Friday, January 31, 2014

Secret Diary of a Gentrifier

I think a lot about gentrification.

As Wikipedia describes it:
Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values,[1] sometimes to the detriment[citation needed] of the poorer residents of the community.

I went with a Wikipedia definition on this one because there's something intriguing about that little [citation needed] superscripted to the idea that gentrification hurts poor people.

Gentrification is a complex, and often controversial, issue.

Not so hot that the Wikipedia article is locked to prevent abuse or dramatization, but controversial enough that [citation needed] reads to me like a snarky, "Yeah? Prove it, buddy."

Today, a community voices article from my hometown (holllla!) has been making it's way around the web. 20 ways to not be a gentrifier in Oakland is a positive article articulating the ways that "outsiders" can move to a community without becoming gentrifiers.

"...it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there," the article opens before delving into tips for how to really appreciate a community for what it is and to understand and appreciate your neighbors.

And all of that is great. Whether in Oakland or beyond, new people moving into a community should be thinking in terms of community assets. They should see the strength and spirit of a place and understand why the locals scrawl Oakland Pride with spray paint under the overpasses.

And while its great to have such a welcoming attitude, I'm not sure I agree that "it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier."

I was struck by that comment, particularly since this article is from Oakland.

I was born and raised in Oakland, CA. If I hadn't stolen away to go to school in Massachusetts, I'd be a fifth generation Oaklander. My mother still lives there. My grandparents had a bakery - over on High Street, if I'm getting my history right.

I love the city. I know its sights, sounds, and smells. I've seen its dark corners and its bright days. I've talked smack about San Francisco and dominated anyone who ever breathed a word putting us down.

If I lived in Oakland, I would be a local. With deep roots and authentic passion. If I lived in Oakland, I'd do everything on the "20 ways" list, and possibly a few more. If I lived in Oakland, no one could call me a newcomer. 

But if I lived in Oakland, I would be a gentrifier.

With my middle class and my East Coast airs.

I'd love the city and appreciate the city, and arguably I'd belong in the city. But I'd still add to rising rents and growing costs, eventually forcing my neighbors from their homes.

It's okay that I've grown the way I have. And I hope it's okay that I've found a new community to make my home. But the truth is I'm gentrifying Somerville just as I'd gentrify Oakland.

Living the American dream, perhaps, but at the cost of whom?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Skeptic's Notes on Deliberative Dialogue

Is equality in dialogue possible?

I had scribbled in the margins of an article on deliberative dialogue which I re-read this morning.

Apparently, I'd been feeling quite skeptical on first read since additional scrawls included:
How do you socialize people to be prepared for engagement? Listening to stupid opinions, being patient.

And perhaps worse:
Is there something elitist in saying "we know public deliberation is best for you?"

I don't always feel that skeptical. I am, in general, quite in favor of deliberation and would most certainly put it in my mental list of Good Things. And I love the romantic notion that if we were all just a little more open to each other's views, all a little more prepared to listen thoughtfully, and if we were all more frequently blessed with fabulous facilitation and intentional meeting design - then our deliberative democracy would be something quite awesome to behold.

But I've also been battle scarred by poorly facilitated meetings. I've seen too many opportunists sure to have their say, and too many disempowered members who don't think they have anything worth saying. I've seen meetings scheduled when "the people" can't make it, and meetings not offered in the language of a neighborhood.

Don't get me wrong, I've been to a lot of great meetings as well - I love meetings, to be honest. But I've seen enough to be, at times at least, deeply skeptical of the ideal - of the "romantic notion" as I called it above.

Today, if you'll allow, I'd like to explore that skeptism.

Is equality in dialogue possible?

In many ways, my skepticism comes down to that question. The classic example is the bombastic orator determined to make their point and dominate the meeting. This archetype can be troublesome, no doubt, but personally, this is not my top concern. I have confidence in a skilled facilitator's ability to manage that.

More troublesome to me is the language barrier. I've been to meetings run in English and interpreted in Spanish and meetings run in Spanish and interpreted in English. For someone who is not bilingual, I can say clearly that the experience is not the same.

Facilitation can help with this - making sure the interpretation is simultaneous and there are sufficient pauses for those in the non-dominant language to jump in. But even with great facilitation, language barriers are likely to damper someone's involvement. So at best, it seems like a matter of rotating a group's dominant language. The alternate solution of keeping groups monolingual is clearly fraught with other challenges.

Multilingual meetings also require a different sense of time planning then most of us are used to - the reality is that having successful multilingual meetings slows conversation down. But that's not necessarily a bad thing - in fact, I'd argue that most conversations would benefit from slowing down. So, language barriers are a challenge, but they too seem surmountable.

What worries me most is the baggage that participants come in with. Not only the meeting-dominator, who surely has something complex going on up there, but all the other participants, too.

The person who is tired from a long day or who is hungry from skipping lunch isn't going to be able to participate fully. The person who's loved one is in the hospital or who has a major deadline the next day isn't going to be able to participate fully.

And the person who's grown accustomed to being silent - who's confident they have nothing to say, and that their presence is of little to no value - won't be able to participate fully either.

And, this of course, is assuming those people show up in the first place.

A facilitator can help with some of this - making sure everyone has a chance to speak, engaging everyone in the conversation. But at the end of the day, it's often not enough. The baggage you bring in with you is the biggest obstacle to your full participation and nobody else can change that for you.

So I worry about those folks, and sometimes I get skeptical.

But I'm not always skeptical. Today, for example, under my earlier note of:
Is equality in dialogue possible?

I added, after a moment's pause:
Does it matter if it's not?

Perhaps it's just the worst form of government...except for all the others.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Area man cares, nobody listens

Perhaps because I've been thinking so much about the intersections of individuality, dialogue, and democracy this week, I was struck this morning by the Onion headline: Dad Delivers State Of The Union Rebuttal Directly Into Television Screen. As the article says:

Reiterating numerous themes from last year’s rebuttal while offering several searing critiques of tonight’s speech, area dad Bill Shaw delivered his official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address tonight directly into the television screen...squaring his body toward the front of the family room and looking directly into the television set as he delivered his impassioned thoughts on the issues of immigration, health care, the middle class, China, that holier-than-thou look Obama always has on his face, and the Toyota Prius. 

Satire though this may be, I was struck by the simultaneous passion and disconnection the Onion effortlessly captures in this piece.

Conventional wisdom indicates that most Americans these days are apolitical. That they're too wrapped up in their personal lives, too disillusioned, or - less charitably - too stupid to pay attention or care about politics.

But that's not really true. Well, too disillusioned, maybe, but I'd argue most people care nonetheless.

I can so clearly imagine this man - perhaps it is me - watching the State of the Union, talking to his TV screen, and then...doing nothing.

If talk is cheap, then talk without an audience is definitely worth little.

I can't help but wonder if this fictional "area man" shared shared his SOTU rebuttal with anyone else. Did he talk about it with his coworkers the next day? Discuss the issues with strangers at the bus stop? Raise his voice at a public meeting?

Probably not.

He may care passionately, but he only shares that passion in the privacy of his own home. Impassioned thoughts to an empty box.

If this sense of isolated enthusiasm is a phenomena broader than a fake man in a fake paper, it points to a bigger issue - a different issue - than simple disengagement.

As a society, we lack genuine public spaces to voice these personal rebuttals, to raise our questions and concerns, to challenge those in power, to ask hard questions and find collective solutions.

We have some forums, of course - brick and mortar, and digital - but those forums aren't open to everybody.

Perhaps more importantly, not everyone is taught that they belong in those forums. Not everyone is taught that they should have a voice in public affairs. Not everyone is taught that their rebuttal should be heard beyond the hollow confines of their living room.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The citizen and the people

What is at the center of democracy?

Wikipedia - a reasonable proxy for popular opinion - describes democracy as "a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally."

From that, I would say, the center of democracy is the citizen.

This seems reasonable. I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about what makes good citizens, how to support better citizens, or how to be a good citizen myself.

Disrobing the word "citizen" of its political baggage makes this model even more appealing. "Citizen" does not need to indicate legal status, but simply describes a person who belongs - literally, emotionally, or what have you - to a community.

So having "the citizen" at the center of society sounds like a promising way of having government of the people, by the people, for the people.

But wait. We just went from "the citizen" to the "the people." Are those the same? Different? Does it matter?

Perhaps.

In her book "Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life," sociologist Nina Eliasoph reflects on her days as a door-to-door survey interviewer, unable to interact with her subjects, required only to "repeat the questions exactly as written in the question booklet until the respondent succumbed to the interview format."

This arguably "citizen-centered" approach is missing "the people." As Eliasoph elaborates:

Democracy, for this approach, rest on beliefs and values; add up all the private opinions to get one big "public" opinion; if all individuals carry inside themselves democratic psychological dispositions, like little ships in a bottle, then (presuming citizens have rights like freedom of speech and assembly) we will have democracy.

The approach is individualistic. Resting on each person to have an individual opinion that can neatly be summed and totaled to reflect the whole. But that misses the ideal democracy is - or should be - going for.

"Public life happens between people, in relationships," says Eliasoph.

Focusing too much on the individual overshadows those relationships. The value of public dialogue, of real debate and idea exchange, gets lost. Public conversations become about me trying to win for my view and you trying to win for yours - or perhaps worse, both of us refusing to open our mouths for fear of raising conflict.

Focusing on the relationships is more of a community organizing model. The individuals are still deeply important, but it's relationships which allow people to work together, allow people to understand each other, and ultimately allow them to develop solutions together. Of the people, for the people, and by the people.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Social Bond Individualism


Today, I tell a story.

Our hero is one John Randolph of Roanoke, renown statesmen of the early 1800s. Born into a prominent Virginian family, Randolph contracted Tuberculosis at young age and spent much of his life in pain.

At the age of 26, Randolph was elected to the Sixth US Congress, where he remained in office for many years. A thoughtful orator, Randolph was also known as a "hotspur" - having fought duels with Henry Clay and others.

I tell his story today having read Richard M. Weaver's article, "Two Types of American Individualism: The separate ways of John Randolph and Henry Thoreau."

As Weaver describes, Randolph was "a defender of the dignity and autonomy of the smaller unit, he was constantly fighting the battle for local rights. But it was the essence of his position that the battle must be fought within the community and not through means that would in effect deny all political organization."

Indeed, Randolph was a staunch defender of "the little guy," looking out for those disenfranchised or oppressed by power. 

He was a proponent of what Weaver calls "social bond individualism," which "battles unremittingly for individual rights while recognizing that these have to be secured within the social context."

At the center of this position is the dual belief that matters must be dealt with by those directly affected and that people have a responsibility to their fellow man. Individualism within the social context.

His support of individual freedom and protection of the minority lead him to oppose slavery. In his 1819 will, Randolph wrote:

I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscious tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me that the circumstances under which I inherited them and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my emancipating them in my lifetime, which it is my full intention to do, in case I can accomplish it.

As his will was later hotly contested in court, I'll take him at his word that he would have freed his slaves before his death if he had been able.

But there is a problem with this outlook. "Individualism in the social context" sounds compelling and positive. Protect individual rights, protect the minority, but do so while minding the health of the whole.

While this problem isn't unique to Randolph, it appears in his story in the form of the Missouri Question: should Missouri be brought into the union as a slave state?

Debating the point in three and four hour speeches, Randolph argued that "Missouri had a right to be admitted as a slave state, and Congress did not have a right to pass on the constitutionality of its constitution."

The voters of Missouri wanted to be a slave state. Therefore they had a right to be a slave state. Randolph wanted to free his slaves, and therefore he should have the right to free his slaves.

His conscious tells him his slaves are justly entitled to freedom, but what does his conscious tell him of the rights of slaves in Missouri?

This anti-slavery, pro-slaver view is certainly not unique to Randolph, but it raises important questions.

Weaver says Randolph is not inconsistent in these two actions, because his authenticity comes from his belief that "government, to be safe and free, must consist of representatives having common interest and a common feeling with the represented."





That's perhaps a more depressing resolution than saying Randolph was simply blind to his own inconsistency.


For now we see more fully - in Randolph's world, democracy and diversity cannot coexist satisfactorily.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Optimist and the Pessimist


I saw this written on a bathroom wall today:

Life can get better! 
Suck
Then              :-)
you
Die

I was struck by the art of these two statements, literally orthogonal to each other.

I wondered which came first.

Did it start with the "pessimistic" message, followed by the encouraging "...can get better!" or did it happen the other way around?

I wonder which person drew the smiley face.

I put pessimistic in quotations above because I imagine that's how most people would classify a comment like, "Life suck[s] then you die." But I'm not sure I would.

Perhaps because I'm a contrarian and the general conflagration of "optimism" with "good" and "pessimism" with "bad" just makes me root for the pessimists.

But part of what moves me about this wall art is that while the sentiments seems contradictory...they really don't have to be.

I'll take as a given that whatever the state of life, it is true that "then you die." So for simplicity, the statements simply read: "Life can get better; life sucks."

Those don't seem mutually exclusive at all. In fact, both statements hold truth. And to see them together seems meaningful.

I've never been comfortable with the division of people into optimists and pessimists.As if everyone at all times should be either an energetic Tiger bouncing off the walls and never feeling sad, or a dull, depressed Eore moping through the hallways and never feeling anything.

But most of us are both of those things; reveling in some times and languishing in others.

They say the best thing about being happy is that you think you'll never be unhappy again. And the converse is true as well: the worst thing about being unhappy is that you think you'll never be happy again.

So we envision these stark divisions. The optimist and the pessimist. The happy and the sad. The light and the dark. Two states that can never mix.

I like to imagine that the same person wrote both comments. Life sucks, life can get better. Life can get better, life sucks.

Then one day, they added the smiley face, when at last they came to peace with a feeling that both states were true.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The scandalous case of the cornerback who said too much

It seems like everywhere I turn, I see people responding to the now infamous "Richard Sherman outburst."

I first caught this story on the morning news. I honestly wasn't paying much attention since celebrity gossip is not quite my thing, but I got the distinct impression that something scandalous had happened. The cornerback for the Seahawks, apparently, said something with perhaps more enthusiasm than was seemly.

Since the Pats were out of the superbowl (what a terrible game!), it seemed hardly worth my while.

Then I started to see the Facebook posts. In my feed, at least, a lot of folks were rushing to defend Sherman from the apparent attacks against him.

But I still didn't really know what was going on. I asked someone else what the hubbub was about. They* didn't really know either.

"Something, something, something, unsportsmanlike, something," they said (or perhaps I heard). "Yeah, I think it's basically that he was unsportsmanlike."

Well, at least that added some clarity. People tend to freak out over unsportsmanlike comments. Remember the blow back on Rickey Henderson after he declared that, "Today, I'm the greatest of all time" ?

He got into some mighty hot water over that. Though, frankly, I still think it was kinda funny. I mean, seriously, the man had just stolen his 939th base. That day, he was the greatest of all time.

It may not have been my style to announce it to the world, but...having never stolen a single base, I'm not in the best position to reflect on this. And, if you're wondering, the language "greatest of all time" was intended to be an allusion to the inimitable Muhammad Ali.

So, I don't really care if someone says something unsportsmanlike. I get that some people care - some thinking its okay and others finding it poor role modeling - but I don't really care. It's just not my thing.

But this story really caught my attention when yesterday Sherman commented that his biggest concern is that folks are "using the word 'thug' as a substitute for the n-word."

Okay, well, now I'm concerned about that, too.

I started trying to figure out what actually happened. After the game, Sherman went over to 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree and said something. Crabtree hit Sherman in the face. Sherman did a TV interview and Sherman exuberantly told FOX correspondent Erin Andrews "Well, I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me!"

In response, as CNN reports: The bile flowed almost immediately -- tweets calling him a gorilla, an ape or a thug from the ghetto. "Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the (expletive) head. Disrespectful (N-word)," said one, expressing a common refrain.

So, folks may indeed be using "thug" as a substitute for the n-word, but, from the quote above, people seem pretty open to using that word too.

I'm unclear on why no one's talking about Crabtree hitting Sherman. From what I recall, that's not how we're supposed to deal with our emotions. But, irregardless, it seems clear that there is a definitive racial component to this backlash.

I'm sure there are people who would be offended by unsportmanlike conduct regardless of race, but my impression is that those are not the voices giving this story its edge.

So, let's talk about that.

Let's not debate, in this conversation, whether sports players need to be good role models. Let's put aside for a moment the discussion of unsportsmanlike conduct. Let's not make this a story about Richard Sherman or Michael Crabtree. Of who said what to whom or who was at fault.

Let's talk about the fact that a not insignificant portion of Americans are appalled, upset, or disgusted to see a large black man showing, perhaps, a little too much exuberance.

I mean, really, let's talk about that.


*While "they" is not appropriate here grammatically, I continue to use it as a gender-neutral term no matter how many times in my life I've been marked down or corrected. So there.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Power of Tension

The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions of  the word tension, but many are along the lines of "a straining, or strained condition, of the mind, feelings, or nerves."

That doesn't sound too good.

Indeed, the word tension seems to conjure images that are arguably negative. "You could cut the tension with a knife," or "My shoulders hurt from all the tension."

Tension, it would seem, is a generally unfavorable condition.

Or is it?

A bow capitalizes on tension to project an arrow great distances. Bridges rely upon a careful balance between compression and tension. Tension can be found in mechanical devices and in all manner of every day objects.

Perhaps this difference in attitude arises simply from difference in usage. The "tension in a room" certainly seems quite different from tension in the physics sense.

But I'm intrigued by the connection in these seeming disparate settings. A word may just be a word, but if nothing else, it's interesting that our language would evolve to use the same word - from, incidentally, the Latin "to stretch".

In strength training, tension is critical. To lift especially heavy weights, tension is arguably more important than sheer strength. It's not enough to just muscle it up there, you need tension, you need to feel it in your entire body and use every muscle to make it happen.

Tension is the baited breath before the long sigh.

It's a moment of power, of strength. It's a feeling that difficult and uncomfortable, but tap into that tension correctly and its as if there's nothing you can't do.




Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Feigned Public Sphere

In theory, there's this great "public sphere" where everyone can come together as equals and openly discuss ideas and opinions, collectively coming to a mutual understanding of what is right and good.

The problem with that sentence is its reliance on the first two words: in theory.

Unfortunately, actualization of that public sphere is far from the reality of most people's every day life. There are numerous reasons and explanations for this, but there is one I find particularly intriguing.

As J├╝rgen Habermas writes in The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article:

"Large organizations strive for political compromises with the state and with each other, excluding the public sphere whenever possible. But at the same time the large organizations must assure themselves of at least plebiscitary support from the mass of the population through an apparent display of openness."

So, Habermas says, the reality shakes out that the people in power make back room deals while engaging the public only insofar as is necessary to avoid losing their power.

Here's my question: It is better to have no public sphere - totalitarian regimes and institutions which actively reject public input - or to have a courtesy public sphere - regimes and institutions which only make empty gestures towards public engagement?

The question itself is a false one - I see no reason why these two options need to exist alone and in simple opposition to each other. But I find the question compelling nonetheless. Like the game of asking, would you rather be loved and forgotten or hated and remembered?

So, if you'll play this game with me, which is worse?

I'm no fan of totalitarian regimes. At first glance, it seems hard to imagine suggesting something worse than that. In many ways, having no public sphere seems like obviously the worse state.

Yet I can't shake the feeling that there's something terribly insidious about a feigned public sphere. It's the kind of system seen in the disutopian worlds of 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

The governments in those books speak passionately in support of peace, equality, sunshine and rainbows. But to the observant few and to us outside readers, their actions reveal their darker intentions.The truth is, these fictional governments are totalitarian regimes.

The thing is - their citizens don't know it.

And perhaps that how it is with most totalitarian regimes - the majority accept the rhetoric, while a troubled few find themselves imprisoned or worse, for daring to raise an eyebrow in question.

So which is worse?

Maybe there's not much difference.




Friday, January 17, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Journalist


Breaking STOP
Suspect in custody STOP
Trial of the century STOP

In every hand, pocket, and street corner, digital devices flashed minute by minute updates.

The whole city held its breath.

People wanted to celebrate. To shout with anger, joy, or relief. The long darkness was over at last. The fear, the uncertainty, the grief were starting to dissipate.

But most people knew not to celebrate too soon. They had a suspect, that was all. She was innocent until proven guilty. They didn't have all the facts and they shouldn't jump to conclusions. It was too soon to respond. Their hearts beat faster, their minds raced to imagine what was next. But facing the exhilarating rush of emotion, most were able to with hold their judgements. It was too soon to respond.

Nadim stared at his computer screen, furiously typing updates in one window while shooting off messages in the next.

At almost the same moment he'd broken the story he'd started petitioning his editor. He'd never had the chance to serve on a trial news delegation, and he wasn't going to miss this opportunity.

This was his story, he told himself as he crouched over his computer in the police department lobby.

He didn't care how long the trial would last, how long he would spend sequestered away with the other members of the media delegation. This was an opportunity to see history unfold.

And it was a tremendous responsibility. He'd have to get to know every detail of the case. To live side by side with the jury, to see what they saw, experience what they experienced.

He'd keep detailed notes and file articles that would be posted nowhere.

And then, when the trial was over, he'd have to make sense of it all. The media blackout the covered the case would be lifted and he would have to report, fully and genuinely, what happened, how it happened, and importantly, why it happened.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Yes & No

When I was in middle school - I remember this quite clearly - we were debating an issue of some importance in class.

The teacher called on me to weigh in. After a pause, I responded "Hmm, I'm not sure. I can see both sides of the issue."

That, apparently, was not an acceptable answer.

The teacher called me wishy-washy. Said I had to make up my mind.As if understanding multiple positions wasn't a position itself.

So I tend to notice when people apologize for simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing. It's a pretty common phenomenon.

Not just the simultaneous agreeing and disagreeing, but specifically apologizing for it. I guess I'm not the only one who received life lessons that this was less than desirable behavior.

Of course, I still do it anyway.

I'm not sure if the ideal is to become some overly-decisive executive who can make split second decisions and stand by them with firm faith.Or perhaps the idea is that for any issue one could easily measure the pros and cons and thereby come to some decisive analytical solution.Or perhaps it's a general discomfort with the existence of uncertainty. I'm not sure.

But whatever has given "agreeing and disagreeing" a bad reputation - there's not even a positive word for this that I can think of - I firmly agree that it's a perfectly fine thing to do. It may even be a good thing to do.

I wouldn't want to become so paralyzed so as to be unable to make decisions in my day-to-day life. But for big, tough, complex questions...the answer just isn't as simple as a toggle between A or B. It may not even be as simple as a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Contrasting believes and opinions can be opposing but equally true and valid. There isn't always a single side to fall down on.

So, stop apologizing for this. Don't call it a cop out, or wishy-washy, or waffling, or any of the other half dozen demeaning names you might think of.

Say it with pride - I agree AND disagree, because this is a complex issue and I won't conform myself to your narrow constructions.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The voice of the people is the voice of God

A central question of political philosophy is, "who is fit to govern?"

Is it those who are born into power or those who demonstrate the skills and knowledge needed to wield power appropriately? Proponents of democracy would say that all people have the right to collectively govern themselves. But as idealized democracy makes that seemingly inevitable transition into the more practical representative democracy, the question again arises. Who is fit to govern?

Elected officials are supposed to represent the will of the people, yet I'm not sure I know anyone wholly satisfied with the behavior of the mass of politicians. The current congressional approval rating is a whopping 13%, up from a recent 9% dip but below the historical average of 33%. Am I the only one who thinks it's a bad sign if the best approval Congress can get is only a third? President Obama, meanwhile, is enjoying a sunny approval rate of 40%.

So what is the problem? I could give you dozens of answers. The electorate is too polarized. The financial resources needed to mount a presidential or congressional campaign bar too many people from participation and give too much power to those with money. The media is too eager to cover scandal and too polarized itself to accurately report the news - leading many Americans to be misinformed on candidates views or the real facts of an issue. Not to mention that the "real facts" of an issue have become contested ground.

I could go on.

But what if there's a deeper problem? An issue so delicate small-d democrats can hardly acknowledge it. The shadow you catch out of the corner of your eye, when you know something is there but you can't bring yourself to look. What if there's a problem with the underlying assumptions of the system?

In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann commented on the founding theories of our country:


"[The founding fathers] were engaged, against the prejudice of ages, in the assertion of human dignity...But every analyst seems to degrade that dignity, to deny that all men are reasonable all the time, or educated, or informed, to note that people are often fooled, that they do not always know their own interests, and that all men are not equally fit to govern...Had democrats admitted there was truth in any of the aristocratic arguments they would have opened a breach in the defenses. And so just as Aristotle had to insist that a slave was a slave by nature, the democrats had to insist that the that the free man was a legislator and administrator by nature...The only way out was to assume without much discussion that the voice of the people was the voice of God."

Indeed, as Lippmann says, the stakes were too high, the ideals of human dignity too important, to let anything jeopardize their argument. I certainly would rather live an imperfect democracy than a "perfect" monarchy. Regardless of how one feels about the fitness of all people to govern, I agree with Lippmann that all people have "an inalienable right not to be used as the unwilling instrument of other men."

But does the ideal of the "omnicompetent citizen" satisfactorily describe the realities of every day life? As a journalist who had seen the effects of propaganda first hand, Lippmann answered that question with a resounding no. I would be inclined to agree - people are imperfect, and under no system will "the people" be perfect all of the time.


And not only is the omnicompetent citizen a myth, but perhaps more importantly, the omnicompetent leader is a myth as well.

Who is fit to govern?

No one.

So what would it look like to cede that point? To say that no one is a legislator by nature? To say simply that every person has a right to a voice in their affairs, but that every person is fallible? There is no ruling class that knows what's best, only a great number of possibly self-interested individuals who are all of limited capacities.

Perhaps, then, we'd have to find the time to talk to each other. To learn from each other. To accept our own weaknesses and grow from eachother's strengths.

Perhaps, then, ceding the imperfection of human nature would not be so catastrophic after all.

But then again...I could be wrong.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What is Civic Studies?

Yesterday, I wrote all about my adventures in New Orleans, but, perhaps more importantly, the reason I was there was for the 85th Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.

The meeting featured a one day "conference within a conference" devoted to the discussion of civic studies. As you may recall, I participated in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies this past summer, and, along with my colleague Peter Levine, I'll be co-teaching an undergraduate course on civic studies starting this Thursday.

So, I suppose, all this begs the question, what is civic studies?

Well, it's an emerging, interdisciplinary field. The "the intellectual component of civic renewal, the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens."

That's the canonical definition, but I'm not sure how satisfying you find it. Like that time I looked up "smelting" and the dictionary defined it as "to smelt." Great, thanks.

But defining things is complicated.

Once in college, someone asked me who I was and I stared at him for what felt like ten minutes before I finally figured out he was just asking for my name. And here I was having this existential moment thinking, but who am I?

As a general rule, I don't use the phrase "words cannot express" because words can never really express something. My job, and indeed my passion, is finding those words which best express an idea, concept or feeling. But ultimately, words are always imperfect - they have a thousand different meanings to a thousand different people. And it's not just the meaning of a word that matters, but its spirit, energy, and texture. Sharp words strike tough, while soft words whisper sweetly.

Ideas get pounded into words, and over time, those words become common enough that my deeply personal understanding is more or less the same as your deeply personal understanding. Then we can communicate. Or maybe our understandings are just a little bit different, and then we fight without hardly knowing why.

So given these complications, how can one hope to define a new field without lengthy lists and explanations? Carefully chronicling what it is and, perhaps, what it is not? I could share the syllabus of Summer Institute, and if you're familiar with those authors or their works, that might help.But otherwise, it's just a list of words with little meaning behind them.

So, really though, what is civic studies? I'll share more of a "dictionary definition" below, but here is my personal, rough, unfiltered, gut definition. Here is what civic studies evokes for me:

Civic studies is the exploration of how to improve a complex world. Every person should have a voice in shaping the world around them and, indeed, societies are better when they're shaped by the people within them.

Civic studies envisions societies where all perspective are valued. Where everyone learns from each other and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Societies where institutions encourage and sustain active participation and where education prepares individuals for that active participation.

Knowing that utopia is a long way off (and, perhaps, unobtainable) civic studies asks, what can we do to move towards it? Literally you and I. Not us, not them. You and I.

And the great thing about civic studies is that you and I may disagree on how to move towards it. You and I may even disagree on exactly what "it" is. We each bring different perspectives, different knowledge and experience. But we know our society can be better. And we know the road to getting there is complex.

By talking about the issues and exploring the options, by studying our opinions and understanding what works and what doesn't work, by thinking together about facts, values, and strategies we can slowly work towards our collective goal.

Civic studies is about understanding how to make the world better.

And, if you're looking for more, here's the description on the Tisch College website:
  1. Civic studies is the intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.
  2. The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. We do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. Nor does this formula invoke the word “democracy.” One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations to the globe. Not all of these venues are, or could be, democracies.
  3. Civic studies asks “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?), about strategies (what would work?), and about the institutions that we co-create. Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions–it cannot simply be about how other people ought to act.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Exploring the Crescent City

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in New Orleans.

As I've said, I think exploring places can be complicated. I try to notice every nook and cranny, to see where the city takes me, to experience a place genuinely while recognizing that my experience is mine alone - colored by my perceptions and hindered by my lack of knowledge.

Sometimes, I explore new places and sometimes I explore places I've lived for years.

But above all, when I explore, I aim to learn.

I learn from every sight and sound, from every touch, smell and taste. And, of course, I learn from every person that I meet.

I try to capture where I go in images. An imperfect system, no doubt, but it's what I've got to work with.

I capture images with a furtive glance, often hardly slowing down at all. The camera sees what I see.

And I rarely photograph people. I certainly can't do them justice, and it feels too intrusive when my style is all about capturing those forgotten, dusty corners.

So here are my pictures from New Orleans. This gallery leaves out a lot:

I met a woman who was a single mother. Twenty-four with a two year old. I told her I was in town for a civic studies conference - that I wanted to ensure everyone had a voice in improving the world around them. "I like that," she said in a charming southern drawl. "Everyone should have a voice."

I found a dumpster full of new shoes. A warehouse was clearing out its inventory and couldn't be bothered to donate the lot. Or perhaps they thought it wasn't worth while. I went dumpster diving with some folks from the department of public works. One found a pair of brand new children's shoes, wrapped up and perfect. He was excited to take them home to his daughter.

I saw a young woman, in town with her mother, who was just so amazed to be walking down Bourbon Street. I could just tell she'd be talking for years about the time she danced with a street performer, and wasn't that just so cool? It's like she was one of them. Her mother got it all on video.

I met a man with a Slavic accent and the clearest, sharpest, whistle I've ever heard. I asked how long it took him to perfect it. He shrugged and said, "No, I've been doing this since I was a little boy."

There are so many stories I could tell.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Confession

I'm not sure, but I think Fiction Friday might be winding up.

***

Daphne breathed out deeply. Her advocate gave her an encouraging nod.

"Yes," she said finally. "I did do it."

The gravity of those words hit her with unexpected force. She expected a gnawing vortex to open, to swallow her whole. To swallow the whole room, perhaps the whole world. Nothing could ever be the same again. Nothing.

But that's all that happened: nothing.

There was silence.

Daphne thought it would never end.

"Why?" asked Detective Jones.

It was a simple word. A simple question. A punctuation to the silence.

Daphne stared at her advocate, hoping beyond hope he would crack a big smile and yell, "Surprise! It's all a big joke! This isn't really happening!"

But it was really happening.

She knew that. Nothing would change that.

She looked at her hands. She opened her mouth. She furrowed her brows. She closed her mouth.

How could she possible make them understand? How could they ever understand? Had they ever known that welling of anger? That spark of fury? That unstoppable torrent of feeling?

She didn't understand it. How could they? It had happened in another life, to another person.

She remembered the mechanics, but the emotion was unreal.

Why.

The question echoed in her mind.

Was there an answer? A real answer? She could say something. She could make something up. Give some simple story of anger or rage. Something they could understand.

But could she ever really tell them what it had been like? Those striking moments of life and death, darkness and light? Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response.

Why?

There was no answer. Not really.

Why?

"I don't know," she said simply, a smile playing her lips.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Finding the Craic

About ten years ago, I was in the Middle of Nowhere, Japan at 2 in the morning waiting for the trains to start running again. I'd been taking local trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima - it's cheaper that way - and had ended up in some small town with a few hours to kill between the late night trains and the early morning trains.

As we walked into the crisp morning air, waiting to see what this sleepy town had to offer, my traveling companion took a deep breath and exclaimed, "I can't wait to discover the real Japan!"

I didn't really know what that meant.

We'd both been living in Hirakata-shi, Japan for about two and half months. I'd spent a lot of time in Kyoto, and a little time in Osaka. I'd taken classes in Aikido, gone to Japanese baths and Sumo games. I'd spent a weekend in Tokyo and had traveled to other well known sites.

I was far from an expert in all things Japanese, but I didn't think I was any more likely to find the "real" Japan having drinks with drunken businessmen at 3 am (as we ended up doing).

And what is the "real" anyplace, really?

I grew up in Oakland, CA and lived there for sixteen years. But I haven't lived there since I was sixteen. People ask me for things to do in Oakland and I'm like...um, visit the zoo? Or they ask me for directions, and and I'm like, look at the AC Transit map?

I honestly don't really know what people do for fun in Oakland, and I don't really know how to get from point A to point B. But I do know Oakland. I know it from my perspective. As a collection of memories and experiences. It's part of who I am and I can only see the city through my own eyes.

When my mother and grandmother visited Ireland together about 15 years ago, a local told them they needed to "find the craic." Pronounced "crack," the craic is a gaelic term for...where it's at.

The term is actually borrowed from the English "crack" (from Middle English crak) and means literally "loud conversation." It's use is somewhat controversial. "The craic" is a stereotypical representation of an Irish pub, simultaneously embraced for its Irish spirit and derided for being a stereotype...and a fake Gaelic word made up from the English.

So, it gets complicated.

When I visit a new place, I try hard to see my experience there as...my experience there. I will almost certainly never know the "real" wherever - if such a thing even exists.

All I can do is see and learn and think and experience.

Whatever I find is whatever I find.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

People and Products

A brand exists in the mind of the consumer, as my one of my graduate school professors told me repeatedly.

As a marketer, you can try to shape the brand, to control the images evoked when people think of your product. But at the end of the day, the "brand" is under customer control.

When you think of McDonald's, you may think of golden arches or you may think of trans fats. Both reactions are equally part of the brand.

A smart marketer needs to understand that.

Gone are the days when an advertisement could simply claim a product to be "the sedative for all coughs," and folks would run right out and buy it.

Marketing today is all about two-way communication, customer interaction, and understanding consumer perspectives.

A skeptic would say it's all about understanding consumer behavior solely for the purpose of manipulating consumer behavior. The true believers would say that understanding consumer behavior results in better companies and better products - products designed around true customer needs.

After a conversation with some colleagues, I started thinking about this in terms of another trend - the product-ization of people.

That same professor used to yell adamantly that "people are not brands!" But despite his protestations our society continually and increasingly treats people as brands. Barack Obama is a brand.

And there may be value in using the best thinking of the marketing world in running a political campaign, but there is certainly risk in it as well.

We live in a world where corporations are people and where people are products.Where politicians and celebrities can be bought and sold and cast aside when something newer comes along.

And it's not just these big name brands/people who are turned into products. In many ways, all of us are.

Gone are the days when the average Josephina would work for one company all her days. Many people are always shopping for new jobs and many companies are always shopping for new people.

Presidential elections are all about Get Out the Vote. They're not really about discussing issues or weighing pros and cons. They're about media buys and outspending the competition.

And while money is demonstrably not the sole deciding factor in elections (thanks, Ross Perot, for the data point), it has a big enough impact to be disconcerting. It may be simplistic to say that politicians buy votes, but the metaphor is apt.

And what is lost in all of this?

Individual development.

When your computer breaks, you buy a new one. You don't just update the OS every couple of years, maybe add some more RAM now and then. Nope. It's a whole new machine. Out with the old and in with the new.

That consuming and discarding behavior in the corporate world certainly has important implications for economic and environmental stability. But as people become products, it has, I think, important implications for how individuals are developed and nurtured over time.

That's not to say our society is all about disposable people. Many well-resourced organizations take professional development very seriously and see the value in developing the skills and capacities of their existing employees. In another realm, Positive Youth Development, is a whole field about how to better support the development of young people.

But these are examples. They are stories of those who take development seriously. It's not nearly the norm.

So today I wonder what it would look like if everything in our society - if every system and institution - was structured in such as a way as to prioritize the positive development of individuals?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

12.6 million under 30

Forbes recently published its annual "30 Under 30" list, described as:

"A tally of the brightest stars in 15 different fields under the age of 30. These founders and funders, brand builders and do-gooders aren't waiting for a proper bump up the career ladder. Their goals are way bigger -- and perfectly suited to the dynamic, entrepreneurial, and impatient digital world they grew up in."

Ugh. My initial reaction to reading this is less than favorable.

My second reaction is to feel a little badly about myself 'cause I guess I'm just jealous of these kids and their success. I shouldn't begrudge them that.

Then I look at all their happy, airbrushed faces and I get annoyed all over again.

Maybe that does make me a terrible person.

Maybe I should have done more with my life.

But I take that back. I have done what I can with my life.

And I don't mean to pick on just Forbes. There are myrad of similar lists this post could just as easily be about.

One aspect that annoys me is the glorification of possibly (probably?) unsustainable approaches. I don't know if the founders of MySpace or LiveJournal would have ever made the list, but I certainly am not impressed by those people now. And let's not even talk about Friendster.

And part of that comes from the reality of the business world. "You stay still and you die," as one of my graduate school professors used to say.

But I think you can have innovation, and healthy competition, without needing to constantly destroy the old and build the new.

I'd like to see a list of "30 under 30 who are living in their parent's basement because they've poured all their money into start-ups that haven't panned out, but they have a new idea and they really think it's going to work this time."

Or may be instead a list of "30 under 30 who have slogged through the life of maintaining a business or organization, dealt with the minutiae of keeping something up and running, and figured out how to keep something fresh and relevant even though it's been around for awhile and just isn't that sexy any more."

Or better yet, a list of "Some number under 30 who have worked together to come up with and implement some really good ideas, but it's a little hard to tell who to give the credit to because the sum is greater than the individuals and the magic was really in the collaboration between their disparate view points."

And that's another thing that annoys me about this. It's said that the U.S. is an individualistic culture, but do we really need to idolize people so?

It's as if those individuals gracing the pages of Forbes have some unnatural, superhuman, characteristics that the rest of us could never hope to emulate. Though, of course, we should try to emulate them.

I think this list is supposed to make me feel badly about myself. Unless, of course, I was on the list when I was younger.

But frankly, I would probably feel worse about myself if I was on this list. I mean, really. I don't want to be that person with my face all over things, taking all the credit for things that are almost invariably not mine alone.

I don't want to be the front man. And I don't want to be a millionaire.

And that's not a deficit.

Finally, opportunities are so unequally distributed. People of certain wealth and class invariably have more opportunity to be "successful" in these ways.

A few folks come from below the expected social strata, so they get a special pat on the head with the gleeful chirp of, "isn't it just great that someone like that was able to do this?"

Yeah, it's just great. Too bad about all the other folks who are still screwed over by structural inequity. No use worry about them.

I'm all down for celebrating successes. And I'm not some bright-eyed doe who thinks everyone should get a prize just for showing up.

I'm just saying...this vision of "success" isn't all there is.

Forbes can celebrate who they want, but as a society, let's be sure we celebrate more.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Today, apparently, is the most depressing day of the year.

Word is, a complex analysis of social media posts, divorce rates, and weather conditions pinpoint today as the day. The most depressing day.

"Researchers analysed more than 2 million tweets...they found that today, there will be nearly five times the average number of tweets relating to guilt, as people abandon their promises to pursue a healthier lifestyle." And "complaints about the weather will be six times higher than usual."

Of course, Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, adds that "the whole concept is considered pseudoscience,with its formula derided by scientists as nonsense."

But that's neither here nor there. "The Most Depressing Day of the Year" sounds very exciting, and you can't go wrong with a catchy name like Blue Monday.

So, it's been all over the news.

But here's the thing. Depression isn't something that you just turn on or off. And it's not nearly the same as feeling a little grumpy over the weather.

Ongoing depression and intermittent (seasonal) depression are real things which effect real people in real ways, it's not a cutesy gimmick to be trotted out to say, "Aw, jeez, doesn't this weather suck?"

Well, given the coverage I've seen of this topic, apparently it is a cutesy gimmick to be trotted out...but the point is that it shouldn't be.

According to the CDC, an estimated 1 in 10 American adults report depression, and their Twitter statuses are not the source of that information.

In fact, given the real stigma around mental health, most of those people suffering from depression are probably not broadcasting it to the world via social media.

Many of them probably aren't talking about it at all.

And far from suffering all their depression on one Blue Monday a year, many of them have depression for long, extended periods of time. Not a fun little, "this weather sucks," sadness, but a real, soul-crushing, hole of gaping nothingness, depression.

So, when I hear "The Most Depressing Day of the Year," this is what I imagine:

So it goes.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Memorial

Fiction Friday is back!

***
"Thank you," Jaden mumbled as he greeted another relative, neighbor or friend.

He knew them all, but today the faces were a blur. The conversations a fog. He said the same words over and over, but...it was as if he were far away. As though someone else spoke for him while he hid under the blankets. But every conversation brought him a little closer to the truth.

Someone brought him food. Was he hungry? He didn't know.

"Your brother was..." a caller choked up, "a truly remarkable young man. I'm so sorry for your loss."

They stood in silence a moment.

"Sure did know how to cause trouble, though. Heh, I remember this one time..." the visitor launched into a somewhat scandalous tale of a particularly raucous Friday night.

That was the brother Jaden remembered. "Truly remarkable," sure, the man was brilliant, but "troublemaker"...that was more his style. And, no doubt, he thought, how Mitch would want to be remembered.

Jaden couldn't help but laugh, tears in his eyes.

For a moment he felt okay. And that was okay. This was his time to feel however he felt.

"Thank you," Jaden mumbled before greeting the next guest. "Thank you."

Thursday, January 2, 2014

No more resolutions

About 15 years ago I told myself I would never make a new year's resolution and I haven't made one since.

That's not to say I haven't changed things in my life. I've studied new subjects, re-evaluated my priorities, and given myself little challenges - such as to always make small talk in an elevator. (It's good practice!).

But I generally make these changes when the time feels right to me. Not because some calendar - or society - says it's time to solve all my life problems in a single stroke.

New years resolutions are the motherload of Shoulds. And Shoulds, I've found, can be toxic.

You probably know what I'm talking about. Shoulds are that moment when you're lying on the couch resting and just as you're about to relax you think to yourself, "Ah, I really should...[fill in the blank.]."

A Should can take any form.

Sometimes it's a common household chore - I should wash the dishes. Sometimes it's about theoretical self-improvement - I should go to the gym or I should read that scholarly article. Sometimes it's the people in life you've been neglecting - I should get to together with my friends. And sometimes it's an intellectual reaction to an emotional response - I should feel happy.

And maybe Shoulds aren't such a bad thing. They help us take on those tasks we really don't want to do, but really want done. They can bring a motivating energy and empower us to take on challenges we'd rather not have to face. Shoulds can be good.

The danger comes right after the Should.

It's not so much that you should do whatever, but the ultimate, undeniable conclusion that if you don't do what you should do you are clearly a terrible, horrible person of little to no worth.

Sounds like a jump when I put it like that, but many people make that leap all the time.

I know I do.

Shoulding myself, I call it.

So instead of making that jump in logic, when I should myself I try to treat it as flag on the play. A moment to step back, think something might be wrong, and to really evaluate what I am demanding of myself.

Some Shoulds help us become better people, or help us become the people we want to be - I should do that because that will ultimately add value to my life.

But many of the Shoulds we impose upon ourselves are nothing more than a manifestation of over idealized goals - driven more by society than by our own sense of self-improvement.

These are the ones that kill us.

The myth goes that there are certain things well-functioning, successful adults do continuously and perfectly, and if we ever hope to maintain any sort of illusion of being a well-functioning and successful adult, we should do those things continuously and perfectly too.

But we don't really want to do them. So we don't. Therefore proving that we must not be a well-functioning and successful adult. QED.

Now, I don't want to judge what works for other people. But I can say for sure that Shoulding doesn't work for me.

To be honest, I still Should myself all time. But I'll forgive me my trespasses.

And with all the talk of new years resolutions hot on the pages of every magazine and screen, January is a perfect time to take a deep breath and remind myself.

I should do only those things I genuinely want to do.

I should be me.