Dark Money Destroying Democracy

I’ve already posted about the great work of the Wesleyan Media Project, but I want to point everyone to their new website, AttackAds.org

Many of us are turned off by the negative political advertising that dominates the airwaves– so much of it from groups that don’t have to disclose where their money comes from. The new WMP website puts it this way:

“…a growing body of evidence suggests that ads work better if they are sponsored by unknown groups, which further encourages the growth of dark money. Not only is there no transparency that could help voters better filter the barrage of messages, but there is less accountability in elections. You cannot punish a group in the same way that you can a candidate or a party by not voting for them. This is a problem for democracy. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. This site is intended to help educate Americans on the problems of dark money, who the dark money organizations are, and what you can do about it.”

Negative advertising has become so pervasive and so detached from honesty, that the following may not even seem like a parody:

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But here’s the key: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!

Defend the possibility of democracy: VOTE NEXT WEEK!!

 

Wesleyan Media Project

For the past several years, Professor Erika Franklin Fowler has been conducting sophisticated research with her students on American electoral politics. This isn’t surprising; Prof. Fowler is in the Government Department, after all. Like many of her colleagues in that distinguished group, her work has reverberations far beyond campus. In this election cycle, journalists across the country are using analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project. Directed by Prof. Fowler with colleagues from Bowdoin College and Washington State University, the Wesleyan Media Project conducts quantitative and qualitative research to understand more fully the role of spending in races across the country. As the Knight Foundation puts it, “by tracking this data year by year, the project is establishing a reference point that journalists, scholars and citizens can rely on to trace the root of campaign funding and hold officials more accountable.”

More than 20 student researchers are providing real time analysis of spending patterns at a time when many are trying to hide campaign donations. In Sunday’s New York Times, for example the WMP’s work was cited in an article exploring how Democratic donors are coordinating their efforts on a few key messages while G.O.P. spending is far more diffuse. The goals of the WMP are as simple as they are important: “to develop a definitive database that tracks all advertising by source (corporation, union, interest group, party, or candidate), and to enhance the ability of scholars, citizens, and journalists to hold government accountable by providing public information on how special interests are attempting to influence American democracy in general and political campaigns in particular.”

Prof. Fowler was recently interviewed in or quoted on MSNBC, PBS Newshour, Wisconsin Public Radio, WNPR’s “Where We Live”, International Business Times, and Fox CT, among others. Other highlights include stories in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This is engaged learning at its best! Stay tuned for more research from the Wesleyan Media Project on Oct 13. THIS IS WHY.

 

 

Election Season: Listen, Discuss, Vote

There is a definite nip in the air, and each day the sun seems just a little more apathetic as it makes its way over the Connecticut River Valley. Fall is here. So are political elections, and the air has been ringing with the sounds of…nastiness. As the Wesleyan Media Project has shown, both sides are playing the negative game. Here in Connecticut, we are treated every day to a barrage of negative advertising in a Senate race pitting a very rich wrestling magnate against a congressman trying to replace Joe Lieberman. Watching this slug-fest is even less entertaining than watching pseudo-wrestling. We’ve all seen fakery before, and so it’s easy to become cynical about the mudslinging.

It’s easy to become cynical about the political process, too, but that would be a big mistake. This election offers some of the starkest choices that American voters have been faced with in generations. This is a time for students to make their voices heard – whomever you are supporting in November. Wesleyan students have a long history of civic engagement – I saw that first-hand when I met with a large group of concerned students last week to talk about financial aid. You can see a video of the forum here. Public support for education in general and student aid in particular are very much in play in this election – and of course that’s just one of many issues on which candidates differ.

Tomorrow (Wed) night some Wesleyan student groups have set up PAC 001 so that the campus community can watch the presidential debate from 9-10:30pm. Usdan will also have snacks and debate in the café area.

If you plan to vote in Connecticut and haven’t registered yet, there’s still time to register. The website of CT’s Secretary of State has all the information you need.

It’s election season. Participate in the process: listen, discuss. And then let’s turn out to vote!

 

Wesleyan Professors and Public Life

Look for Jennifer Tucker’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times. Jennifer, a professor in history, SiSP, and FGSS, shows how Rep. Akin’s recent inane remarks come out of a long cultural tradition — “in step with medieval science, even if Mr. Akin doesn’t seem quite aware of the similarities.”

The Wesleyan Media Project continues to roll along, tracking political spending in an increasingly nasty campaign. Erika Franklin Fowler was just on NPR, where she made the point that “the most important thing to remember about political advertising is that it matters at the margins.”

It’s easy to get cynical, even disgusted, with the poisonous political ecology of our country right now. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how Wesleyan students, like their teachers, manage to engage with the electoral cycle this fall. Whatever one’s ideological perspective, we will be encouraging our students to understand the issues and to participate in the election. There are some dramatic choices to be made!

 

Making a Difference in the Environment — Natural, Political and Cultural

This evening I read an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times describing how efforts to increase forest density have led to a cascade of negative effects on local and regional eco-systems.  Well meaning attempts to “save the trees” have depleted water reserves and changed weather and soil dynamics. “As temperatures rise,” the authors conclude, “too much forest strangles too many watersheds.” Although the op-ed is brief, its arguments are built on serious research and analysis. I was delighted to see that the authors are Helen M. Poulos and Jamie G. Workman, who have been working together at Wesleyan’s College of the Environment. Helen is a post-doctoral fellow and Jamie is a Visiting Professor in the COE’s think tank. Both have been working with students this year on issues concerning water. Indeed this week they are hearing seniors present their own research, work that usually links environmental science with at least one other field. Barry Chernoff, Schumann Professor of Environmental Science and COE founder, conceived of the think tank as place for rigorous critique and generous collaboration. It’s also a place where scholars can think together about how to translate their research into interventions in the public sphere.

This week has also seen scores of media outlets using the data provided by the Wesleyan Media Project. The WMP’s latest report deals with heavy-duty pollution — the sharp rise in negative ads as compared with the 2008 presidential campaign. Project Director and Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler says that in addition to the rise in negative tone, “60 percent of all ads are sponsored by interest groups, which is really, truly a historic number.” Erika leads a team of student researchers in Middletown who code and analyze data from across the country. This research will become ever more important as the campaign churns along.

Maybe I should close with an example of Wesleyan folks attending to more positive aspects of the environment: all writers on campus working to improve the cultural world we breathe. This past weekend, Amy Bloom ’74, Kim-Frank University Writer in Residence, led Foodstock, a celebration of food and writing about it. From all accounts, the participants had an enlightening, nourishing day — and they also collected quite a bit of money and food for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry.

On Wednesday, May 9 student writing prize winners will read from their poetry and prose at Russell House, starting at 8:00 pm. The student writers who will be reading this evening,  in the this order (thanks to Anne Greene for the information):

Marina Reza ’13 (Herbert Lee Connelly nonfiction award co-winner, along with Jessica Jordan ’13 , who’s abroad)

Katherine Gibbel ’15 (Sarah Hannah Prize, poetry)

Aditi Kini ’13  (Horgan Prize, fiction)

Corey Dethier ’12  (Sophie Reed Prize, poetry)

Anna Swartz ’13  (Wesleyan Fiction Award)

I’m sure that this will be a contribution to our cultural environment that our writers will sustain!

Listening to Wesleyan

This morning as I was preparing my class, I smiled as I heard yet another report on the impact of campaign spending on the primary elections. The ads in this election cycle, the NPR reporter stressed, have been among the most negative we have ever seen. So, why was I smiling? The analysis was based on reports from the Wesleyan Media Project. Erika Franklin Fowler and her colleagues and students have been busy coding and analyzing data from around the country, enabling us to better understand the impact of big spenders, especially from SuperPacs, on our civic discourse. I wonder if our guest Thursday night will speak to this topic, and to the role of the Citizens United decision in creating our current political climate.

Over the weekend I heard a radio report about Paul Weitz’s (’88) new film, About Flynn. Paul is a proud Wes alumnus who has remained very connected to alma mater. He made a splash not long after graduation with the comedy American Pie (and later Meet the Fockers), and he has worked on animation films (Antz), television (Fantasy Island), and now written and directed the drama About Flynn. Paul also has had a hand in independent movies, online shows, documentaries as well as theater. His play, Lonely, I’m Not, is currently being cast for a run in New York.

On campus the season for senior theses plays and recitals is picking up steam. Sophie and I enjoyed Mao The Musical recently, Alan Rodi’s (’12) opera. When we return from Spring Break there will be a great series of performances by our soon-to-be Wes grads.

On Thursday, March 8 at 3:15 and 4:15, Professor Neely Bruce will lead two performances of The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets for two performances in the Wesleyan’s Memorial Chapel. You can read an interview with Prof. Bruce about his music here.

And don’t forget about AuralWes, the website about student music events/concerts on campus. The website is looking for good listeners who are also good writers.

 

Go Positive!

It’s been more than a little depressing to listen to debate performances over the last couple of months, in which candidates seem to gain in popularity by refining a formula of indignation and hostility. “How dare you,” says the candidate, puffing out his chest, wondering how any questioner could sink so low to ask about a character flaw. The same candidate then dives even lower to cast aspersions on anyone who might be considered a rival.

The research tells us why the candidates “go negative.” It works. SuperPac donors know where to invest, and they are investing in negativity in a big way. The Wesleyan Media Project research shows outside money “went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent, in 2012.” As we leave Florida and head out to Nevada, I’m afraid we can only expect more of the same.

I’m embarrassed to say that one of the key places where candidates and citizens acquire a taste for — and skills in — negativity is higher education. For decades now, we have promoted a culture of criticism in which you show how smart you are by tearing apart somebody else’s ideas. That’s a lot safer than showing how you might build your own set of ideas into something meaningful. In my recent book, Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past, I urge my colleagues to go beyond this culture of criticism to practices of creative exploration. The first off-campus reviewer of the collection couldn’t resist bringing up my dust-up with Zonker Harris. Here is an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, “Beyond Critical Thinking.”

 

I doubt that this [cultivation of negativity] is a particularly contemporary development. In the eighteenth century, there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that only prized skepticism and that was only satisfied with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that’s why we teach our students that it’s cool to say that they are engaged in “troubling” an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else’s view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).

In training our students in the techniques of being critical, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded — which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social engagement by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases, we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.

Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. … If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative rather than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean making an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For some, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.
….
The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we often create misunderstandings in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear in the languages people use the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another’s artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. … Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers, we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.

My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and patterns and relations. In so doing, they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that animate diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will give substance and character to their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustaining.

 cross-posted from Huffingtonpost

Occupy Wall Street and Education

Students have asked me about how I feel about the protests going on under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. I know several who have been participating in New York, and others who plan to join in during the fall break just about to begin.  Today I posted the following piece on the Huffington Post.

 

The Occupy Wall Street protests have become an important topic on college campuses. At Wesleyan, some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support. Given the mainstream media’s treatment of the movement, it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives or to roll one’s eyes at the absence of leaders to express a neat list of demands. But in talking with students and reading some of the statements from the Occupy Wall Street participants, it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

There is plenty to protest. There is no question that our politicians now spend enormous amounts of time raising money; we all get the robocalls and the junk mail to prove it. And there is little doubt that elected officials make decisions about particular legislation or policy initiatives while considering how those decisions will affect the willingness of their donors to contribute. At least in this way, money is eating away at our increasingly dysfunctional political system. This is not something that other representative democracies accept as a necessary part of politics. We can try to show how the money flows – that’s been one of the tasks of the Wesleyan Media Project – but we don’t stem the tide.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways. Here are three representative facts from Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

Add to this that in many parts of the country 1 in 5 children are growing up in poverty, and you begin to have a sense of what is fueling the anger of protestors who feel they have to “occupy” public spaces in their own country – a country they feel is being stolen from them.

How have these trends concerning money and inequality affected life on a university campus? We can see it at either end of the college experience, beginning with access and ending with jobs after graduation. More of our students need financial aid than ever before, and they often need bigger scholarship packages to get through school. We also see the effects of rising inequality in the choices students face when looking for jobs as graduation nears. They hope to have had practical internship experiences to bolster their resumes while undergraduates, and they often worry that the first job they get after college will set them in an income bracket that will frame them for life. They worry that if their education doesn’t seem like job training, then it isn’t education at all.

But in the campus’s classrooms, concert halls, theaters and sports facilities, I see little evidence of the pernicious economic-political trends poisoning the country at large. That’s because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation; that’s because as teachers we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students and to their freedom to participate as they wish in the educational enterprise. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance —  variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

As a university president, I do spend a lot of my time fundraising. And I am grateful for the generosity of alumni and foundations who support our financial aid and academic programs. But I am also a professor, and this support has no impact on my teaching role or on the role of my colleagues in the classroom.  Now I know that this will strike some readers as impossibly idealistic.  After all, some of our students  have had great help along the way, while others have had to struggle alone. Some come from wealthy families, others from backgrounds of poverty. There is  no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in the campus culture at schools like Wesleyan, these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, in those schools that have protected the autonomy of professors, students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

When inequality is a charged political problem, as it is right now in the United States, it is because efforts to scale back disparities of wealth are seen as an assault on freedom.  Increased state power is often needed to redistribute wealth, and many (and not only those with the money) see this as the growth of tyranny. Of course, increased state power is also used to protect wealth, which creates its own assaults on freedom. Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this. That’s why efforts to control speech with university regulations, are rightly seen (by either the Left or the Right) as anathema to the educational enterprise.  But graduation into a world in which inequality is ever more powerful comes as a rude awakening.

The campus as a place of equality and freedom has deep roots in America, at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Even with all his prejudices, he favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government’s powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites —  his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation’s elites would harden into  an “unnatural aristocracy,” increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept.

From Jefferson to our own day, we have preserved the belief that education allows for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. The author of the Declaration of Independence wanted university students to make these discoveries for themselves, not to be told to study certain fields because their futures had already been decided by their families, teachers, churches or government. Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.

Citizens are feeling they have to “occupy” the public spaces of their own country because they believe their land is being appropriated by entrenched elites. The call to “occupy”  is very similar to the Tea Party cry to “take back” our country. Can we find a way to take the experiences of freedom and equality we find in education at its best and translate them to the sphere of politics and society more broadly without at the same time increasing governmental tendencies toward tyranny? Of course, higher education has its own dilemmas of fairness and of elitism, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to connect in positive ways what we value in research and learning to our contemporary political situation.  To make these connections productive, universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.


One Week Before Elections – Don’t let Cynicism Win!

On Sunday I published an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the dangers of becoming cynical in this period of intense negative campaigning. The level of public discourse has gotten so low, so mean-spirited, that it is turning off people who might otherwise want to participate in the public sphere. Traveling to various cities, I am more aware than ever of the waves of negative advertising washing over the country. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s embrace of anonymous influence, we often don’t know who is paying for the mud that’s being tossed around, and the result is a general decline of confidence that anything important and meaningful is to be found in the public sphere. The Wesleyan Media Project, led by Professor Erika Fowler, has been offering important data on how money is being spent by independent groups this fall. The massive amount of money washing over the political system turns many of us off from wanting to engage with the electoral process. Should we describe this decline of confidence as the growth of cynicism, or just as an intelligent reaction to our contemporary context?

Cynics are no fools, and one might even describe cynicism as the effort to protect oneself from appearing foolish. One of the hallmarks of contemporary cynicism (with ancient roots) is the rejection of conventional standards. The cynic delights in rejecting the criteria of those with power and privilege, and this rejection is often mixed with contempt. Cynics “know” that the established order is wrong — corrupt, unnatural and unjust — and their knowledge can give them a sense of superiority. We reject the established ways of the world because we know better.

But cynicism about politics and the public sphere doesn’t lead to efforts to change the way things are. Instead, it leads to a withdrawal from public life, a withdrawal that is justified by the cynic’s belief in his or her own superiority. We cynics know better, and we know that participation in public life is for those who just don’t understand the ways things really work.

Another dimension of cynicism is the belief in one’s own self-sufficiency. Cynics don’t have to engage in the public sphere because they have developed a way of life that doesn’t require engagement. They have nothing to gain from interacting with others who don’t share their views, and they find reinforcement from other cynics who also reject this kind of interaction. A community based on rejection reinforces its members’ contempt for the dominant culture and their proud alienation from it. They feel they don’t need to engage because their cynicism gives them a sense of self-righteous autonomy.

Cynicism may be particularly prevalent among young people, and psychologists even have a specific measure for adolescent cynicism, Acyn2, on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. As an educator, I find this youthful attitude to be particularly worrisome, because above all it protects students from learning. Behind the façade of the knowing rejection of the status quo, behind the defense of the self-sufficient community, is the fearful refusal to engage with new possibilities. Cynics have already made up their minds, and people who have made up their minds believe they have nothing to learn.

When you participate in the public sphere, you have to open yourself up to the views of others, and real engagement means being open to change. That’s why political participation should be part of every student’s education. Participation is a public experiment through which you discover things about the world, about yourself and about the possibilities for change. Public engagement is challenging because you may be surprised that the people or systems about which you’ve already reached conclusions are more complex than you’d ever imagined — more complex and more important for shaping the future.

In this age of degraded political discourse and anonymously funded attack ads, it’s easy to see the reasons for the cynical withdrawal from public life. But we must turn back the tide of cynicism; we must show our jaded, withdrawn young people that they are not self-sufficient, and that if they don’t engage in shaping their future, somebody else will do it for them. When students turn themselves off to engagement and participation, they are cutting themselves off from learning. They are also depriving our public sphere of their energy and ideas. There is comfort in belonging to a community of cynics, but there is much more stimulation and rewarding work to be found by engaging with others in trying to make the public sphere a more meaningful environment for all of us.

One step in that process is to get out and vote next week. Voting, of course, is just one dimension of political engagement, but it is a crucial one. Two years ago groups of Wes students worked to help get people to the polls, and I hope to see them out there again. Those who participate in the system know it isn’t perfect, but they also know that if they don’t play a role in these elections, someone else will be only too happy to do it for them.