reflections on German/US learning exchanges

Tisch College has been proud to collaborate with the Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungsstätten e.V. (“network of German educational institutions” or AdB) on a Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE). This project has allowed 24 people who educate for democracy and civic life in Germany or the USA to interact intensively online and to visit the two countries together. I personally learned a great deal about contrasting policies and institutional cultures and common challenges, especially the teaching of “hard histories.”

Americans have a lot to learn from Germany’s extensive system for adult education, which involves governmentally funded but substantially independent centers and institutes all across the country, staffed by professionals who have studied adult education. These institutions explicitly promote democracy. On the other hand, the US expects our colleges and universities to provide more public outreach and education, and we have strong social movements that offer a lot of learning opportunities–albeit generally without any state funds.

AdB has now published a detailed and valuable report from the project that is available online, in English. Among other components, it includes an essay by TECE fellows Navina Engelage, April Grayson, Gabrielle Lamplugh, Elena Neu, Teresa Pfaffinger and Sarah M. Surak on history “as an entry point to dialogue and civic education,” and an essay by fellows Laura Tavares, Christina Wiley, Emma Humphries, Sarah Wagner and Christian Johann on the context of political polarization in both countries.

college students’ civic knowledge “appalling” … in 1943

Thanks to a Twitter thread by historian Meredith Henne Baker, I read an article from The New York Times entitled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen.” In that piece, Benjamin Fine reported the results of 7,000 surveys completed at a substantial set of participating institutions, from Boston University to Yeshiva College.

The results look pretty awful. “A large majority” could not answer questions about Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, or Lincoln. Twenty-five percent did not know that Lincoln was president during the Civil War. Students’ geographical knowledge was also deemed poor: “Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like.” Asked about the Bill of Rights, many respondents named rights that are not in that document, including FDR’s four freedoms and women’s suffrage.

None of this sounds like news. We have surely heard it all before. See, for example, “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’” (New York Times, May 4, 2014).

The interesting point about Fine’s article is its date: April 4, 1943. He uses a lot more words than his 2014 successor, and he combines commentary with reporting in a looser or breezier style. Otherwise, these articles almost rhyme.

I might have expected the results to look better in 1943. College freshmen were a more elite subgroup of the young-adult population then, the curriculum was narrower (giving American history potentially a larger share), and the US was fighting a highly patriotic all-out war. But overall, the statistics looked no better in those days, and maybe worse than today.

When arguing for better civics and historical education, we should avoid the language of decline or current crisis. In reality, levels of civic and historical knowledge–as measured by such instruments–appear remarkably flat despite dramatic changes in education and society. These surveys and their specific questions are subject to debate; people know important things not reported in these articles. Still, it is worth seriously investigating why basic political and historical knowledge seem so persistently poor.

One implication is that quick and easy solutions are unlikely to work. Requirements for courses and tests have come and gone over the past 80 years, with sometimes statistically significant results but no fundamental change.

Another implication is that political reforms must accompany changes in education. Just to name one example, Gimpel, Lay & Schuknecht (2003) found that young people learned and knew more about politics if they grew up in competitive electoral districts rather than “safe” seats. Thus gerrymandering reform would help civic education. That is just an example of how civic knowledge has a demand side as well as a supply side. The more adults are invited to play consequential political roles, the more youth will seek and receive civic education. However, to empower citizens is usually a struggle, because it usually comes at the expense of current power-holders.

A third implication is that we would need bolder policy reforms to improve civic education substantially. Adding or removing a test may matter, but it is a pretty modest intervention. If knowledge of the political system and its history are truly important, we will need more than a course or test.

We have never really tried a sustained and coherent effort to set targets, enact requirements, educate educators, produce materials, assess students, evaluate programs, and improve all the inputs. Educating for American Democracy offers a roadmap for such an effort, and it would be unprecedented.

bootstrapping value commitments

On the third day of the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research), I am thinking about the normative commitments of engaged scholars–their theories of justice or social ethics.

All research requires and reflects normative commitments. Even a highly positivistic study addresses specific topics and questions for a reason, whether or not that reason is acknowledged. We should be accountable for these normative commitments, willing to defend them in public, respond to criticisms of them, and modify them when the criticisms seem valid.

I don’t believe we have a right to “outsource” that process to other people. For instance, it’s not acceptable to say that the community you study has certain values and that you simply report them without influencing them. Whether you are right to study this particular community in this way is a question about you, and you are responsible for answering it to the best of your ability.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge our frailties and limitations as individuals. We have cognitive and moral limitations–in fact, we are foolish and selfish. It can therefore be wise to consider questions of justice in the company of others and to make oneself open to their views.

That raises the question: Which others? In the projects I briefly described yesterday, the community is the border region of metropolitan San Diego/Tijuana. Making oneself part of that community, and accountable to it, directs one’s normative reasoning in particular ways. That choice is debatable: some people would say that employees of California’s state university system should make themselves accountable to that state, whose southern border runs between San Diego and Tijuana.

Reflection on justice is a bootstrapping process. We begin in communities; we refine our sense of which communities we belong to; we explore what is right with other members of those communities; and then we reflect on whether we want to remain fully engaged with those communities or redefine our memberships again.

This process reminds me of a Reformation debate. In contrast to the Catholic view that the church mediates between the individual soul and the divine, Protestants said that each sinner stands alone before the Maker. Why then should people belong to churches at all? The canonical Protestant answer is that we are individually accountable yet we should also be humble. We need other people to help us see, or remember, what is right.

Perhaps this Protestant heritage biases my thinking (even though I am not of that faith). Although the moral individualism inherent in what I have written here is not accurately described as “Western”–it contradicts Western Catholicism–it does have a specific European heritage. Still, this combination of individual accountability with humility seems about right to me. And perhaps it roughly resembles the combination of dharma and sangha and other hybrids of truth and community from around the world.

engaged theory and the construction of community

I’m at the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research) with 20 talented and dedicated political scientists, plus my co-directors Valeria Sinclair-Chapman and Amy Cabrera Rasmussen. Today, we learned from UCSD professor Fonna Forman about the Civic Innovation Lab and its projects in the “binational metropolis of San Diego, California and Tijuana, B.C., Mexico.”

The Lab collaborates on a set of ambitious, long-term projects that often take place in “UCSD Community Stations,” which are physical facilities located “across the border region” (on both sides of the wall) and “designed for engaged research and teaching on poverty and social equity.” Forman is also involved with the new Engaged Theory Community, which promotes “normative political theory that centers lived experiences.”

According to the Engaged Theory website: “Using a range of methods — interpretive, qualitative, and quantitative— practitioners of engaged theory seek to better align political philosophy with the questions, goals, and needs of communities seeking social justice.” In the case of UCSD’s Lab, the community is defined as the binational metro area in which the university is located. Thinking and working together with people across that region has revealed many empirical findings (such as the flow of pollutants north into San Diego County or the condition of housing immediately south of the border wall) and conceptual insights. For instance, collaborators in the project now see themselves as located along a global “Political Equator,” the 38th parallel, which is marked by conflict almost all the way around the globe.

Fundamental to the ideal of engaged research is accountability to a community: it is not research “on” or “for,” but “with.” If scholars happen to work for the University of California-San Diego, they could choose to define their community as the campus and its people, their discipline, the neighborhood near La Jolla, San Diego, CA, the state of California, the United States, or in other ways. Each of these communities would encompass diversity, yet each would have a different center of gravity. For example, the majority opinion about contested issues like immigration would differ depending on the definition of the community.

This project envisions the relevant political community as a concentration of 5 million people who are densely interconnected by water and air, animals and seeds, energy and waste, and their own migration, communication, and exchange–yet split by a wall. Defining the community this way gives the project a particular normative center. It makes the wall look problematic; migration looks natural. Meanwhile, the research also contributes (along with many other people’s work) to making San Diego/Tijuana into a political community–a “we” that can govern itself.

notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism

(With several colleagues, I will be teaching a pilot course on religious pluralism and civic life this fall. This post is one of several that reflect my pre-reading and thinking.)

In 1998, in a generally enthusiastic overview of Buddhism in the USA, Charles S. Prebish noted the “bifurcation” between Buddhism as the “native religion of a significant number of Asian immigrants” and “an ever-increasing group of (mostly) Euro-Americans who [have] embraced Buddhism primarily out of intellectual attraction and interest in spiritual practice.” He described the latter group as urban, highly educated, and “even elite in its lifestyle orientation”–and growing very rapidly.

More than 20 years later, the tensions seem more evident. Rev. Christina Moon critically assesses “the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism.” She writes:

Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji [a temple and monastery founded by Asian Americans], I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay [dressing as a character from a movie] than a means to enter Zen. 

I find this situation troubling, but it’s also a provocative case for thinking about culture, religion, and racial identity: how to define them in general, how they relate to each other, and what we should do as a result.

Before suggesting some general ideas about these issues, I should recommend Moon’s specific guidance related to Buddhism in the USA. She identifies a set of practices that are common across Asian and Asian-American communities, such as bringing food to share and helping people who are more experienced or older do menial tasks. She writes that “Asians do not own these behaviors,” but they are notable in Asian communities and are consistent with Buddhist ethics as described abstractly. Thus they are “ways to bring the dharma alive.”

For similar reasons, there is value in practices like “maintaining a shrine, prayer, prostrations and pilgrimage, engaging in the arts, [and] offering alms” that some converts to Buddhism might dismiss as “merely cultural.” More generally, we might identify virtues of respectful curiosity, fallibilism (i.e., any of my ideas can always be wrong) and mild self-abnegation. I think it is fruitful to understand these virtues in a specifically Buddhist way, but also to endorse and use them in other contexts–for instance, when one encounters an Abrahamic tradition.

I would propose some general propositions that extend beyond this case:

  • A religion is not best understood as a coherent set of abstract beliefs that are necessary and sufficient for membership and that contradict some of the beliefs of other religions. That is not a complete description even of the Abrahamic faiths; it is even less accurate for other religions. Instead, any religion is a whole body of accumulated beliefs, stories, values, practices, and institutions. It always encompasses a great deal of diversity and has porous and indefinite borders. In that sense, religion is very much like culture, or is even a category used–often by outsiders–to name certain aspects of culture. (See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, discussed here.)
  • A culture is not something to which individuals belong, and it does not affect individuals. A culture is a name for a large set of beliefs, values, skills, habits, etc. that individuals have and can use. Everyone has a unique set at any given moment. However, we sometimes gain insight by categorizing people within a culture when we notice that they share a lot of the same repertoire and differ from others whom they encounter. Often, what is salient about a culture is its tension with other cultures that it interacts with. (See “a mistaken view of culture“).
  • A race is a social construct that arbitrarily makes some extremely superficial attributes, such as skin color, falsely seem important. It originated in a desire to dominate and exploit. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored, because centuries of racial oppression have taught people to see in terms of race and have created injustices that require remedies. One result is that the loose categories that we name as “cultures” very often have racial overtones as well. In situations like the ones that Christina Moon describes, people should be mindful of race. (See “what would happen to race in a just world?“).
  • Specific ideas can be good or bad, right or wrong. For instance, I would defend Moon’s guidance for behavior in an Asian-American temple as good advice, not merely as an expression of a specific group’s values. Because we think–and sometimes correctly–that some of our own ideas are important and good, we are motivated to spread them, including to people who come from very different backgrounds. We are also motivated to absorb and adopt new ideas from diverse sources when we find them persuasive. Evangelism is not limited to Christianity and Islam and should not be equated with cultural imperialism. The traditions that originated in Asia, like those from the Mediterranean and elsewhere, have been deliberately propagated to outsiders and sometimes willingly received. In fact, we might say that all people have a human right to all sources of wisdom, regardless of where the ideas originated. (See “a richer sense of cultural interchange.”)
  • Whether the spread of a given idea is good depends on whether that idea is good. This is a question that each of us must consider with the resources we happen to have: the other ideas, values, skills, etc. that we have already absorbed. We should not be biased in favor of ideas that cohere well with what we already believe; that is “motivated reasoning.” On the contrary, we should try to be open to ideas that trouble our existing beliefs.
  • All cultures are hybrid. Nothing human is pure, and the desire to keep national cultures distinct, coherent, and homogeneous is pathological. It is the root of much cruelty and exclusion.
  • East and West are not useful categories. Although sometimes we gain insight by categorizing people, these particular classifications are far too vague to shed any light, and they have problematic histories and motivations. Besides, specific traditions that seem classically European or Asian have long been intertwined. For example, one of the most influential seedbeds of Buddhism was Greek-ruled Northern India after Alexander, when coins literally had Greek imprinted on one side and Sanskrit on the other. (See “avoiding the labels of East and West.”) Two concepts that can be more useful than East and West are imperialism and modernization. But these are not simply “Western” phenomena. Japan was imperialist, and all Asian countries have experienced modernization. (See “don’t name things Western but call out imperialism.”)

In the US, there is a certain tendency–I don’t know how widespread–to see Buddhist thought as ahistorical. The Buddha is treated as a contemporary; the meditating mind lives only in the immediate present. There is also a tendency to acknowledge Buddhism’s roots in Asia but to depict Asian or Eastern “culture” as monolithic, apart from superficial aesthetic differences that people can browse like consumers.

Thus it’s possible that the white/European-American Buddhists whom Rev. Moon has encountered differentiate between the transcendent truths of the Buddha and optional traditions and behaviors that they label “culture.” They then pick and choose from the traditions without recognizing that they (highly educated, mostly White Americans) are every bit as immersed in their own stream of inherited behaviors, aesthetics, beliefs, and values, which influence their choices about what to borrow from Asian contexts. Linda Heuman writes:

The French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour famously described it this way: “A Modern is someone who believes that others believe.” A modern Buddhist, in Latour’s sense, is someone who believes that Asian forms of Buddhism carry the “baggage” of their host cultures but who remains unreflective about the assumptions that shape his or her own modern adaptations.

Any mind is ineluctably historical. As we develop from speechless infants into adults, we absorb a vast array of classifications, assumptions, and values that other people invented before us. We can never escape this historical contingency. You might think that you can have an unmediated experience of nature, but your tastes in nature, your words and concepts for nature, and even your physical location in front of a specific patch of nature are all historically conditioned. (See “the sublime and other people” and “the sublime is social“.)

History is highly complex, diverse, and often cruel, whether we happen to know the details or not. Evils are widespread–consider, for example, the use of Buddhist ideas in imperial Japan or in Myanmar today. Human beings widely and blatantly violate principles that they expressly teach, such as nonviolence and compassion. On the other hand, people all over the world also create practices and institutions that reflect wise goals and choices. What we think we know is a result of this complex, globally interconnected, and fraught past.

An ahistorical approach may actually contradict important Buddhist ideas. For one thing, the assumption that you can have an authentic, personal experience of nature or of your own body contradicts the idea of no-self, whereas to acknowledge that all your ideas originated with other people and will outlast you seems consistent with rebirth.

Besides, Mahayana Buddhists have presented the development of Buddhism as a series of “turnings of the Dharma wheel.” This story–rather like Hegel’s idealist history–understands the truth as we know it today as a historical achievement that reflects logical development over time. Idealist histories can offer insight by explaining the development of ideas as deliberate mental work. But it’s usually worth bringing materialist considerations into view as well. What we believe today may be a result of other people’s good thinking, or the outcome of power and self-interest, or both.

Unfortunately, analyzing the mind as historically conditioned–and history as rife with power and injustice–requires a lot of knowledge. My understanding of Mahayana Buddhist historiography could fit on an index card, and I would be hard pressed to learn a lot more, if only because I don’t know the relevant languages. I am supposed to know more about German idealist philosophy and historiography, but there too, I am woefully ignorant. And there are so many other traditions to learn.

Christina Moon’s description of cringy behavior at Zen centers is a portrait of people who want to pick and choose ideas and practices that they find comfortable without taking seriously the historical development and interconnection of those ideas, without being genuinely open to practices that might challenge them, without being careful about their own status and impact, and without wrestling with the connections among racial hierarchy and exclusion, everyday culture, and the abstract beliefs that we might classify as Buddhist philosophy or theology. Yet the solution is not to declare these beliefs off limits (nor does Moon suggest that), because everyone should always be looking for good beliefs to adopt. We just have to do it with a lot of care–not only about the ideas and their affect on our inner lives, but also about the other people we touch.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; diversity, humility, curiosity; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Buddhism as philosophy; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; what is cultural appropriation?

Strategic Doing Institute

I don’t think I know anyone at the Strategic Doing Institute, but I really like their model. Groups of people come together, identify the resources that they personally control and are willing to deploy for their shared cause, and design a short-term project that they can do themselves–without any external support or permission–to build capacity for more ambitious work later. At any rate, that is my casual summary of their model.

It is consistent with the argument of my new book, What Should We Do?. I propose a general “theory of civic life” that is meant to apply to all kinds of groups, at all scales–including legislatures, nonprofit corporations, and social movements. For better or worse, my book is not a hands-on planning tool. Different kinds of groups need different sorts of tools, and I focus on more general concepts and values. That said, if you want an experience that is closely congruent with my argument, and if you are at an early stage of forming a voluntary coalition to address an issue, the Strategic Doing model looks like a good choice.

CIRCLE’s Growing Voters framework

I am digging into CIRCLE’s monumental Growing Voters report, which is subtitled, “Building Institutions and Community Ecosystems for Equitable Election Participation.” It is really the first original and comprehensive framework that CIRCLE has produced in its 21-year history. It builds on work that we conducted while I worked there, but all credit is due to the team that has succeeded me.

Youth political turnout is far too low and unequal. Often, people who care (at all) about this situation advocate reforms in election laws, get-out-the-vote drives during election season (usually only in competitive districts), or catchy policy proposals like forgiving college debt. The evidence strongly suggests that none of these approaches will come anywhere close to solving the problem, and they are all too transactional and tactical. They assume that young people can be induced, by tinkering with the incentives, to act as political leaders wish.

CIRCLE has uncovered evidence that many things do work: from laws that allow people to pre-register before age 16, to state civics tests, to school climates that make students feel like valued members of the community, to explanatory journalism. There are no silver bullets, and we need a shift in the overall attitude–a shift from electoral mobilization to “growing voters.” Youth themselves have an essential role to play in accomplishing this shift, which must involve many different kinds of institutions.

The full report is detailed and careful and deserves to be read in full.

the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey

In secular (and probably upscale) reaches of our society, two suggestions are common for restoring mental health and equanimity: we should experience nature and reconnect to our bodies through meditation or exercise.

Of course, prayer is also an option, and activities such as walking in the woods and yoga have roots and analogues in religious traditions. Here, however, I focus on practices that are open to non-believers.

Such experiences are supposed to be authentic, personal, and at least somewhat distinct from the everyday world of conscious thoughts, words, social roles, organizations, and transactions. Although you can have these experiences alongside other people, an important aspect is inward and often literally silent. Something like the pure or raw self is thought to emerge.

This post is a modest contribution to the argument–which others have also made–that it is a mistake to understand such experiences individualistically. Other people are always integrally involved, and it is wise to be maximally conscious of them.

Although practices like hiking and meditation can be routine or even trivial, they bear at least a distant relationship to notions of the sublime. That word has been defined in diverse and incompatible ways–producing an interesting debate–but a common feature seems to be an aesthetic experience that lastingly improves the self and that would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey in ordinary words. Either a sublime experience exceeds human language or else it requires particularly excellent words (such as verse by Homer or Wordsworth) to convey. The natural or religious sublime is sometimes presented as beyond speech, while the literary or rhetorical sublime defines superior speech.

The premise that a sublime experience cannot be shared using ordinary language contains the germ of the conclusion that we do not need other people to experience it. That conclusion is especially problematic in a consumerist culture with relatively loose social ties and high levels of inequality–a society that generates headlines like this one from Wired in 2013, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead.”

Most thoughtful analysts are aware that words, conscious thoughts, and other people do not go away when one experiences the sublime. For one thing, we are always morally indebted to other people. We can’t go for a walk in the woods unless someone has preserved that forest and built those trails. In the Americas, the land was previously conquered from indigenous people. The shoes on our feet and the food in our stomach were made by other human beings. In many cases, the aesthetic experience was skillfully shaped by people: landscapers and foresters, yoga instructors, or whoever else is relevant. It is wise to thank those who made the sublime possible, yet empty expressions of thanks can be worse than nothing.

In addition, we acquire our tastes, our aesthetic values, and our ability to process experience from other people. As I wrote in a previous post, “I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow,’ Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day.” None of us understands all the ways that our experiences have been shaped by our predecessors, but we all absorb the development of our societies as we develop from infants into adults. There is no raw self.

In fact, many have sought to combine explicit records of past human experiences with direct experiences of nature and one’s body. Thoreau says of his time alone at Walden Pond, “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.” And David Morris reminds us, “Whether meditating by the sea, contemplating the night sky, or crossing the Alps, eighteenth-century enthusiasts for nature rarely forgot their reading: the classics were Addison’s guidebook to Italy, while Joseph Warton’s vision of unspoiled nature comes straight from Lucretius and Shaftesbury” (Morris 1972, p. 7).

Whether to combine introspective experience with literature is a personal choice; it is surely not the only path. But I do believe that the current tendency to see the sublime as purely personal is self-centered, in a consumerist way, and we must bring other people in.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of the most famous depictions of a restorative experience in nature, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. The narrator says that his memories of this spot on the Wye River have given him a “gift / Of aspect more sublime,” a “blessed mood” …

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This seems like a perfect example of what people nowadays might call self-care through nature.

The story told in the poem is a little complicated. We learn, but not in chronological order, that Wordsworth first came to the Wye River Valley “in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” when he could still enjoy nature spontaneously, almost as a part of it, “bound[ing] o’er the mountains … wherever nature led” with “animal movements.” In those days, he did not need concepts or words (“a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”) to filter his experience.

Memories of those “boyish days” sustained the narrator while he was busy in the human world of “joyless daylight; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” hung over him. Now he has returned to the same spot and finds that he cannot again feel the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of the place, but he is compensated by a new insight. Now in nature he hears “the still sad music of humanity” and realizes that “the mind of man, a motion and a spirit … rolls through all things.”

At the outset, he is eager to portray what he sees as nature, not as culture. For instance, he mentions “hedge-rows” (which are planted and maintained by human beings) and then corrects himself: “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild,” as if they were nature’s free creations. But by the midst of the poem, he acknowledges that mind and nature are “deeply interfused.”

And then a third person appears in the poem (counting the narrator as one and the reader as two). This is a “you” who is “with me here upon the banks.” This “dearest Friend” emerges as his sister, Dorothy. The poet’s objective becomes to record her experience of the natural scene so that she can better recall it as her life proceeds, and so that she can vividly remember sharing this experience of nature with her brother. His poem will be a mnemonic (see Rexroth 2021) to give her “healing thoughts” amid the “dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Thus Wordsworth’s sublime is not private or individualistic in a simple sense. But perhaps it is not admirably social, either. In an influential 1986 article, Marjorie Levinson noted that Wordsworth not only chose not to describe Tintern Abbey in this poem (even briefly), but he also omitted many obvious features of the Wye River at that time: “prominent signs of commercial activity” such as “coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river [and] miners’ hovels.” Tintern was a mining village, and the woods were full of “vagrants” who “lived by charcoal-burning” or begging from tourists (Levinson, pp. 29-30). The abbey was a literal ruin–albeit picturesque to some–because it had been suppressed in the Reformation and sold to landlords who had dispossessed the agricultural population, creating whatever unpopulated vistas one could see in 1798.

Levinson argues that Wordsworth knew all this well, and that “the primary poetic action” of the whole poem “is the suppression of the social.” It “achieves its fiercely private vision by directing a continuous energy toward the nonrepresentation of objects and points of view expressive of a public–we would say, ideological–dimension” (pp. 37-8). The poem is a sign of Wordsworth’s retreat from political engagement in the late 1790s.

Levinson’s 1986 article has provoked some responses in defense of Wordsworth; I have not tried to assess the controversy. For me, these are the key points: Wordsworth exemplifies a currently popular way of addressing discontent or even anguish–enjoying nature–and he is conscious that “humanity,” human language, and human relationships are part of that experience. Yet he is notably apolitical. An analysis of why nature looks as it does–who has profited and suffered from it–is missing from the poem. And this seems to foreshadow many contemporary versions of the sublime.

Sources: Marjorie Levinson, “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (1986), pp. 14-57; David B. Morris, The Religious Sublime Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England (University Press of Kentucky 1972); and Grace Rexroth, “Wordsworth’s Poetic Memoria Technica: What ‘Tintern Abbey’ Remembers,” Studies in Romanticism 60.2 (2021): 153-174. See also the sublime and other people; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; and when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?

Hardly a day goes by without news about polarization. Americans are said to be divided into hostile camps on the left and right.

That observation contradicts a line of political science research launched in 1964 by Philip E. Converse. In “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Converse argued that the vast majority of Americans lacked organized systems of beliefs that could explain or predict their views of candidates or their political behavior. He wrote, “The political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary people are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” Most Americans were not recognizably liberal or conservative–or anything else. Mainly because they did not spend much time thinking about politics, and especially not in abstract ways, most people were not influenced by the ideas that concerned pundits, intellectuals, and politicians.

Even though many observers assume that the US has become more ideologically polarized since that time, it remains entirely possible to defend Converse’s case. That is the task of Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public by Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe (University of Chicago Press, 2017). This book is dedicated to “Philip E. Converse, Scholar Unsurpassed” and it ably updates his argument. Some of the key points:

  • People’s opinions about various issues correlate with each other at very low rates (an average of .16 in the American National Election Studies from 1972-2012). If most people held organized systems of belief, then many pairs of issues would correlate strongly. For instance, those who wanted lower taxes would also want to cut spending. The low correlations in the ANES indicate a lack of organization. Nor is there an important change in this measure over time.
  • Most people do not identify as liberals or conservatives, and those who identify as moderates have low information and are relatively unlikely to participate. Few Americans are principled and active centrists, but many are just not engaged.
  • Changes in the majority coalition (such as Reagan’s victories in the 1980s) are unrelated to changes in public opinion. Individuals also seem to change their opinions about most surveyed issues in random ways (notwithstanding some interesting exceptions, such as abortion).
  • Partisanship predicts voters’ choices much better than ideology does. Consistent with that finding, there are still considerable numbers of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and they vote for their parties.

How could this be true in a world of Fox News and MSNBC? Well, Fox News averages about 1.5 million viewers per month, and there are about 258 million adult Americans, so Fox speaks to–and possibly for–less than one in a hundred people.

In some ways, my colleagues and I have found similar results. For instance, in a 2012 survey, CIRCLE reported that just “22% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could choose the issue of greatest importance to themselves and answer two (out of two) factual questions about the candidates’ positions on that issue.” Scholars in tradition of Converse would say that this was not evidence of anything especially wrong with civic education, Millennials, or the 2012 campaign. Instead, for Kinder & Kalmoe, it is an international and transhistorical reality that most people lack organized thoughts about politics.

I think we must take this argument seriously, but I would raise two main doubts.

First, Kinder & Kalmoe conclude that groups, not ideologies, drive politics. They explicitly mention race, gender, and religion (p. 137). “Scores of studies show that public opinion on matters of politics is … shaped in powerful ways by the attitudes citizens harbor toward the social groups they see as the principal beneficiaries or victims in play” (p. 138). For some people, these attitudes are well-developed and stable. For instance, an “ardent feminist” is one who consistently sees gender as a basis for injustice (p. 138). But most of us can be influenced by events or political leaders to make different identities salient.

In her review of Kinder & Kalmoe, Samara Klar writes, “Group identities are a fundamental informational source in the course of preference formation. But must ideology be cast aside? Perhaps we can instead consider how ideology is intertwined in our identity politics.” In fact, this point seems fundamental to me. Each of the groups that Kinder & Kalmoe offer as an example reflects a complex mix of ideas and material realities.

For instance, race is not simply an idea. In the USA, people can be designated with a race at birth because it as seen as an inherited trait. And even if space-aliens arrived and erased all awareness of race from everyone’s brains, it would remain the case that White families have 10 times as much net wealth as Black families because of historical injustices.

Yet race is also about ideas. The whole concept was invented at specific times for specific reasons and has been imbued with meanings. To think of people as having racial identities is surely a form of ideology, and then to add notions of white supremacy, or ostensible color-blindness, or opposition to inequality, or pride in a minority racial status–these are powerful ideological additions. Racial identities offer politicians opportunities and challenges but are hardly created by current political leaders. They persist and recur. It would be odd to describe Americans as “innocent” of ideology if Americans see society in racialized terms (albeit with a variety of value judgments).

Religion is different in detail but similar insofar as it involves both ideas and material facts. For instance, the Catholic Church summarizes its core ideas in its creed and catechism, although it also encompasses a rich diversity of thought. Some Catholics are devout believers. For some, their ex-Catholic identity is important. Although Catholicism is not genetic, it runs in families due to socialization; and even renouncing the faith indicates that the religion is important. The American Catholic church owns tangible resources, from parochial schools and soup kitchens to cathedrals, but it also often holds a subordinate position compared to mainline Protestantism. Catholics have the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but Protestants have the National Cathedral. Catholics founded Boston College, but Protestants had Harvard.

Again, the point is that material circumstances and ideas are tightly connected. (And this is true for gender as well.) Thus ideology is powerfully active and omnipresent. And just as an opinion about race or religion combines ideas with material interests, so does an opinion about a classic policy-wonk question, such as whether the government should provide health insurance. If people lack opinions about health insurance but hold opinions about race, I don’t see why that makes them “innocent of ideology.”

Second, the kinds of questions fielded on surveys like the ANES are designed to assess where people stand on the kinds of issues that are debated by Democratic and Republican politicians. Insofar as people are asked about ideas outside this official mainstream, not too many usually express support. For instance, although about 40 percent express a positive view of socialism, few of those seem to define it in a radical way that would imply substantial changes in current policies. But this is not evidence of a lack of ideology. It is a sign that there is a dominant ideology in the USA, which contradicts many alternative ideologies available in the world or on paper. Not very Americans are theocratic Shiites, Maoists, or anarchists, and that is an important fact about America. The country is ideological, even if ideology does not explain the outcome of electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans.

History tells us that the dominant ideologies of whole societies can shift, sometimes surprisingly quickly. But such ruptures are not predictable with time series like the ANES.

Reading work in the tradition of Philip Converse can be a bit dispiriting. The data undermine what Achen & Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy, according to which we debate policies and values, form opinions, vote based on our opinions, and influence policy. The data suggests that most people are not part of this process.

At the same time, this tradition is also basically complacent about the political system. If people demonstrate a surprising lack of ideological awareness in 2022, that is because they always have. It is even the case in other countries, according to Kinder & Kalmoe. Concerns about shifts toward polarization or extremism are overblown, because the actual trends move at a “glacial pace” (p. 87). For instance, the proportions of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives doubled from a very low base between 1972 and 2012. If that pace continued, it would take more than a century for those groups to predominate (p. 176).

The ultimate message seems to be that we should abandon romantic notions of an informed, deliberating electorate and yet not worry about the fundamental condition of our polity, which is stable and “innocent” of ideology.

Theodore Lowi concludes his great book The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979) by saying:

Realistic political science is a rationalization of the present. The political scientist is not necessarily a defender of the status quo, but the result is too often the same, because those who are trying to describe reality tend to reaffirm it. Focus on the group, for example, is a commitment to one of the more rigidified aspects of the social process. Stress upon the incremental is apologetic as well. The separation of facts from values is apologetic.

There is no denying that modern pluralistic political science brought science to politics. And that is a good thing. But it did not have to come at the cost of making political science an apologetic discipline. But that is exactly what happened. … In embracing facts alone about the process, modern political science embraced the ever-present. In so doing, political science took rigor over relevance.

Political science that is both relevant and rigorous takes seriously the evidence about human cognitive limitations but is also serious about moral critiques of the current society and aims to help people change it.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; US polarization in context; affective polarization is symmetrical; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him.

Russia in the larger history of decolonization

In the first half of the 1900s, empires were headquartered in London, Paris, Vienna/Budapest, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, and Washington. They were not quite simultaneous. For instance, the apogee of the Japanese empire came in 1942, well after the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires had disintegrated. However, during a single human lifespan, most of the world was dominated by competing empires, most of which fought in the two world wars.

To varying degrees, these capitals and metropoles have had to confront moral issues as their empires have been denounced from outside and within. And they have had to confront deep practical challenges as they have lost the capacity to dominate far-flung countries.

They have handled these moral and pragmatic issues in various ways and to varying degrees, none of them completely well. Perhaps Germany, Japan, and Italy made the cleanest breaks as a result of their defeats in 1945. I know the German case best, and it reflects a strong repudiation of imperialism. However, the moral introspection followed the military disaster–and not immediately.

The two imperial powers that were able to delay the reckoning longest were the US and the USSR, because they emerged from WWII with their military power intact, not defeated or exhausted. Also, both had ideologies that persuaded many of their own people–if few others–that they had never been empires in the first place. The US had the Declaration of Independence and the Monroe Doctrine and called itself the leader of the free world. The USSR was supposedly a union of equal republics united by universalist ideals; Lenin had been a trenchant critic of imperialism.

Today, the USA still has plenty of work to do decolonize. We must equalize power and reckon with past wrongs, above all the conquest and slavery that built the 50 states as well as the remaining territories. And we must recalibrate our relations with the rest of the world. The Afghan and Iraq wars were not only morally untenable but also humiliating defeats for the USA. They echoed the Suez crisis, which taught London and Paris that their imperial days were numbered. There is even a plausible argument that AR-15 are being purchased in huge numbers–and some are being used in mass murders–because of the post-9/11 wars. I suspect that the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan bubble just below the surface of many of our current controversies. Americans feel betrayed by elites. We define our elite enemies in somewhat different ways, but it’s a fact that bipartisan elites supported these wars. Still, we are having a robust conversation about these themes–including an ugly backlash–and our neocolonialists seem to be in retreat in foreign policy.

As for Russia: there may well be a better internal conversation about colonialism there than I would know. Indeed, I am in no position to assess current Russian culture. I am sure that the Russian conversation about colonialism should be robust, fully acknowledging that the Tsarist empire was an example of European colonialism, the Soviet Union was a Russian-dominated empire, the Russian Federation is still 20% non-Russian, the “near-abroad” consists of sovereign states, and recent interventions in countries like Syria and Mali have been morally repugnant (but not unusually so–for instance, Russia’s involvement in Mali directly follows France’s involvement there).

These are moral points. Meanwhile, as a pragmatic matter, Russians must acknowledge that their GDP (even before the current war) was $1.7 trillion: half the size of Germany’s, a tenth of China’s, and less than a thirteenth of the USA’s. The Russian economy is not only relatively small but depends on unsustainable carbon extraction.

The Russian Federation should find its way to being a mid-sized federal republic with a distinctive and diverse cultural heritage, remarkable natural resources, a post-carbon economy, and decentralized power.

Seen in global perspective, it is not actually surprising that Russia hasn’t made this journey yet. It never faced the crises that confronted most of the other empires of 1900-1950. The collapse of the USSR in 1989-91 could be interpreted as a temporary weakness and betrayal, not as a delayed and incomplete conclusion of Russian imperialism.

In The Atlantic recently, Casey Michel wrote, “The West must complete the project that began in 1991. It must seek to fully decolonize Russia.” That statement strikes me as colonialist in itself, replicating the moral superiority and pragmatic hubris that countries like the USA must learn to surpass. Why would “we” succeed in decolonizing a region on the other side of the planet, even if doing so were our business? Citizens of the Russian Federation must decolonize their own country or else continue to decline, both morally and pragmatically. Ukrainians may assist, but their role is to save Ukraine, not to reform their neighbor. And we are right to support Ukraine–for the sake of that country.

I am skeptical that large-scale moral self-criticism is an engine of social change. (See “alerting people to their privilege,” for some evidence.) However, defeat can be an effective teacher.

See also: Putin’s cultural nationalism;  why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); and Ukraine means borderland (2017)