All posts by Sheila

What America Got Right

President Obama made a speech in Kenya that has received very little attention, and that’s a shame, for many reasons. As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox,

While his remarks focused on Kenya, they might as well have been about the United States. And this is what was so striking about the speech: the degree to which Obama seemed to articulate a worldview, and thus a foreign policy, rooted in the lessons of America’s history of racial discrimination. Obama was offering not just a prescription for one African country, but a diagnosis of how discrimination and hatred can endanger any society — one he seems to have drawn from his experiences engaging with America’s domestic struggles during his presidency.

The speech focused upon the structural nature of discrimination and the fact that social attitudes–about the proper role of women, to take just one example–shape systems that operate to perpetuate rules and actions based on those assumptions even after majorities of citizens no longer hold them.

As important as it is to examine and address these discriminatory structures, it was the President’s other point that really struck me.

He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream was not just of an America without segregation, but of a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character, without prejudice or bigotry. “In the same way, people should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave. Are they good citizens? Are they good people?”

As I tell my students, one of America’s most striking departures from prior systems of government was this focus on behavior rather than identity. The rights of citizens were not to depend upon caste, religion, ethnic identity, or the other categories that determined  civic status in the old world; the new American philosophy (if not always the reality) held that citizens should be judged and treated as individuals, on the basis of their behavior, and not as members of favored or disfavored groups.

We have not always lived up to that standard, but the trajectory of American jurisprudence has been in that direction.

Ours is a view of citizenship and equality that is still rejected by many countries around the world–not to mention a distressing number of citizens here at home. As the President forcefully pointed out, however, basing rights on who people are rather than how they behave isn’t just morally wrong; it inflicts real damage on a society.

“When we start making distinctions solely based on status and not what people do, then we’re taking the wrong path and we inevitably suffer in the end.”

This emphasis on government’s obligation to treat people based upon their actions–not their wealth, not their religion, skin color, sexual orientation or gender– is at the core of what it means to be an American.

That principle–not our wealth or military power–is what is “exceptional” about America.

 

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are….

Today’s blog is a departure from my usual content.

As regular readers of this blog know, three years ago I received a grant to establish a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. (You can find out much more about the Center by clicking through to its website.)

That initial grant has run out, and together with a small group of political and business leaders, I am engaged in fundraising to keep the Center alive. (What I have discovered during the past three years is that–although everyone agrees that civic ignorance is a problem–civic literacy is not a high priority for most potential donors.)

So today I am posting a recent “pitch” I have used (below), for two reasons: first, the readers of this blog often share really good ideas and perspectives that I hadn’t considered, and I welcome suggestions for how I might sharpen and improve the “case” for philanthropic funding; and second–and more shamelessly– to provide an online mechanism to support the Center with a tax-deductible donation by those who may be so inclined. (The Center appears in the drop-down menu.) (Feel free to share!!)

I’m grateful for your help–whichever form it takes!

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Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.

In today’s media environment, these and other deficits in civic knowledge are too often filled with propaganda, internet “memes” and misdirection.

Productive civic debate requires shared understandings.  When citizens lack basic knowledge, or argue from different realities, we fail to clarify areas of dispute and leave the parties feeling unheard and angry. If I say this is a table and you say it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very constructive conversation about its use.

Indiana’s recent RFRA debate was an unfortunate and costly example of what I call “the civic deficit.” The arguments for RFRA’s passage–as well as some of the claims about its probable effects–displayed some very basic misunderstandings of what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects.

It’s not an isolated example.

Essential civic knowledge goes beyond basic American history and the Constitution. If Americans don’t know what science is, we can’t debate the implications of climate change. If we don’t know the difference between the deficit and the debt, we can’t evaluate the merits of economic policy proposals. And we can’t keep our elected officials accountable if we don’t know anything about the Constitution to which they are supposed to be faithful.

Research shows a high correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation. The Center for Civic Literacy recently co-operated with the Indiana Bar Foundation on the most recent Civic Health Index for our state.

  • 5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem.  Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
  • 5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
  • 62% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
  • In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
  • Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.

The Center for Civic Literacy has spent its first three years researching the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, because you can’t prescribe remedies if you don’t understand the problem. More recently, in addition to this ongoing research, we are engaging in what academics call “translational research”—on-the-ground efforts in Indiana to see if we can’t turn things around and raise those civic health indicators.

We are co-operating with the Indiana Department of Education on an effort to recognize and encourage innovative approaches to the teaching of civics; planning a three-forum series in Indianapolis in advance of the upcoming municipal elections, called “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government in order to Cast an Informed Vote”; partnering with the Indiana Humanities Council to highlight the importance of civic literacy during Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration next year; and fielding a survey to measure Hoosiers’ civic knowledge and provide a baseline for measuring improvement, among several other efforts.

Maintaining a research center is expensive. Fielding a small survey costs 10,000. The annual cost for a graduate student working 25 hours a week is 24,000. Buying 25% of the time of the PPI senior researcher who serves as our project manager runs another 20,000-25,000 annually. Even when we are able to secure grants for specific projects, those “infrastructure” costs must be covered by operating funds.

With your help and support, we think we can improve informed civic participation in Indiana. But we can’t do it without you.

______________________

Suggestions?

 

Of Chickenhawks and Diplomats–War and Peace

File under “who do you trust?”

The usual suspects– Dick Cheney, Tom Cotton (author of the arguably treasonous letter to Iran sent earlier this year), Ted Cruz, Bibi Netanyahu and various Right-wing and media personalities– are attacking the nuclear agreement with Iran.

I have listened to their arguments, and they boil down to “get a better deal” (without any specifics about what “better” might look like) and “Any deal, no matter how good, legitimizes an evil regime, so we should never negotiate with Iran.”

When pressed to say what they would propose in lieu of the agreement, some opponents argue for the status quo, that is, continuing to enforce sanctions. In the real world, of course, this is not an option, since in order to work, sanctions require agreement and enforcement by the international community. That would be the same community with which we negotiated this agreement–the members of which have made clear they would react negatively to efforts to sabotage it.

What most opponents don’t say, but clearly mean, is– in the (in)famous words sung by John McCain– “bomb bomb bomb Iran.”

Because making war in the Middle East worked so well the last time.

If those opposed to this agreement are less than persuasive, what about those who have voiced support?

According to media reports, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, retired Admirals William Fallon and James Stavridis, and recent Senate Committee Chairmen Dick Lugar, Carl Levin, and Nancy Kassebaum, as well as Ambassadors Tom Pickering and Ryan Crocker have joined a bipartisan group of more than 50 retired military officials, U.S. foreign policy leaders, ambassadors, and leading national security experts in applauding the achievement reached after 18 months of complex negotiations.

Let’s see….Dick Cheney? or Dick Lugar?

I know who I trust.

Trivializing Evil

Godwin’s law is a term that originated on Usenet, in what we now think of as the dawn of the Internet age. Godwin’s Law posits that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will invoke Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

When that happens, the guilty person is seen to have effectively forfeited both the argument and the right to be taken seriously.

Mike Huckabee is certainly not the only elected official to have employed this odious hyperbole, but he is a serial offender; he has previously compared both legal abortion and the national debt to the Holocaust. Most recently, he has said that the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by the U.S. and six other nations would deliver the Israelis to “the doors of the ovens.”

(Of course, Huckabee is particularly concerned about Israel, because his belief in “end times” theology requires the prior gathering of all Jews in the Holy Land, where we are to be given a choice between accepting Jesus and burning in eternal hellfire. In other words, if anyone is going to incinerate the Jews, it had better be the Christian Zionists.)

We live in a time when language has been so debased that genuine communication is increasingly difficult. Labels substitute for descriptions; words that used to have content are hurled as epithets. But Godwin’s Law identifies an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon, because the easy and thoughtless accusations of “Nazi-like” attitudes and behaviors trivializes evil and blurs critical moral distinctions.

Comparing “Obamacare” to the Holocaust (as several Republican elected officials have done), or suggesting that IRS agents are “like the gestapo” (Maine’s Governor), or claiming that the effort to regulate for-profit colleges is like the Holocaust (GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx)  is more than ludicrous, more than offensive. It is a sign of moral obtuseness so pronounced as to mark the person uttering it as someone unfit for public office.

Or, for that matter, for polite society.

 

 

The Need for Certainty–Content Optional

A couple of years ago, I ran into a casual friend I hadn’t seen in many years–since college days, in fact.  Back then, in the early 1960s, he’d been a black sheep in his decidedly apolitical family, joining a young socialist group and participating in various protests. I was taken aback to discover that he has remained equally ideological, but is now somewhere to the Right of the Tea Party. Or Genghis Khan.

This sort of switch from far left to far right and/or vice-versa is actually not all that rare.

Libertarians often point out that the political spectrum should not be conceived as linear, going from left to right, but as a circle: at the top, where the left and right meet, are the authoritarians. (They may have different agendas that they want government to impose on the rest of us, but they’re both in favor of having government make the rest of us behave as they think we should…)

There are, of course, people who are authoritarian because they are passionate about a consistent political agenda, and absolutely convinced that it should be imposed because it represents Truth, Justice and the American Way. But there also are people like this old college friend who rather clearly have a need for bright lines and easy certainties–people who find the ambiguities of modern reality intolerable. Much like religious fundamentalists who switch from the literalism of religion A to that of religion B, they are people for whom having a dogma is ultimately more important than the content of that dogma.

The rest of us are left to muddle through contending prescriptions for what ails our body politic, uncomfortably aware that recognizing “it depends,” “I’m not sure” and “it’s more complicated than it seems” lack the appeal of rousing calls to arms.

As another friend of mine says, True Believers are often warriors, but you will search in vain for the armies of the Marching Moderates.

Actually, that may explain Congress….