Monthly Archives: February 2004

Lord Mayor Peter Levine

I admit it–I “ego-surf” now and then. Searching for my own name last week, I discovered that the Lord Mayor of London is none other than Peter Levine. This eminent person (no relation) gave a speech in California entitled “We Reinvented Government Before You Did.” When English youths looted a McDonalds, he remarked, “These people, many with sincere points to make, allied themselves to a mob. The whole point they were trying to make has been lost.” As Yoggi Berra exclaimed when he found out that the Lord Mayor of Dublin was Jewish, “Only in America!”

The City of London, by the way, is the single square mile within Greater London that was originally settled by the Romans and then walled during the Middle Ages. The Lord Mayor is an honorary leader of this district, which has no real political autonomy. During the school year when I turned 7, and again when I turned 10, I attended the Prior Weston School, which was one of the very few state schools inside the City of London. In fact, it was almost underneath the Barbican, the huge (and terribly ugly) residential/arts complex that they were building in those years. Immediately next to the school was a bomb site, still left over from WWII, which we students wanted to turn into a nature sanctuary. (In the spring, it buzzed with life: bees, weedy flowers, centipedes, snails.) In the street outside the school, there was an old-fashioned vegetable market with produce on wheeled wooden “barrows” and grizzled old gents shouting their prices. We used to pick leftover lettuce and carrots out of the gutters to feed the school’s pet rabbits.

This was the seventies, and Prior Weston was a progressive school run by a Christian socialist named Henry Pluckrose. The student body was part genuine Cockney: working class kids born within the sound of Bow Bells. There were also yuppie families from Islington, which was then gentrifying.

I mention all this because we were taught a lot of local social history at Prior Weston, which made us feel like citizens of the ancient City. We went to see the new Lord Mayor in his gilded coach-and-six, but we also studied the more plebeian past of Celts and Romans, medieval guilds and town criers, friars and Knights of St. John, Dick Whittington and his cat, puritans and actors, plagues and fires, bells and town criers. So it doesn’t seem so very strange that my namesake is now the Lord Mayor.

Brett Cook-Dizney: political artist

I heard a great presentation this morning by Brett Cook Dizney, a muralist/activist/hip-hop artist/teacher. He tells wonderful stories about his own “non-permissional” art works, like the time he erected big (illegal) murals of the police officers who beat Rodney King on a California street, or the time he painted an anti-violence mural on a wall that had been claimed by street gangs. This kind of work is free for anyone to see; in fact, it is often appropriated by anonymous strangers. In one case, a set of his huge murals mysteriously disappeared from a San Francisco street and then reappeared five days later. High-quality graffiti art, typical of the early hip-hop scene, contributed to a kind of “creative commons.”

I’ve written critically about the New York Art World. I’ve argued that art leaders are subversive or radical, but in a way that doesn’t take alternative perspectives seriously and that doesn’t persuade anyone. They create works that are intended to shock bourgeois Middle Americans, but they only reach their fellow bohemians. And when elected leaders resist funding them, they take immediate resort in the First Amendment.

I stand by that argument, but it’s good for me to be exposed to someone like Cook-Dizney. Sometimes, his work reflects the kind of radical politics that I think is over-supplied in the current art world. (For example, he erected a mural of Fidel Castro in Miami–shocking, brave, but offensive and unlikely to generate thought or dialogue in the audience that it reached.) However, he says that he has moved from merely saying what’s wrong with society to helping to create a better world.

A lot of his current work is intensely collaborative, involving (for example) street parties where everyone helps design and make a multimedia project. These projects make city blocks immediately more beautiful; they also create social networks and political capital. The fact that Dizney-Cook’s work is now constructive does not mean that he has abandoned his independence or radicalism.

In any case, a lot of his subversive statements on behalf of marginalized people are valid and thoughtful. (Example: he erected big panel portaits of Harlem residents inside the Harlem Studio Museum when it was not welcoming to people in the neighborhood.) I think if you are going to do political art, you should be judged on your politics as well as your formal technique. On those grounds, I would criticize an image of Fidel in Miami, but I think most of Cook-Dizney’s work is wise and thoughtful.

a free novel on this site

In 1995, I published a mystery with St. Martin’s Press, entitled Something to Hide. I then wrote another novel, a thriller called Tongues of Fire. I accumulated some flattering letters from publishers, but no contract offers for this second book of fiction. Yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I should give it away on my website. That’s the 21st-century way, after all. Click here to read the beginning and then download the whole thing if it appeals to you.

By way of background: Tongues of Fire is a thriller set just before the Second World War. The Nazis believe that they will gain enormous power if they can put together the shards of a universal language that are preserved in the various occult traditions of the world. Our skeptical hero, an American linguistic professor, begins to investigate their plot only because he has been forced into service by a Soviet agent (who is the main female character).

This isn’t Literature, but I think it’s fun. It’s also slightly “educational,” since the plot revolves around some issues in the philosophy of language. If one person enjoys the online version, that will be one more person than if I had left it on my hard-drive.

Space for comments below.

deliberation book

John Gastil of the University of Washington and I are co-editing a book on deliberative processes. We have the chapter authors lined up and are about to sign a contract. Each chapter will describe a concrete experiment that involves citizens in structured discussions of public issues or problems. A non-exhaustive list of these experiments would include the National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polling, and America Speaks in the US; several online experiments; and very important non-US cases such as the participatory budging process in Porto Allegre, Brazil (in which very large citizens’ councils actually allocate a portion of the city’s budget).

youth voting, from various angles

The most interesting reading on this blog today are the comments and the link that others have contributed in response to my post on Howard Dean. (See yesterday.)

On a similar topic: I spoke this morning to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) conference. I talked about the importance of civic education and the main threats to it, hoping to recruit some Secretaries of State as allies. They are, after all, responsible for the election system in its broadest sense; and civic education makes people into voters. Then a bunch of colleagues and I held a conference call to discuss how we can fight to retain the NAEP civics assessment. (See February 6th’s post.) I’m quoted in a Gannet News Service story: “Young voter turnout did jump initially ? up fourfold in Iowa ? though it has leveled off as it appeared the Democratic nomination had been settled. ‘There?s no place where the turnout was down,’ said Peter Levine, deputy director of a Maryland center that studies young voters. ‘It probably bodes pretty well for the general election.'” And now I’m off to talk by speaker phone to a class of University of Wisconsin students about why youth don’t vote.