the second annual Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award

(Washington, DC) I was in Albuquerque over the weekend for an Everyday Democracy board meeting and to see Generation Justice, a fantastic New Mexico youth media organization, receive the first Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award. Thanks to the award event, my understanding of Chicanismo and indigenous cultural politics got a little less superficial.

Nominations are now open for the second annual prize, which will honor “an individual and/or organization that demonstrates the values on which Everyday Democracy was founded – voice, connection, racial equity, and community change.” Nominees should show excellence in some of the following ways:

  • Creating welcoming opportunities for meaningful civic participation for all people  
  • Actively including people in civic life who have often been marginalized, and providing ways for them to develop their leadership capacities
  • Building the capacity of existing community leaders to include others in community life
  • Practicing the art of talking to each other and listening to each other
  • Taking action that is grounded in crossing divides, and aimed at meaningful transformation in people, institutions, community culture, and governance
  • Creating opportunities for empowered voice that is truly heard 
  • Addressing racial inequities through dialogue and collective action
  • Showing the power of bridging all kinds of divides
  • Making dialogue a regular part of how a community works and, ultimately, of how our democracy works

For more information, or to nominate someone, click here.

what it looks like to live

She’s all cheekbones, lashes, emotions
Conveyed in rapid succession, practiced.
Cut to his reaction, the impact on his famous
Face, bathed in a warm and flattering light.
Then they’re running athletically away,
Silhouettes diving before the fireball.
This is living. This is doing something.
It plays on long rows of screens suspended
Above the welded seats, the wall-to-wall,
The strewn paper bags and strewn human forms.
Slumped, plump, pursued by a slower fire,
None watch the screens deployed for our relief.
We find darkness in that old space behind our lids,
Or gaze out, or stare down at smaller screens
Where more looks and loves, kisses and missiles
Remind the living what it looks like to live.

(Dallas, June 4)

“to you and I”

I think I’m noticing more and more people using “I” instead of “me” when it’s the object of a verb, as in “Please give it to Joe and I.” This may have started as an over-correction. Kids are taught not to use “me” as the subject of a sentence (as in “Me and Joe are going to the store”) and they generalize it to never use “me” if another name is involved. After all, it’s a cognitive task to figure out whether to say, “she and I” or “her and me,” depending on the function of the phrase in the sentence. Perhaps a new rule is gradually arising that you always say “I” when there’s another name in the phrase. I must say that I don’t like the change, because it reflects a lack of consciousness about how the language is structured; but languages change, and I can get used to it.

If you search Google right now for “to you and I” and “to you and me,” you’ll see 181 million of the former phrase and 36.9 million of the latter, almost a 5-to-1 ratio in favor of the choice that grammar books would declare to be incorrect. (“To you and I” is always incorrect if you apply the traditional and official rule that an indirect object takes “me.”) This ratio suggests that the grammarians are losing a struggle against linguistic evolution.

Here are the frequencies of all possible combinations involving I or me and he/him she/her. The most popular are the incorrect options “to him and I” and “to her and I.” Interestingly, “to me and she” is very popular, but its grammatical equivalent, “to me and he” is rare. The correct options are less popular, and there are several conceivable combinations, such as “to I and he,” that no one uses.

*grammatically correct

The question is whether this is really a trend. I know of one device for tracking changes in language over the long span: Google’s nGram tool. It has a major limitation: the corpus is limited to published books. Most books are professionally edited, and thus much less likely than ordinary speech to violate grammatical rules–except insofar as they report dialogue.

Even given that limitation, the trend is interesting. “To you and me” outnumbers “to you and I” in books, in contrast to the World Wide Web as a whole. But “to you and I” is not very uncommon, and it has increased as a share of all the text in published books. It can literally not be found in any book published in 1800. One period of increase was between 1880 and 1920. Another was after the year 2000. But “to you and me” has also rapidly increased since 2000, and the ratio in favor of the grammatically normative version has actually increased in books.

Philip, Hannah, and Heinrich: a Play

“[Philip] Roth, who passed away last week, will be spending a lot of time with Arendt now, as he will be buried near her in the Bard College cemetery. According to an anecdote related by Bard’s President, Leon Botstein, Roth requested to be buried in the Bard cemetery so we would be able to talk to Arendt in perpetuity.” — Roger Berkowitz 

Philip: Hannah? Hannah? Dr. Arendt? Let’s talk about Irving Howe, can we? I was thinking maybe we could start with him. In 1972, he accused me “thinness of culture, … of ressentiment [and] freefloating contempt and animus.” He said that your Eichmann book demonstrated “surging contempt” and “the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down” on others. Now, was that fair? Where did he get off accusing us of contempt in such a contemptuous way?

Heinrich [Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, buried to her right]: Wer spricht das? Wer ist da?

Hannah: English, please, Heinrich. You still need to practice your English. It’s just Philip. Philip Roth–the young novelist? Although he actually doesn’t look so young any more. He’s buried on the other side of me now.

Heinrich: What? Forever? Did you agree to this?

Philip: How about Gershom Scholem, Hannah? He accused us both of being self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews. Who made him the arbiter?

Heinrich: Could we talk to Leon about getting this fellow moved somewhere else?

Philip: Hannah, tell me about Berlin in the twenties. [Wistfully] You guys didn’t have to wait ’til the sixties for the sexual revolution, did you? Talk about putting the id back in Yid–you Weimar intellectuals already took care of that. Cafes, cabarets, it must have been great. But Heidegger? What did you see in that old Nazi?

Hannah: Ach, please, both of you. “Death not merely ends life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness, snatched from the hazardous flux to which all things human are subject.” Can we try a little of that silent completeness for a while?

(See also: The House of Atreus: A Play; and for Gerard Manley Hopkins)

polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy

I haven’t really studied Quinn Slobodian’s history of neo-liberalism, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, nor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy In ChainsThe Deep History Of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America. I am following the controversy about the latter, but don’t have anything useful to add to it. I would, however,  offer a perspective that may be a little unusual and that would influence how I’d assess any arguments in this domain.

I am deeply committed to polycentricity. I believe that a society ought to encompass a democratic national government, regional and local governments, an independent legal system with its own logic, a civil service and regulatory agencies, bureaucratic firms, markets, voluntary associations, religious denominations that vary from hierarchical to congregational, labor unions, parties and political movements, an institutionalized press, autonomous scholarly and scientific bodies and institutions, loose networks, and various kinds of families–each as centers of power. None should dominate. Each should check the others.

I believe in polycentricity because unitary political systems degenerate into tyranny regardless of their objectives. The Chinese Communist Party has evolved from a radically egalitarian movement into a club dominated by rapacious billionaires. How could that happen? Because, in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you believe or say you will do. It matters whether and how your power is checked.

I also believe in polycentricity because I accept the Hayekian argument that we are incapable of designing highly complex systems that are any good. We are better off with emergent social organization. However, I disagree with those Hayekians (not necessarily including Hayek himself) who claim that a market plus common law is the perfect manifestation of emergent social order. Markets are actually designed systems, and they tend to colonize the other domains if unchecked. A truly emergent society encompasses many different forms and allows people to choose among the forms and innovate within them. In other words, a society that has an assertive state and a strong market is more Hayekian than one with only a market (as if that were possible.)

Therefore, I am not surprised to observe people trying to build up strong democratic states that have powers to tax and regulate, nor am I surprised to see people working to create pro-market institutions that are insulated from democracy, such as international trade regimes. Both efforts should be expected in a pluralist political economy. I don’t assume that the builders of welfare states are trying to command the heights of the economy so that they can suppress individual freedoms (as some hard-core libertarians would argue), but I also don’t assume that the designers of pro-market rules are trying to subvert democracy. It’s all part of the expected give-and-take of polycentricity.

This is not to minimize the stakes. Whether or not countries a sign free-trade agreement has real implications–good, bad, or both–for jobs, for the environment, and for other institutions, from governments to unions. It even affects cultures and mentalities. These are matters of grave concern. But I don’t interpret them as signs of a doomsday struggle between “the market” and “democracy.”

How conflicts are resolved has different effects on different people. For example, a free trade agreement might benefit consumers and firms but cost some people jobs, which, in turn, can damage and even shorten their lives. Therefore, it is appropriate to assess any arrangement from the perspective of distributive justice. However, if you think that you can design one sovereign institution–such as a government–that will consistently, wisely, and fairly define and enforce principles of distributive justice, then I want to see how this entity will be structured and who will be in charge of it–not only today, but once their grandchildren inherit their privileges. Even more important, I want to know how you will move our world from not having such an institution to having it, in the face of resistance.

My bias is that people must assess and enforce distributive justice, and we should do so through the various institutions available to us: a whole range of governments, movements, courts, media forums, etc. This is a citizen-centered rather than a state- or market-centered model. It doesn’t negate the significance of struggles between states and markets, yet it doesn’t assume that the relationship must be zero-sum. We could have stronger democratic states and more efficient markets (consider Denmark). I’d also emphasize that states and markets are only two of a dozen or more important types of institution through which people exercise authority.

See also: should all institutions be democratic?against state-centric political theorythe right to strikeChina teaches the value of political pluralism; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me. And see Paul Dragos Aligica’s Institutional Diversity and Political Economy (Oxford, 2014) for a generally congruent view.

outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding

In the current debate about “cultural appropriation,” I would offer these premises: everything is mixed, mixing is good, having your culture borrowed can give you more power, and demands for authenticity are problematic. Although I recognize exceptions and complications, we should start by welcoming “appropriation.”

I have not seen anyone complain that the recent royal wedding was an example of appropriation, and I’m interested in why not. After all, very rich white people incorporated African American culture into their ceremony, literally bringing it into their castle. It seems evident that Black American Christianity arrived in strength and confidence and made the whole ensemble much better than it would otherwise have been. That shows that you can’t judge an act of borrowing without looking closely; and often you will find it admirable.

The wedding was a mashup of English or British traditions with African American culture, the latter in the form of Bishop Michael Curry’s magnificent  sermon and the music (“Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine”). But, like everything human beings do, it’s much more mixed than that. When Rev. Curry read, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, / as a seal upon your arm,” he was sharing his patrimony, a great text of his tradition. He chose the New Revised Standard translation, which subtly echoes the King James Version (particularly prized by African American preachers), which was commissioned by Prince Harry’s eponymous ancestor, James I of England. That Bible was basically an appropriation of the translation by the heretic/martyr William Tyndale, who knew Greek and Hebrew but seems to have read the Song of Songs in the Latin translation by St. Jerome (an Illyrian), who had translated the Greek Septuagint version (made in Egypt), which–in turn–translated the Hebrew original songs, which have parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry of the same era. The songs are attributed to Solomon, who loved the daughter of Pharaoh and “women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11). Solomon sang for all these nations. 

In other words, it’s all borrowing, as far as the eye can see. And not just on Rev. Curry’s side. Prince Harry is a British royal. If you trace his paternal line back a millennium, you reach Elimar I (1040-1112), the Count of Oldenburg in Saxony, from whom also descend the royal families of Russia, Greece, and Denmark, among others. Windsor Chapel was founded by a King of England of Viking descent whose motto was the Middle French phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense

I can’t resist noting that if you discuss “appropriation,” you are using a word derived from the Latin appropriare, which is first attested in the medical work of Caelius Aurelianus, who was an African man, a subject of Rome, best known from translating from Greek.

But doesn’t borrowing a cultural product mean taking it from the people who rightly hold it? Isn’t it therefore an act of power that benefits the taker?

Not necessarily, because culture isn’t zero-sum. Everyone can draw from the cultural commons. Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Power is relevant, and it’s not OK to steal other people’s patrimony, like Napoleon carting off 695 Roman sculptures to fill the Louvre. But culture has power of its own, even when it’s set against guns and money.

Again, consider the juxtaposition of English aristocrats and African Americans at the recent wedding. There is no doubt that Black Americans face structural as well as intentional racism, in a pattern that extends across the Atlantic; Britain is implicated in it. White English people who are invited to a royal wedding are far more privileged than Americans of African descent.

But not more culturally powerful. Surely in our world of 7.6 billion, the 40 million Black Americans have some of the most “soft power.” Influence is currently flowing from Black America to places like Windsor Castle in a mighty stream.

One of the reasons is sheer excellence. I don’t think you can properly assess cultural transfer unless you are attuned to quality. Perhaps we should appreciate all the cultural traditions of the world for what they are, but there are great peaks as well as modest hills. The African American church is one of the mightiest ranges. It contributes theology, rhetoric, music, a political repertoire, and a distinctive moral vision to the whole world. Of course, it is made from a mixture of elements: so is everything human. But this mixture is particularly powerful. In the exquisite setting of a late-Gothic royal chapel, representatives of the traditions of the Black church added their unique voices and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are excellent reasons not to call such moments “appropriation.”

See also: what is cultural appropriation?when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismeveryone unique, all connectedJesus was a person of color.

Bologna, Santiago de Cali, and Tulsa win Cities of Service’ first Engaged Cities Award

I enjoyed serving on the selection committee for Cities of Service’s inaugural Engaged Cities Award and reading many superb applications. The winners were announced today. From the announcement:

  • Bologna, Italy: Realizing that bureaucracy was hindering citizens’ ability to improve their city, Bologna adopted new regulations allowing residents to partner with the city to revitalize public spaces. The new regulations spurred the city to establish district laboratories, where city staff connected with residents to develop their ideas and co-design initiatives. The labs engaged thousands of residents and resulted in more than 400 citizen-led initiatives, including turning an abandoned market into a concert hall for hundreds of local musicians to play and converting a former parking garage into a full-service bike station run by a resident cooperative.
  • Santiago de Cali, Colombia: To combat a high level of violence, especially between neighbors, Santiago de Cali created local councils, made up of citizens in 15 city districts. The councils designed and implemented more than 200 community initiatives, including the rehabilitation of a number of public spaces that had been used for drug activity, dance classes for at-risk youth, and soccer tournaments involving local youth and former gang members. The citizen-led initiatives benefitted more than 15,000 residents, building trust and reducing conflict in their communities.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa had hundreds of data sets that could help them grow per capita income, increase population, reduce violent crime, and address other challenges. But they did not have the capacity to analyze the data for insights it might provide. The city created teams of city staff, citizens, and nonprofit partners to examine city data and help the city address more than a dozen public problems. The teams have proposed a number of solutions, including a better method for prioritizing street repairs, a tool for citizens to collect much-needed blight data, and more.

Even as national politics is dysfunctional or repugnant in many countries, cities are hotbeds of innovation and are often simply well governed. This is a truth increasingly acknowledged–most recently by Jim and Deb Fallows in Our Towns–but it is both encouraging and interesting.

See also: engaging citizens in cities“A Tale of Two Cities”: comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagementthe rise of urban citizenship; and A New Model for Citizen Engagement.

support civics in Massachusetts #CivicsforMA #MAcivicsforall

Right now is a “virtual advocacy day” for Massachusetts S.2375, “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement. I’m doing my bit by blogging in support of the law–which will also need an adequate appropriation. The bill would:

  • Require that all public schools teach American history and civics education in accordance with the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.
  •  Establish a “Civics Project Fund,” which shall be used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to implement the various requirements of the bill (including offering professional development and developing model curriculum). The fund will consist of appropriations and donated funds.
  • Mandate that every student in the Massachusetts public school system have the
    opportunity to participate in at least 2 student-led civics projects, at least one of which
    would be completed after 8th grade and would be a graduation requirement. Projects may be individual, small group, class-wide, or as part of required coursework.
  • Allow DESE, subject to resources, to establish regional civics councils to monitor and
    provide resources for civics education implementation throughout the commonwealth.
    DESE may also hold annual conventions for such regional councils to meet and assess
    the state of civics education, share best practices, and make recommendations to the
    Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to create tools aligned with the History and Social
    Sciences Curriculum Framework to support districts in implementation .
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to establish the “Edward Moore Kennedy and Edward William Brooke III Civics Challenge,” which shall be available to all eighth-grade public school students. Student participants will present civics projects for evaluation and recognition.
  • Direct the Secretary of the Commonwealth to establish a “High School Voter Challenge” in which every public high school may nominate one or more students to serve as voter outreach coordinators. Designated “high school voter challenge weeks” will be used to hold voter registration drives for students who are eligible to register or pre-register to vote. The Secretary will also be responsible for disseminating information to cities and towns to promote youth membership on municipal boards, committees and commissions.
  • Require BESE to provide opportunities for educators to receive professional development.
  • Require DESE to convene a commission to develop a proposal for the establishment of a civic education and public service program for Massachusetts youth.
  • Require DESE to conduct a study on the implementation of the act.

See also: the first “civic ed” bill: 1642my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics; and new overview of civic education