Monthly Archives: July 2004

should schools teach “media literacy”

I owe a paper on the reliability of online medical information. I’m thinking of the following title: “Misinformation in Online Medical Information: What is the Role of Schools?” My answer would be: Schools should have as small a role as possible, because we have already loaded too many responsibilites on them, and they are not well positioned to teach “media literacy.” An outline follows.

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two doses of realism about democracy

I’m an egalitarian, participatory democrat (with a lower-case “d”). I believe that everyone should have as close as possible to an equal say in the political process. We can then decide fairly what scope we will give to markets. I also believe that participating in political institutions and community work can be intrinsically rewarding; therefore, as many people as possible should have the skills and opportunities to participate. Finally, I believe that everyone has knowledge, talents, and energies to contribute.

Nevertheless, political equality has two limitations that I think we should face squarely:

1. Business has a ?privileged position,” as Charles Lindblom noted long ago. Corporations shouldn’t be able to buy influence through campaign contributions or control of the mass media. However, they will be influential in any commercial society?and I believe that that’s what we have, by virtual consensus, in the United States. Without even seeking to affect government policies, they will allocate investments in communities and in nations that have favorable economic policies. Governments will compete to attract investment, and this competition will put downward pressure on taxes and regulation. Although there should be countervailing pressures, the influence of business is unavoidable in a commercial society.

If this is true, then we should be concerned about the degree of alignment between business interests and those of the rest of the public. Peter Peterson, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, recently lamented the demise of “corporate patriotism” and the lack of “corporate statesmen” today. He recalled the essential role that business had played in passing the Employment Act of 1946, (attacked at the time as “socialistic”), creating the president’s Council of Economic Advisors and the World Bank and IMF, and selling the Marshall Plan. Each of these reforms can be criticized for its substance, but each had broad support on the left.

We will be particularly suspicious of such reforms if we view the very idea of benign business influence as a myth and a sham. My sense is that business interests sometimes align sufficiently with public interests to allow compromises that are about the closest we can get to social justice in a commercial society. I also have the sense that such alignment is less likely today than in the period 1945-1970. Big businesses should be concerned about the federal government’s long-term fiscal solvency, and also about extremes of wealth and poverty, since their broader self-interest is involved. Yet they have little tangible positive influence today.

I suspect that business interests are most likely to align with broader interests if (a) firms have a lot of ?sunk costs? and cannot casually move their investments around; (b) the personal standing of their leaders is connected to their reputations for public service; (c) they are forced, by collective-bargaining and other arrangements, to consult regularly with workers and consumers, so that they are aware of other perspectives; and (d) they know that corporate ?statesmanship? is valued by religious congregations, community associations, colleges, and the press. Each of these factors is weaker than it used to be because of globalization, market worship, and declining unions.

2. Civic engagement is a minority taste. All types of people can and do participate in politics and civil society, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, white or people of color, women or men, citizens, residents, or even illegal aliens. However, participation is not for everyone. Only a minority of any community will attend meetings regularly, closely follow the news, lead and form associations, and organize and motivate others.

If this is true, then we should care whether these civic activists are a diverse and representative group, whether their interests align with those of average people, what techniques they use to gain influence, and how public-spirited they are. We should also care what resources they have at their disposal.

This is an abstract argument, but it has concrete, practical implications. For example, I have argued in favor of some kind of separate space on the Internet that imposes civic norms (decided on by the participants) and that serves civic activists. One way to do this would be to have a separate .civ (?dot-civ?) domain in which websites would be governed by norms that they enacted deliberatively.

There?s an argument against such an approach. The ?dot-civ? space would doubtless become a kind of walled-garden for people who are already civically active–uninteresting to those who go online for other reasons, including pop culture. Beth Noveck writes (pdf, p. 22) that my proposal was ?roundly criticized and rejected by the group assembled? to consider it. I remember the same conversation as considerably more balanced. In any case, I would argue?as a general matter?that it can be more effective to provide resources and networks for the ?civic tenth? in all our communities than to try to infuse small doses of civic values into mass culture. Again, we must be concerned about how diverse the active citizens are, but it?s a mistake to imagine that they will be very numerous.

Paolo & Francesca

Among the most common keyword searches that lead visitors to this website are “Paolo” and “Francesca.” I don’t blog about those two doomed lovers from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, but I am (slowly) writing a book about them. It’s an odd book (which may prove very hard to publish), because it combines rather detailed readings of the Inferno and various modern versions of Francesca da Rimini’s story with a lot of analytical philosophy to build an argument for a certain way of thinking about morality. I’ve recently rewritten the Introduction to match the evolving content of the book.

young people of color and “efficacy”

Yesterday, I talked to about 60 high school social studies teachers who are funded by the Annenberg Foundation to conduct an innovative civic education program. After I spoke, one teacher noted a chart in the Civic Mission of Schools report (p. 19), showing how many young people believe they “can make a difference solving problems in [their] community.” The teacher noted that the statistics weren’t too good for any group, but they were particularly low for African American and Latino students. He asked me why.

I said that it really is harder for most Black and Hispanic kids to make a difference, partly because of discrimination against them personally, but mainly because of the difficult problems they are likely to face in their home communities. If you ask an affluent suburban kid whether he believes he can make a difference, he’ll think of a “community problem” and imagine addressing it. Perhaps it’s the lack of a skateboard park; and if he really wanted to do something about that, he could talk to a friend of his mother’s who’s on the town council. So yes, he could make a difference. If you ask an inner-city kid, she thinks, “What are some community problems? Let’s see, there’s unemployment, homelessness, gun violence, drugs, and AIDS. What can I do?” Chances are, she’ll be pessimistic about making a difference.

The problem is, “efficacy” (or more simply, hope and optimism) is a powerful predictor of actual participation. So if people lack efficacy, they don’t vote or organize. Thus we want young people to develop confidence, yet we can’t do it by preaching that they can easily “make a difference.” That just isn’t a plausible message. A lot of the discussion that ensued for the next half-hour concerned practical strategies for increasing efficacy (and persistence) without papering over problems.

what’s interesting about conventions (part II)

Yesterday, building off an essay by Jay Rosen, I argued that modern presidential nominating conventions are very interesting–not as part of the struggle to get 51% of the vote, but as rituals, performances, symbols.

Rituals, in turn, really affect politics and public policy. Political scientists and reporters typically try to explain politicians’ behavior by assuming that they want to get elected and re-elected, or that they want to enact particular policies. But this analysis begs the question of why anyone would want to hold public office in the first place. Most people would rather die. It’s no answer to say that politicians want “power.” First of all, most people don’t. Second, most political offices in the US don’t come with much power; often their power is insufficient to achieve the outcomes that voters expect.

I think that some politicians are quite altruistic (contrary to what Nick Beaudrot says in a comment on this blog), and this partly explains their entry into politics. But to a large extent, I believe they want to participate in our public rituals. They want to hear someone announce them: “LAY-dies and gentlemen, the next great mayor of our magnificent city … ” They want to watch balloons rise up in a great hall when they take the podium. They want to cut ribbons and kiss babies and get interviewed on Nightline.

All this means that different people would enter politics if we had different rituals. (Likewise, different scholars would deliberately go into college administration if our academic rituals were different.) In this sense, ritual matters.

On our recent trip to Burgundy, I began re-reading one of my favorite books, Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). Huizinga argues that chivalry (jousts, orders of knighthood, the cult of courtly love) was completely artificial by the fifteenth century. It didn’t reflect the underlying reality of a commercial, urbanizing Europe. Yet people continued to “play” at chivalry very seriously throughout the century. In turn, chivalry mattered. It meant that political leaders had to be good at jousting. It caused some wealthy bourgeois (the “real” pillars of the society) to ruin their fortunes by marrying their children to poor nobles with good chivalric credentials. It certainly ate up a lot of social resources. And it served as an–increasingly inadequate–tool with which people tried to understand their world.

Modern political conventions are like the jousts of fifteenth-century Burgundy. They have lost their original purpose. In the long run, they are doomed. Yet they still matter.