starting the 10th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

Today begins the 10th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life. The draft syllabus–which will be slightly modified in reality–is here. We spend four hours each day discussing the readings and two hours with a daily visitor. Participants come this year from Chile, Ethiopia, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain, the US and Ukraine (not counting US participants of immigrant origin). They include professors, organizers, graduate students, artists, and educators. Their disciplines range from design and English to economics and philosophy, to name just a few–everyone has a unique background. The sister institute in Eastern Europe begins in early July, and I’ll also be there to kick it off. The 20 people coming to Tufts today for the Institute join an alumni body of about 240 people, many of whom are making careers in academia or civil society in about 20 countries.

And here are some of the topics we’re interested in  …

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why didn’t the internet save democracy?

I don’t always like this format, but Dylan Matthews’ short interviews with Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, and Alec Ross add up to a useful overview of the question that Matthews poses to all four: “The internet was supposed to save democracy. … What went wrong”?

The only interviewee who really objects to the framing is Ross, who asserts that his predictions were always value-neutral. He didn’t predict that the good guys would win, only that the weak would chasten the strong. So when Putin’s Russia took Obama’s America down a peg, that fulfilled his prophesy (Russian being weaker).

Some highlights, for me:

Clay Shirky:

I underestimated two things, and both of them make pessimism more warranted. The first is the near-total victory of the “social graph” as the ideal organizational form for social media, to the point that we now use “social media” to mean “media that links you to your friends’ friends,” rather than the broader 2000s use of “media that supports group interaction.”

The second thing I underestimated was the explosive improvement in the effectiveness of behavioral economics and its real-world consequences of making advertising work as advertised.

Taken together, these forces have marginalized the earlier model of the public sphere characterized by voluntary association (which is to say a public sphere that followed [Jürgen] Habermas’s conception), rather than as a more loosely knit fabric for viral ideas to flow through.

Shirky adds that he wrote (in 2008) much more about Meetup than Facebook, when both were still startups. Facebook rules the world and Meetup is marginal. Meetup would better embody a Habermasian theory of the public sphere. (See my post Habermas and critical theory: a primer but also saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats.)


I was rather a dogmatist about the value of openness. I still value openness. But as Twitter, Blogger, and Medium co-founder Ev Williams said at [South by Southwest] recently, he and we did not account for the extent of the bad behavior that would follow. These companies accounted and compensated for dark-hat SEO, spam, and other economically motivated behavior. They did not see the extent of the actions of political bad actors and trolls who would destroy for the sake of destruction.


It’s a tragedy that while the web connects pages via an open protocol, the connections among people are managed by closed, for-profit corporations. A lot of our political problems come from that: The interests of those corporations and of its users and citizens are not always aligned.

Weinberger wants to emphasize the positive, as well, and to remind us that “applications can be adjusted so that they serve us better.”

See also the online world looks dark (2107) and democracy in the digital age.

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social justice from the citizen’s perspective

I believe that each of us is responsible for forming a view–even if it’s tentative and evolving–of social justice. This is our theory of how rights, goods, and powers should be distributed in our society and who should be able to change that distribution in various ways. Any decent theory must address much more than equity, because liberty, community, harmony, diversity, sustainability, efficiency, and democracy are also values worthy of consideration.

Classical liberals offer reasons not to ask the question of social justice. I ultimately disagree but believe that their concerns should influence us. We should make sure to ask the question of social justice in the right way. It is interesting, too, that Gandhi anticipated several of the main concerns raised by such classical liberals as Friedrich von Hayek. (As is often the case, the libertarian right and the highly participatory left share some common concerns.)

Here are the objections:

  1. Adding the word “social” to a personal belief is pretentious and arrogant. To say that your view represents social justice–instead of talking about what you think is “‘moral’ or simply good”–means substituting your “individual judgment” for what the society has come to believe collectively. Talk of social justice is “ultimately the result of a contempt for what really is a social phenomenon and of a belief in the superior powers of individual human reason” (Hayek, The Constitution of Justice, p. 65).
  2. We don’t know enough to define social justice. We are too cognitively limited, too biased. We cannot see moral advances that may arise in the future. We should respect local norms and diverse cultural heritages. As Gandhi said in opposition to a specific plan for Indian independence, “the only universal definition to give [the word “independence” or swaraj] is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” They will desire something in 10 years that we cannot imagine now.
  3. By asserting a view of social justice, we implicitly adopt the perspective of the state and imply that the state is responsible for achieving justice. “Seeing like a state” may not be an inevitable result of discussing social justice, but authors as diverse as Martha Nussbaum, Philip Pettit, and John Rawls exemplify this move: they argue that if social justice demands something, then the state is responsible for it. That means that they talk like state-builders or advisers to states.
  4. People differ in interests and values. Consensus is neither likely nor desirable. No conception of social justice imposed by a state on a whole society is really compatible with our fundamental plurality. For example, since we disagree about the value of toleration, state-imposed toleration will not satisfy everyone (even if it’s better than state-imposed censorship and oppression).
  5. “The state” is an abstraction. Actual states (even dictatorships) are always complex amalgams of people, rules, and physical assets–such as guns and filing systems–with multiple power centers. And the people who work for or within a state also belong to other social institutions, including markets and families. So no state acts simply according to its official doctrines and policies.
  6. Even if we know what a state should do, it’s hard to see how we can make an actual state do it. To imagine an ideal state is like assuming a can opener on a desert island. The practical question of how to found, reform, or revolutionize the actual state is unavoidable.
  7. It’s not clear that what makes some states work better than others is the degree to which they embrace abstract theories of social justice. If you’re a libertarian or a social democrat, you have good reasons to consider Denmark one of the best societies in the world. It optimizes liberty and equality pretty well. That’s because its institutions are more capable and less corrupt than most other nations’. Much depends on basic efficiency and integrity.
  8. Steps toward social justice can be dead ends. Motion in another direction sometimes leads to greater social justice. For instance, if you lived in 19th century Scandinavia, you might have assumed that equity required curtailing the power of capital. Instead, a social system that made capital very comfortable seems to have created the comity that then allowed labor and capital to negotiate a more equitable distribution. The road that led to equity did not start off in that direction.

One conclusion–Hayek’s, for example–would be to discourage talk of “social justice.” You should say what you like, or what you believe is good, not what is “socially just,” because that is just a sign that you are seeing like a state.

I draw a different conclusion. We should not evade the question with which I began this post: What is social justice? It’s our obligation to reason about who deserves what across the whole society and even the globe. In all likelihood, reality will not meet our respective standards of social justice, and then we should try to change things.

But the point of the question is to guide our own behavior. We don’t (and shouldn’t) have the opportunity to pick a perfect social democracy, a pure free market, or a theocracy. Institutions are (and ought to be) plural, evolutionary, overlapping, impure, and internally inconsistent.  It’s a pitfall to imagine ourselves as the designers of brand-new societies or as voters able to choose among different systems. We are people embedded in complex systems who have limited reasoning capacity, limited empathy, limited imagination, limited resources, and limited leverage. In engaging the institutions we have, we should consider opportunities to advance social justice. When we talk about social justice, we are saying, in effect, “My fellow members of this specific community, this is how I think that the whole system should be organized, and that has the following implications for what we should do next.”

See also against state-centric political theoryGandhi on the primacy of means over endspolycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economyThe truth in Hayekwe are for social justice, but what is it?

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the second annual Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award

(Washington, DC) I was in Albuquerque over the weekend for an Everyday Democracy board meeting and to see Generation Justice, a fantastic New Mexico youth media organization, receive the first Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award. Thanks to the award event, my understanding of Chicanismo and indigenous cultural politics got a little less superficial.

Nominations are now open for the second annual prize, which will honor “an individual and/or organization that demonstrates the values on which Everyday Democracy was founded – voice, connection, racial equity, and community change.” Nominees should show excellence in some of the following ways:

  • Creating welcoming opportunities for meaningful civic participation for all people  
  • Actively including people in civic life who have often been marginalized, and providing ways for them to develop their leadership capacities
  • Building the capacity of existing community leaders to include others in community life
  • Practicing the art of talking to each other and listening to each other
  • Taking action that is grounded in crossing divides, and aimed at meaningful transformation in people, institutions, community culture, and governance
  • Creating opportunities for empowered voice that is truly heard 
  • Addressing racial inequities through dialogue and collective action
  • Showing the power of bridging all kinds of divides
  • Making dialogue a regular part of how a community works and, ultimately, of how our democracy works

For more information, or to nominate someone, click here.

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what it looks like to live

She’s all cheekbones, lashes, emotions
Conveyed in rapid succession, practiced.
Cut to his reaction, the impact on his famous
Face, bathed in a warm and flattering light.
Then they’re running athletically away,
Silhouettes diving before the fireball.
This is living. This is doing something.
It plays on long rows of screens suspended
Above the welded seats, the wall-to-wall,
The strewn paper bags and strewn human forms.
Slumped, plump, pursued by a slower fire,
None watch the screens deployed for our relief.
We find darkness in that old space behind our lids,
Or gaze out, or stare down at smaller screens
Where more looks and loves, kisses and missiles
Remind the living what it looks like to live.

(Dallas, June 4)

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podcast: “can young people revive civic engagement?”

(LaGuardia Airport) Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, and Jenna Spinelle from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State recently interviewed me for their podcast series, “Democracy Works.” We talked about young people, the 2018 election, and social movements. Here’s the audio. (I enter at about the 5th minute.)


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“to you and I”

I think I’m noticing more and more people using “I” instead of “me” when it’s the object of a verb, as in “Please give it to Joe and I.” This may have started as an over-correction. Kids are taught not to use “me” as the subject of a sentence (as in “Me and Joe are going to the store”) and they generalize it to never use “me” if another name is involved. After all, it’s a cognitive task to figure out whether to say, “she and I” or “her and me,” depending on the function of the phrase in the sentence. Perhaps a new rule is gradually arising that you always say “I” when there’s another name in the phrase. I must say that I don’t like the change, because it reflects a lack of consciousness about how the language is structured; but languages change, and I can get used to it.

If you search Google right now for “to you and I” and “to you and me,” you’ll see 181 million of the former phrase and 36.9 million of the latter, almost a 5-to-1 ratio in favor of the choice that grammar books would declare to be incorrect. (“To you and I” is always incorrect if you apply the traditional and official rule that an indirect object takes “me.”) This ratio suggests that the grammarians are losing a struggle against linguistic evolution.

Here are the frequencies of all possible combinations involving I or me and he/him she/her. The most popular are the incorrect options “to him and I” and “to her and I.” Interestingly, “to me and she” is very popular, but its grammatical equivalent, “to me and he” is rare. The correct options are less popular, and there are several conceivable combinations, such as “to I and he,” that no one uses.

*grammatically correct

The question is whether this is really a trend. I know of one device for tracking changes in language over the long span: Google’s nGram tool. It has a major limitation: the corpus is limited to published books. Most books are professionally edited, and thus much less likely than ordinary speech to violate grammatical rules–except insofar as they report dialogue.

Even given that limitation, the trend is interesting. “To you and me” outnumbers “to you and I” in books, in contrast to the World Wide Web as a whole. But “to you and I” is not very uncommon, and it has increased as a share of all the text in published books. It can literally not be found in any book published in 1800. One period of increase was between 1880 and 1920. Another was after the year 2000. But “to you and me” has also rapidly increased since 2000, and the ratio in favor of the grammatically normative version has actually increased in books.

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Philip, Hannah, and Heinrich: a Play

“[Philip] Roth, who passed away last week, will be spending a lot of time with Arendt now, as he will be buried near her in the Bard College cemetery. According to an anecdote related by Bard’s President, Leon Botstein, Roth requested to be buried in the Bard cemetery so we would be able to talk to Arendt in perpetuity.” — Roger Berkowitz 

Philip: Hannah? Hannah? Dr. Arendt? Let’s talk about Irving Howe, can we? I was thinking maybe we could start with him. In 1972, he accused me “thinness of culture, … of ressentiment [and] freefloating contempt and animus.” He said that your Eichmann book demonstrated “surging contempt” and “the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down” on others. Now, was that fair? Where did he get off accusing us of contempt in such a contemptuous way?

Heinrich [Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, buried to her right]: Wer spricht das? Wer ist da?

Hannah: English, please, Heinrich. You still need to practice your English. It’s just Philip. Philip Roth–the young novelist? Although he actually doesn’t look so young any more. He’s buried on the other side of me now.

Heinrich: What? Forever? Did you agree to this?

Philip: How about Gershom Scholem, Hannah? He accused us both of being self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews. Who made him the arbiter?

Heinrich: Could we talk to Leon about getting this fellow moved somewhere else?

Philip: Hannah, tell me about Berlin in the twenties. [Wistfully] You guys didn’t have to wait ’til the sixties for the sexual revolution, did you? Talk about putting the id back in Yid–you Weimar intellectuals already took care of that. Cafes, cabarets, it must have been great. But Heidegger? What did you see in that old Nazi?

Hannah: Ach, please, both of you. “Death not merely ends life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness, snatched from the hazardous flux to which all things human are subject.” Can we try a little of that silent completeness for a while?

(See also: The House of Atreus: A Play; and for Gerard Manley Hopkins)

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polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy

I haven’t really studied Quinn Slobodian’s history of neo-liberalism, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, nor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy In ChainsThe Deep History Of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America. I am following the controversy about the latter, but don’t have anything useful to add to it. I would, however,  offer a perspective that may be a little unusual and that would influence how I’d assess any arguments in this domain.

I am deeply committed to polycentricity. I believe that a society ought to encompass a democratic national government, regional and local governments, an independent legal system with its own logic, a civil service and regulatory agencies, bureaucratic firms, markets, voluntary associations, religious denominations that vary from hierarchical to congregational, labor unions, parties and political movements, an institutionalized press, autonomous scholarly and scientific bodies and institutions, loose networks, and various kinds of families–each as centers of power. None should dominate. Each should check the others.

I believe in polycentricity because unitary political systems degenerate into tyranny regardless of their objectives. The Chinese Communist Party has evolved from a radically egalitarian movement into a club dominated by rapacious billionaires. How could that happen? Because, in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you believe or say you will do. It matters whether and how your power is checked.

I also believe in polycentricity because I accept the Hayekian argument that we are incapable of designing highly complex systems that are any good. We are better off with emergent social organization. However, I disagree with those Hayekians (not necessarily including Hayek himself) who claim that a market plus common law is the perfect manifestation of emergent social order. Markets are actually designed systems, and they tend to colonize the other domains if unchecked. A truly emergent society encompasses many different forms and allows people to choose among the forms and innovate within them. In other words, a society that has an assertive state and a strong market is more Hayekian than one with only a market (as if that were possible.)

Therefore, I am not surprised to observe people trying to build up strong democratic states that have powers to tax and regulate, nor am I surprised to see people working to create pro-market institutions that are insulated from democracy, such as international trade regimes. Both efforts should be expected in a pluralist political economy. I don’t assume that the builders of welfare states are trying to command the heights of the economy so that they can suppress individual freedoms (as some hard-core libertarians would argue), but I also don’t assume that the designers of pro-market rules are trying to subvert democracy. It’s all part of the expected give-and-take of polycentricity.

This is not to minimize the stakes. Whether or not countries a sign free-trade agreement has real implications–good, bad, or both–for jobs, for the environment, and for other institutions, from governments to unions. It even affects cultures and mentalities. These are matters of grave concern. But I don’t interpret them as signs of a doomsday struggle between “the market” and “democracy.”

How conflicts are resolved has different effects on different people. For example, a free trade agreement might benefit consumers and firms but cost some people jobs, which, in turn, can damage and even shorten their lives. Therefore, it is appropriate to assess any arrangement from the perspective of distributive justice. However, if you think that you can design one sovereign institution–such as a government–that will consistently, wisely, and fairly define and enforce principles of distributive justice, then I want to see how this entity will be structured and who will be in charge of it–not only today, but once their grandchildren inherit their privileges. Even more important, I want to know how you will move our world from not having such an institution to having it, in the face of resistance.

My bias is that people must assess and enforce distributive justice, and we should do so through the various institutions available to us: a whole range of governments, movements, courts, media forums, etc. This is a citizen-centered rather than a state- or market-centered model. It doesn’t negate the significance of struggles between states and markets, yet it doesn’t assume that the relationship must be zero-sum. We could have stronger democratic states and more efficient markets (consider Denmark). I’d also emphasize that states and markets are only two of a dozen or more important types of institution through which people exercise authority.

See also: should all institutions be democratic?against state-centric political theorythe right to strikeChina teaches the value of political pluralism; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me. And see Paul Dragos Aligica’s Institutional Diversity and Political Economy (Oxford, 2014) for a generally congruent view.

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outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

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