Arendt’s Considered View on Evil and its Banality

“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality.’ Only the good has depth and can be radical.” (Letter to Gershom Scholem July 24, 1963)

the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution

It is a myth prevalent among liberals that the Supreme Court defined corporations as persons in Citizens United. Instead, the court observed that corporations are associations, cited previous rulings that associations have freedom of speech and that freedom of speech includes spending money on elections, and concluded that corporations may spend money on elections. I disagree with the decision and I blame a neoliberal (pro-corporate, anti-regulatory) ideology for it … in part. But Citizens United also reflects the limitations of the Constitution itself. At best, we can say that the Constitution offers scant protection against such rulings and the ideology that they reflect.

Written in the eighteenth century, the Constitution envisions certain political institutions: parliamentary bodies, courts, a president, an Army and a Navy, militias, a mint, ambassadors, ministers, and departments. The First Amendment adds a few more entities: religions, the press, peaceable assemblies of citizens, and–by implication–petitioners who press their claims before the government. The authors also knew about certain political institutions and actors that they associated with European corruption and hoped to avoid  in the new republic: parties, spies, and lobbyists (although that word was not yet coined).

The authors could not envision other essential components of a modern political system, such as limited liability corporations and corporations (in general) that don’t have specific charters, administrative and rulemaking agencies, unions, trade associations, schools and colleges, and security agencies. Since the Constitution is silent on all these organizations, courts have no way to distinguish among them.

For instance, the 2.6 million mostly unionized career civil servants who work in federal agencies get treated as employees of the president, as “inferior officers,” whose appointment may be vested by Congress “in the President alone.” In fact, they enjoy a great deal of autonomy and permanence and are busy making laws in the form of administrative decisions and rules, even though the Constitution assigns “all legislative powers” to the Congress. They should have their own article of the Constitution, defining and limiting their powers as if they were a fourth branch of government.

Likewise, security agencies are permanent paramilitary organizations with the power to spy and to kill, but they are not the Army or Navy of which the president is the Commander-in-Chief in times of war–alone. So should they answer to the president, the Congress, or (as we fear is actually the case) only to themselves? Courts treat them as arms of the president even though presidents may fear them.

Finally, the Constitution makes no distinction among types of association (a word that doesn’t even appear in the text). An association can be a bunch of people who peacefully assemble, a membership group with an elected president, or a company that trades on the NASDAQ. In the 1700s, corporations were perhaps the easiest associations to regulate because each one came into existence through a discretionary decision by the legislature, giving it a charter that strictly delimited its purposes and powers. Today, corporations are exceptionally hard to regulate because they are traded globally and they have the power to withdraw the investments on which prosperity depends.

It is now a virtual consensus that the constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly depend upon associations. A classic case is NAACP v Alabama. Almost everyone would say that the NAACP has constitutional rights as a body, or else its members would not be able to speak, assemble, or petition the government. But note that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is, in fact, a corporation–incorporated on May 25, 1911 under the laws of the State of New York, with W.E.B. DuBois as the first signatory on its Articles of Incorporation. If it has free speech rights, why don’t the NCAA and Nokia?

I can offer reasons why for-profit corporations should not, in fact, have the same rights of speech and petition that not-for-profit membership organizations enjoy, even though both kinds of organizations are incorporated. My reasons would arise from a political sociology that specifies the functions, advantages, and dangers of various kinds of organization that exist in the 21st century. The problem is that our written Constitution has a political sociology appropriate for 1789. Our judges and justices could still decide more wisely than they did in Citizens United. But the Constitution offers no guidance or protection if they are unwilling to make the necessary distinctions.

See also:  liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitutionconstitutional piety and the Supreme Court reflects the “degeneracy of the times”.

An 8th Grader’s Path into D&D

As NCDD continues to seek ways to bring more young people in our field, we wanted to share a piece from NCDD supporting member Alissa Schwartz of Solid Fire Consulting that captures the powerful difference that involving young people in D&D processes can make. The young person she writes about happens to be her son, but his story highlights the wonderful results that are possible when D&D is in schools. We encourage you to read more about it Alissa’s piece below or find the original here.

8th Grader Lands $225K for NYC School: An Inspiring Story of Facilitation and Youth in the Civic Process

Solid Fire ConsultingIt’s March. Cedar, Max, and I are pumped. My daughter’s feet are coated in blue paint, my son has pasted on the final image he has photoshopped to perfection, and I’m knuckle bumping Jeff, our design angel who adopted our proposal as his own and helped shape our ideas into beautiful, presentational form. Cedar is darting through the crowd for cookies, glitter paper, and glue. I’m reviewing action words we’ve brainstormed, and Max is giving an interview. We’re working on one of 13 community-generated projects, crowded into a nonprofit media production studio, bent over trifolds, creating visual representations of dreams for Brooklyn’s District 39 in a tight, exciting, hilarious two hours. This is the Mardi Gras moment of Participatory Budgeting.

How did I get here? I didn’t choose this path. Max did. In 2011, I was asked to facilitate a Participatory Budgeting brainstorming session for Brad Lander’s district. Sure! Sounds like fun. I brought along my kids. Cedar happily played with a few other children in the school gym. Max joined me at our table, caught the facilitation bug, and began what I can now see with 20-20 hindsight a journey that brought him, his sister, and me to this glitter strewn table.

That first evening three years ago, Max very ably co-facilitated with me. He took on the role of scribe, writing everyone’s ideas down and later spoke before the full assembly of perhaps 75 participants about our group’s favorite ideas. He was a hit, and he wanted more. A few years passed, and Max and I co-facilitated another brainstorming session in the fall of 2014. This time, the bug bit him hard. “I want to join a delegate committee,” he told me. “Yeah, really?” “Yup.”

OK. This was some serious leveling up. Being a delegate meant going to lots of meetings, sifting through dozens or possibly hundreds of ideas, putting the best ones in proposal form, and basically seeing the project to the end. I was intrigued by Max’s interest, though, and I told him I would join a committee with him and follow his lead. He chose Education.

It turned out that a few ideas had been generated for Cedar’s school and needed follow-up and research.  One was to renovate an old room in a basement into a movement studio to serve the overcrowded school of 1,400 kids, in Pre-K through grade 12.  We happily took her school’s ideas on, meeting with the principals of Brooklyn New School and its sister middle/high school Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies. We crafted a proposal, tweaked it so it could be approved by the municipal authorities, and then delighted in witnessing it become among the three proposals (from about 10) that our committee chose to put on the public ballot. A few weeks after the Mardi Gras poster-making session, Max spoke persuasively about the project with person after person at the Expo showcasing our proposals.

Brad Lander taking Max’s picture (Alissa Schwartz)

Wow!…  This could actually HAPPEN! I began to allow myself the fantasy of our proposal turning into reality. Max’s and my efforts might bring nearly a quarter million dollars to a worthy project for Cedar’s school. Amazing! Not that Max or I could even vote for the project we worked on. He’s 13 years old, one year shy of the lowered age requirement for this process. And we don’t live in District 39, so I couldn’t vote either. A number of students from Cedar’s sister school went on a field trip to Brad Lander’s office and exercised their rights, however. A rare privilege for youth normally excluded from making civic decisions based on their age.

Voting happened in mid-April, and Max and I waited a very long week to be among the first to learn of the results. As we gathered with delegates and many other volunteers, we watched as Brad Lander dramatically unveiled the results. The largest number of votes went to a different school initiative, and the second largest number of votes went to…. our project!!!! Wow, wow, wow, wow!!! We did it! Max and I high-fived and whooped and jumped up and down in joy. People came up to Max and told him that his persuasive speaking helped them decide to vote for the project. We were pumped!

After the initial excitement, Max took it all in stride, not even mentioning it to friends, teachers, and relatives. I, however, keep telling the story to everyone I come across. I am in awe of what can happen when you combine the energy and curiosity of youth with a participatory process with teeth. Great things can happen.

You can find the original version of this Solid Fire Consulting blog piece at We first read this story on to the Participatory Budgeting Project’s blog – thanks PBP!

Volkswagen Scandal Confirms the Dangers of Proprietary Code

There is one notable aspect to the Volkswagen emission-cheating scandal that few commentators have mentioned:  It would not have happened if the software for the pollution-control equipment had been open source. 

Volkswagen knew it could defraud consumers and deceive regulators precisely because its software was closed, proprietary and legally protected from outside scrutiny. Hardly anyone could readily check to see if the software was performing as claimed.    

Sure, dogged investigators could laboriously compare actual car emissions to emissions in artificial regulatory tests. That’s essentially what broke open the Volkswagen scandal. But that is an expensive and problematic way to identify cheaters. 

The larger question is why should a piece of software that has enormous public health and environmental implications be utterly impenetrable in the first place?  A locked box invites lawless, unaccountable and sloppy corporate behavior. It assures that hardly anyone can see what’s going on. Volkswagen exploited the cover of darkness for all that it could.

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Analyzing Political Speech

I had the opportunity today to attend a talk by Oren Tsur, a post-doc in my lab who has done a lot of work around Natural Language Processing (NLP). He spoke about his work analyzing political text, which was published by the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) earlier this year.

Tsur noted that political writing and speech is intentionally crafted to influence audiences. This provides an interesting framework to explore the question: can we automatically identify and quantitatively measure topical framing and agenda setting campaigns?

That is, using Natural Language Processing techniques, can a computer identify framing, spin, and agenda setting in political speech?

Tsur and his coauthors used a dataset from VoteSmart of “all individual statements and press releases in a span of four years (2010-2013), a total of 134000 statements made by 641 representatives.”

It’s data sets like that which make “unsupervised” analysis so important. It’s not practical for a human to read through and categorize that many statements…but can a computer be taught to do so effectively?

Each document was considered as a “bag of words,” and each word was associated with various topics with different probabilities.  Topics might be similar, but were fine-grained enough to pick up subtle differences.

One topic caught words like “Obamacare” and “repeal” while another caught words like “social” and “benefits.” And, yes, you can then connect each category to who is saying it to determine which of those topics is “owned” by republicans and which is “owned” by democrats.

Furthermore, Tsur could compare how frequently the same words or phrases (ngrams) appeared in different documents, demonstrating that republicans tend to be much more “on message.” That is, Republicans at any given time, republican politicians are more likely to have phrases in common with each other – perhaps sticking to the same talking points.





Don’t Miss Our Tech Tuesday Call with QiqoChat

As we recently announced, we are hosting another one of our free NCDD Tech Tuesday webinars this Tuesday, September 29th from 12-1pm Eastern/9-10am Pacific, this time featuring Lucas Cioffi and Michael Herman, Tech_Tuesday_Badgethe creators of the phone-based dialogue and video chat tool QiqoChat.

QiqoChat supports a variety of online D&D processes, and it is a great tool for practitioners to be familiar with. But spots for the webinar are filling up, so make sure to register today!

This Tech Tuesday event will be full of great insights on hosting online engagement events as well as a demonstration of the QiqoChat platform’s capabilities. Lucas and Michael have also hosted two online open space conferences for a global audience, and we will discuss the rich lessons they took from those experiences as well.

Join us this Tuesday to learn more about the wide world of open space and online facilitation – you won’t want to miss it!


Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy

Buy the book.

Written by two leaders in the field, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy explores the theory and practice of public participation in decision making and problem solving. It examines how public participation developed over time to include myriad thick thin, and conventional opportunities, occurring in both face-to-face meetings and online settings. The book explores the use of participation in various arenas, including education, health, land use, and state and federal government. It offers a practical framework for thinking about how to engage citizens effectively, and clear explanations of participation scenarios, tactics and designs. Finally, the book provides a sensible approach for reshaping our participation infrastructure to meet the needs of public officials and citizens.

The book is filled with illustrative examples of innovative participatory activities, and numerous sources for more information. This important text puts the spotlight on the need for long-term, cross-sector, participation planning, and provides guidance for leaders, citizens, activists and others who are determined to improve the ways that participation and democracy function. Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy:

  • Helps students and practitioners understand the history, theory and practice of public participation
  • Contains a wealth of case studies that explore the application of public participation in different settings
  • Covers vital issues such as education, health, land use, and state and federal government
  • Has accompanying instructor resources, such as PowerPoint slides, discussion questions, sample assignments, case studies and research from, and classroom activities.

Buy the book.


(in St. Paul, Minn.)

Why does the owl, her nest turned into flames
By an errant fire balloon, shriek as she flees?
As the solo goose flaps his steady beat,
Sea-bound, whom does he think will hear his honk?
An eagle chick pecks to a slow death her
New-hatched twin so that the fitter one will last.
It’s clear why the weaker chick pecks back, but
Why have a voice and to whom does he bleat?