March 31, 2011
upcoming research discussions at Tisch College
These three events are open to the public.
1. Discussion with 2011 Tisch Research Prize winner John Gaventa
2. "Determinants of Health Among Caribbean Latinos" with Flavia Peréa and Linda Sprague Martinez
3. "Development of Korean Civil Society" with Prof. Sang-Il Han
1. John Gaventa, April 14, 2011 at Tisch College, 4:30-6 pm
Dr. Gaventa has combined rigorous scholarship with various forms of collaboration with communities. Such collaboration was the hallmark of his work at the Highlander Research and Education Center, which led to his being granted a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. It has also been central to his 10 years of leadership at the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, a global network facilitated by the Institute of Development Studies. Among many other products, the Center has produced an eight-volume books series of case studies on civic action from around the world, most of whose authors write from the Global South. Meanwhile, Gaventa chairs the board of Britain's largest overseas NGO, Oxfam Great Britain, and plays other leadership roles in civil society. Gaventa will accept the Tisch Research award and discuss his work with Tisch research director Peter Levine on April 14, 2011 at Tisch College (4:30-6 pm). Appropriate for students as well as faculty, staff, and community partners. Please register through this page if you are interested in attending.
2. "Determinants of Health Among Caribbean Latinos"
Dr. Flavia Peréa and Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez
A faculty discussion co-sponsored by Peace and Justice Studies and the Tisch College.
Friday, April 15, noon-1:30
Mayer Campus Center room 112, Zamparelli Room
Lunch provided Please RSVP to Peter Levine (email@example.com), who will reply with menu options for the lunch.
Drs. Flavia Peréa and Linda Sprague Martinez will discuss their research and present on their current projects in Jamaica Plain (funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities) and Lawrence (funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation). Their work is community- and youth-engaged and focused on the socio-environmental determinants of health among urban Caribbean Latinos. They will discuss their collaborative, partnership approach to community based research, which emphasizes community leadership, youth development, and civic engagement. Linda Sprague Martinez is a Lecturer in the Community Health Program at the School of Arts and Sciences, and Flavia Peréa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Medical School.
3. "Development of Korean Democracy and Civil Society"
Dr. Sang-Il Han, visiting scholar in residence at Tisch College.
May 5, Noon-1:15 pm, Mayer Campus Center room 112, Zamparelli Room
Tisch College will provide light lunch, so please RSVP Peter Levine (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you plan to attend.
Dr. Han has been chair of the Division of Social Science and chair of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Korea, where he is a professor. The topic will be "The Development of Korean Democracy and Civil Society" (a broad introduction). There will be time for discussion.
March 30, 2011
recent fiction by Karen Russell, Jed Rubenfeld, Harry Dolan
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan is a neatly constructed mystery with elements of noir, police procedural, and a drawing-room detective story. The author, a very clever guy with a philosophy degree, plays with some interesting ideas as he introduces a plot about mystery writers who may be killers. The two detectives--not exactly partners, but potential friends--are, respectively, a single mom and a tough guy with a fake name and an unknown past. Everyone except the killer is described with affection.
The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld is even cleverer, weaving together such ideas as Freud's reaction to World War I, the capacity of radium to kill and to cure, and America's response to terrorism. A surprising proportion of the unbelievable events in the novel actually occurred, as the afterward explains. Freud and Madame Curie are among the historical figures who make appearances in this mystery/spy novel. I only wish that the two heroes weren't perfectly competent, physically courageous, and handsome (possessing between them many languages and scientific disciplines), while the chief female character is so beautiful that she literally turns the heads of whole regiments.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is in a whole different category, literature rather than genre fiction, but I mention it with these two works because it is equally suspenseful. Russell is an aphoristic writer, capable of passages like this: "Some things you know right away to be final--when you lose your last baby tooth, or when you go to sleep for the ultimate time as a twelve-year-old on the night before your thirteenth birthday. Other times, you have to work out the milestone later via subtraction, a math you do to assign significance, like when I figured out that I'd just blown though my last-ever Wednesday with Mom on the day after she died." She is a self-conscious writer, MFA-style, an echoer of diverse American voices and dialects and describer of remarkable places. I feared that her plot would veer off into some kind of unbelievable fantasy, but it remained compelling to the end. In fact, I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you can handle some truly bad things happening to innocent youth. Overall, it's a powerful study of what it means to leave the family for the big, cruel world--in this case, symbolized by the urban mainland of South Florida.
March 29, 2011
Arne Duncan on civic education policy
(Washington, DC) At a conference here on Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said, "A foundation in civics education is not a luxury but a necessity. ... Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools. .... At the same time, civics instruction needs to be more engaging and exciting, both inside and outside the classroom. ... It's time for us to dust off and revitalize civics education for the 21st century."
Duncan said that many students receive an implicit message that they don't have to pay attention to civics. To succeed, they must focus on reading, math, and science. But "the skills acquired through civic education are critical to succeeding in the knowledge economy." Duncan gave equal emphasis to the political importance of civics for a democracy. "Civics education is the first bullwark against tyranny."
He cited statistics about low knowledge of civics. He assigned some responsibility to schools. "Too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge." The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed "distressing disparities--what we call 'the civics achievement gap.'" (I am glad he uses that phrase, which you could read first on our website.)
Duncan cited iCivics, Rock the Vote, the American Bar Association, and Mikva Challenge as examples of cutting-edge civic education (giving Mikva an extended and well-deserved endorsement).
Duncan said that wherever he goes, people complain about the narrowing of the curriculum. History and civics are also important. It's "simply unacceptable" for schools to have to choose between reading and math and civics.
He summarized the administration's excellent proposal to replace small, earmarked civics programs with a much larger competitive pool of funding. His proposal, however, lumps civics together with all the disciplines currently subject to being crowded out of our schools. We would prefer a separate pool for civics so that it doesn't get lost.
Civics is about giving students the skills for effective participation. The "need to improve civic education is urgent, but with great need comes great opportunity." He called the Internet more than a source of information; it is also a platform for students to create and organize.
In response to a question about bullying, he said he was especially excited about opportunities for the students themselves to build zero-tolerance against bullying.
Duncan was one of the keynoters at the conference. Others included Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (the co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools); the presidents of the MacArthur and McCormick Tribune foundations, and all-star academics like Joe Kahne and Diana Hess.
March 28, 2011
when finally I lie
The boy watches fluid in tubes, lab coats,
Hurried sneakers, hushed exchanges, and thinks
He could grow into one who consults notes,
Gives opinions, adjusts that thing that blinks
Beneath the window that reveals the wall
Of the mall, where later he will sip a shake.
The patient, watching the jagged line fall
That charts his spreading, swelling, burning ache,
Was once the boy and still by habit dreams
Of what he might learn to do and become.
No greater sorrow than to recall your schemes
Of futures past when at last you must succumb.
I am the patient and the boy, hoping I
Will forget these lines when finally I lie.
March 25, 2011
assessment: an overview
Recently I presented some thoughts about why and how we might use assessment in civic education. Most of my points apply to education in general. People seemed to find these ideas useful, so I offer my notes here.
Assessment for what?
- “Formative”: to find out what students or other people know or can do before an educational experience begins, so that we can tailor the education to their needs.
- As an incentive for performance. For instance, if students must pass a civics test to complete ninth grade (the theory goes), they will work hard at civics.
- As a gatekeeper: perhaps no one should hold a high school diploma unless he or she can demonstrate particular knowledge.
- To guide institutions or public policies. For example, we assess programs to decide whether to fund or require them; we evaluate teachers to determine their employment status.
- For the improvement of programs or institutions: in other words, as helpful feedback to educators and administrators.
- To impress outsiders, such as potential funders, with the merits of programs.
Assessment of whom?
- Students--but we might choose to focus on average students, highly at-risk students, talented and motivated students who are potential leaders, or groups of students to see how they perform as teams.
- States and other governmental entities
Assessment of what?
- Students' knowledge, skills, dispositions, values, or habits and behaviors. Note that the kinds of knowledge we want children to possess are enormously various and extensive. In the civic domain, skills encompass fairly typical academic skills (such as interpreting a written political speech) and distinctively civic skills (such as moderating a meeting or dealing with a free-rider in a group). Dispositions and habits can be assessed, but not when the stakes are high. Asking students to report on their own values and behaviors and then holding them accountable for their answers seems an invitation to lie.
- Schools' offerings--for example, what courses they provide; whether a student newspaper exists.
- Teachers’ performance.
- Programs' effects: ideally, the changes in students that are causally attributable to their experience in a given program.
- Pedagogical techniques or strategies, or elements of programs abstracted from specific programs. For instance, several evaluations of programs that include seminars for teachers have shown good effects on students. (Facing History and Ourselves is an example). But we do not know whether seminars for teachers, per se, are helpful.
Assessment by whom?
- Program staff or teachers, who can assess students or programs
- Supervisors, who can assess teachers or students
- Expert evaluators or test-designers
- Voters, citizens, or parents, whose role can either be informal (putting pressure on schools to remedy perceived failures) or formal (serving on evaluation committees, reviewing data)
- Students, who can be asked for their opinions about teachers or programs. More interestingly, they can be asked to supply relatively objective data about educational experiences.
- Tests or test-like written instruments. These are relatively inexpensive, standardizable, and subject to public review; but limited to factual knowledge and fairly simple academic skills. They are limited, also, to the assessment of individuals’ work, not group work.
- Performances or portfolios that are graded by teachers or juries.
- Simulations or games--winning or scoring well on the game would lead to a positive assessment.
- Evaluations based on people's opinions of the program, e.g., college students' course evaluations.
- Longitudinal studies, which repeat some of the same survey items at different times. Repeating a survey very soon tells us nothing about retention. Repeating it after a long while precludes attributing any changes to a particular intervention. Repeating it many times is helpful but is generally expensive because of the costs of retaining individuals in a study.
- Randomized experiments, about which I have written before. My favorite design, by the way, is a wait-list control, in which volunteer participants are assigned to receive the experience either immediately or after a delay, and the two groups are assessed simultaneously. Facing History and Ourselves, the Bill of Rights Institute, and the Center on Politics at the University of Virginia have shown that randomized field experiments of civic education are possible.
What we lack
In the civics field, we are most seriously in need of:
- Tools for reliably assessing advanced skills, especially distinctively civic or leadership skills that are not also academic skills.
- Tools for assessing participation in group projects and discussions.
- Assessments of the quality of "inputs" (not what students know but what schools teach)
- Well-designed assessments of the impact of professional development for teachers on their students.
March 24, 2011
Congress considers honoring Christina Taylor-Green by supporting civil discussion in schools
House resolution 181 proposes to honor "the memory of Christina-Taylor Green by encouraging schools to teach civic education and civil discourse in public schools." I love the bill for three reasons:
First, the very best way to honor the life of an exemplary 9-year old citizen (who was killed while trying to participate in a public dialog with her elected representative) is to encourage such experiences for other children.
Second, the bill, while it is simply a resolution that has no teeth, does include several worthy provisions. If the resolution passed, Congress would recognize "the importance of returning the teaching of civic education and civil discourse to schools, especially for students in grades 6 through 12;... [encourage] the Secretary of Education to direct schools receiving Federal funding to include instruction in civic education and civil discourse; [and encourage] schools and teachers to conduct educational programming on the importance and methods of civic education and civil discourse."
Third, the short text of the bill cites us, accurately and explicitly:
- Whereas empirical evidence demonstrates a strong link between civic education and participation in community and public service, and according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement [that's us!], students who take courses in civics are at least 50 percent more likely to volunteer and to help solve community problems;
Whereas students who participate in classroom civil debate are, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, more civically engaged, being at least 60 percent more likely to follow the news, sign a written petition, and be involved in organizations outside school;
Whereas, according to a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, students involved in civic activities to fulfill a class requirement are 22 percent more likely to graduate from college ...
I say, pass H. RES. 181!
March 23, 2011
Montpelier, VA: I am staying at an almost-literal shrine to the United States Constitution, James Madison's own house, where they (rightly) preserve an ink stain on the floor that may be some of the ink with which Mr. Madison took his notes on ancient constitutions, preparing for the Philadelphia convention. My fellow visitors are all civic educators who teach American history or government at the high school or college level or in museums and other public institutions. They are diverse, and I would hesitate to characterize even the individuals politically, but there is a right-of-center median. Some participants worked in the Bush White House or clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justices. For some, deep respect for the Constitution in its original form is an important civic virtue.
I don't personally think that the United States Constitution, as a document, is a particularly strong example of such an instrument in the 21st century. If you made a serious and open-minded comparison between our constitution and those of other successful and stable contemporary republics, ours would look significantly flawed. I know this sounds like heresy at a time when all the Republican presidential hopefuls agree: "America is stupendously great, awesomely great, so great that 'great' doesn't begin to describe its greatness--and Obama just doesn't get it." But the way the Constitution frustrates accountability by dividing power seems highly problematic, not to mention the unequal representation in the Senate, lack of basic positive rights, and so on.
And yet here is a way in which I am quite conservative. Regimes or polities are organic wholes that develop slowly but can quickly go bad. One idiosyncratic but well-established aspect of the American polity is our veneration for the written text of the Constitution, which extends to piety about its authors and even the locations where they lived and wrote. This civic religion could not be transplanted to other democracies. But neither can all aspects of their political orders be imported here.
We could have a constitutional convention and rewrite the whole text, but the results would not necessarily be better; I fear they would be worse. The Constitution that we have frustrates some forms of good government but also prevents many forms of tyranny. Our polity, taken as a whole, has strengths and much potential for gradual improvement. For those reasons, a degree of reverence for the Constitution may be healthy--although I wouldn't hide any of its flaws from students.
March 22, 2011
Montpelier, VA--I am getting ready to sleep on the property of Montpelier, James Madison's house. His Georgian/Federalist mansion is at the top of the nearby hill, overlooking horse fields and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Past his Greek temple "folly" and through some old-growth woods, you get to the guest house where I am staying. Tomorrow, colleagues and I will be discussing civic education in the very place where the Constitution was conceived--and about 100 field and household slaves labored to support the man who wrote it. On this spring night early in the 21st century, all is quiet.
March 21, 2011
Robert Lowell at the Indian Killer’s Grave
King Philip's War was a struggle between the New England Puritan settlers and Native Americans. Fought in 1675-6, it caused the deaths of about 800 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans and a catastrophe for the Native peoples of New England. King Philip (Metacomet, in his own language) was shot to death, his wife and child sold as slaves in Bermuda, his head displayed on a pike for decades.
Traditionally, King Philip's War was described as a dangerous attack on the colonists, not a genocidal campaign by them against the Wampanoags. Robert Lowell (1917-77) early grasped his region’s original sin. His direct ancestor John Winslow had been a rich Boston merchant during King Philip’s War; another relative had been Josiah Winslow, the governor who led Massachusetts in that war. Out of his struggles with his own ancestry, the Catholic-leaning, pacifist Lowell made poems of permanent value.
In 1946, he published "At the Indian Killer’s Grave" in his collection entitled Lord Weary’s Castle. The setting is King's Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, where John Winslow was buried with his wife Mary. I recently visited the Burying Ground with a copy of Lowell's poem in hand and found that he had described the setting precisely and had incorporated relatively obscure historical information. My annotations follow, interspersed with the entire text in italics. The whole poem is reprinted together here.
Title: "At the Indian Killer's Grave"
The singular noun is interesting, since there are many graves in the Burial Ground that could be connected to King Philip's War. Perhaps the grave of Joseph Tapping or of John Winslow is the specific reference (see below), or perhaps, as Frank Bidart writes in his notes to the Selected Poems, "The Indian Killer ... is essentially generic, a collective figure ...."
- "Here, also, are the veterans of King Philip's War, who burned villages and slaughtered young and old, with pious fierceness, while the godly souls throughout the land were helping them with prayer."
Quoted from Hawthorne's story "The Gray Champion," which concerns the colonists' resistance to James II (the king of King's Chapel) and mentions their slaughter of Native Americans briefly and ironically. The story concludes: "still may the Gray Champion come, for he is the type of New England's hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the eve of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New England's sons will vindicate their ancestry." (Vindicating his ancestors is pretty much the opposite of what Lowell accomplishes in this poem.)
- Behind King's Chapel what the earth has kept
Whole from the jerking noose of time extends
Its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat;
These are regular iambic pentameter lines, as are most (but not quite all) of the lines of the poem. Most of the poem rhymes, but in a complex and irregular scheme. (Note friends/bends/ends, well/compel, root/foot, etc.) The very first line has no rhyme.
"Behind King's Chapel": The small plot of ancient stones is hemmed by some of the city's tallest and most modern commercial buildings. America's first subway line runs very close below, the quaint cover of its ventilation shaft interrupting the graves. Crowds of tourists file down the narrow lanes.
The Burying Ground is historically separate from King's Chapel. The former was a cemetery for Puritans, strenuous critics of the official Anglican Church. Because no settler would sell to King James II land on which to build an Anglican church in New England, James seized some of the Burying Ground to build the chapel, presumably disrupting many Puritan tombs. The present structure of the chapel is a sober neoclassical building, erected in 1754, that overshadows the cemetery. The modern congregation is Unitarian, the Anglicans having been chased away as Tories in the Revolution. Lowell uses the phrase "King's Chapel" to locate the poem and does not mention the Burying Ground itself. The buried Puritans would be angry that their resting place is so described. Lowell's own theology would be closer to James' than to the Puritans'.
"What the earth has kept whole …" Does this refer to bodies in the burial ground, ones that have not been broken up by centuries of building? Maybe not, because the subject of the sentence is singular: it "extends / Its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat." One possible reading: there is a crime, a mysterious sin, that is hidden from the time when the corpses were buried until the Day of Judgment.
"Jerking noose" alludes to the mass hanging of the Wampanoag Indians in King Philip's war, part of the crime that is the dark enigma. This also suggests a concrete image: something in the earth is partly broken by a rope which, like time itself, shakes things to pieces.
Jehoshaphat: this could refer to the King of the Israelites. He might be associated with the Puritans because he struggled against idolatry and defeated a large army of Moabites (comparable to Wampanoags) when the Lord made them quarrel amongst themselves. But more likely Lowell means not the king but the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Resurrection and Judgment Day is expected: thus, a vast graveyard. Cf. "In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat," a phrase from Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard of Nantucket."
- Or will King Philip plait
The just man's scalp in the wailing valley! Friends,
Blacker than these black stones the subway bends
About the dirty elm roots and the well
For the unchristened infants in the waste
Of the great garden rotten to its root;
"Or will King Philip plait ...": The word "or" suggests two possibilities. Either the enigma remains hidden until Judgment Day or King Philip braids the hair on the scalp of the "just man" in the valley of Jehosophat. The phrase "just man" could be ironic and refer to the kind of men whom the real Philip scalped: Puritans. "Plaiting" seems gentle and cosmetic, although perhaps King Philip celebrates the ultimate demise of the men who killed him and his people. Although they won the war, they all died in the end.
"Friends!": Who could that be? We the readers? Imaginary companions visiting the Burying Ground with Lowell? A congregation addressed by a preacher? King Philip's friends (for he clearly speaks later in the poem)?
"Blacker than these black stones ..." The headstones are gray now, as they must have been when first cut. In Lowell's time, pollution had blackened them (see the "off-scourings" mentioned in line 2.6). The air was polluted by the heavy industry that his ancestors brought to New England after 1790 and that supported all the office buildings around King's Chapel.
"... the subway bends ...". It does bend--the Green Line of the Boston "T"--and as it moves it makes extraordinary creaking and whining sounds immediately below the cemetery, as if the dead were rising. The construction of the "T," like the building of King's Chapel, disturbed the sober Puritans in their graves and jumbled their bones together promiscuously.
"About the dirty elm roots and the well": The "well" is actually the cover of the subway airshaft, a remarkable structure that I would call quaint, but I can see how it might look diabolical.
"For the unchristened infants in the waste": In 1833, a charnel house (a vault for bones) was constructed under the Burying Ground to hold dead orphans. Once again, the dead Puritans must have been shifted. They would not be upset by the idea of unchristened burials. They considered baptism unnecessary for salvation and conducted no baptisms in the New World until about 1628. For the Catholic Lowell, unchristened babies would evoke Limbo.
Of the great garden rotten to its root: The garden may be the cemetery, where the bones are like roots. "Great" is surprising and worth some consideration, because I would have described the Burying Ground as small and quaint. Perhaps the cemetery is metonymy for something truly "great," such as Boston or America.
- Death, the engraver, puts forward his bone foot
And Grace-with-wings and Time-on-wings compel
All this antique abandon of the disgraced
To face Jehovah's buffets and his ends.
I think we are now looking at this particular gravestone, that of Joseph Tapping, who died at 23 in 1678 and therefore seems likely to have fought in King Philip's War (although I have found nothing about him):
This headstone is a spooky momento mori, complete with Time and Death (the skeleton) fighting to snuff out the candle of a life. I don't see Grace-with-wings: she may be drawn from a different headstone or invented by Lowell. (If the skull with wings is Grace, that is heavy irony.)
"Death, the engraver": Literally, death is engraved, not the engraver. The engraver is believed to be the Charlestown Carver, who was active in Boston in the late 1600s. But the metaphor suggests that Death friezes a life into a fixed form that can be judged.
"antique abandon of the disgraced": The jumble of old headstones and their guilty dead.
"Jehovah's buffets and his ends": Buffets must be punishments. Ends are either final dispositions or ultimate, hidden purposes.
- The dusty leaves and frizzled lilacs gear
This garden of the elders with baroque
and prodigal embellishments but smoke,
Settling upon the pilgrims and their grounds,
Espouses and confounds
Their dust with the off-scourings of the town;
"baroque / and prodigal embellishments": an apt description of the tombstones, although the baroque style is accomplished in a very naive, "folk" way.
"smoke ... off-scourings of the town": The smoke comes from Boston's factories, founded by the descendants of the Pilgrims, who made eastern Massachusetts the second area in the world to industrialize, thus fouling the land that the Indians had owned while enriching themselves. The factory smoke merges with their own corpses' ashes.
"Espouses and confounds" is the first line not in iambic pentameter: possibly enacting the entropy that has set in after the Pilgrims' time.
- The libertarian crown
of England built their mausoleum. Here
A clutter of Bible and weeping willows guards
The stern Colonial magistrates and wards
of Charles the Second, and the clouds
Weep on the just and unjust as they will,--
"The libertarian crown": I have not found a 17th-century usage, but "libertarian" wouldn't have the modern sense of Milton Friedman. It could mean generous, or tolerant to dissenting sects such as the Puritans.
"Charles the Second": King's Chapel was founded in the first year of his son James II's reign. Mentioning Charles II here is a minor error, unless Lowell believed that Charles had ordered the chapel to be built before he died. James II is the villain in Hawthorne's tale.
"... built their mausoleum": Treats the King's Chapel as the Pilgrims' mausoleum because it stands next to their graves, even though the king built it against the wishes of their community and at the expense of their graveyard. Lowell knows this, so his rhetoric is venomous.
"A clutter of Bible and weeping willows guards ... ": I saw no willows, so unless they have been cut down, Lowell must be thinking of images on graves.
"the just and the unjust": cf. Acts 24:15 "And have hope toward God, which they themselves [sc. the Jewish elders] also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust." This resurrection is what will happen at Jehosaphat. The graves of King's Chapel contain the bones of unrepentant sinners, according to this poem.
guards/wards/clouds: a Yeatsian off rhyme.
- For the poor dead cannot see Easter crowds
On Boston Common or the Beacon Hill
Where strangers hold the golden Statehouse dome
For good and always. Where they live is home:
A common with an iron railing: here
Frayed cables wreathe the spreading cenotaph
Of John and Mary Winslow and the laugh
Of Death is hacked in sandstone, in their year.
"The poor dead cannot see Easter crowds": They would not want to see those crowds, which are presumably swelled with Catholic Bostonians. Here Lowell introduces the contrast between communitarian Catholics and solitary Puritans, important later on. There are two reasons that the buried Puritans cannot see the modern crowds: 1) they are dead, and 2) many large buildings have been constructed in modern times between the cemetery and "Boston Common or the Beacon Hill."
"The golden Statehouse dome": A Boston landmark, it is no longer controlled by WASPs of Puritan heritage, but by Catholics, Jews, and other "strangers" who dominate the Massachusetts legislature in Lowell's time and in ours.
"Where they live is home": Their home is reduced from Massachusetts to the crowded plot where their bodies lie.
"A common with an iron railing": A public cemetery is a "common," but of a ghoulish type. The iron railing was erected in 1884.
Mary Winslow (born Mary Chilton) was the first female person to land with the Pilgrims at Plymouth: hence the symbolic mother of New England. The tomb of John and Mary Winslow is actually a small, plain, sandstone headstone in King's Chapel Graveyard, not "a spreading cenotaph ... wreathe[d with] frayed cables." But a cenotaph is an empty tomb, a memorial that does not mark the position of a buried body; so maybe Lowell's idea is that the iron railing is John's and Mary's monument now that their bones have been dispersed.
As noted above, John Winslow was Lowell's direct ancestor. He died before King Philip's war and served on a jury that convicted settlers for murdering an Indian. Frank Bidart writes, "In sum, Lowell chooses as his emblematic 'Indian Killer' not a famous soldier in the Indian Wars, but a successful Puritan businessman, a 'good citizen,' whose religious convictions and mercantile habits inevitably led to the near-extinction of New England's Native American tribes." I find this plausible, although it is not self-evident that John Winslow is the Indian Killer of the title.
"the laugh of death / is hacked": reprises the theme of death as the mason of the headstones.
- A green train grinds along its buried tracks
And screeches. When the great mutation racks
The Pilgrim Fathers' relics, will these placques
Harness the spare-ribbed persons of the dead
To battle with the dragon? Philip's head
Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime
The fingers of kept time:
"A green train ..." This is a vivid and literal description of what one hears as the Green Line train (which is painted green) passes below the cemetery. It may evoke the idea of the dragon of the Apocalypse (Revelations 12 and 13), although that beast is red.
"the great mutation": Google suggests this is an astrological term, perhaps known to Lowell, but I think the main reference is 1 Corinthians 15:52: "for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
"will these placques / Harness the spare-ribbed persons of the dead / To battle with the dragon?": Taken apart literally, the question means: will the gravestones ride the skeletons of the dead pilgrims to fight against the dragon of the apocalypse?
"Philip's head ... on the platter": like that of the last prophet, St. John the Baptist. For some reason, this image reminds me of a passage in Joyce's Ulysses (London, 1960, p. 508) in which Shakespeare's disembodied head appears and says, "'Tis the loud laugh bespeaks the vacant mind."
"fouls in pantomime / The fingers of kept time": As King Philip's fingers tap to indicate the passage of time, he grins and makes a lewd gesture. (This is the only literal reading I can--tentatively--suggest.)
- "Surely, this people is but grass,"
He whispers, "this will pass;
But, Sirs, the trollop dances on your skulls
And breaks the hollow noddle like an egg
That thought the world an eggshell. Sirs, the gulls
Scream from the squelching wharf-piles, beg a leg
To crack their crops. The Judgment is at hand;"
This is the beginning of a speech, presumably uttered by the head of Philip to the dead Puritans, although it is also a speech of Lowell to the same audience. The vocabulary is distinctive: "trollop," "noddle," "beg a leg." I think these terms evoke Restoration comedy and other light literature from that era. For instance, "my self-flattering noddle supposed this carriage particular to me ..." (from The English rogue: described, in the life of Meriton Latroon, a witty extravagant. Being a compleat history of the most eminent cheats of both sexes ... 1666). The diction is remarkable because neither Philip nor the Puritans would have spoken in this foppish way.
"this people is but grass": Compare Emerson's poem "Hamatreya," in which the Puritan settlers of Concord claim the land forever, but the "Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys / Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; / Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet / Clear of the grave. "
"the trollop dances on your skulls ... that thought the world an eggshell:" King Philip is interested in the contrast between the Puritans’ subjective beliefs and reality. The Puritans believed that what they knew--everything enclosed by the "eggshells" around their brains--was real. But their brains rotted, and people whom they would consider "trollops" crushed their hollow skulls, much as the actual bodies of the Puritans have decayed and their bones have been crushed by sinners unimaginable to them.
"the gulls ... beg a leg / To crack their crops": Philip must refer to the gulls of nearby Boston harbor, sitting on piles that "squelch" the soil below, making noises that evoke Judgment Day. "Beg a leg" can mean "good luck." "Crack their crops" could refer to the pouches in birds' throats that hold food to be broken up. The sound of these lines is astringent: lots of "s's." Some of the sense is obscure to me.
- Only the dead are poorer in this world
Where State and elders thundered raca, hurled
Anathemas at nature and the land
That fed the hunter's gashed and green perfection--
"Only the dead are poorer: Everyone has become richer in Massachusetts except the first merchant settlers who founded the commercial republic. They, being dead, are poorer.
"Where State and elders thundered raca/ hurled Anathemas at nature:" The church and state of colonial Massachusetts insult nature. "Raca" is the Aramaic insult ("fool") that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount as an uncharitable remark: "whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council" (Matthew 5:22). An anathema is a curse that casts its target out of the religious communion.
"at nature and the land / That fed the hunter's gashed and green perfection" What they curse is the green and natural land that the Indian hunters had enjoyed. At least some Puritans held that Grace and nature were separate. Grace was granted by God and revealed by piety, social norms and restrictions, thrift and prosperity (i.e. both church and state). Nature and the wilderness symbolized sexual temptation and evil. Nature-worship (like the Indians' spirituality) was devil-worship and witchcraft.
- Its settled mass concedes no outlets for your puns
And verbal Paradises. Your election,
Hawking above this slime
For souls as single as their skeletons
Flutters and claws in the dead hand of time."
Its settled mass concedes no outlets for your puns: "It" is divine judgment. It is "settled" because of the Puritan doctrine of predestination. Puritans held that everyone was either elected or damned, regardless of what they we might say (our "puns" and "verbal Paradises").
Looking for a more specific connection between Puritanism and punning, I found Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds' article on "Thomas Pynchon, Wit, and the Work of the Supernatural". Pynchon, like Lowell, is a direct descendant of Massachusetts Puritan elders who subverts that heritage. Pynchon loves puns, uses verbal coincidences as causal forces in his novels, and perhaps understands them as subverting predestination (which implies that God has pre-planned everything). Hinds quotes Benjamin Rush (originally a Calvinist, but later a convert to the doctrine of free will), who observed in 1799 that "wit of all kinds, and more especially that species of it which is called punning, has a tendency to weaken the understanding by unduly exercising the imagination." The Puritans would see themselves as immune to wit: sober people who plainly stated the truth. Philip wittily accuses them of being beguiled by their own language and imagining a Paradise in language.
Your election ..., Hawking ..., Flutters and claws in the dead hand of time: The "Election" of the Puritans is their salvation, which results from God's grace alone. King Philip/Robert Lowell likens election to a hawk above "this slime" of worldly life. The hand of time is dead because everything is predestined.
"For souls as single as their skeletons": The Puritan soul stands in a direct, unmediated relation to God and is saved or damned alone. To be a Puritan is to wait for a bird to swoop down and decide one's fate. In contrast, Lowell, a Catholic, believes that the community of the Church is an intermediary and salvation comes through communion with others.
(Here ends the speech of King Philip, who presumably does not endorse predestination but uses it to mock his Puritan enemies.)
- When you go down this man-hole to the drains
The doorman barricades you in and out;
You wait upon his pleasure. All about
Metaphorically, you go into the hole of a grave when you die and your fate is decided for you. It is possible that a literal attendant let people down into the burial vault or the subway under the Burial Ground, in Lowell's day.
- The pale, sand-colored, treeless chains
Of T-squared buildings strain
To curb the spreading of the braced terrain;
These lines begin a description of the cityscape around the Burial Ground. The "T-squared buildings" that were already erected by 1946 would have included the Parker House Hotel nearby. Such buildings are "T-squared" because large modern structures tend to be angular (in contrast to natural forms), but also because the Boston "T" runs underneath the streets.
"the braced terrain: the land here is hilly, and on several occasions the Burial Ground had to be supported by new retaining walls and terraces, or the skeletons would have tumbled down toward the harbor.
- When you go down this hole, perhaps your pains
Will be rewarded well; no rough cast house
Will bed and board you in King's Chapel. Here
“When you go down” used for the second time: anaphora.
Roughcast is a coarse plaster exterior wall-covering that can incorporate gravel or pebbles. King's Chapel is handsomely faced in stone. I think Lowell means that if you are buried here, among the Puritan Fathers of Massachusetts, your body gets a fancy resting place. He does not specify whether the resting place is temporary until Judgment Day or permanent. Compare earlier: “Where they live is home / A common with an iron railing …”
- A public servant putters with a knife
And paints the railing red
Forever, as a mouse
Cracks walnuts by the headstones of the dead
Whose chiseled angels peer
At you, as if their art were as long as life.
This whole section plays with surprising contrasts between ephemeral events (a painter at work, a mouse eating walnuts) and permanent facts. One would expect the scene of a man painting to last for just a short time, and even the red paint on the fence will chip or fade. But Lowell tells us they are "forever" (enjambing that word for surprise). Likewise, one would expect the "chiseled angels" on the headstones to last much longer than a human life. They are ancient and unchanging, like the bones beneath them, whereas we, like mice and painters, will soon pass away. But Lowell says "as if their art were as long as life," thus reversing the Latin tag, "Art is long, life is short."
- I ponder on the railing at this park:
Who was the man who sowed the dragon's teeth,
The fabulous or fancied patriarch
Who sowed so ill for his descent, beneath
King's Chapel in this underworld and dark?
"I ponder on the railing at this park": Lowell, or the poem's narrator, appears for the first time, placed at the gate in the present (modern) moment.
"the man who sowed the dragon's teeth": Cadmus, who sowed the dragon's teeth from which sprung a horde of armed men who fought until five remained, and they became the founders of Thebes and the heads of its aristocratic houses. The "Indian Killer" plays a similar role as founder of the city-state of Boston and its Brahman families.
"Who sowed so ill for his descent": Sowing alludes to the Cadmus story, and to the idea that you reap what you sow. "Descent" could mean the decedents of the Indian Killer (including Lowell) or the Killer's descent below ground as a corpse, or both.
"this underworld and dark": hendiadys for "this world that is dark and under us."
- John, Mathew, Luke and Mark,
Gospel me to the Garden, let me come
Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers--
Her soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers
And her whole body an ecstatic womb,
As through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.
We suddenly find ourselves in an entirely different world. Nature, instead of being sharply distinguished from grace, is divinely enchanted. Religion centers on the fecund figure of Mary instead of a male deity or an impersonal Providence. Sexuality is holy ("the bridal chamber," the peering Bridegroom). The soul is not imprisoned in a body that rots, but is the "whole body," and specifically the female body. We are not in a graveyard any more, but in a garden. The diction is no longer reminiscent of the King James Version, classical myth, Puritan sermonizing, or Restoration wit. Instead, it evokes the Marian devotions of early English poetry.
Indeed, from "Who was the man who sowed the dragon's teeth" to the end of the poem, Lowell is reworking the last 11 lines of his earlier poem entitled "Cistercians in Germany" (from Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944). It is an explicitly anti-Nazi work. The Germans "howl: 'Who was this man who sowed the dragon's teeth ...?'" They reply, "the bankers and the Jews." But Bernard appears to offer some kind of resolution, "gathering his canticle of flowers, / His soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers, / And all his body one extatic womb." Saint Bernard was named a "righteous gentile" for stopping pogroms against the Jews of Rhineland Germany and founded the Cistercian monastic order. Lowell longed for a Catholic community infused with Bernard's pacific spirit. But the Nazi setting of his early poem was distant and abstract, and the attribution of feminine qualities to the male saint strikes me as somewhat strange. Lowell later told Frederick Seidel, "The 'Cistercians' wasn't very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in." (Collected Prose, p. 247.) Thus Puritans took the space occupied by Nazis in the earlier poem, although that doesn't mean that Lowell regarded the two as equally evil.
Gospel me to the Garden: The form of the prayer sounds medieval. Parádeisos is one Greek word for "garden," deriving originally from a Persian word for a walled outdoor space. Eden is a Paradise, in that sense. In the book of Daniel, Susannah is bathing in a walled garden when she is seen naked by lecherous men. According to Old Testament law, there are two possible places where women can be found with men not their husbands: within the city or in the fields. In the city, the woman has a duty to cry out if she is raped, so if she is found with a man, her consent is assumed and she merits execution by stoning. Outside the city, however, no one can hear her cries, so she is considered innocent. Susannah's "Paradise" is an ambiguous zone that blurs the harsh boundaries of the law. Lowell's garden, with its ecstatic, fertile Mary and the peering Bridegroom, evokes Susannah's Paradise as well as Eden and a Cistercian cloister. It also evokes New England before the Puritans arrived.
"Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers": Compare "Or will King Philip plait /
The just man's scalp in the wailing valley ...?" That question is now answered with a surprising alternative: Mary will plait Philip's hair. Philip may be a "warlock" in the sense of a protector against foreign invasion. Or perhaps a scalp is a lock (of hair) cut in a war. Mary peacefully braids Philip's hair with her flowers, healing and restoring.
"As through the trellis the sudden Bridegroom": The groom must be Mary's spiritual suitor--perhaps Lowell or the devout reader. Compare George Crabbe's lines: "Hark, it is the Bridegroom’s voice: / 'Welcome, pilgrim to thy rest!' / Now within the gate rejoice ...." A trellis, like an iron gate, is a divider, but its purpose is to support flowers and produce shade.
Overall, the poem evokes the following styles or cultural referents:
- 1. Old Testament prophesy about judgment and resurrection
2. Descriptions of a real graveyard in modern times, reminiscent of elegies by Crabbe or Thomas Gray
3. Puritan sermons against sexuality, Indians, and Catholics
4. Witty repartee from the 1600s
5. Pre-lapsarian, Native New England, when people were in harmony with nature
6. The Greek myth of Cadmus
7. Catholic, specifically Marian, spirituality.
Meanwhile, the poem plays with the following distinctions, all introduced with irony and ambiguity:
- 1. nature versus grace
2. individual salvation versus communal faith and marriage
3. Puritans versus Native Americans and Catholics
4. wit, words, and imagination versus truth and hard reality
5. bodily corruption versus conception and rebirth
The concluding section suggests a solution by offering a vision of tolerant, nature-loving, female-centered Paradise. The narrator, who observed the Puritans' ghoulish graveyard through its iron fence, ends as a Bridegroom peering into Mary's flowery bridal chamber.
March 18, 2011
the West and the rest
It seems impossible to distinguish between the West and other civilizations or regions of the globe, because anything we might call "the West" is so internally diverse and vaguely bordered. It's easy to make up a list of famous Western people who have vanishingly little in common: Saint Teresa of Ávila, Oscar Wilde, Daniel Boone, Lenin, William Penn, Cole Porter, Thomas Edison, Heidegger, Andy Warhol, Donald Trump, Emily Dickinson, and Hernán Cortés.
Or consider two people who are famous for being (in very different ways) anti-Western: the Ayatollah Khomeini and Gandhi. The former studied and admired Plato, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the French Revolution. The latter spoke English, practiced English law, and read the works of Thoreau and his friend Tolstoy. If these two were not “Western,” why should we count all the others listed above?
But here is a suggestion for an actual difference. One thousand years ago, Europe (from Greenland to Sicily) was actually quite homogeneous. It was all agrarian and Catholic, and it had a warrior caste, monks, and peasants. The languages varied but they all contained a large dose of Latin, which was spoken by the educated class. Across the continent, villages were dominated by their churches, manor houses, and castles. That world vanished or was destroyed--unevenly, so that little pieces of it still linger today. It was replaced by technology, urbanization, mass communications, bureaucratic states and businesses, secularization, and markets.
Roughly the same pattern ("modernization") occurred in most parts of the globe, provoking the same enormous range of reactions that we observe in Europe. But in Europe--and in countries like the United States that view themselves as inheritors of Europe--most of the changes were perceived as internal. Steam engines, bureaucratic files, securities markets, and all the other hallmarks of modernity did not seem to come from some alien civilization but to be choices of the society itself. For example, when the first train puffed through the German countryside, some people might have disliked or even feared it, but they saw it as a German train. In contrast, the same changes came to other places as the direct consequence of conquest, military pressure, purchase, or persuasion by people regarded as complete outsiders.
I don't know if this is correct. Perhaps Portuguese or Icelandic or Serbian peasants felt the same way as people in China and Africa when the first steam engines and ID cards arrived. But I think not, if only because so many human beings have defined "the other" in terms of skin color and religion. This is not to say that the definition of the West is whiteness or Christianity. My hypothesis is more subtle: when innovations come from a place perceived as fundamentally like one’s own, they feel one way. They feel a different way when they come from people perceived as foreigners. In both cases, a whole range of reactions is possible, from delirious enthusiasm to horror. But “the West” is where modernization is perceived as an internal process.
(In a somewhat similar post, I tried to explore why modernization feels different in Istanbul and Baltimore.)
March 17, 2011
schools' role in enhancing liberty
I'm going down to New York and back today for a public discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center. My fellow panelists and I have been asked to address the following questions (among others):
- What are the goals of civic education?
- What are current competing interests and debates around the role of public education in children’s civic development?
- How do claims by parents and political interest groups conflict with children’s rights to school-based conversations about civic engagement?
I may put the following views on the table. One view is that parents should instill ideological (or religious) commitments in their children, while schools should only teach "civility and civic duty in conventional participation." (Quoting Michael McDevitt and Ally Ostrowski, who are critical of this view.) The reason for this division of labor could be deference to parents and families and fear of the state.
A second view (more classically liberal) assumes that parents will try to instill ideological beliefs, but their influence is problematic, because they can limit their children's freedom to understand and choose among diverse values and ideals. Schools should increase freedom by exposing kids to a range of values and supportive arguments, including those held in other families. In this theory, as in the first one, schools are committed to "civility and conventional participation," but now that means civil discussions among diverse people about controversial issues.
McDevitt and Ostrowski show that the empirical reality is a lot more complicated. Many parents do not instill political beliefs in their kids. Sometimes, robust political discussions in schools cause students to bring ideas home that influence parents. For some students, exposure to ideas not espoused at home strengthens their own identity as members of their families. Children react in diverse ways to influences from parents, peers, teachers, and schools--sometimes experimenting with opposite views.
Philosophically, I endorse the liberal position that schools should widen students' intellectual options, even if doing so undermines the influence of parents. In fact, I think a serious critique of libertarianism begins with the recognition that parents have potentially tyrannical influence over their offspring, and liberty requires state education. Of course, no politician could get away with espousing this position: "We will take your children away from you during the daytime for 13 years so that they are free to choose different values from yours."
The classical liberal position suggests that teachers should be neutral. Political neutrality is a bit of a chimera, because institutions always have strong implicit or explicit ideologies. Nevertheless, teachers can choose either to indoctrinate their students or to organize vibrant, unpredictable, unconstrained discussions. The latter is the classical liberal approach.
It is, however, an empirical question which pedagogy maximizes students' real freedom to choose their own values and goals. Jim Youniss and Miranda Yates wrote a book about a particular Catholic school in which the teachers are openly religious, Democratic, and liberal. Most of the students are African American Protestants of varied ideologies. The authors find that the teachers' strong and explicit value-commitments do not cause students to convert but rather stimulate them to serious and lasting reflection and engagement. So the question is whether value-neutrality or explicit commitment is a better strategy for teaching young people to think critically. I do not think we have a clear and universally applicable answer to that question.
March 16, 2011
critical thinking, from a youth perspective
Cathy Davidson has a great report from the recent "Designing Learning Futures" conference in LA, sponsored by the Digital Media and Learning Initiative of the MacArthur Foundation. Here is a sample to encourage you to read her whole piece:
- There were thirty or thirty five students, from Renaissance Academy in East Los Angeles, and they were part of the Out the Window project. .... I kept hearing ... "critical thinking" over and over, so I asked one of the young artists, "What do you mean by 'critical thinking'?" She didn't even pause, "It means being able to see where I am standing and also where you are. It means having enough knowledge and research and discipline not to over-react if you disagree with me or if you dislike me or disrespect me but to pause, and think about who you are, and then help bridge the gap between us."
Here is a video about the Out of the Window project.
March 15, 2011
If You Want Citizens to Trust Government, Empower Them to Govern
In lieu of a post today, here is a link to my article on The Democratic Strategist, number six in a symposium on distrust in government, organized by Demos. The previous five contributions have been helpfully diverse, but all have shared the premises that: 1) deep distrust is an obstacle to progressive politics; 2) distrust is not simply a result of anti-government rhetoric and hostile media but also flows from people's authentic experiences of government; and 3) progressives can reduce distrust by governing differently. My prescription is unique in its emphasis on enlisting the people in governance.
March 14, 2011
a good government primer
At the national level, there are at least a dozen organizations devoted to "good government" in ways that Progressive Era reformers like Robert M. La Follette and Teddy Roosevelt would immediately recognize and endorse. They have a handful of consistent political allies, notably former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Another set of organizations has a libertarian definition of reform: small government is good government. These two networks are largely opposed, but they make strange bedfellows on certain issues.
The main elements of the Progressive "good government" reform agenda are: (1) opposition to money in politics; (2) transparency in government, and (3) an accessible, equitable voting system that yields consequential decisions. Thus today's priorities for concrete, practical reforms include such measures as public funding for elections, a public right to information, and easier voting. (The last could be accomplished, for example, by allowing people to register at the same time and place that they vote.)
Over the past century, the "good government" agenda has shifted somewhat in response to arguments, experiences, and crises. The direct election of Senators and the right of voters to recall elected officials were high priorities early in the last century; open meeting acts and disclosure of campaign contributions were victories of the 1970s; and opposition to filibuster abuse has risen on the agenda in the past decade. Referenda were objectives of good government reformers circa 1900; now they appear highly problematic in states like California where they are used for routine lawmaking. Deregulation of such industries as long-distance trucking was a good government priority in the 1970s. Re-regulation of the financial industry is a priority now.
The structure and strategies of the good government groups have also evolved. The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 and still uses the model that was typical in civil society then: active local chapters with face-to-face meetings and events, state organizations and conferences, and a professional national staff guided by the members. Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the Public Interest Research Groups were founded around 1970 with an innovative model: mass mailings to raise small donations to support professional staffs who litigate, lobby, and "expose" corruption to motivate more support. The models of the 1920 and 1970s are suffering due to declines in civic engagement, and the newcomers mostly rely on digital technologies, loose networks of volunteers, and/or foundation grants. They include the Sunlight Foundation (founded in 2006), Fix Congress First! (2008), and the Coffee Party (2010).
Beneath the specific policy agenda at any moment lies a distinctive and durable political philosophy that ought to be taken seriously--but also assessed critically. At its heart is a distinction between "citizens" or "the people" (on one hand) and "special interests" and "politicians" (on the other). The people should rule; politicians should be responsible and accountable to them; and special interests should be curtailed. Citizens are not necessarily virtuous and wise, nor are organized political groups and elected leaders inevitably corrupt. Rather, when people act through the channels organized for them as citizens, the odds are high that they will act well. As citizens, we talk with diverse others about common issues without coercion or bribes. As citizens, we vote, and that is basically a public-spirited act because the cost of voting isn't worthwhile if one thinks of the payoff in narrowly selfish terms. As citizens, we promote our values and interests, which, even if foolish or selfish, are at least checked by the rival interests and values of millions of peers. Frederic Howe, the Progressive Era reformer and writer, launched his own political career with a characteristic speech against machine politicians, "men who have substituted corruption for discussion, and ours is a government of discussion."
In contrast to citizens, special interests expend resources to get favorable policies, and they sometimes obtain lucrative returns on their investments. (For example, $15 million of lobbying on last year's financial reform bill bought a provision worth $10 billion.) In contrast to citizens, firms and coalitions of firms are required to maximize returns for their own shareholders are are thus blocked from deliberating about what is just or best. La Follette thundered against the special interests of his day: "Their resources are inexhaustible. Their efforts never relax. Their political methods are insidious." But, he thought, "the united power of the people expressed directly through the ballot can overthrow the enemy."
In sum, the "public interest" is what the people would want if they talked, listened, learned, and voted freely. Corruption is the undue influence of special interests, whether inside or outside the government, especially if their influence can be traced to money or to special powers that they can wield. If the people show demonstrable weaknesses as citizens (such as low knowledge or weak motivation), the solution is education, broadly defined. Thomas Jefferson's words apply: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."
One alternative philosophy is embodied in the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, which treats lobbying and campaign contributions as free speech, and businesses as voluntary associations responsible to their citizen-owners. It legitimizes and renders fully respectable the combination of money and politics.
A different alternative holds that corporations basically run modern market economies, not just by deliberately lobbying and funding politicians, but also by making discretionary (and completely legal) decisions about their own investments. Thus democracy is basically a sham without economic reform of a type that is too radical for our actual citizens today. Charles A. Beard criticized Progressives from this perspective in 1916. He was challenging any "good government" strategy that puts political reform ahead of economic reform.
My own views would require a longer essay to defend, but I can summarize my conclusions as follows. I am enthusiastic about the policy agenda of the good government groups, especially their opposition to private money in campaigns. I agree with their philosophical distinctions between citizens and special interests; the public interest and corruption; political reform and economic reform. Even though no specific legislation will keep money completely out of politics, it seems important to pass laws that not only restrain the practical impact of money but also reinforce the norm that using cash to influence the government is basically disreputable.
Of all the objectives of the field today, I think transparency is the least important because information does not translate easily into power; and transparency in the public sector can simply weaken the government unless it is matched by transparency in private business. Meanwhile, one item on the 1970s agenda has since been forgotten and should be revived: the struggle against delegating legislative powers to unelected bureaucrats. Finally, I agree with the implicit definition of citizens as deliberators and voters, but I believe that we all learn best from experience and action. Thus citizens will not be able to do their job of talking, listening, monitoring, and voting until we all have opportunities to do public work as well. That is why such fields of practice as relational organizing and community economic development (mentioned at the very top of this post) are important complements to good government reform.
March 11, 2011
how our leaders learn about the public and private sectors
I believe the most important thing for citizens to know is the proper arrangement of state, market, and civil society--not only how much tax the state should collect or how it should regulate the market (although those are important questions) but also the goals and methods appropriate to each sector. For example, what is the appropriate place of competition, efficiency, innovation, openness, procedural fairness, transparency, and equality of voice in each kind of institution? These questions do not have correct answers; the objective is not consensus but a vibrant and constructive debate. Each person should have coherent, thoughtful, responsible views that guide his or her personal work as well as voting.
How can we learn what to think about the three sectors?
- 1. We can replicate the view of parents and other authority figures.
2. We can read and discuss relevant texts, such as works of politics, philosophy, history, and economics.
3. As consumers or service-recipients, we can experience the three sectors.
4. We can experience working in the private sector as an ordinary worker (mainly a follower of rules and instructions).
5. We can experience working in the public or non-profit sector as an ordinary worker (mainly a follower of rules and instructions).
6. We can experience running or helping to run a business.
7. We can experience leading or helping to govern a public or not-for-profit entity.
All these sources of learning are appropriate, and individuals derive all kinds of unpredictable lessons from each. But each has limitations without the others. For example, if you have never tried to meet a payroll or survive in a competitive market, you could draw the conclusion that regulation was cheaper and easier than it is. By the same token, if you have never managed an organization that has an obligation to honor the voice of every member of a community, you could draw the conclusion that public sector entities should be more efficient than they are.
Because people have diverse experiences and can draw unpredictable lessons even from the same experience, I hesitate to generalize about how Americans (or any subgroup of Americans, such as elected leaders) learn about public life. But I think a few troubling trends are evident.
First, we have lost most opportunities to experience the governing of public or not-for profit entities. As I wrote on this blog several years ago:
- Elinor Ostrom calculates that in 1932, 900,000 American families had one member with formal responsibilities on a government panel or board, such as one of the 128,548 school boards then in existence. Given rotation in office, well over 1 million families had some policymaking experience in their own recent memories. Today, thanks to consolidation, there are only 15,000 school districts, an 89% decline. Meanwhile, the population has more than doubled. The result is a decline of probably 95% in all opportunities to serve in local government. The same thing has happened in high schools: a three-generation panel study run by Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker finds a 50% decline in participation in most student groups, thanks largely to the consolidation of schools. (Fewer schools mean fewer seats on student governments.)
Meanwhile, the proportion of people who say they have worked on a community problem or attended a community meeting has fallen since the 1970s.
Second, we don't teach diverse opinions and arguments about the appropriate roles and values of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors very well in schools and colleges.
Third, the people whose dominant experiences are as ordinary workers (receivers of orders) very rarely find themselves in positions of political leadership, such as members of Congress.
Fourth, there is a stark contrast in the experience of Democratic and Republican elected leaders. Roll Call's guide to the 112th Congress describes a newly elected Democrat, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). She views policy from the perspective of someone who has led or made discretionary decisions within the state sector. "An [elementary school principal] before she launched a political career, Wilson hopes to play a role in revamping the No Child Left Behind Act, which she says has hurt some students with its focus on testing and college preparedness."
Roll Call also describes a whole batch of newly elected Republicans, almost all of whom explicitly cite their negative experiences as private sector managers who dealt with government. For example, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Iowa), a physician in private practice, says, "Small businesses and corporations are being smothered by regulations that are keeping us from being competitive with foreign countries." Rep. Bill Flores (R-FL) "does not have any political experience, [but] he says his business success has prepared him for service in Congress. He worked his way up from modest means to become chief executive of Phoenix Exploration, an energy company. 'I know what it means to sign a paycheck, make a payroll, balance a budget, repay debt, acquire health care coverage,' he says. 'That's what sets me apart.'"
Finally, the overall balance of the Congress has shifted decisively. The current House has 181 members who identify as business people, up from 162 four years ago. Another 148 are in law, 40 in real estate, 24 in agriculture, and 19 in medicine--all likely to be responsible for leading private enterprises. The numbers from typically public-sector careers such as education, law enforcement, and the military have either fallen (education is down by 21 percent) or remained constant.
March 10, 2011
one million Americans for civic renewal
Many millions of Americans used to belong to associations that developed civic skills, managed and created public goods, promoted discussions, and connected people to their government. People typically entered such associations not because they had strong, pre-existing civic commitments, but because of economic needs, religious beliefs, social ties, and personal identities. The unions, fraternal associations, churches, and synagogues that they joined then turned them into active citizens.
These organizations have since shed most of their members and have also lost impact because of the corruption of our formal political institutions, which increasingly respond to narrow special interests, money, and expertise. Now we need a broad base of active citizens to promote the types of associations that recruit people into political life and demand political reforms that make government more responsive and fair. But since people are not organized into civic groups, we lack the base we need. This is a conundrum.
The solution begins with recognizing that a significant minority of Americans have recently participated in meaningful civic work that includes aspects of open-ended discussion, problem-solving, education, and collaboration with diverse peers. As in the past, our civic organizations do not rely solely on recruits who have remarkable civic motivations from the start. Instead, they offer various concrete and sometimes even materialistic benefits, such as jobs, educational credentials, or solutions to local problems. But often the people they recruit have rewarding experiences when they are invited to act as deliberative, constructive citizens. They enjoy themselves, they feel that they have solved problems, and they gain satisfaction.
These Americans represent a base for civic renewal. We need them to develop a greater self-awareness as active citizens, a set of network ties, and an agenda for renewing democracy together.
How many Americans have participated recently in worthy democratic activities? One way to answer that question is to ask representative samples about their own experiences.
• Eighteen percent of survey respondents in 2007 said that they had participated within the past year in a meeting with people of diverse views "to determine ideas and solutions for problems in their community." That 18 percent was diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and educational background.
• A different source is Census data collected annually from 2005-7, which suggest that 11.8 percent of adult Americans have either attended community meetings or worked on community problems. That group is somewhat skewed toward older, richer, better educated, native-born, white people.
• In 2003, a team of political scientists surveyed 1,001 Americans about various deliberative experiences and found that 25 percent had “attended a formal or informal meeting … to specifically discuss a local, national, or international issue—for example, neighborhood crime, housing, schools, social security, election reform, terrorism, global warming, or any other public issue that affects people.” In this study, African-Americans and young people (ages 18-29) were as numerous or even slightly more numerous among the deliberators as in the whole sample.
It is no surprise that these estimates of the proportions of active citizens differ, given the diverse survey questions and sampling methods. But a fairly consistent pattern emerges: somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of adult Americans claim that they have engaged in deliberative politics, with the number falling as we add conditions. Although voting and volunteering are stratified by social class, talking and working together on local problems draw a diverse and representative segment of the population. Talk alone is more common than talk combined with action, as might be expected. If the lower range of these estimates is correct, 10 percent of adult Americans participate annually. That is a base of 30 million people: plenty to build a movement.
The problem with surveys about obviously desirable activities (such as collaborating with one’s diverse neighbors) is the tendency for respondents to exaggerate their own participation. The best conducted surveys of voting do not suffer from serious response bias. If you are asked whether you voted in a recent election, an incorrect answer is probably a lie, and less than two percent of adults seem to lie about their voting in the biennial Census survey. However, the problem may be worse when we try to measure an activity less concrete and discrete than voting. For example, some subsamples in some surveys are eight times more likely to say that they regularly watch the news as actually watch the news. Similarly, if you are asked whether you talked with your neighbors about community issues within the last year, you can probably persuade yourself that you did so, even if a close observer would say that you did not.
Another way to build an estimate of the number of already engaged citizens is to aggregate counts of the actual participants in particular initiatives. For example:
• The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation has more than 2,000 individual members who are interested enough in organizing and facilitating public discussions (often linked to local action) that they subscribe to the NCDD mailing list, which is full of practical suggestions.
• Public Allies is an AmeriCorps-funded program that recruits mostly disadvantaged young people and places them in leadership roles in nonprofits, developing their ability to invent solutions in collaboration with peers. Public Allies has 2,800 alumni.
• The American Democracy Project (ADP) of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is one of several national networks of campuses that enhance the civic engagement of their own students and build partnerships with local civil society. ADP is distinctive because its member campuses are mostly non-selective, local, state colleges and universities that serve demographically diverse students. I estimate that ADP involves at least 11,000 people nationally.
• Community Development Corporations employ almost 200,000 people, but I estimate that about 13,800 CDC employees are directly involved with deliberation, community organizing, civic education, or public work.
• The River Network is a movement that empowers residents to understand, enjoy, and protect their local watersheds. Its focus is local collaboration and problem-solving rather than centralized regulation. It has formal partnerships with 600 nonprofit organizations across the country. If we assume that each nonprofit involves an average of 30 people (staff and volunteers), that implies a movement of about 18,000 active participants.
• In 2008, the Case Foundation announced a grant competition called “Make it Your Own,” seeking projects that they defined as “citizen-centered.” The Foundation expected all applicants to promote deliberation about goals, to move from talk to action, and to build capacity for future projects. I estimate that the competition drew about 1,840 applicants who truly understood and practiced citizen-centered work, representing roughly 36,800 people.
• Everyday Democracy has been promoting Study Circles and other forms of deliberative community organizing since 1989. It has worked on more than 450 separate dialogue projects in 600 communities. Since each project by definition involves a substantial group, I cautiously estimate the number of “alumni” of Study Circles at 60,000.
• The Coffee Party, a movement for civility and political reform, attracted 335,000 Facebook “friends”; but a safer estimate of its active membership in March 2011 would be its email list, which numbers 65,000 people.
• YouthBuild USA recruits young people who have dropped out of high school by offering them both hourly pay and training opportunities. Once in YouthBuild, participants find themselves governing their own work sites through deliberative democracy, and some members progress through a set of civic education experiences to become highly effective leaders. YouthBuild USA claims 100,000 alumni.
• Community, Migrant, Homeless, and Public Housing Health Centers are not-for-profit corporations that provide health care, that are rooted in poor communities and unable to move, and that are governed in part by their own clients. Those that qualify as Federally Qualified Health Centers must have governing boards of which more than half are current clients of the center who demographically represent the population that the center serves. “The governing board ensures that the center is community based and responsive to the community’s health care needs.” Overall, community health centers employ 123,000 full-time workers or the equivalent. There are 12,000 centers, and if the average board numbers 10, that implies 120,000 board members.
• More than 165,000 people are employed full-time in our public schools to teach social studies or civics. Part of their job is to encourage and moderate informed, civil discussions of issues. Most say that they do so. Ninety-four percent of high school civics teachers say they use “controversies as teaching opportunities to get students engaged and to model civil debate and discussion.” That response suggests that about 150,000 adults promote deliberation with democratic goals and a developmental ethic.
• The League of Women Voters claims 150,000 members and active supporters, organized in chapters, states, and a national network. Typical League activities include holding and facilitating local discussions, advocating for political reforms, and educating the public.
• AmericaSpeaks organizes large, day-long deliberations called Twenty-First Century Town Meetings that have significant influence over governmental decisions. At least 160,000 people have participated in these events since 1995.
• Members of the Industrial Areas Foundation are religious congregations and other institutions, not individual people. No census of participants is available, but there are 47 regional IAF organizations, each a hub for scores of local congregations. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (by no means the largest or oldest IAF affiliate) drew 4,000 individuals to its founding assembly in 1998. If similar numbers of people are active participants at the average IAF site, then the total count would be almost 200,000 Americans.
Aggregated, these organizations and professions number more than one million members, even if one presumes that they overlap a bit. (Some social studies teachers belong to the League of Women Voters; some CDC workers are active in IAF). The list is illustrative, not exhaustive, and it could easily be extended, even doubled.
Thus it is safe to say that we have a base of at least one million people for civic renewal. We need to communicate this message to them: You have personally experienced dignified, valuable, effective civic work. That kind of opportunity is rare and undervalued today. Would you like to talk with peers who have had similar experiences about how to expand the movement?
March 9, 2011
who first said "We are the ones we have been waiting for"?
I love the phrase "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Barack Obama didn't coin it and never said he did, but its origins seem a little obscure. Some websites call it a Hopi elders' phrase, but I see no evidence that the Hopis were using it long ago. David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, calls it "an old song from the civil rights movement" (Is There a Public for Public Schools, Kettering Foundation Press, 1996). But David may have heard it sung by Sweet Honey and the Rock, and Alice Waters explains, "It was the poet June Jordan who wrote, 'We are the ones we have been waiting for.' Sweet Honey in the Rock turned it those words into a song. Hearing that song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation." (Waters, The Ones We Have Been Waiting For, The New Press, 2007, p. 3).
I have tracked down the line in Jordan's "Poem for South African Women," which she presented at the United Nations on August 9, 1978 in "commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who, August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against the 'dompass' in the capital of apartheid." So Jordan may have invented this phrase in, or not long before, 1978. That would make it a song of the late civil rights movement.
Or maybe Jordan quoted it from anonymous predecessors, which would certainly be appropriate in a poem. Both Senator John Edwards and Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis quote the late activist Lisa Sullivan (1961-2011) as their source for the phrase. See Edwards, "Ending Poverty: The Great Moral Issue of Our Time," Yale Law & Policy Review vol. 25, no. 37 (2006-2007), p. 348 and Wallis, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 374. Either Sullivan quoted Jordan, or both had older sources.
I sort of wish the phrase had an anonymous, folk origin, because that seems to reflect its spirit. Also, June Jordan is not really my hero as a poet. I enjoy her wry humor and endorse her fierce expression of identity and solidarity as a Black, bisexual woman in the 1970s. But her very direct, literal, informal poetry now seems dated. The political moment has also passed. Consider, for example, her "Poem of Personal Greeting for Fidel on the Occasion of his Trip to the United Nations, 1979":
- el norteamericano media ...
dismiss the grace of your arithmetic
transliterating bullets into butter
hospitals and books for children
The same collection also includes a welcoming poem for Khomenei. Castro and the Ayatollah strike me as a couple of macho megalomaniacs dependent on mass imprisonment and judicial murder for their power--but that is easier to see in 2011 than in 1978. Anyway, in case Jordan is the original author of my favorite political slogan, let me say that her "Poem for South African Women" is a striking work with several strong images, especially: "the babies cease alarm as mothers / raising arms / and heart high ..."
March 8, 2011
mass extinctions in the nonprofit sector
Just a few years ago, the Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) and the Academy for Educational Development (AED) seemed like robust and permanent parts of the Washington scene. They occupied big pieces of real estate: a Connecticut Avenue office building for AED and a floor of offices on K Street for CEG.
They were important to me personally. CEG housed the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the old Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the Campaign for Young Voters, and the Partnership for Trust in Government, all collaborators of mine in various ways. AED housed the National Service-Learning Partnership, the State Education Agency K-12 Service-Learning Network, and the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research--again, all partners. Their business models, as far as I could tell, were to serve as holding companies for externally funded contracts and projects.
And now they are gone. CEG closed its doors in 2009. AED is going out of business after 50 years. I received a pay check from AED as long ago as 1989 and spent so much time in CEG that I knew the men's room passcode by heart. I think their demise is both a symptom of the very difficult environment for all nonprofits--many are hanging on by threads--and perhaps an indication that the "holding company" model doesn't work any more.
March 7, 2011
support funding for civic educatiion
The Senate's proposal for a long-term continuing resolution includes a pool of $35 million to be distributed as competitive grants for k-12 civic education. These funds would help develop, strengthen, and evaluate innovative educational strategies. Strategies that worked could then be widely used by teachers and schools across the country.
In contrast, the House has passed HR 1, the full-year appropriations act, that ends all federal funding for civics.
Civic education has bipartisan support, deep historical precedent (going back to Thomas Jefferson)--and it costs a pittance. The Senate proposal equals one seventeen hundredth of all the House domestic budget cuts. We are not asking the federal government to fund, require, or evaluate civic education, but only to fund improvements in teaching that can "go to scale." If you agree, please call or email your Senators to support the competitive funding pool for civics. Ask them to contact Senator Harkin to state their support.
The Senate votes tomorrow, so this is urgent.
March 4, 2011
the OneVille Project
My colleagues at the OneVille Project are building a whole set of tools that teachers, parents, students, and other key community members can use to communicate in the interests of particular kids. The underlying theory is that communication among key players (both inside and outside of schools) about kids' needs, performance, and opportunities can improve their learning--if we figure out who needs to communicate what and how.
We know (from work by James Coleman, Robert Putnam and others) that "social capital" in communities strongly influences student outcomes. "Social capital" is usually measured as the density of relationships and memberships, along with psychological traits such as trust in other people (generically). But perhaps the real work is being done by communication, and if we could increase the amount and timeliness of relevant and reliable information, we could improve results.
Some of the OneVille tools are digital, such as an online dashboard for each student that teachers share with parents. Some of the tools are electronic but do not rely on computers; they use telephones or text messaging instead. Some are not electronic at all. All are designed in very close consultation with community members, who sometimes want labor-saving tools for accomplishing what teachers or parents are required to do already, rather than add-ons.
Because the tools are in development and are meant for confidential use by Somerville (MA) residents, you can't just explore them. But the project team is blogging at oneville.org and their posts are substantive and challenging.
March 3, 2011
seeing Paris in chronological order
Here is a plan for visiting major sites of Paris chronologically.
1. Roman Lutetia to the high Middle Ages
This itinerary can be completed entirely on foot. Start at les Arènes de Lutèce (a Roman amphitheater off rue Monge). Walk from there to the Cluny Museum, whose basement is in the old Roman baths and whose main floors were once a medieval monastery. Explore the collection, noting the development from Roman sculpture through barbarian jewelry to Romanesque sculpture to the moving and sophisticated unicorn tapestries, which evoke the late medieval ideals of chivalry and gentility.
Walk north to the church of Saint-Séverin, noting the medieval street plan in that vicinity. Visit the church's interior, focusing on the forest of Gothic columns in the apse. View Notre Dame across the Seine. Cross the bridge and visit the Conciergerie, the medieval royal palace. (You are allowed to see the exhibitions having to do with the Revolution of 1789, even though this is out of order.) Then enter the Sainte-Chapelle, whose walls of stained glass make it one of the finest displays of Gothic civilization in Europe. Finally, visit the heavily restored interior of Notre Dame and climb to the towers, bearing in mind that most of what you are seeing here (such as the famous gargoyles) dates only to the 1800s.
2. The Renaissance
If convenient, start at the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which was constructed continuously while the prevailing style shifted from Gothic to Renaissance. Even though the architectural vocabulary is all mixed up, the colors and scale are consistent, making the church interior a harmonious and lovely space.
Then ride the metro to the Marais and start in the Place des Vosges, a grand late-Renaissance planned space. Visit Victor Hugo's house, just so you can get into one of the buildings of the Place. Exit through the Hotel Sully and consider visiting either the Musée Carnavalet or the Musée Cognac-Jay, each inhabiting a palace built while the Marais was at the height of its popularity, in the early 1600s. This is the Paris of the three musketeers. Walk toward the Louvre, whose eastern portion represents the late Renaissance. Visit the Renaissance painting and sculpture collections inside.
3. Louis XIV to Napoleon
This would be a good day to go out to Versailles. If you don't want to make that trip, here is an itinerary for Paris proper: Start at the Invalides to get a flavor of grandeur, Louis XIV style. Walk along the Seine embankment to the Place de la Concorde, originally the Place Louis XV, whose architecture epitomizes the mid-1700s. (It then became the site of the guillotine during the Terror). Explore the Palais-Royale, which played a crucial role in the Revolution. Cross the river and walk to the Panthéon by way of the Sorbonne. Three classical domes, three Baroque or neoclassical interiors, and a lot of grand vistas.
4. The Industrial Revolution to Postmodernism
Start at the Musee d'Orsay and enjoy both the building (formerly a great train station) and the art collection. Make a detour to the Eiffel Tower. You could get a sense of the Paris of Boulevards and the haute bourgeoisie by taking a bus to the Parc Monceau and the Musée Jacquemart-André. Next stop is the Orangerie, which houses Monet's Water Lillies from 1918 (a bridge from impressionism to abstraction). End at the postmodern Pompidou Center. Ride the external escalators to the top for the view, and look at the permanent collection of modernist art.
March 2, 2011
the Internet’s role in making engaged citizens
Drawing on a unique panel survey of the online practices and the civic and political engagement of youth (ages 16–21), the new study, partially funded by CIRCLE, addresses broad and timely questions:
- Does interacting online cause young people to drop out of their real-world communities? The study suggests that this is not a concern. On the contrary, young people who become heavily involved in online communities tend to increase their offline volunteering, charity, and work with neighbors.
- Do young people spend their time in online "echo chambers"? For more than a decade, many authors and observers have worried that people go online to find their own political and ideological views confirmed, causing society to become more polarized. But the new study finds that young people who see any political opinions online tend to see diverse opinions. (A larger concern is the substantial proportion, 34%, who don't see political opinions at all when they are online.)
- Can we teach media literacy? It is difficult to use the Internet and other new media effectively and responsibly. The new study suggests that young people can be taught to do so. Studying digital media literacy dramatically increases the odds that students will be exposed to diverse perspectives online and will engage online with civic and political issues.
Joseph E. Kahne is an education professor at Mills College and CIRCLE Advisory Board member.
March 1, 2011
public sector unions and the public interest
I can imagine a just society without public sector unions. Democratically elected officials, accountable to the whole public, would decide how much money to invest in the civil service and how to run it. Public employees, like everyone else, could vote to affect those decisions. Individuals could decide whether to work for a given municipality or state. Governments would not bargain with unions as collectivities, and unions would not make campaign contributions.
I can also imagine a just society in which business corporations were permitted to operate in the marketplace but were forbidden to lobby or make political contributions of any type. Governments would not negotiate or even meet with corporations as such. Individuals who owned stakes in corporations could exercise their individual civil rights, but corporations would be treated as potentially corrupting special interests, and their charters of incorporation would forbid them from acting politically.
I can also imagine a society in which politicians and judges could not accept money from any private organizations or individuals. In this society, reasons and votes would be the only political currency. While we are dreaming, we might even imagine that turnout was high in this society and that all groups were represented equally in elections.
Our actual political system is driven by organized interest groups. In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court officially endorsed, as a matter of constitutional interpretation, the principle that corporations and other interest groups are free to use unlimited money in politics. No one even complains when corporations negotiate with political leaders on matters like where to locate and invest.
If we had a discussion about the influence of interest groups, it would tap into a deep vein of public dissatisfaction. In the 2008 American National Election Study, 70 percent of respondents said the government was “run by a few big interests”; 30 percent said it was “run for the benefit of all.” But the influence of public sector unions would hardly top the list of concerns in any reasonable discussion of "big interests." Unions' power (whether measured in inputs such as money, or in outputs such as favorable policies) would look puny compared to the power of for-profit corporations.
If we had a discussion about what causes some state programs to perform badly (or what swells state budget deficits), reasonable people could lob some criticisms in the direction of public employee unions. The California prison guards union, for example, fought hard for "three strikes" laws and other draconian sentencing policies so that the state of California would build almost one new prison per year for decades--with devastating effects on the state budget and communities.
But any damage that unions do would have to be put in context. Just before Gov. Scott Walker proposed to cut state employees' salaries and benefits, he signed a $117.2 million tax break for corporations. Repealing tax cuts or removing business tax breaks would be alternative options for solving the problem (budget deficits) that Gov. Walker attributes to unions.
Finally, in this discussion, we would have to consider the public benefits of unions, which are not just negotiating partners but also professional associations, builders of social capital, educative institutions, and potential partners in solving public problems.
We are not having a broad discussion in which all organized interests are scrutinized and all remedies to state deficits and other public problems are on the table. Instead, we see efforts to destroy certain public sector unions while exempting the unions that vote Republican. That is a sure sign that we are talking about raw power and resistance.
In a system of virtually unlimited interest-group power, we need as much organization as possible to counteract the political influence of for-profit corporations. State sector unions are not the ideal source of countervailing power. They represent teachers but not students, prison guards but not prisoners, and state employees but not private sector workers or consumers. Still, they offer some kind of check--and that is why the newly elected Midwestern Republican governors want to destroy them.
One of the most interesting questions is how unions will react if the state of Wisconsin and its municipalities stop negotiating with them (while maintaining the existing statutory ban on strikes in the public sector). Since the New Deal, labor law has envisioned officially recognized--some would say co-opted and bureaucratized--unions. Since the 1950s, public sector unions in many states have been granted the legal right to negotiate with state agencies but have also been denied what some would call an intrinsic moral right to organize and strike. One possibility is that we will now enter an era in which organized groups of state workers simply withhold their labor and dare the state to replace them all--or negotiate. Some local observers "now fear [that] Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for most public employees will lead to gut-wrenching strikes." Indeed, strikes would be gut-wrenching, because teachers and other public employees could lose. But they could also win.