Monthly Archives: October 2013

music and civic engagement (an analysis of private and public goods with intrinsic value)

A colleague recently suggested an analogy between music and civic engagement, emphasizing that both have been transformed by technological/economic changes, and there is no going back to the old days. We used to get music from recording companies and participate in public life thanks to daily newspapers, unions, grassroots political parties, and durable civic associations. The traditional institutions for both music and citizenship have been replaced by loose networks and individual choice.

We could extend the analogy by noting that civic engagement, like music, can bring satisfaction to the participants. Neither activity is a mere chore to be done to achieve an outcome. In both cases, people may be enthusiastic to participate (or not–their interest varies). Both activities are heavily collaborative. And in both cases, we should welcome a wide range of excellence. The one-in-a-million talent is admirable in politics, as in music, but we also need average people to sing and to express their political views. In both cases, people appreciate excellence better if they also contribute at their own level.

The differences are also worth noting. For one thing, civic engagement has a strong ethical aspect. Mussolini was active and skillful, but he made the world worse. We must able to evaluate civic engagement ethically with attention to means and ends. I would, for example, build into the definition of good engagement a strong desire to understand alternative views. The most ethically demanding aspects of citizenship do not come naturally. Neither does good musicianship, but I think that the ethical demands of citizenship are more onerous than the preconditions of making music.

Also, certain forms of civic engagement are rivalrous or competitive. More engagement by Tea Partiers means less success for liberals, and vice-versa.

Everyone has a right to be heard in the political domain. Although no one is obligated to listen to me sing (an unpleasant experience), my fellow citizens must give me equal time in a public meeting, just because I am a member of their community.

Finally, it is healthy in both civic life and music for people to form smaller communities of interest with diverse styles. However, as long as important decisions are made by governments, the people of each political jurisdiction must sometimes form a single political community to discuss and act on their common fate. In contrast, we never have to bring all the choirs, bands, and orchestras together to make one stream of music.

The differences between music and citizenship mostly point to the need for intervention in the civic domain. I think music will thrive in a world of digital files, free choice, and loose voluntary networks. Civic engagement needs help.

Jan Schaffer on the death and rebirth of journalism

(near Tarrytown, NY) If you want to know the latest development in journalism that relate to civic engagement and democracy, Jan Schaffer from the J-Lab is the person to ask. Here (shared with her permission) is her PowerPoint presentation entitled “The Death and Rebirth of Journalism.”

The big trends she sees are:

  • Metro dailies’ disappearing portfolios (Not only do the metropolitan daily newspapers lack revenue, but they are not covering foreign news, national news, or arts & culture; and their suburban readers don’t need their city hall coverage)
  • New owners – new rules? (The new newspaper owners made their money in technology and may expect entirely different models.)
  • Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high (Lots of startups and new models)
  • Calls for new models of journalism (from reporters themselves)

And her reasons for optimism:

  • Investigative news startups (ProPublica, the Investigative News Network, etc.)
  • Indie news startups (lots of small online news sites, often devoted to neighborhoods, sometimes profitable.)
  • Niche sites (specialized, expert sites on politics, arts, climate, etc.)
  • Tech sites with news portfolios (companies like Yahoo are bringing real journalists onboard)
  • Non-narrative news (games, interactive maps, searchable databases as alternatives to news stories)
  • Soft advocacy sites (advocacy organizations for issues like smart growth or school reform that start producing genuine news without making it all narrowly subservient to their agenda.)

Much more detail in the PowerPoint.

the death of an ancient commons?

Vista típica de la Huerta de Valencia.

(Near Tarrytown, NY) The huertas of Valencia, Spain, represent a magnificent example of human cooperation, but I am told they are now doomed. The reasons are endemic to modernity and require serious consideration.

Water is a scarce resource, essential for life. If you can take water for your own crops, basic economic theory says you will take lots of it even if others downstream don’t get enough. The rain and the river can’t be privatized in simple ways. The state can police water-use, but it’s hard and rare to build states that are smart, responsive, virtuous, and just enough to accomplish tasks like efficient and fair water-management.

But, contrary to a simplistic economic model, farmers in Valencia, Spain, have been distributing very scarce water consistently since before 1238. The rules and tools they developed are summarized here. Their tribunals and other processes were already in place during the Muslim period and may have predated the Islamic conquest. They continued more or less smoothly despite the Christian Reconquista, the unification of Spain, its economic decline, Civil War, and fascism.

But, as I am told by Francisco Arenas-Dolz (a distinguished Spanish academic whose own family used to farm in the huerta system), it is now disappearing. Former farmers are moving to high-rises in the city, and suburban sprawl is swallowing up agricultural land.

One cannot blame people for “exiting.” I would not want to be a farm-worker in an arid climate (or anywhere). I suspect that, despite the radical shifts in Valencia’s political and religious regimes over a millennium, one thing remained constant: peasants couldn’t leave the land. Now they can leave, and they are leaving, and I don’t lament that.

But we can lament two outcomes. First, the huertas have aesthetic, cultural, and environmental value that individual participants (as well as outsiders) prize. The individuals’ exit benefits them but destroys something that they love. They would all be better off if somehow the huertas could be preserved. The agricultural landscape could perhaps have evolved into something new and better, an economy that offered higher-skilled and more profitable jobs to a few people still in touch with their traditions. Instead, it is just vanishing.

Second, the heurtas taught ethics, skills, habits, and techniques for solving collective-action problems. Even if we give up on small-scale agriculture in Valencia, we still face inescapable problems at a bigger scale. Climate change is only the most dire example. If everyone exits the huertas and that model vanishes, how will we learn to address bigger Tragedies of the Commons?

(See also “Why Engineers Should Study Elinor Ostrom,” my obituary of Ostrom, and “Albert O. Hirschman on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.”)

notes on Seamus Heaney’s Singing School

(en route to Tarrytown, NY) The son of a Catholic farmer in Ulster, with an education and an extraordinary gift for language, Seamus Heaney knew oppression and he knew art. Oppression came in many forms and layers–the Unionists and British representing only two of the oppressors–and it demanded active, bodily resistance: joining his people in labor, suffering, or even violence. The art meant moving away from all that in several respects: away from physical objects into words, away from the laboring poor into the middle class or even the global elite, away from Ulster to places like Spain and Oxford, and away from his Irish roots into English literature.

Heaney’s “Singing School” explores this profound tension by means of six short autobiographical scenes from his own education. At the risk of distorting the poem, I’d suggest that each scene presents different oppressors and teachers.

First, the epigraphs are quotations from two of Heaney’s teachers, great poets who wrote in the oppressors’ English language. Wordsworth was an Englishman but a liberal revolutionary. He invented a style of elegaic memoir (in natural-sounding formal verse) that made Heaney’s work possible. Yeats was originally a Protestant Irishman, one of the oppressors, and the quoted passage recalls his childhood hatred of Heaney’s people. But Yeats became a nationalist bard, and he provides the poem’s title:

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Stanza 1: The oppressors are the teachers at St Columb’s College (Catholic priests) and the police. Heaney’s teachers are the modern Irish poets Seamus Deane and Patrick Kavanagh, and surely, James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist infuses the stanza.

Stanza 2: The oppressor is the constable, hence the British government. The teacher is Heaney’s silent father, teaching not to sing but to work with one’s hands and keep truths hidden.

Stanza 3: The oppressor is the Orangeman marching through Belfast (but showing weakness as he struggles with his drum). The teacher is the crowd, teaching the rhythms of hatred.

Stanza 4: The oppressor is the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British government. But Heaney’s problem is that he is no longer directly oppressed. His career has liberated him to live in Madrid, much as Joyce lived in Paris and Trieste. (“Rivering” is another Joycean echo). Heaney’s teachers, as he struggles with guilt and exile, are Joyce, Lorca, and Goya.

Stanza 5: The main teacher is Heaney’s mentor, the short-story-writer Michael McLaverty, who invokes Katherine Mansfield and “poor Hopkins”–referring to the English poet exiled unhappily to Ireland. In this stanza, oppression recedes as McLaverty encourages Heaney to improve the world by describing it. He has permission to be a poet.

Stanza 6: I think nature is the main teacher here–and also Ovid, whose “Tristia” were songs of exile. Yeats is again an inspiration. The stone hurled by Republican revolutionaries that recurs through “Easter 1916” may be the stone in Heaney’s poem:

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a clingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

The oppressor is still political–Heaney has escaped from a “massacre”–but political oppression has become more abstract and general now that Heaney lives in Wicklow (in the Irish Republic). Not only a Catholic from Ulster but almost any thoughtful person could feel “I am neither internee nor informer.”

talking about talking about controversial issues, on talk radio

This is the audio of my conversation yesterday with John Gambling, a self-described moderate conservative radio host on WOR in New York City. Gambling is concerned about civic education in schools, by which he primarily means teaching students to understand and appreciate the Constitution. I said that students must also learn to discuss current issues with civility and good information. He seemed to agree on the grounds that (1) he is a civil and substantive person who talks about issues on the air, and (2) political correctness is at fault for blocking good conversations in schools.

I would agree that Gambling is a good participant in public debate, even though he and I would probably vote for different candidates and policies in many cases. One way you can tell is that Gambling invites a wide range of guests onto his show and lets them talk, in marked contrast to people like Rush Limbaugh, who dominate with their own views.

I also share his concern about political correctness, as long as we define that right. According to CIRCLE’s recent survey for the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge , about one quarter of high school American government teachers believe that parents would object if political issues were discussed in their classes. That resistance has a chilling effect, the teachers told it. It discourages them from talking about current events.

Some of the pushback probably comes from conservative parents who don’t want their kids talking about sex or race, or who worry that teachers (unionized public employees) may expose their children to views they disagree with. But the resistance also comes from the left. I have talked to parents in northeastern urban districts–people I am sure vote liberal–who explicitly resist discussions of controversial current issues in their kids’ schools. I think John Gambling and I agreed that this is wrong.