Monthly Archives: June 2004

Hobson-Jobsonism in Brazil

A hobson-jobson is my favorite linguistic phenomenon. A good example is “compound,” which originally meant any union of several elements. English visitors to what’s now Malaysia encountered the Malay word “kampong,” which meant a group of buildings enclosed by a wall. They heard “kompong” as “compound,” and gave the English word that new meaning. Another example is “gas.” The Dutch chemist van Helmot used the Greek word “chaos” to refer to substances that acted like steam. English scientists misheard him and thought he was saying “gas.”

On my way to Georgia last weekend, I happened to be seated next to a Brazilian colleague whom I had met at the conference last week. He asked me how long it takes to get to the “finger” at Atlanta’s airport. It turns out that the English word “finger” is what Brazilians call the gates at airports (which do look like fingers reaching onto the asphalt). He understandably assumed that this metaphor was borrowed from English, but it’s an imaginary borrowing–a kind of hobson-jobson.

The phrase “hobson-jobson” itself arose when English imperialists in India heard their Muslim subalterns chanting “Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!: O Hasan! O Husain!” In their offensive way, they called this chanting the “natives’ hobson-jobson.” Question: Is the phrase “hobson-jobson” (referring generally to misunderstood words appropriated from foreign languages) itself a hobson-jobson?

libertarianism and socialization: replies

(Written in Macon, GA): It’s amazing how a comment about libertarianism draws more attention than almost anything else in the “blogosphere.” In a post from last week, I argued that libertarians ought to be concerned about how parents and communities raise their kids, because most people are not raised to value individual liberties as highly as libertarians would want. I also expressed some openness to pragmatic libertarianism while rejecting a pure philosophical form of the ideology. This post provoked comments on my site, in my email inbox, and on the Crooked Timber site, thanks to a nice mention by Kieran Healy. I’d like to respond to several of these comments together:

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deliberation and advocacy

Rose Marie Nierras (of the University of Sussex) and I conducted a kind of focus group today. The participants were activists from the United States, Canada, the Phillippines, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, and Denmark. Rose and I have been studying how deliberative democracy looks to people who work in social movements, especially in the developing world. This was the fourth and final day of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium/LogoLink meetings, and Rose and I have been interviewing the participants individually. Today’s group discussion will give us additional data; and we will conduct several more such events in several countries before we finish the project.

We are not ready to digest our results so far, but I have a few stray thoughts: It’s more difficult to mobilize lots of people for procedural reforms than for specific social causes–except when there is a dictator in the way of social progress, in which case “democracy” becomes a rallying cry. It’s easier for social advocates to embrace democratization if they believe that their cause is supported by a large majority of their fellow citizens. It’s harder to disentangle social causes from democratic reforms in new democracies than in “mature” ones.

Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal

I’m still with the Deliberative Democracy group, with no time to blog, but I wrote the following several days ago ….

Last week, I was in Montreal for four days. There was plenty of unscheduled time, so I walked for hours each day. Montreal is an impressive and lively city. I don’t write travelogues on this blog, but I would like to say a few words about the Basilique Notre-Dame. This must be one of the best Victorian buildings in the world?and there are many. Some Victorian buildings are either unimaginative imitations of medieval models or damaging renovations of actual medieval structures (or both). In contrast, the Basilica is a highly original Gothic building constructed on open land in the New World. It resembles a great Victorian train station, museum, or exposition hall more than a medieval cathedral.

Most of its components derive from medieval architecture?specifically, the French High Gothic of the Ste. Chapelle in Paris, which is the acknowledged inspiration. The arches are pointed, the columns have gothic capitals, the windows are filled with stained glass, and there are scores of life-size sculptures of saints in medieval garb. (An exception is the huge pulpit, which is reached by a broad, winding staircase that’s more baroque than medieval in inspiration.) However, the overall appearance of the building is not at all medieval; it’s highly original. This is partly because of specific architectural choices. For example, there are rose windows in the ceiling of the nave, which would have been impossible and unimaginable in the 13th century. Also, the nave is proportionally wider than any medieval one I’ve seen, perhaps because Victorian construction techniques allow a wider span. Quite apart from technological issues, I suspect that medieval builders would have preferred a loftier but narrower shape.

I have never seen a medieval church (not even Ste. Chapelle or the lower church in Assisi) that is as heavily decorated. Every single surface of Notre-Dame is covered by stained glass, tile, statuary, or high-relief sculptural decoration that’s also painted with zigzags and other bold patterns in dark primary colors. There?s virtually no unpainted stonework. This all sounds terribly busy or even vulgar. However, the patterns are small and the overall structure is simple and easily legible. As a result, the surface patterns make a restful impression. Finally, all the patterns and other decorative features are symmetrical?the result of a single plan?whereas most medieval buildings are more organic (or haphazard).

If you look at the details of Notre-Dame, many are not very fine. The figures in the stained glass (from Limoges, France) are much larger and coarser than anything medieval. However, the building as a whole is unusual, interesting, and worth a long trip to visit.

community government in Washington

I?m still at meetings of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, but we?ve now been joined by a diverse group of activists from developing countries (members of the LogoLink network). We?ve gone on a ?field trip? to the Southeast quadrant of my own city, Washington, DC. We?re sitting in a cheerful, well-equipped, modern building in a diverse but basically very poor district. In the city?s Seventh Ward, there?s a low median income, high crime, and a disproportionate number of children and senior citizens, although there is also a high rate (40%) of home-ownership.

We are observing a public meeting of officials representing nineteen municipal departments. Their job is to develop comprehensive solutions to ?persistent problem areas,? such as outdoor drug markets at specific locations. A solution might involve the police (who would make arrests), the department of Public Works (which would tow away abandoned cars), housing agencies (which would build infill housing in abandoned lots), the Fire Marshal (who would fine landlords), the park service (which would cut down overgrowth), and others. Each neighborhood in the city has a similar team to coordinate municipal departments and to encourage citizen population.

The work that we are witnessing today is nested within an ambitious and impressive process for public participation. The City of Washington now convenes regular Citizen Summits at which thousands of residents deliberate about the Mayor?s proposed budget and strategic plan. Demographically representative samples of the city?s population meet for a day in the city?s huge Convention Center and use electronic technology to pool their ideas (a process developed by America Speaks). This discussion has a substantial impact on Washington?s priorities. Specifically, it has caused some redistribution of funds and priorities. As they deliberate, people from wealthy districts realize that the needs are greater in the city?s poor areas, and they come to support redistribution.

The Mayor then develops a contract with each city agency to implement the strategic plan. Performance can be monitored easily online, because agencies commit to tangible targets: e.g., ?put 200 more officers on the street.? Finally, a team is convened in each neighborhood to develop a strategic plan for their more local area. City departments send representatives who are experts on the particular neighborhood and empowered to make decisions on their departments? behalf. We are witnessing a weekly meeting of one such team.

This meeting is interesting to me because I was recently at a libertarian conference at which government was described as inefficient, corrupt, and unresponsive. There were calls for radical decentralization. The main approach that we discussed was to allow private individuals to band together into voluntary groups and purchase services on the market (i.e., privatization). Libertarians argue that they are not anti-political or anti-democratic; in fact, they want more intense and meaningful public participation, and they believe that voluntary associations are most hospitable to democracy. They blame central planners and other government experts for squelching public participation, localism, and pluralism.

Today I am witnessing decentralization and participation within the public sector, as ordered by a big-city mayor. I don?t have enough information to be able to say which approach works better, but I would recommend a certain amount of openness and pragmatism. There may not be a fundamental difference between libertarian and left-liberal approaches to participation. We happen to be meeting in the offices of a Community Development Corporation (a private nonprofit), which operates with government funding but is thinking of selling its services for fees. It has convened city employees to discuss how to coordinate their powers to make arrests, condemn buildings, and otherwise act as Leviathan.

In short, this is a public-private hybrid, in the great American tradition. Strong democrats might see it as an example of creeping privatization and the imperialistic market; libertarians might see the heavy hand of the government and the taxman. I think we?re witnessing participation, accountability, and pluralism.

Some observations about the meeting itself:

  • A lot of the work amounts to community policing: sharing intelligence about buildings and alleys that have created public safety problems.
  • There are no ordinary residents present as observers, although citizens have phoned in with complaints that are carefully considered. The room is set up to accommodate citizen observers.
  • The team is almost exclusively African American, as is the population of the neighborhood. Several members say that they were born in the ward, which is also typical of the very stable population of Southeast DC. On the other hand, they are much older and much more educated than the median of the ward. Almost all hold credentialed, professional positions in the government. I suspect that they could easily leave the neighborhood and the city if they wanted to. They seem proud of their work, energetic, and eager to share experiences with our group.
  • Although team members work for the government, the meeting looks and feels like a neighborhood association event. People volunteer to do things, either as part of their jobs or pro bono.
  • They are making evident progress on the specific issues that they address. The ward is also making overall progress on crime and other important issues, but it?s hard to know whether that?s because of better coordination among agencies, or the booming DC economy and gentrification.