Monthly Archives: October 2011

activism when ideology is weak

I am reading a forthcoming book about a whole set of academic programs–centers, certificates, majors, and minors–devoted to service or civic engagement. I am struck that the numerous authors in the volume cite virtually no living intellectuals who are associated with political or social movements.

Some of the authors are overtly hostile to Big Ideas, grand narratives, and large-scale movements. One endorses a “militant or radical particularity, knowing a place in its fullness, with its contradictions, its conflicts, its questions, what it means to be a citizen in that place.” Several write strongly in favor of complexity, enduring relationships, listening, and questioning. The major authors whom they cite most frequently tend to be proponents of pragmatism, of learning from particular and personal experience, and of open-ended conversations: John Dewey, Miles Horton, Paolo Freire, Parker Palmer, C. Wright Mills. The one ideology that is discussed frequently is “neoliberalism”; but it emerges as a shadowy enemy without a specific parallel on the left.

I am sympathetic to these values and also happen to believe that none of the available ideological movements of the present moment is going anywhere. But I would note that the implicit strategy of community-based, open-ended, non-ideological, relational politics is very difficult. It is much easier to participate in politics if you can join a political movement that provides values, diagnoses, prescriptions, strategies, networks, inspirational stories, living leaders, candidates and party slates, regular news reports, organizational supports, cultural expressions (from songs to clothes), and potential career paths. If you have to make everything up by talking with diverse people in your own community, the cognitive and motivational demands are extreme.

When we compare today’s student activists to their forebears, it is important to recognize that their world has dramatically changed because ideological movements have collapsed. Fifty years ago (early in the Kennedy administration):

  • Some young activists associated themselves with Marxism, in one of its versions from revolutionary communism to Liberation Theology or European-style social democracy. Today, Marxism lives on college campuses only as scattered reading assignments.
  • Other aligned with the liberalism of the New Deal and New Frontier. Liberal values have actually grown more popular among young Americans, but theirs is now basically a defensive or conservative posture, dedicated to protecting or possibly expanding the laws and institutions that were built between 1932 and 1968.
  • Still others joined the Civil Rights Movement, then at its apogee and heading toward both triumph and disintegration.
  • Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, and some students were gravitating toward the nascent environmental movement, widely seen as in crisis in 2012.
  • Just a year later, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and by then some young people were beginning to create Second Wave Feminism. But in 2008, just 14% of Americans (of all ages) said that they considered themselves feminists. (PDF)
  • Finally, a few activist students and faculty endorsed the libertarianism of Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman. That movement remains vital today, but it draws only a small minority’s support.

Now we ask our young people to go into a community, listen, observe, and figure out for themselves what to do. We are asking a lot.

understanding public deliberation as a field

In the current Journal of Public Deliberation (which, by the way, is a free, open-access, peer-reviewed publication), Caroline W. Lee has an article entitled, “Five Assumptions Academics Make About Public Deliberation, And Why They Deserve Rethinking.”

Her first major contribution is to see that public deliberation is not just a philosophy or a set of practices; it is a bunch of people and organizations whose actors “interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), and the field’s rules” (quoting Fligstein and McAdam). If you have been to as many “D&D” (dialogue and deliberation) meetings as I have, you know that this is true, and you will recognize some of Lee’s anonymous informants:

The professional consultant from California, the non-profit executive from Connecticut, the minister from Texas, the rural development expert from North Dakota, the academic from Colorado, the foundation executive from New York City, the think tank staffer from DC, the therapist from Virginia, the EEO officer from Nevada, the deliberation organization staffer from Ohio …

Her empirical analysis of these people and their relationships challenges many common assumptions about the field.

To begin, “much of the activity in the field is driven by elite actors—a fact that practitioners readily acknowledge.” (She cites me as one source.) Although some of the leaders in the field emerged from participatory democracy in the 1960s and retain left-of-center political views, they are more heterogeneous than that:

Deliberation draws on many fields, including alternative dispute resolution in legal systems, workplace participation reforms in private companies, psychological counseling and therapy, personal recovery movements, and New Age and New Thought religious practices …

Relatedly, issues of equity and diversity only concern some in this field. To be sure, sessions on equality and diversity draw overflow crowds, but that can obscure the fact that many other participants in the “D&D” field are actually quite uncomfortable with these topics. As one leader wrote, “Topics like ‘race’ and ‘gender’ by themselves create an exclusive, divisive, and even demeaning frame. (Do people really want to be defined genetically rather than by their choices?)” The most sympathetic interpretation would be that issues of identity and equality are hotly debated within the deliberation field, but I fear that what really happens is division into separate conversations: the passionate proponents are in one room, the quiet critics in another.

Turning to the methods that D&D practitioners employ, Lee finds, “despite the apparent heterogeneity …, many methods involve routine combinations of a limited palette of practices. The heterogeneous engagement techniques described by Girard and Stark (2007) are in fact standard elements of deliberation practitioners’ toolkits.” She is insightful about common elements that might be overlooked, such as a tendency to use “Appreciative Inquiry” or something very much like “its explicitly positive and opportunity-focused philosophy.”

Just as the various methods are more similar than they might at first appear, they also have much in common with widespread practices used in corporations and government. Practitioners of D&D reported that they had also participated in such approaches as “Stanford T-group training,” “IBM Jam,” “Plowshares,” “Encounter Programs,” “federal mediation training, “Transactional Analysis training,” “AT&T University,” “Quality Circle,” “Community Dispute Resolution Training,” “activist trainings,” “advanced facilitation for Covey 7  Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Gestalt Intervener Certificate,” and “Environmental Stakeholder dialogue.” One claimed “extensive in-house government and corporate facilitator training.”

Not only are techniques similar in grassroots community settings and in corporate offices, but companies employ many of the experts on deliberation. “Private clients represent a small, but important—and unusually remunerative—part of practitioners’ client base. At conferences, many practitioners report that work with private clients is typically easier than dealing with the thicket of agencies involved in public sector processes, and can expose deliberative principles to greater numbers of stakeholders.”

This finding is not necessarily a critique. Working in the corporate sector can be smart and beneficial. But it deserves critical scrutiny since, as Lee notes, “There is a substantial literature starting with Habermas (1989) documenting general trends in incursions of private enterprise into the public sphere and their negative consequences on democratic politics and deliberative possibilities.”

Overall, the paper sets a hugely valuable agenda for research aimed not at understanding how deliberation affects participants or communities, but what it is as a field of practice–including its composition, the dominant incentives and power structures, and potential for change.

the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy

It can be seen that there a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing.’

— Elizabeth Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 1958

The dominant question in modern moral philosophy is “How should we get along?” I am increasingly interested in a different question: “What is a good (enough) life?”

I wrote, “How should we get along?” a little flippantly, but it is actually a very serious question that provokes huge follow-up questions, such as “What kind of government should we have?” “Who deserves what?” and “May I, under any circumstances, lie/break a promise/harm another?” These examples merely hint at a long agenda.

But the agenda isn’t long enough unless it also addresses the question of how we should live our own lives, including our inner lives of thought and emotion. One can see this by observing the limits of the main philosophical schools:

Utilitarianism teaches that we must maximize the happiness, welfare, or satisfaction of all people (including ourselves; but each of us is outnumbered about 7 billion-to-one by the rest of the species and therefore hardly counts). Anscombe said, “it is a bit much to swallow that that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is ‘flourishing.'” True, and plenty of people are needlessly in such condition because of my sins of omission and commission. So I ought to do or give much more. But the links that connect my potential acts of welfare, other people’s material conditions, and other people’s flourishing are hardly certain or straightforward. Some people who know no physical pain and have plenty of money and friends are nevertheless miserable to the point of suicide; others are stupidly happy but not are living worthy lives. Material welfare may be a necessary condition of a good life, but it is not a sufficient condition. If the question is whether we are living well, then how we get along (our duties and rights vis-a-vis others) is only part of the story. We could make the distribution of rights and goods perfectly just and yet all fail miserably as human beings.

Kantianism teaches that we must develop our own rational autonomy and that of others. Everyone must live his or her own life, but we have a duty to enhance other people’s ability to do so. The emphasis now is more on freedom than on welfare, but I can’t just stand by while 3.5 billion people live on less than $2/day, because destitution and illiteracy interfere with living autonomous lives governed by choice and reflection. I mention the problem of global poverty for a second time not only because it is hugely important, but also because I want to explore the same problem in relation to both Kantianism and to utilitarianism. The practical conclusions of the two theories are not necessarily different even though the premises are. In any event, the limits of the two theories are similar. It’s all very well to say that I must honor and defend other people’s rights to live autonomously and support them in doing so. But what is the point of an autonomous life–for them or for me? Or (if we take autonomy to be self-evidently good), then what makes a life autonomous? Unless we can say something about the content of an autonomous life–what the autonomous person thinks, feels, and does–the theory is radically incomplete.

Virtue ethics, which Anscombe helped to revive in the essay quoted above, might offer a much richer account of the good life. A good life could be one in which certain desirable traits are habitual, becoming virtues. However, despite Anscombe’s hopes, my sense is that actual virtue ethics is mostly concerned with “How should we get along?” The virtues of greatest interest involve our relations with other people and are understood in terms of effects on them. Besides, even though virtue ethics may have value for illuminating the good life, it doesn’t seem obvious that a good life just is a virtuous one.

Perfectionism” is a word for any ethical theory that is primarily concerned with what make a life good. It seems to me a somewhat unfortunate title, evoking competitive striving, super-human standards, “achievement of human excellence in art, science and culture” (Rawls), or even disdain for other people. Perhaps a good inner life is primarily oriented to promoting the welfare and/or autonomy or others. Perhaps a good inner life requires modesty: acceptance or even embrace of limits. Conceivably, not being a “perfectionist” (in the ordinary sense of that word) is a necessary condition of being a fully good person. Leaving aside the unfortunate terminology, I think we need to ask “How should a person live?” and “What duties to we have to ourselves?” if we want to know how people should get along.

the growing distance between people and schools

(Washington, DC) Liberals are often dismissive of local control in education. For example, in the current New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey remarks on Mitt “Romney’s obligatory kowtowing to local and parental control of school systems (meaning, presumably, more school prayer and less evolution) …”*

Local control may mean more prayer and less evolution–in some districts–but it may also increase people’s stake in public education.

In 1940, each school district in the United States served only 1,117 people, and usually the district had an elected board. Today the average school board serves almost 20 times as many residents, and often it has an appointed leader. Meanwhile, the number of residents served by each school has grown tenfold since 1900. While these trends have unfolded–as the deliberate result of consolidation, undertaken in the name of efficiency–standardized testing has become more important, and state and federal mandates have proliferated. As a result, fewer people are involved in local school governance, which has become less consequential.

To be sure, districts can be too small for efficiency. And many of the important state–and especially federal–mandates have been enacted to protect vulnerable minorities and have had positive effects.

However, if it is true that people want accountability that is relational rather than informational, then Americans are going to perceive schools as less accountable the bigger the districts get. And they are not likely to fund or otherwise trust schools that they consider unaccountable.

This would be not be an essential problem if people generally trusted government and were involved in public life in other ways, such as on juries. But the trends of distrust and disengagement are evident across the government.

*In the same issue of the NYRB, Michael Greenberg interviews an Occupy Wall Street participant who extolls “direct democracy,” saying, “as you can see for yourself [it] works beautifully here on the whole.” Greenberg “mention[s] Proposition 8 in California, an instance of direct democracy that overturned a state supreme court ruling that had legalized same sex marriage.” Apparently, local control implies creationism, and direct democracy means overturning gay marriage. So much for democratic vistas.