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what does it mean that 130 million adult Americans lack literacy?

According to data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), about 130 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 cannot read beyond the fourth-grade level. The graph shows the distribution (where level 3 = fourth grade).

Taken at face value, this statistic has troubling implications for politics (as well as economics, health, and other matters). It does require some caution, however.

First, especially for adults, literacy is very heterogeneous or multidimensional. It’s easy to imagine that one adult could manage the King James Version, a different one could interpret instructions for installing an HVAC system, and a third could enjoy reading a thriller.

Texts present diverse challenges. The Bible can be forbidding unless you are familiar with its vocabulary and cadences from sermons. The Associated Press’ “inverted pyramid” style begins each news story with the latest developments and then explains the broader picture several paragraphs later. This is off-putting for people who have not been following the story, even if their vocabulary is good. For instance, I have paid zero attention to the Johnny Depp trial and don’t happen to know who Amber Heard is, which makes the breaking news stories actually a bit hard for me to understand. Yet my job involves reading hard texts all day.

Sample items from the PIAAC are here. They are appropriately diverse, but mostly oriented to work or news. There would be no way to design a fully comprehensive adult literacy assessment or to score it on only one metric.

Second, some texts are unnecessarily hard to read. US ballot initiatives are scandalously dense. (Compare the Brexit referendum, which asked, in full, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”) The inverted pyramid style is problematic, and good explanatory journalism is too scarce. Many academics write impenetrably. (Including me: why did I use “impenetrably” instead of “badly?”)

Third, we live in a profoundly audiovisual culture, and you can obviously learn an enormous amount from sound and images. Nor are books necessarily preferable. Leaving aside children’s books, the best selling book in the US last year was a right-wing screed, Mark R. Levin’s American Marxism, which is worse than much TV and radio. In Russia in the 1990s, 39% of all publications were related to the occult, which is hardly a sign of rigorous review. (On the other hand, people who learn a lot from sound and images ought to be able to perform well on the PIAAC assessment.)

Despite these caveats, I’m worried not only that a lack of conventional literacy blocks the flow of valuable information but also that it may be alienating. Imagine that the government, reporters, medical professionals, and others keep sending messages that you literally cannot read. That is not a basis for trust.

We already accept that literacy for children is a public need. To be sure, we don’t succeed with all children, and there are complex questions about why good learning experiences aren’t consistently available for all youth. But no one doubts that the issue merits attention. Adult literacy is also important. Even if we suddenly made K-12 schools work well for all our youth, we would still have about 130 million Americans over school age who cannot score above 3 on the PIAAC.

Adults cannot (and should not be) compelled to do anything to improve their own literacy. But there is a case for much more attractive adult learning opportunities–not only as a path to better jobs but also in the interest of democracy. In my idea world, adult civic education would be literacy education, and vice-versa.

See also a way forward for high cultureseparating populism from anti-intellectualism; a German/US civic education discussion; etc.

civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited

In February and March I posted about prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia and then about what I called “civilian resistance,” where the latter category includes violent as well as nonviolent actions by people who aren’t organized in military units. Well before the war, I had met many Ukrainian activists for democracy who had demonstrated exceptionally strong expertise and networks for civilian resistance. Besides, I am a proponent of nonviolence, which is the focus of the last third of my new book.

However, at that time, I accepted the conventional wisdom about the military situation, which has proven wrong. I assumed that Russia would quickly occupy substantial portions of Ukraine, perhaps all the way to the Dnipro. I thought that Russia’s challenge would then be to maintain control at relatively low cost and with some degree of perceived legitimacy–at least as perceived by Russians. Russia would use violence, but I guessed that the occupiers would want to win hearts and minds to some extent. Those factors would make the occupied territories a promising location for civilian resistance.

Instead, Russia seems to have occupied not much more than the ground where their troops are currently stationed. They have taken many more casualties than expected and committed more atrocities. Their losses in no way excuse the massacres of civilians, but they may help to explain them. Discipline has broken down; Russian troops may be looking for revenge. Russia has lost the contest for legitimacy among Ukrainians, Europeans, and many others, which means they don’t benefit from exercising restraint. Inside Russia, “amid a growing police crackdown, public expressions of opposition to the war have slowed to a trickle — singular acts of defiance amid a wider silence.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has accomplished far more than I, for one, expected.

For these reasons, civilian resistance looks less relevant, more dangerous, and less necessary than I had thought. Yet it remains a worthy topic, for two reasons.

First, the war could play out as Katherine Lawlor and Mason Clark predict:

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly into the Russian Federation in the coming months. He will likely then state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to those newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. 

This is by no means inevitable, but if it happens, then a combination of an armed partisan insurgency plus civilian resistance inside the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk might be Ukraine’s best option.

Second, civilian resistance has been important to the war effort so far. For instance, Sergey Mohov offers an excellent thread on “a hyper-informal cross-continental network of volunteers” that has been delivering specific items (“from food to tourniquets to UAVs to cars and ambulances”) to front-line Ukrainian military units. This is one of many decentralized, self-help efforts that support the official military effort. They are not completely new. When I was in Lviv in 2015, I saw civilians collecting boots for soldiers in Donbas, who were suffering (in part) from the Ukrainian’s government corruption. Ukrainians have a lot of experience organizing around their own state, which comes in handy when their government is well led and well motivated but overstretched.

It’s important not to draw sharp lines between violence and nonviolence or civilian and governmental actions. Consider these examples: A Russian military unit refuses orders, not out of idealism but in fear. Ukrainians willingly line up to enlist in the army. A small Ukrainian military unit acts effectively without receiving orders. Residents of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk protest forced mobilizations. Pro-Russian military bloggers circulate strongly critical assessments of the campaign that undercut official propaganda, albeit with a nationalistic flavor. A Russian citizen relocates to a decent job in a foreign country out of disgust with Putin. A Russian citizen goes into exile without a job, for political reasons. Ukrainians in the diaspora send ammunition to the front. Ukrainians in the diaspora send bandages to the front. The Ukrainian government uses facial recognition software to identify dead Russian soldiers and notifies their next of kin. Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for banning oil purchases. Non-Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for boycotts. Chinese companies cancel Russian contracts out of concern for EU relationships.

These examples do not belong to two categories: nonviolent civil disobedience versus war. They fall along several continua, from violence to nonviolence, from decentralized to hierarchical, from idealistic to self-interested, and from pro-Ukrainian to Russian-centered. I presume that similar continua arise in all conflicts. My own value commitments are not simple. For instance, I am not a rigorous pacifist or a radical opponent of hierarchy, although I would make a case for nonviolence and self-help. Perhaps the best approach in a situation like this is a diverse mix of strategies.

don’t name things Western but call out imperialism

The word “Western” is often appended to ideas and institutions, sometimes to praise them and sometimes to bury them. I almost always find this terminology fuzzy and unhelpful. On the other hand, imperialism and colonialism are evils that are important to name and combat.

Two of the topics that I follow regularly these days are education and Ukraine. Both supply examples of problematic uses of the term “Western” and real examples of imperialism.

A manuscript that I read recently described the radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire as a critic of “Western” approaches to education, meaning hierarchical and authoritarian pedagogies. When I searched Freire’s major works, I did not find the words “West ” or “Western” used in relevant ways, but I did find articles that concur in describing Freire’s pedagogy as an alternative “to the traditional Western ‘banking’ model of education in which an authority ‘deposits’ knowledge into a student” (Bhargava et al 2016). I also found some articles that decry the “North American and Western appropriations of Freire’s work and thought,” which ostensibly ignore Freire’s “anti-colonial and postcolonial” agenda (Giroux 1992). Finally, I encountered a burgeoning recent literature that criticizes Freire’s “Western assumptions” and argues that “the Freirian approach to empowerment is really a disguised form of colonization” (Bowers & Appfel-Marglin 2004, p. 2). In some of this literature, Freire is described explicitly and critically as a “Western” thinker.

There is a parallel debate about how to classify Freire’s influences. Sol Stern complains that “Freire isn’t interested in the Western tradition’s leading education thinkers—not Rousseau, not Piaget, not John Dewey, not Horace Mann, not Maria Montessori.” Douglas Kellner classifies Freire and Ivan Illich as “critics of classical Western education.” But many other analysts trace pervasive echoes of Rousseau and Dewey in Freire. Insofar as Freire was a Marxist–well, Karl Marx was a Western thinker.

Meanwhile, the Russian right-wing theorist, Alexander Dugin (who apparently inspires Putin) writes, “We need to unite all the forces that are opposed to Western norms. … Therefore, we must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things, of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness – everything that is the face of the Beast, the anti-Christ or, in other terms, Kali-Yuga.”

For Dugin, to oppose natural hierarchy in a classroom or elsewhere is “Western”–and that is a very bad thing. Dugin is willing to make alliances with Jihadists, Hindu nationalists, European neofascists, and anyone who will stand against the hegemonic liberal norms of “the West.” This a justification for the Russian war in Ukraine.

Note how “Western” is used as a token of appraisal (Stern) or condemnation (Dugin), and how many meanings it takes on.

What does it actually mean? Plato was “Western.” He lived in Europe; his name comes first on many syllabuses for “Western philosophy.” He advocated (possibly with irony) a radically authoritarian educational system. He proposed various dualisms and believed in objective truths. He has been at least as influential in Islam as in Christianity and Judaism, and therefore as influential in Tehran and Dakar as in New York and Moscow.

Dewey was also “Western.” He was a White man from Vermont. He opposed all dualisms, wanted to make education radically democratic, and saw truth as co-constructed. He had a fruitful sojourn in China.

Freire was born even further west than Dewey and wrote in Portuguese. His influences were mostly European writers. The three men share some vocabulary and had similar roles as teachers, writers, and political advisors, but many other people whom we could also classify as Western thinkers did not. The West has generated aesthetes, engineers, hermits, mystics, revolutionaries, and reactionaries. People who figure on canonical lists of Western thinkers have lived and written in places like Damascus and Alexandria, Rio and Mexico City, and Moscow and Kolkata as well as Paris and London. It is impossible to draw a border around the West on any map.

We should say what we’re for and against, and why. It rarely adds any value to append the adjective “Western” to these things. However, the concepts of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism are much sharper, and they reflect the global trauma of European conquest after 1492. Colonialism has been a highly concrete, material experience, not a set of abstract ideas. Indeed, the colonizers have been intellectually diverse and have sometimes shared ideas with people who resist colonialism.

Importantly, Russia was a major participant in European imperialism and exploitation, not a victim of it.

Sources: Bhargava, Rahul, Ricardo Kadouaki, Emily Bhargava, Guilherme Castro, and Catherine D’Ignazio. “Data murals: Using the arts to build data literacy.” The Journal of Community Informatics, 12, no. 3 (2016); Giroux, Henry A. “Paulo Freire and the politics of postcolonialism.” Journal of Advanced Composition (1992): 15-26. Bowers, Chet A. & Appfel-Marglin, F. (eds) Re-thinking Freire: Globalization and the environmental crisis. Routledge, 2004. See also: to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West; who says that binary thinking is Western?; two cheers for the West; etc.

who protested in 2020?

In “Who Protests, What Do They Protest, and Why?” (NBER Working Paper 29987), Erica Chenoweth, Barton H. Hamilton, Hedwig Lee, Nicholas W. Papageorge, Stephen P. Roll and Matthew V. Zahn uncover some highly unexpected and challenging findings.

Their data suggest that the people who participated in Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 substantially overlapped with those who protested in favor of reopening schools and businesses during the pandemic. “Attendance at a BLM protest strongly predicts attendance at a Reopening protest.” This finding challenges assumptions about polarization. It also suggests that my local observations in Cambridge, MA were unrepresentative. Here, the most prominent advocates of racial justice were also proponents of closing schools and requiring strong social distancing, but the opposite seems to be closer to the truth across the country.

Chenoweth and colleagues find that “the median protester is white, middle class (measured by income), employed, and a parent.” African Americans are slightly overrepresented in both kinds of protests; but once the authors control for other factors, being Black is correlated with not attending a BLM protest as well as with attending a “reopening” protest. (These associations are small but statistically significant.)

Being “young, low income, [having] young children at home, working in-person, positive beliefs about life, partisanship, higher beliefs of COVID infection, and higher levels of available protests and voter participation predict attendance” at both BLM and reopening protests. Protesters are significantly more likely to vote, which challenges an assumption that protesting and participating in official politics are rival options.

I have quickly explored similar issues using the Tufts Equity in America dataset. It has limitations, and a major one is that we didn’t ask about participation in protests to reopen schools. But we did ask about protest in general, about many opinions regarding COVID-19, and about support for Black Lives Matter–as well as scores of other measures. I used attendance at a protest as the dependent variable in an Ordinary Least Squares regression and chose variables comparable to those in the study by Chenoweth et al. Being female, more educated, and hopeful about the future and knowing someone affected by police violence emerged as positive predictors.

Only a small proportion of our sample was asked about school COVID-19 policies that affected their own children. (They had to be current parents of school-aged children in our 2020 wave). In a very simple regression model, feeling that the school’s policies had been academically detrimental was associated with protesting (where the protests could be on any topic).

See also: Differences in COVID-19 responseTwo-thirds of African Americans know someone mistreated by police, and 22% report mistreatment in past year

defining capitalism

I find the most prominent online definitions of “capitalism” unhelpful. Although I lack sufficient expertise in political economy to define it reliably, this is what I’d offer:

Capitalism is an economic system with a large market for investing in enterprises.

  • A market is a system for exchanging things of value, whether it uses money or not. A few scattered exchanges do not constitute a market; the telltale sign is the emergence of prevailing prices due to many exchanges. Markets emerge in all kinds of systems, including within state communism. The participants in a market may be individuals, states, families, monasteries, firms, or other entities. Things, labor, land, ideas, and people can be exchanged on markets, or not.
  • An enterprise is a relatively durable, specialized, and large organization that produces goods. A company is an example, but so is a state-owned factory, a big farm, or a large family of weavers.
  • Investment can take the form of lending money or goods or purchasing a stake or share.

In capitalism, enterprises are numerous and important–they make most of the society’s goods. (This is in contrast to systems where individuals or families and kinship groups make most goods.) Furthermore, in capitalism, there are markets where people and groups can purchase and sell investments in enterprises. We call these investments “financial capital,” or sometimes just “capital” for short.

In European history, the medieval period offers many prominent examples of markets and a gradual growth of enterprises like guilds, big sheep farms, mines, and trading ships. For instance, the oldest enterprise still active in Poland is the Bochnia Salt Mine, active continuously since 1248. As far as I can tell, it belonged to the king at first, but that didn’t make it any less of an enterprise.

In the late Middle Ages, a market developed for investing in such enterprises, and there were even physical locations where people could make such investments, such as the Beurse in Bruges, built in 1246, which gives its name to stock exchanges in several countries today. However, I think the medieval investment market was dominated by family banks. The Medici and their competitors invested in monarchies, farms (notably, those belonging to monasteries), mines, and ships. It was possible to deposit money with the Medici or the Fuggers and thus reap some of the profits of their investments. (Likewise, today you can deposit funds with Deutsche Bank, which lends to Trump.) But there wasn’t yet a true public market for investments.

The emergence of a full capital market is exemplified by the first truly public corporation, the Dutch East India Company (founded on March 20, 1602), which began to sell both stocks and bonds on the Amsterdam exchange. (Notably, its profits came from slavery and conquest as well as trade.) Soon derivatives were also for sale in Amsterdam, because people sold and resold their investments. Many other public companies formed on the Dutch model.

Capitalism (the exchange of investments in enterprises) developed along with Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation (1944): the shift to a “market society” in which all kinds of goods, including labor and land, have prices and become fungible.* We could call this process “commodification.”

Capitalism and commodification are analytically distinct and may not have to go together. But it was presumably no accident that they arose in tandem. First, commodification allows well-capitalized enterprises to become highly profitable and increases incentives to invest in them. Second, if everything is subject to market exchange, why not investments? A certain mentality and set of routines and skills develops that is useful for financial markets as for other markets.

By this definition, the Soviet Union was not capitalist. It had many enterprises (often with brand-names and organizational charts not completely unlike US corporations) that bought and sold commodities on international markets. Prices were driven by global supply and demand. But no one except the state could invest in a Soviet enterprise. Sweden, however, is capitalist (notwithstanding relatively high rates of taxing and spending), since Volvo, H&M, Spotify, etc. are listed on stock exchanges. (IKEA belongs exclusively to a nonprofit foundation, which is an interesting anomaly).

If you favor free college or socialized medicine, it doesn’t mean you are against capitalism. Many capitalist countries offer these services. Capitalist countries also vary dramatically in measures of economic equality and mobility, from Slovenia (GINI 24.6) to South Africa (GINI 63.0). The question is whether you favor or oppose having a major market for investments in enterprises.

*Polanyi has current detractors, and I am not competent to assess his argument. Also, he writes surprisingly little about capital markets. His main relevant discussion concerns what he calls haute finance, dating to “the last third of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth century” (pp. 10 and following). See also: the Nordic model; the neo-feudalism thesis; a darker As You Like It; the Dutch secret; etc.