Tomorrow night at a church in London, there will be a gathering of several hundred people to celebrate the launch of "The Euston Manifesto" -- a short document in which one sector of the British and American left declares itself to be in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.
The Eustonians also support open-source software. (I have read the document a few times now but am still not sure how that one got in there. It seems like an afterthought.)
More to the point, the Eustonians promise not to ask too many questions -- nor any really embarrassing ones -- about how we got into Iraq. The important thing, now, is that it all end well. Which is to say, that the occupation help build a new Iraq: a place of secular, pluralist democracy, where people do not blow each other up for the glory of Allah.
Suppose that a civic-minded person -- a secular humanist, let's say, and one fond of Linux -- takes a closer look at the manifesto. Such a reader will expect the document to discuss the question of means and ends. This might be addressed on the ethical plane, at some level of abstraction. Or it might be handled with a wonky attention to policy detail. In any case, the presumed reader (who is nothing if not well-meaning) will certainly want to know how Eustonian principles are to be realized in the real world. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is the problem of getting from the absolutely disastrous status quo to the brilliant future, so hailed.
Many of the signatories of the manifesto are, or until recently were, some variety or other of Marxist. Its main author, for example, is Norman Geras, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. His work includes Literature of Revolution, a volume of astute essays on Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (Full disclosure: Geras and I once belonged to the same worldwide revolutionary socialist organization, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and probably both choke up a little when singing “The Red Flag”).
Surely, then, the Euston Manifesto will bear at least some resemblance to the one written by a certain unemployed German doctor of philosophy in 1848? That is, it can be expected to provide a long-term strategic conception of how the world reached its current situation (“The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles”). And it will identify the forces in society that have emerged to transform it (“Workers of the world unite!”). And from this rigorous conceptual structure, the document can then deduce some appropriate shorter-term tactics. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels pointed to universal suffrage and a progressive income tax as mighty strides forward towards the destruction of capitalism.
OK, so the proposals might not work out as planned.... Hindsight is 20-20. But a manifesto -- to be worth anyone’s time, let alone signature -- will, of course, be concrete. At the event in London tomorrow night, the comrades will rally. Surely they would never settle for broad and bland appeals to high ideals, rendered in language slightly less inspiring than the Cub Scout oath?
Well, judge for yourself. “The Euston Manifesto” was actually unveiled in April, when it was first published online. It is has an official Web site. The inspiration for it had come during a meeting at a pub near the Euston stop on the London Underground. (Hence the name.) The document has been debated and denounced at great and redundant length in the left-wing blogosphere. So the fact that the event this week in London is being described by the Eustonians as a “launch” is puzzling, at least at first. But when you realize what a rhetorical drubbing the manifesto has taken, the need for a public gathering is easier to understand. The Eustonians want to show that their heads are bloody but unbowed, etc.
The most cogent arguments against the manifesto have already been made. In April, Marc Mulholand, a historian who is a fellow at Oxford University, presented a series of pointed criticisms at his blog that seemed to take the Eustonian principles more seriously than the manifesto itself did. “Why should we expect pluralist states to foster the spread of democratic government?” he asked. “How can we audit their contribution to this universal ideal? What mechanisms ensure the coincidence of state real politick and liberal internationalism?”
And D.D. Guttenplan -- the London correspondent for “The Nation” and producer of a documentary called Edward Said: The Last Interview -- weighed in with an article in The Guardian accusing the Eustonians of, in effect, staging a historical reenactment of battle scenes from the Cold War.
In passing, Guttenplan wrote of the manifesto that “every word in it is a lie” – a bit of hyperbole with historical overtones probably lost on his British readers. (In a memorable denunciation -- and one that prompted a lawsuit -- of sometime Communist sympathizer Lillian Hellman’s work, Mary McCarthy said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) Guttenplan tells me that he now considers his remark “a bit intemperate” yet still calls the manifesto “that bastard child of senescent sociology and the laptop bombardiers.”
Mulholand performed a kind of immanent critique of the Eustonians’ liberal-humanitarian proclamations. That is, he held their rhetoric up against their concepts -- and found the manifesto wanting no matter how you looked at it.
For Guttenplan, the manifesto makes more sense as a case of political bait-and-switch. “The political glue holding these folks together,” he told me, “was a kind of Zionism that dare not speak its name, in which anti-Semitism was the only racism worth getting excited about, and opposition to any kind of practical pressure on Israel or its UK supporters/defenders the only program that got these folks up from their laptops. Personally I find that both sneaky and, as my late mother would say, bad for the Jews.” (Complex irony alert! Guttenplan himself is Jewish.)
The liberal-internationalist case for military intervention in Iraq has recently been hashed out at length -- and in all of its disconcertingly belated moral passion and geopolitical irrelevance -- by the contributors to A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, published last year by the University of California Press. The editor of that volume, Thomas Cushman, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, and a member of the editorial board of the online journal Democratiya -- as is Norman Geras, who drafted the Euston Manifesto.
Many of the contributions to the book and the journal are intelligently argued. They are worth the attention even -- and perhaps especially -- of someone opposed to the war. For a whole wing of the left, of course, to admit that one’s opponents might be capable of arguments (rather than rationalizations) is already a sign of apostasy. But I’ll take my chances. After all, you can only listen to Noam Chomsky blame every problem in the world on American corporations just so many times. It’s good to stretch your mental legs every so often, and go wandering off to see how people think on the other side of the barricades.
That said, reading the Euston Manifesto has proven remarkably unrewarding -- even downright irritating. It is not a matter of profound disagreements. (I am, broadly speaking, in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.) But the Eustonians seem to be issuing blank moral checks for whatever excellent adventures George Bush and Tony Blair decide to undertake.
They call for supporting the reconstruction of Iraq “rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.” The systematic campaign of disinformation and phony diplomacy engineered over the course of two years preceding the invasion, then, is to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call for intellectual irresponsibility. Or, for that matter, a less adequate metaphorical image. Anyone upset by “the rubble of the arguments over intervention” is definitely facing the wrong crater.
The Eustonians seem also perfectly indifferent to the cumulative damage being done to the very fiber of democracy itself. This summer’s issue of Bookforum contains a few poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees -- part of a much larger body confiscated by the military. As a lawyer for the detainees notes, a poem containing the line “Forgive me, my dear wife” was immediately classified as an attempt to communicate with the outside.
It is hard to imagine that this sort of thing really advances the Global War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it now. But it is not without consequences. It destroys what it pretends to protect.
As I was musing over all of this, a friend pointed out a conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the manifesto: Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. His book The Intellectuals and the Flag, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, defends the idea of left-wing American patriotism with a frank interest “in the necessary task of defeating the jihadist enemy.”
This would seem to put him in the Eustonian camp, yet he did not endorse the manifesto. Why not? I contacted him by e-mail to ask. “I recognize a shoddy piece of intellectual patchwork when I see one,” Gitlin responded.
He cites a passage referring to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as “a liberation of the Iraqi people." A fine thing, to be sure. The sight of a humiliated dictator is good for the soul. “But the resulting carnage is scarcely worthy of the term ‘liberation,’” Gitlin told me. “I'm leery of the euphemism.”
Humanitarian interventionism needs an element of realist calculation. “The duty of ‘intervention and rescue’ when a state commits appalling atrocities,” he continued, “must be tempered by a hard-headed assessment of what is attainable and what are the reasonably foreseeable results of intervention. The document is cavalier about the ease of riding to the rescue. So while I support the lion's and lioness's share of the document's principles, I find it disturbingly, well, utopian. It lacks a sense of the tragic. I have not foregone the forced innocence of the anti-American left only to sign up with another variety of rigid, forced innocence.”
But in the final analysis, there was something else bothersome about the manifesto -- something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, for a while. A vague dissatisfaction, a feeling of blurry inconsequentiality....
Then it suddenly came into focus: The manifesto did not seem like the product of a real movement, nor the founding document of a new organization – nor anything, really, but a proclamation of dissatisfaction by people in an Internet-based transatlantic social network.
I dropped Norman Geras a line, asking about the virtuality of the phenomenon. Aren’t the Eustonians doomed to a kind of perpetual and constitutive blogginess?
“It's true that the manifesto is not seen by us as the rallying point for a particular organization,” Geras wrote back. “But it is seen as a rallying point nonetheless - as a focus for debate on the liberal-left, and for initiatives that might follow from that. The focus for debate part has already happened: there's been an enormous response to the manifesto and not only on the internet, but with significant press coverage as well. The venue for the launch meeting had to be changed because we ran out of tickets so fast for the original venue. So this isn't just a ‘virtual’ affair.”
The question from Lenin’s pamphlet comes up: What is to be done? “I'm not going to try to predict where or how far it will go,” says Geras. “One step at a time. But we already have more than 1,500 signatories and that means a lot of people in touch with us and interested in what the manifesto is saying. After the launch, we'll see what we want to do next in the way of forums, conferences, campaigns.”
Perhaps frustration with the document is misplaced? Something better might yet emerge -- once well-meaning people see the limits of the good intentions they have endorsed. You never know. But for now, with only the text to go by, it is hard to shake a suspicion that the Euston Manifesto owes less to Marx than to MySpace.
George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. (I'll give contact information for the press at the end of this column, for anyone willing to put a check in the mail the old-fashioned way.)
In any case, it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba's work. That it's only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called the "the familiar style," and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.
Scialabba has his admirers, even so, and one of the pleasant surprises of Divided Mind is the set of comments on the back. "I am one of the many readers who stay on the lookout for George Scialabba's byline," writes Richard Rorty. "He cuts to the core of the ethical and political dilemmas he discusses." The novelist Norman Rush lauds Scialabba's prose itself for "bring[ing] the review-essay to a high state of development, incorporating elements of memoir and skillfully deploying the wide range of literary and historical references he commands." And there is a blurb from Christopher Hitchens praising his "eloquence and modesty" -- though perhaps that is just a gesture of relief that Scialabba has not reprinted his candid reassessment of Hitch, post-9/11.
One passage early in the collection gives a roll call of exemplary figures practicing a certain kind of writing. It includes Randolph Bourne, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. "Their primary training and frame of reference," Scialabba writes, "were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and they habitually, even if only implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics.... Their 'specialty' lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force."
The interesting thing about this passage -- aside from its apt self-portrait of the author -- is the uncertain meaning of that slashmark in the phrase "contemporary moral/political relevance." Does it serve as the equivalent of an equals sign? I doubt that. But it suggests that the relationship is both close and problematic.
We sometimes say that a dog "worries" a bone, meaning he chews it with persistent attention; and in that sense, Divided Mind is a worried book, gnawing with a passion on the "moral/political" problems that go with holding an egalitarian outlook. Scialabba is a man of the left. If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty's skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky's geopolitical worldview -- and it's a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this -- then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba's own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.
A certain amount of gloominess goes with holding these principles without believing that History is on the long march to their fulfillment. But there is another complicating element in Divided Mind. It is summed in a passage from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, from 1930 -- though you might find the same thought formulated by a dozen other conservative thinkers.
"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity," Ortega y Gasset declares, "is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."
Something in Ortega y Gasset's statement must have struck a chord with Scialabba. He quotes it in two essays. "Is this a valid distinction?" he asks. "Yes, I believe it is...." But the idea bothers him; it stimulates none of the usual self-congratulatory pleasures of snobbery. The division of humanity into two categories -- the noble and "the masses" -- lends itself to anti-democratic sentiments, if not the most violently reactionary sort of politics.
At the very least, it undermines the will to make egalitarian changes. Yet it is also very hard to gainsay the truth of it. How, then, to resolve the tension? Divided Mind is a series of efforts -- provisional, personal, and ultimately unfinished -- to work out an answer.
At this point it bears mentioning that Scialabba's reflections do not follow the protocols of any particular academic discipline. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard (Class of 1969) and has read his way through a canon or two; but his thinking is not, as the saying now goes, "professionalized." He is a writer who works at Harvard -- but not in the way that statement would normally suggest.
"After spells as a substitute teacher and Welfare Department social worker," he told me recently in an e-mail exchange, "I was, for 25 years, the manager or superintendent of a mid-sized academic office building, which housed Harvard's Center for International Affairs and several regional (East Asian, Russian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, etc) research centers. I gave directions to visitors, scheduled the seminar rooms, got offices painted, carpets installed, shelves built, windows washed, keys made, bills paid. I flirted with graduate students and staff assistants, schmoozed with junior faculty, and saw, heard, overheard, and occasionally got to know a lot of famous and near-famous academics."
As day jobs go, it was conducive to writing. "I had a typewriter and a copy machine," he says, "a good library nearby, and didn't come home every night tired or fretting about office politics." When the "homely mid-sized edifice" was replaced with "a vast, two-building complex housing the political science and history departments as well," the daily grind changed as well: "I'm now part of a large staff, and most of my days are spent staring at a flickering screen."
More pertinent to understanding what drives him as a writer, I think, are certain facts about his background that the reader glimpses in various brief references throughout his essays. The son of working-class Italian-American parents, he was once a member of the ascetic and conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei. In adolescence, he thought he might have a religious vocation. The critical intelligence of his critical writings is now unmistakably secular and modernist. He shows no sign of nostalgia for the faith now lost to him. But the extreme dislocation implied in leaving one life for another gives an additional resonance to the title of his collection of essays.
"For several hundred years," he told me, "a small minority of Italian/French/Spanish adolescent peasant or working-class boys -- usually the sternly repressed or (like me) libido-deficient ones -- have been devout, well-behaved, studious. Depending on their abilities and on what sort of priest they're most in contact with, they join a diocese or a religious order. Among the latter, the bright ones become Jesuits; the more modestly gifted or mystically inclined become Franciscans. I grew up among Franciscans and at first planned to become one, but I just couldn't resist going to college -- intellectual concupiscence, I guess."
Instead, he was drawn into Opus Dei -- a group trying, as he puts it, "to make a new kind of religious vocation possible, combining the traditional virtues and spiritual exercises with a professional or business career."
He recalls being "tremendously enthusiastic for the first couple of years, trying very hard, though fruitlessly, to recruit my fellow Catholic undergraduates at Harvard in the late 1960s. It was a strain, being a divine secret agent and trying at the same time to survive academically before the blessed advent of grade inflation. But the reward -- an eternity of happiness in heaven!"
The group permitted him to read secular authors, the better to understand and condemn their heresies.
"Then," he says, "Satan went to work on me. As I studied European history and thought, my conviction gradually grew that the Church had, for the most part, been on the wrong side. Catholic philosophy was wrong; Catholic politics were authoritarian....On one occasion, just after I had read Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, I was rebuked for my intellectual waywardness by a priestly superior with, I fancied, a striking physical resemblance to the terrifying prelate in Ivan's fable. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."
The departure was painful. The new world he discovered on the other side of his crossing "wasn't in the slightest degree an original discovery," he says. "I simply bought the now-traditional narrative of modernity, hook, line and sinker. I still do, pretty much." But he was not quite ready to plunge without reserve into the counterculture of the time -- sex, drugs, rock and roll.
"I was, to an unusual degree, living in my head rather than my body," he says about the 1970s. "I had emerged from Opus Dei with virtually no friends, a conscious tendency to identify my life course with the trajectory of modernity, and an unconscious need to be a saint, apostle, missionary. And I had inherited from my working-class Italian family no middle-class expectations, ambitions, social skills, ego structures."
Instead, he says, "I read a lot and seethed with indignation at all forms of irrational authority or even conventional respectability. So I didn't take any constructive steps, like becoming a revolutionary or a radical academic.... In those days, it wasn't quite so weird not to be ascending some career ladder."
So he settled into a job that left him with time to think and write. And to deal with the possibility of eternal damnation -- something that can occasionally bedevil one part of the mind, even while the secular and modernist half retains its disbelief.
Somewhere in my study is a hefty folder containing, if not George Scialabba's complete oeuvre, then at least the bulk of it. After several years of reading and admiring his essays, I can testify that Divided Mind is a well-edited selection covering many of his abiding concerns. It ought to be interest to anyone interested in the "fourth genre," as the essay is sometimes called. (The other three -- poetry, drama, and fiction -- get all the glory.)
As noted, the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling.
Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.
But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.
Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.
Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?
Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....
You probably see where this is going.
“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”
Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.
“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”
Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)
Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.
But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.
I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.
Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?
A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.
But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.
So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.
In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly) and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.
Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.
My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.
Q: So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?
A: One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.
Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.
That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?
That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.
This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.
Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.
I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.
Q: Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?
A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”
Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .
Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.
There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.
What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.
If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.
Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?
A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”
But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.
Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.
Q: Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?
A: The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.
I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.
It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.
It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.
Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.
During the first administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or so goes a story now making the rounds of American progressives), the president met with a group of citizens who urged him to seize the moment. Surely it was time for serious reforms: The Depression made it impossible to continue with business as usual. Just what measures the visitors to the Oval Office proposed -- well, that is not clear, at least from the versions I have heard. Perhaps they wanted laws to regulate banking, or to protect the right of labor unions to organize, or to provide income help for the aged. Maybe all of the above.
The president listened with interest and evident sympathy. As the meeting drew to a close, Roosevelt thanked his guests, expressing agreement with all they had suggested. “So now,” he told them on their way out the door, “go out there and make me do it.”
This is less a historical narrative, strictly speaking, than an edifying tale. Its lesson is simple. Even with wise and trustworthy leadership holding power -- perhaps especially then -- you must be ready to apply pressure from below. (The moral here is not especially partisan, by the way. One can easily imagine conservative activists spurring one another on with more or less the same story, with Ronald Reagan assuming the star role.)
I recalled this anecdote on Saturday after meeting Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida. He stopped by for a visit after spending the afternoon collecting data at the antiwar demonstration here in Washington.
For the past few years, Heaney has been collaborating with Fabio Rojas, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, on a study of the turnout at major national antiwar protests. With the help of research assistants, they have done surveys of some 3,550 randomly selected demonstrators. (That figure includes the 350 surveys gathered this weekend.) Their research has already yielded two published papers, available here and here, with more now in the works.
We’ll go over some of their findings in a moment. But a remark that Heaney made in conversation resonated with that fable about the New Deal era, and it provides a context for understanding the work he and Rojas have been doing.
“Political scientists are good at analyzing how established institutions function,” he said. “We have the tools for that, and the tools work really well. But there is very strong resistance to studying informal organizations or to recognizing them as part of the political landscape.”
In the course of thinking over their research, Rojas and Heaney have improvised a concept they call “the party in the street” -- that segment of a political party that, to borrow FDR’s (possibly apocryphal) injunction, gets out there and pushes.
Party affiliation was only one of the questions asked during the survey, which also gathered information about a demonstrator’s age, gender, ethnicity, zip code, membership in non-political organizations, and how he or she heard about the protest. (The form allowed responders to remain anonymous.)
“We attended or sent proxies to all major protests during a one-year period, from August 2004 until September 2005,” Heaney told me, “and we’ve coded all those surveys. We’ve also collected surveys at other demonstrations since then, including roughly a thousand responses just in 2007.”
The researchers attended demonstrations sponsored by each of the two major coalitions organizing them, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER). The two coalitions have been at odds with one another for years, but worked together to organize the September 2005 protest in Washington before going their separate ways again. “We couldn’t have planned this,” as Heaney puts it, “but now we have data from each stage – when the two coalitions were in conflict, when they worked together, and then again after they parted.”
During the September 2005 activities, Rojas and Heaney gathered information both from those who attended a large open-air protest and from the thousand or so people who stuck around to lobby members of Congress two days later.
Their survey data also cover demonstrations in the months before and after the midterm elections in November, though most of those results remain to be processed.
“I’ve been shocked at how few academics have paid attention to the antiwar movement,” Heaney told me. “When we first went out to do a survey at a demonstration, I sort of expected to find other political scientists doing research too. But apart from a couple of people in sociology, there doesn’t seem to be much else happening so far.”
I asked if they had met with much suspicion in the course of their research -- people refusing to take the survey for fear of being, well, surveilled.
“No,” he said, “the response rate has been very high. There hasn’t been much paranoia. The temper isn’t like it was after 9/11. People don’t feel as much like the government is out to get them. And fear on the part of the police has gone down too. Now they don’t seem as concerned that a protest is going to turn into a terrorist act.”
The survey results from demonstrations in 2004 and 2005 showed that “40% of activists within the antiwar movement describe themselves as Democrats, 39% identify as independents (i.e. they list no party affiliation), 20% claim membership in a third party, and only 2% belong to the Republican party.”
Some of their findings confirm things one might predict from a simple deduction. Protestors who identified as members of the Democratic Party were more likely to stay in town to lobby their members of Congress than those who didn’t, for example.
Likewise, the researchers found that Democratic members of Congress “are more likely to meet with antiwar lobbyists than are Republicans, other things being equal.... Members of Congress who had previously expressed high levels of support for antiwar positions were more likely to meet with lobbyists than those whose support had been weak or nonexistent.”
Other results were more interesting. Protestors who belonged to “at least one civic, community, labor, or political organization” proved to be 17 percent more likely to lobby. People who turned out for the demonstration after being contacted by an organization were 13 percent more likely to lobby – while those who found about the event only through the mass media were 16 percent less likely to go to Capitol Hill.
The contemporary antiwar movement has a “distinctly bimodal” distribution with respect to age. In other words, there are two significant cohorts, one between the ages of 18 and 27, the other between 46 and 67, “with relatively fewer participants outside these ranges.”
Each birthday added “about 1 percent to an individual’s willingness to lobby when all other variables are held at their means or modes,” report Heaney and Rojas in a paper for the journal American Politics Research. “We did not find that sex, race, or occupational prestige make a difference in an individual’s propensity to lobby.”
In conversation, Heaney also mentioned a provisional finding that they are now double-checking. “The single strongest predictor of lobbying was whether an individual had been involved in the movement against the Vietnam War.”
It was while attending a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 that Heaney came up with an expression that has somewhat complicated the reception of this research among his colleagues. The city’s labor unions had turned out a large and obstreperous crowd to express displeasure with the president. The crowd was overwhelmingly likely to vote for Democratic candidates, but Heaney was struck by the thought that it was a very different gathering from the one he expected would assemble before long at a Democratic national convention.
“I thought: this is more like a festival,” he told me. “It’s the Democratic Party. But it’s also the party having a party...in the street.”
This phrase – “the party in the street” – had a special overtone for Heaney as a political scientists, given one familiar schema used in analyzing American politics. In his profession, it is common to speak of a major party as having three important sectors: “the party in government,” “the party in the electorate,” and “the party as organization.”
The idea that mass movements might constitute a fourth sector of the party – with the Christian Right, for example, being a component of the Republican “party in the street” – might seem self-evident in some ways. But not so for political scientists, it seems. “We met a lot of resistance to the idea of the ‘party in the street,’” Heaney told me, “and to the idea that [it might apply] to the Republicans as well.” The paper in which Heaney and Rojas first referred to “the party in the street” ended up going to three different journals -- with substantial revisions along the way – before it was accepted for publication in American Politics Research.
Speaking of the antiwar protests as manifestations of the Democratic “party in the street” will also meet resistance from many activists. (A catchphrase of the hard left is that the Democratic Party is “the graveyard of mass movements.”) And according to their own surveys, Heaney and Rojas find that just over one fifth of demonstrators see themselves as clearly outside its ranks.
But that still leaves the majority of antiwar activists as either identifying themselves as Democrats or at least willing to vote for the party. “Like it or not,” write Heaney and Rojas, “their moral and political struggles are within or against the Democratic Party; it actions and inactions construct opportunities for and barriers to the achievement of their issue-specific policy goals.” (Though Heaney and Rojas don’t quote Richard Hofstadter, their analysis implicitly accepts the historian’s famous aphorism that American third parties “are like bees: they sting once and die.”)
“We do not claim,” they take care to note, “that the party in the street has equal standing with the party in government, the party in the electorate, or the party as organization. We are not asserting that the formal party organization is coordinating these activities. The party in the street lacks the stability possessed by other parts of the party because it is not supported by enduring institutions. Furthermore, it is small relative to other parts of the party and at times may be virtually nonexistent.”
As Heaney elaborated when we met, a great deal of the organizing work of the antiwar “party” is conducted by e-mail – a situation that makes it much easier for groups with a small staff to reach a large audience. But that also makes for somewhat shallow or episodic involvement in the movement on the part of many participants. An important area for study by political scientists might be the relationship between the emerging zone of activist organizations and the informal networks of campaign consultants, lobbyists, financial contributors, and activists” shaping the agenda of other sectors of political parties. “If they remain well organized and attract enthusiastic young activists,” write Rojas and Heaney, “then the mainstream political party is unable to ignore them for long.”
Studying the antiwar movement has not exhausted the attention of either scholar. Heaney is working on a book about Medicare, while Rojas is the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. But now they have an abundance of data to analyze, and expect to finish four more papers over the next few months. In addition to crunching more than three years’ worth of survey data, Heaney and Rojas have been examining the antiwar movement’s publications online and observing in person how protests are organized.
I scribbled down working titles and thumbnail descriptions of the papers in progress as Heaney discussed them. So here, briefly, is an early report on some research you may hear pundits refer to knowingly some months from now....
“Mobilizing the Antiwar Movement” will analyze how organizations get people to turn out and which kinds of groups are most successful at it. “Network Dynamics of the Antiwar Movement” will consider how different groups interact at events and how those interactions have changed over time. “Leaders and Followers in the Antiwar Movement” will examine the survey data gathered at large protests, comparing and contrasting it with information about activists who participate in smaller workshops or training exercises for committed activists.
Finally, “Coalition Dissolution in the Antiwar Movement” will look at tensions within the organizing efforts. “There has been some work in sociology on coalition building,” as Heaney explained, “but there’s been almost none on how they fall apart.”
It’s worth repeating that all of this work on the antiwar “party in the street” could just as well inspire research on the relationship between conservative movements and the Republican Party. Perhaps someone will eventually write a paper called “Coalition Dissolution in the Christian Right.” I say that purely in the interests of scholarship, of course, and with no gloating at the prospect whatsoever.
A few months back, Intellectual Affairs reported on the work of a couple of social scientists who were studying the contemporary antiwar movement. They have been showing up at the national demonstrations over the past several years and – with the help of assistants instructed in a method of random sampling – conducting surveys of the participants. The data so harvested was then coded and fed into a computer, and the responses cross-correlated in order to find any patterns hidden in the data.
The methodology was all very orthodox and unremarkable, unlike some things we’ve discussed around here lately. But one of the researchers, Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, explained that the project involved a departure from some of norms of his field. Political scientists have tended to be interested in studying established institutions, rather than the more informal or fluid networks that sustain protest movements.
His collaborator, Fabio Rojas, is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University – so their effort to understand the polling results had the benefit of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and could draw on models from recent work on social movements and network analysis. Nowadays you can often spot a paper by a sociologist at five paces, just because of the spiderweb-like graphics. Those are the maps of social networks, with the strength of connection between the nodes indicated by more or less heavy lines.
Heaney and Rojas have kept on gathering their surveys and crunching their numbers, and they recently presented a new paper on their work at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago. The title, “Coalition Dissolution and Network Dynamics in the American Antiwar Movement,” seems straightforward enough – and the abstract explains that their focus was on the rather difficult relationship between United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), the two main coalitions organizing national protests.
So far, so good. The topic is rather familiar to me – deriving, as it ultimately does, from certain important disagreements between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. (See Monty Python, 1979.) But my effort to follow the paper soon ran up against a single curious and unfamiliar term: “mesomobilization.”
You could decrypt this etymologically, if course, as “intermediate mobilization” or something of the sort. But doing so did not cause a concept to spring instantly to mind. And since they were addressing colleagues (all of whom probably had strong and definite ideas about mesomobilization) it wasn’t as if the authors had to define their terms. So I broke down and asked Heaney for a gloss.
“Mesomobilization,” he wrote back, “is the process through which social movement leaders mobilize other organizations to do the direct work of bringing individual participants to a protest. In that sense mesomobilization is one level 'above' micromobilization (i.e., bringing out the actual bodies).”
In other words, an organization (a labor union or whatever) does the micromobilizing when it gets its members and supporters to become involved in some activity (a demonstration, political campaign, etc.) A coalition enables different organizations to collaborate when they share a common agenda. This is “mesomobilizing” – that is, mediating and connecting the different activist cohorts.
That distinction corresponds to very different sorts of functions. “Micromobilizing groups play a critical role in contacting people and shaping they way they understand issues and the efficacy of political action,” as Heaney explained. But mesomobilizers – that is, coalitions – provide “an overall conceptual framework for events that links the demands and grievances of myriad groups together.” (The mesomobilizers also buy advertising and get the parade permits and so forth.) “Effective mesomobilization is necessary to make large-scale events possible,” says Heaney, “especially in highly decentralized fields, like peace and antiwar movements.”
The paper delivered at APSA looks at how relations between the two biggest antiwar mesomobilizers have affected participation in the national demonstrations. The differences between ANSWER and UFPJ are in part ideological. The rhetorical style of ANSWER normally runs to denunciations of American imperialism and its running dogs. (I exaggerate, but just barely.) UFPJ is by contrast the “moderate flank” of the antiwar movement, and not prone to tackling all injustice on the planet in the course of one protest. As Heaney and Rojas put it, UFPJ argues that “in order to build the broadest coalition possible, it should focus on the one issue about which the largest number of organizations can agree: ending the war in Iraq.”
The groups have a long, complicated history of mutual antagonism that in some ways actually predates even the present organizations. Comparable fault-lines emerged between similar coalitions organizing in 1990 and '91 against the first Gulf War. But UFPJ and ANSWER did manage to mesomobilize together at various points between 2003 and 2005. This honeymoon has been over for a couple of years now, for reasons nobody can quite agree upon – even as public disapproval of president’s handling of the war rose from 53 percent in September 2005 (when the UFPJ-ANWER alliance ended) to 58 percnet in March 2007.
What this meant for Heaney and Rojas was that they had data from the different phases of the coalitions’ relationship. They had gathered surveys from people attending demonstrations that UFPJ and ANSWER organized together, and from people attending demonstrations the groups had scheduled in competition with each other. (They also interviewed leading members of each coalition and gathered material from their listservs.)
The researchers framed a few hypotheses about contrasts that would probably be reflected in their data set. “We expected that participants in the UFPJ demonstrations would have a stronger connection with mainstream political institutions and a weaker connection to the antiwar movement,” they write. “We expected, given ANSWER’s preference for outsider political tactics, that its participants would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past, while UFPJ would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past.”
They also anticipated finding significant demographic differences between each coalition’s constituency. “Given the relative prominence of women as leaders in UFPJ,” they say, “we expected that it would be more likely to attract women than would ANSWER. Given that ANSWER explicitly frames its identity as attempting to ‘end racism,’ we expected that individuals with non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds would be disproportionately drawn to ANSWER. Further, given the relatively radical orientation of ANSWER, we hypothesized that it would more greatly appeal to young people and the working class. In contrast, we expected UFPJ to appeal to individuals with higher incomes and college educations.”
These predictions were not, for the most part, all that counterintuitive. And so it is interesting to learn that very few of them squared with the data.
People who showed up at demonstrations under the influence of UFPJ’s mesomobilizing framework were “significantly more likely to say they considered themselves to be members of the Democratic Party (54.1 percent) than ANSWER attendees (46.9 percent).” There might be a few Republicans mobilized by either coalition, but most non-Democrats in either case would probably identify as independents or supporters of third parties.And they tended to come for different reasons: “Participants at the ANSWER rally were significantly more likely to cite a policy-specific reason for their attendance (such as stopping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), while participants at the UFPJ rally were more likely to cite a personal reason for their attendance (such as the death of a friend or a family member).”
But in terms of important distinctions, that was really about it. There was no difference in degree of political involvement, or experience with civil disobedience, or previous attendance at antiwar protests. Nor was there a demographic split: “Despite the stereotypes that many people have of the two coalitions,” write Rojas and Heaney, “they are equally likely to attract the participation of women and men, whites and non-whites, the young the old, those with and without college degrees, and people from various economic strata.”
The paper also considers how the parting of the ways between ANSWER and UFPJ influenced their mesomobilizing capacities -- that is, what effect it had on the networks of organizations making up each coalition.
The various spider-webs of organizational interaction did change a bit. ANSWER began to work more closely with another coalition pledged to denouncing American imperialism and its running dogs. United for Peace and Justice came under stronger influence by MoveOn – a group “much more closely allied with the Democratic Party than either UFPJ or ANSWER” and taking “a more conservative approach to ending the war.” (Or not ending it, I suppose, though that is a topic for another day.)
The researchers conclude that the conflict between the groups has not really been the zero-sum game one might have expected – if only because public disapproval of the president has won a hearing for each of them.
“To some extent,” write Heaney and Rojas, “ANSWER and UFPJ are vying for the attention, energies, and resources of the same supporters. But to a larger extent, both groups are more urgently attempting to reach out to a mass public that has remained largely quiescent throughout the entire U.S.-Iraq conflict....If public opinion were trending in favor of the president, or even remaining stable, the conflict might have been more detrimental to the movement as its base of support shrank.”
Such are the points in the paper catching one layman’s eye, at least. You can read it for yourself here. Heaney and Rojas are discussing their work this week at Orgtheory – a group blog devoted to what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, in its epigraph, “the science of association.”
About two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, one of the students in a government class that I was teaching raised his hand and demanded to know who I was supporting for president. I paused for a moment, somewhat taken back by the stridency of the student’s request. Noticing my reaction, he offered some background, explaining that he was not the only one in the class who had this question. We had, after all, been talking about the election during nearly every session, and my reticence with regard to what seemed to the students to be a crucial point was a source of confusion.
Despite his protests, I refused to answer, and quickly moved to the topic of the day. Later on, however, I had some time to consider the exchange. And the more that I thought about the student’s question, the more pleased I became. This was, I thought, one of the best evaluations that I had ever received. Here was real evidence that I was doing my job!
Here’s why: My students should not be able to tell, at least from what I say in class, who I prefer to sit in the oval office. For one thing, this would be a form of “bait and switch,” since nothing about the sharing of my political opinions appears in the catalogue that the students presumably consult before paying their money and scheduling my course.
More to the point, however, is that I am not qualified to teach students about who should be elected. In fact, I am no more qualified to tell people who they should vote for than I am to teach a class in quantum mechanics. I have colleagues over in the physics department who are qualified to offer a course in the latter subject; none of us has the same credibility when it comes to the former. Indeed, in an important way, this blanket incompetence is a part of the class lesson -- particularly, though not exclusively, in a class on American government. It is an implicit argument for democracy, or at least democratic equality. It is also, however, an argument about education.
If professors, or anybody else for that matter, actually "knew" who the president should be, then voting, especially by those who did not know, would be unnecessary, and probably counterproductive. This is easy to illustrate by considering the following example: Suppose that I feel ill, and would like to know what I might do to feel better. One approach would be to poll my friends, asking each of them what I should do. But suppose that among my friends was a medical doctor. Would it not make sense to follow her advice, eschewing the opinions of the rest of my friends? Now, what if I were on a deserted island, with no trained medical professionals available? Then, I might as well seek out the advice of friends, summing their opinions. When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.
Most Americans seem to intuitively grasp this notion, and have gradually moved our political system away from any form of “rule by the experts.” The best example of this may be found within the evolution of our electoral system for choosing the president. .If one reads carefully through the Constitution, one finds that the document does not call for the popular election of the president. Instead, state legislatures are charged with appointing presidential electors (the real voters) in any manner which they see fit.
By practice, though not amendment, Americans have reformed this process. Indeed, fairly quickly, legislative appointment was replaced by the popular election of presidential electors. The reason why elections like the one in 2000 -- in which the electoral and popular votes do not reach the same outcome -- are so disturbing is because most Americans think that they do, and should, select the president. No one stands up for an independent board of electors, because scarcely anyone believes that a qualified electoral elite exists. Again, where there are no experts, let’s let everyone have their say. This should serve as a reminder -- particularly to my colleagues in the academy -- about equality. We are all equally entitled to our opinion on electoral matters. That is why we vote.
This understanding has implications for the classroom that extend beyond politics. What we know, we should teach. We ought to keep our opinions to ourselves. This is an important point to keep mind as we read polls, including a recent one by the Zogby organization, that suggest that the public thinks that political bias among academics is a real problem. The public might well have a valid point.
Too much is made of the fact that the views expressed by these academics seem at best out of the mainstream, and at worst dangerously radical. One would, after all, expect those who have dedicated themselves to the careful study of a subject to know more than most about their area of expertise. And those who know should not be bound by -- or be expected to teach about -- the opinions of those who do not know, even if those opinions are held by a majority of people.
This leads to the real objection that ought to be lodged against those who bring their political opinions into the classroom: Do they know what they are talking about? In the classroom, a basic distinction ought to be maintained between knowledge and opinion. To return to my earlier example, I “know” how the mechanics of the electoral system work. I have an opinion about who should be elected using this system. Therefore, I should teach only the former; not because I might offend the delicate political sensibilities of my students, but rather because this distinction between knowledge and opinion is fundamental to any academic endeavor.
Ideally, what scholars seek -- indeed what every educated person hopes to attain, however partially -- is to replace opinion with knowledge. Through both what and how we teach, instructors inspire in their students a sense of both what is known, and how much remains to be discovered. This is what the philosopher Socrates meant when he argued that the first step in the educational process is "to know what we do not know." By becoming aware of how little we know, we are motivated to learn.
The sin committed by any teacher who spouts his or her political views in the classroom is, therefore, not political, but academic. By feigning certainty where there is only opinion, they encourage ignorance in their students. Teachers are free to hold and express (outside of the classroom) any opinions that they wish. What they must not do (in the classroom) is to pretend to know more than they do.
As the writer G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong." This type of bigotry does not serve our students or our democratic system. Avoiding it is not always easy, but it is our job.
Paul A. Sracic
Paul A. Sracic is a professor and chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University.
Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.
Public Service and Elections
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.
This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.
We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?
Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.
And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.
What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.
Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?
We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.
Making the Most of 2008
Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.
I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:
1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.
2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans, the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.
3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).
4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.
5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.
Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
"Chicago 10," which opened in theaters a few days ago, is one of the most exciting movies ever made about any aspect of the 1960s. It is also among the most frustrating; for it turns out that excitement is only just so much of a virtue in a documentary film. Sensation minus context is desensitizing. And in a number of ways "Chicago 10" marks an almost complete triumph of visual intensity over historical memory.
Yet it is also the product of some impressive digging in the video archives. Much of the footage in it was shot by television crews roaming the streets during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Thousands of people had gathered in Chicago to protest the Vietnam war, by any means necessary; and thousands of cops marched in formation to prevent them from doing so, also by any means necessary. Guns were not actually fired in the process, which is something of a miracle. In one harrowing scene, a group of demonstrators taunts the police, challenging them to shoot.
You see Walter Cronkite on the evening news (a sober and avuncular anchorman, like nobody now in broadcasting: the living voice of the middle of the American road) comparing Mayor Daley’s city to a police state. There is a shot of a placard in the streets of Chicago saying “Welcome to Prague.” For this was one of those moments in history when the whole world was not just watching but, it seemed, performing from a common script. At the same time as Chicago was turning into an armed camp, Soviet troops were busy putting down Czechoslovakia’s experiment in reforming its own regime.
The confrontation in Chicago between the protesters and the forces of law and order is chronicled, day by day; and the tensions build up to a frenzy when the police go on a rampage. One unnamed and seemingly apolitical Chicagoan describes sitting in a bar, minding his own business, when the cops stormed in, making everybody leave under the threat of being pounded senseless. Anyone with long hair did not get a choice in the matter.
The street scenes are intercut with animated sequences based on transcripts of the government’s prosecution of those it accused of organizing the demonstrations. This is not the first time the court case has been put on screen (both the BBC and HBO have done so in previous decades) nor will it be the last, since a film called "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is in production this year. That title is something of a misnomer, since the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale was the eighth defendant until his case with severed from that of his alleged co-conspirators. In "Chicago 10," the figure is bumped up to include the two lawyers who represented Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, et al. -- since they, like the defendants, were cited for contempt of court.
As hyperkinetic eye candy, “Chicago 10" is as good as it gets. A soundtrack with Eminem rapping his fantasy of an anti-Bush insurrection is, I suppose, one way to make history come alive. Likewise with turning the courtroom antics of the revolutionaries look like something out of a video game. But the mash-up between archival footage and music-video aesthetics has the effect of stripping the events out of any sort of historical context. In making their work as up-to-date as possible in style and overtone, the movie makers seem never to have asked whether they might also be doing a disservice to the past.
All the fast cuts and visual tricks here might be justified by reference to the presumed demands of Today’s Youth, with their supersaturated yet shrinking attention spans. But if kids born in the 1990s really are the intended audience, why give that quick shot of the sign reading “Welcome to Prague” without any explanation for it? (My apologies, of course, if it turns out that Today’s Youth are completely up to speed on postwar Eastern European history.)
How is it that the film never mentions that student protests in France a few months earlier led to a general strike that almost brought down the government there? The “May events” in Paris were still on many people’s minds as the summer wound down; they help to make sense of what might otherwise look like plain craziness, at times, in the streets of Chicago. But no hint of the outside world ever breaks into any frame of the film. It revisits the past in an almost isolationist, if not solipsistic way -- quite as Tom Brokaw did in a recent TV program that treated the year 1968 as if it had unfolded almost entirely within the United States. (The convulsions in Paris, Prague, and Peking that year were dispatched in about two minutes.)
In the case of "Chicago 10," the perspective is shallow as well as narrow. Events are not simply yanked out of the past and detached from their contemporary global significance.They are shown without concern for long-term causes or effects. Incidents and images are presented without any reference at all to a larger narrative in which they might have some meaning. No effort is made to discuss the effects of the Chicago protests and the conspiracy trial in American politics. And that really takes some doing.
When we talk about the “culture war” now, the expression is usually just a very tired metaphor. But what happened outside the Democratic convention was an early battle in it, and a very literal one.
The turmoil gave many people a sense that the whole country was hurtling towards a much greater showdown. That prospect has dimmed for the protesters who marched in the streets, then, but it never really did for the “silent majority,” as the winner of the presidential campaign later that year put it.
In his bookChicago ‘68 -- first published 20 years ago by the University of Chicago Press, which is now reissuing it -- David Farber, now a professor of history at Temple University, quotes a position paper that Richard Nixon wrote as a candidate: “The first right of every American, to be free from domestic violence, has become the forgotten civil right of the American people.”
Obviously Nixon did not mean freedom from having your head massaged by a policeman’s billy club. The Republican candidate’s complaint was that the government was abdicating its responsibility to protect the individual’s right to be left in peace. “Instead,” writes Farber in his paraphrase of Nixon’s argument, “that state has pledged itself to a policy of inclusion, a policy that insists that the state has the right to intrude in local affairs and order private citizens to accept the rights of other citizens -- the blacks, the Latinos, the poor, the protestors -- to intrude on their privacy. Such a policy, Nixon is implying, naturally leads to a situation in which certain citizens would intrude violently into other people’s lives, marching and sitting in an taking over streets and even burning and destroying private property.”
The upheaval in Chicago consolidated that feeling. But it also added something else -- an element still lingering in the mix of resentments that fuels so much of American political culture. “Chicago 10" exists because there were so many TV cameras in the streets. And it’s clear that the police gave members of the press extra special attention -- beating them with the gusto they would otherwise have reserved for, say, student radicals carrying the Vietcong flag. Sympathy for the police and contempt for the news media were, for the “silent majority,” two sides of a common rage.
“Both stem from a mistrust of disembodied authority,” writes Farber. “Both feelings come from a suspicion that some outside, elite power has taken control of what should be commonsensical and local.”
A better movie would have found some way to portray that suspicion, and to address how much of it is still in the air, four decades later -- a legacy that has outlasted any dream in the streets that year.
During the last few years, my interests as a writing teacher and American Studies scholar have turned to the relationship between rhetoric and democratic practices and, in particular, to how I might use deliberative democracy techniques -- problem-solving strategies based on public consensus building rather than debate, partisanship, and polarization -- for teaching writing and critical thinking. These disciplinary and pedagogical interests came bundled with closely related concerns about how to better involve my students in the life of the university and in the civic affairs of Michigan State University’s neighbor, the local state capitol. I wanted to find ways, in short, for students to develop their public voices. Deeper down, I was also looking to renew my energies as a teacher and ratchet up the relevance of the humanities classroom by trying to connect the usual and venerable fare of the humanities-- principles, ideas, and critical reflection -- to the crucible of lived community problems where ordinary citizens conduct the extraordinary work of democratic citizenship.
Little did I realize that this interest in deliberation as a teaching resource would completely alter my experience of the classroom and profoundly disrupt my role and self-image as a teacher/scholar.
I began with modest experiments connecting the rhetorical and critical thinking requirements of Michigan State's general education writing course to deliberative problem solving techniques. My students, or example, studied the rhetorical processes of deliberation, examined the history of deliberative practice, and tried out deliberative arguments based on local civic and campus issues. We also conducted in-class forums based on the particular methodology of public deliberation and grass-roots problem solving practiced in hundreds of National Issues Forums taking place across the country. National Issues Forums are structured public forums about often-contested social issues that have national impact and local resonance -- for example, immigration reform and alcohol use and abuse. Perspectives on a given topic and a rhetorical framework for deliberation are laid out in issue booklets prepared by Public Agenda and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Each book presents three (sometimes four) perspectives on resolving an issue.
These early and partial efforts in my classes gave way to more sustained experiments when my colleague Eric Fretz and I designed a pair of closely related experimental writing courses in the general education sequence that would provide students with opportunities to study techniques of deliberation and to practice both public dialogue and public problem solving throughout the entire semester. These two courses were not team taught in the traditional sense. Eric was scheduled to teach a writing section with a focus on "Race and Ethnicity," and I was assigned a "Public Life in America" class with a special emphasis on education and youth issues. We each designed our own syllabus, although there was a good deal of overlapping of required texts, learning strategies, and writing assignments.
Our classes incorporated three active learning components -- a fairly traditional service experience for our students, a collaboration of both classes on a public forum on youth violence, and student-moderated deliberative study circles in class -- that we designed to link the academic issues of the separate courses, foster a strong learning community between our classes and among our students, and practice democratic skills of deliberation, collaboration, and participation. The experience of moderating a small study circle would give even the most reticent of our students the chance to practice habits of deliberation such as critical listening, asking leading questions, generating and sustaining discussion, staying neutral, and leading a group toward consensus.
Eric and I also tried to weave a deliberative pedagogy into just about every facet of the classes. Students practiced public dialogue and public problem solving at the very beginning of the semester by conducting in-class forums on topics that resonated, sometimes in discordant ways, in the public arena in our state and our university at the time, including the future of affirmative action and the quality of public education. In an effort to find out how far I could push deliberative practices into the life of the classroom, my students even framed and deliberated a class attendance policy.
Next, students gained important insights into public problems related to youth issues through question and answer sessions with invited guests (including a judge and a local police officer) and by working and learning in community settings with a number of community partners, including several Neighborhood Network Centers located in Lansing.
Our students then collaborated in small teams to research, organize, and host the public forum on “Violent Kids: Can We Change the Trend?” Students designed and drafted a discussion guide for forum participants along with worksheets and instructions for moderator assistants. They self-selected into committees that worked on timetables and deadlines for various stages of forum organization, communications, publicity, and background research on such things as children’s television, media violence, and effects of video games. After the forum, one of the work groups assembled and organized all of the forum work from each project team into a comprehensive portfolio. Eric and I drafted and circulated to all of our students an extensive portfolio assessment and evaluation memo that critically addressed the contribution of each work group -- all of which led to a deliberation we had not anticipated.
Our students were generally ruffled by our C+ evaluation of the portfolio, primarily because the grade was assigned to each student and counted for a portion of everyone's final grade. We took advantage of our students' dissatisfaction and invited them to put together a small deliberative forum to take a closer look at the evaluation memo and to present point-by-point arguments in favor of a higher grade. A small student work group agreed to frame the issue and prepare three choices for deliberation. Another work group took responsibility for moderating the joint-class forum, another for “post-forum reflections,” etc.
Here is the discussion guide they prepared:
Choice 1: The NIF Forum collaborative grade of C+ is fair and equitable. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper’s evaluation memo is thorough, well argued, and reasonable. While some students may nit-pick with details, overall the judgment is sound and the conclusions are justified. All the students in [each class] clearly knew well in advance that the forum work would be evaluated with a common grade. Sure, some students may have worked harder than others. But to insure the integrity and honesty of the forum project as an exercise in democracy and public life, students must be willing to accept the common grade.
Choice 2: Working groups that excelled deserve a better grade than C+. On the other hand, the evaluation memo suggests that other working groups may deserve less than a C+. The working groups should be evaluated on a group-by-group basis. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper should grade each group according to the arguments made in the separate committee sections of the evaluation memo. This grading procedure is ideal because it takes into consideration both collaborative work and individual effort. It is also more fair. The downside: all the work groups knew from the outset that the portfolio would be graded collaboratively. Is it OK to change that policy after the fact?
Choice 3: The common grade for the NIF forum work should be higher. The evaluation memo grade is simply too low. Granted, the points are well argued. No one claims Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper are being overly unfair. However, the forum was hard work for all students. It took up almost a third of the course work. It was a successful public deliberation. The portfolio, measured by even the toughest standards, was an excellent piece of work. No one disputes these points. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper need to raise the grade, and the class will accept without question the higher common grade.
We were generally pleased that our students had gained enough understanding, experience, and confidence in democratic deliberation to bring it to bear on a controversy and a complaint that hit closer to home. By registering their objections in a democratic fashion and by seeing their objections taken seriously, our students navigated one of the most critical thresholds of democratic life: "We have a problem; we need to talk about it." Eric and I were convincingly swayed by Choice 3, and we raised the common grade to a B.
Our students’ turnabout confronted us with turnabouts of our own brought on by new roles and practices that deliberation introduced into the classroom.
Eric and I discovered that learning strategies that promote public work through deliberative pedagogy offer teachers rewards and fresh perspectives as well as posing difficult challenges. No longer the "sage on the stage," teachers become facilitators, "guides on the side," and, in many ways, co-learners with students -- and co-workers, too. We no longer directed from the sidelines or articulated abstractions behind a podium. We found ourselves doing work right alongside our students.
As our roles shifted, we had to give up some expectations about what should happen in a college classroom. In the process, we found new ways of thinking about those questions that all of us in higher education ponder: Where does the learning take place? How can I steepen the learning curve? What do I want my students to take away with them? Through practicing democracy in the classroom, we are able to answer these questions in different and more interesting ways than we could have in a more traditional classroom setting. Students learned disciplinary knowledge (in this case, writing rhetorical arguments, thinking critically, connecting written argument to concrete public problem solving) through experience and practice. In addition, they began to experiment with ways of operating and effecting change in the public sphere of the classroom itself.
For our part, we learned that the role of professor is both bigger and smaller than the ones articulated by traditions and expectations of our academic disciplines. Our most challenging and prosaic role, for example, was that of project manager. We helped our students anticipate snags, identify community and university resources, solve problems, develop networking skills, and lay out efficient workflows -- skills we felt were basic to the toolkit of citizenship. We also fetched envelopes and department letterhead, provided campus contacts to facilitate logistics for the forum, arranged for the use of printers, fax machines, office phones and computers.
For me, a striking and lasting consequence of adopting and adapting to a deliberative pedagogy was that I no longer considered myself a "teacher" in the conventional sense in which my colleagues understood, practiced, and peer-reviewed the role. Rather, I became an architect of my students’ learning experiences or maybe a midwife of their practices to become better writers and more-active citizens -- or, perhaps more to the point, I became something like a forum moderator. In a public forum, successful deliberation is often inversely related to the visibility and presence -- indeed, the knowledge and issue expertise -- of the moderator. The same applies to a teacher in a deliberative classroom: You spend a great deal of creative intellectual energy listening to students and learning to get out of their way so that they can take ownership of the subject, in the same way that forum participants must "own" an issue.
That fundamental role shift totally changed my experience of the writing classroom, from mundane matters like the physical arrangement of desks and the venues where learning takes place to epistemological underpinnings, ethical practices and boundaries, not to mention problematic relationships with more traditionally-minded colleagues who felt that I was cutting my students too much slack. In the annual department review, one of my colleagues criticized me, for example, for comments repeated on several narrative evaluations from students that "it was like the students were teaching the class." In the future, obviously, I need to do a better job of articulating a philosophy of deliberative pedagogy so my colleagues can translate statements like that as observations of practice and not criticisms of my teaching style.
The deliberative pedagogy that we employed demands a great deal of preparation and planning, but at the same time requires spontaneity and flexibility -- and a certain degree of uncertainty. Our students’ learning experiences encompassed complex and interlocking community groups, constituencies, organizations, and several offices and units at my university. Grounded in multiple learning partnerships, action research, and real world contexts, learning became a dynamic social process -- emergent, messy, edgy, relational, sometimes inconclusive, occasionally (not often) painful and confused, frequently full of entanglements, and always, I hope, challenging. I found myself constantly pushing the class to a point of agitation, churn, and controlled chaos because that was where the real learning took place -- at that threshold where students became present in, and took ownership of, their own learning experience.
David D. Cooper
David D. Cooper is professor of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University. He is director of the College of Arts and Letters’ Public Humanities Collaborative and university senior outreach and engagement fellow. Cooper explores deliberative democracy and pedagogy in more detail in a chapter in Deliberation and the Work of Higher Education, forthcoming from the Charles Kettering Foundation.
Among the most striking phenomena associated with Barack Obama’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination has been his ability to attract young people to the political process. Youthful volunteers have staffed his campaign. They have used Internet skills to advance his candidacy and build his organization. They have even been among the thousands of small donors who have contributed to his record-breaking fund-raising efforts. In state after state, their support for Obama during the primaries significantly exceeded his margins among voters from other age groups.
The success of the Obama campaign refutes the oft-repeated notion that young people today are uninterested in national politics and are less ready than older generations of Americans to become responsible stewards of our democratic institutions. This resurgence of youthful activism delivers an important message for our colleges and universities.
The disengagement of young people from our country’s political processes after the 1960s has been well documented. Many studies have shown that during the last three decades of the 20th century, young Americans demonstrated less interest in public affairs than had previous generations, and also were less well informed about political and public policy matters, and less likely to vote.
The withdrawal of young people from active interest in public affairs paralleled reduced attention to citizenship by our colleges and universities. While higher education has long claimed as a core mission preparing students for democratic participation, it is a mission honored in recent years mainly in the rhetoric of college catalogs. Few campuses today provide organized or explicit programming with this focus, either inside or outside the curriculum. Most of our academic institutions address this matter only indirectly, by fostering the intellectual skills and qualities -- critical thinking, habits of reading and information gathering, broad interest in the social world -- that studies have shown relate to heightened levels of political participation.
It was not always this way. In the years after World War II, when patriotic sentiment was strong, academics paid extensive attention to the ways in which the undergraduate curriculum could promote appreciation of the ideas, values and experiences that constituted the shared cultural heritage of the country, a movement symbolized by Harvard’s famous report, "General Education in a Free Society." Many institutions established requirements in American history and Western political and social thought. A new emphasis on international studies reflected the country’s emergence as a global power. Outside the curriculum, there was a heightened focus on the ways in which student government could be a vehicle for teaching undergraduates the ways of democratic decision making.
During the 1960s, however, attention to active citizenship fell victim to the anti-governmental impulses inspired by the war in Vietnam. By the end of that decade, academe was far more concerned with promoting the kind of intellectual independence associated with dissent than with helping students understand the workings of democracy. In curricular terms, not much has changed since the 1960s. Indeed, the emphases of recent years on multiculturalism and world history have rendered special attention to a shared American culture or to American history passé or even objectionable from the perspective of many academics.
It would be unfair to blame academe entirely for the disengagement of young people from our political life. Many factors have been involved, not least the many unappealing qualities of contemporary political practice. But higher education, by abandoning attention to preparation for citizenship, has been an enabler of this pattern. In recent years, however, a growing number of educators have expressed concern about our continuing inattention to this matter. Individuals such as Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and academic organizations including the Association of American Colleges and Universities have argued that we need to revitalize our traditional concern for citizenship education. Organizations such as Campus Compact and indeed the whole service learning movement are promoting civic engagement among college students, although these efforts are typically focused on community service rather than electoral politics.
The students who have responded so enthusiastically to Senator Obama’s campaign are making it clear that they are ready for renewed attention to our democratic institutions by our colleges and universities. It is inevitable, whatever the final outcome of the election, that the heightened interest in politics shown by young people will translate into a heightened receptivity to programming by colleges and universities focused on these matters. Higher education should seize this opportunity.
Not everyone will welcome renewed efforts by colleges and universities to promote political participation. Some, mainly outside academe, worry that higher education’s tendency toward liberal politics is already turning many college classes into indoctrination sessions; those who harbor such worries will not readily trust our campuses to avoid partisanship. Others, mainly inside academe, worry that an explicit focus on strengthening democracy will quickly devolve into nationalistic boosterism.
But recent work by thoughtful academics, most notably through the Political Engagement Project, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have shown that collegiate programs focused on active citizenship can heighten political awareness and foster greater understanding and participation without greatly affecting the political inclinations of participating students or abandoning an appropriately critical perspective on our country’s policies. Boks’s study outlines a number of ways -- through required course work, extra curricular activities, sponsored events and speakers, and presidential leadership -- that colleges and universities can responsibly promote thoughtful political participation.
Individual institutions should craft their own responses to this moment of opportunity. Institutional characteristics such as scale, complexity, mission, location and educational philosophy will suggest the most fruitful approach to citizenship education in particular contexts. The first requirement of progress, therefore, must be engagement of the campus community -- faculty and staff -- in thinking about how citizenship education can most effectively be pursued. But local approaches will need to address some shared objectives.
The first of these is understanding. It is hard to imagine how an institution can claim to prepare its students for active citizenship if they are allowed to graduate with no knowledge of American history or of our political and economic institutions. The widespread absence of requirements in these areas is an embarrassment to higher education. A second challenge is motivation. Campus plans should seek ways to foster an abiding sense of the value and importance of civic engagement. In this area we have much to build on, given the inspiring surge in social activism among many young people. A final challenge is skill. We need to help students develop the capacity to use the vehicles available to citizens to influence the political process effectively. And we need to think about how to use the entire institution -- both the curriculum and the extra-curriculum -- to meet these challenges.
These will not be easy discussions. They will compel us to think about things we have found difficult, such as requiring students to study certain subjects and treating extra curricular life in a systemic way as part of the educational process. But if we can’t find ways to address these issues, we should perhaps abandon the pretense that our mission includes the preparation of citizens. I hope we will not do that. The country needs us to respond differently. It is time for academia to reassert our historic role in preserving and strengthening our democracy by helping our students appreciate what it is about and how it works. The young people turning out in droves to vote in the 2008 primaries are calling us to pay attention to this issue.
Richard M. Freeland
Richard Freeland is the Jane and William Mosakowski Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Clark University and president emeritus of Northeastern University.