Monthly Archives: October 2009

Istanbul melancholy

The theme of Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical book Istanbul: Memories of the City is hüzün. That is a Turkish word for melancholy, but it doesn’t mean a private sadness that causes one to retreat by oneself. It is a communal sadness, a shared feeling that is perfectly compatible with mass gatherings or everyday sociability.

The special hüzün of Istanbul comes from the juxtaposition of historical grandeur with poverty and decay. It is the massive Byzantine walls of the city, crumbling next to crooked Ottoman houses that burn up or fall down one by one. It is “a cobblestone staircase with so much asphalt poured over it that its steps have disappeared,” “marble ruins that were for centuries glorious street fountains but now stand dry, their faucets stolen,” “seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain,” “little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby.”

The word hüzün is Turkish but the idea that Istanbul was melancholy was invented by European visitors in the 1800s. They provided the descriptions of the city, both verbal and visual, that are most influential in Turkey today. And their patronizing, sympathetic, appreciative, critical reaction weighs heavily on Turks like Pamuk. It actually causes the city to change, because when Westerners decry Turkish traditions, Turks repeal them. The Western eye also makes reality seem sad: grandeur in decay. “What I have been trying to explain is that the roots of our hüzün are European,” Pamuk writes. “So why is it that I care so much … about what … Westerners have to say about Istanbul?”

I have visited this great city twice, for a total of more than 10 days. In what turns out to be traditional style, I have wandered with a scholarly European guidebook through the poor western quarters of the Old City, finding Byzantine ruins, old mosques, and leftover Ottoman wooden houses whose upper stories lean over the streets. I have relished the hüzün that Pamuk has lived with for half a century. Pamuk both shares and criticizes that reaction.

My one disagreement with Pamuk concerns his use of the categories of East and West. Obviously, he knows his city better than I. But my sense is that Istanbul is not uniquely caught between East and West or between Europe and Asia (despite its literal location on that arbitrary border). Rather, the tension is between tradition and modernity.

For instance, Pamuk grew up in a modern apartment building, each floor of which was equipped with pianos that no one played and china in cabinets than no one opened. The whole building was occupied by members of his family, who left their doors open and visited constantly. They were using a modern apartment building to house a traditional Turkish extended family. You could interpret this case as East meeting West. But apartment buildings with pianos are not traditionally “Western.” Our American and European ancestors didn’t live that way. These are innovations of modernity.

It may be that we have a different relation to modernity in America because it seems more “ours.” When an airplane flies overhead, it symbolizes long-distance travel, which is modern and disruptive. But we know that two brothers from Dayton invented that machine, so it doesn’t feel as alien as it might in Turkey. Still, the spatial location of the inventor is only one aspect of this technology. The airplane has similar effects in Chicago as in Istanbul.

In general, I am suspicious of the concept of the West, or of Western Civilization, because it seems so vague, internally diverse, and porous. Here are some famous “Westerners”: Daniel Boone, Karl Marx, Torquemada, Oscar Wilde, Heidegger, Edison, Malcolm X, Hildegard of Bingen, Catharine the Great, Andy Warhol, Erik the Red, Phyllis Schaffley, Albert Einstein, Paris Hilton. If they have anything in common that a typical Turk does not also share, I’m at a loss to identify it.

I say this because I doubt that the melancholy Pamuk feels (especially as a sensitive and somewhat alienated writer) is as specific to Istanbul as he thinks it is. I suspect the hüzün of Philadelphia and Baltimore is actually rather similar. Like Istanbul, these can be great places to live, and one can love them. But it is hard to escape a sense that their greatness is past and that some kind of alien modernity (or post-modernity) has disrupted their traditions.

Congress considers civic legislation

From my inbox recently:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives has passed House Resolution 769 in support of the National Learn & Serve Challenge. “The resolution publicly recognizes the benefits of service-learning in helping youth become stronger students in the classroom and more engaged citizens in the community.” It was introduced by Representative Todd Platts (R-PA) and cosponsored by Representatives Matsui (D-CA), Kennedy (D-RI), Ehlers (R-MI), and Price (D-NC). The Senate will consider similar legislation, Senate Concurrent Resolution 46, introduced by Senators Murray (D-WA), Bayh (D-IN), Cochran (R-MS), Collins (R-ME), Dodd (D-CT), Feingold (D-WI), Gillibrand (D-NY), and Mikulski (D-MD).
  • A House subcommittee has approved the Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147), a bill that would open the airwaves to hundreds of local independent radio stations.
  • “To highlight the role of digital media in improving lifelong learning, the National Writing Project, the Consortium for School Networking, and Common Sense Media presented at a congressional briefing held in conjunction with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.” Video and other materials from the briefing are available here.

For those following at home:

upcoming panel on community organizing

2009 marks both the centennial of the birth of Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky and the inauguration of another Chicago community organizer as President of the United States.

“Alinsky” and “community organizing” trigger very strong negative responses among conservative activists right now, as a quick Google search will reveal. On the other hand, our survey research finds that few Americans have any opinions at all about community organizing, and the most common responses are vague and positive. Those who actually study Saul Alinsky and/or modern community organizing know that the legacy is complex. Community organizing comes in many forms that are sometimes in conflict with each other. Alinsky himself changed his views substantially during his long career.

We will explore these issues on Friday, November 6, 2009 from 12:30pm – 2:30pm in the Crane Room, Paige Hall, Tufts University. It’s an open session. An RSVP isn’t required, but it’s helpful and you can reply here. There will be free food. I will moderate.

Panelists Include:

Cheryl Andes

chief organizer, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization

Sanford Horwitt

author of “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy”

Danny LeBlanc

CEO, Somerville Community Corporation

Penn Loh

Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, School of Arts and Sciences, Tufts University

Juan Leyton

executive director, Neighbor to Neighbor

Susan Ostrander

Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences, Tufts University

the right way to do a town meeting

Last summer, Democratic Members of Congress fanned out across the country to conduct “town meetings” on health care. They already knew which policies they supported, so these events were not actually the public deliberations that the term “town meeting” implies. They were opportunities for highly motivated individuals to sound off, one at a time, with an elected official in shouting range and cameras rolling. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and not only for the Democratic politicians who organized the “town meetings.” I presume that most of the citizens who attended–including the most conservative ones–were pretty dissatisfied as well.

Not long before, the Congressional Management Foundation and a crack team of researchers had conducted an entirely different kind of congressional town meeting–on the equally controversial topic of immigration. People were randomly invited to participate, so as to create a representative group. Balanced materials were provided, and the discussions were moderated. Members of Congress participated but did not moderate. Everything took place online.

The researchers evaluated this experiment carefully, using a randomly selected control group. Here are the findings that I found most striking:

  • Underrepresented people chose to participate. Younger Americans, lower-income people, racial minorities, women, individuals who do not attend religious services, and people with weak or no partisan affiliations were more likely to participate–in contrast to elections, when all of these groups are less likely to vote.
  • The discussions were substantive, civil, and well-informed. Participants liked them.
  • Participants’ opinions of the politicians with whom they deliberated rose dramatically. Participants also came closer to agreeing with these politicians about the issue under consideration. They were more likely to vote in November (compared to the randomly selected control group), and more likely to vote for the politician with whom they had deliberated. Thus the payoffs for politicians were very favorable–in contrast to the results of last summer’s “town meetings,” which verged on disastrous.

Use a sham process, and you will pay a price. Risk a real discussion, and people may agree with and respect you.

Download Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century here. And here are some related blog posts by me and others: why have town meetings at all?, responses of the deliberation community to last summer’s events, and another important academic study by the authors of the new “Online Town Meetings” paper.

an alternative history of 20th century liberalism

From the 1940s to the 1960s, American liberalism had everything that an ideology should: millions of active adherents, heroes and leaders, supportive organizations (from the AFL-CIO to the ACLU), legislative victories and an unfinished legislative agenda, empirical theories and supportive evidence, and moral principles. The principles could be summarized as the famous Four Freedoms, but we could spell them out a bit more, as follows: The individual liberties in the Bill of Rights trump social goods, but it is the responsibility of the national government to promote social goods once private freedoms have been secured. The chief social goods include minimal levels of welfare for all (the “safety net,” or Freedom from Want), equality of opportunity (achieved through public education, civil rights legislation, and pro-competitive regulation in the marketplace), and consistent prosperity, promoted by Keynesian economic policies during recessions.

These ideas had empirical support from sociology and economics and could be developed into a whole philosophy, as John Rawls did in The Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls’ theses of the “priority of the right to the good” and “the difference principle” really summarize the whole movement.

Rawls hardly mentions modern history or policies, but he cites and argues with major theorists, such as Kant, Mill, and John Harsanyi. So we could tell a story about American liberalism–understood as a set of ideas–that emphasizes its origins in theoretical debates. Franklin Roosevelt constructed a monument to Thomas Jefferson because he wanted to show liberalism’s debts to that enlightenment philosopher; the inside of the Jefferson Monument is bedecked with quotes favorable to the New Deal. Other parts of the liberal synthesis can be traced back to Jefferson’s less popular contemporary, Hamilton. Keynes, Brandeis, Gifford Pinchot, and Felix Frankfurter were more proximate intellectual sources. We could understand the New Deal as a development of Victorian liberalism that added arguments in favor of federal activism to combat monopoly, environmental catastrophe, and the business cycle. A story of liberalism as a set of principles, theories, and proposals implies that a revival will require new ideas and a new intellectual synthesis.

But I would tell the story an entirely different way–as the “scaling up” of concrete examples and experiments that were undertaken originally in a highly pragmatic vein. Think, for example, of Jane Addams in 1889. She is a rich and well-educated person who has no possibility of a career (because she is a woman) and who is deeply troubled by poverty in industrial cities. She is impressed by the concrete example of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. She and Ellen Gates Starr move into a house in a poor district of Chicago without a very clear plan for what to do. They launch projects and events, many of which have a “deliberative” flavor–residents come together to read challenging books, discuss, and debate. Out of these discussions come a kindergarten, a museum, a public kitchen, a bath house, a library, numerous adult education courses, and reform initiatives related to politics and unions. Some 2000 people come to Hull House every day at its peak, to talk, work, advocate, and receive services.

In the 1920s, when progressive state governments like New York’s start building more ambitious social and educational services, they literally fund settlement houses and launch other institutions (schools, state colleges, clinics, public housing projects, welfare agencies) modeled on Hull House and its sister settlements. Then, when Roosevelt takes office and decides to stimulate the economy with federal spending, he creates programs like the WPA that are essentially Hull House writ large.

Here, thanks to Nancy Lorance, is a WPA-funded recreation worker singing with a group of children who live in the Jane Addams public housing project in Chicago during the New Deal:

The combination of culture, education, public investment, and the very name “Jane Addams Housing Project,” pretty much sum up this story of American liberalism as discussion, followed by experimentation, followed by public funding. At the heart of the ideology, so understood, is not a theory but a set of impressive examples.

This is not to deny the intellectual achievement of the movement–Jane Addams, for instance, was an extremely learned and insightful writer. But it suggests that intellectual reflection follows practical experimentation, not the reverse. Even John Rawls can be read as a defender of the concrete reforms of 1930-1970, although he never mentions them. If you find The Theory of Justice persuasive, it’s not because you have imagined yourself in the “original position” and reasoned your way to a set of principles that would apply anywhere. It’s because you think that a government can make a positive difference by guaranteeing the First Amendment, taxing people to a substantial but not overwhelming extent, and spending the proceeds on education, welfare, and health. If you agree with those theses, it’s because of what the actual government has done. The basis of The Theory of Justice is thoroughly experimental.

Today, we have different challenges from those that FDR’s America faced in 1932. Climate change, terrorism, de-industrialization, crime, the lack of social mobility over generations, the close association between economic security and educational attainment, and rising health-care costs would make my list of our challenges. If it’s right to see mid-twentieth-century liberalism as an expansion of pragmatic experimentation, then we should be looking to today’s charter schools, innovative clinics and health plans, land trusts and co-ops, and socially minded business for the concrete cases that merit expansion. We are less in need of major theories than of what Roberto Mangabeira Unger calls a “culture of democratic experimentalism.”