my remarks introducing Civic Studies at the American Political Science Association

(Chicago) According to the official definition of the American Political Science Association, “Political science is the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.” In other words, it is a generally impersonal and positivistic investigation into how certain kinds of processes (labeled “politics”) actually work. It is not a discussion of what you and I should do to make the world better.

This modern definition may seem obvious but it reflects a shift. In 1901, President Arthur Hadley of Yale had argued for “political education” that would enhance the motivations, virtues, skills, and knowledge that people needed to be good citizens. He wrote, “A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen.” But by 1933, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins announced, “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.”

This shift at the university level also had implications for how we teach children and adolescents. From the 1920s through the 1960s, most high school students took courses entitled “civics” or “problems of democracy” that investigated the students’ role in community life and how they could address public problems together. The assigned textbooks tended to address the students as “you” and invited consideration of what you, the citizen, should do. Both courses have now almost vanished from the curriculum, but a third class, “American government,” remains highly prevalent, reaching nearly 90 percent of all high school graduates. This course mimics college-level political science in its impersonal treatment of institutions and processes.

At times, the APSA has actually been hostile to forms of civic education that are normative and concerned with the role of citizens. A 1971 report by argued that the job of political education was to provide “knowledge about the ‘realities’ of political life.” According to this report, most high school civics teachers imparted “a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics.” Understanding and teaching the realities of politics would be another apt definition of mainstream political science.

I think the impact on k-12 civic education has been harmful. And the APSA’s definition implies a misguided view of politics that distorts even the most advanced scholarship in the discipline. My colleagues and I are using the phrase “Civic Studies” to describe a nascent discipline that would put citizens back at the center and combine empirical, normative, and strategic analysis. The flourishing of Civic Studies would have consequences for civic education at the k-12 level. It would reorient political science and the other social sciences. And it would connect academic work to global movements for civic renewal.When I invoked the word “citizen,” I did not mean someone who possesses legal rights and responsibilities in relation to a particular government, but rather a member of one or more communities, which may range from a block of houses or a single church to a nation-state to the whole earth. If you are a citizen, you want to address these communities’ problems and influence their directions, but more than that, you want to make them through your work, your thought, your passion. You want to be a co-creator of your worlds.

For you, political science and other forms of scholarship ought to be resources. With more than 300,000 different new books published in the US every year (not to mention articles, websites, old books, and works from overseas), you can surely find valuable texts to read. And yet, overwhelmingly, scholarship is not addressed to you as a citizen.

The social sciences are most useful as sources of descriptive and causal facts. You need facts to be an active and responsible citizen. Who controls the traffic light at your corner or the incarceration rate in your state? Would raising the high school graduation rate lower the incarceration rate? How much would that cost? What does the public think about taxation and education? The social sciences present themselves as providers of such empirical information.

Almost all students of these disciplines are taught that truth is elusive because the observer has biases. The social scientist should work hard to overcome or minimize biases, using elaborate techniques for that purpose (for example, double-blind clinical trials; or achieving agreement among many observers). But since such efforts will never fully succeed, social scientists are told to disclose and acknowledge their biases as limitations or caveats. They then present the facts as best they can.

Once they convey what they believe is true, their readers are supposed to apply values to decide what ought to be done. For instance, unemployment is bad; it would be worth spending billions to lower unemployment. These two value propositions are not themselves results of social science. Citizens must bring values into the discussion because social scientists do not claim special expertise about values.

Once we put facts together with values, we can make recommendations for society. And once we have recommendations, we can act effectively—or hope that someone else acts—to improve society.

That is the implicit, standard model. It is widely taught in graduate schools. It explains how most scholars approach social issues and the division of labor in their disciplines. It trickles down to high school government class. But the standard model presents a host of problems, some well-known and some a little subtler.

First, purported facts are always imbued with norms. Education, for example, is related to employment—but what is education? The average number of years that people spend in school looks like a hard number, an objective fact, but no one believes it’s worth measuring unless it is a proxy for education, rightly understood. The real definition of education is a process that enhances human flourishing. Thus measuring education requires a theory of the human good. According to the standard model taught to social scientists, moral theories are just biases or opinions held by ordinary citizens that should be disclosed as biases if they influence scientists. But to call a theory of human flourishing a mere opinion or bias is to deny the difference between right and wrong. What we need is a good theory of the human good.

That brings me to the second criticism of the standard theory. It assumes that values are opinions, tastes, preferences, or biases. But moral assertions can be right or wrong. I am sitting on a chair; I must not kill a random stranger for fun. Both statements are right. The methods we use to know right from wrong are controversial, but it’s easy to see that some opinions about values are contemptibly wrong: not just Mussolini’s or Chairman Mao’s, but the opinions of everyday people who happily waste more than they create, burden society and the earth, and sow more sorrow than joy. To say that morality is a mere matter of opinion is to deny the existence of vice and evil.

We certainly do not experience making moral decisions as a matter of preferences or opinions, like choosing a flavor of ice cream. We feel that we are striving to make the right choices, to reach objectively the right conclusions, regardless of our own preferences and tastes. If that feeling is meaningful at all, then moral reflection must be some kind of inquiry into truth.

Third, empirical information influences norms. The fact that we can have reasonably stable democratic governments is an essential reason that we ought to have democratic governments. We have learned from experience, not only what works but what is important and attractive. If I thought we could revolutionize or abolish the family to enhance justice for children, I’d be interested in that idea, but I’d need a lot more examples of success before the pure philosophical argument became attractive. Most people think that “ought implies can”: if there is a moral obligation to do something, that act must be possible. I would add that sometimes, “can implies ought”: if something has been demonstrated to work well, we are obligated to do it. This is another way in which facts and values are intertwined.

Fourth, strategic considerations rightly influence norms. We might propose that everyone has a right to a job. I would agree with that. But then I owe an explanation of how everyone can be afforded a job without very bad effects on the economy, freedom, or work itself. And it’s not enough to say that a government could enact a particular package of reforms that would achieve that end. I must also ask what would cause an actual government to act in helpful ways. My statement that “everyone has a right to a job” could help if it proved persuasive. Or my statement could be unhelpful. It might gain no traction, provoke a public backlash, divide an existing political coalition, or lead to a massive new government program that does not work. Depending on the situation, I might do better advocating a particular reform in the welfare system that has a real prospect of passage. Unless I have a plan for getting everyone a job, my statement that everyone has a right to a job may be worse than no theory at all.

Fifth, strategy and values influence empirical evidence. For instance, how do we get the employment statistics that we have? They are not generated automatically. People struggled to persuade government agencies to collect certain job-related data. Those agencies defined “unemployment” so that you are unemployed if you once held a full-time job, were laid off, and are actively seeking employment, but not if you left high school to help raise your young sister. The definition of unemployment reflects choices that people struggle over—not only in their heads and on paper, but by taking political action to change what is measured. Meanwhile, other information is not available at all. In short, our values and strategic actions influence even the data we possess.

A citizen needs knowledge of rights and wrongs, facts and explanations, and strategies. The citizen should be accountable for all of that: explaining what she believes and why. Her strategies must include the citizen herself. For example, it is not strategy to say that the government should provide high-quality education for everyone. That is a wish. A strategy would explain how we—you and I—can get the government to provide such education. It is essential that the education is effective (that is the factual part) and that it enhances human lives (the values). Again, all three strands must be integrated, because there is just one fundamental question: What should you and I do?

I said “you and I” instead of just “I” because purely individual actions are usually ineffective, and also for a deeper reason—because the good life is lived in common. Toddlers demonstrate “parallel play,” sitting side-by-side but doing their own thing. With maturity comes the ability to play together, to decide together what to play, to learn from the other players, to bring new players into the game, and to make up new games. That is what we do when we are co-creators of a common world. Not only are the results better, but we lead deeper and richer lives when we strive together.

Scholarship is not well organized to serve people who see themselves as citizens, meaning co-creators of their common worlds. The disciplines that assume there may be a real difference between right and wrong (philosophy, political theory, theology, and some other portions of the humanities) are rigidly separated from the disciplines that deal with purported facts. The professional schools teach strategies to prospective business leaders, lawyers, and doctors, but no department teaches strategies for citizens. Philosophy addresses the nature of justice but not what actions available to you and to me might make the world more just. Political science, as I noted earlier, is positivistic and concerned with institutions and behavior; it is not an investigation of what you and I should do together.

Meanwhile, scholars often hold a peculiar stance toward practice. Consider an educational strategy, such as asking students to conduct community service as part of their courses. Some political scientists have used this practice, known as “service-learning,” in their own teaching, and others have criticized it as insufficiently political. (I think Meira Levinson would take that latter position.) In any case, I offer it as an example; the same analysis would apply to medical treatments or welfare programs—to any body or field of practice that involves human beings.

The standard scholarly stance is to determine whether the practice “works” by collecting and analyzing evidence of impact. If the practice does work, the scholarly findings can arm practitioners with favorable evidence, persuade policymakers to invest in it, and contribute to general knowledge. If the practice doesn’t work, the scholarship implies that it should stop. Scholarly authors do not disclose their feelings of hope, satisfaction, or disappointment when they publish their results

But if service-learning “works,” why is that so? Surely because dedicated practitioners stuck with the idea even in the face of evidence that it was not successful in the early attempts and improved their methods. For them, service-learning was not a hypothesis to be tested and rejected if proved wrong. It was a practice that embodied empirical, strategic, and value assumptions. Perhaps the practitioners hoped to engage students in service because they were communitarians who believe that the good life requires close and caring interactions. Or perhaps they sought economic equality and hoped to boost the job prospects of disadvantaged youth by engaging them in service. No doubt, their commitments varied, but they built a community of practitioners with some loyalty to each other, whose actual methods have evolved. Their commitments and the community they produced are fundamental; the methods and outcomes constantly shift.

Scholars of service-learning can be understood as part of the same community. Like the practitioners, the scholars are motivated by core beliefs. They have not randomly selected service-learning as an “intervention” to assess; they hope that it will work because it reflects their commitments. They study it in order to build a case for it while also providing constructive feedback to the practitioners, with whom they have formed working relationships. When they get negative results, their loyalty keeps them looking for solutions. All of this is perfectly healthy, except that the scholars’ hope, loyalty, and other emotions and values are not considered scientific, so they leave them out of their professional writing. Most research on service-learning makes it sound like a laboratory experiment.

Civic Studies is a strategy for reorienting academic scholarship so that it does address citizens—and learns from them in turn. In fact, it treats scholars as citizens, engaged with others in creating their worlds. Civic Studies integrates facts, values, and strategies. Those who practice this nascent discipline are accountable to the public for what they believe to be true, to be good, and to work. They are accountable for the actual results of their thoughts and not just the ideas themselves.

Civic Studies is being built by scholars and practitioners who share commitments to particular forms of civic action in the world. That is the connection between Civic Studies and civic renewal.

For example, people have successfully managed common resources such as forests and fish stocks throughout human history, even though a simplistic theory of human interaction would suggest that these resources must be destroyed by the Tragedy of the Commons and related problems. The late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their students, often known as the “Bloomington School,” studied how citizens successfully manage common goods. They learned from practical experience and contributed sophisticated political theory and formal modeling of human interactions; indeed, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics. They developed practical guidance for citizens who try to manage common goods. They had an implicit moral framework in which good citizenship meant overcoming collective-action problems. My colleague on this panel, Paul Aligica, describes and develops this first stream of work.

Although the management of common-pool resources is very old, it is not static. Today, people are busily working to protect various threatened commons: watersheds and fisheries, public libraries and other sources of free public information, cyberspace (understood as an open network of privately owned components), and the global atmosphere—to name just a few examples. Movements to protect and enhance the commons are one aspect of the civic renewal movement, which Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland named as such about ten years ago and which I describe in detail in my about-to-be published book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.

I would owe a longer explanation of what “civic renewal” means and why certain practices deserve that name while others don’t. Instead, I will just offer a quick list of these practices. In addition to efforts to protect common-pool resources, I would name broad-based community organizing; community-based economic development; community-based participatory research; deliberative democracy as a set of practical experiments; the creation of new forms of public media; and educational programs that enlist young people in deliberation and collaboration. Each of these streams of practice involves a combination of actual projects, organizing, theory, and empirical research. Each reflects a normative commitment to enhancing ordinary people’s capacity to make their worlds. Each also reflects hard-nosed strategic thinking about what will flourish in the real world. In each case, the interested scholars are part of the same community of practice as the practitioners.

These are the streams that feed into the larger river of Civic Studies.


American Political Science Association, “What is Political Science?” (n.d.) For context, see James W. Ceasar, “The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education” (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2013). Arthur Twining Hadley, “Political Education,” in The Education of the American Citizen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1901), p. 135. Nathaniel Schwartz, “How Civic Education Changed (1960 to the present), MS paper, quoted with the permission of the author. See also United States Bureau of Education, Teaching of Community Civocs  (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915).

The post my remarks introducing Civic Studies at the American Political Science Association appeared first on Peter Levine.

Using the UN Security Council as a Pseudo-Court

Security Council Chamber Mural (by Nick Jeffrey)

Security Council Chamber Mural (by Nick Jeffrey)

So, while all the real stuff is going on I’m also re-reading Judith Shklar’s Legalism (which is a fantastic book you should go read) and writing about reprobation in law. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

At the same time, I was discussing Peter Levine’s insightful post on Syria over on YouFace, and talking about similar issues with one of my colleagues oh-my-goodness-in-person-in-meatspace-and-such.

If we take for granted for the moment (per implausible, I think, but that’s a different story) that the reason to make some military strikes on Syria is because Assad has used chemical weapons, it’s an interesting question whether it matters that the US will not be getting authorization from the UN Security Council (UNSC) or, it seems, even being backed up by the UK.

First off, some folks have pointed out that the Geneva Conventions are super-old, and Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is a red herring, I think. It is entirely plausible that a customary norm of international law has developed that parallels the treaty norm banning chemical weapons, given the long history and wide scope of the taboo. If you wanted to argue that it was even a jus cogens norm, I wouldn’t laugh at you.

But, just as it would for domestic matters, it worries many people – myself included – to have a single state, especially one with all the geopolitical baggage that the US brings in general and to Syria in particular, serve as judge/jury/executioner on a norm violation like this. In the domestic case, we would typically want a court to pronounce guilt. And in the international case, it’s pretty common to look to the UNSC as a kind of pseudo-court, even though it isn’t.

One of the finicky bits of the post-UN Charter international system is that the creation of the UN mucked with traditional principles of international law in ways that we’re still working out. The big one here is obviously the simultaneous principles of averting war through reinforcing the norm of non-intervention in internal affairs of states and protecting and upholding human rights… which often involves the internal affairs of states.

But a subtler one that is coming up here, I think, is: in traditional conceptions of international law, because there is no international sovereign, states are responsible for norm-enforcement and maintenance (Realists think of the international system as a Hobbesian state of nature, but for traditional international law, it’s more like a Lockean state of nature). If you break an international rule, you are punished by your fellow states. This is even built into Augustinian just war theory – rather than self-defense being extended to things like “humanitarian intervention” or norm-enforcement, the right of self-defense against unjust aggression is an instance of the general right (/obligation) to punish injustice.

The UN Charter undercuts that image of international society without really replacing it. There still is a vestige of it on the economic plane: while only the UNSC can impose economic sanctions that are binding on all states (in virtue of their treaty obligation to obey decisions on such things by the UNSC), individual states can impose their own economic sanctions on each other (subject to the rules of other trade regimes, but that’s another story). So if you can get enough states to, e.g., embargo Cuba because you think they are violating human rights, you can enforce human rights norms that way.

But you cannot use force to enforce norms, at least not uncontroversially, because of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. There’s some argument here – Belgium famously argued in the FRY v. NATO case that because humanitarian interventions don’t aim to conquer, they are not violations of “independence” or “territorial integrity,” and the R2P report (but not the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document) argues that coalitions or individual states should be able to step in if the UNSC doesn’t live up to its obligations – but at the very least if you try to use force to punish someone for chemical weapons use under the theory that it’s not a 2(4) violation, your lawyers should cringe a bit. Article 51 reserves the right of self-defense to states, but it’d be hard here to claim that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was an act of aggression against the US.

At the same time, the kind of Lockean social contract bargain that we’re used to is incomplete on the international scale. The UN, and in particular the UNSC is charged with maintenance of international peace and security, which at least on the face of it is different from enforcement of all international norms (and keep in mind that on conservative readings, that “international” is understood as “between nations” not as “anywhere in the world”). The UNSC is not expected to take up all norm-violations it can, it does not have to abide by the decisions of international legal bodies like the ICJ, and it does not have to justify its decisions in terms of international law.

Now, we may be moving in the direction of making it more like an international court. There is a long-standing proposal to have a norm of a “Responsibility Not to Veto” (RN2V) at the UNSC, where the P5 nations would agree (this would be a social norm, not an enforceable law, obviously) not to use their veto to block humanitarian interventions. Were such a norm observed, it would make the UNSC more court-like, as at least the P5 would be bound in this one way to make their decisions on “legal” rather than “political” grounds. Right now, for instance, it is entirely possible for Russia to simply say, “yep, Assad used chemical weapons, but he’s our ally, so we don’t care, suck it.”

And my colleague pointed out to me that the best way of understanding the increasing traction of R2P may be as a change to the understood meaning of “international peace and security,” rather than as a norm permitting action in violation of the UN Charter (or reinterpreting Art. 2(4)). On this view, we are moving toward a situation where the UNSC would understand all violations of international law (or at least all violations relating to human rights and use of force) as threats to international peace and security, even if there were no such threat in a lay sense (violence is unlikely to spill across a border, etc.). This would make the UNSC more court-like in a different way, by giving it a more clearly norm-based mandate.

And as Peter pointed out, there is an important court-like function that the UNSC already plays. One of the problems with both deterrence and reprobation is that they require that you be able to communicate why the punishment is coming down. I mean, Kafka made a career writing about what law is like when the communicative function fails – it make the state into a brute, mysterious, soul-crushing threat. If military strikes on Syria are to have the (again, let’s assume for right now) intended effect of communicating the international community’s condemnation of chemical weapons use, it needs to be clear that that is why they are happening – before we even get to issues about whether it makes sense to treat the Syrian government as a criminal rather than Assad personally, etc.

In the current situation, that is far from assured. Plenty of people, myself included, and probably Assad included, are very skeptical that any US strike would really be motivated by our concern over chemical weapons. The water is too muddied by the fact that we were instrumental in letting pass two of the only other confirmed state uses of chemical weapons in the modern era, since both were by our ally Iraq, back when it was our ally (during the Iran-Iraq War, and then during the campaign against the Kurds); and, by the fact that the US has been sabre-rattling against Assad for so long now that it’s pretty plausible that chemical weapons are just a pretext for striking him and trying to tip the balance in favor of the rebels (not to mention that the US claims to have more certain intelligence on the chemical weapons than the UN has, or than the US is willing to make publicly available, further fueling the concerns of anyone who thinks that chemical weapons is a golden opportunity, rather than enforcement being a choice we’ve been backed into reluctantly and only because of the massive norm issues at stake). On the flip side, since the UK vote, I have seen many people say things along the lines of “now it is even more important to do something, since the UK has shown it doesn’t give a shit about chemical weapons.” But of course the UK’s – political, not legal – decision is also subject to the multiple interpretations that political decisions always are. Most of the parliamentarians who voted against military action would surely justify their vote in terms of things like their uncertainty of Assad’s weapons use, or their obligation to wait for the UN, or their (Realist-y) obligation to look after their constituents before international norms (it doesn’t show that I “don’t care” about crime if I spend time with my daughter instead of becoming a vigilante), or their opposition to enforcing the norm through military strikes etc.

As Peter drove home in conversation, going through the UNSC could help with this problem. While the UNSC is not a legal body, it shares with legal bodies at least some commitment to public reasoning – anyone can go read the transcripts of UNSC meetings, and find at least the public reasons for votes (no one can force members of the UNSC, any more than judges, not to argue disingenuously, of course). And while there is no rule about it, the social norms surrounding the UN stop Russia from arguing in the nakedly Realist way I suggested above. Ambassadors speaking in UNSC meetings at least pay lip service to international law and morality in making their arguments. So, to the extent that a vote to authorize the use of force against Syria could be gotten from the UNSC it would bring the communicative advantage of being not just a brute decision, but of being one that comes attached with “and our reasons are thus-and-so.”

Reading Shklar brings to mind at least one way in which the UNSC may be superior to a court, by the way. She points out the ideological nature of assuming that the realm of law and rules is somehow purer and cleaner than the realm of politics and compromise. One of the weirdnesses, to me, of this whole argument, is that we’ve drawn the red line around chemical weapons. Morally, surely, the best argument for getting militarily involved in Syria is that civilians are being killed, not the particular manner of their deaths. The use of chemical weapons may show the desperation of the Assad regime, but it is neither here nor there in terms of their cruelty. And even if you’re looking for an international norm violation, intentional targeting of civilians already is one!

So I worry that searching for a way to fit Syria into a discussion of international law distorts our approach to the situation. It possibly commits us to symbolic “retaliation” for the chemical weapons use that does not much change the situation on the ground. And it tries to hide the ambiguity of the situation by letting us say, “chemical weapons are bad, and whatever the folks we like have done they haven’t used chemical weapons, so now we have a bright line, and if you’re over it, you’re an evil asshole.” Again, I don’t have a solution to the Syrian situation ready to hand, and I’m frighteningly ill-informed about the internal dynamics of the country. But it strikes me that trying to get closer to a solution by looking for a clean legal principle that will maybe attract consensus on the principle without actually clearing up the lack of consensus on the situation or what can be done is precisely the wrong way to go. Letting the UNSC be the non-legal entity that it is might be the better solution than trying to make it more legalistic. If the US goes ahead with military strikes, it will be doing so in the name of some “higher law” that transcends the messy details of the situation, but it might be better to try to hash out those details in public if we actually want to keep people from dying, rather than just ensuring that they die from napalm instead of gas.


top ten signs you are an academic careerist

In The New Republic, Russell Jacoby names Stanley Fish as the academic who “raised careerism to a worldview.” “His writings incarnate the cheerful, expedient self-involvement that is part and parcel of contemporary life: everyone is out for himself. Fish has burnished this credo for the professoriate.”

I do not know if that is fair to Fish, but I do observe plenty of academic careerism. Here are ten signs of it:

  1. You want famous academics to know what you’ve done, but you don’t know or care what laypeople think about the topics you study.
  2. You can recite the professional achievements and setbacks of colleagues but don’t quite remember their arguments and findings.
  3. If you could continue to accumulate praise and rewards without learning anything new, you would stop learning.
  4. If you had a choice between a job where you could do better work and a job that had higher prestige, you would pick the latter.
  5. You are primarily interested in who holds each theory, not whether it is right. And you mainly select topics to study because prominent scholars are currently interested in them.
  6. You are most impressed by scholarly work that requires especially difficult techniques. You do not consider impact when you assess scholarship.
  7. You can explain what you know and how you know it, but not why it’s worth knowing.
  8. For you, a “good” university is one that attracts students and faculty who are already accomplished before they arrive.
  9. You think that fully successful students are those who become professors in your field.
  10. Like Fish, you don’t think taxpayers, students, and other laypeople have any right to judge your work.

It is a privilege to be paid to read, talk, and write. Many talented young people strive for a chance to join the academy but can’t find jobs. If you hold an academic position and have turned into a careerist, I believe you should quit and get out of the way.

The post top ten signs you are an academic careerist appeared first on Peter Levine.

Register for NCDD’s next Tech Tuesday event — on Zilino

Our second “Tech Tuesday” event will take place on September 17th from 4pm-5pm Eastern (1pm-2pm Pacific). We’ll be taking a look at Zilino, a web-based solution that enables practitioners to host deliberative online forums and other types of well structured, well facilitated engagement processes.

Tech_Tuesday_BadgeThe webinar will be hosted by Tim Bonnemann, founder and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a long-time NCDD organizational member and co-sponsor of the 2012 NCDD Conference. Intellitics is a digital engagement startup based in San José, CA that helps its clients apply technology to support, enhance and extend participatory processes.

Intellitics is currently working with a non-profit on the East Coast to translate their in-person citizen deliberation process (National Issues Forum approach) into a meaningful online experience using Zilino. This session will provide a brief overview of the tool and present insights from this ongoing project.

As with our first Tech Tuesday, we”ll be using GoToWebinar.  Please register today to reserve your spot:

Tech Tuesday is a new initiative from NCDD focused on online technology. Many in our field are curious about how they can use online tools to support their engagement work, and many tool creators are excited to talk to this community about their innovations.

These one-hour events, designed and run by the tool creators themselves, are meant to help practitioners get a better sense of the online engagement landscape and how they can take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to them.

If you have an idea for a Tech Tuesday event you’d like to run (or a tool you’d like to see featured), email NCDD’s Director, Sandy Heierbacher, at — or leave a comment here. Please note that unlike our “Confab calls,” which NCDD runs, promotes, and archives, we ask Tech Tuesday presenters to run these events on the platform of their choice. This frees us up to hold more events, and allows the presenters to use the platform that makes the most sense for their tool.

IAP2 2013 North America Conference: September 22-24 in Salt Lake City, UT

This post was submitted by Tim Bonnemann of Intellitics, Inc., an organizational member of NCDD.

For anyone still undecided about attending what’s shaping up to be another great IAP2 conference, here are a few quick links to help win you over:

Any questions, please contact Hope to see you there!

Turn Up The Volume!

This post was submitted by NCDD member Jeffrey Abelson of Song Of A Citizen. If you are interested in getting involved or sharing your stories with Jeffrey, email him at

Many of you know me from the videos I’ve produced with D&D leaders over the last few years.

I’ve done that under the umbrella of my non-profit, non-partisan “Song Of A Citizen” project — the mission of which is to create an ongoing slate of films and videos to inspire fellow Americans to engage as citizens more seriously, and to participate in dialogue and deliberation forums as one of the best ways to do that.

But as you all well know, most people have never heard of D&D. So shining a bright spotlight on the field is critical. Doing it through the production of mass appeal media is one of my top priorities. I seek nothing less than to make D&D a household word.

And I could use your help.

If you haven’t seen the original Video Op-Ed series we did, you might want to check that out.

Ditto the series of interviews I filmed with D&D leaders at the last NCDD conference.

Now it’s time to shift from projects that feature experts, and therefore have a limited (though critical) audience — to projects designed to resonate with the general public. That’s actually my strong suit. I’ve been making films and videos that reach and impact millions of people for 30 years (from prime time PBS documentaries to high profile MTV videos). You can learn more about my creative work at

But my main focus these day is how to turn up the volume on D&D so the general public, and mainstream media, know that (a) these processes and opportunities actually exist and (b) that they very well may be the elusive answer that frustrated and cynical citizens have long been looking for.

To that end, I’d like to mention one project I’ve been developing that I’d love see take off soon. It’s a documentary feature film called “The Deciders” — which will tell the stories of diverse citizens who’ve participated in successful deliberative forums in recent years, along with some enlightened public officials who’ve participated as well. The film will tell their stories using a variety of artful cinematic devices. It won’t be a typical talking heads film.

Courtesy of Tyrone Reitman and Elliot Shuford, I’ve already spoken with a number of people who participated Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review. And they told me some really inspiring stories about how their participation triggered big attitude shifts (in how they viewed the issue being considered, or the role as a citizen more broadly).

Now I’d like to connect with folks in other parts of the country, who’ve participated in other projects, and who have other compelling stories of transformation to tell.

I imagine many of you know of many such people/stories. If so, I’d love to hear about them, and get some contact info.

And if you feel you might have other ideas or resources that could help this project, or the overall “Song Of A Citizen” mission — then, by all means, please let me know.

It’s time to crank up the dial, and make some noise about all this!

New Training: Integrating Collab Tech for Public Participation

This post was submitted by Jason Gershowitz of Kearns & West, and NCDD organizational members, via out Add-to-Blog form.

KearnsAndWest_logoKearns & West is pleased to announce Integrating Collaborative Technologies into Public Participation: a one-day training on September 22 in collaboration with the International Association for Public Participation’s 2013 North America Conference in Salt Lake City, UT.

Participants will learn approaches for integrating collaborative technologies into public participation initiatives. Technologies will be applied in a hands-on format to varying levels of public engagement: Inform, Consult, Involve,
Collaborate, and Empower.

Register for the Training for $325 at

For more info about Kearns & West’s Collaborative Technology services and training opportunities contact Jason Gershowitz, Collaborative Technology Associate at Kearns & West, at 202.448.8781 or

Everything I Know About Syria (Pt. 1?)


I can find it on a map. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

I’m a little worried about all the folks who have strong opinions about what we should do in Syria who don’t seem to know much more about it than I do. So, I’m not going to try to tell you what we should do, but as a philosopher, what worries me before we even get to that worry is that the conversations about Syria often seem a bit confused. I suspect at least some of that may be on purpose, but I can’t prove anything so you didn’t hear it from me.

Bottom line up front: A lot of people are talking about Syria right now as if we’re going to go in to punish chemical weapons use. But the real interest seems to be in using that justification to drive a plan that actually aims to do more. It’s really hard to determine how to “punish” chemical weapons use appropriately, and if we try to do more without admitting it and hence doing more than just bombing, we’re likely to fail at everything on the table. Worse, I worry that there’s genuine conceptual confusion and blurring here among people making decisions (in particular, various ways of being “against Assad” being lumped together and both their motivations and strategies being treated as interchangeable).

First, I think it’s helpful to set some outside boundaries to keep any discussion of it in context.

As Yglesias points out (hey, when he’s right, he’s right), even if everything in Syria goes according to plan and swimmingly, military intervention in Syria is likely to be a very expensive way of helping people there. If all you care about is lives saved, it’s a serious challenge to ask why we don’t spend our money saving lives in contexts where, frankly, lives are easier to save.

There are all sorts of rejoinders possible here. As I myself have argued, it is quite morally plausible that it is more morally pressing to save people whose lives are being lost as a result of injustice than mere misfortune. And while it’s hard to assess this kind of outcome (which does not mean we shouldn’t try) someone could make the argument that a military intervention that stops a war significantly earlier than it would otherwise have stopped may save very many lives (especially when you count in the indirect costs of war, like disease and poverty) and so be more “cost-effective” than a quick calculation would show. That said, I think security folks should take it more seriously than we sometimes do that, if our principle really is “we have an obligation to save lives,” the burden of proof is often on military intervention to prove that it’s a better place to direct resources than other areas (when in actual policy fact, it’s often treated as if it’s the other way around).

The other is that we – “we” here meaning especially USians – need to avoid power fantasy. It may just be that there’s nothing we can feasibly do from here that gets everyone everything they want and a pony. “Syrians are still dying” is only a good rebuttal if we’re confident that there’s a course of action we take that can impact that.

That said, I think there are two questions that I wish some of the discussion would be clearer on. Both of them go to the broader question of how we would even define “success” here. One is, “what is the nature of our interest here,” which I’m going to leave aside for the moment, just because I need to do real work at some point today. The other is:

What is This Intervention About?

Punishing a violation of the chemical weapons “red line”

Off the bat, I’m just going to assume for the sake of this argument that the Assad regime did in fact use chemical weapons.

Right now, the official arguments in favor of US intervention in Syria seem to be focused on Assad’s chemical weapons use. This is, in fact, a violation of international law, and plausibly a serious moral violation. More serious than killing bunches of civilians with non-banned weapons? I don’t know (morally), but let’s at least grant that it’s a plausible reason to sit up and take notice.

But it’s less obvious than it may seem how bombing is related to this red line. The simplest theory is a purely retributivist one. Assad’s actions and those of his regime merit punishment and so they should be punished. If that’s our theory, it’s less clear why bombing military targets in the civil war is the right punishment. Difficult as it might be to actually do, this sounds like an argument in favor of apprehending and trying Assad (and perhaps other folks involved in the actual decision to use poison gas). And if you’re a pure retributivist, “it is hard to get proper retribution” is no more a reason for deviance than “punishing someone won’t deter anyone” is.

It seems particularly problematic to focus on retribution because most of the people dying from the bombing would be either civilians or regime combatants, not Assad and his inner circle. If we were going to war with Syria, you could argue that all combatants on the side of the regime are legitimate targets, and so they have no complaint if they are bombed to death, but punishing Assad is arguably not exactly going to war. And even if it’s legitimate to kill them, the idea that killing his combatants and Syrian civilians (even ones loyal to Assad) is inherently a punishment for Assad relies on the very arguable assumption that Assad cares a whole lot about them.

So, I doubt that pure retribution is actually what most people have in mind, in this sense, when they talk about a need to intervene because Assad has crossed the chemical weapons red line.

The worry is that we now start walking up to the line of saying that the intervention is not about punishing the chemical weapons use, but about getting rid of Assad himself. And, politically if not morally, that then provokes the question, “if this is about Assad losing, why didn’t we get involved sooner?”

If we want to stay on the chemical weapons side of that red line, there are two ways we could do it.

First, we could try to say that this is not a punishment strategy at all, but a denial one. To back that up, we would have to carefully attack all and only targets that were directly involved with chemical weapons production and use. Yes, that might change the balance of power a bit, but maybe that’s a side effect. The plan would not be so much to make Assad pay for using them, but to ensure that they literally could not be used in the future. So, for instance, if Assad were to box up all the chemical weapons and mail them to a UN cantonment area tomorrow, we’d be done and walk away, no further need to get involved.

Second, we could say that the appropriate punishment is just that Assad’s chances of winning the civil war be lowered by X%. I’ll admit, this just seems weird to me as a punishment.

Third, we could say that the intervention isn’t about punishment or about denial but about deterrence. I’m going to leave aside the idea that it’s about deterring other potential chemical weapons-users, and just focus on Assad. The idea might be that we send him this message: “we will stay out of this, unless you use chemical weapons. Then we’ll take action to make you more likely to lose.”

This is structurally similar to an approach that has been used in the US against violent crime to some extent. Basically, while no one is legalizing drugs, to send a message to violent street organizations that the real focus is on the violence, not the drugs. For instance, under the Boston CeaseFire model, gang leaders were more or less straight-up told: if you peacefully deal drugs, all you have to worry about is normal narcotics enforcement, but if you are involved in violence we will throw the full weight of all our special federal money and enforcement resources against you.

This seems to work pretty well, but you really have to not care about the drugs that much. If Assad believes that there is no way that the US and its allies will let him remain in power, no matter what he does, then he will never believe that our intervention is keyed only to his chemical weapons use, and we won’t be able to specifically deter him from using them. Basically, he would need to believe that if he refrains from using them, we would largely leave him alone to win or lose. For better or worse, it’s pretty reasonable for him to be skeptical of that at this point.

What I suspect is in a lot of people’s heads, though, when they point at chemical weapons use in Syria, is not any of this. It’s something more like, “Assad used chemical weapons; this should prove to anyone who was doubting up until now that he doesn’t deserve to be in charge of Syria.”

Removing Assad from Power

This is more straightforward, as a goal! For some people, the motivation might be tied up to some extent with the use of chemical weapons, but they would not think it acceptable for Assad to remain in power, even if he never used chemical weapons.

Frankly, it seems unlikely to me that, were (per improbable) the UN team to say, “we have definitively determined that no chemical weapons were used,” most of the people I know or read who are hawkish on Syria would suddenly say, “I guess it’s all cool now, nevermind.” On the flip side, I doubt very many people were on the fence about this, but then changed their mind about whether or not Assad was a bad guy once chemical weapons were used.

If all we wanted to do was see Assad dead or deposed, it might not be that difficult. Here’s where “I am not a Syria expert” becomes important, but even without boots on the ground, we could massively arm rebels, carry out airstrikes, etc. and probably stand a decent chance of changing the tide.

The problem with this would be what the aftermath looked like. Libya, the closest analogy to this kind of plan, is a worrisome one. It’s hotly contested in the circles I run in whether Libya was “successful” (partly for reasons like these, where I don’t think everyone agrees on what “success” looks like), but I think I can pretty uncontroversially say that the situation in Libya right now, post-intervention, is far from ideal. The worry would be that, OK, you get rid of Assad, but now you’ve got someone else pretty bad (if not equally bad, but maybe even worse) in charge. I mean, Maliki and Karzai maybe clear the low bar of “better than the last guys,” but not by a whole lot.

One consistent approach would be to say, that if this is punishment to Assad and his regime for using chemical weapons, or even for broader crimes like attacking civilians, that doesn’t matter. When we throw a violent criminal in prison, maybe it’s not our job to worry about whether another violent criminal will take his place (until it comes time to punish the successor).

But it seems like most people who are hawkish on Syria want something more than that.

Protecting Civilians

This is a fraught one, and one where the empirical details are even more important. In fact, as we go up this scale, in general, deep knowledge of the nuances of the Syrian situation gets more and more important.

One way to go is to simply collapse this into a different option. We are protecting civilians by removing Assad, who is killing them. Or, we are protecting civilians from chemical weapons attacks.

If you want to focus in specifically on civilian protection, though, I think we’d have to be going about this in a very different way than we’re talking about going about it right now.

Now, I have a rep (Having a rep requires being known – Ed.) for being skeptical of the ability of militaries to protect civilians. But it doesn’t seem impossible for them to do some good. The intervention in Kosovo likely saved some lives, and there’s a reason why people retroactively appeal to things like India’s intervention in East Bengal and Vietnam’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge to justify norms of humanitarian intervention. Heck, even France’s Operation Turquoise in Rwanda probably gets a worse rap than it deserves (saving civilians because you’re internationally embarrassed, or because they are the civilians aligned with your genocidal allies is still saving civilians).

But what’s currently being proposed most places isn’t like these operations. The most common comparison I hear is to Kosovo, but what’s important to keep in mind is that the aerial bombing campaign was followed up by a massive ground rebuilding project, involving not only a major NATO operation (KFOR) but one of the UN’s few full-on transitional administration missions (UNMIK). I’m pretty confident that no policy makers in the US are planning on deploying an Iraq- or Afghanistan-level US occupation force to try to rebuild things and protect civilians once the initial onslaught is blunted.

Because, keep in mind, it’s not as if Assad and chemical weapons are the only threats to civilians out there! If we imagined that we snapped our fingers and Assad disappeared from existence, civilians would still be under direct threats from continued social violence, ambiguous criminal/political violence, and getting caught up in the infighting between armed factions trying to assert control. They would also be under indirect threat from poverty, destroyed infrastructure (which bombing often makes worse), disease, and the like. So if what you care about is civilians don’t die rather than the much narrower Assad doesn’t kill civilians, it’s hard to imagine that you will accomplish your goal just through an aerial campaign, even if you believe that an aerial campaign was a key and successful part of the strategy in Kosovo. Yes, if you point out that ethnic cleansing accelerated during the bombing campaign, many people will rightly point out that there was then a return of large numbers of displaced after it was over; but it’s a hard thing to argue that the situation would have been perceived as safe enough for that without the presence of KFOR/UNMIK or something similar in the aftermath.

There may be answers to this, but the question for anyone pushing intervention as civilian protection should be, “what is the analogue to KFOR and UNMIK in the Syrian situation?”

There’s also, I think, a darker side to this. Like folks who say that we need to preserve “stability” in Syria, it’s not at all obvious that being against Assad is the way to go here. I wouldn’t particularly want to live in Assad’s Syria pre-civil-war, but the fact remains that I would stand a much lower chance of being killed there than in civil war Syria. Civil wars, even totally justified and understandable ones, are bad for your health and safety. In fact, the hard-nosed argument often is that we end war first and then worry about justice in a situation where fewer people are getting blown up.

By most of what I see, the balance of power in Syria is still somewhat favorable to Assad (and certainly would have been absent support to the rebels from a number of US allies). So if you really want to just make sure civilians are safe, then I think we need to take seriously the idea that we ought to throw our weight behind Assad. On the one hand, this is arguably morally odious (though it’s basically the deal we’ve been happy to accept in other places, most saliently Bahrain). On the other hand, if you don’t want to make that deal with the devil, maybe it’s not just civilian protection you care about…

Resolving the Conflict

Read this with an implied rider of something like, “in a just way,” or “and creating a more legitimate democracy there.”

Again, I suspect this is what many hawks have in mind as their goal. Not just that the civil war grinds on, but without poison gas, or that Assad loses and who cares what takes his place. At the very least, most seem to have in mind that “nothing could be worse than Assad” (of course, things could).

But the imagined ideal outcome is, maybe not Sweden, but some kind of human-rights-respecting (basically) democracy (basically).

Here we hit the point of maximal “you would need to know more about Syria than I do to figure out how to do this properly.” But, like protecting civilians, I think you can’t reasonably have this as your goal without countenancing some kind of much larger, longer-term intervention than people currently seem to be talking about.

And though the dark side of this is less dark than just going for civilian-protection-via-stability-under-anyone, there’s at least a way in which this pulls against current rhetoric. I suspect that the surest route to something like this would be a negotiated transition, where Assad keeps some power for a while and likely a rich and comfortable life somewhere forever. He’s a bad guy, but he also still has power and supporters, both within and without the country. And there are some bad guys on the side we USians like, too – those al-Qaeda linked brigades are supported by someone, and let’s not pretend the secularists are saints either (again, whether they hop the “better than Assad bar” only gets you so far). Some kind of managed transition probably requires all the UNMIK-like apparatus of protecting civilians in the aftermath of the war, plus currently-not-forthcoming political will from at least Russia and the US+allies to get the regime and the rebels (respectively) to agree to it, something neither seems to want to do.


an argument against intervening in Syria

The Syrian government appears to have violated the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention (1925). The Protocol, which Syria signed in 1968, begins: “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” And so it should be.

Citing this rule as a justification for a bombing campaign would be a classic example of legalistic reasoning. I do not mean “legalistic” in a pejorative sense. The best argument for intervening in Syria is to enforce the Geneva Protocol, and it is an example of legalistic reasoning for three reasons:

1. It draws a bright line in one particular place. Conventional bombs or even machetes could kill more innocent people than poison gas did in this case. Likewise, you may hurt someone worse by insulting him than by robbing his store. But a law establishes very general prohibitions in order to control evils, to prevent wrongs from escalating, to allow people the freedom to do things not expressly forbidden, and to create a structure of predictable norms and consequences. Robbery is forbidden; so is the use of chemical weapons. Neither rule guarantees justice or peace, but they do create a worthwhile structure.

2. Deciding whether the rule was violated is different from evaluating how much damage was done or how much good would be achieved by punishing the violator. Legal reasoning puts consequences and persons largely aside. The rule of law is honored when no one violates the law or when all violations are predictably punished.

3. The expressive aspect is important. Law is not just about making things better; it is about expressing norms. A jury exists in part to represent the community and express the community’s view in the form of a verdict stated in open court. Likewise, the Geneva Convention speaks of “the general opinion of the civilised world.”

I think the agreement to ban chemical weapons was an achievement, even though it did not prevent many other (or even worse) evils. Violating that agreement should bring condemnation and punishment. If Bashar Assad can use chemical weapons with impunity, that is a sad day. I don’t think a meaningful punishment would have to end Assad’s regime, any more than a punishment for robbery must so bad that no one ever robs again.

Nevertheless, a legalistic framework does not support the US and allies bombing Syrian military installations. That is because:

1. The punishment would not fall on the perpetrators. We talk about “bombing Syria” or even “bombing Assad.” We would actually kill individual human beings who were present in Syria when the bombs dropped. Bashar Assad is very unlikely to be one of those individuals, and “Syria” is not something that can suffer. Using these proper names is a disingenuous form of synecdoche. The more accurate sentence would be: “Assad ordered chemical weapons to be used, so we must kill some other people.” Put that way, it is a clear injustice.

2. The punishers would not have standing to judge. It is deeply unfortunate that the UN won’t decide to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. But it won’t, and unilateral action by the US would not restore the principle of rule of law. It is as if A robbed B’s store, the police did nothing, and so C beat up A. That is not an advance for justice. C’s beating up A could have positive consequences. For instance, it might cause A to cease robbing people. But once we are in the realm of weighing consequences, the calculus probably does not favor a US bombing campaign in Syria.

3. The expressive aspect of the case would be ambiguous. What norms would a US-led bombing campaign express? Never use poison gas? (Maybe.) Go ahead and use poison gas because the cost is not very high? (Perhaps.) The US and European countries that previously ruled the Middle East can bomb anyone they like? (Maybe.) The expressive function of the law requires very carefully designed expressive institutions, such as public jury trials in courts of law. Otherwise, the act of A punishing B just looks like violence.

In short, the best argument for a bombing campaign in Syria is legalistic, but it fails.

The post an argument against intervening in Syria appeared first on Peter Levine.

Leading Engagement: Involving People in the Decisions that Affect Them

This post was submitted by NCDD supporting member Tuesday Ryan Heart of Confluence Unlimited via the Add-to-Blog form.

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