Monthly Archives: July 2015

heading to Ukraine

I am on my way tomorrow to Lviv and Chernovitsi in Ukraine, to co-teach the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and Civic Education there. This will be an immeasurably small contribution to what I think is a great cause: the work of the Ukrainian people in constructing a true civil society as the basis of a true democracy. If they can achieve that task in a portion of the former Soviet Union–after a period of kleptocracy and violent repression–they will be a beacon for the whole region.

I won’t blog while traveling but will report afterwards.

By the way, an AP wire story yesterday used my trip as its opening example of US “scholars drawn to conflict zones.” I must emphasize that Lviv and Chernovitsi are far from any violent conflicts. Many colleagues at Tufts (and elsewhere) actually meet this description: “people who should be getting on a plane to go to a country that’s in crisis.” When I said that phrase, I had in mind professors who fly to Sudan or Iraq and really make a difference there. I wasn’t talking about myself going to Western Ukraine to help lead a political theory seminar for a few days. But I am excited and grateful to be going.

adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science

Civic Science is an emerging scholarly conversation, and today we held a discussion of it at Tufts. In my group, we agreed that scientists are not value-free but are indeed defined by certain values. We went back to the list of four values that Robert K. Merton identified in 1942. Per Wikipedia, those are:

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These “CUDOS” norms emerge from the practices of actual scientists, yet they are  aspirational. In fact, they may be rarely honored in a given population of scientists, but they would still reflect the ideals of science. They thus provide tools for the critical assessment of actual science.

We proposed adding:

  • Openness: meaning not only openness to data and evidence, but to diverse perspectives and voices.
  • Democratic Engagement It’s not enough to decide that your scientific work is disinterested. You owe an argument to fellow citizens for why it actually is in the public interest. At the same time, you must influence public priorities. If, for instance, there is no funding for addressing a disease suffered by the world’s poor, that means that you cannot just go out and study it. But you can advocate for funding.
  • Service This goes beyond “the benefit of a common scientific enterprise” to encompass benefit to the world (human beings and other species)

St. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

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This is highlight #3 from our recent vacation in Italy. St. Margaret of Cortona was a remarkable person–more on her in a moment. The picture is a narrative of her life painted around 1298, or just one year after she died. She wasn’t canonized until 1728. In her own community of southeastern Tuscany, she was treated from the moment of her death (and perhaps even while she was still alive) as a saint to be venerated and depicted on par with St. Clare or St. Agnes. A major local church was immediately renamed in her honor, and her mummified body was placed under its altar. Those actions offer insights into medieval Catholicism, which was much more populist and decentralized than we assume on the basis of recent centuries of Church history and governance.

Margaret’ story would work for a novel (and has inspired an opera and a film). A beautiful peasant girl, she quarreled with her stepmother and ran away to live in sin with a nobleman in his castle. One day, his most loyal hound returned alone from the hunt and led Margaret to the scene of his death at the hands of a murderer. Deeply shaken, Margaret became a Franciscan sister, thus joining the most radical and compelling  religious/political movement of the era. She swore personal poverty but may have used her ex-lover’s wealth for philanthropy; we know that she obtained the resources to found a hospital and a convent. No wallflower or passive penitent, she twice challenged the bishop of Arezzo for acting like a warlike lord instead of a man of God. Her example and the force of her thought and personality must have resounded powerfully.

civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes

This is highlight #2 from our recent time in Italy. Lucignano is a small medieval town in Tuscany, notable for its street plan of concentric ellipses capping a steep hill. During the middle ages, it was contested by larger city-states, but it sometimes enjoyed a degree of independence or civic freedom. It certainly had its own town hall and, within that building, a Sala di Consiglio or council chamber.

At first, this room was decorated by one large fresco of the Madonna in Majesty. If I recall correctly, the inscription under her picture reminded Lucignano’s leaders to listen to both sides of every dispute. Then, between 1438 and 1475, the town’s councilors contribruted personal funds to cover the ceiling with frescoes of exemplary figures from history, each labeled with a name, and most accompanied by an instructive quotation. “Virgil the poet” is shown above.

Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier offers excellent background information on this decorative scheme.* It was not uncommon to depict heroes from the past (often known as “worthies”) in public spaces. And there was a very famous model of a council chamber decorated with frescoes about good (and bad) government in nearby Siena. But the Lucignano frescoes were unique in that the list of exemplary figures came from a specific source, Dante, who also provided many of the quotations painted on the ceiling.

Dante held an elaborate political theory that I will not attempt to summarize comprehensively here. But it seems to me that Lucignano’s civic elders borrowed the following elements of his thought for their council chamber:

  1. Civic responsibility. Cicero is depicted as one of the exemplars (no surprise there); but as Joost-Gaugier notes, it was thanks to Dante that Cicero came to represent “the value of active participation in civic life” and the “civic spirit of Roman law as it centered on the complete man espousing the common good.” The Lucignano frescoes emphasize not only the value of participating in everyday civic affairs but also the need for sacrifice. For instance, the Roman heroine Lucretia is shown. Her suicide sparked the revolt that founded the Roman Republic.
  2. Lay government. One saint (Paul) is depicted among the worthies, but his quote from Romans 12:17-19 is about obeying the law. Figures like Justinian are deeply Christian, but they mingle on the chamber ceiling with pagan Romans and ancient Jews without distinction. The Roman republic and empire were Dante’s political models, and they were led by laymen rather than clergy. Although Dante and the medieval leaders of Lucignano believed that law should be consistent with scripture, the point emphasized in the Council Chamber is the primacy of law.
  3. Independence: Joost-Gaugier notes a subtle dig at Siena, from which Lucignano had won its freedom. Siena claimed to be founded by Remus, who was its mascot, but the frescoes in Lucignano suggest that Rome had been founded by the god Janus and not by Romulus and Remus at all. While Lucignano’s elders may have simply had a quarrel with Siena, they also hoped to govern their community free of any outside domination. Self-governance is an implicit theme here.
  4. The unity of history. Ancient Romans, Jews, and Christians all look alike in these frescoes. That is partly a result of the historical naivety of Lucignano’s artists. They had no idea that Samson and Virgil should be dressed differently from a Tuscan of the 1400s. At the same time, however, Dante offered a more substantive reason to treat all these worthies as similar. He held that world history had a unity determined by providence. See Paradiso VI, where Justinian mentions several of the other figures shown on the ceiling at Lucignano as bearers of God’s unfolding will.

People who thought in this way were liable to see themselves as appropriate heirs to the republican citizens of ancient Rome, capable of self-governance, obligated to sacrifice for the common good, and committed to the same law that had prevailed in Rome. This room is a vivid illustration of the idea that civic republicanism flourished in late-medieval Italy and came to the Atlantic world from there.

*Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, “Dante and the History of Art: The Case of a Tuscan Commune. Part II: The Sala del Consiglio at Lucignano,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 11, No. 22 (1990), pp. 23-46.

the year the people took back politics: a vision for 2016

Below are my keynote remarks yesterday at …

Breaking Through: Increasing Civic Engagement, Before, During and After Elections

The video is here:

I departed from the prepared text a fair amount in order to address the audience of civic innovators who had gathered in Austin. By the time I spoke, I knew more about their projects. These are the prepared remarks:

A presidential election cycle is a great civic ritual. Even though only about 60% of adults vote—when we’re lucky—a national campaign still touches most Americans in one way or another. It challenges us to consider fundamental issues. And it connects us to our political heritage, for many of the greatest moments in our political history have been presidential elections.

As the 2016 cycle heats up, what should we expect from this great national civic experience? What do we have a right to expect from the election?

I would say …

The campaign must engage all Americans, without respect to wealth, social status, age, race, gender, disability, and political and religious opinions.

It must give all Americans equal weight and importance, honoring the fundamental principle of one person/one vote. It must make our leaders accountable to the people as equals.

The campaign must provoke a serious conversation about the most fundamental issues facing us as a country.

It must enlist our higher instincts. It is absolutely fine for citizens to retain their diverse political ideologies and their various and conflicting interests. But we must all be reminded of the more generous and idealistic aspects of our own views and interests—or what Lincoln called, after the fateful campaign of 1860, “the better angels of our nature.”

During a national political campaign, Americans must have respectful interactions with fellow citizens who hold different views from their own. The goal is not consensus but mutual understanding and an awareness that we are all legitimate participants in one great political debate.

Some of our interactions must be personal, in the sense that we get to know one another and can actually reply to each others’ ideas—whether online or face-to-face. In other words, it’s not enough to relate to politicians and other celebrities by following what they say. We must also relate to one another.

Citizens must see ways of acting on their political values that go beyond casting a ballot in November, important as that is. If, for instance, you are moved by the problem of climate change or concerned about moral decline, the campaign should inspire you to reduce carbon or to restore traditional values by working with neighbors and peers. The act of voting should be just one of the political efforts that you undertake as a result of the election.

Finally, a diverse set of new actors must see openings to enter political life, whether as campaign volunteers and staffers, independent activists, or reporters, artists, and bloggers. Presidential elections are entry points for new generations of activists and leaders.

I have described a national election in rather glowing terms, but we all know that the reality falls far short. Continue reading