Monthly Archives: April 2007

a youth preamble

I spent some of the weekend in Wisconsin with, which is planning to create a “youth declaration.” I couldn’t draft such a document, because it should be written collaboratively by many young Americans–not by one graying Gen-Xer. However, if I were randomly selected for the Thomas Jefferson or Tom Hayden role, this is how I might begin:

We, Americans born after 1975, have earned a place in public life. We volunteer at much higher rates than our parents when they were young. We have pioneered new ways of sharing information and creating public goods, from hip-hop culture to YouTube. Forty percent of us are people of color; of all American generations so far, we are the best at working with people from diverse backgrounds. We are idealistic and concerned.

For the most part, we accept the basic principles of American society. Few of us challenge corporate capitalism, representative democracy, education, science, or the maintenance of an effective military.

Yet we charge you, the older generations of Americans, with betraying your principles:

You claim to support a market economy, yet you have borrowed eight trillion dollars in public debt that you expect us to pay back, with interest, from our salaries.

You claim to favor entrepreneurialism and competition, yet you bequeath to us crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and many forms of inherited privilege.

You claim to practice representative democracy, yet those who govern us are mostly older white men–many of them millionaires, many of them children of powerful officeholders. They do not represent us, and they do not seem accountable to us or concerned about our long-term interests.

You claim to prize education as the path to success, yet you have given us schools so flawed that one third of us do not even complete the twelfth grade.

We are already playing constructive roles and are ready for more obligations and responsibilities. But you must take us seriously. We are ready for a conversation about how we can address our country’s most serious challenges.

four years after the “Civic Mission of Schools”

(Wingspread, near Racine, Wisconsin) I’m here for a meeting of, which is working with various partners to try to construct a declaration or manifesto on behalf of the Millennial Generation. Young Americans from across the country will have a substantial role in creating this declaration; we are talking about how to organize the process. That question raises many complex and interesting issues. My head is so full of conflicting thoughts and echoes of other people’s speech that I do not feel ready to write anything here.

Instead, let me recommend the current issue of CIRCLE’s newsletter (PDF here; or free copies are available by request to Dionne Williams). Four years ago, CIRCLE and Carnegie Corporation of New York published the report entitled The Civic Mission of Schools. Since then, we at CIRCLE have helped launch a lobbying campaign to fight for the report’s recommendations and funded additional research to address questions that the report raised–using $1 million in research support from Carnegie. Our latest newsletter summarizes the policy changes and the new research, showing the benefits of commitment and sustained focus.

Iraq: the power of words

(From the Avis car rental office at O’Hare Airport, Chicago) Here are two critical issues of terminology that affect our conduct of the Iraq war:

Whom are we fighting?

Our enemy cannot be defined as the Iraqi unsurgency. That’s a disparate collection of factions that are mainly fighting one another and will continue to do so after we leave. It cannot be “terrorism,” because (as many have noted) that’s a method, not a cause, an organization, or a movement. “Terrorism” cannot even be defined without courting controversy. But if we are automatically at war with any entity that uses terrorist tactics (as standardly understood), then we’d better prepare for combat in countries from Ireland to Sri Lanka–of which Sudan ought to be our top priority.

I certainly hope our enemy isn’t Islam, because that’s one of the world’s great religions, and millions of our own citizens are members. Al-Qaeda is an enemy, but it’s too loosely organized and small to define our long-term problem. If Al-Qaeda were wiped out, we would still have a struggle on our hands. The word “Islamofacism” has been criticized for causing offense. By itself, that objection wouldn’t necessarily bother me; but it does seem a misleading and sloppy term. Fascism, invented in Italy in the 1930s, was anticlerical, secular, regimented and militaristic, enthusiastic about engineering and mass media, and committed to social order. Osama bin Laden appears to be on the opposite side of most of those issues. We need a word that describes a particular form of reactionary, violent, antisemitic, patriarchal, authoritarian politics that draws from Sunni fundamentalism but also from reactionary European thought; that mimics clerical titles without engaging the traditional clergy; and that embraces decentralized, anarchic tactics despite its vision of a unified, hierarchical theocracy. That movement is probably not our biggest problem in Iraq, let alone the world; but it is worth fighting.

2) What should we call the inevitable US withdrawal from Iraq?

The White House wants to call it a “surrender” or a “defeat.” That’s a tactic to make congressional Democrats look bad for demanding an end to the combat. And perhaps the president really feels that we would win if we did not leave; thus pulling out is a “surrender.” However, the White House’s terminology will have terrible consequences for the country. When we do leave Iraq–as we will–calling our own departure a “surrender” will give our enemies an enormous propaganda victory. At home, it will fuel a debate about which party caused the defeat. (Was it Bush, by starting the war, or the Democrats, by ending it?) That debate will be deeply divisive, especially because Republicans and Democrats tend to be separated by geography, ethnicity, profession, and creed.

Many Democrats will be tempted to call the withdrawal the end of a fiasco or a debacle. That terminology will be tempting because it is at least partly true, plus it piles lots of blame and shame on the incumbent administration. The problems are: 1) It makes our troops’ sacrifices look completely pointless and hides the competent, ethical, and courageous soldiering that has occurred. 2) It gives Republicans–including those outside the administration–no incentive to compromise and help get the troops home. And 3) It fuels the same debate noted in the previous paragraph: not necessarily to the advantage of liberals.

I would therefore be tempted to take the following line: Whether or not we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, we succeeded in removing a hateful dictator and smashing a major army halfway around the world with hardly any casualties on our side. That is a sign of enormous strength. A civil war then broke out. That conflict is morally our responsibility, because we might have been able to prevent it. In any case, we are accountable for what happens to a population whose nation we chose to invade. Nevertheless, there is very little we can do to end the civil war. We lack the necessary skills and knowledge. More important, civil conflict is just not something that can be resolved by an outside force; it must be negotiated by the parties. Possibly, if we imposed an effective martial law for many years, the factions in the Iraqi domestic conflict would run out of energy and resources. But the odds favor disastrous results even from such an enormous investment of our resources. Therefore, it is past time to leave. This is a moral failure but not a military defeat, and it is certainly not a “surrender.”

charter schools: where we stand

I live in a city, Washington, that is shifting to charter schools. They will enroll a majority of the public school population by 2014 if current trends continue. According to V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbe in today’s Washington Post, “D.C. charter school enrollment rose during the past five years by 9,000, to 19,733 in 55 schools, while the traditional school system closed classrooms as enrollment dropped by almost 13,000, to 55,355.”

Traditional American public schools are centrally governed by local authorities that can be quite large: New York City enrolls more than one million children. Charter schools, a recent innovation, are publicly funded but self-governing (as long as they retain their “charters” from the city or state). In DC, they receive about $11,000 per pupil they enroll plus some money for facilities. I don’t think any of our charter schools’ teachers are unionized. Currently, seven percent of the charters in my city are meeting the standards for “adequate yearly progress” under federal law, compared to 19 percent of the city’s standard public schools. Nevertheless, the charters are growing by 13 percent per year as parents move their kids to them.

On one hand:

  • Charters test the idea that parental choice will produce better outcomes, as a monopoly is replaced with a market. The DC charter schools may serve a harder population than the regular schools, which could partly explain their very low success rate on standardized tests. But clearly, choice is no panacea–not if only seven percent of the charters can meet standards of adequate yearly progress.
  • Charters test the theory that too much money is wasted in the downtown bureaucracy and fails to reach the buildings where the kids are. Each charter gets a guaranteed amount of cash, yet they perform worse than the schools in the main system, which must share their funds with downtown.
  • Charters test the proposition that teachers’ unions are the problem. This may sound like a ridiculous idea to some readers (especially those who read from overseas); but there is a widespread view in the US that teachers’ unions are the root cause of our failing schools. The unionized DC schools seem to perform better than the non-unionized charters.
  • On the other hand:

  • I do not object to charter schools on ideological grounds. They are public schools in the same way that schools in Western European social democracies are public–funded and licensed by the state. The fact that governance is decentralized does not make them private. In our own family’s school, I think most parents would oppose becoming a charter on the grounds that we would be abandoning the public system in favor of a “market.” I’d have no such objection, but would be proud to call our school “public” even if it seceded from the citywide bureaucracy.
  • The citywide bureaucracy frequently treats parents and teachers with disrespect, even open contempt. I strongly suspect this is one reason that people are shifting over to the charters, which are more likely to treat people politely and respectfully.
  • Charters give adults opportunities to work and innovate within the public sector. One would hope the results would be good, and so far they are mixed. But apart from the results, participation is arguably a right of citizenship.
  • Although I would not ignore test results and “adequate yearly progress,” these are not the only criteria. Parents may be shifting to charter schools because of other values. I spent part of the morning looking for national survey results about what parents want for their kids. The questions that I found struck me as excessively narrow or beside the point. But everyday experience suggests that in a diverse city like Washington, people want various things for their children–values, cultural references, experiences, and supports. They may be looking for charters that match those preferences more closely than the regular schools do.
  • celebrity culture and politics

    The five “most popular” stories on CNN today are:

    1. “Judd: How a $10 net can stop a killer” (actress Ashley Judd endorses anti-malaria nets.)

    2. “Basinger: I didn’t leak Baldwin phone message” (a domestic spat between two formerly married actors)

    3. “Dern: ‘Ellen’ kiss put me out of work” (one actress kissing another actress causes a scandal)

    4. “Commentary: The hypocrisy of repeating the ‘w-word'” (about the Don Imus affair)

    CNN is a news channel. The dominance of entertainers is striking, although perhaps not surprising in our era. People turn to actors, singers, and comedians for advice on serious issues–such as malaria–and for cases and controversies that can provoke debate about everyday issues. Some good may come of this, for instance, if Ashley Judd is correct about malaria nets and if people act on her advice. But there are serious dangers.

    First, it seems unfair and arbitrary that physically attractive people with (some) talent for singing and acting should be able to influence social norms and political opinions. But that unfairness may be unavoidable. In a country of 300 million people, most leaders start with arbitrary advantages. It’s just too hard to rise from anonymity to national leadership within a few decades of working life unless one has a leg up. That’s why most of our political leaders are the children or spouses of former presidents or presidential candidates–interspersed with a few billionaires and an occasional general. It’s not clear that being the son of a president and grandson of a senator is any worse of a qualification for leadership than, say, starring opposite Morgan Freeman in “High Crimes.”

    But I think celebrity culture is worse than merely unfair. It’s pernicious because celebrities are admired for what we assume are purely individual talents and successes. In truth, movies are group productions; and actors and singers are coached and taught by others. All human achievements are at least somewhat collaborative. But stars are prized for what they say and do apparently on their own, not for leading or inspiring colleagues or sharing tasks with others.

    Celebrity culture is also pernicious because everyone knows that you don’t have to be ethical, wise, or well-informed to be famous. You can achieve celebrity without even the pretense of virtue if you and your talents are attractive enough. In contrast, politicians at least presume to have good ideas and high personal character. Ever since the word “politician” entered the English language, it has provoked cynicism. (“Get thee glass eyes; / And, like a scurvy politician, seem, / To see the things thou dost not.” Lear, IV. 6.) But the cynicism arises because of a gap between promise and reality. Celebrities promise nothing but entertainment.

    Further, celebrities are rich. They attract attention because of their consumption–their clothes, houses, and travel. Some celebrities are nothing but rich. Nonetheless, they are treated as peers of musicians and actors who might actually have talent. That indicates that central to the definition of a “celebrity” is conspicuous consumption, which is bad for nature and the soul.

    Finally, the modern celebrity culture erases distinctions between public and private life. Some performers lead dignified lives out of the public eye and expect us to pay attention only to their work; some politicians and tycoons lead personal lives that fascinate the tabloid press. The problem is not that movie stars and singers have too much prominence, but rather that we treat most prominent people (regardless of their fields) like the winners of a high school popularity contest. They seem interesting because of their personal behavior, especially as it involves sex. This cannot be good for the culture. It is bad for politics if we expect our political leaders to act like celebrities.