Monthly Archives: August 2011

Tocqueville the particularist

I believe that: 1) moral knowledge is irreducibly experiential and particularistic; hence 2) efforts to replace moral judgment with general methods and principles cannot succeed; and thus 3) we need democratic deliberation by people who also have diverse practical experiences.

The particularistic part of this argument (1)  seems an overlooked element in Alexis de Tocqueville’s political philosophy. Consider vol. 2, book 1, chapter 3 of Democracy in America:

THE deity does not regard the human race collectively. He surveys at one glance and severally all the beings of whom mankind is composed; and he discerns in each man the resemblances that assimilate him to all his fellows, and the differences that distinguish him from them. God, therefore, stands in no need of general ideas. …

Such, however, is not the case with man. If the human mind were to attempt to examine and pass a judgment on all the individual cases before it, the immensity of detail would soon lead it astray and it would no longer see anything. [So people are forced to generalize, but …]

General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency of the human intellect; for there are in nature no beings exactly alike, no things precisely identical, no rules indiscriminately and alike applicable to several objects at once.

De Tocqueville is not quick to connect particularistic thinking and democracy. Quite the contrary; he presumes that democracy encourages the habit of hasty generalization:

In the ages of equality all men are independent of each other, isolated, and weak. The movements of the multitude are not permanently guided by the will of any individuals; at such times humanity seems always to advance of itself. In order, therefore, to explain what is passing in the world, man is driven to seek for some great causes, which, acting in the same manner on all our fellow creatures, thus induce them all voluntarily to pursue the same track. This again naturally leads the human mind to conceive general ideas and superinduces a taste for them. … When I repudiate the traditions of rank, professions, and birth …, I am inclined to derive the motives of my opinions from human nature itself, and this leads me necessarily, and almost unconsciously, to adopt a great number of very general notions.

His leading example is his own people, the French, who are both egalitarian and prone to quick generalization and abstract thinking. But the Americans are an exception (chap. 4):

This difference between the Americans and the French originates in several causes, but principally in the following one. The Americans are a democratic people who have always directed public affairs themselves. The French are a democratic people who for a long time could only speculate on the best manner of conducting them. The social condition of the French led them to conceive very general ideas on the subject of government, while their political constitution prevented them from correcting those ideas by experiment and from gradually detecting their insufficiency; whereas in America the two things constantly balance and correct each other.

I am not interested in distinctions between French and American people, but in the ideal model that de Tocqueville attributed to the United States of his time. Because Americans made relatively few social distinctions, and great masses of people could vote on legislation, they were in danger of embracing general ideas that would distort reality. Indeed, this has been a recurrent frailty of our political culture. However, because we Americans “direct public affairs ourselves,” we learn to accommodate our general principles to complex reality. Denying Americans the right to participate directly–for instance, by dramatically limiting the role of juries in criminal law or, in general, by over-empowering an expert class–will make Americans worse at thinking and judging.

service and the 9/11 anniversary

According to the New York Times, the White House has instructed domestic agencies about “9/11 Anniversary Planning”:

These guidelines also acknowledge that Americans will expect government leaders to explain what steps have been taken to prevent another 9/11-style attack and to encourage Americans to volunteer in their communities this Sept. 11. [They] also ask something of Americans that has been lacking in Washington: ‘We will also draw on the spirit of unity that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.’

I wish I could read the instructions themselves. (Googling for them produces outraged headlines on right-wing sites, like: “Obama even regulates how to commemorate the 9/11 terror attacks.” In fact, the Chief Executive gave instructions to employees who report to him within the federal government.)

Meanwhile, I’ve also been getting press questions about the relationship between 9/11 and volunteering, service, or national unity. People ask whether the original attacks increased service, whether that effect has worn off, and whether leaders took advantage of the opportunity to enhance service. These are my main thoughts:

1. Volunteering rose between 2002 and 2004 and then fell off somewhat after 2005. We don’t know much about the trends before 2002 because relevant survey questions were not asked regularly, but we do know that high school students’ volunteering rose through the 1980s and 1990s. The changes in national rates since 2002 have not been dramatic. If 9/11 had an effect, it probably wasn’t large.

source: CIRCLE

2. Volunteering is not mainly a reflection of motivation. It is more a function of opportunity, organization, and recruitment. The neighbors you see picking up trash on the local playground are not there primarily because they had an urge to serve and looked for something to do. They are there because: 1) there is a playground, 2) somebody organized a clean-up, and 3) they were asked to participate. Motivation matters at the margin, especially to get the organizers going. It is not the main factor in explaining volunteer rates.

Thus I wouldn’t expect 9/11/01 to produce a vast wave of extra volunteering by motivating people, nor would I explain the modest decline after 2005 as a result of waning enthusiasm. I suspect budget cuts hurt from 2006-10. After all, if the playground is closed, the volunteer coordinator is laid off, or the community newspaper shuts down, that will suppress volunteering rates.

3. There is, and always has been, a non sequitur in this argument: The United States was attacked by dangerous terrorists, so volunteer at your neighborhood school. The problem is not that civic engagement lacks value or relevance at a time of crisis. The problem is with the standard modes of “volunteering,” which miss the kinds of problems that 9/11 represents (national security, a destroyed section of a great city, relations with the Muslim world, civil liberties).

In a period of rampant professionalism, we assume that paid experts must address those really serious problems, while volunteers can read to kindergartners. Reading to kindergartners is good, but it has nothing to do with 9/11 except symbolically. And the meaning of the symbol troubles me. It is supposed to be about caring and unity, but to me it conveys passivity and marginalization. It’s as if the government said: “We’ll ‘explain what steps have been taken to prevent another 9/11-style attack’; you show you care by volunteering in your community.”


I am stuck after nearly a week’s travel because the hurricane has canceled my flights homeward. But Cincinnati is a handsome and impressive place in which to be stranded. I am staying in the Netherland Plaza, an Art Deco extravaganza. It was built immediately after the stock market crash of ’29 with money that had been withdrawn from the market in the nick of time and could purchase vast quantities of cheap, skilled labor and exotic materials. The building was meant to be futuristic, with a garage that automatically parked your car and strange light fixtures that  glowed with decorative, transparent slides. (“Approach, earthlings. I am the one-eyed king of our planet.”)

picture by Virginia Berkel

Near the hotel is the mighty Ohio River, which made Cincinnati into America’s first important inland city in the 1800s, before railroads competed with rivers and westward expansion gave rise to new population centers well beyond the Ohio Valley. Cincinnati’s early development gave it an unusual base of important old buildings and institutions. For example, I enjoyed exploring the Mount Auburn neighborhood, a yuppie district perched castle-like on a high hill and almost surrounded by moat-like interstate highways. Quiet on a Sunday afternoon, Mount Auburn reminded me of side-streets in San Francisco.

deep in the thickets of test design

(Cincinnati, OH) I have arrived here for meetings about standards in social studies. We have been sitting around a hollow-square table; a separate round stand holds the projector. There are damp steel water pitchers on the tables, which are covered with white linen skirts almost down to the heavily patterned carpet. In all these respects, the meeting precisely replicates the one that I left several hours ago in DC.

I was in Washington to help design the NAEP Assessment in Civics. I had also served on the design committee for the last NAEP Assessment, which was administered in 2010. Once again I am struck by the immense complexity of this effort, by the high degree of care, sophistication, and dedication of the scores of people involved–and by our tendency, in modern America, to dodge profound political or philosophical questions by trying to make our decisions look statistical or procedural rather than substantive. An elaborate system of review enlists experts, stakeholders, political appointees, civil servants, students who take pilot, and federal contractors. Most of this review is technical. But the great issues are: What should good citizens think and know? and (beneath that first one) What is true and important about our world?

I can’t really improve on my description of the NAEP process from March 2010, except to say that then, the windowless room with the hollow-square table was in Phoenix.

if we are going to put millions in prison, WE should make millions of decisions

(Washington, DC) Our jails and prisons hold 1.6 million people: the highest incarceration rate in the world. One percent of us are incarcerated at any given time, not counting almost 14 million ex-fellons. These rates are much higher for young adults and especially for young men of color. There are 1.5 million children with at least one parent in prison. When you consider that prison rape and the use of solitary confinement (which causes severe mental illness) are common, it is clear that we are sentencing many of our fellow citizens to conditions similar to torture. Not to mention that it costs us about $23,000/year to incarcerate a person in the United States.

We are doing this–choosing to do it by passing referenda and by preferring politicians who support minimum sentencing laws. According to brilliant forthcoming work by Albert Dzur, we are motivated in part by distrust for lawyers and judges, whom we see as elite and effete. Certainly, hatred for whole classes of people whom we call criminals plays a role–an emotion that is at least tinged with racism and class prejudice.

We make these decisions abstractly about nameless people and generic laws. Although 1.6 million people are incarcerated, the American people people have made many fewer than 1.6 million decisions, because most prison terms result from plea-bargaining. Distrusting lenient professionals, we impose punitive laws on top of a system that continues to function by negotiation among professionals. In turn, the lawyers and judges who negotiate plea bargains become inured to individual circumstances as they deal with one case after another.

If we are going to put our fellow citizens in prison, we should do it. They should be tried by juries of their peers who are required to listen to their stories. New to the courtroom, but guided by experienced professionals, the juror is an ideal listener.

I would endorse this proposal even if it didn’t change the incarceration rate. We simply have the responsibility to make decisions of such importance. But Dzur and others suggest that when we act as jurors, our beliefs and attitudes change. We trust the system more and make more nuanced (and often more merciful) decisions about particular cases. Thus I would expect rates of incarceration to fall if we had to put our fellow citizens in prison one at a time instead of en masse by the million.