Monthly Archives: February 2009

Everyday Democracy

I’m proud to announce that I’ve joined the board of the Paul J. Aicher Foundation (official release here). That’s an operating foundation that funds one major project: Everyday Democracy. In turn, Everyday Democracy assists communities in holding diverse conversations about issues that matter to them. As explained in this handy history, the late and much loved Paul Aicher revived Study Circles in the United States in the 1980s. (They had a heritage here, and were also common in Scandinavia and South Africa–as I understand.) The organization he created was called the Study Circles Resource Center, but its projects multiplied and shifted, and it finally made sense to rename it.

I’d place Everyday Democracy in two fields, for the sake of introducing its work. First, it’s part of the deliberative democracy movement–indeed, it is a leader in that movement. Citizens’ deliberations vary in many respects: they can be small or large; randomly-selected, demographically representative, or open to volunteers; episodic or continuous; sponsored by governments, consortia, or citizens; focused on local, national, or global issues–and so on. As it evolved in the US, the Study Circles model developed particular characteristics: local, community-wide, self-selected but diverse, and sustained over several months. I am in favor of a rich ecosystem of experimentation, but I admire this model, at least as an important example. It is less about learning what the public as a whole would say if it were informed (which is the purpose of random selection), and more about convening diverse activists–and activists-to-be–for open conversations.

Which brings me to the second field in which Everyday Democracy works: community organizing. Again, there are many forms of community organizing, which vary in respect to whether they draw ideologically diverse or homogeneous citizens; emerge from religious congregations, unions, parties, or civic organizations; emphasize discussion, political advocacy, consumer organizing, or economic activity–and so on. Everyday Democracy is particularly strong on discussion and diversity of participants. It can, by the way, comfortably coexist with other forms of community organizing.

learning about social media

My head is swimming with recent conversations that touch on social media, civic engagement, and young people. I’d define “social media” as any of the Internet technologies that make it easy to distribute your own creations and form relationships with others online. These tools include “friending” people in Facebook, commenting on their blogs or YouTube videos, or following them on Twitter.

Yesterday, I met with my Tufts colleague Marina Bers, who (among many other projects) has created a virtual world for in-coming Tufts undergraduates who build an ideal university before they attend the real one. A movie of the 2006 summer project is really remarkable.

In the evening, I was on a panel at Harvard with the psychologist Howard Gardner, my friend Joe Kahne (who is one of the most acute and productive scholars of civic education), and Miriam Martinez, who represents one of the best programs for high school students, the Mikva Challenge in Chicago. It was an informal conversation, ably steered by Gardner, and we talked a bit about what kinds of social media use constitute “civic engagement.” (Are you civically engaged if you join a Harry Potter fan group?)

And then this morning, I presented our own social media tool, YouthMap, to the Boston Social Media breakfast ( #SMB12 ). That’s a gathering of about 75 business, tech, and activist types who meet in a jazz club–at 8 am–to examine new tools and strategies.

Speaking just for myself … I’m finding Facebook increasingly fun now that the demographics have tipped and lots of us non-hip Generation-Xers are using it. I watched the President speak with Facebook open and got a kick out of the comments. Blogging is a big part of my life–both writing and reading–but it’s not really a “social medium” for me. I mostly read blogs by professional reporters and I compose my posts as fairly conventional short editorials. I have a Twitter login but haven’t found a way to use it that makes me comfortable.

the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act

Last night, the president spoke strongly and explicitly in favor of the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, which would expand the number of slots for paid national and community service and increase the quality of those positions. I have blogged in support of that legislation, and my post evolved into an article entitled “The Case for Service” in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly (PDF). Basically, I see service as experiential education that builds job skills, increases young adults’ odds of attending college, and teaches them civic skills so that they can address problems in their communities. The “service” dimension is important educationally because many (although probably not all) young people learn better when they have opportunities to contribute. AmeriCorps and related programs are also extremely important for equity. The more advantaged half of the young population that attends college receives educational opportunities subsidized by the public. But those who do not continue formal education beyond high school find that almost all government-funded educational programs have age limits of 18 or 21. Working-class youth are basically subsidizing their more advantaged peers’ learning opportunities with their tax dollars. Service programs such as YouthBuild, Public Allies, City Year, and the National Civilian Community Corps (among others) help to right this imbalance by offering opportunities to young adults who may not be on the college track.

the politics of negative capability

Zadie Smith’s article “Speaking in Tongues” (The New York Review, Feb 26) combines several of the fixations of this blog–literature as an alternative to moral philosophy, deliberation, Shakespeare, and Barack Obama–and makes me think that my own most fundamental and pervasive commitment is “negative capability.” That is Keat’s phrase, quoted thus by Zadie Smith:

    At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Other critics have noted Shakespeare’s remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill “myriad-mindedness,” and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was “free from our questions.” Hazlitt said that the “striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds–so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men.” Keats aspired to have the same “poetical Character” as Shakespeare. Borrowing closely from Hazlitt, Keats said that his own type of poetic imagination “has no self–it is every thing and nothing–It has no character. … It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion poet.” When we read philosophical prose, we encounter explicit opinions that reflect the author’s thinking. But, said Keats, although “it is a wretched thing to express … it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature [i.e., my identity].”

In Shakespeare’s case, it helps, of course, that he left no recorded statements about anything other than his own business arrangements: no letters like Keats’ beautiful ones, no Nobel Prize speech to explain his views, no interviews with Charlie Rose. All we have is his representation of the speech of thousands of other people.

Stephen Greenblatt, in a book that Smith quotes, attributes Shakespeare’s negative capability to his childhood during the wrenching English Reformation. Under Queen Mary, you could be burned for Protestantism. Under her sister Queen Elizabeth, you could have your viscera cut out and burned before your living eyes for Catholicism. It is likely that Shakespeare’s father was both: he helped whitewash Catholic frescoes and yet kept Catholic texts hidden in his attic. This could have been simple subterfuge, but it’s equally likely that he was torn and unsure. His “identical nature” was mixed. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare learned to avoid taking any positions himself and instead created fictional worlds full of Iagos and Imogens and Falstaffs and Prince Harrys.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama? As far as I know, he is the first American president who can write convincing dialog (in Dreams from My Father). He understands and expresses other perspectives as well as his own. And he has wrestled all his life with a mixed identity.

Smith is a very acute reader of Obama:

    We now know that Obama spoke of Main Street in Iowa and of sweet potato pie in Northwest Philly, and it could be argued that he succeeded because he so rarely misspoke, carefully tailoring his intonations to suit the sensibility of his listeners. Sometimes he did this within one speech, within one line: ‘We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.’ Awesome God comes to you straight from the pews of a Georgia church; poking around feels more at home at a kitchen table in South Bend, Indiana. The balance was perfect, cunningly counterpoised and never accidental.

The challenge for Obama is that he doesn’t write fiction (although Smith remarks that he “displays an enviable facility for dialogue”), but instead holds political office. Generally, we want our politicians to say exactly what they think. To write lines for someone else to say, with which you do not agree, is an important example of “irony.” We tend not to like ironic leaders. Socrates’ “famous irony” was held against him at his trial. Achilles exclaims, “I hate like the gates of hell the man who says one thing with his tongue and another in his heart.” That is a good description of any novelist–and also of Odysseus, Achilles’ wily opposite, who dons costumes and feigns love. Generally, people with the personality of Odysseus, when they run for office, at least pretend to resemble the straightforward Achilles.

But what if you are not too sure that you are right (to paraphrase Learned Hand’s definition of a liberal)? What if you see things from several perspectives, and–more importantly–love the fact that these many perspectives exist and interact? What if your fundamental cause is not the attainment of any single outcome but the vibrant juxtaposition of many voices, voices that also sound in your own mind?

In that case, you can be a citizen or a political leader whose fundamental commitments include freedom of expression, diversity, and dialogue or deliberation. Of course, these commitments won’t tell you what to do about failing banks or Afghanistan. Negative capability isn’t sufficient for politics. (Even Shakespeare must have made decisions and expressed strong personal opinions when he successfully managed his theatrical company). But in our time, when the major ideologies are hollow, problems are complex, cultural conflict is omnipresent and dangerous, and relationships have fractured, a strong dose of non-cynical irony is just what we need.

consolation of mortality

I just finished Jonathan Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is the memoir of a novelist who fears death. I read it because the quotations in reviews were very funny; because, as a fellow chronophobiac, I hoped that some wisdom and solace might be mixed in with the humor; and because I knew the author’s brother Jonathan at Oxford around 1990 and wanted to understand more about this philosopher who “often wears a kind of eighteenth-century costume designed for him by his younger daughter: knee breeches, stockings, buckle shoes on the lower half; brocade waistcoat, stock, long hair tied in a bow on the upper.” (This is Julian’s description. I would add that the effect is less foppish that you’d think. The wearer resembles a plain-spun, serious Man of the Enlightenment much more than a dandy.)

Anyway, it’s a good book and certainly amusing. But Barnes treats the most powerful consolation of morality very subtly–if he recognizes it at all. I mean the consolation of the first person plural. I will die, but we will live on. We think in both the singular and plural and probably began the former first, when we stared at our parents. Language, thought, culture, desire–everything that matters is both individual and profoundly social.

“After I die, other people will go about their ordinary lives, laughing, singing, complaining about trifles, never mourning or even missing me.” That is the solipsist’s jealous lament. But the mood changes as soon as the grammar shifts. “Even though I must pass, our ordinary life will continue in all its richness and pleasure.”

What we count as the “we” is flexible–it can range from a dyad of lovers to the whole human race. No such “we” is guaranteed immortality. It depresses Jonathan Barnes that humanity must someday vanish along with our solar system (and we may finish ourselves off a lot faster than that). But no large collectivity of human beings is doomed to a fixed life span. We can outlive you and me, and you and I can help to make that happen. This is a consolation available to all human beings, whatever they may believe about souls and afterlives. But it is not, I think, much of a comfort to Jonathan Barnes.