Less Divided than We Look

Reprinted from The Huffington Post (The Blog) - July 28, 2014

Are we becoming a more polarized people, as a new and important study from the Pew Research Center seems to demonstrate? In spite of the hype surrounding this new research, I argue that the public is not as polarized as a cursory reading of the Pew study would suggest.

Certainly, this research reflects an important problem, but that problem is less about the public and more about our political system.

The vast majority of participants in the research (about 8 in 10) do not actually fit Pew's definition of ideological polarization. Further, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in an excellent analysis of the research, the methodology used -- forcing respondents to choose between two dichotomies -- leads to a result that can exaggerate the ideological consistency of respondents.

Fiorina also examines the wider body of public opinion toward specific policy issues. He finds that most Americans are not either/or thinkers. Rather, they see merits in various points of view and are open to compromise.

In a related vein, a new public opinion analysis from the organization Voice of the People finds "remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states on questions about what policies the government should pursue."

Evidence does illustrate that common ground is not only attainable but, on many counts, already exists.

Certainly, there is some evidence in the Pew research of a hardening of positions among the ideologically minded, and we don't deny that there are important disagreements among the American public. Still, this evidence does illustrate that common ground is not only attainable but, on many counts, already exists.

Even among those who take an ideological stance toward Beltway politics, many are much more pragmatic and open to compromise when it comes to local issues.

I say this with the confidence of 20 years facilitating conversations around the country with everyday Americans from across the political spectrum. During these discussions, there will often be a handful of participants who come off, at first, as rigidly partisan, voicing talk-radio-like rhetoric. But this rhetoric is almost always superficial and falls away quickly. When the conversation digs into concrete local issues such as improving schools or making streets safer, these participants become much more flexible and less dogmatic.

The Way Forward

There is indeed a serious problem of political polarization, but its source is not the American public. Rather, political parties have realigned and are much more consistently partisan than they've been in our lifetime. Activists on both ends of the ideological spectrum are much more influential via primaries and campaign donations than are average citizens. And media coverage generally reinforces what is most conflicted about our politics. All of this adds up to a highly polarized and dysfunctional national politics.

How then can we make progress?

Fortunately, there's a lot we can do at the local level - and we don't have to wait for national politics to get its act together to do so. Broad-based public engagement can support and even drive local progress on a host of issues that people care about and are willing to work together on. When it comes to education reform, jobs, climate change, public safety and a host of other concrete challenges, we can and should get on with it locally.

In fact, metropolitan regions are already getting it done, and have become the locus for progress on public policy issues.

On matters of national policy, however, we still have some work to do before we can make real progress on difficult challenges like immigration reform or climate change. First, we need to work through the tricky issues that are making effective problem solving practically impossible.

Unfortunately, we can't expect current office-holders on the national stage to fix things like money in politics or partisan and distorting gerrymandering; they've thrived in the current system and are therefore unlikely to champion needed reform. And in any event, they can't get anything done!

Instead, some form of people power will be necessary to drive reforms that enable us to collaborate and solve national problems rather than fragment, polarize and sink into stalemate.

Citizens must mobilize to demand practical, bipartisan progress on the issues that challenge our future as a nation. Those who fight for such progress must be rewarded at the ballot box and those who undermine it must be punished. Support must build for measures that protect our national politics from interest group and partisan manipulation.

Helping the public come to terms with these prerequisites for national progress is among the central political projects of our time. The Pew study does nothing to dissuade us from this fundamental point. Rather, now more than ever, we should get to work.

Two New Issue Guides from NIF

NIF-logoOur partners at the National Issues Forums Institute – an NCDD organizational member – have just released two new issue guides for helping facilitate dialogue and public deliberation around two important issues: mental health and alcohol abuse. As always, NIFI’s discussion guides present three different approaches to addressing the problem at hand for participants to weigh.

In the mental health guide, “Mental Illness in America: How Do We Address a Growing Problem?“, the three options presented are as follows:

Option One: “Put Safety First” - This option would make public safety the top priority and support intervention, if necessary, to provide help for those with serious mental illness.

Option Two: “Expand Services” - This option would make mental health services as widely available as possible so that people can get the help they need.

Option Three: “Let People Plot Their Own Course” - This option would reduce the number of mental illness diagnoses and curtail the use of psychiatric medications, allowing for more individuality.

And in the alcohol abuse guide, “Alcohol in America: What Can We Do about Excessive Drinking?“, the options are framed this way:

Option One: “Protect Others from Danger” – Society should do what it takes to protect itself from the negative consequences of drinking behavior.

Option Two: “Help People with Alcohol Problems” - We need to help people reduce their drinking.

Option Three: “Change Society’s Relationship with Alcohol” - This option says that solutions must address the societal attitudes and environments that make heavy drinking widely accepted.

To find out more about these and other issue guides, you can visit the NIFI issue books store here.

avoiding the labels of East and West

(Hartford, CT) Between the 320s and the 130s BCE, there were kingdoms in what is now Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan that had monarchs with Greek names who communicated in both Greek and Pali, who honored both Olympian gods and Buddha, and who had diplomatic relationships, marriages, and wars with both Mediterranean and South Asian neighbors. Here, for example, is a coin of king Strato I and his consort Agathokleia. They are named on one side in Greek. On the other side, in the Kharosthi script, it says, “King Strato, Savior and of the Dharma.” The figure is Athena, but other coins from the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms show the Buddhist wheel.

These kingdoms are fascinating because they may have influenced the ideas and art of Mahayana Buddhism, on one side, and Hellenistic philosophy and Judeo-Christian monasticism, on the other. Discussing them, however, can be politically sensitive. Ever since they were rediscovered, scholars–both Indian and European–have identified the Greek aspects of these communities with Europe, with colonialism, and with whiteness, and the Indian aspects of these communities with Asia, with independence, and with darker skin. Thus proponents of the British empire have accentuated the Greeks’ contribution to “Hellenistic India,” whereas anti-colonial scholars have either dismissed it or viewed it critically. This is a helpful overview of the historiography by Rachel Mairs.

I’m no expert, but I have a strong instinct that these categories are false and misleading. I happen to be white (of European extraction) and I studied some Greek. But the Greek cultural aspect of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms is deeply alien to me. In their militarism, monarchism, paganism, misogyny, and peculiar metaphysics, the ancient Hellenes are far more remote than modern Indians are. If I had to choose between the ethics of a Greek circa 200 BC and a Buddhist of the same time, I would select the latter as both more persuasive and more familiar. The British imperialists who came to dominate South Asia in the late 1700s were not much more similar to ancient Greeks than I am, although they thought they belonged to the “classical tradition.”

The Greeks themselves distinguished between Europe and Asia and named “India” as that part of Asia that lay beyond the Indus River. But those are arbitrary distinctions, as my family and I recalled when we stood on either side of the Europe/Asia border in Turkey several times this summer. Ancient Indians tended to call the Greeks “Yona,” which refers to the Ionian Sea. It lies between Italy and Greece, but if Indians had called the Greeks “Aegeans” instead, that name would have encompassed both Asia and Europe (per the Greeks’ own distinction.)

Race is a hugely influential category today, but ancients did not divide people up that way. When the Greek emperor Seleukos and the Indian emperor Chandragupta sealed a peace treaty by arranging a marriage between their children, no one thought that a white person was marrying a person of color. Some Greeks may have thought that the marriage involved a barbarian, but that meant someone who couldn’t speak Greek. Barbarians were people who said “bar bar bar”: unintelligible foreign words. The important divisions involved language, not skin color.

If you can drop the association of Greeks with Europe and Mauryans with India, what really jumps out is the continuity of culture and history from North India to southern Italy in that era. The philosophical milieu of Siddhartha Gautama resembled that of Socrates. Both men lived in city-states that would be overrun in the late 4th century BCE by monarchical empires. In both cases, a polytheistic background culture allowed reflection on abstract fundamentals that yielded agnostic and atheist ideas. In both circumstances, the essential question was how to achieve equanimity despite the intrinsic cruelty of life. And both regions traded intensively with each other. Once we drop the division between East and West, we can learn to read Sextus Empiricus and Marcus Aurelius as guides to meditation and Nagarjuna as a systematic metaphysician much like Aristotle.

[See also when east and west were one; Jesus was a person of color, and strange lives (last paragraph)].

The post avoiding the labels of East and West appeared first on Peter Levine.

Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties

Recently I’ve been thinking about a book by Erin McKenna which I read as an undergraduate: The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. I read it then because it promised to bridge the divide between my favorite genre, science-fiction, and my interest in philosophy. But the book profoundly changed me, and I’m always surprised that others haven’t read it; it feels like a classic. Using John Dewey’s work, McKenna articulates what she calls a “process model” for utopias, whereby we distinguish disputes about “end-states” from judgments about the “ends-in-view.” And this has always deeply affected my politics and thinking about political philosophy. I tend to think that far too many theoretical and practical divides are reducible to debates about end-states, such that even though progressives, libertarians, and anarchists all share the same criticism of some aspect of the state, they cannot work together. Usually these disputes are bolstered by philosophical and theoretical apparatus. The divide between prison reformers and abolitionists, for instance, is understood by abolitionists through the lens of Foucault’s critique of the 19th Century reformers, whose reforms, though sometimes well-meaning, only intensified incarceration by making it more exacting and effective while empowering the reformers. Meliorists who merely protests injustices or inequities but do not loudly call for the absolute abolition of prisons are falling into a “carceral logic” by which prisons will inevitably be preserved in all their evils.

New Harmony by F. Bate Where I find McKenna helpful is, first, in her claim that end-state disagreements tend to be associated with masculine utopias, while feminist utopias emphasize ends-in-view (which jives with my readings of the relevant science-fiction utopias, and also of polital theories that have utopian elements), and second, in her Dewyan typology for judging ends-in-view. According to McKenna’s reading of Dewey, there are five criterion (five questions, really) by which we can judge an end-in-view:

  1. Does it promote education and participation? Will the people participate in decision-making and goal formation?
  2. Is it realistic? Does it acknowledge our embeddedness in constraining contexts?
  3. Is it flexible? Can it be modified as new conditions emerge?
  4. Does it aim to develop capacities and abilities, not just states of affairs?
  5. Does it open up possibilities or close them off? Does it promote plurality or isolation? Cooperation or competition? Power or paralysis?

Halden Prison in Norway

This is where I find abolitionism frustrating: the project of prison abolition seems like an end-state rather than an end-in-view. It deliberately ignores (1) the wishes of victims, citizens, and even many of the incarcerated (all of whom are understood to be duped and epistemically blinded by the ideology of carcerality unless they adopt abolitionism.) It doesn’t start with our current carcerality and work away from it, but rather starts with a rejection of the current context and the constraints it creates (2). It’s inflexible (3) in the sense that it does not allow that some limited carcerality (a la Norway?) might still be reasonable. Though there’s the sense that that is the direction that abolitionism must proceed, it does not currently emphasize the development of the skills and abilities (4) that alternatives to incarceration would require. And though it does aim to foreclose carcerality forever, I do think abolitionists are most concerned to promote plurality, cooperation, and empowerment (5) for some of the most dominated people in our world today, which is why I can’t help feeling the pull of abolition even as the other objections I mention raise red flags.

Meliorism, on the other hand, has all the problems that the abolitionists describe. Reformers work with and within the system to resist it, which requires all sorts of rhetorical and practical compromises. By chipping at the edges and living too comfortably with “constraints” and “realism,” (2) meliorists leave the status quo mostly untouched. We adopt democratic projects and processes (1), but leave the fundamental injustices in place. We develop capacities (4) but usually we can’t create the institutions and conditions (5) where those capacities will be actualized. We are, at base, flexible (3) with evil, and thereby compromised by it, while the righteous know that evil requires inflexibility and even sacrifice.

Angela Davis puts it this way at the start of Are Prisons Obsolete?:

“As important as some reforms may be-the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example-frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage. The most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call the ‘free world.'”

No reformer wants to “produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond prison,” but much of the rest of Davis’s book is devoted to the claim that reform is inextricable from that consequence. Ultimately, she equates prison reform with the absurdity of “slavery reform.” America’s prisons are historically and in current practice entangled with the Black Codes, the convict-lease system, Jim Crow, sexism, and antiblack racism; therefore, reformers are merely (hopefully unknowingly) fluffing the pillows while white supremacy and patriarchy is maintained:

If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

Yet consider: Davis assumes that the majority of the increase in incarceration has been driven by the drug war, and that alternatives to incarceration will foreground drug treatment and decriminalization of drugs. In fact, though the largest group of arrests are tied to drug use, the largest group of prisoners are incarcerated for violence; this reflects sentencing differences and the kinds of treatment diversion programs for which she calls. There’s good evidence that the drug war, poverty, and racist policing produce some of that violence, but not all of it. Plus, prison populations are already shrinking, but at least some of this decline is due to the increase of post-release strategies that export carceral logics into a parolee’s (or even an unindicted suspect’s) everyday life.  The goals of decarceration can fall into the logic of carcerality as easily as the goals of reform. So how much really separates reformers from abolitionists? A reformer might call for the restoration of prison education and voting rights, for the creation of schools that teach rather than prepare students for prison, for decriminalization and treatment of drug abuse, for poverty-reduction and racial justice, while still thinking that certain kinds of violence should lead to coercive detention, that restorative justice has dangerous implications when applied to cases of sexual assault or organized violence.


And we see similar strands in Davis:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

A reformer sees nothing objectionable in those prescriptions, wants to join with the abolitionists for all their ends-in-view and put off the day when end-states might divide us. When the day comes that prisons truly are obsolete, reformers hope that they will be able to see that, too. But who really thinks that today is that day? Not Davis, who wants to “solve social problems” before throwing open the prison doors. In the meantime, why can we not work together to shrink and ameliorate the torturous institutions we all abhor? Why isn’t the reified distinction between abolition and reform as meaningless, today and for the foreseeable future, as the division between those who want to live in a world where the state withers away (Engels) and the world where the state has become small enough to drown in a bathtub (Norquist)? (Norquist now favors some decarceral strategies: is he an ally or an enemy?) If ends-in-view divide us, we must deliberate, compromise, and fight; so long as we are only divided in our utopias, why not collaborate?

Circus Week!

I’ll be offline the rest of the week for “circus vacation” – a week culminating in the season ending performances of the OPENAIR Circus. Now in it’s 29th year, this non-profit children’s circus annually engages 200 students from Somerville and surrounding communities in a variety of circus arts.

If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and catch one of our shows! All performances are at Conway Park, with a suggested donation of $3. The theme this year is “haunted circus,” but in a totally child-friendly way, of course. Show times are:

Friday, August 1 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 2 @ 2pm & 7pm
Sunday, August 3 @ 2pm

And, if you were wondering, here’s what a car load of stilts looks like:



Is This Really Working for Us? Public Views on Foreign Policy

“We, as a country, are just spread way too thin to get involved in anything else . . . “

“I understand the need for world order . . . but it just seems like whenever there is a huge international crisis, the United States is always the first one to run out and open [its] mouth . . . “

“I think we really should focus on this country. We are in such trouble ourselves.”

This is a sampling of comments from focus groups exploring American attitudes on foreign policy and on the crisis in Ukraine in particular, conducted this spring (before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) by the FDR Group and the Kettering Foundation. National polls over the last few years pick up responses similar to those captured above.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, 8 in 10 say the U.S. should “concentrate more on our own national problems” and “not think so much in international terms.” More than half of Americans want the country to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own .”

So what does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? The crisis in Ukraine, heartbreaking violence in the Middle East, the unraveling “Arab spring,” disintegrating relations with Russia, gang violence and turmoil in Central America--these are just a few of the tough international challenges we face. Do people really want the U.S. to step back from the world stage? Has the country become more isolationist? What happens when people begin to weigh the implications of U.S. disengagement?

Understanding public thinking on foreign policy is a complex assignment, whether you rely on surveys, focus groups or on community discussions such as National Issues Forums. Events abroad are in constant flux, and there are few policy issues where the public learning curve is steeper.

Americans are in fact quite worried about what happens abroad. They’re just not sure that U.S. assertiveness makes us any safer.

Polls capture people’s reactions about foreign policy questions whether they understand the stakes involved or not. Even in focus groups, it takes prolonged discussion to help participants consider the costs of getting involved in an international crisis versus the costs of staying out. And focus groups contain an important warning for anyone looking at the polls. People routinely assume that “involvement” or “action” means military combat. Most are unfamiliar with other diplomatic and economic tools the country might employ.

Yet despite these caveats, a closer look at recent polls and focus groups reveals some important themes.

Isn’t it time to work on our own problems?

Both surveys and focus groups show an authentic conviction among Americans that the U.S. needs to reduce its footprint abroad and take better care of business at home.

In the FDR/Kettering research, participants repeatedly asked why we were investing money, time, and attention in so many foreign hotspots given our own problems. “We have people living on streets; kids that aren't eating,” a New Jersey woman said when she was asked about U.S. policy on Ukraine. “And we focus all this money and attention on something that is none of our business, none of our business.” A man made a similar point about Afghanistan: “All that money that was spent in Afghanistan. Some of it should have been spent on Sandy, Katrina, Irene and all these other issues.”

Why are we always out front?

According to surveys, only 12 percent of Americans want the U.S. to be the “single world leader” compared to 72 percent who want us to have a “shared leadership role.” More extended focus group discussions underscore this concern. Even when reminded that wars abroad can endanger us here at home, many participants still wanted to know why the U.S. so often seems so eager to step forward.

“Why does it have to be us right away?” was a typical comment. Commenting on the dispute with Russia over Ukraine, a woman said: “Why should we be the first one? Always getting ourselves involved . . . At this point, it's more of like an ego trip. Who's the stronger man? Who's got the better country . . .?”

Surveys suggest the public is considerably more open to foreign policy initiatives when the U.S. works in concert with other countries, an idea that also emerged in the focus groups.

There are also indications that some Americans do reconsider their initial rejection of U.S. engagement abroad when they begin to weigh the consequences of “not acting.”

The FDR Group’s Steve Farkas describes what happened in the focus groups he led as participants wrestled with how the U.S. should address the crisis in Ukraine:

“As the evening wore on, some of those who shrank back from U.S. leadership and activism on a crisis like Crimea-Ukraine-Russia started to worry about the consequences of letting Putin have his way. Others in the room talked about the possibility that not confronting a bully would encourage him to escalate, and you could feel that a few of the isolationists started, just started, having second thoughts. Others held fast, they had thought through their position, saying Putin would not respond to sanctions —‘he'll do what he wants to do.’”

Does U.S. involvement abroad really make us safer?

Current surveys show that three-quarters of Americans now say the war in Iraq was “not worth the cost.”

One key insight from the research is that many Americans see “costs” to military action on top of the heavy human and financial toll. Some worried that the U.S. is now seen as a bully or an aggressor, and that this in itself endangers us.

“Really,” one woman said, “we dictate to other countries what they can do, who can have nuclear weapons, who can't, you know. . . It's just honestly, we're hated for a reason because we think we know the best way and if they don't do what we think is the best, we get mad, we send troops, we spend money, we go on TV.” Another said: “You know, if we minded our own business, we'd take the target off our back.”

Experts sometimes assume that public hesitancy about U.S. involvement abroad stems from indifference or a sense that what happens outside our borders doesn’t matter. But a closer look from the FDR/Kettering research suggests that many Americans are in fact quite worried about what happens abroad. They’re just not sure that U.S. assertiveness makes us any safer.

Who can we trust? Can anything really make any difference?

Perhaps the most troubling observation from the focus groups is the profound sense of weariness, mistrust, and cynicism evidenced by so many Americans.

Participants repeatedly questioned whether leaders and the press are telling the truth and whether U. S. foreign policy could make any difference even in the best of circumstances. For many, deep disappointment with our own country seeped into their thinking about what we can or should do abroad. “I think that we should support democracy when we start to practice it [here]. . . and we don't.” Another participant asked: “We're not even friends in our own country. How are we going to be friends with people from another country?”

Attitudes like these strongly suggest that rebuilding public confidence in this country’s foreign policy will require much more than replacing one set of strategies with different ones.

And yet despite the pervasive discontent in the focus groups, there were also sparks of curiosity and interest beneath the surface. Most participants delved into discussions about Ukraine even though they didn’t think we should get involved. Many listened intently to other people’s views. As the conversations progressed, some acknowledged their own lack of certainty about what the country should do.

Given the supreme difficulty of America’s foreign policy challenges, an open mind, a little humility and a desire to hear what other people think isn’t the worst place to start. Perhaps some of the TV talking heads who so insistently push their own “just do it my way” policy options should take note.

The State of Our Democracy Is Weak

I fear that the current state of our democracy is not robust enough to prevent the damage a biased-toward-the-rich form of capitalism is bound to wreak on our society.

We are doing reasonably well in observing the external trappings of democracy – voting, the rule of law, divided powers, etc. This is vitally important because it helps us to preserve our freedom and political stability.

Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

But we are not doing as well on the substantive side of democracy – the side implicit in Lincoln’s definition of democracy as government of, by and for the people. Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Jefferson observed that a well-informed public is indispensable to democracy’s success. What he meant by “well informed”, however, included not only relevant factual information but also the hard work of deliberation needed to form thoughtful and considered public judgment.

The current state of our democracy fails on these counts. The public voice rarely plays any significant role in shaping policy. People are badly informed about the relevant facts. And most important of all, they lack both the incentive and the tools needed to reach considered public judgment on vital policy issues.

An astonishing example: the public voice had no role whatsoever in formulating the health care policies of either the Clinton or Obama administrations. Nor did the majority even understand either of these health care initiatives, let alone form thoughtful judgment about them. Remember that these were initiatives from Democratic Presidents who strongly believe in the importance of the public voice.

These acts reveal a vast disconnect between the rhetoric of our political leaders and the practice of a robust democracy.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.

JCI Scholars Program

No one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the JCI Scholars Program. Based at Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in central Maryland, the program offers volunteer, non-credit, college-level courses in a range of subjects including advanced literature, criminal justice, games and game design, and history of economic thought.

Should you feel inspired to support this work – and I hope you do – you can do so at patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.

You can even skip the rest of this post and just head over there and donate now. I won’t be offended. Go ahead: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.

This work strikes me as an important, intrinsic good – especially since prison-based education was decimated after President Clinton and a Democratic congress made inmates ineligible for Pell grants in 1994. It’s easy to confuse tough on crime with being tough on people who’ve committed crimes, I suppose.

But when I started thinking about this post I realized…I didn’t know why I find this work important. Or at least I couldn’t articulate it. Perhaps it was just the words of Oscar Wilde ringing through my head:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

…This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

Of course, Wilde wrote these words while imprisoned for his own “crime” of sodomy – a point which emphasizes that not all those imprisoned are imprisoned justly. There is, for example, healthy debate about the appropriateness of prison sentences for non-violent drug related crimes. Additionally, the Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of U.S. prisoners are innocent of the crime they’ve been imprisoned for.

Furthermore there is deep injustice and racism inherent in the system. Mandatory minimums have disproportionately increased black men’s admissions to prison. The school to prison pipeline systematically segregates and disenfranchises predominately poor, black men. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

There is much work to be done. Much justice which needs to be achieved.

And, yet – that is not the point.

The bulk of the scholars who benefit from this program are violent offenders. Some are innocent perhaps, but others surely guilty. Yet the JCI Scholars Program boldly states, no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

No one.

Is that truly so bold?

I am close with people who have been the victims of violent crimes. Do I risk pulling a Michael Dukakis if I respond with something besides hate?

I am reminded of the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Would it truly be moral for me to hate, knowing that indeed, hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. Shall I willingly continue the plunge into the dark abyss of annihilation?

No. I could not in good conscious go down that path.

And here we get to the heart of the matter – for as much as I may wish it, good conscious is not enough. It is not the only force which guides me.

That is to say – it is easy to take comfort in the language of personal responsibility, so often encountered when we talk about incarceration.

Whether you advocate for harsh punishments or thoughtful rehabilitation, whether you imagine criminal acts are caused by a failure of the individual or a systemic failure of society, it is comforting to imagine there is a defining line between us and them. 

And perhaps these men, incarcerated as they may be for violent, perhaps brutal crimes, perhaps they have crossed a line I have not crossed. Perhaps we as society should regulate such behavior. But we as individuals cannot neglect our humanity.

It would be foolish to think them so different from myself.

That darkness, that capacity for terrible acts, exists in all of us. And we have each touched that darkness more closely than we might like to admit. It may be comforting to claim superior self-control or personal virtue, but wishing does not make it so. We have each committed our own terrible acts. Broken no laws, perhaps, but not without sin.

Wilde writes, each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die.

Betrayed by his lover, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. His heart nor his health ever recovered. The conviction that each man kills the thing he loves was an acute truth for him. He was imprisoned, but his lover, free and unbesmirched, had conducted the more heinous act. The kindest use a knife, because the dead so soon grow cold.

We do need laws and regulations and a system of justice. And as a society, we should work to make that system as just and equitable as possible.

But as people, as individuals facing other individuals, we should know better than to sit in judgement. We are none of us Good.

I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program helps empower incarcerated citizens to address some of our system’s terrible inequity. I am no expert on prisons, and while I seek justice, I couldn’t think to speak for them on this matter.

I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program provides some measure of peace, some insight on the Good Life, for those confined and perhaps haunted by their past deeds.

But ultimately, these outcomes are not what matter. What matters is that no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.

No one.

And that is a good in its own right.

Support this work here: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.


leverage as a moral issue

Newly out from Springer is Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework, edited by my friend David M. Anderson. Anderson identifies bargaining leverage, resource leverage, and investment leverage as three distinct but related issues and then develops the idea of a “leverage mean,” which is the “mean between the extremes of too much leverage and too little leverage.” He and the other contributors examine cases from Wall Street meltdowns to parenting. Significant portions of the book are available online for free.

I’ve been thinking about leverage lately as well. We begin the Summer Institute of Civic Studies by examining forms of human interaction that are direct and human. In community organizing, deliberative democracy, and the management of common pool resources, the participants can explain what they believe and value to one another and can tangibly affect the outcomes with their own words and work.

But we don’t believe that we can stop at that scale, because the national and global economy and environment are crucial. Therefore, by the second week of the course, we are reading authors like James Madison and Bruce Ackerman who are interested in the design of nations and other large-scale systems. But then the deliberate, intentional, active citizen tends to recede from view. After all, most of us are not in the position to write a new constitution that will be ratified. As one of our participants acutely noted, “I had to miss a day, and when I returned, we were talking about Madison. Where is the civic in that?”

The problem is one of leverage. If we only do what is right, we leave most of the world unchanged. If we seek to change the world at large scale, we must get others to do what is right as well. That is leverage. For the most part, our leverage in the social world comes from creating, using, and changing institutions.

As the Archimedean metaphor suggests, to use leverage is to manipulate–to treat something as a means. In the social world, that something will have to be human: a person or a group. Leverage is necessary if you care for the world at any significant scale. But leverage is also risky and is ethically problematic because it can’t be fully reciprocal and relational. I think this is a fundamental problem, and Anderson and colleagues have opened an important line of inquiry.

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CM Conference Call on Grassroots Grants, July 31

CM_logo-200pxIt’s time again for another capacity-building conference call from our organizational partners at CommunityMatters, which is coming up this Thursday, July 31st from 4-5pm EST.

The topic of this latest call is “Grassroots Grants“, and CM will be partnering with Janis Foster Richardson, the Executive Director of Grassroots Grantmakers, to host it. They introduce the call’s topic like this:

Is your community a place for possibilities? Can residents bring their ideas to life, take risks, make connections and ply their creative skills? Grassroots grantmaking focuses on helping organizations turn possibilities into realities.

Through small grants, residents move from dreaming to doing and become critical change makers in their community.

Janis Foster Richardson, executive director of Grassroots Grantmakers, joins CommunityMatters on Thursday, July 31 for an hour-long webinar on how local governments, nonprofits, foundations and other community groups are supporting everyday people in making positive change through small grant programs.

Register today by clicking here, and we hope to hear you on the call!

Before the call, we encourage you to check out the accompanying piece on the CM blog by Caitlyn Horose, which is cross posted below. You can find the original piece here.

Investing in “What Ifs” With Grassroots Grants

No matter how rich or poor, every community has a wealth of ideas, often nascent, for making things better. What if we timed the traffic lights differently? What if we added more trashcans, or lights or widened our sidewalks? What if we turned that blank wall or fence into something more beautiful?

Despite the multitude of improvement ideas, people rarely act on them. Residents may feel limited by time, money, or uncertainty about whether formal permits are required. Grassroots grantmaking is the business of investing in “what ifs” and crazy ideas.

Grassroots grants focus on what people can do better together rather than what agencies or institutions can do for them; help people move from dreaming to doing; and invest in people and associations as critical change-makers in a community.

Municipalities, nonprofits, and community foundations are supporting and stimulating citizen-driven efforts through these small grants.

Here are two organizations doing this work:

The Vancouver Community Foundation’s Neighborhood Small Grants program in Canada supports diverse projects like “Host a Hope” murals to increase community connectedness, a mobile Truck Farm to promote local produce and a digital storytelling project for youth called Callingwood Snapshots. Efforts funded by the initiative encourage neighborhood connections and engagement. Learn more. View the video:

Neighborhood Connections, a 10 year old community building and small grants program of the Cleveland Community Foundation has provided resources for nearly 2,000 projects—public murals, after school programs and even a marching band. All funding decisions are made by a resident grantmaking committee. Watch the video below to learn more.

While many grassroots grant programs are affiliated with community foundations and other funding entities, local governments and nonprofits are also establishing them.

After completing the Golden Vision 2030 and Community Heart & Soul™ planning process, city employees and elected officials in Golden, Colorado wanted residents to take action. Golden created the i-Golden Neighborhood Grants program, offering small grants for resident-led projects that support community values. Through i-Golden grants, the city supports many local efforts including beautification, block parties, and pedestrian safety improvements.

The North Fork Valley Heart & Soul Project in Western Colorado featured a mini-grant program to involve residents in their new community vision. Ten thousand dollars was split between seven winners. Projects included the installation of a community bulletin board, creation of a seed library, and a community kitchen feasibility study.

The Youth Leadership and Philanthropy Initiative of Perry County, Kentucky engages youth through community service, leadership development and small grants. The program helps stem outmigration by teaching the value of investment in the local community. In its first year, the initiative awarded four $500 grants raised from individual donations and fundraising events.

Grassroots Grantmakers is a network of many different types of organizations that share a commitment to the values and principles of asset-based community development and a belief in the power of everyone to be contributing, active citizens and changemakers.

On Thursday, July 31, Janis Foster Richardson, executive director of Grassroots Grantmakers, will join CommunityMatters to share how local governments, nonprofits, foundations and other community groups are supporting positive change through small grant programs.

Register now.