A university provides amazing resources and assets. I would even defend its overall structure to a degree. For one thing, it is robust against faddish ideas. If a university could change more easily, then a discipline like classics would have been shut down long ago. But classics is an exciting and generative field today (see this and this). It has survived the tough times because universities have institutionalized tenure, credentials, and departments to resist change.

Still, these structures frustrate many valuable innovations, especially when academia might interact better with the outside world. Courses must last for about 13 weeks even though real-life projects continue far longer than that. Professors must demonstrate regular results, but some especially worthy projects cannot yield publications quickly enough. Faculty must teach students who happen to be enrolled at their own institutions, even if more appropriate groups could be assembled by drawing on many colleges and including non-students.

These are just examples of the ways in which academia is “kludgy.” When you face a jury-rigged mechanism that still works for many purposes, you can just go with it, you can reject it and try to build something new, or you can add hacks: “inelegant but effective solutions.” Many of my favorite academics make hacks because they love the university but don’t think it quite works for their purposes. For instance, they teach their classes in state prisons. Or they assemble a set of “semi-formal learning groups” within a large state university and actually name it “hackademia.” Or they start meeting weekly for discussions of political economy and 30 years later have a virtual international network. Or they build tools with and for lay partners and reflect critically on the results. Or they create a Summer Institute without tuition, grades, credits, or official enrollment, and teach it off season at (for example) Tufts.

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job openings for civic renewal (5)

Here is the fifth in an occasional series on jobs in civic education, democratic reform, community organizing, and related fields:

  • Executive Vice President, Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.  The EMK Institute will be housed in a stunning new 68,000 square foot facility — the heart of which is a full reproduction of the Senate Chamber — which is scheduled to open to the public in March 2015 and is located on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus … Up to 100 students will take on the roles of senators as they research issues, debate, negotiate, and vote on current, historic and new legislative proposals. See Position Description.
  • Program Officer, Character Virtue Development, The John Templeton Foundation. See www.templetoncareers.org
  • Several positions at the Center for Community Change, whose mission is to build the power and capacity of low-income people, especially low-income people of color, to have a significant impact in improving their communities and the policies and institutions that affect their lives. See http://www.communitychange.org/contact/careers/.
  • Program Director, FairVote, will supervise the communication, advocacy, research, and legal team.
  • President and Chief Executive Officer, Facing History and Ourselves. Facing History’s mission is to shape a humane, well-educated citizenry by helping adolescents build the habits, skills and knowledge to make responsible civic choices, grounded in ethical judgment, for the world in which they live. Position Announcement.
  • An open position in the Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.  This position will primarily assist in the development of  student leadership programs rooted in community engagement. Position description.
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West Chop poem in the Wampum Collection

In lieu of a post today, here’s a link to my poem “West Chop,” which was just published in a Martha’s Vineyard literary magazine called the Wampum Collection. It begins:

Tethered sailboats hunched in a row.
A gull sails the diagonal, taut and low.
Wind and sinking sun scribble the bay
With fleeting streaks of blue, green, gray.

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Ostrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need

The late, great Elinor Ostrom is much on my mind. I taught her work in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and will be visiting her Bloomington (IN) Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis next weekend. I’d like to claim that many thinkers have influenced me, and I wouldn’t want to have to do without any of them. But I believe we can get at least 80% of the way to a satisfactory social theory if we combine the two thinkers we talked about in Mexico: Ostrom and Jürgen Habermas. They are importantly different, as this table indicates–yet I think both contribute essential insights.

Ostrom Habermas
Fundamental problem Tragedies of the commons. People manipulating other people by influencing their opinions and goals.
Characteristic symptom of the problem We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together. Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values.
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it. People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things.
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values.
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies).
Role of the state It is a set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.). Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors.
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we could use science to assist people in solving their own problems. A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain.
Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving. Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology.

If you ask me who is right about any of the issues in this table, I am inclined to say: both.

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campaign finance as a corrupt gift economy

Congressman Vance McAllister admitted Thursday to voting against legislation in the U.S. House anticipating he would get a political contribution for his vote. A Republican from Swartz [LA], McAllister spoke about the matter as an example of how “money controls Washington” and how work on Capitol Hill is a “steady cycle of voting for fundraising and money instead of voting for what is right.”

Rep. McAllister actually added that someone told him, “Vote no and you will get a $1,200 check from the Heritage Foundation. If you vote yes, you will get a $1,000 check from some environmental impact group.” Those specific figures suggest quid pro quo corruption, which is illegal and should be formally investigated. But let’s assume that Mr. McAllister was making that part up for color, and the real story was more typical. No one offered the congressman $1,000 for a vote, but he (or an adviser) calculated that if he voted a certain way, he would be more likely to raise money from a given interest. According to the Supreme Court, that kind of influence is not corrupt, which is why I would denounce the Court’s understanding of fundamental ethics.

Conceptually, it might be helpful to understand our campaign finance system as a gift economy.  The anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss discovered that market exchanges are not the only systems that work at large scale and that permit the circulation of goods. It’s also possible to have a whole system (or a subsystem) built on gifts. People give things to each other, and they may do so for non-altruistic reasons–prestige, favor, or an expectation that they will obtain gifts as a result. But there is no prior agreement to reciprocate a gift with something of equal value. In fact, having a prior agreement makes it not a gift.

For instance (as I blogged years ago), Beowulf depicts a gift economy. The hero learns that Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is suffering from the scourges of a monster, so, unbidden, he sails to Denmark to offer his services. After he has killed Grendel (a whole day after, in fact–see line 1784), Hrothgar allows him to choose treasures from his store; Beowulf is “paid and recompensed completely” (2145). The hero sails home and gives everything he has received to his king, Hygelac (2148). Hygelac responds by giving Beowulf an ancient sword, land, hides, and a hall and throne.

None of this is negotiated in advance. As Hrothgar tells Beowulf (in Seamus Heaney’s translation):

For as long as I rule this far-flung land
treasures will change hands and each side will treat
the other with gifts; across the gannet’s bath,
over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring
presents and tokens. (1859-63)

That is all very appealing and noble, but the worthiness of a gift economy depends on what is given. In Beowulf, wives are gifts (see 2017), which is not so good for them. In our Capitol Hill culture, the money it takes to get elected and the votes cast on public policies are treated as gifts. Only if lobbyists are so gauche as to negotiate them as quid pro quo exchanges may they be banned. It is a medieval system–and not in a good way.

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talking about We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

I enjoyed talking for an hour this morning with WPFW’s Josephine Reed. The audio of that show is archived here. (Look for the Thursday, June 12 edition of “On the Margin.”)

At 2 pm Eastern today, I’ll be talking about the book for another hour–almost all Q&A and discussion time–on the NCDD “confab”. [You can check out this page for graphics and text comments from that discussion.]

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Pied Beauty, illustrated

Glory be to God for dappled things
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For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
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For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
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Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
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Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

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And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

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All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins praises God, Who is uniform and immutable, for His grace in creating a category of things that are variegated and changeable. His little sonnet–it’s exactly 3/4 the length and breadth of a regular sonnet–is written in the tradition of a Psalm. Compare, for instance, “Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God: / Who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.”

I am the opposite of Hopkins in many respects. (He was devout, depressed, gay, and highly gifted.) But lyric poetry is not for showing us ourselves; it’s a key to someone else’s mind. I cannot share Hopkins theology, but I can thank and praise him for appreciating a category of objects that–whether vast or tiny, whether human-made or natural–share the feature of being “dappled.”

(See also “Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall” and my own “For Gerard Manley Hopkins.”)

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America’s authentic conservative movement

In the influential reform conservative manifesto, Room to Grow, Yuval Levin argues

that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy. … Local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions—from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets—will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. … What happens in that space generally happens face to face—between parents and children, neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers. It therefore answers to immediately felt needs, and is tailored to the characters, sentiments, priorities, and preferences of the people involved. That kind of bottom-up common life, rather than massive, distant systems of material provision, is what makes society tick and what holds it together. While it can certainly be reinforced by public policy, it could never be replaced with centralized administration, however capable or rational it might be.

Levin decries “public programs that consolidate the application of technical expertise: that try to take on social problems by managing large portions of society as if they were systems in need of better organization and direction.” Instead he advocates a “kind of bottom-up, incremental, continuous learning process, rather than imposing wholesale solutions from above.”

Imagine that there were a large but decentralized grassroots movement dedicated to precisely these values. It would operate at a remove from the state and would be based instead in nonprofit organizations and colleges. It would be skeptical of top-down directives, expertise, and centralizing policies–especially the drive to measure and assess outcomes quantitatively. It would often stand in the way of ambitious plans that originate in bureaucracies.

This movement would evolve elaborate tools for appreciating and developing local norms and assets. These tools might be branded, for example, Asset Based Community Development or Participatory Action Research. The movement might also rely heavily on local deliberative processes to decide what to do, and the real hallmark of those deliberations would be “a belief that constructive processes must focus on strengths and future-oriented possibilities” (as Caroline Lee writes).

Because the movement would believe, as Levin does, in the importance of face-to-face human connections, its characteristic response to a local problem would be a hands-on service project. Prospective volunteers would be taught to respect local norms. They might even insist (in the words of Talmage A. Stanley) on a “militant or radical particularity, knowing a place in its fullness, with its contradictions, its conflicts, its questions, what it means to be a citizen in that place.” The movement would strongly endorse “relational organizing,” with its emphasis on human-to-human bonds.

The movement would also be anchored in the values of diversity (i.e., support for inherited and “evolved” cultures and norms); social capital (seeing value in the networks and values that connect people to each other); and sustainability (strategies for continuing to do what we have done in the past).

In all these respects, this movement would be authentically conservative. But–as my readers will have realized several paragraphs ago–I am referring to community service programs, campus/community partnerships, community-based research projects, and other “civic” practices, most of whose leaders would place themselves well to the left of President Obama on the political spectrum.

I make this argument not to score debating points against Yuval Levin, although he is deeply invested in the idea that the “Left’s social vision tends to consist of individuals and the state, so that all common action is state action, and its purpose is to liberate individuals
from material want and moral sway.” (I have trouble thinking of any prominent American liberal to whom that sentence would apply.) On the whole, I would like to make common cause with Levin, not debate him.

Nor do I mean to provoke my friends and collaborators in the “civic” world by calling them authentic conservatives. I have deep regard for genuine conservative values and believe that they need intellectual development and political support. Authentic conservatism has been swamped by laissez-faire neoliberalism on the right and by soft technocratic managerialism on the left.

But I do think it’s clarifying to recognize everyday civic work as conservative. Like any valid ideology, conservatism highlights certain goods with which other goods conflict. As Bill Galston insists, the hard part of politics is not the choice between good and bad but between good and good. In promoting decentralized, relational, appreciative, bottom-up, voluntary politics, the civic movement to which I belong (and which Levin ought to endorse) risks overlooking other values, especially social critique, cosmopolitanism, efficiency, and dissent.

See also: “what defines conservatism?” “how conservatives can reclaim the civic ideal;” “Edmund Burke would vote Democratic“; and “is society an artifact or an ecosystem?

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at the League of Women Voters

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.27.47 AM(Dallas) I’m getting ready to present at the League of Women Voters’ annual meeting, which offers all the traditional trappings of a reform conference in the US: proud banners for each state’s delegation, canvassers standing at the door with flyers, tote bags with the League’s logo.

In my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, I claim that one million Americans organize civic life in the United States today, not only expressing themselves but also giving others voice and translating people’s talk into action.

I count the League’s members in the one million. They have a certain demographic tilt. Most–but not all–are women, and most are white, highly educated, and older than the median American. But the nascent movement for civic renewal in America can also draw other demographic groups. If we can put organizations like the League together with networks like, for example, PICO, we can build a representative movement for democracy.

Here is my presentation for the plenary (without narration, and I’m not sure how much sense it makes alone.)

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a little play for Lorca

José: We just killed Federico García Lorca!

Juan: We left him in a ditch and I fired two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”*

Amando: You killed Lorca? You and the corporal here?

José (nodding): I was there. I would have shot him, too, if the captain hadn’t already wasted two bullets.

Amando pulls a revolver from his coat and rests the grip on the table, pointing the muzzle between the two men.

Amando: You murdered him because you hated him?

Juan: We executed him to cleanse the nation.

Amando: If there was justice, I would march you to the police station to be tried for murder.

Juan: There is justice. It was done.

Amando: It is my duty to try you, and to punish you, because this is the only room where that can possibly happen now. You confess that you murdered Lorca?

José [rising]: I will go into the village and find soldiers. This man is crazy.

Amando shoots José in the chest and points the revolver directly at Juan.

Amando: Your end will the the same as his, but I will give you time to think about it first. He escaped fear and regret; you will not. We will wait.

A long time passes. The old clock ticks. Some hay blows in under the door.

Amando: You should pray.

Juan: Autumn will come with snails,
misted grapes and bunches of hills
but no one will watch your eyes
because you have died forever.

Amando: What! How do you know those words?

Juan: They were Lorca’s last. He said them in the ditch. They made an impression on me.

Amando: You believe that I cannot shoot you now, because you said those lines?

Juan: You cannot.

Amando: If I let you go, you will be boasting and laughing by midnight.

Juan: You cannot shoot me now.

*Real words, quoted by Jeremy Edelman, The New York Review, June 5, 2014

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