Monthly Archives: February 2007

manipulation versus eloquence

Here are two conflicting ideas that both have some appeal to me:

1) Our political system is too manipulative. The techniques of persuasion have become too effective. Instead of just sending out a mass mailing, we design several messages and test them each with a random sample of the target audience to measure its impact. Instead of sending organizers out into a neighborhood to talk to people, we give them pre-tested scripts to recite. Persuasive political advertisements are slick, scary, and produced for particular niche audiences. As a result, there is not enough listening going on, not enough two-way conversation. Real needs and good ideas cannot bubble up from below. Communication is also too strategic–not designed to explore and address problems, but to get people to do what the organizers want. Finally, the techniques of effective communication are for sale, so they tend to benefit organized groups and interests with money rather than diffuse or poorly funded interests.

2) We should prize eloquence as a skill and virtue of political participation. We teach people to express themselves effectively in writing and speech because that is part of being a good citizen. Americans need a “public voice” that can persuade others who are different from themselves on matters of common concern, not just a “private voice” that works among friends and family. As Francis Bacon said, “it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life.” Modern techniques (such as randomly testing messages) are natural refinements of traditional methods for assessing the impact of speech on audiences. They are not especially threatening, nor are they always effective; sometimes, people prefer spontaneity. When speech is free, some will be better at it than others. If their persuasiveness can be bought, that is nothing new. Protagoras sold his services as an orator in ancient Athens.

educational accountability: cost or benefit?

In Nebraska, since 2000, every school district has been required to devise its own educational standards and tests in all core disciplines other than writing (for which there is a statewide exam). Even though many Nebraska districts enroll fewer than a thousand students, the teachers, administrators, and parents in each community must choose appropriate educational objectives for each grade and subject, design valid multiple-choice exams or other tests, and analyze the resulting data. (My source, an article in EdWeek, is behind that magazine’s firewall.)

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, where my wife teaches and my daughter studies in the public schools, the district has borrowed all of its standards verbatim from Massachusetts. We also buy our high-stakes tests and some of our textbooks from big companies that construct them to match the Massachusetts standards.

You might think that all the work that goes into writing standards and tests and analyzing the data is a cost. It’s the price we have to pay for keeping schools and students on task. If that price can be minimized by borrowing materials from another jurisdiction, that’s a smart move. After all, kids should learn the same basic skills and facts everywhere. And designing good materials and tests is a high-skill job that most people cannot perform as well as the experts.

But there is another way to think about such matters. We might see the creation of standards and tests as an opportunity to make judgments about what is most important. By deciding what to teach, we reproduce, transmit, and adjust our culture. Each community’s culture is somewhat different. For example, Washington is entirely urban, it has great historical resources, and it is the only majority-Black jurisdiction permitted to set education standards (the rest are states). Although the Massachusetts standards that we have borrowed in DC are well regarded, we may have made a mistake when we decided not to govern ourselves by writing our own. After all, Elkhorn, NE (pop. 7,635) seems to have done a pretty good job with theirs.

the Clinton/Obama spat

(A belated comment. …) I don’t think last week’s exchange of accusations was particularly significant; by itself, it won’t affect either campaign. But it did reveal weaknesses that both candidates should address.

For Senator Clinton (whom I refuse to call “Hillary”), it should be a reminder that three of her strengths have concomitant disadvantages. She represents an administration that looks pretty good in retrospect. She has been popular in Hollywood. And she has lots of powerful and wealthy supporters. However, she needs a forward-looking vision, some distance from Hollywood, and a way of mollifying voters who dislike money in politics. Last week, she seemed to be angry because a movie mogul who used to give her lots of money had criticized the Clinton Administration. That was dangerous territory for her.

For Senator Obama, the spat underlined the importance of going far beyond “civility.” When the Senator calls for a new type of politics, the press hears a promise to be more polite to other politicians. That is a promise that Obama will not be able to keep in the heat of a competitive national campaign. Thus he will inevitably be branded as a hypocrite. Besides, although civility may have some value, it is far from adequate. We won’t see civic renewal in America just because our candidates reduce their mean-spirited personal attacks.

A sympathetic reading of Obama’s speeches and writings suggests that he wants to change the role of American citizens in politics (not just the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail). He wants to unleash Americans to develop their own responses to fundamental problems. The press ignores those parts of his speeches because they assume that he is just spouting democratic bromides–it’s all throat-clearing. All they hear is a promise to be more polite to his rival candidates. In order to show that he is serious about civic renewal, Obama is going to have to be concrete about it. That means making arguments for national service, broader economic roles for municipalities, land-trusts, net-neutrality, civic education, public participation in the response to Katrina and future disasters, and possibly charter schools.

managing risk

In an age of weak family structures and communities–and unstable employment–individuals and nuclear families are on their own; they need to be able to manage risk so that they can bounce back from adversity. To help people to hedge risk is different from guaranteeing their welfare or reducing social inequality. It probably isn’t adequate, but it is important in the current era of high volatility.

What are the big economic risks for Americans, especially for the working class? Being laid off or seeing one’s salary drop dramatically, perhaps because of a reduction in paid hours. Sickness or injury, including injury caused by crime. Divorce and widowhood. Kids who are sick or in trouble. Business failure, including the failure of very small enterprises such as trading pages on e-Bay. Loss of property (such as homes and vehicles) due to robbery, fire, or accidents. Steep declines in the value of one’s home or land, such as we see in Rust Belt cities and the Farm Belt.

There are financial instruments designed for some of these risks–for example, home insurance. But sometimes such instruments are too expensive for people whose property is particularly modest. Other risks do not seem to be covered at all by available insurance (divorce, for instance; or the delinquency of one’s child). The government covers some people’s medical care, but many are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid and cannot afford private packages. The state is supposed to prevent crime in the first place and can sometimes order restitution. But crime can devastate its victims.

It’s interesting to envision a comprehensive set of mechanisms for managing these risks. Some mechanisms could be provided by the state or state-subsidized. Others might be developed by private organizations.

building alternative intellectual establishments

Think back to the year 1970. ….

  • Almost all university professors are men. They seem to be interested only in male historical figures and male issues. They select their own advanced students and colleagues and decide which manuscripts are published. They defend their profession as rigorous, objective, and politically neutral. Feminists respond by criticizing those claims; some also try to create a parallel set of academic institutions (women’s studies departments, feminist journals) that can confer degrees and tenure and publish.
  • Certain academic disciplines, including law, history, and political science, are seen as predominantly liberal. They seem to support a liberal political establishment that has considerable power. For example, law professors are gatekeepers to the legal profession, which produces all judges. Professors in these fields choose their own successors and claim to be guardians of professionalism, expertise, independence, and ethics. Conservatives–disputing these claims–decide to build a parallel set of research institutions, including the right-wing think tanks and organizations like the Federalist Society (founded 1982).
  • The National Endowment for the Arts gives competitive grants to individual artists. NEA peer-review committees are composed of artists, critics, and curators. They are said to be insulated from politics and capable of choosing only the best works. The artists they support tend to come from the “Art World” to which they also belong: a constellation of galleries, art schools, small theaters, and magazines, many based in New York City. Most of the funded work is avant-garde. It is usually politically-correct, aiming to “shake the bourgeoisie.” Critics complain about some particularly controversial artists, and ultimately the individual grants program is canceled.
  • Almost all professional biologists are Darwinians. They assert the legitimacy of science; but their religious critics believe that they depend on false metaphysical assumptions. Biologists use peer-review to select their students, to hire colleagues, to disperse research funds, and to choose articles for publication. Religious critics cannot get through this system, so they build a parallel one composed of the Institute for Creation Research, Students for Origins Research, and the like.
  • The most influential news organs in the country (some national newspapers and the nightly television news programs) claim neutrality, objectivity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness: in a phrase, “all the news that’s fit to print.” Critics from both the left and right detect all sorts of bias. They try (not for the first time in history) to construct alternative forms of media, including NPR (founded in 1970) and right-wing talk radio.
  • If you are influenced by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Foucault, you may see all knowledge as constructed by institutions to serve their own wills to power. Then you must view all of the efforts mentioned above with equanimity–or perhaps with satisfaction, since they have unmasked pretentious claims to Truth. If you believe in separate spheres of human excellence, then you may lament the way that various disciplines and fields have been enlisted for political organizing. You may concede that all thought has a political dimension, but you may be sorry that scholarly and artistic institutions have been used as strategic resources in battles between the organized left and right. (I owe this idea to Steven Teles.)

    I guess my own response is ad hoc and mixed. For example, I think that conservative ideas about law, history, and political science are interesting and challenging and should be represented in academia. I’m sorry that some legal conservatives have found their way to the Supreme Court, but the solution is to win the public debate about the meaning of the Constitution–not to wish that conservatives would go away. The Federalist Society provides liberals with a valuable intellectual challenge.

    I suspect that the NEA’s peer-review committees of the 1970s and 1980s often identified the best artists: meaning those who were most innovative, sophisticated, and likely to figure in the history of art as it is written a century from now. (Although who can tell for sure?) But I’m not convinced that taxpayers’ money should be devoted to the “best” artists. Other criteria, such as geographical dispersion, various sorts of diversity, and public involvement, should perhaps also count. If it’s fair to say that the New York Art World dispersed public money to itself, that sounds like a special-interest takeover of a public agency.

    Finally, “creation science” and “intelligent design theory” strike me as both scientific and theological embarrassments, destined to disappear but not before they have done some damage. Nevertheless, the anti-Darwinian organizations reflect freedom of association and freedom of speech and must certainly be tolerated.

    (These ad hoc judgments are probably not consistent or coherent at a theoretical level.)