when political movements resemble religions

In The Atlantic, John McWhorter suggests analogies between current movements against racism and religious revivals:

Third-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus.

… The new religion, as a matter of faith, entails that one suspends disbelief at certain points out of respect to the larger narrative. ….

When someone attests to his white privilege with his hand up in the air, palm outward—which I have observed more than once—the resemblance to testifying in church need not surprise. Here, the agnostic or atheist American who sees fundamentalists and Mormons as quaint reveals himself as, of all things, a parishioner.

McWhorter presents this analogy as a critique. He advises: “Social concern and activism must not cease, but proceed minus the religious aspect they have taken on.”

One obvious question is whether McWhorter is right that the anti-racist left is losing because of its rhetorical style. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, thinks it is winning.

But I am interested in a different question: why does political ideology often resemble religion? After all, anti-racist politics is not unusual in this respect.

  • Environmentalism offers an account of original sin (human exploitation of nature), an eschatology (the planet will be wrecked by greed and waste), authorities (climate scientists) whose conclusions must be trusted even though we can’t see or replicate what they see, heretics (climate skeptics), a moral critique of everyday behavior, and a path to salvation through sacrifice.
  • Libertarians define original sin as the influence of the state, which relies on violent force. Its tentacles reach into everyday life through taxation and regulation, corrupting the free condition of voluntary exchange. The state has a satanic tendency to expand, preying on human weakness. Until freedom is restored, libertarians should gather to read scripture (Hayek, von Mises) and convert wavering souls.
  • Marxism offers the whole package: scripture, prophets, martyrs, hymns, icons, metaphysics, eschatology, multiple denominations and sectarian schisms, heretics and excommunications, revival movements, fundamentalist and revisionist strands …

This list could probably be extended to include New Deal liberalism, various forms of nationalism, third-wave feminism, Bonapartist populism, etc.

A resemblance to religion does not invalidate a political movement. I am an environmentalist and I am not shaken by the fact that environmentalism bears a point-by-point similarity to Protestant Christianity. Faith in climate science is a necessary step to saving the planet. Maybe confessing white privilege is a necessary step to racial justice.

But we might ask: do these political movements so closely resemble religions because we have mental habits that we lazily or uncritically apply to new domains? Could we be more effective if we were more original?

Alternatively, are these excellent ways for human beings to organize our thoughts, and that is why they have reappeared in secular contexts after first flourishing in religions?

Also, are these forms of thought characteristic of religion, or only of Abrahamic religions? Some aspects of environmentalism and libertarianism (original sin, individual responsibility as part of voluntary groups) remind me specifically of Lutheran Christianity. They don’t sound at all like Buddhism, for example. Does that mean that these movements are problematically “Western”? Or did the Reformation give us tools for understanding and improving the world that we should be glad to use for other purposes?

See also: is everyone religious?; are religions comprehensive doctrines?; the political advantages of organized religion; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; and avoiding the labels of East and West.

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects

Cases for Culture is an initiative that explores “a Hybrid Genre of Scholarship between STEM and the Humanities.” One of the cases on its website is an interdisciplinary study that I am part of. We are investigating the impact of a new arts center on Boston’s Chinatown, with a focus on whether it combats the negative consequences of gentrification. Our team encompasses humanists from Drama & Dance and social scientists from Public Health and Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, with me (a philosopher morphed into some kind of social scientist) as the PI.

The question for this post is: What do the humanities contribute? What can they offer that is not available from the social and behavioral sciences? I’d suggest:

  1. Answers to the question: What is this thing? What should we call this human-made practice, artifact, or phenomenon? What adjectives may we apply to it?
  2. Is it good? “Good” here is a shorthand for other value-laden concepts, such as “authentic,” “equitable,” “beautiful,” “liberatory,” and many more.

In our study of the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, I take these to be social science questions: Who attends arts events? Why? What happens to them as a result? What are the broader consequences? How and why is the Center supported?

But I take these to be humanities questions: What are the performances that people see at Pao? For instance, is a given performance rightly named a “classical Chinese opera”? If so, what does that mean? What are its origins and boundaries and how has it varied? Or: what is the building in which Pao is situated? Is it a “modern” high-rise? A work of “Western” architecture? And can we call a specific classical Chinese opera performed in a specific way in a particular 21st-century high-rise in Boston’s Chinatown “authentic,” “traditional,” “innovative,” “appropriated,” “self-conscious,” “popular,” “elitist,” or “subversive”?

To address those questions, one must interpret the cultural product itself. Putting the interpretation together with social scientific findings about causation creates a powerful hybrid. Only through this combination can one say whether it is desirableto introduce a certain genre or style of culture into this social context.

Some caveats:

First, the disciplines are not as sharply distinguishable as I have implied. Any person can contribute to inquiries within any discipline (if given appropriate support and a willingness to learn). And each discipline is continuous with everyday human cognition. Even astrophysics is a distant extension of our ordinary interactions with physical objects and our naked-eye stargazing. Still, disciplines extend our everyday cognition in impressive ways. Like other forms of specialization, they enable greater sophistication. The humanities dramatically extend our everyday capacity for interpreting the deliberate creations of other human beings.

Second, in claiming that the humanities address the question “What is this?” I do not imply that a given artifact has an essence. The Pao Arts Center, for example, is an assemblage of very diverse performances, each performed by many people who have diverse intentions, for notably heterogeneous audiences in a complex space that evolves over time. So any responsible answer to the question, “What is the Pao Arts Center?” must be long and complicated. It’s an essay question, not multiple-choice. But that simply reinforces the importance of the question. A cultural product is not like a chemical compound that has predictable effects in a body. Complex as chemistry may be, culture is much more so.

Third, I don’t mean that humanists monopolize normative (moral, ethical, political, and aesthetic) judgment. All human beings have rights to make their own judgments; claiming expertise about the right and the good is problematic. Still, the humanities tend to pose relatively subtle questions that have normative implications–not “Was that a good show?” but rather “Was that a traditional rendition of the opera?” “In what ways was it innovative?” Expertise is useful for these questions. Also, the humanities demand reasons for normative claims. In a peer-reviewed article, you don’t just assert that a work of art was (for example) “appropriated.” You argue for that thesis. Thus the humanities represent the everyday practice of deliberation–giving reasons for value-laden interpretations–made more sophisticated by specialization.

See also what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)an empirical study of the humanitiescan the arts mitigate the harms of gentrification? A project in Boston’s Chinatown; the Tisch Program in Public Humanities; and how to tell if you’re doing good

Posted in academia | Leave a comment

Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism

Just published: Levine, Peter (2018) “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 14 : Iss. 2 , Article 4. 


Authoritarianism is gaining around the world. Statistics show that deliberation shrinks when authoritarianism grows. In the face of authoritarian repression, directly promoting and organizing deliberation is likely to fail. However, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan (2011) find that nonviolent campaigns have a strong record of success against authoritarian states. Although nonviolent campaigns are not themselves deliberative or aimed at building deliberative democracy, I argue that some of the reasons that make them successful also stand to benefit public deliberation. Thus the most promising strategy for expanding deliberation in an increasingly authoritarian world is to support nonviolent campaigns and to reinforce strategies of nonviolent confrontation that also yield deliberation. Jürgen Habermas anticipated this argument in his defense of social movements. Revisiting that aspect of Habermas’ thought challenges interpretations that treat him as a theorist of calm, rational discourse.

I’m grateful to the Journal of Public Deliberation for commissioning this piece. At first, I wasn’t sure I had an article to contribute, but now I see its thesis as fairly central to my political philosophy. I’ve long been drawn to deliberative modes of politics, in which people listen and learn before they act. But I have also always believed in contentious politics: nonviolent but confrontational modes like strikes and occupations. Here I put them together.

This is also the first appearance in peer-reviewed form of my “SPUD” framework, which has proven useful in more practical contexts. For instance, I presented it at an #Indivisible gathering that ended up in this Washington Post article.

Finally, I’m grateful to appear in the special issue on “Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Authoritarianism.” The other articles are good and make a coherent whole. A running question is whether carefully designed deliberative fora (“minipublics”) are part of the solution to authoritarianism, irrelevant to authoritarianism, or a potential tool of repression. If they are part of the solution, what else is needed to accompany them? I’m close to the part of the spectrum that says “they’re irrelevant,” but the range is helpful.

Posted in deliberation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

you can go home again

(Syracuse, NY) I’m in the city where I was born and raised but haven’t resided in 33 years. 

One result of this kind of visit is to make the intervening years fold away like a picture book put back on its shelf. When we travel to foreign places, I find that all the vivid new experiences stretch time. The journey feels long; regular life feels distant. But as soon as we’re in the airport on the way back home, the days of travel shrink to a finite memory, as if we’d had a few moments away.

The same can happen to decades. A third of a century seems rich and complex while you live it, but returning to where you began shrinks those years back to size.

Another result is a reminder of how little detail we retain. I once knew all kinds of information: What would you see if you turned that corner? Who lives in that house? What minor joy or sorrow once accompanied that building for me? It’s all flattened by the slow passage of years.

See also Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescencethe Times’ poverty mapportrait of a librarymy home as described by Stephen Dunn; and three poems about the passage of time: nostalgia for nowechoes; and the hourglass.

Posted in cities, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

armchair quarterbacking Chuck and Nancy

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer left the White House with a priceless quote from Donald Trump: 

 And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security … So I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.

It’s no surprise that after the meeting, Trump hopped around the West Wing flinging papers like Rumpelstiltskin. I also appreciate why people are expressing support and solidarity for Nancy Pelosi after she got talked over by the world’s most blatant sexist mansplainer.

Still, I thought the two senior Democrats talked like professional politicians in ways that are problematic.

  • Don’t say that you want to have the discussion in private. That looks like a shady preference for backroom deals. I understand that the future Speaker wanted to get a real deal that would keep the government open–thus helping millions of Americans–and she feared that Trump would back himself into a corner in a public argument, thus preventing a deal. Her motives were good. But you don’t say that you want to meet in private. If the meeting is going to be televised, you use it as a public debate about what is best for the country.
  • Don’t say “The Washington Post today gave you a lot of Pinocchios.” That creates a conflict between Trump and a media product (the Post’s Fact Checker feature) that many will not recognize and few will trust. Simply state that Trump has not built any of the wall. Dare him to claim that he has. Ask him what proportion of the 2,000 mile border he thinks he has already walled. 
  • Don’t get into a debate about whether the House should vote or not. Trump is right that his bill can’t pass the Senate without Democratic votes. Which body votes when is Inside Baseball. Stick to the substance. The wall is a bad idea and you will oppose it.
  • Don’t quip, “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.” Sen. Schumer knows that these are red states that the Republicans were expected to win. But he sounds like a New Yorker with contempt for two states in the Midwest. Or, at best, he sounds like a competitor in the sport of winning the most elections. The issue is the wall. Is it good or bad for America? Is it worth a government shutdown?
  • Don’t miss opportunities to score debating points. “I thought Mexico was going to pay for the wall, Mr President?” “Here’s a deal, Mr. President–you can say you already built the wall and we won’t have to pay for it.”

Perhaps I am asking for more rhetorical vim, and that’s not a fair demand of two consummate legislative tacticians. But I think I am also asking for leaders who talk to the American people as citizens rather than as spectators of the game of politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cooperative Congressional Election Study and Tisch College of Civic Life: Postdoctoral Fellowship

Tufts University will award a Post-Doctoral Fellowship to a scholar with expertise in American political behavior and survey data analysis for the 2019-20 academic year. The Fellowship is partly funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and will be awarded to a scholar with a Ph.D. in Political Science or a related discipline with research interests that intersect with the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Applicants should have completed the requirements for their Ph.D. by the time of appointment, which is planned for August 1st, 2019.

The post-doc will be located at Tufts University in the Department of Political Science and in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The primary responsibilities for the successful candidate will be to assist with the release and analysis of the 2018 CCES. The post-doc will work directly with Professor Brian Schaffner and will help prepare technical materials related to the CCES, in addition to being involved in planning for the 2020 CCES. In addition to working on their own research, the post-doc will also be expected to collaborate on CCES-related research papers with Schaffner and the other CCES co-PIs, with the aim of producing several publications in peer-reviewed outlets. The post-doc will also have the opportunity to work on research for other projects in Tisch College, including the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE). The post-doc will have the opportunity to participate in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies (a seminar for faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners) at Tisch College from June 20-28, 2019 and will be expected to be part of the Tisch College community, attending talks and events.


Scholar with a Ph.D. in the field of Political Science or in a related discipline who is not yet tenured. Proficiency in Stata or R statistical programs.

Application Instructions

All applications must be submitted via http://apply.interfolio.com/58630 Applications should include: (1) a cover letter which includes a description of your research plans, particularly as they relate to the CCES; (2) your CV; (3) one writing sample; and (4) three letters of recommendation which should be uploaded by your recommenders to Interfolio directly.

Review of applications will begin February 1, 2019 and will continue until the position is filled.

Questions about the position should be addressed to Professor Brian Schaffner at brian.schaffner@tufts.edu.

Non-Discrimination Statement

Our institution does not discriminate against job candidates on the basis of actual or perceived gender, gender identity, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, or religion.

Tufts University, founded in 1852, prioritizes quality teaching, highly competitive basic and applied research and a commitment to active citizenship locally, regionally and globally. Tufts University also prides itself on creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. Current and prospective employees of the university are expected to have and continuously develop skill in, and disposition for, positively engaging with a diverse population of faculty, staff, and students. Tufts University is an Equal Opportunity/ Affirmative Action Employer. We are committed to increasing the diversity of our faculty and staff and fostering their success when hired. Members of underrepresented groups are welcome and strongly encouraged to apply. If you are an applicant with a disability who is unable to use our online tools to search and apply for jobs, please contact us by calling Johny Laine in the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) at 617.627.3298 or at Johny.Laine@tufts.edu. Applicants can learn more about requesting reasonable accommodations at http://oeo.tufts.edu.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

against inevitability

These are examples of social theories that emphasize inevitability:

  • Classical Marxism: “[The bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” — Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  • Rational choice theory: What defines the tragedy of the commons is the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” — Garret Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead about tragedy)
  • Skepticism about Great Men: “But the mysterious forces that move humanity (mysterious because the laws of their motion are unknown to us) continued to operate. Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time. Various groups of people formed and dissolved, the coming formation and dissolution of kingdoms and displacement of peoples was in course of preparation.” –Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • Progressivism: “The current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” — John Dewey, The Public and its Problems
  • A small-d democratic version: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”–Margaret Mead (attributed)

One thing that unites the disparate authors in our canon of Civic Studies authors is a refusal to accept any of these forms of inevitability.

Elinor Ostrom was part of the rational choice tradition, but she argued that whether we succumb to collective action problems–including today’s peril of climate change–depends on how we organize ourselves. It is neither a tragedy nor a comedy but a “drama.” She found that bottom-up solutions sometimes worked, and their chances of working depending on whether the participants used smart practices.

Jürgen Habermas came out of the Frankfurt School, which had assumed that capitalism inevitably blocks free inquiry and emancipatory reason. He also read theorists like Dewey, for whom (at least in my interpretation) emancipation is inevitable. Habermas holds, instead, that how well we reason and deliberate depends on how we organize our public life, and we have a chance to improve it if we work hard and wisely.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King confronted people who were deeply skeptical of nonviolent resistance, as well as quietist religious believers who preferred to wait for providence to sort things out. Their constant refrain was that we have a chance to improve the world if we try. Social science confirms that civil resistance sometimes works–and more often than violence does–although it depends on how the resistance is organized. During the century after Gandhi’s youth, the record of civil resistance improved, as activists learned better tactics, but lately, its record has gotten worse due to the autocrats’ ability to learn from their experience.

A major 20th century debate was about the relative importance of structure versus agency. Is history driven by inevitable processes or by intentional human action? The answer to that empirical question is: Some of both. But a much better question is: How can we enhance the better forms of human agency? The role of theory is not to weigh the past impact of structure and agency but to make agency more important in the future.

See also: beyond civic pietyOstrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Defending the Truth: An Activist’s Guide to Fighting Foreign Disinformation Warfare

(Dayton, OH) I recommend Maciej Bartkowski’s Defending the Truth: An Activist’s Guide to Fighting Foreign Disinformation Warfare from the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. It’s free, concise, practical, and inspiring.

Some examples of advice:

Establish local networks that can be rapidly activated to verify accuracy of shared information or legitimacy of online personas that call for certain actions in the community.

Educate, drill, and practice. … Teach how to identify a deep fake and conspiracy theories and ways to react to them.

Be aware of anonymous interlocutors who attempt to draw you to causes that seemingly align with your own activism goals. Ask them to reveal their identities first before committing to anything. … Do your homework by vetting your potential partners. Perform due diligence by asking the following questions: Who are these anonymous personas asking me to join an online protest group or alive street protest? Do they know anything about my community? Who do they represent? …

Insist on a degree of self-control in community interactions. Civility does not preclude a conflict, but conflict must always be carried  out through disciplined, nonviolent means.

Declare your commitment to truth and verifiable facts, including making public and honest corrections if you inadvertently shared inaccurate information or joined actions set up by fake personas. Praise those who adhere to truth or publicly retract untruthful information that they might have previously shared.

Stress the importance of truth in community as a matter of inviolable human rights. There are no human rights without state institutions being truthful to citizens. There is no public truth without respect for human rights.


Posted in Internet and public issues | Leave a comment

the justice-oriented citizen had better be personally responsible and participatory

Joel Westheimer’s and Joe Kahne’s typology of civic education programs and their intended outcomes is justly seminal in the field of civic education.* Many civics people are familiar with their distinctions among “personally responsible,” “participatory” and “justice-oriented” citizens as the goals of real-world programs and curricula. Most reflective educators favor the last type, although the first type is the most common in everyday practice.

Discussing their article in an undergraduate course in which we also read Martin Luther King, Jr’s book Stride Toward Freedom, I was struck by how perfectly the first two columns describe the people who won the struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They “volunteer[ed] to lend a hand” so that thousands of Black workers could get to and from their workplaces without using the segregated buses. They had long traditions of belonging and tithing to churches, so they could be organized in their pews to support a boycott. They “obeyed laws,” except when they broke very specific laws as part of civil disobedience campaigns, and they followed the emergent rules of their own movement. They knew “how government agencies worked”–so well that they won federal lawsuits. And they were brilliant at “strategies for accomplishing collective tasks.”

To be sure, they were also justice-oriented. That is why I cite them as an example. Justice rolled down like waters. But imagine a bunch of individuals who “critically assessed” the “structures” of white supremacy and “explored” its “root causes,” asking whether it was fundamentally based in racism, or imperialism, or capitalism, or in-group bias, or law and government, or the fallen state of Man. These people might be justice-oriented but completely ineffective–hence complicit in the maintenance of the system.

If most schools try to impart personal responsibility and evade the question of justice, then it’s important to put the debate about justice on the educational agenda. But in circles where people are eager to debate the root causes of injustice, it’s vital to study how to identify levers for change, organize individuals to contribute their time and effort, and get things done.

Source: Westheimer, Joel, and Joseph Kahne. “Educating the “good” citizen: Political choices and pedagogical goals.” PS: Political Science & Politics 37.2 (2004): 241-247. See also: against root cause analysisincreasing the odds of success for young people’s civic worksocial movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence

Posted in advocating civic education, civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

democracy is coming to the USA

Here is the racial/ethnic composition of the Democratic House caucus for the next Congress.*

I do not display this ratio to endorse the Democrats (or to ignore the people of color who are GOP House members), but simply because the Democrats will control the business of the House. Any substantial voting bloc within the Democratic caucus will have leverage. Starting in January, 42 percent of the caucus will be people of color, and roughly another quarter will be white women.

Nobody awarded these representatives their jobs; they won campaigns. And within the caucus, two of the five top leaders will be African Americans; a third leader will be Latino.

In the great sweep of history, we have seen Europeans dominate the globe: genocidally replacing whole populations, transporting millions as enslaved people, and directly colonizing or else economically exploiting most other countries.

In North America, some of them created a republic on land that their ancestors had taken by force, writing slavery into its charter. But the republic also made an appeal to equality, and the indigenous and enslaved people helped to build its physical assets and its culture from the start. Its people gradually turned this republic into more of a democracy, often against the will of a majority of the citizens of European extraction, but with key support from some of them.

And now we are seeing glimpses of a future in which the descendants of enslaved people and dispossessed people and refugees and economic migrants will hold a controlling stake in the world’s most powerful nation. For eight years, the son of a Kenyan man was the chief executive and the head of state. The governing party in the US House is still majority-white, but now just by a whisker. Nothing will pass the House without substantial support from members of color within the Democratic caucus.

The prime minister of Ireland is of Indian extraction. Many European countries score higher than the US on standard measures of equity. But nowhere in Europe will descendants of the Global South form a durable governing majority. Nor have people of color been part of their cultures all along. In the US, the backlash to equality is powerful, resistance is strong, and success is by no means inevitable. Still, if we listen hard, we can hear some of Leonard Cohen’s music beginning to play:

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
Democracy is coming to the USA

*Data from USA Today on Nov. 12. The current tally may be slightly different, and I did not fact-check whether anyone who belongs to two minority groups was counted twice. But this is close to accurate.

Posted in 2018 election, Uncategorized | Leave a comment