Monthly Archives: February 2015

when Dante came out

In “Dante on Trial” (New York Review of Books, Feb. 19), Robert Pogue Harrison writes, “Dante seems to reveal that he himself had homosexual leanings, and that it was only fear of damnation that prevented him from acting on them.” This surprised me because Dante seems never to be claimed as a gay writer (Google finds no such assertions), and his denunciations of “sodomy” are rather famous. But here is the relevant passage from Canto XVI (lines 46-51), in my translation:

If I had been shielded from the fire
I’d have thrown myself down there with them
And I think the master would have let me.

But since that would have burned and baked me,
My fear overcame my good desire
That made me so greedy to embrace them.*

So says Dante when he observes the men punished for sodomy, naked and oily and trying to grasp one other under a rain of fire. His master, of course, is Virgil; and it appears that the Roman poet would have allowed [sofferto] Dante to embrace these men as he wishes.

The conventional reading is that Dante wants to embrace these men because they are his fellow Florentines. Or perhaps he commiserates because they are human beings who have been damned, just as he fainted to see Paolo and Francesca (heterosexual lovers) suffer in Canto V. It has also been claimed that sodomy is some kind of metaphor for their actual sins. But I don’t think we can ignore the possibility that Dante wants to embrace them because he wants to embrace them.

The idea that being gay is an identity is generally thought to be a modern one. Dante puts men in hell for unconfessed sexual acts, just as you would be damned as a usurer if you lent money (even once) with illegal interest. In Canto XI, when Virgil is describing the layout of hell, he uses place names as metonymies for two sins: the biblical town of Sodom for male/male sexual relations, and the French town of Cahors for usury, because it was famous for its predatory bankers. A “sodomite” is like a “usurer” (or “an adulterer”): not a way of being but rather a label for an act. Yet each particular sin poses more or less of a temptation for each person, and Dante confesses here that this is a sin he is drawn to. Loosely translated from his framework to ours, his point is that he is gay but he doesn’t have gay sex, at least not in this story, because it is forbidden.

*Italian original:

S’i’ fossi stato dal foco coperto,
gittato mi sarei tra lor di sotto,
e credo che ‘l dottor l’avria sofferto;

ma perch’io mi sarei brusciato e cotto,
vinse paura la mia buona voglia
che di loro abbracciar mi facea ghiotto.

a method for mapping discussions as networks

Two Quebecois scholars, François P. Robert and Pierre Mongeau, have developed a valuable method for modeling the “socio-semantic network” formed when people discuss an issue.* I can envision this method used to assess deliberations, to give real-time feedback to moderators during conversations, and even to reveal patterns of discussion in fictional texts as a contribution to literary criticism.

The article is in French and it uses a lot of terminology from network analysis, so unless you already know how ideas like “directed degree centrality” are expressed in French, you may find it hard going. Since I worked my way through it, I will provide relatively extensive notes below. But here is the shorter version:

Individuals form a social network if they know one another. Each link is a relationship, such as an experience of having talked one-on-on together. Meanwhile, individuals form a “socio-semantic network” if they use the same or highly similar phrases in a conversation on a common theme. “Each word or phrase that two people use in common is a link.” They need not know each other to have a socio-semantic link.

The social relations among people and their socio-semantic networks are different but not necessarily independent. One could affect the other. For instance, we might find that people who are central in a social network disproportionately affect the ideas that are expressed throughout that network. Their prestige may give them influence. Or we might find that people who express ideas that are frequent in the network become more socially central: holding popular ideas may give them prestige.

Robert and Mongeau involved 95 Montreal residents in discussions of a public policy topic: college tuition. Some of these discussions occurred in a large group using formal procedures. (I imagine Robert’s Rules or some variation thereof.) Other discussions occurred in small groups that were less rule-guided.

Some participants knew each other before the experiment. The authors identified all the social links that existed before the deliberation and also found out who had talked to whom during the event. They could thus chart the changing social network of the participants. Meanwhile, the authors asked participants to write about the issue both before and after the deliberation, collected the writing produced during the discussions, and looked for similarities of phrases between pairs of participants. That allowed them to chart the changing socio-semantic network of the group.

They found: “The conventional method [a large group deliberation using formal rules] favors the emergence of a link between social centrality and socio-semantic centrality, while the alternative method [small group discussions] favors the emergence of a negative relationship between these measures.” Apparently, in large group discussions, people who are socially central—knowing many others or interacting with them one-on-one during the meeting—increasingly dominate the views expressed by all the participants. But “in the alternative deliberative format that uses discussions in small groups, the emergence of differences is promoted by providing a space for expressing views different from those of the socially central people.”

The authors draw a lesson for organizers of events. “In practical terms, these results suggest that it would be advantageous for a democratic organization to first use alternative methods so as to promote the expression of a diversity of views and then to continue the deliberation in a conventional manner (like that prescribed in codes of procedure) to develop consensus positions.”

Maybe–although the design of deliberative formats involves more criteria that these. I am more interested in the methodology, because I believe it could be developed and applied for other purposes. To me, the fact that opposite results emerged from different kinds of deliberation validates the method, especially since the authors have a plausible explanation for the patterns they found.

* François P. Robert and Pierre Mongeau, Caractéristiques sociosémantiques des méthodes conventionnelles et alternatives de deliberation, Revue internationale comminucation sociale et publique, no 12, Dec. 2014, pp. 101-120

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making the voting age 17

I have an op-ed in Politico today that begins:

It is time to try lowering the voting age to 17 nationwide. Takoma Park, Maryland, has done it. Iowa, too, for caucuses. Scotland went down to age 16 for its recent independence referendum. Evidence suggests it will boost informed participation in our democracy over time.

Supportive research is collected on the CIRCLE website. At 11:35 today, I’ll be live on WBAL (in Baltimore or on the web) talking about the idea with Clarence M. Mitchell, IV.

apply for the 2015 Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The seventh annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies will be an intensive, two-week, interdisciplinary seminar bringing together faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners from many countries and diverse fields of study.

Organized by Peter Levine of Tufts University’s Tisch College and Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland, the Summer Institute will engage participants in challenging discussions of such topics as:

  • What kinds of citizens (if any) do good regimes need?
  • What should such citizens know, believe, and do?
  • What practices and institutional structures promote the right kinds of citizenship
  • What ought to be the relationships among empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy?

The syllabus for the sixth annual seminar (in 2014) is here. The 2015 syllabus will be modified but will largely follow this outline. You can read more about the motivation for the Institute in the Framing Statement by Harry Boyte, University of Minnesota; Stephen Elkin, University of Maryland; Peter Levine, Tufts; Jane Mansbridge, Harvard; Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University; Karol Soltan, University of Maryland; and Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania.


The daily sessions will take place from June 15-25, 2015, at the Tufts campus in Medford, MA. The seminar will be followed (from June 24, evening, until June 27) by a public conference–“Frontiers of Democracy 2015”–in downtown Boston. Participants in the institute are expected to stay for the public conference. See information on the 2014 conference here.

Tuition for the Institute is free, but students are responsible for their own housing and transportation. A Tufts University dormitory room can be rented for $230-$280/week. Credit is not automatically offered, but special arrangements for graduate credit may be possible.

To apply: please email your resume, an electronic copy of your graduate transcript (if applicable), and a cover email about your interests to Peter Levine at For best consideration, apply no later than March 15, 2012. You may also sign up for occasional announcements even if you are not sure that you wish to apply.

The Sister Seminar in Ukraine

In 2015, there will also be a parallel Summer Institute at Chernivitsi University in Ukraine. It is co-organized by Dr. Tetyana Kloubert (University of Augsburg) with Karol Soltan and Peter Levine and funded by the German government through the DAAD. Participants from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Germany are eligible. More information here.

Please feel free to share this announcement.

the Florida Civic Advance

(Orlando, FL), I am here for the Florida Civic Advance, a summit of people from across the state who support the civic life of their communities. They are the kinds of people who don’t just attend meetings; they organize and facilitate them. They don’t just vote; they build voter-education programs. They don’t just follow and discuss the news; they report and curate news for their communities.

Overall, the proportions of Americans who say that they have attended community meetings, worked with neighbors to address problems, followed the news, and belonged to organizations have all fallen since the 1970s. Florida scores very low on these indicators, sometimes 49th or 50th out of 50.

To boost these forms of engagement requires investment and support. The Associated Press-GfK recently repeated survey questions they had asked in 1984 about voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, and keeping informed about news and public issues. All of those activities had fallen, with the exception of voting (which fluctuates with the political situation) and volunteering, which has been buoyed by a substantial increase in the youth volunteering rate.

That last trend can be explained by the substantial investment in youth volunteering through high school service-learning programs, AmeriCorps, Campus Compact member colleges, and so on. Proponents of service have won new funding and rewards for volunteering, positive media coverage, intensive research and evaluation, and favorable policies, including mandates in many school districts.

There has been no comparable investment in the other forms of civic engagement.

Who will work to strengthen broader opportunities for civic engagement? Not political elites, who have limited interest in empowering citizens. And not average citizens, who have had too little experience with rewarding civic engagement to understand its value. National polling has found that average Americans are lukewarm about civic engagement, no matter how it is named and described.

Our best allies are the kind of people who are gathering at Florida Civic Advance. They have demonstrated their commitment. They grasp the value of civic engagement. Despite the low average levels of engagement across the state, these leaders are numerous enough to be powerful. But they tend to work on specific projects in specific issues domains within their own geographical communities. They do not coordinate to promote civic renewal. They are not conscious of being part of a movement or nascent movement for democracy.

Gathering such people is the strategy I recommend in the final chapter of We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, so I am very excited to see this summit draw so many committed and creative people and projects.