, Pluralism, and Voluntary Associations," Scott L. McLean, David Andrew Schultz, Manfred B. Steger (eds.), Social Capital: Critical Perspectives on Community and "Bowling Alone" (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 92.]

The difficulties that this analysis presents are severe. First, it is not clear how we can attain higher levels of economic equality unless lower-income people do engage politically, using their votes and other forms of influence to change policies in their own favor. Strategies that rely on some kind of political "vanguard" to look out for their interests have usually been disastrous, not only in the notorious case of state communism, but also in many machine-dominated American cities, where ostensibly progressive leaders who claim to represent the poor have become corrupt.

Even if our political system does pass redistributive legislation, the resulting spending will benefit lower-income people only to the degree that it funds programs that genuinely serve their needs. Programs are most effective and sensitive (and popular) when citizens engage with them, holding agencies accountable and contributing their own talents and energies. Thus, until there is more and better public participation in institutions, it is not clear that governments can promote equality. I would personally favor expanding certain tools of financial redistribution, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicare. But such programs do not address inequality that emerges from gaps in literacy, nutrition, mental health, residential segregation, and neighborhood-level violence and crime. To address those causes of inequality, one needs effective programs, and such programs rely on active citizens as well as tax dollars.

Finally, it is difficult to use the open-ended, deliberative style of political engagement that I advocate if one is convinced than an essential goal is to reduce the share of wealth controlled by the top one percent of Americans. Many citizens do not share that goal. The General Social Survey regularly asks people to place their opinions on a scale between two statements: (1) "the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor" and (2) "the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor." The mean answer is always slightly closer to the latter than the former, and between 10 and 20 percent of the sample consistently place themselves at the anti-redistributionist extreme of the spectrum. This is not evidence that Americans are overwhelmingly against modest amounts of additional redistribution. It is evidence that their opinions vary. The issue can be discussed, but to assume that more redistribution is needed is no way to invite all kinds of people to participate.

The dilemma that I have introduced here is real, but it can be overstated. The poorest 20 percent of Americans—not to mention the middle 50 percent—have considerable potential power in politics and the marketplace. They do not own very many securities, but they do make important discretionary decisions about where to live and work and which consumer goods to buy. They also have a lot of potential votes. They do not actually vote or join political organizations and movements at nearly the same rate as wealthier Americans, but that disparity isn't inevitable.

Consider India, the world's largest democracy, where "scheduled castes" are groups (including the traditional "Untouchables" or Dalit caste) that are recognized as subject to historic deprivation and discrimination. More than one third of scheduled caste members live below the Indian poverty rate, which is about eight US dollars per person per month. Nevertheless, in the national elections of 1996, voter turnout among the scheduled castes was 89.2 percent, and turnout among the upper castes was about three points lower than theirs. In the same year, the United States held a presidential election in which 58 percent of all adult citizens voted—31 points lower than the scheduled caste members in India. Even Americans who held college degrees (a privileged minority) voted at rates far below the scheduled castes.

Sometimes this kind of comparison is offered to chastise Americans. Why can't we vote like Indians? Indeed, why do Americans choose to vote at lower rates than in all other democracies except (sometimes) Switzerland? I happen to think the voting is an ethical obligation, like many other forms of civic and political participation. But personal virtue does not explain enormous differences in participation by social class, by nation, and within the United States over time. (Almost three quarters of American men voted in 1900, even though most African American men were still blocked from voting.) Nor can moral exhortation raise the turnout rate or encourage other forms of civic and political participation. Structural factors, such as the competitiveness of elections, the issues that are open to debate, the functioning of parties, interest groups, and the mass media, and the prevailing political culture, affect the rate of participation.

We need to analyze the structural reasons for declining engagement in the United States and suggest reforms. In the present context, the point of invoking India is simply this: economics does not determine political participation. People who experience absolute deprivation and profound relative disadvantage sometimes vote at rates far above privileged Americans.

Voting is by no means the only form of civic engagement, but similar conclusions can be drawn regarding democratic participation in general. The proportion of people who say they take "local community action on issues like poverty, employment, housing, [and] racial equality" is higher in some poor countries, such as Bangladesh and Tanzania, than it is in rich countries such as Germany, Singapore, and the United States. The correlation between economic development and grassroots political participation is weak but negative at the global level. In a study of highly demanding and effective forms of grassroots political action, Gaventa and Barrett find successful examples no less common in poor countries, war-torn countries, and dictatorships than in peaceful and developed democracies. In the United States, voting and volunteering are strongly correlated with social class: wealthy people are the most likely to participate. But attending community meetings and working on local problems are different: rates of participation are almost the same for low-income people as for rich people.

Overall, I think we can conclude that economic disadvantage is not an insuperable barrier to participation. In fact, economic need can spur engagement and make it more common in poor and even undemocratic contexts than it is in affluent communities. Some of our most impressive and innovative civic movements have originated with our poorest and most oppressed people, starting with slaves in the 1800s. That does not mean that democratic participation is equitable in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, nor that our major institutions allow equal participation. It does mean that we can begin by reforming our political institutions, confident that all Americans are capable of participating in a reform movement if we organize it well.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 21, 2011

artistic excellence as a function of historical time

The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has compiled his top ten list of all-time greatest classical composers. As explanations for his choices, he offers judgments about the intrinsic excellence of these composers along with comments about their roles in the development of music over time.

These temporal or historical reasons prove important to Tommasi's overall judgments. For example, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, when played between works composed in the 20th century, "sound[s] like the most radical work in the program by far." Schubert’s "Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler." Brahms, unfortunately, "sometimes become entangled in an attempt to extend the Classical heritage while simultaneously taking progressive strides into new territory." Bach "was considered old-fashioned in his day. ... [He] was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things." Haydn would make the Top Ten list except that his "great legacy was carried out by his friend Mozart, his student Beethoven and the entire Classical movement."

It seems that originality counts: it's best to be ahead of one's time. On the other hand, if, like Haydn, you launch something that others soon take higher, you are not as great as those who follow you. Bach is the greatest of all because instead of moving forward, he "dug deeper." So originality is not the definition of greatness--it is an example of a temporal consideration that affects our aesthetic judgments.

One might think that these reasons are mistaken: timing is irrelevant to intrinsic excellence or "greatness." It doesn't matter when you make a work of art; what matters is how good it is. But I'm on Tommasini's side and would, like him, make aesthetic judgments influenced by when works were composed. Why?

For one thing, an important aspect of art (in general) is problem-solving. One achievement that gives aesthetic satisfaction is the solution of a difficult problem, whether it is representing a horse in motion or keeping the kyrie section of a mass going for ten minutes without boring repetition. The problems that artists face derive from the past. Once they solve the problems of their time, repeating their success is no longer problem-solving. To be sure, one only appreciates art as problem-solving if one knows something about the history of the medium. That is why art history and music history enhance appreciation, although that is not their only purpose.

Besides, in certain artistic traditions, the artist is self-consciously part of the story of the art form. Success means taking the medium in a productive new direction. This is how traditions such as classical music, Old Master Painting, Hollywood movies, and hip-hop have developed. It is not the theory of all art forms in all cultures. Sometimes, ancient, foundational works are seen as perfect exemplars; a new work is excellent to the extent that it resembles those original models.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns was a debate about whether the European arts and sciences should be progressive traditions or should aim to replicate the greatness of their original Greco-Roman models. The Moderns ultimately won that debate, not only promoting innovation in their own time but also reinterpreting the past as a series of original achievements that we should value as contributions to the unfolding story of art. Since we are all Moderns now, we all think in roughly the way that Tommasini does, admiring Beethoven because his contemporaries thought his late works were incomprehensible.

Meanwhile, classical music and Old Master painting have become completed cultures for many people. Their excellence is established and belongs to the past. Beethoven was great because he was ahead of his time, but now the story to which he contributed is over. The Top Ten lists of classical music are closed. I am not sure this is true, but it seems a prevalent assumption. Maybe we are all Ancients now.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 20, 2011

making guest lecturing pay

I think guest lectures are helpful: they broaden the perspectives and expertise available in a given course. In general, they happen as the result of a kind of "gift economy": you agree to give a guest presentation in a colleague's course without expecting any kind of reward, even a return visit from that colleague. Gift economies can work quite well--sometimes more efficiently than market economies. But there is no norm in academia of offering to give guest lectures. Instead, you have to ask someone to be a guest in your class, and that can be awkward. It's a gift economy in which the recipient initiates the arrangement: not a recipe for success.

Thus, if guest lecturing is beneficial, we should switch from a flawed gift economy to some kind of exchange system. Professors should earn credit for giving guest lectures. I am not sure I would define the credit as a right to receive a guest lecture in one's own course, because there might be no one available to provide appropriate material. Instead, I would identify some modest good that is in short supply and offer it to professors who amass sufficient credits for guest-lecturing.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 19, 2011

Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011

I never met Sargent Shriver, who died on Tuesday, but I have been knocking around the movement for national and community service since the 1980s and know several people for whom his death is a personal loss. My condolences to them and my respects to Mr. Shriver, who exemplified a political moment that we badly miss today.

Sargent Shriver stories are numerous and inspiring. For example, he traveled so much as Peace Corps Director that he became accustomed to sleeping under the rows of airplane seats during almost daily long flights (something that today's cabin attendants would quickly forbid). But I would like to honor his core principles more than his particular actions:

He was committed to "service." His own service record included a bronze star at Guadalcanal, stints as president of the Catholic Interracial Council (a civil rights group), chairman of the Chicago Board of Education, founding director of the Peace Corps, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity during the War on Poverty, and ambassador to France, plus holding the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1972. Several of the organizations he directed were also devoted to "service." The Peace Corps provides opportunities to serve one's country and the host country; and many of the anti-poverty programs that Shriver directed at OEO were also driven by service (Job Corps, ViSTA, Legal Services). The kind of service he exemplified was not charitable, nor amateurish, nor necessarily unpaid. The Peace Corps, for example, is the "toughest job you'll ever love." It's serious, responsible, more-than-full-time work, and you earn a paycheck for it.

He stood for fairness and equality of opportunity. It was at his suggestion that Senator John F. Kennedy interceded on behalf of Martin Luther King in 1960, and Shriver had a lifetime commitment to inclusion, as reflected also by his anti-poverty work and the Special Olympics. His idea of fairness was never patronizing or disempowering. He saw excluded people as assets and potential leaders.

He exemplified a government that was popular, ambitious, and accessible. In 1960, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right. The government in which they placed their trust was busy doing things. In 1963-4, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act (launching the War on Poverty and creating Head Start, Job Corps, and many other programs that Shriver was soon to run), the Food Stamp Act (institutionalizing food stamps as a permanent federal welfare program), the Federal Transit Act (providing federal aid for mass transportation), the Library Services and Construction Act (offering federal aid for libraries), the Community Mental Health Centers Act (de-institutionalizing many mental health patients), the Clean Air Act (the first federal environmental law allowing citizens to sue polluters), the Wilderness Act (protecting nine million acres of federal land), the Equal Pay Act (addressing wage discrimination by sex), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending de jure racial segregation in the United States), and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (rapidly escalating the Vietnam War).

Many of these programs were criticized as imperial impositions of federal power. Some were serious failures. But several were designed to expand political opportunities for ordinary citizens. Announcing the War on Poverty, President Johnson said, "This program asks men and women throughout the country to prepare long-range plans for the attack on poverty in their own communities. These are not plans prepared in Washington and imposed upon hundreds of different situations. They are based on the fact that local citizens best understand their own problems and know best how to deal with those problems." Johnson was honoring a particular social contract: people were expected to trust and pay for an aggressive government, but in turn it would honor their political ideas, energies, and values. For various complex reasons, that contract soon broke down, but Sargent Shriver personally exemplified it.

While he presided over the OEO, the Federal Government paid the salaries of thousands of people who worked at the grassroots level, organizing communities and running programs. The Great Society included elements of bureaucracy and centralization, but it also required the “Maximum Feasible Participation” of citizens. As a result, there was a lot of civic experimentation. Some people who were heavily involved in those experiments later switched over to electoral politics. Some burned out or lost the opportunity to serve when their budgets were cut. But a considerable number continued to experiment and learn, often moving from federal programs to nonprofits such as Community Development Corporations. When they lost their government grants, they developed local financial sources. When they got tired of fighting city hall, they developed collaborative relationships with local governments. This human trajectory is a major theme in Carmen Sirianni and Lew Friedland's book Civic Innovation in America.

That brings me to a final principle of Shriver's: the permeable boundary between state and civil society. In his own career, Shriver worked consistently on certain public problems but moved between the government and the private sector. He also established programs that allowed other people to work for the federal government for a little while, and then take their skills and knowledge into civil society--or vice-versa. The War on Poverty launched many such careers. I think one reason--although surely not the only reason--for the broken contract between the government and the people is the loss of opportunities to innovate within government and to address public issues in the private sector.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 18, 2011

what is socioeconomic status (SES)?

More articles that you could read in your lifetime demonstrate that socioeconomic status correlates with important outcomes, from voting to longevity. But what is SES? The American Psychological Association's Task Force on Socioeconomic Status says (PDF):

The Task Force proceeds to complicate the picture by introducing conceptions that are less focused on absolute resources and instead emphasize relative standing or the ability to reproduce advantage from one generation to another. But all the conceptions seem to presume that the SES of an individual can be captured by a single composite measure which is not equivalent to wealth, income, or occupation and which does not incorporate race, gender, or age. (Those are treated as correlates of SES, not components of it.) To know whether the formula is valid, we must decide what one thing we want to measure.

Perhaps SES is a measure of the comparative advantage that A has in getting what A wants in life, once we account for personal aptitudes and character traits, demonstrable skills, and race, gender, and age (which we measure separately).

We know, for example, that US Senators have median assets of $1.7 million and that 51 members of the last Congress had family members who had also served in Congress. So it seems likely that SES affects (but does not completely determine) your odds of getting into Congress--which is something that some people want.

But what we want is affected by SES, not just whether we can get what we want. Perhaps, for example, being related to a Member of Congress not only makes it easier to be elected; it also makes it more likely that you want to be a politician. (Certainly, many Americans would rather be almost anything else.) To take another example: you need wealth and family connections to be admitted to certain snobby clubs. But having wealth and family connections might hurt your chances of hanging out with the cool kids behind the gym or going ice-fishing with the guys. In short, SES (as we typically measure it) confers advantages on those who want to get into high-SES social circles and makes them more likely to want such entree. But that doesn't mean that SES increases the odds of any person, A, to get whatever A wants.

Now it is starting to seem as if SES is not a continuous variable at all. "High SES" is just the name we give to certain subcultures, although other subcultures are equally exclusive and desirable. But that can't be right, because it's obvious that getting into the US Senate or the World Economic Forum at Davos is more valuable than being included with the cool kids behind the gym (even if most people would rather be with the cool kids).

Another possibility: SES is the most refined measure of economic power. The idea is that some people can influence their own and others' economic circumstances more than other people can. (They can also use their economic power for political leverage.) Wealth is one measure of how much economic power individuals have. If you have a billion dollars, you can buy a company and fire everyone: that is power. But wealth is not the best measure of economic power, as a couple of examples will demonstrate:

Yet another possible definition emerges: SES is an estimate of how much money the individual will be able to invest and spend according to choice during the rest of his or her lifetime. That definition appropriately gives a current Harvard MBA student higher SES than an auto mechanic or an elderly lady in a big house. But it won't quite work, because not all "socioeconomic" advantages are monetary. For instance, having a grandfather in the US Senate is an advantage that money cannot buy.

If we want to measure economic power rather than wealth as SES, then such factors as age, educational status, parental occupation, family reputation, and family income should also count as aspects of SES.

Those factors could be included. But geographical location, language, race, gender, physical appearance, and religious belief--not to mention personal traits and accomplishments--also confer economic power. I understand the value of measuring these factors separately from SES so that we can investigate the changing relationships between race or age and SES. But if SES is defined as economic power, and if being white confers economic power in the US, then on what conceptual basis can we exclude race from our measure of SES?

Posted by peterlevine at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 14, 2011

Fallows on civility

I am on a very brief trip to California--heading back to Boston later today, with no time to blog. But I recommend perusing the suggestions for how to improve civility that Jim Fallows' readers have sent him. I disagree with many, but it's a thought-provoking list.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 13, 2011

round Charlotte Bronte's thumb

(Written at 30,000 feet over the Rockies, en route to San Francisco, after finishing Jane Eyre)

If Jane Eyre really were what it purports to be--the "autobiography" of someone of that name, as "edited" by Currer Bell--I think we would read it as follows. We would take it as the testimony of an individual who claims she has been helped by several good people but thwarted and controlled by quite a few bad ones. From her time as an orphan under Mrs. Reed, to her captivity at Lowood School, to her two near-marriages, Jane always feels she is being "mastered" (a frequent and significant word in the book) by others for their purposes, whether those are mercenary or pious. She submits until she revolts--for, as she observes:

This is not quite true, because Jane also has a talent for skillful but well-motivated manipulation, especially in dealing with Rochester. Still, this passage captures the general pattern of the novel: submission followed by revolt or flight. What Jane ultimately attains is control, so that she can say, "Reader, I married him." (Not: "Reader, he married me," or even, "We were married.")

If Jane Eyre's testimony were true and complete, it would condemn half a dozen characters for their poor treatment of her: Mrs. Reed, Georgiana and Eliza Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Naomi Brocklehurst, Miss Scratcherd, Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers, and the still-sighted Rochester are some of the book's many villains. But we would recall that all this testimony was coming from Jane, whose acknowledged faults are few and minor and deeply regretted. So I think we would resist the narration and seek other perspectives. Maybe Mrs. Reed had trials with little Jane that should excuse some of her perceived coldness.

In fact, Jane Eyre is not an autobiography. Mrs. Reed has no reality or perspective except what we can glean from the book. The dominant perspective--the choices that channel our emotional and moral responses--are all and only Charlotte Bronte's.

By condemning Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St John Rivers, Bronte did not wrong those individuals, for they never lived. But Bronte also had real-life targets: uncharitable bourgeois women, hypocritical Calvinists, and men of great soul who enroll others for their noble purposes. Her fictional examples support a distinctive worldview, which surely includes the following elements: a passionate but unorthodox theism; fondness for domesticity and heterosexual romantic love; English patriotism with a dose of Francophobia and possibly racism; a very loosely Kantian insight that one should "enjoy [one's] own faculties as well as ... cultivate those of other people" (seen as twin duties); a feminism that resists patronizing and narrowing attitudes towards girls and women; and a measure of social egalitarianism, as captured by passages like this: "I must not forget that these coarsely clad little peasants [all girls] are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy; and that the germs of native excellence, refinement, intelligence, kind feeling, are as likely to exist in their hearts as in those of the best-born."

Because the book is contrived to support a particular worldview, it has always elicited furious responses from holders of conflicting views. Victorian critics who defended Calvinism or social inequality denounced its alleged vulgarity. The Christian Remembrancer (June 1848) couldn't believe that Mrs. Reed would die unrepetant; such a caustic depiction of a propertied Anglican lady showed "want of feeling." Later, modernists disdained the novel for its theism and bourgeois domesticity. Although enduringly popular, Jane Eyre has been critically acclaimed only since the 1960s, when the feminist and generally liberating aspects of the book's worldview were recognized (and its religious conclusion overlooked).

For myself, I find the worldview appealing enough, the story compelling, and Jane a likable character. What I resist is the contrivance of all the events and characters to reinforce one perspective. It doesn't seem to me a polyphonic novel or one that explores tensions and conflicts among worthy values. Lady Frederick Cavenedish thought "the authoress turns oneself and one's opinions round her thumb." My very favorite novels are ones that let you loose.

[I take the quotes from The Christian Remembrancer and Cavendish from the Penguin edition's introduction by Michael Mason--who is no relation, I assume, to Bertha.]

Posted by peterlevine at 8:52 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 12, 2011

is immigrating to the US bad for your health?

In general, young immigrants (ages 18-44) have much better health than people who were born in the USA. But the more years pass after they immigrate, the worse their health becomes.

(adopted by Peter Levine from Guillermino Jasso, Douglas S. Massey, Mark R. Rosenzweig, and James P. Smith, "Immigrant Health and Acculturation," in National Research Council, Critical Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Differences in Late Life, 2004, table 7-6.)

I wouldn't make too much of the above graph all by itself, but I was separately told by a well-informed colleague that there is a well documented "immigrant paradox." Even as individuals grow more likely to have health insurance, stable employment, and stable housing, their health status falls towards the levels of native-born Americans of the same age.

It seems important to understand the reasons for this "paradox" so that we can improve the lives of large numbers of younger immigrants. Also, understanding why exposure to America seems to worsen health might reveal some important, general facts about life in America.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 11, 2011

Not Even Past, from the historians at UT-Austin

I am impressed by "Not Even Past," a brand new online history magazine that will present some new content every day. It is meant for lay readers but is produced by the History Department of the University of Texas-Austin: about 60 professors and their graduate students. Some appealing features include feature articles, mini-reviews of classic works of history, which explain their enduring relevance, and audio interviews. It is stylishly designed and well written.

I like the fact that it's a collaborative effort by a whole academic department: that represents a different kind of work for professors, although fully compatible with their traditional practices. I like the relationship it creates between the public and a profession (for it reflects professional historians' interests and methods but is meant for all intelligent readers and permits them to comment). Finally, although we are used to everything being free now, I like the fact that public employees have created material that is free of cost and of other barriers. They are contributing to the knowledge commons.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 10, 2011

upside-down Foucault

Hypothesis: every space where Michael Foucault discovered the operation of power is also a venue for creativity, collaboration, and a deepening of human subjectivity.

By way of background: I respect Foucault as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Although deeply influenced by other writers and activists, he made his own crucial discoveries. In particular, he found power operating in places where it had been largely overlooked, such as clinics, classrooms, and projects of social science. Further, he understood that power is not just a matter of A deliberately making B do what A wants. It rather shapes all of our desires, goals, and beliefs. Its influence on beliefs suggests that knowledge and power are inseparable, so that even our understanding of power is determined by power. Despite the skeptical implications of Foucault's epistemology, he struggled in an exemplary fashion to get the theory right, revising it constantly. He traveled a long intellectual road, directed by his own conscience and experience rather than any kind of careerism.

So it is as a kind of homage to Foucault that I suggest flipping his theory upside-down. Just as close, critical observation of people in routine settings can reveal the operations of power, so we can detect people developing, growing, reflecting, and collaborating voluntarily. To be sure, social contexts fall on a spectrum from dehumanizing to humanizing, with prisons at one end (not far from office cubicles), and artists' ateliers at the other. But it would be just as wrong to interpret a whole society as a prison as to view it all as a jazz band. And, I would hypothesize, even in the modern US prison system--swollen in numbers, starved of resources for education and culture, plagued by rape and abuse, and racially biased--one could find evidence of creativity as well as power.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 7, 2011

my blogaversary

I published my first blog post on January 8, 2003. Sunday will therefore mark my eighth full year of blogging. Today's post is number 1,967. That's equivalent to five posts per week for forty-nine weeks each year. I never post on weekends, so the actual blogaversary will pass in silence.

The medium has changed somewhat. In the early years, the only responses were emails, comments posted on my actual site (www.peterlevine.ws/mt), and other people's blog posts that referred to mine. Locating such responses required ego-surfing, with search engines like Technorati.

Now my posts go forth in several ways: on my site, on my Facebook page, via Twitter, and via RSS feed. I also publish my more ambitious entries that have political themes on Huffington Post, where the number of comments is much higher. Facebook draws the most frequent and most civil and helpful comments. Twitter and RSS reach relevant audiences.

Fewer peers' blogs now refer to mine, and I think that may be because fewer people are operating their own free-standing blogs. A higher proportion of the dialogue now is quasi-private--Facebook friends posting comments on my personal page--rather than blogs as an imitation of a "public sphere."

I like Facebook, but I will hold onto my personal site because I want to control the archive of more than 1,900 entries. The vast majority of people who read anything on my blog are reading old entries that they find with Google searches. "Black dentists," "Nabokov heroine," and "Was Velazquez left-handed? are some frequent queries that land people on my site. (He was.)

Meanwhile, I think my content has been pretty consistent: the same mix of youth civic engagement, general politics from a "civic" angle, and bits of philosophy and literature. I generally try not to be self-referential, but the annual blogaversary is an excuse for summing up.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 6, 2011

connoisseur of spam

CIRCLE's website is not a blog, but it uses blogging software (WordPress) and accepts comments. "Comment spam" means inappropriate and irrelevant comments, usually with embedded advertisements for other people's sites or products. WordPress automatically blocks most comment spam, but every day, at least a half dozen spam comments reach the queue and I have to block them by hand. Often, they make generically flattering remarks to encourage us to allow them to stay. I actually appreciate some of the creative efforts. E.g.:

"Your web-site has 100 % exceeded my expectations. From when I begun reading through your webpage I have acquired completely new facts and had old information reinforced. Let me recommend many folks i know."

From Travel Deals: "Hi I like this article and it is so informational and I am definetly going to save it. One thing to say the Indepth analysis you have done is trully remarkable.No one goes that extra mile these days? Well Done! Just one more suggestion you can install a Translator for your Global Readers !!!"

"Thanks a lot for sharing. Your article is truly relevant to my study at this moment, and I am really happy I discovered your website. However, I would like to see more details about this topic. I’m going to keep coming back here."

A website that provides football statistics comments on our research about the civic opportunity gap in high school: "This seems rather unsurprising - there is an obvious link between $ and education." (Link to the NFL stats provided.)

Commenting on a youth turnout rate of 52% in 2008: "How true. Wish things could be better."

"This post includes all information that I have always required."

(You can't do much better than that.)

Posted by peterlevine at 4:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 5, 2011

lower the voting age to 16

I support lowering the voting age, because then most people would be in school when they became eligible to vote, and schools could teach them both the mechanics of elections and some neutral principles and skills helpful for responsible political participation. Today, we don't teach voting mechanics much, and even if we did, most students would have to wait years before practicing their knowledge. Previous research shows that voting is habitual,* so raising the turnout of 16-year-olds should increase participation for decades to come.

Mark Franklin found that turnout during the first election at which a generation is eligible to vote has lasting effects. He argued that lowering the voting age to 18 had caused turnout to fall in most democracies, because 18-year-olds are less likely to vote than 21-year olds.** True, but 16-year-olds might be more likely to vote than 18-year-olds because they are in school settings where voting can be encouraged and become normative.

Now Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins have published a psychology article addressing the main argument against 16-year-old voters: that they are too young to be informed or wise participants.*** Hart and Atkins find that Americans at age 17 score about the same on questions about political knowledge, tolerance, political efficacy, perceived civic skills, and community service as 21-year-olds, probably because their experience with civics classes, service projects, and so on are more recent. The rate of improvement on these questions is rapid from age 14-18, but then tapers off or even declines, so that 16- and 17-year-olds are on a par with people in their twenties.

Another way of looking at the data is that teenagers' scores are quite close to the average for all adults.

Hart and Atkins note that teenagers have somewhat different political priorities from older people, reflecting their different interests. For example, they are more favorable to education spending. Basic democratic principles suggest that if they have distinctive values and interests and are capable of voting, they should be allowed to do so.

Finally, an interesting theoretical observation from the paper:

* Eric Plutzer, “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth,” The American Political Science Review 96/1 (March 2002), pp. 41-56.

**Mark N. Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

***Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, "American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds are Ready to Vote," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 63 (January 2011), pp. 201-221

Posted by peterlevine at 10:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 4, 2011

race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

I recently finished reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my 11-year-old daughter, three decades after reading those books to myself and then largely forgetting them. We enjoyed them. The story was a little too violent for her, and there was not quite enough psychological depth or development for me, but it was great on plot and large-scale imagination.

The main argument against Tolkien is an alleged lack of psychological complexity and nuance. After reading the trilogy to his daughter, Edmund Wilson wrote: "there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. ... There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all. ... How is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure."

Most of this is unfair in detail. (I can visualize Gandalph quite clearly.) Wilson's deeper aesthetic is also subject to debate. I am reminded of the quarrel between H.G. Wells and Henry James. James claimed that the only true source of excellent fiction was "the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner." In other words, you should write about what you know, and the merit of your work is the perceptiveness and depth of your observations. But that implies a narrow scope, a small canvass. Art can also explore vast differences in real (or possible) worlds. Wells had a point when he described James as "a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den." Wells, Tolkien, and other fantasy writers are interested in getting well outside of the cage in which they think bourgeois realists like James (and Wilson) have fenced themselves. I am open to both sides, myself.

While we read Tolkien, I was quietly thinking about three themes that are relatively subtle:

1. Race: In our world, there is only one hominid species, and all the so-called races are completely equal morally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. In the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, however, there are several hominid peoples: "men," dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, wraiths, ents, and perhaps others. They are not equal. In particular, orcs are worse than all the others: intellectually and morally inferior. If you lived in Middle Earth, you would want to see all the orcs exiled, confined to reservations of some kind, or cured of their defining orcness.

It's a fictional world and therefore not literally a racist commentary on ours. J.R.R. Tolkien apparently held egalitarian attitudes toward Jews and Africans. But what does it mean to invent a world in which there are inferior races? And what should we think about the specific portrayal of the orcs? It seems to me that each of the peoples of Middle Earth evokes a culture from our earth: Hobbits are Englishmen out of nursery rhymes and folk tales; elves are Celts; dwarves are Germanic or Nordic; and orcs ... I think the orcs are Turkish. They carry scimitars, and their language sounds like a parody of Turkish. They are physically dark, in contrast to the fair elves, and submissive to their despots. These are European stereotypes of Turks, which, in turn, may carry a whiff of the ancient Greeks' views of Persians.

2. Sex: One way in which Tolkien is a children's author is the sexlessness of the story. All the characters are male except for some very remote and idealized ladies. Sam is deeply embarrassed by the thought he might marry Rosie--like a 13-year-old. The one truly passionate connection is between Sam and Frodo. I have no problem whatsoever with same-sex attraction, but I wonder whether Tolkien thought of the connection as romantic.

3. God: Apparently, Tolkien (a devout Catholic) once wrote, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

As a learned believer, a professional medievalist, and a student of allegorical Christian literature, Tolkien was entitled to that reading of his own work. But I find it surprising. In a Catholic story, I would expect evidence of a single, benign creator; providence as a determining force for good; posthumous judgment of individuals; and a divine sacrifice that saves the world. Perhaps the ring is found by Bilbo for Providential reasons, but that is a very subtle and implicit explanation, if it's true at all. Frodo sacrifices, but he is not a Jesus-figure. He sacrifices much less than his life and he is only a mortal hobbit to start with. Nobody has a relationship with anything like a personal God. The ethic of the Lord of the Rings seems mildly ascetic and spiritual, but more pagan than Catholic. Perhaps Tolkien thought that by deliberately suppressing all the explicit points of Catholic faith, he could make the story pervasively and fundamentally Christian. But he may have succeeded instead in creating a world that fits other religious views even better.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 3, 2011

an overlooked win for civic renewal: federally qualified health centers

My chief complaint about the health care reform of 2010 was its apparent failure to include active citizens as designers of the bill (the public could have been asked to deliberate about health reform, as Senators Wyden and Hatch proposed), or as proponents of the bill (the administration could have unleashed a grassroots movement to demand passage), or as active participants in administering health care (the bill could have empowered health insurance co-ops).

Yet the bill actually contains many excellent provisions that have received little attention. One reform is a major increase in the authorized funding level for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FGHC). The extra money should raise the number of such centers to 15,000. An FQHC is a local provider, serving a needy community, that gets favorable Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, access to the National Health Service Corps, and other federal supports. It must be a nonprofit organization or a public entity, and it must have a board of which more than half are current clients of the center who demographically represent the population that the center serves.

Overall, the trend in public administration has been toward centralization and expertise. Based on data collected by Elinor Ostrom, I estimate that the proportion of Americans who serve on any public board has declined by three quarters since the mid-20th century, due to consolidation of public authorities and the replacement of elected offices with professional positions. This means that we have lost powerful educative experiences for our citizens. At the same time, our public institutions have grown remote and distrusted, and we have missed the energies and ideas of people not deemed to be "experts."

Controlling health care costs is a classic "wicked problem," involving complex, interconnected systems, rapid and unpredictable change, valid but conflicting values and interests, and misaligned motives. In general, wicked problems are best addressed by decentralizing control and empowering mixed groups of people, including those most affected by the problem. The administration's support for Federally Qualified Health Centers promotes this populist approach and deserves recognition.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Site Meter