sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

the toll of many-to-many communications

Let’s assume that we hope to get a response whenever we say something to another person. Because of that desire, we do not feel right unless we respond whenever others address us. These tendencies would naturally arise among social animals.*

But then imagine that it becomes very easy to send one message to many people at once. This has been the case since the rise of email. Instinctively, we are going to experience each message that we receive from a human sender as a bid for our individual attention. If we fail to reply promptly, we are likely to feel bad. We have rejected the bid.

The problem is not the electronic medium or the speed of transmission. To type a message takes at least as much time as turning to someone and saying something. The problem is the simultaneous delivery of the same individual-looking message to multiple recipients. Almost everyone perceives the sheer number of incoming messages as a burden. Failure to respond in a timely way feels uncaring.

Social media feels different to me. Posting something in a forum is like speaking to an audience or an assembly. The speaker doesn’t expect each listener to reply separately, and therefore listeners don’t feel obliged to meet that expectation. The particular source of stress created by email (and its successors) is the ability to deliver one message separately to many people as if we were addressing each one individually, only at a much faster rate.

Please go ahead and email me; I am happy to hear from you. I might even suffer FOMO if you leave me off your messages. The problem is systemic and would require a collective solution.

*I’m pretty sure I read a journalistic article making this point, and citing experts. I have not been able to find it again.

research jobs at Tisch College

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life prepares students in all fields of study for lifetimes of active citizenship. Tisch College promotes new knowledge in the field and applies this knowledge to evidence-based practice in programs, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts. Central to the university’s mission, the college offers Tufts’ students opportunities to engage in meaningful community building, civic and political experiences, and explore commitments to civic participation.

These researcher positions are open at Tisch:

Senior Researcher – CIRCLE, Tisch College

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, is a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement in the United States. We conduct extensive research on youth participation, and we leverage that research to improve opportunities for all young people to acquire and use the skills and knowledge they need to meaningfully participate in civic life. In all our work, we are especially concerned with understanding, addressing, and ultimately eliminating the systemic barriers that keep some young people marginalized from and underrepresented in civic life. Our research informs policy and practice and drive substantive change–whether in the classroom, state laws, the county clerk’s office, or the community organization–that promotes stronger youth development and a more inclusive and prosperous society.

Responsibilities include serving as the lead quantitative researcher on a range of research projects that may include strategies such as secondary data-analysis, large dataset creation/analysis, literature reviews, field experiments, and development of original surveys. The Senior Researcher’s tasks include producing analytic plans, methodology documentation, datasets, reports, fact sheets, formal and informal research briefings, often in close collaboration with CIRCLE colleagues. The Senior Researcher will assist with research grant proposal writing, especially with methodology and measurement sections. She/They/he will occasionally represent CIRCLE at conferences, practitioner forums, and press events. The Senior Researcher will collaborate with colleagues who represent multiple disciplines, backgrounds and positions and provide input and assistance, as well as peer training to other CIRCLE staff who produce and translate research (quantitative and qualitative). This staff member will report to the Director of CIRCLE (Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg), who reports to the Associate Dean of Tisch College, Diane Ryan.

Apply here.

Associate Researcher – Tisch College

The Cooperative Election Study (CES) is a large-scale academic election survey funded by the National Science Foundation and housed at Tufts University and Harvard University. The study is built on the collaboration of research teams from dozens of different academic institutions. Since its inception, the CES has involved more than 100 different research teams and hundreds of faculty and student researchers, and it has conducted interviews with over 400,000 American adults. The data from this project are used widely by researchers, journalists, and members of the public to understand American elections and public opinion.

THS IS A ONE-YEAR GRANT SUPPORTED TERM POSITION WITH NO CURRENT FUNDING FOR CONTINUATION. The Associate Researcher will assist with completing the data collection, organization, and analysis of data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study. The Associate Researcher will also aid the coordination of the project, the development of educational materials, the design and analysis of future surveys, and the dissemination of results. Among other things, the Associate Researcher will help to create the codebook and guide for the 2020 CES, will respond to request and inquiries from researchers and reporters wishing to use the data, and will collaborate with the principal investigators on analyzing data from the 2020 CES. The Associate Researcher will also have the opportunity to engage in collaborative academic research projects with the CES team. The Associate Researcher will report to the Principal Investigator (Professor Brian Schaffner), based on the Medford/Somerville Tufts University Campus. This is an ideal position for someone interested in gaining research experience in political science or survey research.

Basic Requirements:


  • Bachelor’s degree  
  • Competency using statistical software such as R or Stata
  • Strong organizational and time management skills. Ability to manage multiple concurrent projects and competing deadlines


  • Project management skills
  • Strong oral and written communication skills
  • Demonstrated customer service or relationship management experience
  • Strong analytic and problem-solving skills
  • Ability to maintain attention to detail
  • Experience working with groups of people representing diverse identities and backgrounds     

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Familiarity with Qualtrics software.
  • Experience analyzing public opinion data from surveys
  • Strong interest in American public opinion and survey methodology

Apply here.

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Civic Science

This postdoctoral fellowship is offered in partnership with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH and involves some work at Kettering’s offices in Dayton as well as full-time employment at Tufts in the Boston area. The term is the 2021-22 academic year (June 1, 2021-May 31, 2022).

The Tisch College Civic Science initiative (, led by Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Samantha Fried, aims to reframe the relationships among scientists and scientific institutions, institutions of higher education, the state, the media and the public. It also asks about the relationships and distinctions among those institutions, historically and today. With this context in mind, Civic Science seeks to…

  • Reconfigure the national conversation on divisive and complex issues that are both scientific and political in nature, thereby connecting scientific institutions, research, and publications to people’s values, beliefs, and choices.
  • Define and advance the public good in science, thereby finding ways for scientific institutions to better serve communities.
  • Explore the concept of knowledge as a commons (or common-pool resource), developing a line of work pioneered by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues
  • Develop curricula that simultaneously attend to scientific and civic issues and that teach students to understand and communicate both kinds of narratives together to a variety of audiences.
  • Develop approaches to democratic governance that are attuned to the role of the scientific enterprise in society.
  • Ask what it would mean to earn the trust of communities that have been historically marginalized by the institution of science, and what science would look like if this was a priority.
  • Intervene at institutional and grassroots levels, alongside a robust theoretical analysis.

A PhD is required. Applicants must also demonstrate a strong interest in investigating the intersections of science and civic matters as the focus of their postdoctoral year.

Civic Science is interdisciplinary, and this fellowship is open to specialists in any relevant field.


A scholar with a Ph.D. in any relevant discipline who is not yet tenured.

Desirable qualifications include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • A background, degree, or certificate in a STEM –– or STEM-adjacent –– field, OR
  • Work on strengthening, designing, or evaluating democratic processes, OR
  • A background in the Bloomington School approach to political economy and/or studies of common-pool resources, OR
  • A background in political science or political theory, OR
  • Previous work on the connections between community health and civic life, OR
  • A background in science, technology, and society (STS), OR
  • A background in critical theory, media studies, rhetoric, philosophy of science and technology, or science communication.

The ideal candidate may have more than one of these backgrounds.

The Postdoctoral Fellow will conduct research related to Civic Science, both independently and in collaboration with Peter Levine, Samantha Fried, and the Kettering Foundation. The Fellow may teach or co-teach one course to undergraduates in the Civic Studies Major. The Fellow will attend orientation and research meetings at the Kettering Foundation as requested.

Apply here:

Opens March 17, 2021 and will continue until the position is filled, or May 20.
Questions about the position should be addressed to Dr. Peter Levine, Associate Dean of Tisch College at
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 Applicants can learn more about requesting reasonable accommodations at

Equal Employment Opportunity Statement: 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. See the University’s Non-Discrimination statement and policy here 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 Applicants can learn more about requesting reasonable accommodations at

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.

corporations should articulate core democratic principles

According to CNBC, “Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said the company has always been against legislation in Georgia that restricts voter access, but is choosing to speak up publicly about it after the bill passed.” Coca-Cola has received public criticism for not opposing the law and may face a boycott. Quincey claims that his company worked privately against the law. “Now that it’s passed, we’re coming out more publicly,” he said.

I wouldn’t expect big companies to improve democratic institutions. It’s not clear that they benefit from more equitable democracy or more responsive government, nor is it appropriate for them to use their power to influence the rules of the game more than they do now.

However, the literature on what causes democracies to devolve into autocracies emphasizes the importance of “guardrails”: lines that political actors should know they must never cross. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize “constitutional forbearance” and “mutual toleration.”* Forbearance means refraining from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords you. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely ignore the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections. Crossing such lines without repercussions can cause the whole system to fail.

Big business could play a role in preserving these guardrails. Businesses benefit from the stability, openness, and accountability provided by a functioning republic. Without meddling excessively in public institutions or ignoring their own interests, businesses could stand up for core principles that preserve the basic constitutional order.

But exactly what are those principles, and when are they violated?

In my view, Georgia broke through a guardrail when it passed its new election law. It should have to pay a price so that similar bills do not pass elsewhere. However, my claim is not self-evident. Legislatures constantly change voting laws for better or worse, and most of their choices are matters for debate and disagreement within the democratic process. The consequences may be serious–but we should expect that, because the consequences of governance are serious. Laws often cause people to live or die.

To show that a given law crosses a line that imperils democracy requires clearly articulated principles. Your own principles can be very demanding–if you like–because you are a free individual who is entitled to your opinions and even obliged to express them if you care about them. You could even argue that failure to implement universal automatic voter registration violates democratic principles.

In contrast, a company’s principles regarding democracy probably will not be very demanding. I might actually prefer that corporations stick to core values and not pretend to be advocates for a better political system.

Articulating core principles in advance would warn political actors not to cross certain lines. It would also make companies’ behavior seem less arbitrary. Quincey, the Coca-Cola CEO, said his “company has a long track record in Georgia … of working with legislators and lobbying for itself or with alliances and achieving what it wants while working in private.” He wants us to believe that Coca-Cola tried to make Georgia’s law better. But a lack of publicly articulated principles makes that claim impossible to assess–and rather dubious.

It’s easy to envision activists pushing Coca-Cola to take positions on subtler voting-law issues, while other customers would counter-mobilize against perceived voter fraud or reforms championed by Democrats. If the company does not articulate its principles in advance, it has no defense.

Writing such principles would not be easy. They could be too vague to distinguish norm-busting laws, or too concrete and precise to cover unanticipated policies, such as Georgia’s provision that bans serving water on voting lines. (Who would have foreseen that?) But I think that companies could help democracy if they articulated core principles, and they should do so in their own enlightened self-interest. After all, they depend on the survival of the republic.

*e.g., How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Cf. Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman.