Yesterday, I got to give an International Society for Quantitative Ethnography (ISQE) Webinar on “Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks.” I really enjoyed the questions and conversation. This is the video of the whole event:
Abstract: An individual holds linked beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can model as a network. How these ideas are linked together influences the person’s actions and opinions. When individuals discuss, they share some portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time. Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues. Thus, relying on certain kinds of networks is a character trait. People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Institutions are partly composed of such norms. A community or a culture is a single network with disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect. This theory has implications for politics, ethics, and research methodologies.
I was truly honored to talk on Monday with Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and Kent Wong. This is the video of our conversation (introduced by Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham).
Rev. Lawson has been a leading teacher and tactician of nonviolent direct action since the late 1950s. As one of the legendary figures in the Freedom Movement, he played key roles in the Freedom Rides, the Nashville sit-ins and the broader desegregation movement there, and the Memphis sanitation strike. While working in Nagpur, India (after having served three years in US prisons for antiwar resistance during the Korean conflict), he read a news article about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and rushed home to serve as one of the most important bridges between Gandhian theory and practice and the Black American movement against white supremacy.
Rev. Lawson has never ceased his effective teaching and activism, mainly as part of worker and immigrant rights movements in Los Angeles. His efforts over the past quarter century could be described as “intersectional,” combining economic, racial, environmental, and feminist issues. His work is deeply interracial and intergenerational. Rev. Lawson often collaborates with Kent Wong, who directs UCLA’s Labor Center. They have co-taught a course on nonviolence for twenty years, and Wong has published books on the labor movement, immigrant rights, and the Asian American community.
Their new book is Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom (by Lawson, with Michael Honey and Kent Wong). As I say on the video, it is a truly important work. It is clear, eloquent, rigorous, and concise. It is also unique in that Rev. Lawson can comment on recent movements, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), from his personal experience as a leader in the 1950s and 1960s, while also discussing the Freedom Movement with knowledge of the 2020s. The book will therefore serve as a particularly accessible (and challenging) introduction to radical nonviolence for young people, and I intend to assign it.
I asked both visitors to address the biggest misconceptions about nonviolence. Rev. Lawson emphasized its power and effectiveness, countering the misunderstanding that nonviolence is somehow passive and constrained.
The book also addresses several other misconceptions. For instance, I find that people equate nonviolence with protest—and protest with marching in the streets. Rev. Lawson stresses the other activities that are required to accomplish change. For instance, he attributes the success of the Nashville campaign more to a sustained boycott than to the famous sit-ins. He even writes, “The march may the weakest tactic, not the strongest.”
In the book, Rev. Lawson describes BLM as “one of the largest, most creative nonviolent movements that have captured the imagination of the human family.” To organize literally tens of thousands of peaceful marches and events has required intensive planning, discipline, and training. Yet I observe that BLM is not widely described as nonviolent. Critics definitely don’t acknowledge its nonviolence, which is no surprise. More interestingly to me, BLM leaders and would-be allies don’t typically emphasize its nonviolent philosophy, although BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors endorses Rev. Lawson’s new book. I asked him to comment, and he offered a tactical critique of BLM that I found somewhat unexpected.
In the book, he notes that there is a lot of activism today: more than during his lifetime except for the late 1960s. He calls the “range” of organizing the greatest he has ever seen. “But people are not developing a thesis of social change that is both personally transforming and transforming of society and of the immediate social environment, and that is part of the power of a nonviolent philosophy and theory.” I asked him to elaborate on that remark, which he did.
I also asked about Ukraine and Russia. In the book, Rev. Lawson mentions that anti-communist dissidents in the former Soviet world read Gandhi and King. I’d add that Polish dissidents invited Bayard Rustin to provide trainings in the 1980s. I have had the privilege of working with pro-democracy organizers in Ukraine since 2015, and I can testify that they deeply appreciate the Black American Freedom Movement. I asked both speakers about the prospects of nonviolent resistance in (possibly) occupied Ukraine and in Russia. Rev. Lawson’s response was interesting. He is a consistent pacifist who has earned a right to that position by making sacrificial commitments to rigorous nonviolence for 75 years. I must admit that I am not so consistent: I think that Ukrainians must oppose the invasion with military force and that we should support them. But Rev. Lawson is certainly right that Putin cannot accomplish his goals with violence and that nonviolent resistance can play an important role in both Ukraine and Russia (and in Belarus). His prophetic voice is essential for that reason, as well as for our struggles in the USA.
I really enjoyed my conversation yesterday with Farah Stockman, whose new book is moving, insightful, and even suspenseful. She tells the life stories of three workers who were laid off when the Rexnord factory in Indianapolis was shut down, just as Donald Trump was winning the 2016 election.
I asked her versions of these questions:
You recall that your parents used to argue about race. When a waitress was rude, your Black mother would suspect she was being racist; your white father “thought she must be cranky after a long day on her feet.” You say, “I always wondered which one was right. That is why I became a journalist, to talk to the waitress.” I read that sentence as a metaphor for the whole book, and especially for sections like the one where you have a four-hour conversation about race with John—the Trump-voting union guy–after you learn that he displays a Confederate flag in his garage. Can you say more about your impulse to talk to people like the waitress and John? What are you trying to accomplish?
John sees the world in terms of workers vs capitalists. He hates talk of white privilege because he feels oppressed as a worker. He works to make the union fight the company, and he votes for Trump. His wife is more favorable to management. On that basis, he describes her as a “liberal.” He is also surprised when a Republican politician doesn’t seem to favor US workers. Does he see today’s capitalists as the liberals? What is making him feel that way?
Wally is a black man. You say that the first time he gave a “structural” explanation for injustice was when he criticized how the city condemned houses owned by Black people and sold them to white developers. Otherwise, instead of giving structural explanations, he talks about his own responsibility and how he’ll benefit from a positive personality and hard work. I believe in structural explanations, but I can see how they don’t offer much to Wally. He doesn’t have many ways to address structural problems in the society, but he sometimes benefits–precariously — from his own hard work and niceness. Am I understanding him right? And do you think he would have been better off if he had thought more politically and structurally?
College really doesn’t seem to benefit anyone in the book. Several people enroll and rack up debt without getting degrees, or earn degrees that don’t lead to good jobs. They resent college-educated people who are set over them. Shannon says, “I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m for the one who will keep good-paying jobs here for us un-educated people that build the parts that make them rich.” Is college good? How could it work better for all?
The book is full of moving moments of solidarity, like when a Mexican worker who will take Shannon’s job pulls her aside and apologizes (233), or when John worries that he might be taking a position away from a Black co-worker, Marlon (289), or when Wally physically embraces a man he has caught sabotaging equipment (214), or—most moving to me—when Wally and his new girlfriend Stacie pray and weep together over his challenges. Factory work can offer solidarity. Unemployment destroys it. Do you see ways to build solidarity, especially across race?
You explore the differences among Shannon, John, and Wally, but also their shared circumstances and culture. And you depict how different their culture is from that of a Harvard-grad reporter who lives in Cambridge, Mass. You are critical of your group (which is also mine) for being out of touch, pretentious, and soft. What should highly educated elites learn from working class Americans?
This is the video of yesterday’s conversation with Peter Beinart at Tufts:
I asked him:
What do you think is the relationship (if any) between rising anti-Semitism and rising criticism of Israel?
When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, and when isn’t it?
Is it important that we have dialogue about Israel/Palestine in places like Tufts? Why? What would be trying to accomplish?
In Jewish Currents in July, you wrote, “In mainstream American discourse, the word ‘anti-Palestinian’ barely exists. It is absent not because anti-Palestinian bigotry is rare but because it is ubiquitous. It is absent precisely because, if the concept existed, almost everyone in Congress would be guilty of it, except for a tiny minority of renegade progressives who are regularly denounced as antisemites.” Can you expand on that statement and talk a little more about why you focus on anti-Palestinian prejudice here, apart from Islamophobia or anti-Arab prejudice?
What should non-Jews know about Judaism to engage appropriately in civic life?
What is your own position on Israel/Palestine now, and how did you get there?
What would a one state solution look like? How would the state be organized?
In this video, I offer a very broad introduction to civic education in the USA–framing my remarks historically. Essentially, I trace a tradition of experiential, community-based civic learning that runs from de Tocqueville through Jane Addams to Dorothy Cotton and onward; and a tradition of studying civics in school that really takes off with Horace Mann. These two traditions intertwine, and John Dewey is an important bridge between them. I argue that neither is in very good condition today.
Then Bettina Heinrich, from the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, gives an overview of “politische Bildung” (political education or development) in the Federal Republic of Germany, focusing on the post-War period. We both note significant mutual influence between these two countries.
Another event will follow this one:
“Growing Up Across the Pond” (May 3, noon US Eastern Time) will be more about the general context for youth in Germany and the USA today. (You can register here.)
These are both open events, meant for anyone who is interested. They are also introductory events for people who might want to join The Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), which “will bring together German and U.S.-American extracurricular civic learning professionals to unlock opportunities for mutual learning and reintroduce a transatlantic dimension to the field.”