Monthly Archives: April 2010

a long journey

Tonight, I fly to Seattle, Washington, for a meeting at the Gates Foundation. It will be a politically progressive gathering; entitled “The Color of Change,” it is devoted to community organizing by young people from ethnic minorities. After somewhat less than 24 hours on the West Coast, I will take the red-eye flight to the other Washington, our Nation’s Capital, for a meeting at one of the big-three conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute. The topic, again, will be citizenship, albeit from a different perspective (with a focus on formal knowledge, military service, and the incorporation of immigrants) .

I have many thousands of miles and quite a bit of ideological spectrum to traverse between now and Friday evening (when I’ll be back in Boston), so I’m not going to try to blog for the rest of this week.

Syracuse is taking over

I am a native of Syracuse, NY, born and raised. I think my accent is “downstate” thanks to my parents. Our family was part of the Great Brooklyn Diaspora. But I grew up extremely familiar with what I considered a “Syracuse accent,” characterized by distinctive vowels. Given the generally friendly culture of the place, the accent is best illustrated with phrases like, “Heeave a nice day!” Or “Keean you believe it, Sairacuse is in the Cheeampionship!”

As an adult, I have made Midwestern friends with similar accents, especially people from northern Illinois and urban Wisconsin. It turns out that something called the “northern cities vowel shift” began in the vicinity of Syracuse and has been spreading west, like acid rain but in the opposite direction.

On our western frontier, Nordic Minnesotans with their elongated o’s. To our southeast, impregnable New Yuwalk City with all those extra w’s. Canadians to the North, flinty New Englanders to the east (stingy with their “r’s”), and Apallachia not so far southward across Pennsylvania and Ohio. But if nobody minds, we vowel-shifters will be heeyapy to keep on spreadin’ out.

Prof. William Labov is the expert on the vowel shift, and he thinks it may have begun during the construction of the Erie Canal. I personally find the Chicago version just a little different, although I lack the technical training to know how to represent the distinction. Many European-Americans from Cleveland, Madison (that’s Meeadison”), and Michigan sound to me strikingly like their counterparts from Syracuse. It’s not only the vowels: if you grew up in Syracuse, there is something ineffably familiar about a row of double-decker wooden houses on a wintry side street in Madison. Maybe it all comes from living on drumlins or shoveling snow in May.

reason and power in Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is a play about power. The ultimate source of power is popular will–and not only in an official republic like Rome. Even a monstrous dictator like Stalin cannot physically kill millions of his own people; he must harness many others’ wills.

Thus Julius Caesar begins: “Rome. A Street. Enter Flavius, Marullus, and certain Commoners.” There follows a testy interchange between the Senators and the workers, in a public space, concerning political opinions. The people’s choices are and will remain central to the plot.

Once Caesar is killed, the question becomes whether the people in the streets will follow his killers or his surviving allies. Brutus, one of the conspirators and a stoic philosopher (according to the play), has a specific view of how this should play out. The killing itself was appropriately a private act, undertaken secretly by Senators who, by bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood, become a unit. (The play is interested in how different bodies can become one by pact: Portia says that Brutus, “By all [his] vows of love and that great vow / … did incorporate and make us one.”)

Brutus recognizes that he is accountable to the Roman people, so he appears before them to explain what he has done in private. “Public reasons shall be rendered / of Caesar’s death.”

The giving of rather abstract reasons is Brutus’ preferred mode. He uses the word “reason” seven times in the play, twice in clear contrast to “affections.” When he argues a point of military strategy, he states, “Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.” The force, here, is the power of reason itself. (And the problem, again, is persuading the people. The “better reason” that Brutus offers is that “the people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground / Do stand but in a forced affection.”) Although Brutus deeply loves his idealized spouse Portia, when she dies, he takes no time for grief or lamentation. He thinks there is no good reason for such behavior. For Brutus, “reason” means highly cerebral, deliberative, and impersonal thought leading to right action.

Brutus is so confident of the people’s reason that he allows Caesar’s favorite, Mark Antony, to appear immediately after himself and with the body of the assassinated ruler. Mark Antony has a completely different view of how to persuade. He speaks with irony, misdirection, insinuation, and a barrage of rhetorical questions. He offers bribes in the form of Caesar’s (alleged) legacies to the Roman people. Most powerfully, he enacts a public, physical demonstration, in which the people may directly participate.

    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,

    And let me show you him that made the will.

    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

He fingers the blood-soaked robe and possibly lets them who “press” near touch it too:

    Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:

    See what a rent the envious Casca made:

    Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d …

And then Mark Antony invites his countrymen to weep, a physical response that echoes Caesar’s shedding of blood. By this time, they are ready to tear conspirators “to pieces” in the street. When one says, “Methinks there is much reason in [Mark Antony’s] sayings,” the use of the word “reason” is heavy with dramatic irony.

Mark Antony knows that his manipulation of the people is “mischief.” There is really no dispute in the play that Brutus’ way is morally better. At the very end, with Brutus dead, Mark Antony praises him as “the noblest Roman of them all.” What makes Brutus great is his “general honest thought” and concern for the “common good to all.”

The question Shakespeare raises is whether those who openly and candidly promote the common good can possibly prevail in public affairs. I suspect his answer is No. In real life, Caesar led the “populares” (populists) in the Senate, and Brutus belonged to the “optimates” (elitists). The populares appealed to the lower classes with grain subsidies and by limiting slavery, which undercut freemen’s wages. In the play, the populares are wicked (after power rather than the public good), and the optimates are doomed men of virtue. That would make the play deeply conservative.

Shakespeare does not seem to consider a democratic interpretation: the people act badly in the play because they have no part in the crucial decision to kill Caesar but are merely asked to render judgment after the fact. Brutus is not simply virtuous but also cold and peremptory, reserving decisions to himself and expecting others to follow his “reasons.” Brutus and Mark Antony are not the only two possible models of a politician in a republic: we can hope for empathy and modesty along with virtue. To describe that third course would have made Julius Caesar a worse tragedy, and less accurate as history, but it would have opened democratic possibilities.

a critical review from the left

Alan Singer has written a strong and (in its own way) valid critical review of my recent book with Jim Youniss, Engaging Young People in Civic Life. Singer begins:

    Former Congressional Representative Lee Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, makes the purpose of this book clear in the preface. Civic education means moderated discussions in classrooms, encouraging participation in student government, preparing students to volunteer in their communities and enlist in the armed forces, and promoting participation in electoral politics. Civic engagement, as represented in this book, is polite. Unstated, but clear from its absence in the preface and throughout the text, it does not mean passion, and it does not mean questioning authority, challenging social inequality, and organizing protests against government policies.

    The Civil Rights Movement is briefly mentioned on page 7 and Martin Luther King, Jr. on page 273. NOW, abortion rights, the labor movement, student rights campaigns, community control, and anti-Vietnam war and anti-draft protests are never mentioned. It is hard to believe, but in a book that claims to explore engaging young people in civic life, the movements that successfully engaged them when I was a teenage activist in the 1960s are completely ignored. That is because this book, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation as part of its promotion of democracy in the United States, is not about civic engagement at all. It is about service-learning, electoral politics, and assimilating young people into the mainstream political


There is definitely some truth to this. I’m pretty pro-regime. I don’t like a lot of current policies and leaders, but I think the system is valuable, fragile, and liable to get worse if we don’t care for it. I don’t presume by the way, that all my co-authors would share that position; some are more radical. It does seem to me that preserving a system counts as “civic engagement,” so I can’t accept Singer’s claim that we’re “not about civic engagement at all.” We address several varieties of it, but we don’t define it as left-radicalism.

A major goal of the book is to benefit young people by giving them positive roles in their communities. We summarize research showing that such opportunities lead to better lives for the young people who participate. Although I also defend their right to protest and criticize, contributing to their communities pays off for them best–and that is a valuable outcome.

Singer writes:

    Young people have played major roles in transformative social movements throughout the 20th century and the first decade of the new century. In the United States, they were at the center of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, and bravely desegregated schools in the face of hostile mobs. In Soweto, South Africa, a student strike precipitated the campaign

    that brought down the apartheid regime. In the 1960s and early 1990s high school and college students were major participants in mass anti-war movements and protests that helped to bring down the Soviet Union. In Europe and the United States immigrant rights campaigns have mobilized young people. There is much to report, if this is what you believe is important.

This is all true, but four caveats apply. First, the valuable outcomes of such participation were the social changes they achieved. For instance, young people played an important role in overturning Jim Crow in the American South, and that was a great achievement. But it didn’t benefit them directly. Doug McAdam shows in Freedom Summer that the elite, predominantly white college student participants who went to Mississippi in 1964 were worse off than a comparison group in terms of their happiness, tangible welfare, and satisfaction in the 1980s. They paid a steep price for their activism. Their sacrifice was commendable, but our book is mostly about something else: helping disadvantaged young people to do better in life.

Second, the outcomes of youth political participation are not inevitably good. European fascism had a strong youth component. The American Civil Rights movement had distinguished elders. If you want to change the world for the better, the key questions are: What kind of change is desirable? And how can we get it? Whether and how youth should participate is a subsidiary issue.

Third, student activism was relatively rare even at the height of what we call “the sixties.” In 1968, according to the HERI College Freshmen Survey, just 29.9% of first-year college students frequently talked about politics. This was during a year of assassinations, a momentous presidential election, the draft, riots, and war. In 1970, 3.1% of college freshmen considered their views “far left.” Another 33.5% considered themselves liberals, leaving the majority as moderate, conservative, or unwilling to say.

Finally, imitating the radical movements of the 1960s might be welcome, but it isn’t what most contemporary young people seem to want. If your commitment is not to particular social outcomes but to authentic youth voice, you have to listen to their priorities. Of course, today’s young people are diverse and disagree among themselves, but the proportion who want to move the country in a radically leftward direction is small. For example, in many of the programs that encourage young urban students of color to choose their own issue for activism, the stance they choose is basically defensive and–in a Burkean sense–conservative. They fight against school closings, privatization, and budget cuts. In other words, they seek to preserve the status quo. That may not be anyone’s favorite kind of civic engagement (including theirs), but it surely counts.

what was Rawls doing?

John Rawls was the most influential recent academic political philosopher in the English-speaking world, or at least the most influential academic who defended liberal views. If you take him at face value, he is a very abstract kind of thinker. In fact, he says in section 3 of A Theory of Justice:

    My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original social contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.

In a famous methodological move, he defines the “original position” as one in which persons are ignorant of all morally irrelevant facts so that each cannot “tailor principles to the circumstances of [his or her] own case.” By making us ignorant of most empirical facts about ourselves, Rawls makes his theory seem more abstract than even Kant’s.

As Rawls works out the actual framework of justice, it turns out that the government should do certain things and not others. Parties to the original contract would want there to be “roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should be not be affected by their social class.” To achieve this outcome, the government should fund education and channel educational resources to the least advantaged. I presume it should also regulate employment contracts to prevent discrimination, thus enacting the principle of “careers open to talents.” But the government should not be in charge of child-rearing, even though families affect people’s capacities and motivations. (“Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.”) The state should compensate people from unhappy families, but should not take over the family’s traditional function.

Why not? One answer might be that Rawls was insufficiently radical and consistent. He arbitrarily excluded the family from his program of reform because of prejudice. I have a different view than this–more favorable to Rawls’ conclusions but less supportive of his methods.

I don’t believe that his reasoning was nearly as abstract as he claimed. Instead, I think he was a reader of newspapers and an observer of life in America, ca. 1945-1975. He observed that the actual government did a pretty good job of providing universal education but could still improve the equality of educational opportunity. The government policed employment contracts increasingly well to prevent racial and gender discrimination, albeit with room for improvement. But the government didn’t do child-rearing well. (The foster care system was only an emergency response that, in any case, relied on private volunteers.) Rawls derived from the immediate past and present some principles for further reform.

That interpretation makes Rawls a good thinker, sensible and helpful, but not quite the kind of thinker he believed himself to be. In my view, he was less like Kant (elucidating the universal Kingdom of Ends from the perspective of pure reason) and more like Franklin Roosevelt, defending the course of the New Deal and Great Society in relatively general and idealistic terms. Or he was like John Dewey, critically observing reality from an immanent perspective. The reason this distinction matters is methodological. As we go forward from Rawls, I think we need more social experimentation and reflection on it, not better abstract reasoning about the social contract.