Monthly Archives: October 2005


Autumn, at least in cultures influenced by Europe, is supposed to be the final season in the annual cycle, an elegaic time in which we savor the last warmth and last color before winter’s death and spring’s rebirth. If fall has any advantage, it is only Shelley’s “deep, autumnal tone / Sweet though in sadness.”

But not for me. I think of fall as the first season, the time of rebirth and renewal, when the annual cycle starts anew with its fresh faces, when careers (academic, judicial, athletic, and political) are launched, and when the sticky mid-Atlantic heat finally dissipates so that we can venture out of air conditioning, quicken our pace, clear our heads.

Rosa Parks: two thoughts

1. Until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation systems in the South bolstered white supremacy through de jure segregation. Today, Montgomery runs 16 integrated buses, but the larger Alabama city of Birmingham has no public transportation system at all. Those facts exemplify a more general trend. In the 1950s, we had a fairly robust public sector and substantial economic equality, although African Americans were excluded and, in institutions like the Alabama bus systems, flagrantly denigrated by the state itself. Today the government is mostly careful not to discriminate on the basis of race. But it provides totally inadequate public goods for everyone.

2. The following is pretty well known but bears repeating: Rosa Parks was not just a nice lady who was tired one day and suddenly refused to give up her seat. She was also a skilled activist for social justice. The evening that she defied Jim Crow, she was on her way home to mail materials about the local NAACP election. Membership in an Alabama chapter of the NAACP was a radical step that required physical courage. Moreover, Parks had gone to the Highlander Folk School to study nonviolent social change with an interracial group. Highlander was then directed by Miles Horton, a great radical American who, as Nick Longo shows (pdf), was a direct disciple of Jane Addams. Addams, in turn, had learned politics from her father, an associate of Abe Lincoln. Parks’ political lineage could equally well be traced back to W.E.B DuBois and the other founders of the NAACP.

Dr. King said that Rosa Parks provided a good example for the desegregration struggle because she was recognized as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery–not one of the finest Negro citizens–but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery.” It is important to notice what “citizen” meant in this case. Parks was not just a volunteer, a member of civic associations, and someone who wanted to vote. She was a self-conscious and sophisticated political activist who belonged to a powerful political network with a long history. Thus the story of Rosa Parks is not only about individual acts of courage and principle; it is also about organization, theory, and tradition.

[In an earlier version of this post, I implied that Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience occurred in Birmingham, which is not the case.]

criminalizing policy

I don’t know how many people agree with the following letter in yesterday’s New York Times, but it expresses just the view that worries me most right now:

This investigation [of the Plame case] is not simply about the disclosure of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. operative or politics as usual. It involves the lies and deceit of an administration in taking this country into a war of incredibly stupid proportions in which the mainstream media, including your newspaper, played an important role.

The writer wants to make the criminal investigation of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby (and perhaps others) into a literal prosecution of the Bush Administration for its conduct in the Iraq war. Of course, I realize that the invasion was an enormously consequential decision: consider the 2,000 American dead and the more than 25,000 dead Iraqi civilians. At least in retrospect, it looks like a terrible choice. I also realize that the administration was dishonest in the prewar argument. However, politics is generally a serious business. Whether we provide military aid to Colombia, whether we permit or ban abortion, whether we prohibit or legalize cocaine, even where we set Medicaid reimbursement levels–these are decisions with life-and-death consequences. Moreover, participants in these debates quite routinely lie. It is crucial that we handle even the most consequential (and even the worst) of these decisions democratically, by arguing for one side and trying to mobilize popular opinion. Bringing criminal charges is a way of evading the democratic process.

Furthermore, I reject the diagnosis that we had a poorly informed national deliberation about whether to invade Iraq because some administration officials resorted to malicious leaks and general dishonesty. That’s true, but it’s far from the whole story. Even given the advantages that an incumbent administration holds in debates about foreign policy, the Bush team could have been challenged by the Pentagon, Congress, the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton and alumni of his administration, the Blair Government, academic experts, the press, and average citizens. The failure of almost all these groups to mount a challenge is evidence that we have a deep and widespread problem. Prosecuting people in the Plame case will do nothing to fix it.

I am not arguing that Patrick Fitzgerald should refrain from indicting anyone. He may conclude that laws were broken, and then the rule of law requires accountability. What I object to is the interpretation that the Plame investigation has put the Bush administration on trial for the whole Iraq war. That would be a dangerously undemocratic development–not to mention an excellent way for everyone else to dodge responsibility.

deliberative democracy in the Wikipedia

Most readers of a blog will know what the Wikipedia is. For those who don’t, it’s an extraordinary encyclopedia whose entries are written by anyone who wants to participate. There are no editors–just peer editing by the millions of people who visit. The quality is quite high and it’s a model of a certain kind of deliberation.

Until this weekend, the Wikipedia’s entry on “deliberative democracy” contained this paragraph:

It is usually associated with left-wing politics and often recognizes a conflict of interest between the citizen participating, those affected or victimized by the process being undertaken, and the group-entity that organizes the decision. Thus it usually involves an extensive outreach effort to include marginalized, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results. In this form it is a complete theory of civics.

The Green Party of the United States refers to its particular proposals for grassroots democracy and electoral reform by this name.

I disagree with this slant on deliberation and consider it potentially damaging. In fact, I’ve heard of a situation in Oklahoma in which some people were trying to organize a deliberative event and encountered opposition from residents who had Googled “deliberative democracy” and found the paragraphs quoted above about left-wingers and Greens. Therefore, I added the following to the Wiki entry:

On the other hand, many practitioners of deliberative democracy attempt to be as neutral and open-ended as possible, inviting (or even randomly selecting) people who represent a wide range of views and providing them with balanced materials to guide their discussions. Examples include National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polls, and the 21st-Century Town meetings convened by AmericaSPEAKS, among others. In these cases, deliberative democracy is not connected to left-wing politics but is intended to create a conversation among people of different philosophies and beliefs.

This was my first foray into the Wikipedia, and I decided to be respectful of the existing text. If you think the page should be written differently, click over there and edit away.

walking backwards

Ever since I was about eight years old, my routine has always included frequent walks. Even now, my daily commute involves about 50 minutes of walking as well as a Metro ride. The time that I spend alone on the sidewalks of Washington and Maryland seems continuous with the walks that I started as early as 1975. Personal identity is nothing but a story we tell ourselves; we select a few instances from the countless events of our past and make them definitive of an “I” that is, in reality, less distinctive, consistent, and separate from its context than we like to believe. As I tell myself a story about my self, I can find no deeper continuity than the series of walks I have taken since childhood and the meandering thoughts that have accompanied them.

As I grew up, my family mainly alternated between Syracuse, NY and London. I think I first walked alone frequently in Syracuse, going to school (often with friends but sometimes on my own) or strolling in the neighborhood. And what did I think about as I walked on those steep sidewalks cracked by old roots, past hippy group houses or the Arts-and-Crafts bungalows of faculty families–or between high heaps of dog-stained Syracuse snow? Mostly fantasies of adventure, I think. I also puzzled through questions of history and politics, addressing that silent inner student whom I suspect we all use as our primary audience.

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