Monthly Archives: May 2005

museums for freedom and democracy

I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, helping the National Constitution Center with its strategic planning process. The Center is a museum for the U.S. Constitution, located in sight of Independence Hall. It’s also an educational center with a significant and growing web presence. It’s new, but it has substantial assets: an impressive building, a great location, and some fine exhibits.

This was my sole suggestion at the meeting: Make the Constitution Center (both the building and the website) a place where people can create excellent materials connected to the Constitution and democracy. Fill the blank walls with projects created by students and others–not just crayon drawings, but elaborate installations that represent a lot of careful work that’s relevant to some aspect of the Constitution. Provide facilities for creative work, such as audio and video production studios and traditional stages. Local Philadelphia groups like Scribe and the Temple Youth Voices Project could be among those that used these facilities. Finally, provide opportunities for ephemeral creativity and expression–speakers’ corners, public meeting rooms for civic groups, videoconference centers for civic discussions across long distances, blogs and physical bulletin boards, a printing press, tables with sand or clay for impromptu sculpture.

I had three reasons for making this proposal. First, I believe that the Constitution of the United States is not simply a plan for our official institutions; it is also a charter for a free people who are supposed to create their common-wealth. Therefore, a creative space is the best embodiment of the Constitution, as long as people are assisted in creating relevant materials.

Second, we live at a time when electronic technologies give us a choice. We can produce ever more sophisticated and enthralling spectacles that capture people’s attention but leave them basically passive. I once described the Cerritos, California, Public Library as that kind of place. It’s a public building that’s in danger of turning into a pro bono theme park. Alternatively, we can open free spaces in which unprecedented numbers of people can be creative–the World Wide Web being the best example.

For any museum that lacks a remarkable collection of unique objects, becoming a theme park is a serious risk. Opening a creative space is a better route. In his essay on “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that once art objects can be mass-produced, it becomes possible for powerful institutions to generate mass spectacles; and that is the root of fascism. It’s not such a great idea to prize unreproducible objects–like the Liberty Bell or the actual, original Constitution–because only a few people can possibly can see or own these items. But at least an unreproducible object is hard to use to manipulate mass opinion. Benjamin’s argument suggests that mass institutions pose a danger, unless they allow people to create.

Third, I disagree with the following reasoning: “Young people–and even grown-ups–are woefully ignorant of our Constitution. Polls consistently find them wanting. We need to change them, and the best means is professional media. A state-of-the-art interactive museum, created and vetted by experts, is an example.” I reject this reasoning because I don’t believe that people can be spoonfed civic or political information that they don’t want, especially in a highly competitive marketplace. The alternative, once again, is to give people opportunities to become active creators of the commonwealth, so that they have reasons to understand and to value their rights.

Incidentally, I had been planning to write pretty much this very post since last Friday, not in reference to the National Constitution Center, but rather in response to an article about the International Freedom Center that is planned for the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. The Freedom Center is likely to be a spectacle, a didactic theme park created by well-intentioned people like the ACLU. But it could be much better than that.

social science, for good and ill

I’m on my way to Philadelphia today, to help the folks at the National Constitution Center think about their next steps. Yesterday morning, I went to Capitol Hill to watch my colleague and friend Judith Torney-Purta win a “Decade of Behavior” award. The “Decade of Behavior” (2000-2010) is actually a collaborative project by the various social science disciplines to “highlight how behavioral and social science research provides insight and solutions to pressing social concerns.” Judith was the pyschologist chosen to be honored for her lifetime of work on children’s civic development.

The political scientist was James Gibson. He seemed to be a good person, and he won my trust by saying that he had “fallen in love” with South Africa during his ten years of research there. (I always like scholarship that combines with love.) He also showed a lot of respect for the South African leadership.

Nevertheless, I was a bit disturbed by his introduction. I mention it not to criticize him–since I don’t know his overall project–but as an example of a form of social science that I find dangerous rather than helpful. Gibson said that he was pessimistic about the future of democracy in South Africa because quantitative social science has found that the following are predictors of democratic stability: wealth, economic equality, ethnic homogeneity, and direct influence from Britain. South Africa is poor on a per-capita basis; it has terrible inequality (a GINI of 59.3) and a deeply heterogenous population. Only the British colonial influence looks favorable, and it was short-lived.

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notes on “free culture”

These are notes I took during the Free Culture conference last weekend. … Most participants were relatively young adults who create ?alternative? news and culture. They are also concerned about the legal and economic aspects of mass communications. Most start with some anger against what they perceive as a unified system composed of big media companies and the policies of the US government and international bodies (e.g., media licensing systems, copyright laws) that together sustain social injustice?poverty, racism, patriarchy, and so on. Using music, poetry, and images, they speak an eloquent and fairly sophisticated New Left language of resistance, subversion, an opposition. A repeated visual motif in their presentations is a woman of color with a raised fist. See for example Third World Majority?s website, with its compelling video clips.

However, several participants believe that a message of opposition and resistance has a limited appeal. Relatively few Americans see themselves as oppressed; and if an organizer makes them angry with eloquent, angry rhetoric, the feeling soon fades. A better way to broaden and sustain motivation is by giving people a positive vision of alternative media that they can themselves participate in creating. In other words, making ?content? is the best route to political mobilization.

Using available technology, people can create powerful, compelling material. For instance, Downhill Battle is trying to build software that allows anyone to produce and view video programming at virtually no cost. The idea is to enable millions of young people to view ?TV? that they have made for one another, instead of programs created by highly paid professionals at big companies. As one person from Guerilla News Network says, ?Let?s just build ourselves. Let?s not wait for public television to come back. Let?s not wait for a grant.?

Looking forward, new technology could make young people and other excluded Americans more sophisticated about policy. If the law forbids or frustrates their desire to make and share free content, then they will not have to be mobilized to fight back; they will mobilize themselves–and in a spirit of confidence rather than resentment. Alternatively, the creation of new media technology could actually make policy irrelevant. The law might not be able to block people from creating their own media.

Questions raised during the conversation:

1) Will people really prefer ?alternative? media if they have a choice, say, between amateur video clips and MTV? One answer is that they will prefer the alternative stuff, because it?s better. The most popular blogs, for example, are independently produced; corporate blogs are relatively unappealing. Another answer is that most people will prefer MTV, but it?s still important to support a minority voice.

2) Where can funding come from? There?s a lot of dissatisfaction with foundations as the source, because then everyone is on ?an allowance? from powerful organizations. (Plus, foundation funds are pretty limited.) Although most people at the conference are strongly anti-corporate, they are interested in sustainable, independent business models.

3) Why are the most popular blogs still produced by highly educated white males? The technology is cheap and open?not perfectly so, but as close to perfect as we are likely to see. Neither policy nor technology stands in the way of equality in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, a privileged group tends to dominate. Maybe the demographics will change over time. Or maybe media technology and policy are not the only important reasons for inequality.

4) Is it most helpful to frame the struggle for ?free? or ?independent? or ?alternative? media in radical leftist terms? I am not hostile to a leftist political conversation in which people consider new media forms as tools to get the social and political outcomes they want. It is also true, however, that many people on the center and the right (including the radical right) do not like the mainstream mass media and would support ?alternatives.? So if the goal is really an open, non-corporate media system, it might make more sense to build a left-right coalition.

“free culture” conference

This evening and over the weekend, I’ll be attending a conference on “free culture” organized by Kathryn Montgomery and colleagues at American University. I’ll be the least hip person present, since everyone else will be either techno-savvy or into some kind of subversive cultural form (such as political hip-hop), or both. My plan is to listen and learn. There’s a pre-conference blog with a list of participants. Facilities have been arranged so that everyone can be online and blog away during the whole meeting, if so inclined.

Archon Fung: “Deliberation Before the Revolution”

My friend and colleague Archon Fung has published an article entitled ?Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World? (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005: pdf).

“Deliberative democracy” is an ideal: people are supposed to exchange ideas, values, and arguments freely, in a variety of formats and genres; and their discourse (alone) is supposed to determine the outcome. In real life, social inequality, bureaucracy, secrecy, force and threats of force, bargaining, prejudice, and many other non-deliberative factors influence outcomes. How should someone who is committed to the ideal of deliberative democracy behave in an imperfect world?

Fung rejects two options. The first is to act in a purely deliberative way despite injustice. He thinks it is naive to commit oneself to give reasons and arguments (and nothing but reasons and arguments) even when powerful people refuse to listen. Strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, voter-mobilization campaigns, nonviolent protests, and even occasionally violent uprisings may be necessary. At the same time, Fung believes it is a mistake to abandon deliberation altogether until the “revolution” comes–in other words, until there is enough political equality and until institutions are well enough designed that deliberation can prevail. If one waits for the “revolution” before becoming a deliberative democrat, then the imperfections of our current order can justify abandoning all pretense of deliberation and simply trying to amass power. That is a path to cynicism and corruption.

Fung favors a middle course. The realistic (yet idealistic) deliberative democrat should try to make the world more deliberative through effective political activism, but he or she should be ethically constrained by certain deliberative norms. Specifically, the activist should keep in mind the goal of making institutions more fair and more influenced by reasons. He or she should assume that others will deliberate in good faith until they show by their behavior that they will not. The activist should exhaust deliberative forms of politics (e.g., giving arguments, organizing open meetings) before resorting to non-deliberative tactics. And any non-deliberative responses should be strictly proportional to the situation. Just because my opponent has been somewhat deaf to my arguments or somewhat secretive and authoritarian, it doesn’t follow that I may abandon deliberative norms altogether and simply use force.

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