I teach at a public university where legendary tales still circulate about the school’s early years as an experimental college. I once did an inquiry into that epoch. The puzzle, I discovered, centered on the institution’s origins: Did the Minnesota Legislature actually authorize such a radical experiment? According to Andrew Abbott, “We learn that switching questions is a powerful heuristic move.” Instead of asking why this occurred, I asked how it came to be. As a sociologist, that move seems be have been a fatal faux pas.

I wrote that case study as a historical narrative. Readers who were generalists found the tale compelling and self-explanatory. Sociologists? Not so much. While most disciplinary colleagues praised the storytelling, nearly all found the study lacking in explanatory power. Even though I was examining an anomaly, they faulted the inquiry for a lack of theoretical “payoff.” They at least wanted the story to be a “deviant” case of something, anything.

I acknowledge that this tepid response from professional sociologists may have been due to the paper’s lack of merit. Nevertheless, this experience has generated some methodological observations that may have value, regardless the article’s worth. To give the reader a quick and dirty synopsis of the narrative’s plot, here is the abstract for “Genesis of a Utopian College.”

Before its doors even opened in 1971, a renowned educational leader had proclaimed an obscure state college in Minnesota to be “perhaps the most innovative institution of higher education in the United States.” This historical case study seeks to explain how possibly this could have happened? Paradoxically, the genesis of this utopian college was, in fact, only the consequence of a long process of politics as usual. The narrative traces a series of actions that established this utopian college, particularly highlighting a successful process of acquiring and exercising power in turf wars at the state legislature and in the Byzantine politics of higher education’s bureaucracy. The plot’s denouement features one past and one future vice president of the United States intervening as midwives for the new college. The eventual establishment of the school led to an outcome that the state’s legislature and higher education bureaucracy had neither intended nor anticipated.

When seeking to explain events like this, most sociologists abhor anomalies and aberrations. My colleagues typically ask, “Why did this thing happen?” They then proceed to seek a categorical generalization that applies to all similar cases. Anomalies and aberrations need not apply. Andrew Abbott uses a hypothetical vignette to capture this “Standard Model.” Sometime in the future, writes Abbott in Time Matters, a scholar is struggling to reconstruct how sociologists thought in the last half of the twentieth century:

The people who called themselves sociologists believed that society looked the way it did because social forces and properties did things to other social forces and properties. . . . Sociologists called these forces and properties “variables.” Hypothesizing which of these variables affected which others was called “variable analysis.” . . . In this view, narratives of human actions might provide “mechanisms” that justified proposing a model, but what made social science science was the discovering of these “causal relationships.” (2001:97)

I sent an early draft of this article to a prominent sociologist of higher education. She graciously read and commented on the work. Not surprisingly, she wrote that while the paper was “an interesting start in writing an analytical history of Metro State. . . . I would suggest more analytical attention to the social, economic and political environment for the founding and continuing development of the college.” She also sent along a monograph that she had written about another educational organization, “which delineates some of the social conditions that might have been relevant to the founding and development of MMSC” (Personal correspondence).

What was her point? My paper lacked theoretical generalization. For her, “analytical” and “social conditions’ were code words for causal explanation. She was expecting me to “explain” the genesis of Metropolitan State by showing that “because a certain enabling condition was in fact in place, what happened was quite within the realm of possibility and need not have occasioned surprise.” (Dray, Philosophy and History 2nd ed., 1993:27).

What might be some of the social conditions that would give my Metropolitan State narrative a more analytical flavor? The list would include the demographics of the baby boom generation, the evolution of a credential society, the student revolt of the 1960s, the progressive nature of Minnesota politics, the post-World War II affluent society, the rise of mass education, and the development of the multiversity. The conditions I list above certainly had contextual relevance for my case study, but a dubious search for a casual condition or independent variable among them provides little explanatory power for this surprising occurrence. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis once quipped, “Aren’t all variables dependent on other variables?”

Her comments led me to set aside the manuscript for several years. In “Genesis of a Utopian College,” I had written a narrative history of an unanticipated outcome. The philosopher M.C. Lemon captures the essence of her critique: “The accusation—for such it is—against narrative history is that it is naïve.” Most social scientists, philosophers, and even some historians argue that the narrative is non-explanatory of its subject matter:

Consequently, we do not even envisage the possibility of a form of explanation other than causal. In fact, a non-causal form of explanation appears to us to be anomalous, even a contradiction. . . . The narrative, on the other hand, refers to the dialectic of structure and agency and asks: ‘What situation and series of actions resulted in the occurrence of E?’ (Mahajan, Explanation and Understanding in the Human Sciences,1992:95

I was seeking just such an explanation for this aberration. That this new college became a radical experiment was indeed unexpected. The question I sought to answer is, “How could this outcome have happened?” The historian Richard Evans concisely states my rationale: “Consequences are often more important that causes.”

Howard S. Becker provides a roadmap of my research strategy:

Assume that whatever you want to study has, not causes, but a history, a story, a narrative . . . On this view, we understand the occurrence of events by learning the steps in the process by which they came to happen, rather than by learning the conditions that made their existence necessary. . . . This is not just a matter of saying the right words, “process” instead of “cause.” It implies a different way of working. (Tricks of the Trade,1998:61)

Politics is the processes of acquiring and exercising power in order to attain public goods. Legislative and bureaucratic politics are embedded in structural and temporal contexts that constraint the actions of actors. This case study examines how a masterful bureaucratic politician acquires and exercises power in this contentious world of state politics. A three-year campaign for a new state college was just one acquisition in his larger quest for power. What needs explanation is how this particular college metamorphosed into a unique utopian experiment.

No one in 1968 could have imagined that Metropolitan State would become a utopian college. “What situation and series of actions” produced this result? How can the plotting of such a succession of events satisfy the demand that a narrative provide an explanation of its subject matter? The maverick economist, Albert O. Hirschman, offers a powerful warrant for narrative explanations.

In “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding,” Hirschman targets “the tendency toward compulsive and mindless theorizing.” He argues that “an impatience for theoretical formulation leads to serious pitfalls.” To make his point, he contrasts two books about Latin America, both written by young North American scholars. The most important difference he finds is in the cognitive styles of the two authors.

Within the first few pages of his book Payne presents us triumphantly with the key to the full and complete understanding of the Colombian political system. The rest of the book is a demonstration that the key indeed unlocks all conceivable doors of Colombian political life, past, present, and future. Womack, on the other hand, abjures any pretense at full understanding right in the preface, where he says that his book “is not analysis but a story because the truth of the revolution in Morelos is in the feeling of it which I could not convey through defining its factors but only through telling of it.” “The analysis that I could do,” he continues, “and that I thought pertinent I have tried to weave into the narrative, so that it would issue at the moment right for understanding it.” (Interpretative Social Science: A Second Look, 1987:179)

The Metropolitan State narrative is neither naïve nor is it non-explanatory; it is simply incommensurate with the “Standard Model” of sociology. Narrative and causal explanatory models reflect two divergent cognitive styles. Variable analysis, no matter how nuanced, is incapable of adequately explaining the contingent nature of improbable and non-repeatable outcomes. It was only in the telling of the tale that I could make intelligible the process of how a unique constellation of events made this genesis possible. A thick description of each specific situation and the ensuing series of actions provides the analytic rigor required to explain how possibly this anomaly occurred.

Some quixotic members of my profession have fostered an image of the public sociologist as a romantic swashbuckler—the sociologist as community organizer, public policy guru or “organic intellectual.” In an article appearing in Academic Matters and Inside Higher Ed, a Canadian sociologist suggests a more realistic alternative to these charades. Robert Brym’s “Why I Teach Intro” is an elegant endorsement of teaching as a genre of public sociology.

The truth is that most sociologists who promote these activist fantasies are wannabes. Self-delusion, however, is not limited to this discipline; these reveries are perhaps even more widespread in departments of literature and cultural studies. When I hear folks who have spent their entire adult lives in academic monasteries prattling on about organizing and advocacy, I recall Marx’s nostalgic utopia:

While in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes . . . it [is] possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepard or critic.

Becoming a community organizer or a public policy advocate is not a hobby. Last week I spent two days meeting with legislative leaders. Over the weekend, I exchanged e-mails about legislative strategy with the Speaker of the House. Last evening I testified at a legislative town hall meeting. Yet I harbored no illusion that I was practicing a profession. I was merely being a good citizen—and, by my lights, a public sociologist. I encourage sociologists to engage in citizenship whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. However, do not delude yourself by conflating the practice of citizenship with the practice of professional organizing.

Before becoming an academic, I spent 20 years mastering the craft of community organizing. I spent those years learning a skill set: mentoring leaders, building organizations, researching issues, developing strategies and tactics, speaking and writing for public audiences, and exercising political moxie. Drawing upon the work of the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, I now chart that half of my adult life as an experiential learning process, a slow and anxiety-ridden progression from novice to master.

Dreyfus has spent nearly 30 years refining a typology of skill acquisition that has applicability to everything from basketball and chess to professional practice and intellectual dexterity  (On the Internet, 2nd ed.). He structures the learning process into a useful continuum of six stages. Growth is a gradual transition from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning that resembles Aristotle’s concept of “practical wisdom.”

The first three stages—novice, advanced beginner, and competence—are generally accomplished by instruction and practice. To successfully advance through these three stages requires only the limited commitment of a layperson. This first package of skill acquisition describes the civic repertoire of a reasonably competent citizen. To move through the second level of acumen—proficiency, expertise, and mastery—requires a deep allegiance to craft and an apprenticeship to one or more masters.

In other words, if you really want to be a community organizer or an “organic intellectual,” give up tenure, find a mentor or two, and embed yourself in a couple of grassroots organizations for a decade or so. If not, then perhaps a more humble definition of public sociologist is in order.

While there are a variety of venues for this modest rendition of public sociology, Michael Burawoy has identified the one skill that best suits the vast majority of sociologists seeking a more public practice: “Students are our first public.” Anyone with aspirations as a public sociologist should first dedicate themselves to the craft of teaching as a vocational calling. Dreyfus provides a useful guide for those perplexed about the requisite skill acquisition.

A professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Brym has made a poignant case for humility when professing public sociology—becoming a masterful teacher is virtue enough.

A version of this essay first appeared in Academic Matters.

Why I Teach Intro

By Robert Brym

You probably recall that in George Orwell’s 1984 the authorities bring Winston Smith to a torture chamber to break his loyalty to his beloved Julia. Perhaps you do not remember the room number. It is 101.

The modern university institutionalizes Orwell’s association of the number 101 with torture. Faculty and students often consider introductory courses an affliction.

I suspect that colleagues award teaching prizes to 101 instructors partly as compensation for relieving themselves of the agony of teaching introductory courses—a suspicion that first occurred to me last year, when I shared an award with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Pain, much praised for its relief of suffering.

Why, then, do I teach introductory sociology? My colleagues have been too polite to remind me of the alleged downsides, but they are well known. First, teaching an introductory course is often said to be a time-consuming activity that interferes with research and writing—the royal road to prestige, promotion, and merit pay. Second, it is reputedly boring and frustrating to recite the elementary principles of the discipline to young students, many of whom could not care less. Third, the 101 instructor performs supposedly menial work widely seen as suited only to non-tenured faculty members, advanced graduate students, and other personnel at the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Although I understand these arguments, I do not find them compelling. For me, other considerations have always far outweighed them.

In particular, teaching intro solves, for me, the much-discussed problem of public sociology. Some sociologists believe that working to improve human welfare is somehow unprofessional or unscientific. They hold that professional sociologists have no business drawing blueprints for a better future and should restrict themselves to analyzing the present dispassionately and objectively. However, to maintain that belief they must ignore what scientists actually do and why they do it. Sir Isaac Newton studied astronomy partly because the explorers and mariners of his day needed better navigational cues. Michael Faraday was motivated to discover the relationship between electricity and magnetism partly by his society’s search for new forms of power.

Today, many scientists routinely and proudly acknowledge that their job is not just to interpret the world but also to improve it, for the welfare of humanity; much of the prestige of science derives precisely from scientists’ ability to deliver the goods. Some sociologists know they have a responsibility beyond publishing articles in refereed journals for the benefit of their colleagues. One example is Michael Burawoy’s 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, a gloss on Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which Burawoy criticized professional sociologists for defining their job too narrowly and called for more public sociology. Still, many sociologists hold steadfastly to the belief that scientific research and public responsibility are at odds—largely I suspect, because they are insecure about whether their research is really scientific at all, so feel they must be more papist than the pope.

Setting such anxieties aside, one is left with the question of how to combine professional pursuits with public responsibility. One option is conducting research that stimulates broad discussion of public policy. Some of my colleagues study how immigration policy limits the labour market integration and upward mobility of immigrants; others how family policy impairs child welfare; and still others how tax and redistribution policies affect inequality. To the degree they engage educated citizens in discussion and debate on such important issues, they achieve balance between their professional and public roles.

I have chosen a different route to public responsibility. I have conducted research and published for a professional audience, but I have also enjoyed the privilege of addressing hundreds of thousands of members of the public over the years by teaching Sociology 101 in large lecture halls and by writing textbooks for intro students in several countries. As Orwell wrote, communicating effectively to a large audience may be motivated by aesthetic pleasure and egoistic impulses. Who among us does not want to write clear and compelling prose and to be thought clever for doing so? But in addition, one may want to address a large audience for what can only be deemed political reasons.

In 1844, Charles Dickens read his recent Christmas composition, The Chimes, to his friend William Charles Macready, the most famous Shakespearean actor of the day. Dickens later reported the reading to another friend as follows: “If you had seen Macready last night—undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read—you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.” I understand Dickens. I, too, relish the capacity to move and to sway a large audience to a desired end because it signifies that my influence will not be restricted to a few like-minded academics and that I may have at least some modest and positive impact on the broader society. I find most students burn with curiosity about the world and their place in it, and I am delighted when they tell me that a lecture helped them see how patterned social relations shape what they can become in this particular historical context. On such occasions I know that I have taught them something about limits and potential—their own and that of their society. Teaching intro thus allows me to discharge the public responsibility that, according to Burawoy and others, should be part of every sociologist’s repertoire.

In Marx’s words, “it is essential to educate the educators”—especially those who persist in believing that teaching intro bores, frustrates, interferes, and suits only the academic proletariat.

A famous experiment, repeated, produces the same result. What next, the Zimbardo Experiment? In today’s New York Times, the following editorial column by Adam Cohen appeared: Four Decades after Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain.

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale, published his infamous experiment on obedience to authority. Its conclusion was that most ordinary people were willing to administer what they believed to be painful, even dangerous, electric shocks to innocent people if a man in a white lab coat told them to.

For the first time in four decades, a researcher has repeated the Milgram experiment to find out whether, after all we have learned in the last 45 years, Americans are still as willing to inflict pain out of blind obedience.

The Milgram experiment was carried out in the shadow of the Holocaust. The trial of Adolf Eichmann had the world wondering how the Nazis were able to persuade so many ordinary Germans to participate in the murder of innocents. Professor Milgram devised a clever way of testing, in a laboratory setting, man’s (and woman’s) willingness to do evil.

The participants — ordinary residents of New Haven — were told they were participating in a study of the effect of punishment on learning. A “learner” was strapped in a chair in an adjacent room, and electrodes were attached to the learner’s arm. The participant was told to read test questions, and to administer a shock when the learner gave the wrong answer.

The shocks were not real. But the participants were told they were — and instructed to increase the voltage with every wrong answer. At 150 volts, the participant could hear the learner cry in protest, complain of heart pain, and ask to be released from the study. After 330 volts, the learner made no noise at all, suggesting he was no longer capable of responding. Through it all, the scientist in the room kept telling the participant to ignore the protests — or the unsettling silence — and administer an increasingly large shock for each wrong answer or non-answer.

The Milgram experiment’s startling result — as anyone who has taken a college psychology course knows — was that ordinary people were willing to administer a lot of pain to innocent strangers if an authority figure instructed them to do so. More than 80 percent of participants continued after administering the 150-volt shock, and 65 percent went all the way up to 450 volts.

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University replicated the experiment and has now published his findings in American Psychologist. He made one slight change in the protocol, in deference to ethical standards developed since 1963. He stopped when a participant believed he had administered a 150-volt shock. (He also screened out people familiar with the original experiment.)

Professor Burger’s results were nearly identical to Professor Milgram’s. Seventy percent of his participants administered the 150-volt shock and had to be stopped. That is less than in the original experiment, but not enough to be significant.

Much has changed since 1963. The civil rights and antiwar movements taught Americans to question authority. Institutions that were once accorded great deference — including the government and the military — are now eyed warily. Yet it appears that ordinary Americans are about as willing to blindly follow orders to inflict pain on an innocent stranger as they were four decades ago.

Professor Burger was not surprised. He believes that the mindset of the individual participant — including cultural influences — is less important than the “situational features” that Professor Milgram shrewdly built into his experiment. These include having the authority figure take responsibility for the decision to administer the shock, and having the participant increase the voltage gradually. It is hard to say no to administering a 195-volt shock when you have just given a 180-volt shock.

The results of both experiments pose a challenge. If this is how most people behave, how do we prevent more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of wanton cruelty? Part of the answer, Professor Burger argues, is teaching people about the experiment so they will know to be on guard against these tendencies, in themselves and others.

An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea — and the right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.

Regular readers of this blog will recall the claim I made last summer that Reinhold Niebuhr has been a formative influence on Barack Obama’s worldview (see https://thesocietypages.org/monte/2008/08/15/obamas-theologian-and-the-party-of-irony/). That op-ed article has been expanded into a much longer review essay in the current issue of Contexts.

I was pleased to discover yesterday that I was not alone in predicting a Niebuhrian credo in an Obama presidency. In the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog, the dean of American religious historians makes a similar case for the president-elect’s new administration.

Martin E. Marty is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he taught religious history in the Divinity School for 35 years. Marty is the nation’s foremost Protestant scholar and an advocate of “public religion” (an interesting sidebar is that he is the father of Minnesota State Senator John Marty).

Realistic Hope and Hopeful Realism

The election of Barack Obama says—about America and to the world—that it is open to “realistic hope” and “hopeful realism.” Those two two-word phrases paraphrase themes from the mid-century theological great, Reinhold Niebuhr. I mention him because President-Elect Obama is influenced by him and quotes him (as did President Jimmy Carter, the other theologically literate president of our time). Niebuhr is a formidable and sometimes formidably difficult thinker, and some cynics suggest that when politicians quote him, they are just posing Columnist David Brooks checked up and found that Senator Obama could discourse intelligently and expansively about Niebuhr. It is clear to those who know Niebuhr and who read and observe Obama, that he has internalized some Niebuhrian motifs.

I am singling out the combinations of “hope” and “realism” because the nation and the world needs a dose of hope, and hope has been a main theme of Obama the author, who used the word in a book title, and who accurately sensed the need and a hunger for hope. This is as true of a demoralized nation as it is of much of “the world” as it looks on forlornly to a forlorn America. Those of us who have been visited with e-mails from around the world since Tuesday report to each other how consistently correspondents testify to and exemplify a quickening of hope once again.

If “hope” is so manifest also now, after the election, why burden it with the word “realistic?” Or, if you start out with the “realism” that candidate Obama always displayed and will do more so as he begins to come to terms with the presidency in a time whose problems do not need enumerating, though they do get listed by virtually all commentators? Answer: realism can be so realistic that it can breed cynicism, or, as one wag put it recently, we observe that “the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned out.”

“Realistic hope” is a caution against utopianism, naive idealism, the claiming of bragging rights, or politically “not knowing to come in out of the rain.” As author, community organizer, law school professor, state and U.S. senator, and presidential primary candidate, Senator Obama tirelessly invoked and promoted hope–and always coupled his invocation and promotion with cautions. We hear it all the time: righting wrongs and charting new courses in a dangerous world and with a destroyed economy allows no chance to relax and sit back.

Niebuhr liked to quote Psalm 2:4, where the Psalmist witnesses to a God who sits in the heavens and laughs, and holds the pretentious and conniving powerful “in derision.” Yet he kept reminding us that the same God held people responsible and did not dishonor human aspiration.

So: the election of the first African-American president, a choice that went beyond the wildest hopes of most of adult America is only a part of the “hope” package the nation will be opening in the months ahead. And the election of THIS African-American to the presidency means a turning to a leader who may be young, but wasn’t “born yesterday.” His reading of Niebuhr and his experience and observation of life as it is lived in complex times will show up in his “realistic” activity. Or am I too hopefully naive even to hope that this will be the case? Realistically: no.

This post first appeared on the opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Thursday, October 9, 2008.

His strategists decided that lawn signs don’t matter. His supporters aren’t happy.

Obama volunteers across the nation are wondering why they cannot get lawn signs for distribution. Signs are an important political ritual in their communities, and they need them to generate a visible cascade of support for their candidate. While their stories vary, what they share is growing frustration with their state and national headquarters.

The sign problem is not due to a shortage of funds, bureaucratic bottlenecks or incompetence. It is deliberate; Obama’s senior staff decided long ago that lawn signs were inconsequential and a waste of resources.

From chief strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe down to state and local campaign officials, the party line has been consistent: Lawn signs don’t vote. Well, neither does a TV ad.

As the election nears, the decision to blow off lawn signs is provoking discontent among Obama supporters. Recently these simmering grievances boiled over in the Washington Post and on national blogs like Daily Kos and FiveThirtyEight.

Bill Hillsman is the maverick media adviser who helped design the upset victories of Sen. Paul Wellstone in 1990 and Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998. In a recent interview with the Minnesota Independent, Hillsman addressed the unrest among the rank and file.

“The problem with the campaign was that people thought they were walking on water, and they weren’t really willing to listen to any advice coming in from the outside. It’s been a very top-down, command-and-control type of campaign, which is different from what a lot of people expected it to be. They expected it to be very much a grass-roots, broad-based dialogue type of campaign, and it’s turned out not to be that way.”

Since day one, the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign has been retail politics: volunteer recruitment, door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and voter registration. These grass-roots tactics led to stunning successes during the primary season.

Even so, this game plan worked best in caucus states. Large primary states like California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio exposed the shortcomings of the strategy. Clinton’s wholesale politics proved superior in those elections.

Virginia has been particularly hard-hit by a shortage of lawn signs. Yet when the campaign headquarters finally received several thousand signs, the Washington Post reported, it decided to give Obama signs only to volunteers who had knocked on at least 40 doors.

The organizing experiences of a blogger from Missouri refute this logic:

“This isn’t the primary where you are calling on motivated people; this is a general election where you are calling on average voters and you are lucky to get people to go vote and you are really lucky if they want a sign to show their neighbors how they are going to vote.”

The Obama campaign will turn out record-breaking numbers of young and new voters. It will also get the Democratic base to the polls. Nevertheless, this alone will not win the presidency. Independents will decide this election and, as Hillsman highlights, you win their hearts and minds with wholesale politics.

“In order to get independent voters, you can’t get them by field work or volunteer organization or grass-roots organizing, because they don’t exist on any lists. You can’t really mail to them. So the best way to get them is through mass communications, and the Obama campaign has proved to be not that adept in mass communications.”

Presidential campaigns are ultimately about influencing public opinion. There is a mass psychology operating during the last 30 days of a presidential election. During the endgame, wholesale politics trumps retail politics.

If you doubt that axiom, witness McCain’s decision last weekend to go all negative, all the time. McCain’s chief strategist is Karl Rove protégé Steve Schmidt. A master of the politics of fear, Schmidt is turning Halloween into a monthlong event. Brace yourself: For the next 30 days, the campaign will saturate the media with ghouls and goblins—costumed, of course, as Jeremiah Wright the “anti-American racist” and William Ayers the “terrorist.”

Will Axelrod’s and Plouffe’s decision to double down on door-knocking succeed? I hope Hillsman is wrong, but given his political moxie, I will not be betting the farm on an Obama victory.

© 2008 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Metropolitan State is pleased to welcome Tom Hayden for two days of events across the Twin Cities.

“Tom Hayden changed America,” the national correspondent of the Atlantic, Nicholas Lemann, has written. He was the “single greatest figure of the 1960s student movement,” according to the New York Times. Tom Hayden is an American social and political activist and politician, most famous for his involvement in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Hayden’s continued influence in American culture spans fifty years. He was a famed sixties radical, then a long term state senator, an acclaimed author and teacher at many universities.  Today he is passionate opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the polluting quest for oil, and sweatshop conditions across the planet.  He not only writes about these subjects, but works toward their realization as a close adviser to many politicians, peace and human rights groups.

Movement Building and the Role of Student Activism:  A Student Conversation
Noon – 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Metropolitan State University Minneapolis Campus,
Helland Student Center Lounge

Debating Democracy: What’s at Stake in the 2008 Elections?
Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008
7-8:00 p.m. Discussion led by Tom Hayden
8:00-9:30p.m. Watch the Debate on the Big Screen!
Metropolitan State University, Library and Learning Center, Ecolab Rm 302

Peace Movements:  Past Lessons, Future Prospects
7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Metropolitan State University Founders Auditorium

Light Refreshments provided.

Sponsored by Metropolitan State Students for Social Change, the Student Senate, and The American Democracy Project, for more information about this event, please call 651-793-1285.

This post first appeared on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday, September 5, 2008.

If John Stuart Mill were alive, he might well be at the Republican National Convention this week, providing the British with pithy commentary about American politics. What the author of On Liberty would have found most impressive about his visit is the vibrant marketplace of ideas that is playing out in our arenas, parks and streets.

Liberty is the watchword of the week. It is not just Republicans and Democrats who are exercising their freedoms of speech, association and assembly. The Libertarian, Green and Independence parties are passionately promoting their agendas. Supporters of Ron Paul and Ralph Nader are also busy hawking their heroes.

Perhaps most noteworthy, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens have gathered throughout the Twin Cities to peacefully protest the RNC. Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, there are a few hundred anarchists rioting in the streets.

When it comes to our constitutional liberties, these political parties and activists have very different ideologies and agendas. Nevertheless, there is one liberty that no political group really wants its members taking too seriously — intellectual liberty.

The sociologist Joel Charon argues that liberty of thought is a precondition for those “action” liberties like speech, association and assembly:

To act without thinking is to act without freedom. To act with thinking that is controlled by others is to act without freedom. Without freedom to think, freedom to act is an empty freedom.

Intellectual liberty is not free. On the contrary, freedom of thought is like a sown seed, requiring a citizen to nurture it.

Why is free thinking such a rare commodity? Conservatives and libertarians will assert that the enemy of intellectual liberty is government coercion. Liberals and leftists counter by arguing the real threat to free thought is corporate media manipulation.

I concede that each of these claims has an element of truth. I contend, however, that the most significant obstacle to independent thought is neither governments nor corporations.

No, the danger is closer to home. The Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing disconcertingly suggests that our friends can also be the foes of our free thought:

The hardest thing in the world is to stand out against one’s group, a group of one’s peers. Many agree that among our most shameful memories is this, how often we said black was white because other people were saying it.

A wide variety of experimental studies, ranging from simple sensory perception to judgments about politics and morality, demonstrate that the peer pressure of group membership dramatically alters a person’s private opinions.

When individuals know their conformity or deviance will become public knowledge, they are more likely to conform. In other words, people are prone to suppress contrary perceptions and opinions when they must take a public stance in the presence of fellow group members.

After reviewing this extensive literature, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein concludes that “many people, of all political stripes, go along with political orthodoxies despite their private reservations.”

Why do we silence ourselves? Sunstein suggests several reasons.

·We do not want to risk the wrath of friends and allies.

·We fear that our dissent will weaken the reputation of the group.

·We blindly trust that our group members are right.

Sunstein asserts that groups unified by bonds of affection and solidarity can make serious errors in judgment. What does he see as a solution?

The clear implication is that if a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a single dissenter might be able to turn it around, by energizing ambivalent group members who would otherwise follow the crowd.

As an example he points to “Twelve Angry Men,” a movie about 11 jurors who are hell bent on convicting an innocent man. A single dissenting juror, played by Henry Fonda, persuades his fellow members of their erroneous conclusion.

In closing, I invite you to join an ancient party. This party requires no registration, no dues and no meetings. It does not even ask you to relinquish your other party affiliations. In fact, it encourages dual allegiances.

I’m talking about the party of free thinkers. “Such people, such individuals,” writes Lessing, “will be a most productive yeast and ferment, and lucky the society who has plenty of them.”

The twenty-first century is off to one hell of a start: wars and rumors of war, famines and plagues, terrorism and genocide, hurricanes and earthquakes. For “citizens” of the empire, these horrific events are usually little more than annoying background music, as ignorable as Muzak. However, for the “barbarians” huddled outside the empire’s “Green Zone,” the sounds of death are a ubiquitous funeral dirge.

The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that augment his feeling of rightful ownership. These pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.

Why Read? Mark Edmundson                          

While most Americans are loath to admit it, we are denizens of a global empire. It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile our standard of living with the disconcerting reality that an empire for the few requires the subjugation of the many. Consequently, we continue to “consume the kinds of pleasures” our empire offers as a way of warding off the “debilitating pains of conscience.”

Regrettably, too many novels published today are sources of such easy pleasures; we read them for escape. By contrast, these three prize-winning novels confront rather than comfort, each provoking our moral sensibilities with disturbing images of human motivation and behavior. Before reading these reviews, take a look at Milan Kundera on the“spirit of the novel.”

Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel. . . . The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.

The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera

The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney

A winner of the 2006 British Costa Award, this tale has elements of both a murder mystery and an historical novel. Written by a Scot who has never set foot in Canada, the novel takes place in 1867 in the wilderness region of Hudson’s Bay. The novel opens in the tiny settlement of Dover River, a community of Scottish settlers who are dependent on fur trapping.

The plot is set in motion with the murder and scalping of an old trapper and the disappearance of his 17-year-old friend and lover, Francis Ross. Another suspect is a mixed blood trapper named William Parker. The authorities arrest him but he soon escapes.

Francis’s mother, sets off with Parker to track her son who, they soon discover, is tracking someone himself. Parker and Mrs. Ross gradually develop a gnarled bond, breed of physical necessity and emotional need. Mrs. Ross narrates most of the novel, providing a rich interior monologue of her conflicts.

A number of subplots, sometimes confusingly overlapping, involve conflicts between trading companies, between members of a puritanical Norwegian settlement, and between settlers and the native people caught up in this embryonic European empire.

Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson

In 2007, this Norwegian novel won both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and Britain’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This is the story of Trond Sander, a 67-year old grieving widower who retires to a desolate cabin in eastern Norway.

His only neighbor turns out to be the brother of Jon, his childhood friend. This evokes memories of his fifteenth summer, particularly of a single afternoon when he and Jon set out an adventure of stealing horses. It was also the last season he spent with a cherished father. The novel alternates between his current solitary musings and his reminiscences of his father’s mysterious wartime activities during that memorable summer.

The novel’s landscape evokes the timeless grandeur and power of pine forests. Petterson also masterfully moves back and forth between the consciousnesses of an adventuresome young boy and a contemplative old man. It is, most of all, a tale of loss and recollection, of reflection and renewal.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this is not a novel for those who fear bad dreams. I generally only read fiction for 30-60 minutes before falling asleep at night. While I slowly progressed through this novel, I began having nightmares every couple of nights.

The apocalypse has occurred, whether it is natural or man-made we never discover: “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” It is a burnt-over landscape, devoid of animals, planets, and the sun. A nameless man and his son are trudging along the remnants of a freeway, heading for the coast. We learn that the boy’s mother could finally take no more—she committed suicide.

Snows falls gray and even daylight is little more than a shadowy haze. It is freezing cold and they are starving; every day is a desperate search for food and shelter. Even in these dark times, the father has constructed a narrative. He and his son are the “good guys” Among the few remaining survivors are the “bad guys”—roving bands of cannibals.

Even at the end of the world, McCarthy offers us a secular meditation on love, 1 Corinthians 13 after the death of God. In an unsentimental and stark language, McCarthy’s father and son reveal what it means to be human in a universe practically devoid of humanity.

So now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

This is an eyewitness report from the streets of the Republican National Convention in downtown St. Paul. Jennifer Pennington is exemplary of a new generation of brilliant young activists who are changing the direction of this nation. She was an organizer of the highly successful Liberty Parade that took place in Loring Park on August 31. Jennifer was named the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Student for 2008. She is a social science honors graduate and was the commencement speaker last spring at Metropolitan State University.

Wow.  I’ve had quite a day.  I had taken the day off to recover from the Liberty Parade and return stuff like the walkie talkies we had rented.  I decided to bring some treats to the ACLU office because I knew they were having a very busy week.  I went to the office with cupcakes and blueberry muffins.  They told me they were holding a press conference at 2:30pm with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, and they asked if I’d come back from that.  Would I come back?  Amy is only one of my personal heroes.

I rushed to Burnsville to return the Walkie Talkies, and I got back to the ACLU office.  I met Nicole Salazar and Shareef, the two producers that were arrested and charged with felonies.  Amy had also been arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.  We got them set up in the press conference.  Chuck Samuelson, the Executive Director of the ACLU of MN introduced everyone.  Geneva from the National Lawyers Guild was also there.

One reporter from Fox News was a total asshole to Amy.  He kept questioning her like she did something wrong.  She responded beautifully quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said if he had to choose between government and a free press, he’d choose a free press.  You can listen to what happened to Amy, Nicole, and Shareef at www.democracynow.org

Btw, in yesterday’s March on the RNC, there were 17 people arrested.  The 200+ other arrests happened AFTER the March on the RNC had finished and occurred between 4pm-midnight.  Over 100 people were charged with a felony.  This means a lot of different things, but it also means they can be held for a longer period of time.  If you want to help, you should donate to the ACLU of MN (www.aclu-mn.org).  I’d like to note that the mainstream press makes it sound like these arrests all happened during the March on the RNC.  That was not the case.

Afterwards, we were all talking in the hallway.  Amy mentioned that they needed to call a cab, and I offered to give them a ride.  There were five of them, and only four fit in my car.  So one guy agreed to wait behind and I’d come back for him.  Btw, they had all tried to come and cover Liberty Parade but couldn’t make it.  I was pretty thrilled that they had heard of us!

So I drove Amy, Nicole, Shareef, and one of the camera men to where their office was in St. Paul.  Downtown St. Paul was weird.  Streets were blockaded everywhere and it was hard to get through.  There were a lot of detours.  I finally got them to their destination which was near Mears Park.  The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign was holding a rally there with a march scheduled for later.  I was supposed to meet my old ACLU co-workers there to hand out fliers on their rights.  There were riot police hiding behind every corner, and the Democracy Now! crew took note of it.

I dropped off three of them, and then I brought Amy as close to Excel as I could get her.  We talked in the car.  She was very tired. Her arrest the day before had really drained her.  They had taken her sweater, and today was pretty chilly.  The secret service had also ripped the press credentials from her neck.  These were for Monday so she still had press credentials for the rest of the days.  Her sweaters and credentials weren’t returned.

After I dropped her off, I went back and picked up the 5th member.  I brought him into downtown, dropped him off, and then I found a parking spot near Mears Park.  The place was packed.  I handed out fliers and met up with two of my old co-workers from the ACLU to be a legal observer.  One guy was arrested, but we couldn’t see what had happened.  A huge crowd surrounded about 5 police officers on horseback.  I couldn’t see the guy they had arrested.  But then one participant who was standing on a van had a seizure and fell off the van.  That created quite a bit of chaos.  A human chain formed around him.  None of the police (who are EMTs) offered to help.  Someone called an ambulance and some medics came in.

Then the march started.  We walked alongside observing and taking video.  The march started in Mears Park and went by the Union Mission and up to the Capitol.  There were thick lines of riot police at every corner.  It was disturbing to see so many riot police for a legal, permitted march.

Ripple Effect was at the Capitol and scheduled to end at 7pm.  Apparently Rage Against the Machine had turned up unannounced.  I was by their suburbans.  The police told them they couldn’t play because they weren’t scheduled to play and weren’t on the permit?  Suddenly the crowd from Ripple Effect rushed towards the suburbans.  The suburbans started moving through the march which was now merging with people from Ripple Effect.  It doubled in size, making the crowd 5,000 strong easily.

From the Capitol, the march started moving to Excel Energy Center.  People were taking pictures and videos constantly.  Riot police lined the way.  We passed the place where the Daily Show was playing.  We stopped to get a better look of the crowd at a place where there were tons of riot police.  I would have taken more pictures of the riot police (and the National Guard), but I was pretty intimidated by them.

We then continued on to Excel.  At Excel, the march stopped and organizers with bullhorns at the front asked everyone to make a pledge to peacefully storm Excel.  They took off but were blocked by high wire barricades.  There were riot police behind all the barricades.  After 20 minutes, the crowd began to disperse.  We decided to walk back to our cars.  But we couldn’t.

There were riot police lining the streets for 20 blocks, creating a sort of maze we all had to walk through.  It was ridiculous.  It was seriously a police state.  There is no other way to describe it.  When I passed Mickey’s Diner, there were lines of riot police and two cops stood on top of a car with their guns drawn.  At this point, the crowd was still peaceful.  There were reports of a couple people getting pepper sprayed, but we didn’t see it.  From what we witnessed, the crowd was peaceful.

One other thing – throughout the march, I witnessed some protesters identifying some people as undercover cops.  This happened several times.

I’d like to add that in 2003, I marched with 50,000 people in Los Angeles, and the only police presence was the occasional cop on a corner directing us where to go.

On a side note, apparently the Missile Dick Chicks got picked up in Minneapolis last night.  They were trying to perform, and it was by a RNC event.  The police detained them, physically removed them, did not arrest them, but did drop them off outside of Minneapolis and told them not to come back!!!!

I have many pictures and videos, but I don’t know if I’ll load them all up tonight or not.  Stay posted.

Liberty Parade

When: Sunday August 31st

Where: Nicollet Mall and Loring Park

Speakers include: Bob Barr, Coleen Rowley, Farheen Hakim, and Monte Bute

Music from: Dillinger Four, Retribution Gospel Choir, Vampire Hand, Mama Digdowns Brass Band, Happy Apple and a host of others.

To Participate :

Parade Staging at 5th and Nicollet beginning at 11am on August 31st.

Day-of registration will be available. Preregistered groups will need to check in. The staging area might be the most fun of the whole day!

To Observe:

Best observation at Peavey Plaza on 11th and Nicollet, 1pm, August 31st. Bring a folding chair or a blanket.

Follow the parade to a free concert and speaker series in Loring Park from 3pm-7pm.

What is the Liberty Parade?

The Liberty Parade is a large scale parade and CELEBRATION about the idea of Liberty throught the heart of downtown Minneapolis. This nonpartisan event asks participants to crate some sort of mobile visual representation about what Liberty means to them. We have many conservative, liberal and arts groups joining together in the Liberty Parade!

The Liberty Parade Vehicle of choice is the bicycle. The Liberty Parade Materials of choice are card board and duct tape.

The parade terminates in a live concert and speaker series in Loring Park. Music, interesting speeches, strange and exotic groups, BBQ and a beer garden will all be at your disposal from 3pm-7pm

More information: www.libertyparade2008.com