Monthly Archives: January 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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


There was no answer. Not really.


“I don’t know,” she said simply, a smile playing her lips.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.”