Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Census Communus

Yesterday we received our pre-Census letter, which informs us that the 2010 Census is on its way. The letter, however, does more than this: it attempts to persuade us that completing and promptly returning the 2010 Census is vital. Let me start by saying that so do I. I think it is important that everyone is counted so that everyone, in a certain way, counts. This does not mean to say that I think the Census is perfect. There are important debates about how it counts, how it organizes people into categories, etc. What I find interesting about this letter is the particular pitch it makes and what that pitch says to us about what we think democracy is all about.

A colleague of mine in the Government Department has written a book, Democratic Faith, that describes what he calls "a state of quiet crisis" in democratic theory. His introduction, which is all I have read so far, explores the tension between the idea that democracy "takes men as they are" and the idea that people must be fashioned for democratic life. "While claiming to take 'men as they are,'" he writes,
democratic theory from its inception, even to its dominant contemporary expressions, exhibits anything but satisfaction for the civic capacities of ordinary humans, and seeks, sometimes to a major extent, to alter that condition for democratic ends.
As a teacher and researcher in rhetoric and writing, I can attest to this tension, while freely admitting that I do not feel it as strongly. I very much see my pedagogy as focused on something like citizenship: that the ability to engage others rhetorically through writing and other forms of composition is vital to the life and health of democracy. I see cultivating (better) citizens as necessary because I do not find democracy (nor any other form of government) "natural." I do not feel that if only we somehow removed all external forces humans will naturally desire democracy.

I believe this, in large part, because much of my research is centered around the idea that much of what we take as "natural" in human beings is cultivated or inculcated. Forms of government do simply arrive after the fact of subject formation and then are either accepted or rejected (America's recent efforts at "nation building" certainly point to this fact). Societies, with their cultures and forms of government, fashion their own subjects both implicitly and explicitly. I see my pedagogy as in largely in the "explicitly" category. A government is not simply added to already existing subjects, but is, in many important ways, the sub-stance of subjectivity itself. But this moves me in other directions.

So I return then to this pre-Census letter:
Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.
Obviously, one would take more time and care in conducting a fully rigorous rhetorical analysis, but a few things strike me as obvious here:
  • "get" and "receive" are prominent (essentially, the same notion of "getting" appears twice in a very short letter)
  • what we get are "funds" (for important things, mind you)
What isn't mentioned, or what is implied we could say generously, are notions of representation, a sense of gaining an understanding of the changing demographic landscape of the United States, and many of the other things Census data can be used for. Also, no appeals to citizenship are made: "fill this out because you live here." "Freedom Isn't Free - All True Patriots Complete the Census."

What is valuable about democracy, this letter argues (as I have haphazardly read it) is its ability to satisfy individual or group interests. I want to be careful here, obviously. Fair and equitable distribution of resources is about more than self-interest. Indeed, the allocation of government resources is one of the primary ways we manifest our values. What I focused on is the appeal made here. The appeal is not social (I recognize the use of community and the "your neighbor" line) in any meaningful way. In fact, as I read it, "community" in the first line is always about "your community" in the last line. What about communities that are not mine--neighbors that are not mine? The 2010 Census, and thus, I would argue, democracy, is about you getting what you want. There is no sense here (or not enough for me, at least) of what my colleague in Government calls "civic excellence."

In conclusion, I am not all that impressed with this letter and the perspective on democracy it bellies (I would not, however, automatically attribute these values to the author of the document--many civil servants are clearly not just in it for themselves). Nor would I say that I am surprised. I will not, however, despair; I have a rhetoric and writing class to plan.


  1. This is a very curious response, from my view. I was trying to find the text I read somewhere this weekend to start my response: something about "the flame of the desire for liberty is intrinsic in all men, and will not be extinguished until..." or something 18th century like that.

    In any case, you seem to recognize that this letter is about motivating action: namely, getting people to return the form after completing it responsibly, right?

    But then you seem to be dissatisfied with the appeal to self-interest as the source of motivation. Are you imagining an alternative?

    Fill this out because--what?--if you don't, then people in Ohio won't get their fair share? That not only doesn't make sense, it wouldn't serve as motivation.

    As I've argued before, communalist politics actually would work if only this stubborn fact of human psychology could be altered. But the "New Socialist Man" never seems to materialize. Look:


    But I can see that you're being consistent: you are arguing, right, that there is no a priori human nature?

    The only alternative motivation I can imagine might come in the form of a church-based census: Fill this out because God wants you to, and he told me, the Pope, to tell you so.


  2. You have my dog and pony and human nature show down, that is for sure.

    I guess your argument that "Fill this out because--what?--if you don't, then people in Ohio won't get their fair share? That not only doesn't make sense, it wouldn't serve as motivation," about which you are probably right, is disappointing, for lack of a more "serious" word. Why wouldn't it serve as motivation? And I don't think this necessarily moves us in the direction of socialism, which, as you say, will never come (nor should it).

    I guess I am arguing for more of a balance between democracy as shared governance (we are all responsible for our collective welfare - "by the people," remember) and democracy as (enlightened) self-interest. Does the free market motive, in other words, have to pervade EVERYTHING in public life to the point that PUBLIC life is meaningless?

  3. I wish to address Casey's rattling of that old canard that there is no altruistic behavior.I think this needs to be addressed first. Self-interest isn't necessarily selfish.I am convinced that Jay Leno's owing 50 vintage cars is what he wants to do and I am convinced that Mother Theresa washing the feet of lepers was doing what she wanted to do--or soldiers jumping on grenades for their brothers and sisters in combat. Granting that we all do what we want (in normal circumstances) isn't a deal breaker. We also dont' get to want our wants. Our wants our cultivated and they are myriad. Aristole's notion that happiness is the goal of life is an empty summation that is in need of being filled---what should make us happpy? What should we want is a very maleable idea and the fact that some choose to own 50 cars and others to sacrifice for others speaks to a variety of responses. But we don't stop there as a culture and as a democratic culture. We dont give Nobel Prizes to owning 50 vintage cars; we do give Congressional medals of honors and prizes for a certain class of self-interest.

    With that said and with an understanding that the pre census letter is a nudge and even granting that it is a nudge in the right direction (that the odds go up that more people than otherwise will complete it) is not at all to argue against the need to analyze the kind of self-interest that is being appealed to.

    I personally think (but with an eye to other I)
    that not only is a low ball appeal likely to miss some--not be fully persuasive -- especially if it doesn't at least connect self-interest to enlightened self interest)but there is also the possibility that the time spent in filling out the census is still greater than some imagined "gain" that one might get. I think in fact that it woudl take a fairly enlightened citizen to see the value in filling this out even for the grossest of reasons. I suspect a lot of people vote because this government if of the people and by the people and for the people and that their motives --their self-interest--can be traced back to some habits inculcated in grade school.

  4. If Tom's right, and I think he is, then there's no need for a verbal distinction between "self-interest" and "enlightened self-interest."

    Of course, I also think he's wrong a little: what about selfless love? There are plenty of cases of people "taking a bullet"--literally and figuratively--out of a sense of love, or even just duty. I *guess* I could say it's in my self-interest to die to save my children if I have to, but that seems like a stretch to me.

  5. Wow, a long interesting discussion. Coming late to the party, I'll throw in a tentative oar: shouldn't this discussion overtly acknowledge the problem of voter turn-out? American Idol had more votes than the last presidential election (granted, with Idol, interested parties can vote more than once... excuse my sensationalism).

    Of course, these are likely related problems to the shift in educational focus Nathaniel (implicitly?) addresses. Particularly in the Roman period, education stressed the obligation of civic engagement over the pursuit of self-interest (to the extent that Cicero had to defend reading poetry and philosophy as something more than mere indulgences). Such an attitude continues into the 18th century--it is in the 19th century, with the rise of the secular research institution (I'm thinking of Kant here, those who have taken institutional rhetorics with Rickert will know what I am talking about) that we see a heightened rise in individualism.

    Today I completed a national research survey on "applied research" and "external audiences." One of the questions asked whether I supported such research because it contributed to "civic and moral education." At the end of the survey, when it asked for comments, I addressed this particular question as a problem: is teaching civic engagement and morality the same thing? I heartily want to say no--that one can teach participation without teaching a particular "good." I expect Casey will have problems with this?

  6. Holy crap. I don't really have problems with this. I'm just earnestly befuddled. I feel like somehow we've all flipped "sides," and ya'll are pushing an agenda of morality and virtue and engaged/communal citizenship, which, I have to admit, makes me want to bang on a drum and refusing to cooperate.

    You guys sound like Plato. My brain is shooting off sparks. Short circuiting. And I can't tell if I like it or not.

  7. I don't see how pushing an agenda, which is everyone's business by the way, makes one a Platonist. Marc seems pretty clear on this point: "I heartily want to say no--that one can teach participation without teaching a particular "good." While I would argue (against Santosis) that we could see participation itself as a "particular 'good,'" (this relates to Burke's criticism of Dewey's celebration of intelligence), which one could, as Casey might, resist. That is, "participation" is an agenda that I push as a "good." I would rephrase Santos's point this way: "one can teach participation without a particular 'telos' (like, we would agree, Plato does)" How does that sound?

  8. That sounds fine. We can do whatever we want, of course. My concern was with the language about creating new motivations in citizens by enacting policy toward those ends. Peter Orzag's currently the en vogue target for Conservatives because he talks about "nudging" the demos to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn't. Glenn Beck was mad in the attitude of this title today:


    I agree with Beck on this point. Nudges do tend to turn into shoves. I'm not interested in proposing a government that does this kind of stuff, and I'm willing to suggest that it IS possible to imagine a government that doesn't work at encouraging or "positively reinforcing" certain patterns of behavior in its citizens. It's my view that academics are too comfortable right now talking about how we can get people to show up to vote or fill out a form or drive below the speed limit if we pass certain laws or offer certain incentives to get them to act the way "we" (ahem!) want.

    So you're pushing, let's say, "participation," and I'm increasingly skeptical about why. Nobody except enlightened beings wake up in the morning with no telos... and forgive me, but I'm not able to believe that that's the position you and Santos are in each morning.

    I believe you're "concealing" (to give it a conspiratorial label) your teleology, and quite effectively, I might add. You're talking about creating a certain kind of citizen, and I'm not comfortable with that attitude, which seems to me to be unnecessary. Especially coming from a teacher who, I'm assuming, claims to value diversity in ideas and values... a teacher who values those things would have no need to "create" any kind of value system or motivation system that is not already present.

    Obviously, I've put this all in stark terms to sharpen/expedite the conversation... apologies for the sharpness.

  9. For sharpness's sake I'll focus on the following from you:

    "I believe you're "concealing" (to give it a conspiratorial label) your teleology, and quite effectively, I might add. You're talking about creating a certain kind of citizen, and I'm not comfortable with that attitude, which seems to me to be unnecessary. Especially coming from a teacher who, I'm assuming, claims to value diversity in ideas and values... a teacher who values those things would have no need to "create" any kind of value system or motivation system that is not already present."

    First, how I can be concealing what I tell you I am doing?

    Second, and this is the rub, the value of diversity of ideas and values is a value, and that value is not automatic. Anybody invested in such values is going to have to fight for them. Not many things are "already present" as you say. History seems to bear this out.

    Third, you seem to assume that identity, like values, is already present. I would very much beg to differ. Your identity is predicated upon a lifetime of experiences (direct and indirect) which have nudged your identity into place and continue to do so all the time (think about how this conversation is nudging and, in some cases, shoving us). Nudges can turn into shoves, but there is no nudge-free zone. No place where YOU can stand clear of EVERYONE and EVERYTHING else. If you want to find people who have not been nudged I suggest researching feral children; if this is what you are after, then more power to you.

    (BTW: Beck has a problem with certain Nudges but not ALL nudges. The government shouldn't tell citizens what do, except all the things Beck doesn't want citizens do [for instance, Beck's recent civil suit against a parody website] - now that's concealing a telos. If he wanted to abolish all laws [which are nudges apparently] I would respect his position [I would be terrified nevertheless]. This likewise reminds me of Limbaugh's invocation of survival of the fittest to defend cut-throat business tactics, but who would likewise claim that someone breaking into his house and stealing his stuff is against the law, thus begging the question of why it's okay to outlaw some behaviors - such as a more physically fit man stealing a less physically fit man's stuff - but not others. Also, tried to read the story but had to subscribe to read the rest [the irony a website nudging me to read the rest of a story bemoaning nudges].)

    Ultimately, I believe values have to be inculcated, and that because they have to be inculcated they can/should be debated.

  10. Feral Children: http://www.feralchildren.com/en/index.php

  11. I hear you. It seems like a fundamental disagreement though, huh? --about identity I mean-- based in different experience, maybe.

  12. "Your identity is predicated upon a lifetime of experiences (direct and indirect) which have nudged your identity into place and continue to do so all the time (think about how this conversation is nudging and, in some cases, shoving us). "

    Hear, here. Performativity at work. Values aren't simply inculcated once, but (as Latour would note) continually renewed through ritual, act, social.

    And this would seem to be a fundamental disagreement over a traditional conception of the soul (the possibility of a unique kernal of "you"). At its hyperbolic limit, the question of whether Peyton Manning would be Peyton Manning if he were drafted by the Raiders. Or, in more traditional terms, whether / the extent to which you would be you if you were born 100 years ago.

  13. Right. That's the disagreement. What's interesting to me is that ya'll seem willing to discount my personal testimony because it differs from your own.

    I'm saying I know -- by experience -- that I am more than "just" the sum of my experiences. That I have a kind of eternal/transcendental identity. It's weird to me that you would feel confident "theorizing" on this point, saying in effect, "Nuh uh, Casey."

    It's like someone who has not (yet?) fallen in love denying the existence of love, isn't it?

  14. I wouldn't disagree that we experience our identity as such. I fell like "me" most of the time, but this doesn't preclude that me from being the sum of my experiences, which are unique to me. I guess, in the end, I wouldn't say "'just'" as you do. I think this is the tension.

    On the issue of discounting your personal testimony. I guess that we are in as much as we might disagree with your view of identity (which is a part of that identity). But if, as we assert, identity is contestable, it is only natural that in challenging you we discount your version of you. We never said rhetoric was always fun or content, but we do try to be generous. If (dis)agreement matters, then it is likely to matter a lot. I will suggest Jim Corder's "Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love" before Santos does.

  15. Where's Santos on this question? This is what's wrong with blogging... just as soon as we almost get anywhere, the string gets too long. Santos: is my identity contestable, from your view? What about all that "Other" talk?

    I'm thinking about starting a YouTube Channel, with a shared username and password for anyone who wants to participate. Maybe that would help? Plus, why not give oratory a chance at rebirth?