du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

A group can accomplish more than an individual can—whether for good or evil—as long as it holds together. To form and maintain a functioning group is an achievement, requiring individuals to coordinate their behaviors and often to sacrifice for the whole. Only once you have a group can you ask the citizen’s question, which is: “What should we do?”

Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal groups in order to maintain them for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the amount and type of sacrifice is usually unequal. Therefore, crucial democratic practices include recognizing, acknowledging, and trying to reciprocate sacrifices. This is true at the scale of a nation-state but at least as true at smaller scales.

I recently found a three-word sentence by W.E.B Du Bois that sums it up: “Organization is sacrifice.”

The context is an article in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, that you can read in its original format online. Du Bois is responding to charges that the NAACP is too strongly influenced by Whites. He mentions the 8-to-1 predominance of Blacks in the NAACP’s membership as a whole and in its leading offices. He defends the value of “a few forward looking white Americans” to the organization. And then he suggests that the “real animus back of this veiled and half articulate criticism is the fact that a large organization must make enemies—must create dissatisfaction in many quarters , no matter what it does”

This is where he posits a general principle: “Organization is sacrifice.” And he elaborates:

You cannot have absolutely your own way–you cannot be a free lance; you cannot be strongly and fiercely individual if you belong to an organization. For this reason some folk hunt and work alone. It is their nature. But the world’s greatest work must be done by team work. This demands organization, and that is the sacrifice of some individual will and wish to the good of all.

W.E.B. DuBois, “White Co-Workers,” The Crisis, vol. 20, no 1 (May 1920), p. 8

For someone as fiercely principled and intellectually independent as Du Bois was, this realization must have come hard; but he was right. To be able to ask the question, “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” that acts together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high (Du Bois ultimately resigned from the NAACP over a fairly subtle matter of principle), but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

See also the question of sacrifice in politics; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; and “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.”

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

some thoughts on natural law

Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodis’d;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same laws which first herself ordain’d.

– Pope, An Essay on Criticism (writing here of aesthetic laws)

… the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God  …

The Declaration of Independence

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

As I begin to teach a course on Martin Luther King–and while thinking about how to teach civics at all levels–I am giving renewed consideration to the idea of natural law. This is a matter for debate (and should be presented as such), but here are some personal thoughts:

A substantial part of any concept of natural law is a set of rights. Rights impose obligations. If I have a right to life, you have an obligation not to kill me. If I have a right to an education, someone has an obligation to pay for my schooling. These obligations fall on both individuals and institutions. For instance, my right to life implies not only that you may not kill me but that some kind of state must protect me.

To honor and protect others’ rights is obligatory. It is a moral and not merely a legal duty.

Governments do not create rights and obligations, because we can and must assess any given government by asking whether it protects the rights that people deserve.

Other animals have rights because people have obligations to treat them ethically. But non-human animals do not have rights in relation to each other. In that sense, rights are human, although they extend to humans’ treatment of other species.

Rights are linked to the organism’s characteristics as a natural species. For instance, we human beings are born helpless, remain interdependent, yet develop unique goals and desires that are rooted in our private mental lives. Our rights would be different if we had no need for each other, or no private lives at all–or if we differed in other fundamental ways from actual homo sapiens.

Rights are connected to happiness, which means–not the balance of pleasure over pain–but some deeper form of flourishing or self-realization. Flourishing for human beings is natural in the same way that a mouse or an apple tree has certain natural ways of flourishing.

At the same time, one of the unusual and fundamental features of human beings is our ability to flourish in many different ways, and so we have a right to choose our own paths or be the authors of our own lives. This right to choose is based on our ability and desire to choose, which is a natural characteristic.

I have suggested that fundamental interests, needs, and goods are rooted in nature. However, it is not a natural principle that anyone has an obligation to protect or provide for the needs of anyone else. An individual rabbit has a profound interest in not being eaten, yet a fox does not have an obligation to refrain from eating rabbits. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

We are obligated to honor everyone else’s rights, which are based in their natural interests, but this obligation is not natural. It comes from somewhere else. If you think it comes from God, that is fine, but the obligation is then divine and supra-natural, not (merely) natural.

Perhaps we have an instinct to universal beneficence that emerges from our everyday sympathy for other people and animals. That instinct could be seen as the natural (not divine) basis for our commitment to universal rights. Mengzi puts it very well:

Humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sounds of the child’s cries. [F]?rom this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of deference, one is not a human. The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The heart of disdain (shame/disgust) is the sprout of righteousness. The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom.” (2A6; see also 6A6)

Quoted in Owen Flanagan, The Geography of Morals (p. 57). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

However, we have many instincts, including warlike, competitive, and cruel ones. Universal beneficence seems a subtle and rare sprout in the wild garden of our instincts. To select and cultivate that particular sprout may be wise and right, but it is a choice that’s not itself directed by nature.

Nature can be understood as everything that science can explain (and science is any valid explanation of nature). So defined, “nature” offers no basis for obligations. A purely empirical study of nature would suggest that members of any species, including homo sapiens, are unequal in capacity, frequently selfish, and fully determined by physical processes rather than choice. We can broaden our understanding of nature to encompass things like obligations, purposes, and goods–for instance, happiness as the purpose of human beings, and non-domination is a good required for happiness. But then nature is not exhausted by positivist science.

Partly because positivist science does not comprehend things like rights, it is very hard for people to know the ideal list of rights and their correlative obligations. All of our ancestors were wrong about some rights–according to us–which means that we ought to be humble about our own ability to know the ideal list.

The best we can do is to decide, in reasonably fair and reflective forums, which rights and obligations ought to apply to whom. That means that although governments do not create rights, people must identify and determine rights through politics and in institutions such as governments. We should expect their outcomes to vary over time and space, not because rights are mere matters of opinion, but because the only way we can know real rights is to exchange and test our opinions.

In conclusion, I feel comfortable speaking of law that is importantly connected to nature, and especially to the nature of human beings. Understanding it requires reflection on our natural circumstances. But I wouldn’t call it “natural law” if that implies that it is part of, or determined by, nature, because it has sources other than nature itself.

See also: is science republican (with a little r)?; science, law, and microagressions; my self, your self, ourselves; the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog; is everyone religious?; is all truth scientific truth?; latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; and Korsgaard on animals and ethics.

Posted in philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Apply for the Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The Summer Institute of Civic Studies is an intensive interdisciplinary seminar that brings together faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners from many countries and diverse fields of study. In 2020 it will take place from the evening of June 18 until June 26 at Tufts University in Medford, MA, and Boston.

To apply: Applications are now being received and should be submitted by March 31 for best consideration. The application consists of a resume, a cover letter about your interests, and an electronic copy of your graduate transcript (if applicable).

The Summer Institute was founded and co-taught from 2009 to 2018 by Peter Levine, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Tisch College, and Karol Soltan, Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Since 2019, it has been led by Peter Levine. Each year, it features guest seminars by distinguished scholars and practitioners from various institutions and engages participants in challenging discussions such as:

  • How can people work together to improve the world? 
  • How can people reason together about what is right to do? 
  • What practices and institutional structures promote these kinds of citizenship? 
  • How should empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy relate? 

The 2019 syllabus can be found here. You can read more about the motivation for the Institute in the Civic Studies Framing Statement by Harry Boyte, University of Minnesota; Stephen Elkin, University of Maryland; Peter Levine, Tufts; Jane Mansbridge, Harvard; Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University; Karol Soltan, University of Maryland; and Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania.

The seminar discussions follow a public conference, Frontiers of Democracy, which will take place in downtown Boston from June 18 (evening) until June 20. Participants in the Summer Institute are expected to participate in the conference (free of charge) and then the Institute. 

Practicalities: Daily sessions take place on the Tufts campus in Medford, Massachusetts. Tuition for the Institute is free, but participants are responsible for their own housing and transportation. One option is renting a Tufts University dormitory room. Credit is not automatically offered, but special arrangements for graduate credit may be possible.

You can sign up here to receive occasional emails about the Summer Institute.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

empathy boosts polarization

In a new article,* Elizabeth Simas, Scott Clifford, and Justin Kirkland provide evidence that empathy is not a solution to partisan polarization in the US. Quite the contrary: people who demonstrate more “empathic concern” are more likely to blame the opposite party for the suffering that they see in the world, hence more likely to decry the other party, to favor censoring it, and to exhibit Schadenfreude (pleasure at others’ pain) when members of the opposing party lose out.

Part of the article involves an experiment with undergraduate subjects. Students are shown a story in which “campus police had to shut down a group of partisan students who were protesting a speech to be given by an individual known for making inflammatory comments about that party. In both versions, a bystander who was attempting to hear the speech was struck by a protestor. And in both versions, the protestors succeeded in getting the speech canceled.” Students were assigned to see versions of the story that randomly varied the partisan identities of the speaker, the protesters, and the bystander.

Students who scored higher on a general measure of empathetic concern were more likely to favor censoring the inflammatory speaker, and more likely to be glad that the bystander was hurt. These results were the same for Democratic and Republican students.

It rings true for me that deep emotional concern is associated with anger and a distancing of intellectual and political opponents, a refusal to hear their arguments.

I’ve posted concerns about empathy several times before.** The main problem is its susceptibility to bias. Usually, empathy is felt for individuals (or concrete categories of people), and it can easily promote injustice against others. There is such a thing as universal, undifferentiated empathy, but it looks more like an ethical principle than a concrete emotion. The Buddhist objective is not empathy (as measured by questions from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, such as: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them”). Instead, Buddhism prizes equanimity, which is calm and detached.

I do not take for granted that political polarization is bad. Sometimes it is right to blame political opponents for others’ suffering. And although Schadenfreude should always be avoided, it can be welcome news when a political enemy suffers defeat. These emotions of blame and satisfaction are appropriate if and when the opponent is actually at fault. To find out whether someone is actually wrong requires engagement with that person’s arguments and reasons. Censorship defeats such engagement and is almost always a mistake. It’s troubling that more empathy means more support for censorship, especially if that exemplifies a deeper problem with empathy. Perhaps empathy discourages us from hearing alternative views by fixing our attention on concrete suffering.

*Simas, Elizabeth N., Scott Clifford, and Justin H. Kirkland. “How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization.” American Political Science Review 114.1 (2020): 258-269.

** Civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; Empathy and Justice; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; empathy versus systematic thought

Posted in deliberation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

syllabus of a public policy course

I’m teaching Public Policy Analysis to undergraduate this spring–a new course. I’ve pasted the working syllabus (minus the grading rubric, rules about technology, and other practicalities) below. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome. I don’t think this design is a very unusual, but it may lean more toward institutional analysis (per Elinor Ostrom) than is common.


To learn to analyze institutions and develop strategies that improve the world by changing these institutions or creating new ones. A good strategy must be just (which requires normative argument), effective, and politically viable.

Summary of Content

The class will first investigate one policy question together. That question is: Which students should attend which k-12 schools in the USA, and who should decide that matter? Concrete policy options include mandatory assignment to neighborhood public schools, school choice, charter schools, vouchers, etc. Every student will write a short paper on that topic.

Each student will then select one policy issue and write three 5-7-page essays that connect to produce one policy memo on that issue. As students conduct research for their individual papers, in class, we will discuss methods and theories of policy analysis.

Our overall framework will the Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) framework developed by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. We will use it both for the k-12 school example and for each student’s individual project.

IAD framework

Working with this framework, we will pose these questions:

  1. What is the institution? What is its name? How would you define it uniquely, and which people, resources, locations, etc. does it involve?
  2. What problem or set of problems interests you about it? This problem may be a failure (the institution doesn’t yield the intended results) or an injustice (it has bad results), or it could be the intellectual problem posed by its success: why does this institution work and can we replicate it?
  3. What other institutions are closely related to it, and how?
  4. Which institutional form(s) does it reflect, e.g., a government, a firm, a market, a network, an association, a community?
  5. What are important relevant biophysical conditions? What natural resources does it use, and which natural processes come into play? What characteristics of these resources and processes are relevant to the institution: e.g., scarcity, fragility, adaptability, ability to reproduce and grow, interdependence, tendency to move?
  6. What are important technological conditions, where “technology” means the relevant affordances and limitations that have been created–or will predictably be created–by human beings?
  7. What cultural meanings (in the sense of Geertz 1973) are involved? Are these meanings shared or disputed?
  8. To what extent can we detect wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks (Links to an external site.) in the institution (C. Levine 2015)? How do these forms interrelate?
  9. What official, formal, usually written rules govern the institution? What are its rules-in-use? (These may diverge from the official rules.)
  10. Are the rules grounded  (Links to an external site.)in phenomena beyond the institution? For instance, an institution might use a currency whose value is determined by other institutions. Tufts runs on an academic calendar related to the solar calendar, which is grounded in the motion of the earth. (Grounding is different from causation.)
  11. What goods are relevant? Who has which kinds of ownership over which goods? Are the goods subtractable? Are they excludable?
  12. Who are the relevant actors?
  13. What choices confront each actor? What does each actor know about the available choices?
  14. What does each actor value, and why?
  15. Under what conditions do the actors choose (e.g., with or without discussion, once or repeatedly, simultaneously or in turn, with or without knowledge of what the others are choosing)?
  16. What are the consequences of the most important or most likely combinations of choices made by all the actors?
  17. Are these consequences desired by the actors?
  18. Are these outcomes desired by people who are not among the actors?
  19. Are the outcomes fair or just by various normative criteria?
  20. Are they sustainable–meaning a) literally repeatable many times, and/or b) good for nature?
  21. How do the outcomes affect the issues raised in questions 1-15? In other words, do the outcomes of the institution change the institution itself, in a feedback loop?
  22. What deliberate changes in institutional forms (4), technologies (6), meanings (7), rules (9-10), or values (13) would produce preferable outcomes according to the criteria raised in questions 18-20? 
  23. How can we go about altering the institution in the light of 22?

Book to purchase

  1. Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek, Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About (University of Chicago Press, 2019)
  2. Robert Pondiscio, How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice (Avery 2019)

These will be in the bookstore but you are welcome to purchase electronic versions instead.

Criteria for assessing class participation:

  1. Attendance. 
  2. Engaging in a discussion that is informed by the assigned texts. 
  3. Focusing on the topic and the texts, which does not preclude drawing connections beyond them.
  4. Being responsive to other students. Responsiveness needn’t always be immediate, verbal, or occur within the class discussion itself.
  5. Building on others’ contributions, and sometimes making links among different people’s contributions or between what they have said and the text.
  6. Demonstrating genuine respect for the others, where respect does not require agreement. In fact, sometimes respect requires explicit disagreement because you take the other person’s ideas seriously.
  7. Taking risks, trying out ideas that you don’t necessarily endorse, and asking questions that might be perceived as naive or uninformed.
  8. Seeking truth or clarity or insight (instead of other objectives).
  9. Exercising freedom of speech along with a degree of tact and concern for the other people.
  10. Demonstrating responsibility for the other students’ learning in what you say (and occasionally by a decision not to speak).

Wed. Jan 15

Introductions. Some preliminary discussion of school choice based on our own experiences

Part I: School Choice

Wednesday, January 22

The original argument for choice

Mon, January 27

Historical overview

  • Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek, Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About, pp. vii-81

(Johanek will visit class via videoconference.)

Mon., January 29

Values: What are We Trying to Acccomplish?

  • Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek, pp. 83-129

Monday, February 3: no class (instructor is traveling)

Wed. Feb 5

Does Choice Work? Qualitative evidence

  • Robert Pondiscio, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice (2019); especially recommended pages: 3-51, 77-104, 111-113, 156-163, 175-179, 184-194, 210-219, 257-267, 271-279, 295-311, 320-340.

Visitor: Robert Pondiscio.

Monday, Feb. 10

Does choice work? Quantitative outcome studies

Wed. Feb 12

A Case Study with Multiple Perspectives

Meira Levinson, “Is Pandering Ethical? Power, Privilege, and School Assignment,” in Levinson and Jacob Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, pp.  143-78

(Feb 17: no class; President’s Day)

First paper due: 4-6 pages about school choice

Part II: Other Issues

Wed., February 19

Policy analysis: mainstream approaches

  • Bardach, E. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. (2000), excerpts

(Feb 17: no class; President’s Day)

Mon, Feb. 24

Unpacking institutions

 In class, we will build and operate an extremely simple institution by playing a “tragedy of the commons” game. We will apply the IAD framework to it.

  • Ostrom, Elinor. 1987. “An Agenda for the Study of Institutions.” Public Choice 48:3-25. Reprinted in McGinnis (2000), Chapter 3.  

Monday, March 2


  • Toulmin, Stephen. 1974. “Rules and Their Relevance for Understanding Human Behavior.” In Understanding Other People, ed. Theodore Mischel, 185-215. Oxford: Blackwell. Excerpts: pp. 189-214.

Wednesday, March 4

Attributes of community: Example # 1, the community’s social capital

  • Coleman, James S. “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American journal of sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120.

Monday, March 9

Attributes of community: Example #2, the community’s culture

  • Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Culture and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2000. 175-201.

Wednesday, March 11

Games: players, situations

  • Avinash K. Dixit  and Barry J. Nalebuff, Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life: Competitive Edge in Business, Politics and Everyday Life, excerpts

Second paper due: 4-6 pages presenting a public policy issue in terms of “players,” choices, and outcomes.

Monday, March 9

Exit Voice and Loyalty 

Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), excerpts

Wednesday, March 11

Evaluative Criteria: 1) Cost-benefit analysis  

  • Richard Layard and Steven Glaister, eds., Cost-Benefit Analysis, second edition: chapters on Safety and the saving of life: The theory of equalizing differences, pp 272-289; by Sherwin Rosen; The environment: The environment and emerging development issues pp 319-348, by Partha Dasgupta, Karl-Göran Mäler ); Regulation and deregulation: Enhancing the performance of the deregulated air transportation system, pp 375-395 by Steven A. Morrison

(March 16-19 is Spring Break)

Monday, March 23

Evaluative Criteria: 2) Rule of law

  • Scalia, Antonin. “The rule of law as a law of rules.” U. Chi. l. reV. 56 (1989): 1175.

Wednesday, March 25: no class (instructor is traveling)

Monday, March 30

Evaluative Criteria: 3) Rights

  • Dworkin, Ronald, and Jeremy Waldron. “Rights as trumps.” Arguing about the Law (1984): 335-44.

Wednesday, April 1

Evaluative Criteria: 4) Equity or Equality

Monday, April 6

Types of institution

  • Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network. Princeton University Press, 2017, excerpts.

Third paper due: 4-6 pages analyzing the value conflicts and choices raised by your policy issue

Wednesday, April 8

Types of institution

  • Aligica, Paul Dragos, and Vlad Tarko. “Co-production, polycentricity, and value heterogeneity: the Ostroms’ public choice institutionalism revisited.” American Political Science Review 107.4 (2013): 726-741.

Feedback loops

  • Mettler, Suzanne, and Mallory SoRelle. “Policy feedback theory.” Theories of the policy process 3 (2014): 151-181.

Complexity and Wicked Problems

  • Rittel, H., M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4(1) (1973) 155-169

Monday, April 13

How policy gets made

  • Sabatier. P.A. and C.M. Weible. The Advocacy-Coalition Framework: An Assessment. 189-220
  • Schlager, E., C.M. Weible (2013). New Theories of the Policy Process. Policy Studies Journal, 41(3), 389-396.

Fourth paper due: 4-6 pages presenting and defending a policy recommendation on your issue.

Wednesday, April 15

Discussions of students’ work in class

Monday, April 20: No class: Patriot’s Day

Discussions of students’ work in class

Wednesday, April 22

Discussions of students’ work in class

Monday, April 27

Discussions of students’ work in class

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Apply for the Second Annual APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tufts University’s Tisch College, June 15-18, 2020

Scholars in many disciplines are grappling with how to produce rigorous scholarship that addresses significant social challenges in collaboration with communities, organizations, and agencies. They strive to learn from those working outside of academia, to benefit from the insights of all kinds of groups and institutions, and to give back to communities rather than extract value from them. Although political scientists offer models of excellence in civically engaged research, relevant methods and strategies are not yet widely taught in the discipline’s graduate programs or sufficiently valued in the profession as a whole.

In 2019, in an effort to address this need, the APSA Presidential Task Force on New Partnerships launched the now-annual APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER). ICER is intended for advanced graduate students in political science and political scientists at any stage of their careers who wish to shift to using civically engaged research. (It is not meant for scholars who are already experienced in that approach.)

To apply, please complete this formApplication deadline: March 1, 2020. 

Content of the Institute

Topics covered will include:

  • Expertise: what do political scientists uniquely contribute? What are the limitations of scholarly expertise? What types of expertise do those outside of academia have?
  • The ethics of collaboration: sharing of credit, funds and overhead, navigating IRB, dealing with disagreements.
  • Communicating results: to partners, relevant communities, the press, and directly to the broader public.
  • How to navigate common social science values and norms while doing civically engaged work
  • Career considerations: publication and credit, tenure and promotion, funding your research.
  • Mapping the different and varied ways that political scientists engage through research and beyond.

We will explore these issues by discussing relevant readings, by analyzing specific examples of civically engaged research from political science and cognate disciplines, and by considering the research plans and ideas of institute participants.


Speakers and visitors are currently being finalized. Confirmed speakers include: Anjuli Fahlburg (Tufts University), Michelle Fine (CUNY), Samantha Majic (John Jay College/CUNY), Jamila Michener (Cornell University), Pearl Robinson (Tufts), and Ethel Tungohan (York University).

The Institute Directors are Amy Cabrera Rasmussen (California State University Long Beach) Peter Levine (Tufts University), and Valeria Sinclair Chapman (Purdue University). If you have further questions about the institute, please contact APSA’s Centennial Center at centennial@apsanet.org


The Institute will take place on the campus of Tufts University, in the Boston area, from June 15-18, 2020. Approximately twenty participants will meet each day for intensive discussions and workshops. Thanks to support from the Ivywood Foundation, participation in the Institute for Civically Engaged Research is free, and scholarships are available to defray costs of travel, food, and housing on the Tufts campus. Applicants are expected to seek financial support from their home institution, but admission to the Institute for Civically Engaged Research will not be affected by financial need.

ICER participants are invited to attend the Frontiers of Democracy conference immediately following the institute, from the evening of June 18 until noon on June 20 in downtown Boston. Frontiers offers the opportunity to engage directly with over 120 activists, policymakers, and engaged scholars from across multiple disciplines, to present one’s work to and learn from potential partners about their interests and best practices for collaboration. ICER participants will have the Frontiers’ conference fee waived and be provided lodging assistance.

Applicants to ICER will be notified of decisions by late March.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

confidence in local institutions–new data

For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, RAND’s Social and Economic Well-Being Team conducts a regular and large representative survey of National Health Attitudes (authors: Katherine Grace Carman, Anita Chandra, Sarah Weilant, Carolyn Miller, and Margaret Tait.) It includes items about civic engagement as well as health and healthcare and other topics. I look forward to detailed analysis that examines which kinds of Americans answer each question in various ways and how the various topics relate to each other.

For now, here is my graph showing simple topline responses to a question about the impact (whether positive or negative) of various “groups or organizations” on health.

None of these groups and institutions scores very well. Only two (local nonprofits) barely satisfy a majority of the population as being good for health.

To be specific, respondents were asked about about “Local organizations that provide health services (e.g., health care, public health)” and “Local organizations that provide other social services (e.g., food assistance, job training) such as faith based orgs, nonprofits.” It’s interesting that the perceived health impact of these two types of groups was about the same. You might guess that health-service organizations would have a bigger impact. Perhaps people understand the importance of the social determinants of health, such as employment. Or perhaps the mention of “faith-based orgs” in the latter question boosted its score.

Local businesses were rated higher than any government entity and higher that other residents. Of course, businesses provide goods and services that benefit health; the drug store and the vegetable aisle of the supermarket are really important. Still, this answer shows a gap between public opinion and the progressive view that the net impact of business is probably negative, or at least less positive than the net impact of government. (Just 1.6% thought that the impact of local business was very negative.)

As in almost all surveys, local government scores better than state government, which scores better than federal government. In this case, the information is somewhat ambiguous because respondents are asked about “local government,” and then about “leaders” at the state and federal level. It’s not clear whether the difference in their responses results from the change in scale or the shift from government to leaders. After all, the most evident federal leader is Donald J. Trump. Still, I suspect that if the question had been about government (not about leaders) at each level, confidence would have decreased with scale.

One response to these data might be: See, most Americans are not aligned with strong progressive proposals to increase the imprint of the federal government on health. They trust business much more. But some respondents may think the government helps less than local businesses do because the government is insufficiently ambitious. In any case, these data may support policy recipes that involve more federal funding–with a key delivery role for local nonprofits and local businesses, including your neighborhood drug store and supermarket.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frontiers of Democracy: June 18-20, 2020

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2009.

In 2020, the conference will take place from June 18 (5 pm) until June 20 (noon) at the downtown Boston campus of Tufts University: Tufts Center for Medical Education, Room 114; 145 Harrison Avenue, Boston. You are invited!

You can register for Frontiers now.

You can propose a concurrent session for Frontiers using this form. Proposals will be accepted until April 1, 2020

The agenda is still in development but will include short plenary talks, concurrent sessions, and interactive activities for the large group. Among other whole-group activities, we will experience Pre-Texts (“pedagogical acupuncture”) and will use several new “teaching cases” to prompt intensive discussions in small groups. (Teaching cases are short narratives about real events that conclude at a moment when the protagonists must make a difficult choice.)  

Frontiers will follow the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research and precede the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and will convene members of those two programs plus about 100 others: activists and practitioners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors; scholars, educators, students; and others. Participants will come from many countries and many streams of work related to democracy–social movements, community organizing, civic education, arts and media work, political reform, civil liberties, dialogue and deliberation, political theory, and more.

A major objective is to build relationships among people who work in diverse ways at the frontiers of democracy in the United States and around the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

draft syllabus of a course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This spring, I will be teaching a capstone seminar on the life and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The draft syllabus is below (minus grading rubrics, policies, etc.). At this stage, I welcome suggestions!

Summary In this seminar, we will study Martin Luther King Jr. as a political thinker. The whole class will read major works by King and excerpts from biographies and historical documents. Additional readings will be distributed among students, who will contribute insights from their assigned texts to the seminar discussions. The additional readings will include works that influenced King, writings by some of his contemporaries, and interpretations from a recent volume, To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry. We will investigate King’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement—why it was necessary and what it aimed to achieve. Specifically, we will study his ideas about the political and economic organization of white supremacy, the impact of racial ideologies, and the importance of racial integration and the right to vote. We will investigate King’s philosophy of civil disobedience and nonviolence as well as a set of values he relates to that philosophy: dignity, sacrifice, self-reflection, self-improvement, love, faith, and freedom. We will relate these values to King’s understanding of justice. Criticisms of King will also be considered. Studying King and his critics will provide a window into post-WWII American political thought.


Wednesday, January 15: Introductions and overview

1. Predecessors and Early Influences

Monday, January 20:  Major African American political thinkers, 1885-1940

Students choose one of these authors and be prepared to discuss the author as well as the readings. 

  1. Booker T. Washington, “Letter to the Editor” (1885); “Atlanta Exposition Address” (1895); “Speech to the National Afro-American Council” (1895); “Letter to President Roosevelt” (1904); “Speech to the National Negro Business League” (1915); “My View of Segregation Laws” (1915); “The Talented Tenth” (1903).
  2. W.E.B. DuBois, “The Evolution of Negro Leadership” (1901); “Declaration of Principles” (1905); “The Crisis” and “Agitation” (1909); “Race Relations in the United States” (1928); “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (1933); “Pan -African and New Racial Philosophy” (1933); “The [NAACP] Board of Directors on Segregation” (1934); “A Negro Within the Nation” (1935).
  3. A. Phillip Randolph: “Lynching: Capitalism Its Cause; Socialism its Cure”; editorials on “Racial Equality” and “The Failure of the Negro Church,” “The Negro Radicals,” “Segregation in the Public Schools: A Promise or a Menace,” “Negroes and the Labor Movement,” “The Negro and Economic Radicalism,” and “The New Pullman Porter.”
  4. Another modern Black thinker of your choice likely to be influential in King’s early milieu. E.g., Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey …

(Unless otherwise noted in the PDFs, these readings are scanned from Gary D. Wintz, ed., African American Political Thought 1890-1930 (M.E. Sharpe, 1996).)

Wednesday, January 22: Theological Influences

Students choose one of these authors and be prepared to discuss the author as well as the readings

  1. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, pp. 7-35.
  2. Reinhold Niebhuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, pp. xv-xvii and 231-277
  3. Walter Raushenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 57-109

Monday, January 27: Biblical echoes

Students will choose one of these, read it, and also read a bit online about the context:

  1. Book of Exodus, Chapters 1-3, in the King James Version (click “next page” to read all three chapters)
  2. Book of Amos, Chapter 2, in the King James Version
  3. Book of Micah, in the King James Version (click “next page” to read the whole book)
  4. Book of Matthew, Chapter 26, in the King James Version

Wednesday, January 29: Precursors–Gandhi

Everyone will read:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (“The March to the Sea”)

Choose one of these:

  1. Bikhu Parekh, Gandhi, Chapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;
  2. Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951), excerpts; and Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310
  3. Karuna Mantena, “Showdown for Nonviolence: The Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Politics,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 78-110
  4. Martha Nussbaum. “From Anger to Love: Self-Purification and Political Resistance,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 114-135

Monday, February 3 – no class (instructor is away)

Wednesday, February 5: Precursors–African American campaigners against segregation

  • Everyone watches Episode 1 of Eyes on the Prize, “Awakenings, 1954-1956”

Choose among:

  1. Charles Payne, “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change“; and Ella Baker, “Developing Community Leadership
  2. Danielle McGuire, At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
  3. James L. Farmer Jr., Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (excerpts)

2. Montgomery

Monday, February 10: What Happened?

Choose between:

  1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), pp. 105-205.
  2. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 , pp. 11-82.

Wednesday, February 12: How Does King Present What Happened?

  • Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.

Wednesday, February 19: Theory of Social Movements

  • Charles Tilly, “Social Movements, 1768-2004
  • Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

3. Albany and Birmingham

Thursday, Feb 20 (makeup day): What Happened?

Students will choose between:

  1. Episode 4 of Eyes on the Prize, “No Easy Walk: 1961-1963”
  2. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), 173-286.
  3. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 , pp. 524-561; 673-802

Monday, February 24: How Does King Present What is Happening?

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Wednesday, February 26: More Analysis of the Letter

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Monday, March 2: King’s version versus the Supreme Court’s

4. March on Washington, Selma

Wednesday, March 4: Protest and Politics

Everyone reads:

Monday, March 9: Selma to Montgomery

Everyone watches/listens and/or reads the text of:

Students will choose between:

  1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), pp. 357-430
  2. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 , pp. .

5. Issues During the “Heroic Moment” of the Civil Rights Movement

Wednesday, March 11: What Should be the Goal? 

Choose among:

  1. Martin Luther King, “The Ethical Demands for Integration” (1962) and Danielle Allen, “Integration, Freedom, and the Affirmation of Life,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 155-169
  2. Stokely Carmichael, “Toward Black Liberation,” The Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1966
  3. Derrick Darby, “A Vindication of Voting Rights,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 170-83

Wednesday, March 25 – midterm in class

Monday, March 30: Change from Below or from Above?

  • Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, “Clinton and Obama Spar Over Remark About Dr. King,” The New York Times, Jan 13, 2008
  • Garth E. Pauley, “Presidential rhetoric and interest group politics: Lyndon B. Johnson and the civil rights act of 1964,” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 63, no 1 (1997), pp. 1-19
  • Original text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

April 1: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Everyone reads these primary texts:

  • King’s remarks on Malcolm X in 1965 (from a Playboy Magazine interview)
  • Malcolm X., “Message to the Grass Roots” (Nov 9-10, 1963) in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (Grove Press 1990), pp. 3-17.
  • Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” 1964 (audio and/or text)

Choose among:

  1. Episode 7 of Eyes on the Prize, “The Time Has Come: 1964-66
  2. August H. Nimtz, “Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement: The Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. Nexus.” New Political Science 38.1 (2016): 1-22.
  3. Clayborn Carson, “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X” (1998)

6. Later Writings and Issues

Monday, April 6: The North and Poverty

Everyone watches:

Episode 8 of Eyes on the Prize, “Two Societies:  1965-68”

Choose from:

  1. Tommy Shelby, “Prisons of the Forgotten: Ghettos and Economic Injustice,” in pp. 196-213

Wednesday, April 8: War

Listen to audio and/or read the text:

Monday, April 13: The end

Everyone watches/listens to:

21st-Century Appraisals

Wednesday, April 15

Peniel E. Joseph, “Waiting till the midnight hour: Reconceptualizing the heroic period of the civil rights movement, 1954–1965

[April 20: Patriot’s Day, no class.]

Wednesday, April 22: The right and the left of King after his death

Choose among:

  1. Glenn C. Loury, “Achieving the ‘Dream’; A Challenge to Liberals and to Conservativesin the Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr
  2. Ronald R. Sundstrom, “The Prophetic Tension Between Race Consciousness and the Ideal of Color-Blindness,” pp. 136-154
  3. Cornel West, “Hope and Despair: Past and Present,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 334-346

Monday, April 27: Reading King in the light of 21st-century concerns

  1. Shatema Threadcraft and Brandon M. Terry, “Gender Trouble: Manhood, Inclusion, and Justice, in 214-244
  2. Brandon M. Terry, “Requiem for a Dream: The Problem-Space of Black Power,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 299-333
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

notes from India

My family and I were in Delhi and Rajasthan over the winter break, and I cannot resist some notes. I offer them with intellectual humility, understanding that India is a vastly complex place, our experience was superficial, and I cannot grasp many aspects of Indians’ experience, starting with what it’s like to live on $616/year (a plausible, although dated and contestable, estimate of the median per capita income).

Furthermore, we were tourists, often following a paid guide, riding in a van with a professional driver, or staying in a nice hotel. These are colonial experiences, almost literally; some of the hotels where we stayed had been residences for British authorities. Modes of interaction still harken to colonial days. When I dropped a tissue as I tried to say namaste to a hotel employee, he leapt to pick it up faster than I could have moved my hand downward.

I fully recognize how problematic all of that is, although my (debatable) justification goes as follows: We are already deeply tied to India, already affecting it with the goods we buy and the carbon we pump into the air—and in many other ways—and there is something to be gained by getting at least a bit closer. But there is also a risk of overestimating one’s own learning. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; hence the need for serious humility.

(By the way, as a side-note on tourism: relatively few European sightseers are visible in India, except at the most famous locations. Almost everyone from the United States is visiting the homeland for a family function. This is not a country overwhelmed by global tourism, and developing the industry more may be beneficial. But you do see many Indian travelers and sightseers—crowds visiting temples and other holy places in relatively traditional ways, youth taking selfies outside of historical monuments, and large, affluent, multigenerational family parties speaking Hinglish.)


India is experiencing substantial protests against a set of policies introduced by the Modi Government that threaten India’s secularism and the equal standing of its Moslem citizens. We saw no signs of actual protests but did avoid certain parts of Delhi that we would otherwise have visited. I tried to follow local news and the commentary of Indians I respect, such as the excellent Ramachandra Guha. In general, I have nothing to add to their analysis and would question my right to express political opinions about India. But I will comment on one experience.

Our guides, to the extent that they were open to discussing politics, were all pro-Modi BJP voters. They identified strongly with specific kshatriya castes. They presented the history of India as the story of a Hindu “we” that has been conquered by waves of outsiders, including Moslems. In Mogul sites, they emphasized the Hindu temples that had been destroyed to build the visible mosques or mausolea. They complained about affirmative action. They blamed the current protests on Modi’s opponents for “politicizing” his proposals. They presented the Prime Minister as strong and effective and as finally addressing issues never before touched since Independence. (They may have been referring to corruption, but I suspect they also meant Hindu nationalist issues.) They romanticized the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan and their close relationships to British imperialism. They implied that Moslem invaders had wounded India but that Hindu feudalism and British colonialism were colorful episodes. One should adjust for possible politeness to white visitors, but I thought their “saffronisation” was sincere.

For what little it’s worth, I stand on the opposite side of all these issues. I think Islam is an integral part of India’s richness; caste is a problematic inheritance; affirmative action is appropriate (if it works, which I don’t know); and Modi’s India risks losing its character as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” with “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;” “equality of status and of opportunity”; and “fraternity” among all its people.

But our guides were also nice people—striving to raise good kids and to play constructive roles in their communities; kind to strangers. It was a little like spending time among solid #MAGA voters in the USA (except that Modi is much more competent than Trump, the left alternative is less credible in India, and there are ways of understanding Modi’s rise that make it seem almost inevitable—see Taylor Cowen).

It’s always smart to hold two thoughts in your mind. First, we should strive to identify justice and injustice. For instance, I think that BJP-style Hindu nationalism is unjust; it puts 200 million Indian Moslems at serious risk. Second, people who do not understand justice as I do are still complex, ambivalent, sensitive, fellow human beings, conditioned as I am by their circumstances and usually trying to do their best.


The following is a composite, based mainly on Jaipur and Bundi. It could be more accurate if I’d taken ethnographic notes, or even snapshots as reminders. But the ethics of that degree of scrutiny bothered me a bit, so I chose to just absorb and write much later from stored impressions.

I’m in a narrow but busy street in the town center, as opposed to one of the back alleys that are more residential.

It would be misleading to describe this spot as crowded—say, compared to a street in downtown Boston. The number of people per square mile is probably much lower in an Indian town, because the buildings average 2-3 stories and there is plenty of space among the people whom you can see outdoors. They are not pressed together. But the mix of activity is astonishing.

In the street itself: men working on small-scale industrial or mechanical tasks—banging on metal, for example—or women in saris squatted by vegetables for sale. Almost always, several dogs are sound asleep on their sides, oblivious to the traffic that navigates around them. A cow, ambling along, browsing on the garbage. Maybe a small bristly pig with piglets. A constant parade of motorcycles and scooters, with the occasional auto-rickshaw, and rarely a car or van. Almost every vehicle honks as it passes. Often the motorcyclist is a solo young man, but sometimes you see a pair of women in saris, or two men with a child between them, or an old man with a long white beard, curled mustache, and turban.

Parked motorcycles here and there; an open sewer along one side of the road. People walk up and down, some on cell phones, some with small children, some in traditional Rajasthani clothes, fabulously colorful, and some looking like they bought their wardrobes in an outlet mall.

Moving up: small stores selling food, drinks, and specialty items. Professionally printed signs announce the names of the businesses in English or Hindi. One proprietor is a Moslem man in a scullcap. A Jain temple with flags might be visible a little further down. 

Some of the addresses are empty except for rubble or partial construction. A family of black-faced monkeys lopes along a wall. A German shepherd that must be a true family pet looks down from a balcony, barking at the street dogs below. Signs and advertisements are posted at various levels. A relief of Ganesh, covered in silver foil and daubed with yellow.

Higher up: small, square colorful kites, flown from rooftops. A cloudless sky with a thin haze. Sounds of horns, drumming and singing, the Call to Prayer.


We arrived in Delhi after the really bad smog season had ended for 2019. Yet the air was thick enough that you could easily see it even inside well-constructed modern buildings like the airport or the Marriott, swirling around the lighting.

Amartya Sen once argued that the average Indian should use more carbon. That will be necessary for such major life-improvements as full-sized apartments constructed of concrete, refrigeration, and heating in the chilly winter. Clearly, for each Indian to consume more carbon either means even deeper cuts in the developed world or a technological deus ex machina.

But the level of particulate emissions in Indian cities (not only Delhi; the air was just as bad in Jaipur) is a health crisis for residents, and local cuts are required to address that problem. In that sense, the global benefits of reducing emissions in India are consistent with local needs, not in conflict with them. The same is true of planting trees to lower local temperatures, which the Government is doing. You do see solar panels in the countryside—far fewer than in Europe, but quite a few.

In a small town like Narlai, Rajasthan, which appears to be subsidized (by tourism, remittances, or the major temples, I am not sure which) you can also see the local benefits of environmental investment. There, most of the sewers are covered and there is relatively little trash. Townspeople still live interspersed with street dogs, cows, pigs, and monkeys, but everything feels healthier. Narlai may be sanitized in some problematic way that I do not understand, but I think it is the result of spending more money per capita than in many other towns and cities.

Preserving heritage

Narlai is said to have 350 temples. Some are just roadside shrines, but there are several massive ones, including a stunning Jain building. Inside, its immaculate white surfaces are entirely covered in bas-reliefs and rococo architectural ornamentation, the whole making a peaceful and harmonious impression.

In a place like this, my own ignorance is deep. I am not even sure what language the signs are in, let alone their meaning. I know almost none of the iconography, I have the barest understanding of etiquette, and I cannot guess the history of the structure. Nor did I find any informative scholarly writing online about the Jain temple of Narlai.

But it seems that it dates from the 14th century. Many of the lovely and idiosyncratic reliefs are a bit weathered because they are seven centuries old. At the same time, the whole interior is as bright and symmetrical and perfect as if it had been constructed yesterday. And one can see that, in fact, new reliefs and ornaments are being carved and installed here and there right now. The 14th-century temple is at least partly a work of the 21st century—perhaps mostly so.

In a country like Britain or Italy, sophisticated viewers would recoil at this “restoration.” An old building should be left alone or restored only to the point of stability, with any additions clearly marked so that a viewer can see what is old and what is new. A massive renovation would be seen as destroying the historical record. That’s what Europeans used to do in the 1800s, dramatically reconfiguring buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris to meet their sense of what medieval buildings should look like. We don’t do that any more.

In India, too, the law forbids this kind of renovation. But that law appears not to be enforced, and the Jain community of Narlai—with evident wealth and influence—holds different values.

For my own part, I regret the loss of the 14th-century interior but am also a bit relativistic about the clash of values. After all, the Jains want their temple to look perfect and resplendently new for the same reason that 19th-century Europeans wanted to improve their gothic cathedrals. They believe. For believers, a religious structure is not a record of the past; an artistic style is not the mere expression of its time and place. The structure is a home for god; the style is right and good. If that’s the case, why not fix the building to make it look as good as possible? To turn it into a museum is to deny its intended meaning.

It is no coincidence that the countries that are most concerned about historic preservation are also the most secular; and in a way, the past is not at all conserved. We turn places like churches into something entirely new even as we strive to make them look as they did originally.

Perils of sentimentality

The Rajasthani town of Bundi is dominated by a great fortified palace built into a steep mountainside. With many layers of arches, doors, porticoes, terraces, and battlements, it looks like a background shot from the movie of The Lord of the Rings. Kipling said it must have been built by goblins, not men.

Its ownership has been tied up in a court case filed in 1984, so essentially no one holds property rights to it right now. Much of the vast and multistoried interior has been given over to bats and monkeys. But near the top is a well-preserved maharajah’s harem, with gardens, exquisite miniature paintings of Hindu texts on all the walls and ceilings, and elaborate mosaic inlays. In one small room, almost touching each other, are the henna handprints of five or six ladies with slender fingers. We were told that they placed these prints as they left for sati, to be burned alive on the funeral pyre of their deceased husband.

That is a touching sight in a place saturated with both beauty and subjugation. What did these women think as they pressed their hands to the wall? What did they expect after death? What did they think of the lives they were about to leave?

And yet, what are we doing here, listening to this story about sati (which may or may not be true), we four white people from Boston? The supression of sati was a major justification for British imperialism in India. In 1943, the British let 2.1 million-3 million Bengalis die by starvation. Why are we thinking about five possibly sacrificed princesses instead of millions of definitely sacrificed Bengalis? Why are we paying an Indian guide to tell us this story in this place? Why are we in India at all?

I think those are good questions, but I am definitely glad we went, grateful to all the gracious Indians who made the trip so easy, and hopeful to return. I would recommend that anyone go who can.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment