mini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies

We are about to begin discussions of the papers listed below, in draft form. They are destined for The Good Society journal. The conversations are at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts

For me, the underlying rationale goes like this. A good person is always asking “What should I do?” That question must become plural–“What should we do?”–for two reasons: we cannot accomplish enough alone, and we must reason together to improve our opinions. Both questions integrate facts and values. Something that works but isn’t good is not what we should do. Likewise, we want to avoid something that is good but doesn’t fit the circumstances of the time and place.

The structure of intellectual life in modernity frustrates asking these questions, for several reasons. One major reason is that matters of value are assigned to certain disciplines in the humanities, while matters of fact go to disciplines that widely imitate science and present themselves as value-free.

It’s easy to call for a reintegration of facts and values (and strategy), but very hard to pull that off. Fortunately, we have traditions of thought–always contributed by many thinkers and practitioners rather than a single luminary–that do reintegrate facts, values, and strategies. Names that stand for these traditions include Gandhi, Pope Francis, Hannah Arendt, William James, Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrom, and Jurgen Habermas. These names recur in interesting combinations in the following papers. So do certain themes: the limitations of human cognitive abilities and the positive potential of certain kinds of affect; the value of institutions for structuring deliberation; the link between work and reflection; and the value of deep, responsive uncertainty–wonder.

“Public Entrepreneurship, Civic Competence, and Voluntary Association: Self-Governance Through the Ostroms’ Political Economy Lenses” — Paul Dragos Aligica, George Mason University

“Giving Birth in the Public Square: Dialogue as a Maieutic Practice” — Lauren Swayne Barthold, Endicott College and Essential Partners

“William James’s Psychology of Philosophizing: Selective Attention, Intellectual Diversity, and the Sentiments in Our Rationalities” — Paul Croce, Stetson University

“Democracy as Group Discussion and Collective Action:Facts, Values, and Strategies in Rural Landscapes” — Timothy J. Shaffer, Kansas State University

“Social Media, Dismantling Racism and Mystical Knowing: What White Catholics are Learning from #BlackLivesMatter” — Mary E. Hess, University of Toronto

“Institutions, Capabilities, Citizens” — James Johnson, University of Rochester, and Susan Orr, SUNY College at Brockport

“Forgiveness After Charleston: The Ethics of an Unlikely Act” — Larry M. Jorgensen, Skidmore College

“Facts, Values, and Democracy Worth Wanting: Public Deliberation in the Era of Trump” — David Eric Meens, University of Colorado Boulder

“The Praxis of Amartya Sen and the Promotion of Democratic Capability” — Anthony DeCesare, St. Louis University

“A Civic Account of Justice” — Karol Edward Soltan, University of Maryland

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American tapestry

6:10 am, Monday, Boston, MA: My taxi driver is a retired guy from the South Shore. His son is a Ranger, active duty. The son curls up on the floor now when fireworks go off: PTSD. He is friends with all the generals, ever since he use a banned weapon in Afghanistan to save some guys despite the orders of an interfering German NATO officer. According to him, the US generals believe we have to stop fighting all these little wars, because then the media turns every bit of collateral damage into a war crime. We need one big war to just end it.

3:30 pm, Monday, Ferguson, MO: I am getting a detailed and extraordinarily well-informed and thoughtful driving tour through this city, traversing all the main roads plus several of the back streets and cul-de-sacs. My guide, an African American woman and longtime resident of Ferguson, is also a scholar with a PhD, an educator, and an activist. Through her windshield, Ferguson looks remarkably ordinary: Anywhere, USA. Sam’s Club, Walmart, mowed median strips, the Interstate, tidy homes of brick or wood, low-rise apartment complexes, some fancy older houses along one side of town, and knots of happy kids walking home from their schools. It is Anywhere, USA–which is the problem.

7:30 pm, Monday, Kansas City, MO: Sitting at the bar of a BBQ restaurant that caters to tourists, with baseball on the TV screens and the news on my smartphone that the President of the United States has casually divulged secret information to the Russian ambassador.

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what does it mean to attribute narcissistic personality disorder to a person?

(St Louis, MO) We have two rival languages for analyzing personality: the medical and the moral. They are largely incommensurable, yet cases force us to choose between them.

For instance, psychiatrists and pundits are currently debating whether to diagnose Donald Trump with “narcissistic personality disorder.” The Mayo Clinic tells us that the DSM-5 defines this disorder using the following criteria (of which five are normally considered adequate for a diagnosis):

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

All “disorders” defined in medical discourse are like diseases or injuries. Any disorder must be found repeatedly in a population: the various criteria must cluster statistically. It must harm the individual who suffers from it: the patient. The harm usually takes the form of preventing the patient from enjoying “normal” or healthy functioning. Medical science seeks to explain the disorder as a result of prior causes, and it looks for treatments that prevent, remove or at least mitigate any impairment.

Medicine marginalizes moral judgments. Even if you broke your leg because you were jumping on your bed, once you get to the ER, you’re a patient suffering from a fracture, and the point is to make you better so that you can jump again.

Thus the Mayo Clinic uses its standard format (Definitions, Symptoms, Causes, Risk factors, Complications, Preparing for your appointment, Tests and diagnosis, Treatment and drugs, Lifestyle and home remedies, and Prevention) to discuss narcissistic personality disorder, exactly as it discusses strep throat. It’s all addressed to the patient, who is assumed to want to avoid the impairments attributable to this disorder. “If you recognize aspects of your personality that are common to narcissistic personality disorder or you’re feeling overwhelmed by sadness, consider reaching out to a trusted doctor or mental health provider. Getting the right treatment can help make your life more rewarding and enjoyable.”

The causes of narcissistic personality disorder are unknown, but likely suspects fall into two clusters that are equally beyond the control of the patient: “Mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive pampering or excessive criticism” and “Genetics or psychobiology.” Complications are said to include “Relationship difficulties,” “Problems at work or school,” “Depression,” “Drug or alcohol abuse,” and “Suicidal thoughts or behavior.”

After preparing for your doctor’s visit and receiving a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, you may be prescribed psychotherapy (which “may take several years” to work) or given drugs for anxiety or depression, because “there are no medications specifically used to treat [this] disorder.”

Moral discourse, in contrast, views every item on the list above as a vice. Olivia says that to be “sick of self-love” is to “taste / with a distempered appetite,” which means misinterpreting what others say. To be sure, our personalities are not fully under our control: parents, genes, and other factors shape us. Still, if we have a vice, we must acknowledge and strive fix it. The primary reason is that it hurts other people. That means that a vice is a vice even if it causes us no “complications” along the lines of “problems at work or school” or depressive thoughts.

Nor does it matter whether vices correlate statistically in a population so that they can be treated as a single syndrome. Each fault stands on its own. However, there may be interesting logical or causal links among specific vices. For instance, maybe it’s because you are “envious of others” that you “exaggerate your achievements and talents.” Since Aristotle, moral philosophers have closely analyzed vices and virtues to understand their logical interrelationships. But even if you happen to be the only person in the world who has put together a given set of moral flaws into its own ugly combination, you need to fix them.

In Vox recently, David Roberts wrote:

All nine [criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder] describe Trump’s public behavior with eerie accuracy. But a disorder, by definition, inhibits normal functioning, impedes success. And Trump is inarguably successful. He’s one of the most powerful people in the world. Whatever kind of personality he may have, some psychiatrists argue, he can’t have a disorder. He’s doing well for himself.

These psychiatrists cited in this article epitomize medical discourse. Their standard is the “normal functioning” of the patient who might make an appointment because of an impairment.

I have no doubt that the medical framework has to some extent liberated us. By analogizing psychological problems to diseases or physical accidents, it has challenged the presumption that emotions lie under the conscious control of actors and has put us on the path to at least a few treatments–when otherwise all we would have is censure. In his homage to Freud, who had devoted a whole 1914 essay to Narcissism, W.H. Auden wrote:

[He] showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
     our dishonest mood of denial,
   the concupiscence of the oppressor.

With Freud’s death, said Auden,

One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
     sad is Eros, builder of cities,
   and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

But notice that Auden’s encomium was deeply moral. He rightly saw that the only value of a scientific/medical discourse is its potential to improve the world. If that discourse makes it impossible for us to censure, judge, and demand restorative justice from a person who is harming others, then it is clearly inadequate.

It is a moral, not a scientific, assertion that Trump is a narcissist. Narcissism is compatible with his successful functioning, and it may even partly explain his success to date (although I have the feeling that a reckoning is not far off now). If lots of people exhibit the same set of traits he does, that is interesting; it increases the odds that some kind of drug or standardized treatment may ultimately target the syndrome as a whole. But even if Donald Trump is the only person with his precise list of vices, he merits condemnation. As Lord Byron (who had plenty of personal experience of the matter) observed, “self-love forever creeps out, like a snake, to sting anything which happens, even accidentally, to stumble upon it.”

See also insanity and evil: two paradigms;  and morality in psychotherapy.

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The Cliff-Top Monastery by A.B. Jackson

If you want a 20-line respite from the fascinating train wreck of American politics (on which my eyes are riveted, like everyone else’s), I recommend A.B. Jackson’s “The Cliff-Top Monasteryin the May issue of Poetry Magazine. A whole short story unfolds in five stanzas. At first, the characters seem to be on a cruise in the modern Aegean, jumping off a yacht, perhaps, to “doggy-swim ashore / and surf the scree slopes in buoyant uproar.” But it would have been wise to notice the epigraph: “The Voyage of Saint Brendan.” These men must be medieval Irish monks on a northern sea. The story quickly turns holy–and then spooky.

As far as I can tell, Jackson’s sources are chapters XII and XV of the Voyage of St. Brendan (written down ca. 900), which relate the saint’s discovery of the Island of St. Ailbe and his return there after numerous adventures. (The raven, however, is spliced in from other Brendan legends.) The original text is fairly didactic, encompassing sermons or lectures by the abbot of the Cliff-Top Monastery. Jackson has extracted the spooky (pagan?) core of the story and made the island a place to flee in haste.

(See also the scholar and his dogSeamus Heaney’s Beowulf. )

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Habermas on the French election

Here are Jürgen Habermas’ recent remarks on “the future of Europe” at an event with President-elect Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. They spoke in March, before the election, but Habermas credits Macron with courage in “a challenging situation.”

Habermas calls for broad public deliberation about the basic values of the European Union, in contrast to a technical negotiation among elites.

European unification has remained an elite project to the present day because the political elites did not dare to involve the general public in an informed debate about alternative future scenarios. National populations will be able to recognize and decide what is in their own respective interest in the long run only when discussion of the momentous alternatives is no longer confined to academic journals – e.g. the alternatives of dismantling the euro or of returning to a currency system with restricted margins of fluctuation, or of opting for closer cooperation after all.

This has been a consistent theme for Habermas for more than seven decades as a public intellectual. In the 1950s, he argued against counting on the German Constitutional Court to define and protect the Federal Republic that had been designed by the Western allies. Instead, the German people must hold a democratic conversation that led to democratic institutions. Likewise, when East Germany fell, Habermas argued that its political institutions were worthless, but that the peoples of East and West should come together to design a new constitution for a unified Germany. (Instead, the GDR was simply absorbed into the post-War Federal Republic.)

Habermas names a list of crises that he thinks are forcing a broader and deeper conversation: Syria, terrorism, and (in a word) Trump.

Nationalist, racist, anti-Islamic, and anti-Semitic tendencies that have acquired political weight with the program and style of the new US administration are combining with authoritarian developments in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries to pose an unexpected challenge for the political and cultural self-understanding of the West. Suddenly Europe finds itself thrown back upon its own resources in the role of a defensive custodian of liberal principles (providing support to a majority of the American electorate that has been pushed to the margins).

Habermas has always been friendly to the American people and culture, which is a noteworthy stance for the head of the Frankfurt School. He seems to have been a fan of Barack Obama. I appreciate his support for the liberal part of our electorate.

Finally, Habermas calls for an expansion of democratic public spheres beyond the nation-state, in response to the globalization of public problems.

The institutionalization of closer cooperation is what first makes it possible to exert democratic influence on the spontaneous proliferation of global networks in all directions, because politics is the only medium through which we can take deliberate measures to shape the foundations of our social life. Contrary to what the Brexit slogan suggests, we will not regain control over these foundations by retreating into national fortresses. On the contrary, politics must keep pace with the globalization that it set in motion. In view of the systemic constraints of unregulated markets and the increasing functional interdependence of a more and more integrated world society, but also in view of the spectacular options we have created – for example, of a still unmastered digital communication or of new procedures for optimizing the human organism – we must expand the spaces for possible democratic will-formation, for political action, and for legal regulation beyond national borders.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needMatthew G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography and Habermas and critical theory (a primer)

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when social advantage persists for millennia


  • In Florence, many of the wealthiest taxpaying families in 1421 are still the wealthiest families today. The very top earner in 2011 is descended from a guild member who was in the 97th percentile in 1421. In between came Medici rule, Napoleon, the Hapsburg Empire, the resorgimento, industrialization, democracy, socialism, fascism, and two world wars. Still, the names honored on the endowed chapels of the early renaissance are the names of the families who pay the most income tax in Florence today.
  • In England between 1170 and 2011, relative social status has been more consistently inherited than height has been. The same surnames that are listed as major landowners in the 1086 Domesday Book are still upper-class today. This despite the impact of the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, Labour governments, emigration, immigration, and the EU.
  • In Sweden, they stopped creating nobles in the 17th century. Then came the industrial revolution, emigration, democracy, and socialism, yet families whose names indicate noble heritage are still richer than other Swedes.
  • In France, the aristocrats of the Roman era were pagan, Latin-speaking owners of villas and slaves. By the early medieval era, the country’s leaders were Christian bishops who saw themselves as Franks. Yet the Frankish bishops were the lineal descendants of the Romano-Gallic villa owners. The Fall of the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions, and Christianity did little to shake their relative advantage.
  • In China, 13 surnames are over-represented among the highest scorers on the Confucian state exams in 221 BCE. The same surnames predominate among “the high officials in the Nationalist government from 1912 to the triumph of the communists in 1949; professors at the ten most prestigious universities in the country in 2012; chairs of the boards of companies listed in 2006 as having assets of $1.5 million and above; and members of the (still communist) central government administration in 2010.” Between 1912 and today, Mao is thought to have executed 800,000 landlords; and at least 10 million Chinese were killed or driven into exile on the grounds of being bourgeois. Yet now descendants of the old Chinese bourgeoisie sit on the boards of multi-billion-dollar Chinese companies.

A society can be more or less equal. For instance, the practical significance of being in the top or bottom ten percent is much less in Sweden than it is in the US, because virtually all Swedes have safe neighborhoods, income security, healthcare, and education.

A society can be more or less prosperous. Everyone is better off today than they were in the early France of King Clovis. Growth can lift all boats.

And a society can be more or less economically mobile. None of these examples reflect zero mobility. More typical is a correlation of about 0.9 for generation after generation, which leads to a fair amount of change over, say, 2,200 years in China.

But the important point to remember about mobility is that for anyone who moves up, someone else must move down (in relative terms). Unlike prosperity, mobility is zero-sum. And the people who are at the top really, really don’t want their children to move down. They typically have so much financial, cultural, and social capital that even the greatest cataclysms and the most radically egalitarian reforms in human history have left a lot of them sitting on top again, once things settle down.

I’m for mobility. To abandon that ideal is to accept a kind of caste system. But it’s important not to depend on mobility alone, given the remarkable stability of social advantage in all these countries. If your agenda is mobility, you must face the reality that you’re asking the same number of families to accept downward movement as will benefit from upward movement.

Equality and prosperity look relatively promising, by comparison. Christopher Winship argues that “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 of opportunity (which would mean lowering the odds that the children of the rich will be rich) 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. Such states also provide conditions for somewhat more inter-generational mobility than we see in the USA, just because the bottom of the income distribution faces less profound obstacles.

Source: 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 to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?; and why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others.

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two cheers for the West

The defeat of Marianne Le Pen is a victory for the European Union; and the EU is one of the structures built in the wake of World War II either directly or indirectly by the Western Allies in that war. In that sense, the EU is part of a project called “the West” that also includes at least the Marshall Plan and NATO–and arguably institutions that span the globe, like the IMF and the UN. These institutions are now beset by critics from Putin and Orban to Trump.

One reason to call these institutions “Western” is that Washington, New York, and Brussels lie to the west of, say, Moscow and Beijing. But at least some people believe that these institutions reflect a perspective, value-system, or set of ideals that can be usefully named “the West.” When I took a “Western civilization” course in the 1980s, it was colloquially called “Plato to NATO.”

One of the deepest ideological fault-lines of our time is how to assess this thing called “the West.” Imperialistic? Reactionary? Liberatory? Ethnocentric? Universalist? Inclusive? Greedy? Humane? A threat to US (or French) sovereignty, or an imposition of US (or French) power on others?

This debate seems intractable because institutions like the EU and NATO (not to mention the UN) have been involved in so many episodes and policies and have had so many effects on nations around the world. And if the West means a perspective or value-system, it is fatally vague. Anything we could define as “the West” in that sense encompasses too much diversity and overlaps too much with other cultural traditions to be meaningful.* For instance, Plato actually has almost nothing in common with NATO, but was an explicit influence on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the other hand, most large, co-constructed projects offer resources and inspirations for the present. Even if the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the EU or NATO is the exploitation of the Global South, these institutions also reflect other traditions. They were built on FDR’s Four Freedoms, the UN Declaration, and the promise of economic and social integration to prevent war. A set of states whose domestic arrangements range from democratic socialism to untrammeled capitalism have cooperated to advance international law, human rights, democratic institutions, and robust and interconnected cultures. I don’t deny that these states have done other things as well, but their achievements have been remarkable. Just compare continental Europe in 1945 and 2017.

I’m not sure we have conveyed the grandeur of this achievement–or its vulnerability. The EU is not just an economic zone with high GDP and a lot of bureaucrats in Brussels. It is part of a project that reflects high ideals for humanity. Stopping Le Pen has saved the EU to fight another day, but it doesn’t automatically convey the institution’s ideals. To make the European project inspiring again will require not only beating off its explicit enemies but also reforming “Western” institutions so that they again advance their best values.

*See my posts on the West and the restavoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were one; and on modernity and the distinction between East and West.

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White racial resentment and the 2016 election

Yesterday, I got to hear Michael Tesler present about his forthcoming book with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck: Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. I don’t want to give away the content based on yesterday’s presentation; the book is due early next year. But promotional materials already say: “Identity Crisis reveals how Trump’s victory was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people’s racial and ethnic identities. The campaign then reinforced and exacerbated those cleavages as it focused on issues related to race, immigration, and religion.”

The 2016 election can’t have a single cause, but this book adds weight to the thesis that White racial identity played a major role–more so in 2016 than at any point since 1968. Tesler made me think of an argument by Manuel Pastor, who has noted that White identity peaked in California when Whites saw their majority control nearing its end. In 1994, Californians passed Prop. 187 to block undocumented people from getting state services and to establish a “citizenship screening system.” Governor Pete Wilson made support for Prop. 187 his hallmark issue and used it to win reelection. Incumbent Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein tried to position herself as a critic of immigration as well.

California is no utopia today, but defensive White identity seems to have passed its peak there. I suspect that facing the prospect of losing majority status triggered a sense of threat. Once Whites actually became a minority in California, the sky didn’t fall, and the sense of threat passed. Whites retain their social and economic advantages despite representing just 48% of the votes cast in the 2016 election. I would contrast Texas, where a White-majority coalition still dominates the electorate but the demographic trends are against them. In 2016, 57% of Texas voters were still White (and they preferred Trump by 43 points), but they must know their electoral control won’t last.

It would be valuable to look in more detail at major cities where Whites lost majority control after 1970. Often, White racial identity peaked around the point when the first Black mayor was elected, which marked a threat to White control. The next mayor was sometimes propelled by White backlash, but then a racially diverse coalition came to dominate, and most Whites adjusted to it.

Earlier this year, Pastor told the New York Times, “The United States just went through its Prop. 187 moment.” That period in California was ugly and lasted a while. Pastor asked, “Why go through all of our pain? That was no fun, and it dashed a lot of people’s lives. We underinvested in education. We over-imprisoned, so we got a lot of people locked out of the labor market. We broke apart a lot of families because of anti-immigrant sentiments. We did a lot of stupid things to ourselves.” The good news is that if the country follows California’s trajectory, we will ultimately reach a better place, but we need to get there much faster and with less damage.

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the remarkable budget deal

Many have been rightly alarmed by the Trump Administration’s commitments to terminate programs related to scholarship and science, aspects of k-16 education, environmental and climate research, and national and community service. The critical response from citizens has been appropriate and welcome. But it’s also valuable to recognize the limits on any administration’s ability to change federal priorities, the degree to which valuable programs enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, and the extraordinarily inept record of the Trump team so far.

All of those factors are evident in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017. The bill is 1,665 pages long, and it is written as a set of dollar figures plus instructions (“riders”). Because these aren’t presented as changes compared to last year, it is hard to see what Congress has done. But as far as I can tell, most of the changes have been in the direction of more funding for education, culture, science, and even climate science.

The National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Endowment for the Arts all see increases (source). NEH’s research funding is modestly cut, while support for the State Humanities Councils goes up. (My friend Elizabeth Lynn has explained how the State Councils are responsible for the NEH’s political fortunes since the 1970s.) The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is fully funded (source).

EPA faces a one percent overall cut. The Department of Energy’s research budget and the National Science Foundation see increases. Climate research within DoE is boosted. “The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service all would see more money under the bill, which included few policy riders for the agencies” (source). NOAA receives an increase, and the Climate Program Office within NOAA is held flat. The National Environmental Information Office and Regional Climate Centers have flat budgets.

Education as a whole is cut by 0.1%. Within Education, Title I funding rises; support for education research is trimmed.

The bill “restores year-round Pell Grant funding, a longtime priority sought by student aid groups since its elimination as a cost-saving measure in 2011. The deal also … provides modest increases to college readiness programs TRIO and GEAR UP, which were reduced significantly in the proposed White House 2018 budget plan” (source).

Normally, the president proposes and Congress disposes. In this case, the president has alienated enough potential allies, failed to fill enough key positions, and played his hand so badly that after he proposed, Congress just developed an entirely different budget on a fairly bipartisan basis. To be sure, next year could be worse; and some of the people responsible for implementing these programs will do their best to sabotage them. Still, the new budget deal ought to be an antidote to defeatism.

(See also “mixed feelings on the DeVos nomination battle,” in which I argued that the new Education Secretary will have very limited impact on policy.)

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Mozart illustrates the importance of “bids” in romantic relationships

The psychologist John Gottman discovered a fundamental condition of successful romantic relationships (which is consistent with my experience of 21 happy years of marriage). Partners frequently make “bids” for positive attention. Emily Esfahani Smith illustrates with an example: “the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.” Couples who stay together respond positively to each others’ bids an average of 86% of the time. Couples who end up divorcing respond only 33% of the time.

The opening scene of the Marriage of Figaro is set in the room that Figaro and Susanna expect to occupy after their wedding the next day. They are alone together. Figaro is busy measuring the space for the bed that they will share. He sings a foursquare, masculine theme that has been identified as a march. Simultaneously but separately, Susanna is admiring herself in a new hat and telling herself how happy it makes her. Singing in her own ornamented and undulating gavotte, she asks Figaro to pay attention for a moment: “look a little, my dear Figaro.” He keeps on counting, and she keeps on asking: their two themes now playing in counterpoint. She gets more insistent as her light gavotte turns forceful: “look a little / will you look already at my hat!” At that point, Figaro notices her bid. He switches to her melody and meter to reply, “Yes, my heart, it is very pretty. It really seems  to have been made for me. Ah, next morning at our wedding …” Susanna answers in counterpoint, “How sweet is my tender groom,” as Figaro keeps singing about the “beautiful little hat.” Their melodic lines join as they sing the same lyrics about their wedding.

If you interpret the duet as a competition or struggle of wills, then Susanna wins. Daniel Heartz (1987) writes:

Susanna makes Figaro sing her tune to her rhythm, while complimenting her on her hat. With this little drama in music, which almost needs no text, Mozart has succeeded in foreshadowing the entire opera in the first number. By the end of Act 4 Figaro will have been taught a lesson by Susanna, and learnt to sing her tune for good, we hope, with regard to matters of trust and mutual respect between them. The conflict of march and gavotte, of military masculinity with the feminine grace of one of the most gallant court dances, will [recur in later scenes as well].”

But I’d prefer to see the scene as win/win. Each partner makes a bid and each replies. As soon as the duet concludes, Susanna asks in recitative, “What are you so busy measuring, little Figaro?” Statistics predict that these two will have a happy marriage.

source: Heartz, Daniel (1987). “Constructing Le nozze di Figaro.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 112.1, 77-98. For a more detailed analysis of the duettino, see Stephen Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, University of California Press 2011. And see why romantic relationships do not function like markets.

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