Monthly Archives: March 2016

an article in The Conversation

(Albany, NY) In lieu of blog post here, I have an article in The Conversation today entitled “The Waning Influence of American Political Parties.” An excerpt:

According to the General Social Survey, fewer than one in 10 young adults actively participated in a party in 2004, and that proportion fell to one in 40 by 2014.

We can debate whether it would be desirable, constitutional or even possible to restore the parties’ importance, but as long as they don’t do much for young people, young people will naturally learn to ignore them.

This is a moment to express my enthusiasm for The Conversation. It’s a rapidly growing news site that has established portals in several countries. The tagline “academic rigor, journalistic flair” summarizes its ambition: to publish scholarly articles that are edited and curated by professional journalists so that they are accessible, brief, and timely. The Conversation responds to two huge problems. On one hand, a third fewer people are employed as reporters compared to ten years ago. With traditional reporting in crisis, there is much less careful, fact-based journalism, and fewer professionals are involved in identifying interesting research and bringing it to public attention. On the other hand, academia produces a vast amount of valuable information and insight, but academics are not trained, supported, or rewarded for bringing their work to the public. The Conversation fills the gap.

See also: reform the university to meet the public’s knowledge needs in an age of information overload (a video); Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication; and how a university “covers” the world.

does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) built a quietly devoted following and influenced many others indirectly, via Michel Foucault. A classicist, Hadot interpreted the Hellenistic philosophical schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism) as communities of people devoted to improving themselves by employing a range of mental techniques. Argumentation was just one of their exercises, along with meditation, introspection, confession, renunciation and so on. These schools were similar to classical Indian and Chinese movements, but unlike (say) Kantianism or British empiricism, which are mainly structures of arguments.

Hadot thought that the Hellenistic tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” still echoed in the work of certain post-medieval thinkers: Montaigne, Spinoza, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, among others. But it had become marginal by the 20th century, because philosophy had turned into an academic discipline, dispassionate and purely intellectual.

Hadot blamed that situation on Christianity, which–he argued–had divided the heritage of Hellenistic thought into two distinct parts. The arts of the self (meditation, confession, and the like) had been assigned to the monasteries, while abstract argumentation went to the universities. Hadot had first trained as a priest and was a learned student of early Christianity, but perhaps he had the critical bias of an ex-believer. None of Hadot’s major positive examples were Christian thinkers.

In any case, Hadot suggested a choice. “Philosophy” can mean argumentation united with mental discipline to produce communities devoted to moral improvement; or it can mean the dispassionate and often individual pursuit of truth. One can see these alternatives oscillate over time. The grand theoretical edifices of Plato and Aristotle give way to the Hellenistic Schools and their focus on self-improvement. Medieval scholasticism yields to humanistic writers like Montaigne and Erasmus, who are more concerned with particular inner lives. German idealism fades in favor of Nietzsche, Emerson, and other practitioners of philosophy as a way of life.

That is a provocative framework, but not the only available one. In The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown describes how a generation of great converts to Christianity–Jerome, Augustine, and their contemporaries–debated the relevance of classical thought and “often took up extreme poses against the pagan classics.” But

such a narrowing down of culture (drastic as it was) [was not] an altogether unique event in the long history of the ancient world. It did not necessarily betray a moment of irreparable breakdown. Rather, the history of Greek and Roman civilization had always been marked by a characteristic pendulum swing. Moments of exuberant creativity were repeatedly followed by long periods of retrenchment. And this pendulum swing was marked by constant alternation between periods of creativity in literature and in speculative philosophy followed by long periods of single-minded preoccupation with ethical problems. How educated persons should groom themselves; how they should conquer their weaknesses; how they should overcome pain and console themselves in moments of grief; how they should stand in relation to their fellows and to the gods: these were issues pursued  by ancient philosophers, for centuries on end, with remarkable singlemindedness. [A footnote to Hadot follows a paragraph later.]

In Brown’s framework, moments when abstract thinkers predominate–like 5th century Athens and perhaps Vedic India, 12th century Paris, or 18th century Germany–are exuberantly creative and expansive, but they are followed “by long periods of retrenchment” in which the focus narrows to how to live, including such trivial matters as “how educated persons should groom themselves.” In Hadot’s framework, periods of disconnected, abstract, “academic” thought alternate with times when rigorous argument unites with spiritual practices to produce people who can live “in the service of the human community.”

They could both the right, because intellectual history is vast and complicated. I am left with a sense that there are two risks for any kind of thinking that we call “philosophy.” It can degenerate into mental hygiene, focused on how to live everyday life to the exclusion of challenging questions about nature and reality. Or it can turn strictly theoretical, disconnected from questions about how to live (or–worse–influenced by unexamined assumptions about the good life).

See also on philosophy as a way of lifemy notes on Pierre Hadot; and Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life

the limits of civic life

(Phoenix, AZ), While I am here today as a guest of Arizona State, I will give a version of the following talk:

The video summarizes my view of civic life in about 10 minutes. By “civic life,” I mean applying our minds, voices, and bodies to improving the world. We can do that alone, but inevitably civic life is collaborative, because individuals rarely achieve much alone and because we need other people’s opinions and perspectives to inform our goals and values.

Civic life is important, but it is by no means the only important thing. It represents one circle in this Venn diagram, which also includes circles for politics–meaning all the ways that human beings govern ourselves and create a common world–and the good life.

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In civic life, certain ways of interacting are possible and desirable. We can and should be highly interactive while we are in smallish groups dedicated to improving the world. We can be responsive to one another’s needs and opinions and strive act in concert.

But a good life should sometimes be solitary and inward-looking, or directed to nature or God instead of fellow citizens. And politics should sometimes involve competition instead of deliberation and cooperation. For instance, we want incumbent politicians to be regularly challenged by outsiders who criticize them and strive to unseat them. We don’t want incumbents to get too cozy with their challengers. The same is true of business competitors and contending attorneys.

In the video, I argue—and I strongly believe—that civic engagement can enrich our inner lives and offer us psychological and spiritual benefits. But so can non-civic activities, such as observing and appreciating nature, understanding and making art, or loving and caring for other people intimately. Although I think that the spiritual benefits of civic life are often overlooked—and improving our civic culture would strengthen those benefits—I still resist the argument that the good life equals civic engagement.

Here is a typically subtle case: I love to walk in the woods with my family and dog. Enjoying those loved ones in a natural setting is not a form of civic engagement. However, it is only thanks to the Massachusetts Audubon Society and our state government—and the individuals who work in or with those organizations—that the woods have been preserved and opened for us to use. The worthy activity (a family walk) is not civic, yet it depends upon other people’s civic engagement. Still, it’s far too narrow a view of nature and of intimate personal relations to reduce them to products of civic life.

By the same token, civic life doesn’t exhaust politics or offer adequate means to improve politics. Large, impersonal institutions—such as markets and companies, governments and armies, and scientific and technical disciplines—play leading roles in 21st century politics. You and I have limited leverage over these institutions. We can form opinions about what they should do, but those opinions do not always imply meaningful actions for us to take.

If the institution in question is the United States government, I have a tiny but greater-than-zero form of leverage in the form of my vote. If the institution is Coca-Cola, I can decide whether to purchase its products or not. Allocating votes and money are worthwhile acts but hardly constitute a robust civic life. And if the institution in question is the Chinese Government or the market for oil rigs, my leverage approaches zero. In the video, I say that citizens ask, “What should we do?” rather than “What should be done?” But sometimes reasonable people realize that something should be done and yet cannot find anything to do about it themselves. That is the zone of politics that lies outside of civic life in the Venn diagram above.

In the video and almost all my work, I emphasize that “small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens” have the capacity and responsibility to change large systems. I began my professional career helping to advocate for political reform as a research associate at Common Cause, and while I worked there, Common Cause was losing its membership base due to the shrinkage of American civil society that Robert Putnam would soon diagnose in “Bowling Alone” (1995). I came to think that American politics was corrupt because citizens were not adequately organized and active, and I have spent the subsequent two decades working on civic engagement as a precondition for better government. Still, political reform eludes us in the face of hostile Supreme Court decisions, technological developments, and tenacious political opposition. When reform does come, it may be because of a massive scandal or a well-placed leader, not directly because of active citizens. In some other countries and in global markets, the scope for civic life is even narrower than it is in the US.

To discount the importance of citizens in politics is cynical, but to imagine that intentional civic action is all of politics is naive. To the extent we can, we should work to expand the overlap, so that civic life is more politically influential as well as more spiritually rewarding. But I think we will always be left with two hard questions (among others):

  1. How should we think and act and feel when bad systems are genuinely beyond our control? The Stoic and classical Indian answer was: seek equanimity and acceptance. Epictetus advised: “For if the essence of the good lies in what we can achieve, then there is no space for ill-will or jealousy. Rather, for yourself, don’t strive to be a general or an office-holder or a leader/consul, but to be free. The only road to that is contempt for things not in your power [XIX].” I am unsatisfied with that answer, because I think we have responsibilities to the world even when we cannot see a direct way to address its problems. But what are those responsibilities, exactly? And …
  2. When an aspect of the good life conflicts with civic responsibilities, how should we choose between them?

why don’t social movements have great leaders any more?

In a discussion with undergraduates a week ago, the familiar question arose: Why don’t social movements have great leaders any more? One could dispute the premise, arguing that we do have social movement leaders today and that we romanticize the past when we forget how divisive–even within their own movements–most leaders have always been. Still, I think the students were onto something when they posed this question. Here are the leaders whom young people around the world admired the most in 2015:


The two people who could clearly be classified as leaders of social movements are dead. Of the rest, five are business leaders and two are elected officials in very large and influential democracies. Only Pope Francis and Muhammad Yunus could be described as leaders in civil society, and neither is a classic example of a social movement participant. Meanwhile, some highly prominent current movements–the Arab Spring, #Occupy, Black Lives Matter–are known for their reluctance to anoint leaders.

I’d propose three theses:

1. “Apex” leaders are assets to social movements, even today. 

Leaders who become famous for their participation in social movements are useful. They symbolize the movement’s objectives and its spirit in human form. They can use their prestige to mediate disagreements within the movement. And they are available to negotiate with outside powers. It’s hard to imagine the victory of Solidarity in Poland or the Freedom Movement in South Africa if Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela hadn’t ultimately been able to sit down across a table from the regime and work out a deal.

2. Social movements make leaders, more than leaders make social movements.

There is a widespread view that very charismatic and visionary leaders call social movements into being. Perhaps that has happened a few times, but the reverse seems much more typical. Social movements identify individuals who have potential to lead. They offer them opportunities to develop leadership skills and expand their reputations. Often, movement members must cajole the prospective leader into playing that role. They then deliberately construct a reputation for their leader, for the consumption of outsiders.

A classic example is Martin Luther King’s ascent to leadership in Montgomery ca. 1954. As Taylor Branch tells the story in Parting the Waters, King moved to Montgomery with ambitions to participate in civil right activism. Although still a young man, he had been groomed for leadership in his father’s Atlanta congregation and at Morehouse College, where President Benjamin E. Mays was a prophetic leader who had gone to India to meet Gandhi. These institutions, already pillars of the nascent Civil Rights Movement, had developed King’s skills and imparted an overwhelming sense of obligation. In his new city of Montgomery, he took deliberate steps to enter the black leadership, giving a “stirring speech” at the NAACP and joining its executive committee (which, needless to say, already existed). The Montgomery Bus Boycott was started by other people, mainly women, who used finely honed techniques to implement a carefully designed plan. King was recruited to join the effort after it had begun and was then nominated to be the president of the leadership team.

Idealists would say afterward that King’s gifts would made him the obvious choice. Realists would scoff at this, saying that King was not very well known, and that his chief asset was a lack of debts or enemies. Cynics would say that the establishment preachers stepped back for King only because they saw more blame and danger ahead than glory (Branch, p. 137). 

And–I would add–everyone assumed that a male reverend doctor would make a more palatable leader than Rosa Parks, a woman without a college degree who had been “focused for almost two decades on white men’s sexual aggression and violence against black women” and who had challenged the Montgomery bus system because of systematic sexual harassment against black female riders. Hers was not an agenda that would appeal to socially conservative African Americans or white liberals.

So King was chosen. This is not to detract from his personal gifts, but even those came in part from his training within the movement. The other church leaders in Montgomery identified King’s extraordinary talents, gave him an opportunity to use them, and helped develop his national persona. It’s in that sense that the Civil Rights Movement made Dr. King, more than the reverse.

3. Good social movements hold their leaders accountable and limit their powers.

We live in a time of “strong” leaders. China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alone preside over a contiguous bloc of countries whose populations approach three billion. Each of these men has consolidated power and projects a macho image. None is particularly accountable. Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, we see social movements develop without leaders at all.

The best cases surely lie in between. They are movements with “apex” leaders whose powers are circumscribed and who are held constantly accountable. Again, King is a great example. His main formal role was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which “differed from organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in that it operated as an umbrella organization of affiliates.” So King was not only accountable to a board, but the organization he led depended on churches’ voluntary and revocable decisions to join. He had no formal power over SNCC or NAACP, let alone the Nation of Islam. Indeed, these groups fairly often competed. To the extent that he was the leader of the whole Civil Rights Movement, he had to earn that standing by constantly serving the grassroots base. It’s that specific kind of leadership that seems especially lacking today.

See also the real Rosa Parksis the Sanders campaign a movement?; and how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal.

Maoist chic as Orientalism

tseng kwong chiWhile visiting the excellent Tufts University Art Gallery exhibition, “Tseng Kwong-Chi: Performing for the Camera,” my colleagues and I heard the following story. Tseng was the child of Chinese anticommunist refugees. He moved to the East Village in the 1970s, where he worked and played with people like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. When his parents visited from their home in Vancouver, they wanted to take him to Windows on the World, the fancy restaurant that used to be at the top of the World Trade Center. It required a jacket, and the only jacket Tseng owned was a Chinese Communist uniform that he had bought in a second-hand store in Montreal. The restaurant not only let him in but fawned over him, assuming that he was a Chinese dignitary. This reception gave Tseng the idea of posing in front of iconic monuments all over the North America and Western Europe, dressed in his Mao jacket, Ray-Bans, and an ID badge that reminds me of the X-Files. He always donned the serious, distant look of the Chairman inspecting the Red Army’s triumphs.

Tseng had studied art in Paris, so Richard Wolin’s book, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s provides some helpful background. Wolin writes that Communist China was all the rage in Paris in 1967. That year,

Mao-collared suits–“les cols de Mao“–had become immensely fashionable. Try as they might, the clothing boutiques in Paris’ tony sixteenth arrondissement could not keep them in stock. … Lui, the French equivalent of Playboy, decided to jump on the pro-Chinese bandwagon by featuring an eight-page spread of scantily clad models in straw hats, red stars, and Red Guard attire. The accompanying captions were culled from The Little Red Book. One striking image portrayed a young woman, unclad and equipped with an automatic rifle, emerging from an enormous white cake. “The revolution is not a dinner party,” read the legend.

Tseng might not have seen this Lui issue, but he lived in Paris soon after Chinese communism had inspired everything from softcore porn to an insurrection. Meanwhile, in the actual China, during the year 1967 alone, some 237,000 citizens were killed and 730,ooo permanently disabled as a result of the Cultural Revolution.

Tseng was a Canadian citizen, a gay man, an East Village artist, and an Asian immigrant to North America. In these pictures, he is role-playing the most powerful Asian man of the time, one whose victims–almost all Asians–may number 65 million. By passing as a Communist official instead of an East Village immigrant artist, he was able to experience social recognition in his adopted land. He also parodied the appropriation of serious matters for profitable pop culture and made serious art out of the parody.

See also:  French post-War intellectuals: some generalizations and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?