Monthly Archives: March 2014

three endings for Christabel

I think Coleridge was bad at plot. He claimed he forgot the whole story of “Kubla Khan” when a visitor interrupted him, so he could share only the exotic setting.  But Stevie Smith doubts it:

He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

Like “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel” is deliciously atmospheric. By the end of Part II, the eponymous heroine is under the spell of the vampiric Geraldine and seems to be doomed. Unfortunately, Coleridge gives up right there. We can appreciate the fragmentary and deeply ambiguous result–yet I suspect Coleridge would have finished “Christabel” if he had thought of a satisfying ending. So here are three possibilities:

1. Geraldine is not a vampire after all. She really was left barefoot under the oak tree by five warriors on white horses. Christabel learns this when she is off moping in the wood (wondering how ere she has sinned), and the five knights come back and kidnap her. They tie her on their white palfrey and ride as fleet as the wind to Tryermaine, the castle of Lord Roland de Vaux. Finding Christabel barefoot under one of his oak trees, Lord Roland sallies forth to punish her abductors. He meets Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline, on a parallel mission to avenge Geraldine. The two estranged friends reconcile and go questing together with their girls in tow. Seeing them together, the five knights appear. They turn out to be the other guys from the old college jousting team. The whole stunt was just a way of getting Roland and Leoline to be friends again. Everyone has a good laugh and Christabel and Geraldine go out with the two cutest knights.

2. Christabel has had a night of mind-blowing sex with Geraldine. She wants more of that–but not with Geraldine, who is high-maintenance and has eyes like a snake. After a lot of histrionic acting, Christabel tells her father that Geraldine is an evil witch. Sir Roland banishes the young woman just to cut down on the drama in his castle (for he “seldom sleepeth well”). Free of that obligation, Christabel hooks up instead with the bard Bracy’s daughter, Kaylee.

3. Geraldine has made up all the spooky stuff to freak out Christabel: the fainting spell at the threshold, the fake tat across her bosom and half her side, the weird stares. Just as Geraldine plans, Christabel runs away to a nunnery to save her soul. That leaves Geraldine free to seduce Sir Leoline, who has been alone since Christabel’s mom died in childbirth. The old baron is weak in health and soon passes. Geraldine inherits the castle and turns it into the most profitable heritage tourism destination resort between Bratha Head and Wyndermere.

introducing the Capabilities Approach

(DeLand, Florida) In Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Martha Nussbaum proposes that human beings have ten “Central Capabilities.” The first one is: “Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length …” The remaining nine all have a similar grammar: an abstract noun or noun phrase followed by a verb in the form “being able to …” The rest of the Capabilities are: bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment.

I have criticized Nussbaum for making the state ultimately (and sometimes solely) responsible for the Capabilities. She is explicit about this on p. 64, and throughout the book, she writes sentences in which the government is the subject and people are the object. For instance, immediately before she offers the list of Capabilities on p. 33, she writes, “government has the job of making people able to pursue a dignified and minimally flourishing life.”

She does, of course, support human freedom: the government must enable people to pursue their own Capabilities as they wish. Yet I would assign the government a very different role than she does in her overall theory. I would say that we the people have the obligation to ensure one another’s Capabilities. We may decide to use the government as a tool for that; it has strengths and limitations. In any case, we make the government—not in some imaginary moment of signing a social contract, but every day, in how we vote, advocate, pay taxes, educate future leaders, and generate information. In similar ways, we also make churches, neighborhoods, and families. The government is us: a subgroup of us chosen or tolerated to influence the rest of the population by the means of laws and law-enforcement. I would put the state clearly in a subsidiary position and ask pointed questions about how we are supposed to get good governments in the first place. Those questions vanish in Nussbaum’s account.

That said, there is much to recommend in the Capabilities approach. For my colleagues concerned about youth development and civic education, it provides an impressive normative framework.

Why propose a list? Nussbaum does not imagine that she can dictate policies or that her moral assumptions are necessarily right. But her list starts a conversation that we must have if we are to assess policies and communities. If you disagree with her list, you should be able to respond with objections to the components, or add extra items, and give reasons for those changes. Not making a list just ducks the central moral questions.

Why many Capabilities instead of one ultimate good, such as happiness or freedom? Because there are many dimensions of human life and they cannot be measured on a single scale.

Why Capabilities instead of goods, rights, processes, or outcomes? The argument is complex and multifaceted, but in short, Capabilities recognize individual freedom and diversity while also acknowledging the human need for tangible support. If you have a Capability of imagination, you are not obliged to use it in any particular way–or at all. But you will not develop that Capability just by being left alone: you need education, access to public art and nature, leisure time, and other supports that cost money. And nothing (such as cash or pleasure) will substitute for your using your own imagination. Thus imagination is a Capability rather than a right, a good, or a choice. (A strong argument against the Capabilities Approach would take the form of a defense of one of these other keywords.)

Why one list for every nation and culture? I’d answer  just as I did the question “Why a list?” Like individuals, members of whole cultures may dispute the contents of Nussbaum’s list. If they do, they should speak on behalf of alternatives. The deliberation about what Capabilities humans should have is a global one, and there will be disagreements. But they are disagreements about the human good. It makes no sense to say, “Bodily integrity is a Capability for you, but not for us.” That means it is not a human Capability.

See also: Putting Philosophy Back in Developmental Psychology.

a concise and general argument for civic education reform

(Logan Airport) This article is newly out and publicly available:

Peter Levine, “Teaching the Deeper Aspects of Civic Education,” The Standard (National Association of State Boards of Education), March 24, 2014, pp. 37-39.

It is my best effort at a 3-page argument for policymakers and advocates, describing what we should want young people to learn, what obstacles stand in the way of satisfactory outcomes, and what policy changes would help.

Dewey and the current toward democracy

Nevertheless, the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms. That government exists to serve its community, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies, are a deposit of fact left, as far as we can see, permanently in the wake of doctrines and forms, however transitory the latter. They are not the whole of the democratic idea, but they express it in its political phase. Belief in this political aspect … marks a well-attested conclusion from historic facts.

— John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, chapter v

This passage connects at least three ideas: 1) a principle: government exists to serve its community; 2) a mechanism: public selection of office-holders; and 3) a factual generalization about history: it is moving toward democracy.

The usual way to connect these would be to say that people have discovered or created the moral principle of equal political power. To make this principle influential in the world, they have invented and advocated certain “doctrines and forms,” such as regular elections. As a result of their efforts, some communities are now governed by means of these mechanisms. We can use the democratic principle to the assess the actual governments of the world and will conclude that some regimes serve their communities, while others do not.

Dewey puts the elements together in a different way. He detects an underlying current, a tide in the affairs of humankind, that throws up both concrete procedures (such as regular elections) and ideals consistent with those procedures. The importance of the procedures and ideals is a fact that we can observe in the world around us. The deeper explanation is some kind of natural process of human development. I think it has a basically Hegelian form: We homo sapiens naturally associate. Because we have language, we can reflect on the forms that our association takes. Because we have huge potential, we strive to reform our associations so that they give us more scope for creativity and flourishing. Our striving makes the current flow steadily toward democratic forms.

Dewey does not want to separate ideals [“mystic faith”] from facts; and, above all, he does not want to attribute causal power to ideas.

[We] must protest against the assumption that the [democratic] idea itself has produced the the governmental practices which obtain in democratic states: General suffrage, elected representatives, majority rule, and so on. … The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences.

Problems with this method:

1. The current is hardly steady. Indeed, when Dewey wrote these passages, most of the world was under colonial domination; and soon thereafter, most of the colonial powers fell under evil tyrannies. Why should we be confident that the current will generally or ultimately flow in a democratic direction?

2. Many ideals are facts, in the sense that they motivate and inspire human beings. That is true not only of democracy and freedom but also of nationalism, greed, and religious fanaticism. We could substitute nationalism for democracy in Dewey’s argument (above) and conclude: “That government exists to lift its own people over all the other peoples of the world, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless a government builds a powerful and aggressive military, are a deposit of fact.  …” We must be able to use independent reason or judgment to conclude that democratic ideals are desirable, or else they are just some of the ideals that exist in the world.

branding a nation

An excellent paper by Temple University’s Diane Garbow made me think about efforts to “brand” countries. Her topic was the “Colombia es pasión” campaign. Its logo looks very corporate, and it even comes with slogans like “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay.”

The fact that Colombia now has a logo as well as a tricolor flag doesn’t mean that it has turned into a corporation. I think we could assess the use of a brand in two different ways.

First, the reputation of any nation is a common pool resource shared by all the people who are associated with that country, whether as legal citizens or not. Consistent with the definition of a common pool resource, a nation’s brand is rivalrous but non-excludable. That is, individuals can easily reduce the value of the brand to serve their own interests (the narcotraficantes are busy hurting Colombia’s reputation), yet individuals cannot easily be excluded from the benefits of the brand. For instance, if “Colombia es pasión” makes us feel better about the nation, then every Colombian and Colombian emigrant will profit slightly. In this sense, a national brand differs from a corporate brand, which benefits individuals in direct proportion to their financial ownership of the firm. “Colombia es pasión”  is more like the Parthenon or the Union Jack than (say) Coca-Cola’s brand, “Live Positively.” A nation’s image is the shared property of its people. That is one reason that people have contributed to enhancing their nations’ reputations since ancient times.

Nor is that goal especially capitalist or “neoliberal.” Here is Che Gevara’s iconic image serving as a kind of logo on the facade of Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, which houses the police and security forces.

Of course, the Cuban people don’t get to decide what logo is erected on the Plaza de la Revolución, nor did the Colombian authorities put their new logo to a vote. An advertising campaign is an implicit assertion of facts: Colombia is safe, exotic, aesthetic–a source of coffee and flowers for the US market and a good place to visit. Its official brand implicitly rejects certain other claims about Colombia: for instance, that a low-intensity civil war has been going on there continuously since 1964, funded in part with $3 billion of US military aid. (Wanting to stay in Colombia is not the only risk of visiting.)

I think that enhancing common pool resources is a perfectly appropriate objective. But it’s also important to debate how things are actually going in a community or a nation. The “Colombia es pasión campaign could contribute to the debate, and valid points can be made in defense of the country’s policies. (For example, its Human Development Index has been rising steadily.) But insofar as an advertising campaign ignores contrary evidence and employs slick designs and sloganeering to persuade, it undermines deliberation.

The deeper point is that both making common goods and debating matters of fact and value are legitimate political acts, but they often come into conflict. The same conflict arises, for example, in “asset based community development” efforts, which contribute to the common good but also transmit a somewhat one-sided view of the community’s well-being. People should be able to assess and debate any claims made on their behalf. Yet developing one basically positive image of a community is a valuable objective. The two do not sit easily together.