Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Egyptian sumo wrestler bests a grand champion. Twice. While fasting for Ramadan.

My regular readers know that I’m a fan of sumo, and am especially interested in the globalization of the sport. The top three rikishi (wrestlers) in Japanese sumo are from Mongolia, and top ranks of the sport have recently featured competitors from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Estonia and Brazil. On the one hand, this is helping a distinctly Japanese tradition gain global audiences, which is a great thing for the quality of the sport. On the other hand, the globalization is in part due to waning interest in the sport by Japanese youth (few of whom are excited about living the highly-regimented life of the sumo wrestler), and globalization may be contributing to waning interest in Japan, as it has been many years since a Japanese rikishi was the top competitor in the sport. (If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy a ten minute talk I gave on the subject to Microsoft Research in January 2013, available as video or as my notes.

This is the first week of the Nagoya basho, one of six two-week tournaments that are the heart of the Japanese sumo season, and much of the big news is about a foreign competitor who has recently joined the sport. Abdelrahman Shalan, who competes in sumo as Osunaarashi (which translates as “the great sandstorm”), is a 138kg, 22-year old Egyptian, who is the first Arab, the first African and the first Muslim to compete at the top level of sumo. Osunaarashi came to Japan in August 2011 to compete, and has moved through the ranks very quickly, competing for less than two years at the lower levels of the sport before joining the highest level of competition (maegashira) this past November.


Osunaarashi defeats Harumafuji!

This week, he’s making headlines not for his origins, but for his performance. Yesterday and today, Osunaarashi scored back to back kinboshi, victories of a lower ranked wrestler over a yokozuna, or grand champion. In other words, yesterday and today, Osunaarashi fought the very best guys in the sport and won. It’s worth mentioning that these two matches were the first time Osunaarashi had ever faced yokozuna, which makes the achievement even more impressive.

zabuton

Kinboshi are relatively rare in sumo. The term means “gold star”, and it refers to the fact that sumo victories and losses are traditionally tallied with white stars for wins and black stars for losses. A gold star signifies a particularly important win. These victories are so rare because yokozuna don’t lose very often – Hakuho, the most senior yokozuna, finishes most tournaments 13-2, 14-1 or a perfect 15-0… and those few losses are usually to other yokozuna or other high-ranked wrestlers (ozeki, komusubi, sekiwake). For an “ordinary” rikishi (i.e., a guy who’s competing in the top league, but hasn’t yet earned a particular rank) to beat a yokozuna is a significant enough achievement that fans usually respond by grabbing the cushions they are sitting on and throwing them into the air. The rikishi is rewarded with a modest, but significant, raise in pay, and the lists of rikishi who have accomplished kinboshi are relatively short and filled with sumo superstars. (Only 9 active competitors have 2 or more kinboshi.)

If you weren’t impressed by the fact that Osunaarashi beat yokozuna the first two times he faced them, leading the Japanese press to call him a “giant killer”, consider this: the man is fasting for Ramadan. Obviously, eating is an important part of sumo – one of the reasons rikishi live and train in communal houses is so they can follow a regimen of eating, sleeping and training that allows them to gain and maintain weight. But sumo training is demanding martial arts training, and in the summer in Japan, wrestlers gulp down water as they train to stay hydrated and cool. During Ramadan, Osunaarashi neither eats nor drinks during the day – in a Japanese-language interview, the head of his sumo “stable”, Otake Oyakata, explains that he hoses Osunaarashi down during workouts to keep him cool when he cannot drink water. Last year, >commentators were concerned that Osunaarashi would not be able to compete for a full 15 days while fasting – the big man went 10-5, and I’ve yet to see a news story this year that even mentions his observance.

osunaarashi

I have enormous respect for Osunaarashi, who not only is showing himself as a magnificent athlete, but is introducing the Japanese public to the dedication, intensity and beauty of the Muslim faith. Sumo wrestlers are not just competitors, but celebrities and cultural figures. Osunaarashi is emerging as an ambassador for the Muslim world, appearing as a guest lecturer in university classes and on TV to talk about differences and similarities between Japan and Egypt, between Islam and Shintoism.

I also have great admiration for Otake Oyakata, who has broken some of the traditions of sumo to make it possible for Osunaarashi to compete. Life in the sumo beya is highly ritualized – simply giving Osunaarashi time to pray five times a day is a break from sumo routines. Rikishi eat a rich, pork-heavy stew called chankonabe to pack on weight – the Otake stable now offers a fish-based chankonabe to Osunaarashi so he can gain weight while eating halal. These sound like minor changes, but they’re a big deal for a sport that is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and extremely slow to change. (Rikishi appear in public wearing kimono and sandals, never in western street clothes, for example.)

My friend Hiromi Onishi, a senior executive with Asahi Shinbum, and I have been bonding over our fondness for Osunaarashi and trading links about him. Hiromi theorizes that Osunaarashi’s popularity in Japan tracks the nation’s engagement with different parts of the world. In the 1980s, Hawaiian sumo wrestlers came to dominate the sport, just as Japanese tourists were beginning to travel to those destinations. As Mongolians came into the sport in the early 2000s and eastern Europeans in the later 2000s, Japan has been increasingly globalized and engaging in trade and travel to these parts of the world. Now, as Japanese hotels learn to provide halal options for Muslim travelers and show other signs of connection to the Muslim world, Osunaarashi emerges as an ambassador.

For those of you meaning to start watching sumo, it’s great to have someone to support. If you’re an African, an Arab, a Muslim, or any other kind of human being, please join me in supporting Osunaarashi. With two kinboshi, he’s likely to win the Outstanding Performance prize in this tournament, and if he keeps his winning ways up, perhaps he can defeat Hakuho as well and take down all three yokozuna. Inshallah!


Thoughtful Quora post from Sed Chapman on the history of foreign rikishi and Japan’s reactions to Osunaarashi.

Kintamayama posts footage of bashos with English title cards – an amazing resource for the sumo fan outside Japan.


Summer Reading: Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Much of my summer reading centers on the idea of civics outside of the conventional bounds of the state. I’m interested in understanding reasons why individuals and groups grow frustrated with traditional state-bound politics, and what forms of civics they explore when they opt out of engagement with the state. I’m fond of extreme cases as a way of understanding the limits of a position, so I’ve been reading about seasteading, the “dark enlightenment” movement, and prepper culture, all of which appear to me to be responses to the perception that existing states are inexorably failing.

These three forms of exit all involve a conscious renunciation of states and their accompanying services and protections. In the case of seasteading and the DE folks, this renunciation is made on an ideological basis, the belief that freedom from state tyranny (defined various ways, but usually through taxation and regulation) requires exit from political systems rather than the use of voice to influence these systems. Preppers see a collapse of existing states, either through political or natural disaster, as inevitable, and preparation to survive the collapse as prudent.

In reading about these movements, I was intrigued to see the phrase “zombie apocalypse” recur as an example of the sorts of disasters that might bring existing states to their demise. Nick Land, one of the central thinkers of the Dark Enlightenment movement, titles a section of his manifesto, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards zombie apocalypse”, a particularly dark way of stating his reactionary historical thesis. In the prepper community, “zombie apocalypse” is a common enough shorthand for “unspecified disaster” that the US Centers for Disease Control has used Zombie Preparedness as a way to get Americans to talk about more conventional disasters they should prepare for, like tornados or floods.

CDC's Zombie Poster

But zombies are not just another natural disaster, and our anxieties about zombies are more complicated and multilayered than our fears of the implications of global warming. As John Feffer notes, our fear of zombies is a manifestation of our broader fears about globalization and pandemic, and about immigration and “the enemy within”, the post-9/11 anxiety about sleeper cells and the fears that our neighbors will turn out to be homicidally “other”. Accompanying the fears is a set of fantasies. The dream of the well-prepared survivor protecting his or her family from mindless hordes is remarkably similar whether the hordes are composed of fellow citizens less prepared for the disaster, hungry for carefully stockpiled resources, or the undead hungry for brains. The zombie apocalypse is caused when people who look like us, but are not as resourceful/prepared/strong/worthy as us, become the enemy. It’s John Galt’s nightmare, where unproductive moochers rise up to demand food, education, healthcare and eventually the very lives of the more productive and worthy citizens.

The “what’s mine is mine” stance isn’t the only possible reaction to societal collapse, including zombie apocalypse. Jeriah Bowser, who self-identifies as a prepper, has a beautiful response to this selfish view of the comping collapse. His thoughtful piece on teaching wilderness survival to preppers concludes:

I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.”)

If we want to move beyond “hide and hoard” approaches, we need to consider the role of large-scale human organization in the face of the zombie threat. While most literature on the undead focuses on individual preparedness and response, it is worth considering the ways in which the zombie apocalypse has consequences for existing states, up to and including, their collapse. Fortunately, political scientist Daniel Drezner has considered the implications of widespread zombie attack and the stresses it would create on states in his seminal “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” Published in 2011, Drezner’s volume is not only the most comprehensive overview of likely state responses to the rise of flesh-eating formerly dead ghouls, it is also a thoughtful overview of the zombie canon (though clearly an American-centered understanding of the canon that consciously excludes the West African/Haitian view of zombies as living servants enslaved by magic or pharmacology, for example.)

Dresner explores state responses to a zombie pandemic from various philosophical points of view. Political realists, he predicts, will see zombies as a manageable fact of life in a globalized world, more threatening to weak states than to strong ones (much as communicable diseases and famines are.) Liberals will seek cooperation through international institutions and may mitigate and contain the threat of the living dead through regulation, but their insistence on open societies will complicate crisis response by forcing governments to deal with civil society, which may support zombie rights. Neocons will likely incorporate zombies into an Axis of the Evil Dead and turn a disastrous war on zombies into a war on autocrats, likely creating more zombies in the process.

Some of Dresner’s most nuanced analysis comes in the chapter on the social construction of zombies. Referencing thinkers like Alex Wendt, Dresner outlines a constructivist view of zombies based around the core idea that “zombies are what humans make of them”. Under a constructivist theory, zombie and human coexistence is both possible and desirable – the key is to escape existing paradigms that see the rise of zombies as an existential threat to human existence and to seek integration of zombies into human society, much as is accomplished at the end of Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”.

In exploring the constructivist approach to zombies, Dresner steps up to the edge of a radical idea, then steps back. Dresner’s serious consideration of human/zombie coexistence is a brave move, though one he’s clearly uncomfortable with. In his literature review, Dresner makes clear “this project is explicitly prohuman, while Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p.17) In his consideration of liberal, multilateralist approaches to the zombie phenomenon, he warns that the rise of activist organizations to protect zombie rights would likely complicate or prevent global zombie eradication. (p.58-9)

Perhaps due to his inherent anthropocentrism, his suspicion of rights-based theories of politics, or the simple fact that the extant zombie literature had yet to articulate this view, Dresner is not able to consider the idea that perhaps zombification is, perhaps, a desirable next state of human existence. This radical idea is articulated by celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead, whose underappreciated contribution to the zombie canon, “Zone One”, follows a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of zombies to make the nation’s most valuable real estate inhabitable once more. “Zone One”, Manhattan below Canal Street, is one of the last safe zones in a United States transformed by zombie attacks.

(SPOILER ALERT – Stop reading here if you’re planning on reading the novel.)

While annihilation is a common theme in the zombie canon, most works focus on the transformation of society by the zombie threat. Protagonists die, but humanity survives. There are simple narrative reasons for this: it’s hard to follow a narrative when all narrators have been exterminated. In Whitehead’s apocalypse, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity cannot survive. Lower Manhattan will fall. At the close of the book, we learn that the narrator’s nickname comes from his inability to swim and fear of water, which has near-perilous consequences as he is trapped by zombies with escape possible only by diving into a stream. (As with all of Whitehead’s work, this is a comment on race in America, a reference to stereotypes of African-Americans not learning to swim.) As the novel comes to a close, waves of zombies, held back by a fragile wall, threaten to swamp Zone One and Mark Spitz realizes that it is time to learn to swim, to dive over the wall and embrace his new life as a zombie. This is suicide, the annihilation of the self, but it is also rebirth, the embrace of a new way of being in the world.

Whitehead’s radical suggestion is that we entertain the idea that it might be okay to become a zombie. That Whitehead continually confronts the idea of otherness by examining what it means to be black in a white world, may invite us to consider this idea purely as metaphor. But read literally, it’s an intriguing concept, though impossible to evaluate as the zombie is constructed as so radically other than we cannot imagine our zombified existence in anything other than cartoonish terms. (Consider how few narratives are offered from the zombie’s eye view – Jonathan Coulton’s “re: Your Brains” is one fine example, but is a reminder that the zombie perspective is so uncomfortable, it must be played for laughs, not serious consideration.)

If we read the zombie as the fear of the immigrant as other, Whitehead’s possible future merits close consideration. Some of the anxiety over the zombie invasion maps to fear of a “majority minority” nation, one where the current “default” white, Anglo-Saxon identity is merely one of many origins and backgrounds that make up a heterogenous whole. Perhaps Dresner needs to offer an update, informed by Whitehead’s addition to the canon, that considers a cosmopolitan framing of the states and zombies question. If cosmopolitanism involves recognizing the validity of other ways of living life and accepting that we may have obligations to those who live differently, perhaps it offers a framework for human/zombie coexistence, and perhaps, a richer, more varied society that recognizes the contributions and perspectives of the differently animated.

More likely, this cosmopolitan framework would rapidly lead to annihilation of human life as we know it. “As we know it” is the key phrase. The radical version of the cosmopolitan stance demands we consider the possibility that a world transformed by zombies is an optimistic future, or perhaps simply a less bleak future than one in which the main form of human existence is self-centered conflict to avoid the zombie onslaught. This is a subtext in virtually all of the zombie canon: the seven occupants of the farmhouse in Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead cannot cooperate or compromise, while the zombie horde at their door is remarkably coherent and peaceful, united by their desire for tasty human flesh. If we cannot unite to tackle an existential threat, perhaps we deserve our extinction. Perhaps our unity with the horde is a higher state.

This is why the zombie apocalypse analogy is such a dangerous one. If we cannot imagine a future in which we survive our encounter with the other, our likely response is to hide and hoard, to hunker down, as Robert Putnam describes, in the most extreme (and heavily armed) ways possible. Drezner does us a service in positing a world where we manage a zombie invasion much as we manage any other pandemic, and life is transformed, but still recognizable. But as soon as we posit an other – zombies, terrorists, (welfare recipients and liberals for the DE folks) – whose desire for our extinction is innate, coexistence is impossible, cooperation towards extinction of the threat fraught, and our annihilation inevitable. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”


Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression

My wife is one of the bravest people I know.

Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.

Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.

Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.

(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)

In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.

I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.

I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.

But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013′s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014′s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.

Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.

These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.

My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.

I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)

There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)

But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.

I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped. My friend Ed Platt notes, in a thoughtful blog post, that this probably isn’t an appropriate option for people with serious alcohol problems.)

As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)

So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”

It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.

So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)

I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.


“New media, new civics?” and reactions in Policy & Internet

This past December, I gave a talk at the Oxford Internet Institute about possible relationships between “new media” and new approaches to participatory civics – I blogged my notes for the talk at the time.

The fine folks at OII asked whether I would be willing to publish the notes of the lecture in the journal Policy & Internet, edited by Vili Lehdonvirta, who had invited me to lecture at Oxford, and by Helen Margetts and Sandra Gonzalez Bailon. I agreed, and worked with the editors to polish my handwavings into something more permanent.

What I had not realized was that the editors had solicited a set of responses to the lecture from some of the smartest people in the new media, political theory and social activism space. The latest issue of P&I features my essay, as well as responses from Zeynep Tufekci, Jennifer Earl, Henry Farrell, Phil Howard, Deen Freelon and Chris Wells, who do a great job individually and collectively of challenging and expanding my thinking.

P&I, unfortunately, is protected by paywall, but I and others involved are archiving pre-press versions of our papers. Mine will be up on MIT’s DSpace repository in the near future and is here in the meantime. Other participants have been making their pieces available online as well. If you’ve got access through your university or a library, please check out the whole issue!


Town Meeting and a lesson on civic efficacy

Last night, I attended Town Meeting in Lanesborough, MA.

Town meeting government is peculiar to New England and especially strong in Massachusetts, where almost 300 of the state’s municipalities are governed by an annual meeting of town residents. My town is under the population threshold of 6000 at which towns can choose to elect representatives to town meeting. In small towns like ours, we are required to hold an open town meeting, at which any residents may speak and ask questions and where registered voters vote on any major discretionary spending and on changes to the town’s bylaws.

These aren’t the question and answer sessions with national-level elected officials that became infamous for revealing how angry and partisan many American are. They are dead practical discussions of individual line items in the annual budget of a small, mostly volunteer-run organization. (Lanesborough has three elected selectmen, who appoint a paid town manager. The selectmen are nominally compensated for their work, and most committee members are volunteers. The town’s budget of $10 million, goes almost exclusively towards salaries for teachers, school administrators, police and highway workers.) The conversations that take place aren’t the sort that play well on cable TV news – instead, they’re familiar to anyone who’s served on the board of a budget-constrained nonprofit organization.

Town meetings are frequently lauded as one of the purest forms of direct democracy. Everyone has a voice, which is a good and a bad thing – only fifteen minutes into last night’s meeting, it became clear why every meeting has a moderator and why that moderator has extremely broad discretion over closing discussion on a topic. About an hour into the meeting, I asked a question about a $10,000 expenditure on road repairs, and quickly regretted doing so. I was curious because it was the sole article on the warrant where the selectmen and finance committee were at odds, and I was interested to know what the dispute was about. Half an hour later, I knew a great deal more about the problem of runoff from unpaved roads into Pontoosuc Lake, snowplowing and the nuances of accepted, non-accepted and private roads than I’d really wanted to know.


Mark Schiek, Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman, speaks at Lanesborough Town Meeting. Photo from iBerkshires

I was acutely aware of the time my question was taking up because, like most of the people who attended the meeting, I was there because of a single article, Article 21, slated for discussion near the end of the meeting. Lanesborough has quite high tax rates (38th statewide), even for Massachusetts, in part because we maintain our own elementary school and share a high school with larger, wealthier Williamstown. That high school has serious structural deficiencies, and there’s a plan on the table to retrofit the building or build a new facility. First step in that plan is gaining approval for a $850,000 feasibility study at the town meetings in Williamstown and Lanesborough.

Many of the people in the elementary school gym last night are parents of young children (like me) who wanted to ensure that their children’s high school remains strong. And, like me, many were paying babysitters to watch their kids so they could vote in favor of a feasibility study.

My presence at Town Meeting was a straightforward illustration of an idea Anthea Watson Strong introduced at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York. To explain why it’s often difficult to get people involved in civics, she offered an equation:

antheaequation

The benefit of renovations to our local high school is quite high for me: my son enters kindergarden in 15 months, which means he’s likely to enjoy the full benefits of a new or renovated middle and high school. Those campaigning in favor of the feasibility study persuaded me that P was pretty high, as they were expecting showdown between pro-education and anti-tax forces, and they needed every vote they could get, as this allocation requires a supermajority. Even without considering duty, P * B was high enough to overcome the substantial cost of action: three hours of a babysitter, a rushed dinner instead of a night of bad TV on the couch.

As it happens, Article 21 didn’t need my vote. Several townspeople spoke passionately about the need for strong schools, one suggesting that as Berkshire County shrinks in population, we should expect our high school to become a magnet for high performing students in nearby communities. Members of the regional school committee had good answers to probing questions about school choice, tuition for out of town students and the steps in funding a renovation process. Two townspeople spoke against the article – as it turned out, they were the only ones I saw vote against the article – well over a hundred voted for it. I misperceived P – spending time at Town Meeting seemed like an effective civic action because I anticipated showdown that didn’t actually occur. (I suspect that “perceived P” is more important than actual P – if you think your vote counts, you’re more likely to vote.)

When the Article passed, dozens of people left the meeting. I left, too – I wanted to pay my babysitter and get to bed. In the process, I illustrated precisely the problem Massachusetts communities are having with town meeting. Several communities have abandoned the meeting system of government because it’s very hard to get people to attend when there’s not a controversial issue on the table. In other words, D is very low. In my case, it’s low enough that it hasn’t moved me to attend Town Meeting in the 15 years I’ve lived in town, until an issue arose where PB > C.

That may change for me. I learned a great deal about my town by attending town meeting, details about how the water, sewers and roads work that I’ve honestly never thought about. The main thing I learned was that to participate in these meetings effectively, I’d need to do a great deal of reading ahead of time, much as I prepare for budget committee meetings for NGO boards I sit on. At that point, P would be higher (though, most of the time, I’m not sure B or D is high enough for me to stay engaged.)

These calculations about the civic utility of attending town meeting suggest some problems for those who are seeking change through government transparency. It’s hard to think of a ritual more conducive to transparency than the Town Meeting. The town publishes an annual report with a detailed, proposed budget ahead of time, and every line of the budget can be questioned by any resident. While this transparency is laudable, it’s also extremely confusing to those who don’t know the issues already. Transparency without explanation opens the process to those who have time and motivation to learn what’s at stake. The rest of us could use a good guide, something we rely on the increasingly stretched local press for. The Berkshire Eagle ran a brief story about what issues were on the table at the meeting, though no follow up about what decisions were made. (A local news site had an excellent article on the Article 21 vote.)

There’s another way of considering engagement in Town Meeting, beyond Anthea’s PB + D > C
equation. Zeynep Tufekci, reacting to a tweet I posted about Anthea’s framework, wondered whether a game theoretic equation was the best explanation for civic behavior. She suggested that most people participate in social movements because their friends are participating, or because it seemed like “the right moment”, not because of some careful calculus. That’s true for me, too. My favorite waitress at Bob’s Country Kitchen, who’s slated to be my son’s kindergarten teacher, urged me to pay attention to the school funding issue, and friends at a BBQ talked about the importance of passing Article 21. Without those nudges from my neighbors, it’s a lot less likely that I’d have left my house last night.

Much of my research on civics focuses on questions of why people don’t find it effective to engage with their governments. It was a refreshing challenge to my thinking to spend time with my local government and find it surprisingly open and responsive. At the same time, it was a reminder that many of the issues I care about – prison reform, gun control – aren’t ever going to be settled in a room as transparent and congenial as the Lanesborough Elementary School gym.


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