taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

From Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense.”

On Saturday, I ate my 50th birthday dinner with my beloved wife and younger daughter in a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. While we waited for the check, we heard about the protest at Logan Airport and decided to go. I then watched two of my favorite people stand against injustice in the company of a large and passionate band of our fellow citizens.

To say that I enjoyed my birthday evening seems wrong. It sounds a bit like saying, “The US Coast Guard turned the refugee-laden ship St Louis away from Miami in May 1939, and 254 of the passengers were soon murdered in the Holocaust, but I enjoyed standing on the dock with a ‘Let them in!’ sign.”

But there is another way of looking at these situations. Politics is often about cruelty and injustice. Sometimes the people who respond with optional political actions–like carrying signs in Logan’s Terminal E–are not directly at risk. We may nevertheless take satisfaction from our political action if we contribute, in some ultimate way, to a better world.

For one thing, we should draw satisfaction because that motivates more activity. If politics is mere sacrifice, everyone except the most direct victims (the ones with their backs to the wall) will drop out sooner or later. I think it’s wise for activists to advertise the emotional benefits of action.

More than that, we should take satisfaction from politics, even if others are suffering while we are safe, because consequential public action is part of a dignified life–an aspect of dignity too often denied to us by bureaucracies and markets. Hannah Arendt thought that the American Framers originally revolted in defense of their own private liberties, but they discovered, as they made the new republic together, that “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business” (On Revolution,  p. 247). Lin-Manuel Miranda captures that feeling at the very end of Hamilton, when his hero sings, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

We shouldn’t wish for injustices so that we can make a difference. (Young-man Hamilton does–singing “God, I wish there was a war! / Then we could prove that we’re worth more /
Than anyone bargained for…”–but he outgrows that sentiment.) When, however, we are confronted with injustices that we did not choose, we may take some joy from rising up together with those we love:

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,–the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

– Wordsworth, “The French Revolution

See also: unhappiness and injustice are different problems ; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happinessnotes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution; and Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?

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registration open for Frontiers of Democracy

Tickets are now available for Frontiers of Democracy, June 22-24. Frontiers is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, with partners. This year’s theme is defending the frontiers of democracy against undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal trends around the world. Some of the time will be spent working with this framework, and others that take different approaches:

Purchase now to hold your place. Regular tickets cost $240, and there are discounts for current students and Tisch College’s Community partners. Alumni of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies attend free.

As always, the format of Frontiers is highly interactive; most of the concurrent sessions are “learning exchanges” rather than presentations or panels. We welcome proposals for learning exchanges for 2017. Please use this form to submit ideas.

Frontiers is public. It follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a selective 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students that is capped at 20 participants. Applications for the Institute are being accepted now. Email me (peterlevine@tufts.edu) your resume, a graduate transcript if applicable, and a cover letter explaining your interest.

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why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

(Washington DC) Kevin Drum imagines how a Trump fan receives the president’s tweets:

You’re at home, watching the Factor, and O’Reilly is going on about the crime problem in Chicago. It’s outrageous! The place is a war zone! Somebody should do something!

Then, a few minutes later, you see Trump’s tweet. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Damn straight, you think. They need the National Guard to set things straight there. Way to go, President Trump.

This exchange is good enough for you–on its own. You don’t really want Trump to send the feds into Chicago, whatever that might mean. If it would cost money or create a precedent for federal intervention in your town, or anything like that, you might actually be against it. But your media stream will never give you an update on whether Trump sent in the feds or what happened to the murder rate in Chicago. You are immersed in media that consists largely of bad news about places you don’t like. You are satisfied that the guy in charge shares your opinion and has announced he’s on it. He even quotes verbatim the same stats you just saw on O’Reilly. It’s a magic solution–at last.

I think more or less the same will happen as a result of Trump’s announcement today that Mexico will pay for the border wall via a 20% import tax. That is highly unlikely to occur, because Congress would have to enact the tax, and I’m guessing the economic effects would be awful if it did; but Trump’s fans will probably never get an update. They may hear about battles between the president and Congress over taxes, but those will take the form of specific insults flung from his end of Pennsylvania Ave. up to the Hill, which they will endorse. Each exchange will be an event unto itself.

I happen to think that this kind of politics has yuge political limitations for Trump. Most people already disapprove of him, and his welcome is going to wear even thinner when people’s actual lives fail to improve. In turn, massive disapproval will weaken his already shaky position. But it’s still a very dangerous situation, at best, and is very far from any reasonable model of a democracy.

My explanation is that millions of Americans have lost all expectation that leaders will be accountable to them. At the national level, they are not getting very good results from the government that purports to represent them. At the local level, they have lost the kinds of institutions that used to depend on people like them. To reprise a graph from a recent post, here is the trend in the proportion of people who belong to a church and/or a union:

For all their flaws, these are the kinds of institutions that make promises and then have to deliver. If they fail, their members know about it and complain, act up, or walk out. A union or a church has a real covenant with its members. When people have no such expectations of accountability, they are much more likely to be satisfied because the boss just tweeted something they agreed with. Again, I think Trump’s own appeal will wear even thinner than it is now, but the underlying problem is a lack of accountable organizations in many communities.

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assessing the charge of respectability politics

“Respectability politics” is a valuable term of criticism. Apparently, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined it in 1993. It refers to a strategy of trying to look “better” in the eyes of the dominant group in order to be accepted and make progress. Since respectability politics puts unjust and impossible burdens on the marginalized, we should diagnose and try to avoid it.

At the same time, successful social movements do try to look better. An appearance of moral or spiritual discipline and excellence–“Worthiness” –is an asset that social movements can build and use for political purposes, along with “Unity,” “Numbers,” and “Commitment” (WUNC, for short). They claim higher ground because that’s a powerful strategy.

Also, democratic social movements demand that their own members–previously excluded from civic life–be treated as full citizens. True citizens display values and commitments that are not very common in any population: for example, they are actively engaged with public issues and concerned for the common good. Therefore, in asserting a right to be full citizens, social movements often try to embody values that are better than what they see around them; they try to “Be the change.”

My friend Harry Boyte has saved the Program Notes from the 1963 March on Washington, which says, among other things: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

I don’t think that message should be labeled “respectability politics.” The point of the Program Notes was not to look better to White people. The point was to live up to high expectations chosen and embraced by the Black leaders of the March. The movement redefined respectability–indeed, excellence–on its own terms.

For example, it’s traditional for a crowd at a march or rally to hear a famous and excellent singer. That is one way to display both worthiness and unity. At the 1963 March, Mahalia Jackson filled this traditional role when she sang, “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” The difference was that she sang an old gospel song about her own people. This was a performance designed to move and inspire Whites (and others) as well as African Americans, yet she didn’t sing a “White” song to obtain their support.

Likewise, Dr. King’s speech was aimed at a majority-White and overwhelmingly Christian nation, but his specific style of prophetic oratory was uniquely African American. One of the achievements of an effective social movement is an expansion or redefinition of respectability–but not an abandonment of respectability as an ideal.

It’s hard to redefine and consistently demonstrate respectability within a mass movement that is voluntary and democratic. People will join with all kinds of agendas and styles, and they have a right to that diversity. Some will make choices that look bad to others. Enemies of the movement will emphasize the outliers: for example, FoxNews showed footage of last Friday’s anarchists to illustrate Saturday’s vast and peaceful women’s marches. Still, I think the women’s marches represented “worthiness” to an extraordinary degree, and that is a basis for optimism about the next few years.

Opinions about any specific case will differ, but we can look at a sign, slogan, or statement; at a whole episode, like Saturday’s marches; or at a movement composed of many such episodes, and assign it to a category:

  1. Problematic respectability politics, when the movement adopts norms that exclude some people in order to gain support.
  2. Neutral respectability, when the movement just happens to be respectable in many people’s eyes, without adjusting its rhetoric or strategies or excluding anyone.
  3. Pursuit of excellence: whether by displaying self-sacrifice or by singing as well as Mahalia Jackson (or in many other ways), a movement presents itself as more than respectable. Most people cannot meet this ideal, but it becomes a resource for the whole movement. Maybe only Gandhi is starving himself, but we are all satyagrahis if we support him.
  4. Shifting the border of respectability in productive ways. For example, wearing a pink pussy hat on Saturday was a way of rebuking the utterly disreputable new president with a sly and kid-friendly answer. In my view, the hats were fully respectable, but in a way that shifted respectability slightly.
  5. Unhelpfully un-respectable politics, such as the anarchists’ window-breaking on Friday or (arguably) Madonna’s speech at the March.

My main point is that the choices are not just 1 or 5. Some movements fill the other categories, and all are options.

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fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism

In lieu of a substantive new post here today, I’ll link to an essay of mine on the Oxford University Press blog, “Fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism.” It concludes, “We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.”

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Saturday’s democratic vistas

The ideal of democracy gets weak support today.

Republican presidents from T.R. to George W. Bush presented the United States as a champion of democracy. But a current conservative talking point holds that the US is meant to be a republic, not a democracy, and only the opposition party favors democratic forms of government.

It’s my anecdotal impression that not many Democratic voters are all that enthusiastic about democracy, either; they see a population that likes Donald Trump enough to give him a near-majority, and they are not sure they want that majority to rule.

Overseas, the suppression of the Arab Spring, the frailties of the EU, the rise of popular ethno-nationalists in many countries, and the strong performance of  China’s authoritarian regime have left small-d democrats with a hangover. Julia Ioffe is just one of many well-informed commentators who recalled recent failed democratic uprisings when she observed this weekend’s marches. “Talking to the protesters in Washington today, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the weakness of the Moscow protests five years ago: a vague, unstructured cause; too much diversity of purpose; no real political path forward; and the real potential for the meaning of the day to melt into self-congratulatory complacency.”

Meanwhile, impressive scholarly evidence continues to build that people make political choices on the basis of social identities, not by forming independent opinions of issues; that our conflicting moral views have unconscious bases that are “nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders“; and that voters are badly uninformed. Walter Lippmann (1925) and Joseph Schumpeter (1942) already held this general view, but the accumulating evidence must be taken seriously.

Many thoughtful people have accepted the diagnosis in full. They are aware of democracy’s real maladies. Unfortunately, their commitment to finding cures is much weaker.

After all, any political system is only as good as we make it. There are generic arguments in favor of core principles of democracy, such as “voting equality at the decisive stage” (Dahl 1989), but there are also generic problems with it, such as majority-tyranny, propaganda, free-riding, motivated reasoning, the “iron law of oligarchy,” and polarization. An actual system based on voting equality will work well only to the degree that we build institutions and norms that can counter its weaknesses. For instance, a city newspaper can address low information and polarization in a metro area–as long as it finds a market and uses its revenues to inform the public. A grassroots political party can overcome free-riding problems by getting citizens involved–but only if it engages citizens.

If we want to build the new institutions and norms that can make democracy work in the 21st century, we need a lot of people to see its potential. We must be hard-headed designers and reformers of institutions, our eyes open to human limitations; but we must also hear old Walt Whitman’s music:

The purpose of democracy … is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself. …

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life, and in the army and navy. I have intimated that, as a paramount scheme, it has yet few or no full realizers and believers. I do not see, either, that it owes any serious thanks to noted propagandists or champions, or has been essentially help’d, though often harm’d, by them. …

I submit, therefore, that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future.

Whitman saw glimpses of that future in his own time, and I think hundreds of thousands of people–including me–scanned new democratic vistas on Saturday. That was the first essential step toward actually repairing our democracy together.

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a plea to conservatives

The new president derides almost everything you claim to defend. You say you are for limited government and the rule of law over men; he denies all limitations. You say you are patriots; he praises a foreign kleptocrat while abusing his domestic critics and public servants. You speak of an independent free market; he intervenes daily with threats and blandishments. You remind us of the importance of norms and moral constraints, grounded in traditions. He seeks public attention by violating interpersonal, institutional, even sexual norms. You honor faith; he demonstrates ignorance of his own religion and contempt for others. You stand for cultural excellence and depth–he is a shallow vulgarian.

It will be tempting, nevertheless, to embrace this man because he aligns with you on certain matters that you are entitled to hold dear: taxes, Supreme Court nominations. Besides, liberals and progressives with whom you have a long and bitter feud hate him, and that inclines you to sympathy. His critics sometimes go beyond principled judgment to demonstrate bias against him. That makes you want to take his side. Your fellow travelers who have never struggled to understand or honor the hard principles of your movement–opportunistic politicians and performers who don’t know Hamilton from Madison or Burke from Hayek–are already jumping aboard. They have cast their lots and sold themselves that they might drink.

Liberalism will be fine. Liberals will lose favored policies, and as a result people will suffer, even die. But as a movement, liberalism will emerge unscathed, indeed, more unified, determined, and popular. It is conservatism that it’s at risk. And that is a problem for the country, which needs a conservative counterweight.

If you don’t stand explicitly against him, he will define what you stand for. Conservatism will mean Trumpism for generations to come. If you are very lucky, his administration will perform well enough that you will survive to continue your battle with the left and center-left. But if he leads the nation into a crisis or ruin, you will own that, too. And deservedly, because his mistakes will flow from his arrogant abuse of state power, which you, as champions of limited government, should have blocked.

“For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Even in a century or more, it will be remembered where you chose to stand. Blow ye the trumpet, sound the alarm.

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on the relationship between ethics and politics

The basic ethical question is “What should I do?” Three prevalent ways of addressing that question are: 1) to universalize, asking what you’d want anyone to do who was similarly situated, 2) to maximize, asking how you can do the most good for the most people, given your resources and options, or 3) to exhibit and develop virtues, such as courage, generosity, and truthfulness. Philosophers love scenarios in which these methods yield conflicting answers, but in a vast range of ordinary circumstances, they concur.

The basic political question is “What should we do?” The verb is plural because politics exists once people belong to groups of any kind, from small voluntary associations to nation-states. To be sure, the ethical question never vanishes, because you can ask whether you should belong to a given group and what you personally should do in relation to it. But the plural question raises a new set of issues that are not directly addressed in individual ethics.

For one thing, we decide what we should do together—not necessarily democratically or equitably, but as a result of several people’s influence. Since each of us is fallible, and other perspectives have value, it may be wise to yield to a group’s judgment even if you would have done something different on your own. You may be especially inclined to go along with a group’s decisions if its processes were equitable and deliberative. The virtues of intellectual humility and civility argue for supporting the group’s decision. But that is the wrong choice if the group is misguided, and you retain the options of resistance or exit.

This means that issues of complicity arise in politics that are not salient in individual ethics. A group to which I belong acts in my name. Am I therefore complicit in the harm that it does? On the other hand, how do I know that what I would have decided alone is really better than what the group has decided by discussing?

The group has potential value. It 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. Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal behavior in order to maintain the group for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the sacrifice is usually unequal. So the question “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” and to act together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high or too unequal to sustain, but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

Each of the prevalent methods for addressing individual ethical questions can be applied in politics, but with important modulations.

First, instead of universalizing in a hypothetical mode, we can create actual covenants that bind all. In ethics, a person asks, “What would I want anyone to do if she faced my situation?” In a group, however, we can ask, “What must everyone actually do in situations like this, and how will we set and enforce penalties for those who fail to do it?” Sometimes, actual covenants should differ from ethical norms, because it can be wise to overlook or even accept non-ideal behavior in order to preserve liberty or to maintain a group whose members would quit if the rules were too strict. That means that the logic of real covenants differs from the logic of hypotheticals.

Second, instead of maximizing the benefits of individual actions, we can maximize the benefits of what a group does together. The main difference is that we must consider the group’s future capacity to act effectively. In many cases, a group that maximizes net benefits for the world would dissolve, because the level of sacrifice expected of its members would be too great, and they would exit. Since the existence of a group permits deliberation and coordinated action, which are impossible for individuals, dissolution may be too high a price to pay.

Christopher Winship acknowledges that justice demands raising the quality of the schooling available to the least advantaged American students. However, he argues, “the best way to approach serving the interests of the least well off [may be] to avoid policies that decisively pit the interests of the less advantaged families against those of the more advantaged families.” He cites evidence that Scandinavian countries have achieved the highest levels of shared prosperity and economic equality in the world today not by directly pursuing equality but by negotiating policies that are attractive to business as well as labor. These compromises have created durable and accountable states that have been able to deliver high-quality services for all.* This is an example of how preserving the group (in this case, a Nordic democracy) can do more good than maximizing the benefits of the group’s actions at any given moment.

Third, we can consider the virtues of a group—virtues understood, in an Aristotelian way, as dispositions that are reflected in, and reinforced by, actions. In other words, virtues are habits that can be deliberately shaped. Groups as well as people can have virtues, such as courage, temperance, magnanimity, etc. Developing and maintaining virtues requires different strategies when a group instead of an individual is the thing that is virtuous or vicious.

This discussion has assumed a simple dichotomy of individuals and groups. That scheme must be complicated in two fundamental ways.

On one hand, individuals do not really precede groups. Anyone who thinks in a language is already part of a linguistic community. Anyone who asks of her nation “What should we do?” probably developed her opinions under the influence of that already-existing nation. These are examples of the ontological dependence of individuals on groups.

On the other hand, groups are rather like individuals in their interactions with one another. Robert O. Keohane and Elinor Ostrom co-edited a book that explored the close parallels between collective-action problems in small communities and among states. In both contexts, there is typically no single enforcer who can determine the behavior of the parties. There is plenty of room for disaster, yet sometimes the parties work out solutions, from rules for pasturing goats on common land to international arms treaties.

Furthermore, governments do not merely work “within their jurisdictions by imposing authoritative rules on their subjects” (p. 11) Even dictatorships cannot do that, because they cannot police and control their populations without a great deal of voluntary cooperation. A government is not a single actor that stands apart from society and directs it, but rather as a whole set of human actors (politicians, civil servants, front-line workers) who constantly interact with each other and with people outside the government. Not much is accomplished unless they are able to motivate voluntary compliance with agreements.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their Bloomington School see governance as “polycentric.” At the local level, we are constantly interacting in game-like situations with other people who may either cooperate or not. There are islands of command-and-control in which some individuals tell others what to do, but their capacity to control usually depends on norms of willing compliance. Nation-states exist in a global anarchy, without any power above them, but they have managed to work out some arrangements for cooperation. And between nation-states and local communities are complex webs of arrangements involving intermediary organizations such as municipalities and regional governments, parties, interest groups, and media organizations. Cooperation, competition, and mutual destruction are all possible in all of these contexts.

I think that the categories of the ethical and the political constantly recur at all scales, and which one is most salient depends mainly on the perspective that seems most appropriate in the situation, that of an “I” or a “we.”

That said, scale matters, because it influences how we should think about agency and responsibility. We shoulder the most responsibility at the smallest scales, especially when we act alone. Agency is also most tangible at that scale: we can see what we accomplish by ourselves. However, we cannot accomplish much. At very large scales, agency is hard to detect because millions or billions of others are also at work, and it is unreasonable to expect the whole population to shift at anyone’s will. In the middle range (which I think is under-theorized), we can take part in effective action. That is politics. Politics is an ethical matter, in the broadest sense–there is a difference between right and wrong–but the ethical principles appropriate for individual action no longer suffice. A new set of considerations becomes important when we move from I to we.

*Christopher Winship, “From Principles to Practice and the Problem of Unintended Consequences,” in Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay, eds., Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 177-8.

See also: against methodological individualismis social science too anthropocentric? and two basic categories of problems.

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Apply for the Ninth Annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The ninth annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies will take place from June 12 to June 22, 2017 at Tufts University. It will be an intensive, two-week, interdisciplinary seminar that brings together faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners from many countries and diverse fields of study.

Organized by Peter Levine of Tufts University’s Tisch College and Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland, the Summer Institute will engage participants in challenging discussions of such topics as:

  • What kinds of citizens (if any) do good regimes need?
  • What should such citizens know, believe, and do?
  • What practices and institutional structures promote the right kinds of citizenship?
  • What ought to be the relationships among empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy?

This is the syllabus for the eighth annual seminar (in 2016). The 2017 syllabus will be modified but will largely follow this outline.

You can read more about the motivation for the Institute in the “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:


Tuition for the Institute is free, but students are responsible for their own housing and transportation. A Tufts University dormitory room can be rented for $230-$280/week. Credit is not automatically offered, but special arrangements for graduate credit may be possible.

To apply: please email your resume, an electronic copy of your graduate transcript (if applicable), and a cover email about your interests to Peter Levine at Peter.Levine@Tufts.edu. For best consideration, apply no later than March 17, 2017. You may also sign up for occasional announcements even if you are not sure that you wish to apply.

The seminar will be followed (from June 22, evening, until June 24) by a public conference–”Frontiers of Democracy 2017″–in downtown Boston. Participants in the institute are expected to stay for the public conference. See information on the conference here. That page also explains how you can propose a concurrent session for the 2017 conference, whether or not you wish to apply for the Summer Institute.

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the prophetic mode in the Civil Rights Movement and in everyday politics

On Martin Luther King Day, Kenyatta R. Gilbert published an explanatory article in The Conversation about King’s “prophetic vision.” Gilbert traced King’s rhetorical mode to three “particularly inventive” Black preachers active during the Great Migration: “Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Reverdy C. Ransom.” All three were political reformers and community leaders who echoed the Hebrew prophets (as well as the Gospels) in their sermons.

If you’ve made a careful study of King’s own writing and speaking, you will recognize constant evocations of the Biblical prophets. Just for instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King quotes Amos 5:24 (“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”) and Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

In fact, it can be a bit of cliché to call King and other Civil Rights Leaders “prophetic.” That combination of words yields 649,000 hits on Google right now. So it’s worth looking a bit closer at the texts of the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies, to see what we mean when we associate them with the great Civil Rights leaders.

These are heterogeneous texts, containing biographical information, autobiographical passages, dramatic narratives (like Jonah in the whale), reports of the Lord’s words, dialogues between the prophet and the Lord, dreams, acts of these wise men and women, sermons, predictions, and much poetry.

Although this whole body of text enriched King’s speech and thought, I think that we have something more specific in mind when we use the word “prophetic” for his words.

A prophesy, in the narrower sense, often begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. (Amos 5:11-12)

The prophesy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. A classic prophesy then predicts a better time, a time of justice. This prediction is not empirical, based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

A Hebrew prophet derives his authority from God’s interactions with him–or her, since Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther are traditionally named prophets along with the bearded men. In contrast, a modern political prophet should be cautious about claiming direct divine inspiration. Instead, a modern prophet invites the audience to consider a moral description of the present. If they agree, and they behave as recommended, then the prophesy may become true as a result of their coordinated action.

So understood, prophesies can be rather humdrum. You are using the prophetic mode if you stand up at a PTA meeting and say, “The playground is a mess. If we all get together and clean it up this Saturday, the kids will be safer and happier next week.” The divine intervention and high flown language of the King James Version are missing, but you are still submitting a moral condemnation of the present, an exhortation to action, and a vision of the better world that will result.

The problem is that some prophesies are good, and some are bad. The bad ones either describe a morally worse world or demand unproductive actions. A certain President-Elect, for example, promises to make America great again in ways that I consider both unlikely and undesirable. We need methods for distinguishing good prophesies from bad ones. And two dominant modes of thought are unhelpful.

The scientific (and social-scientific) mode is unhelpful because it tries to separate empirical descriptions from moral judgments. Moral judgment is presented as mere opinion, and anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This mode is also unhelpful because it predicts the future based on data from the past. We can make the future different from the past, but only if we refuse to assume that observed patterns must hold.

The professional mode used in bureaucracies (whether governmental or corporate) is also unhelpful because it is limited to means/ends reasoning. It says: If you want this to happen, you may (or should) do that. But what should you want to happen?

The scientific mode fits neatly together with the professional/bureaucratic mode when institutions use social science to find efficient means to their fixed ends.

The prophetic mode challenges these ways of thinking. A prophetic voice claims that some things really are bad (not merely in the prophet’s opinion), that a better future is possible, and that we can and must create that future by changing how we act. Prophesies are not hypotheses that are either true or false. They are exhortations that we can make true by how we react to them. They should be rooted in the experience of the speaker, the experiences of the audience, and a deeper tradition that preserves many others’ experiences, such as the Biblical background on which King drew so regularly.

King and his fellow African American Christian Civil Rights leaders exemplified prophetic thought. Their texts–together with the ways they were received and used–are models of a form of reasoning that is essential to citizenship in all times and places. Theirs is a gift that we must preserve and pass on.

See also: “an exercise for Martin Luther King Day,” “a different Shakespeare from the one I love” (with a excursus on the King James Version in Black political rhetoric),”the Nehemiah story,” and “homage to Hannah Arendt at The New School” (on “natality” as human freedom from the past).

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