Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

reflections on German/US learning exchanges

Tisch College has been proud to collaborate with the Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungsstätten e.V. (“network of German educational institutions” or AdB) on a Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE). This project has allowed 24 people who educate for democracy and civic life in Germany or the USA to interact intensively online and to visit the two countries together. I personally learned a great deal about contrasting policies and institutional cultures and common challenges, especially the teaching of “hard histories.”

Americans have a lot to learn from Germany’s extensive system for adult education, which involves governmentally funded but substantially independent centers and institutes all across the country, staffed by professionals who have studied adult education. These institutions explicitly promote democracy. On the other hand, the US expects our colleges and universities to provide more public outreach and education, and we have strong social movements that offer a lot of learning opportunities–albeit generally without any state funds.

AdB has now published a detailed and valuable report from the project that is available online, in English. Among other components, it includes an essay by TECE fellows Navina Engelage, April Grayson, Gabrielle Lamplugh, Elena Neu, Teresa Pfaffinger and Sarah M. Surak on history “as an entry point to dialogue and civic education,” and an essay by fellows Laura Tavares, Christina Wiley, Emma Humphries, Sarah Wagner and Christian Johann on the context of political polarization in both countries.

social class in the French election

The left should represent the lower-income half of the population; the right should represent the top half. When that happens, the left will generally advocate government spending and regulation. Such policies may or may not be wise, but they can be changed if they fail and prove unpopular. Meanwhile, the right will advocate less government, which (again) may or may not be desirable but will not destroy the constitutional order. After all, limited government is a self-limiting political objective.

When the class-distribution turns upside down, the left will no longer advocate impressive social reforms, because its base will be privileged. And the right will no longer favor limited government, because tax cuts don’t help the poor much. The right will instead embrace government activism in the interests of traditional national, racial or religious hierarchies. The left will frustrate change, while the right–now eager to use the government for its objectives–will become genuinely dangerous.

This class inversion is evident in many wealthy democracies, although usually with exceptions and complexities. For instance, in the USA, Democrats now represent the 17 richest congressional districts and most of the richest 50. Put together, Democratic districts are wealthier than Republican ones, although Democratic candidates often win a bit more of the vote below $50,000/year than above that income level. It’s in this context that we now see Republicans eager to use state power against private companies on cultural issues.

A similar inversion was evident in France this week. The class called “cadres” could be translated as executives, although I understand that it is a larger category than that English word implies. Among the cadres, Macron (a centrist technocrat) won and Melenchon* (from the left) came in second, with Le Pen (right-wing) drawing only about 12%.

The “intermediate professions” split their votes about evenly. This is a large and diverse group (26% of all employees), ranging from teachers to technicians. I would guess that sub-groups within this 26% voted quite differently from each other.

At the bottom of the scale–the ordinary employees and workers–Le Pen won by pretty substantial margins. Melenchon edged out Macron among these two categories, but he ran far behind Le Pen. If we look instead at wages, Macron performed better at the higher end, while Le Pen and Melenchon split the lower end about evenly. Macron won the most retirees and came in third amongst the young.

In the first round, French voters had numerous choices, and three candidates finished pretty close to even. That makes the outcome somewhat difficult to compare to a two-party contest between left and right, as in the USA. But one could envision Biden as a kind of hybrid of Macron and Melenchon (we can debate which one he is closer to), and Le Pen as Trump. Then the class inversion is clear.

This pattern is by no means exclusive to France, but it presents dangers wherever it appears.

I do perceive France as combining relatively egalitarian economic policies with a particularly sharp gradient of prestige and power. As the figure below shows, France uses taxation and spending to transfer far more cash than the US does (albeit mostly to pensioners), yet an extraordinary proportion of French business, cultural, and political elites attend a few Parisian schools. This means that a welfare state that redistributes a great deal from rich to poor has a culturally elite look. That may be a refined version of an international problem.

Joumard, Pisu & Bloch 2012

*This blog isn’t letting me use accent marks, unfortunately. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; what does the European Green surge mean?; and why the white working class must organize

Miro, Aidez l’Espagne

We are fortunate to live near the Harvard Art Museums, and while visiting recently, I pulled open a drawer and saw one object inside: Joan Miro’s 1937 design for a fundraising stamp entitled “Help Spain” (Aidez L’Espagne). Miro’s handwritten text says, “In the current struggle, I see expired forces on the fascist side; on the other side, the people whose immense creative resources will give Spain a momentum that will astonish the world” (my translation).

Two years after this print was made, the Spanish fascists had won. For that reason, the image caught me short. I had to remind myself: sometimes the people do win; sometimes the creative forces prevail.

Putin’s cultural nationalism

On March 25, Vladimir Putin gave a speech to Russian writers and artists that was widely covered because he mentioned Western “cancel culture”–thereby demonstrating a familiarity with US talking points. His speech also reflected a widespread but problematic view of the relationship between nations (or peoples) and cultures. This theory is basic to various forms of nationalism that we would classify as right-wing, such as Hindutva in India, but it also permeates some left-wing discussions of indigenous cultures.

According to this theory, each artists or thinker belongs to one people, and each people can therefore claim a list of cultural figures as primarily its own. The great figures of any nation share definitive characteristics with each other and with their ordinary compatriots; these make them members of the same national culture. Foreigners can enjoy and benefit from the creations of any national culture–but only indirectly and imperfectly, for it is the birthright of the originating culture alone. On the other hand, all ordinary people gain refracted glory from the list of great figures of their own national history.

The world recognizes (or should recognize) cultural excellence, just as it recognizes success in athletics or business. One can therefore compare nations by ranking their great cultural figures. To do this, you don’t need to know much about the content of their thought.

Maya Asha McDonald, a Canadian art historian, dined with Putin in the Kremlin in 2019. “’The President would like to know about your study of Christian art,’” a woman to my left said with an icy smile. “’And what you think of Russia’s rich artistic history.’” Putin proceeded to list famous works in Russian museums. When McDonald ventured an informed remark, Putin acknowledged that she seemed to know “quite a bit for ‘someone from Canada.'” This turned out to be a compliment, because Putin “views North America as having a lesser artistic legacy.” He “fundamentally views the wonders of Russian museums as indisputable evidence of his nation’s superiority.”

In the speech last week, Putin said:

Russian culture has made an invaluable contribution to the development of world civilisation. For centuries, Russian masters of literature, music and fine arts have given humankind new aesthetic traditions and, more importantly, ideals and meanings that have become moral and spiritual guidelines for millions of people and entire generations.

Russian culture is human-centric. The best classical works are focused on the inner life, personal quests and emotional experiences of human beings. They ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.

It is not surprising that the Russian mentality is known for taking things to heart. We feel very strongly about other people’s pain and injustice. We are capable of feeling sincere joy about others’ success and helping those who truly need our help.

Russian culture always protected Russia’s national identity. While readily taking in all the best and constructive, it patently rejected anything false or momentary, anything that would disrupt the continuity of our spiritual values, moral principles, and historical memory.

This unique quality reliably protects the Russian people even today, when seemingly eternal concepts and norms are being eroded and undermined in different countries, history is being distorted, and the laws of nature itself are being violated. …

Friends, you belong to different generations and serve in different areas of Russian culture and education. Yet, you are equally loyal to them. You are striving to multiply their rich traditions and bring up new generations of thinking and spiritually rich people who are able to perceive and pass on traditional values, who know and respect the past and present of their homeland, who are the true citizens of Russia.

(I quote Putin from the official English translation on the website.)

In my view, most artists (with interesting exceptions) belong uncomfortably to any given national tradition and take inspiration from diverse sources. There is no necessary correlation between the core values of specific artists and the dominant values of the nation at their time or later, nor do artists who are associated with the same nation typically agree with each other.

An individual gains little from just belonging to the same nation as a major thinker. For instance, I have learned virtually nothing from Herman Melville, since I have (unfortunately) not read Moby Dick. It would be foolish for me to feel pride that Melville was American; if anything, I should be mildly embarrassed that I have not read such a major novel. However, we can profit from any works with which we seriously wrestle. In my case, those include some works by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich, Nabokov, Akhmatova, and some other Russians.

In that sense, Putin is right that Russians have “given ideals and meanings” to people like me, who are far away. But I did not gain from these authors and composers a glimpse into some ineffable and indestructible Russian soul. I gained a whole range of divergent thoughts from diverse and unruly thinkers. As Putin says, these authors “ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.”

But there is no sign that Vladimir Putin has learned to think from the canon of Russian literature. He might align with Solzhenitsyn and with some aspects of Dostoyevsky, but many of the great Russians would hold him in the deepest contempt. Among those would be Shostakovich (a lifelong victim of the KGB), whom Putin mentions as a target of Western cancellations.

(Please pause to consider the irony that former KGB officer Putin is angry that Shostakovich might be “canceled,” when the Soviet state imprisoned and/or shot Shostakovich’s “patron Marshal Tukhachevsky; his brother-in-law, the distinguished physicist Vsevolod Frederiks; his great friend the musicologist Nikolai Zhilyayev; his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin; and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky” and came within a hair’s breadth of purging the composer himself.)

Putin’s theory of culture is vary far from the worst thing about him. I would not claim that it explains or motivates his decision to invade Ukraine, which can be better explained in terms of raw power. But it is a bad theory that is widely shared. I would guess that many Americans–when told that Putin ranks Russian culture above theirs–would counter with the names of distinguished American thinkers whom they have never actually read, some of whom are deeply critical of the USA.

That is the wrong path. Culture is not the Olympic Games, with a medal count. Cultured people don’t brag about the number of their countrymen who have won global repute. Cultured people challenge themselves with uncomfortable ideas from diverse sources and treat all other human beings as their fellow citizens of the earth.

See also: for Irina; Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell; what is cultural appropriation?; the generational politics of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; a richer sense of cultural interchange; the ethical meanings of indigeneity; etc.

ethics of sanctions, boycotts, and de-platforming

I am a steadfast supporter of Ukrainian resistance, and I encourage Ukrainian friends to skip this post if it feels like a distraction from their crisis. Still, those of us in noncombatant countries face subtle ethical questions that arise with all such conflicts. How we resolve these issues probably won’t have an appreciable impact on the war in Ukraine–and if we can affect the outcome, I would be biased in favor of choices that benefit the resistance. Instead, these are mainly questions about our own internal processes and principles.

Consider these cases:

  • The Metropolitan Opera is one of many cultural institutions that has announced that it will not work with pro-Putin Russian artists. The Met’s ban could affect soprano Anna Netrebko, who had demonstrated active support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine but who has also posted on Instagram that she opposes the war, while adding that “forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.” (From Javier C. Hernandez in the New York Times.)
  • There are calls to ban former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder (a former leader of an EU and NATO country) from entering the UK. Of note: Schroeder is not only close to Putin and unwilling to criticize the invasion of Ukraine, but he was a director of the state-controlled Russian energy company, Rosneft.
  • “The Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents. … Yet despite his antiwar stance, Mr. Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, ‘No Looking Back.’ A spokeswoman for the festival said in an email that Mr. Sokolov’s film … had received Russian state funding. The decision to exclude the movie was not a reflection on the filmmaker himself, she said.” (From Alex Marshall in the Times.)
  • The Alliance of Science Organizations in Germany is one of the biggest science funders that has announced a complete ban on grants, events, and collaborations with Russia. Meanwhile, 5,000 people, mostly Russian scientists, including 85 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have publicly signed a strong anti-war statement. They will be affected by the German boycott.
  • Yelena Balanovskaya and her family hold a mortgage on their Moscow apartment that is dominated in US dollars, meaning that they cannot afford their payments and may lose their home. Nothing is said in the article about Ms. Balanovskaya’s political views.
  • Afghanistan is suffering a nightmare winter, and the sanctions targeting Russia may be making matters worse.

Although I strongly support the sanctions on Russia, I think the ethical issues are complex. We must navigate principles that are in some tension.

First, working with an individual can be a discretionary choice, and it may be appropriate to consider that person’s values. In general, you shouldn’t have to work with a racist–or a Putin-apologist–if you don’t want to. I serve regularly on search committees and would be hard-pressed to give my support to a pro-Putin job candidate, even if the position had nothing to do with politics, just because I wouldn’t want to work with that person. I think a refusal to engage with specific individuals is an exercise of freedom, just like their choice to express their opinions.

On the other hand, when an institution–even a small, private one–decides to include or exclude individuals based on their opinions, several hard problems arise. Suddenly, we are in the business of assessing people’s thoughts, and that can be invasive as well as unreliable. Tyler Cowan asks, “What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out? Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine?” I would add: What about leftist critics of US imperialism who have justified Putin’s policies to various degrees over time? Would we ban editors of The Nation? And if we apply this screen to Russia/Ukraine, why not to other conflicts and injustices?

Slippery-slope arguments are sometimes classified as fallacies. Just because bad behavior falls on a continuum, it doesn’t follow that we should do nothing about any of it. But when the question is whether to work with individuals, it is morally imperative to employ clear and consistent standards. Such standards are difficult to define and maintain when everyone holds a unique constellation of opinions, and particularly when people may be afraid to say everything they believe.

Another problem with “de-platforming” or “canceling” individuals is the risk of reinforcing polarization. We can easily end up with homogeneously liberal cultural institutions (and even ordinary businesses), which then lose their ability to influence the illiberal people whom they have excluded. This is true of US universities, which risk alienating enough American conservatives that they undermine their influence over the culture. Likewise, do we want to undermine our own soft power in Russia by excluding Russians?

In a confusing time, it may be best to send the simple message that we are an open, pluralist society that does not fear abhorrent views or despise anyone because of their ethnicity–in fact, we oppose ethno-national prejudice of all kinds. To send that message may require continuing to work with some people whose views are actually abhorrent. Plus, there is always something to learn from the bad guys–even if it is only what they are thinking so that you know how to counter it better.

Although I have itemized several arguments against de-platforming people like Anna Netrebko (the soprano with the mixed political record), I am not sure where I ultimately stand on these matters. There is a case for refusing to work with individuals who hold odious views.

At first glance, it seems morally simpler to punish institutions for their odious policies than to punish individuals, such as sopranos, scientists, or Moscow apartment-owners. I have tried to apply this distinction when working with individual scholars from many countries, but not with or for their governments. However, the line between institutions and people is porous. Even a big bank is partly composed of small depositors. Even an individual scholar typically works for a state university. Even a free-thinking artist, like filmmaker Kirill Sokolov, may have taken government grants.

Turning to economic sanctions: they might work in this case, and they have the moral advantage of not directly killing people–as well as a lower risk of escalating to all-out or even nuclear war. However, for sanctions to succeed, they must inflict substantial hardship on a lot of people, including innocent civilians and even active opponents of the regime. It is much easier to rationalize causing economic hardship than using overt violence, even when the economic damage is devastating.

And sanctions may not work. If they don’t, then people like me who support them must take responsibility for the hardship. We mustn’t forget Yelena Balanovskaya and millions like her, including people in noncombatant countries like Afghanistan.

By the way, true dissidents and strong opponents of their own governments’ policies should welcome sanctions that affect themselves, so long as those efforts are likely to work. That may be true for the 85 Russian academicians who have signed the anti-war statement.

One possible solution is to focus as much as possible on the “oligarchs,” the Russian billionaires. They might have more leverage than other people (although the extent of their influence is debated); they are unlikely to suffer even if they lose a lot of money; and on the whole, their wealth has been ill-gotten in the first place. They are part of the problem, regardless of their opinions. Targeting oligarchs is central to the “Progressive Foreign Policy Response to the War in Ukraine,” which I find generally persuasive. As Henry Farrell says, perhaps sanctions that target the oligarchs can “be used to reshape the underlying systems of banking and finance that the current version of globalization relies on.”

But can we really target economic measures so that billionaires bear most of the cost, while also doing enough macroeconomic damage to affect the course of the war? I doubt it. Besides, we would want to influence oligarchs’ behavior, and that might (i suppose) require giving them a way out if they act better. In that case, what must an individual billionaire do to evade sanctions? Does one anti-war remark in English count, if it is hardly seen inside Russia? How about five anti-war social media posts in Russian? We are back to drawing lines across uneven terrain.

See also marginalizing views in a time of polarization; marginalizing odious views: a strategy