Monthly Archives: March 2007

what I believe

(In Albuquerque) For whatever it’s worth, here are the most basic and central positions I hold these days. The links refer to longer blog posts on each idea:

Ethical particularism: The proper object of moral judgment is a whole situation, not an abstract noun. Some general concepts have deep moral significance, but their significance varies unpredictably depending on their interplay with other factors present in any given situation.

Historicism: Our values are deeply influenced by our collections of prior experiences, examples, and stories. Each person’s collection is his or her “culture.” But no two people have precisely the same background; one culture shades into another. A culture is not, therefore, a perspective (i.e., a single point from which to observe everything), nor a premise or set of premises from which our conclusions follow. There are no barriers among cultures, although there are differences.

Dialectic over entropy: Cultural interaction generally leads to convergence. Convergence is bad when it is automatic and the result is uniformity. It is good when it is deliberate and the result is greater complexity.

Narratives justify moral judgments: We make sense of situations by describing them in coherent, temporal terms–as stories. Narratives make up a large portion of what we call culture.

Populism: It is an appropriate general assumption–for both ethical and practical reasons–that all people can make valuable contributions to issues of moral significance that involve them. (Note that ethical particularism rebuts claims to special moral authority or expertise.)

Public deliberation: When judgments of situations and policies differ, the people who are affected ought to exchange ideas and stories under conditions of peace and reasonable equality, with the objective of consensus. This process can, however, be local and voluntary, not something that encompasses the whole polity.

Public work: Deliberation should be connected to action. Otherwise, it is not informed by experience, nor is it motivating. (Most people don’t like merely to talk.)

Civic republicanism: Participation–the liberty of the ancients–is not only a means to an end; it is also intrinsically dignified.

Open-ended politics: We need a kind of political leadership and organizing that does not aim at specific policies or social outcomes, but rather increases the prevalence of deliberation and public work. Like other forms of politics, this variety needs strategies, messages, constituencies, and institutions.

The creative commons: Many indispensable public goods are not just given (like the sun or air) but are created by collective effort. Although there is a global creative commons, many public goods are local and have a local cultural character.

Developmentalism: Human beings pass through a life course, having different needs and assets at different points. Development is not a matter of passing automatically through stages; it requires opportunities. Active citizens are made, not born. They acquire culture and help make it.

Associations: Voluntary private associations create and preserve public goods, host deliberations, and recruit and teach the next generation.

Some of these ideas fit together very neatly, but there are tensions. For example, how can I be skeptical about judging abstract moral concepts and yet offer a positive judgment of “participation,” which is surely an abstract idea? As a matter of fact, I don’t think participation is always intrinsically good; I simply think that we tend to undervalue it or overlook its intrinsic merits. But how weakly can I make that claim without undermining it entirely?

at Sandia

(Santa Ana Pueblo, NM) I feel pretty far from news and opinion out here in the desert, and for once unmoved to comment on any controversies, social issues, or moral dilemmas. We’re in a resort built on the land of the Tamaya Pueblo Indians, who own a majority stake in the hotel. Outside our window is a stretch of grass, a thin forest of cottonwoods, the Rio Grande, and then Sandia Mountain with snow on its craggy slopes. We’re at 5,000 feet, and Sandia rises another 5,000 feet above us. A warm wind whips across the vast open space. The night air is clear, dark, and cold.

After dinner, three men in enormous feathered headdress walked by, drumming. It turned out that they were not Pueblos, but visiting Aztecs from Mexico. A Native American elder from Oklahoma, here for the National Service Learning Conference, blessed us; I hoped we were worthy of his eloquent blessing and song. He asked the earth and water to protect us, and it was impossible not to recall the harm we do to them. Then a Pueblo from Tamaya, Shkeme Garcia, told us folktales and sang Indian reggae songs that he has also performed in New Zealand, Hawaii, and elsewhere among the world’s indigenous peoples. He spoke Keres, the language of Tamaya and some other pueblos, which is unfortunately not used by anyone under the age of 40.

There is no shortage of problems, issues, events, achievements, choices, and controversies in this place. But I am largely ignorant of them. What I see with my tourist’s eyes is sublime and apparently timeless.

emerging leaders

(Near Albuquerque, NM) I’m at a retreat with “emerging leaders” in the field of service-learning. The Kellogg Foundation is behind this initiative, which aims to develop more culturally and ethnically diverse young leaders for a field that has been dominated by older white people. Many of the students who do service-learning in our schools (in other words, those who perform community service connected to academic learning) are minority youth. But the gatekeepers, standard-setters, and researchers are white and middle class. Kellogg and its main grantees–The National Youth Leadership Council and the National Service-Learning Partnership–are addressing this problem in a really serious way. They have identified dozens of diverse younger people in responsible positions within organizations, such as CIRCLE, that work on service-learning. They have paired each of these “emerging leaders” with a mentor. At the end of a two-year process, the emerging leader should have “emerged.” I’m a mentor, which is why I’m here.

Two quick observations occur to me after the introductory session. First, this kind of retreat is the antithesis of the hiring process that I complained about the other day. Instead of selecting one or two competitors for a single position (which inevitably requires comparative judgments), here we are celebrating and supporting everyone and trying to expand the circle. Such an effort is easy to parody–but important to do well.

Second, I have tip for people who direct nonprofits. (I try to implement this advice within my own organization and as a member of various boards.) One of the major self-interested motivations in the nonprofit world is fame–public acknowledgment and recognition. I presume that most people in the business world do not feel that motive as strongly, because even rather senior and powerful businesspeople often have hardly any presence on the Web. You cannot even find their biographies and photos on their own corporate websites. But people who work for nonprofits very often want the opportunities to make speeches, talk to reporters, publish, or see their profiles on a website.

Thus my tip is simple: empower as many of your employees as you can to speak and write publicly. They may not always express themselves as you would, but sometimes their version is better; and in any case, they have to learn from experience. Public recognition will make them happier and more satisfied than they would be otherwise, and you can thereby help them to emerge as leaders.

Joseph M. Levine

(Flying to Albuquerque, NM) I was in Atlanta over the weekend. A panel discussion at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was devoted to my father’s work. It seemed fairly miraculous that he could attend the session, since he has had major surgery five times within the last year and was still in the hospital only one month ago. But the prognosis is good, and he was able to participate actively in the discussion. Seven peers and former students gave short papers about aspects of his work.

My dad’s colleagues and students described an empirical historian, a painstaking scholar with a very concrete, pragmatic bent. His field is intellectual history (also known as the “history of ideas”), with a focus on the history of historical thought in England. His job is to interpret books, letters, speeches, and works of art. Many of his readers are literary critics and art historians who are interested in these texts and objects. Dad treats the works that he studies as events–akin to battles, expeditions, trials, or legislation. In other words, he understands cultural products as intentional human acts, occurring for specific, traceable reasons in particular contexts. That assumption drives him to consider local and specific historical circumstances. Unlike the “new historicists,’ who often understand books as examples of periods, “discourses,” cultures, or traditions, my father tends to see texts as acts performed for specific purposes under specific conditions–for example, to counter something that another author has said. That was how he was taught to practice history even before he decided to specialize in the history of ideas.

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