January 5, 2012
One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks. Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.
Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition’s ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.
Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).
After Democrats lost the 2000 elections, for example, some liberal intellectuals and activists concluded that they were being outgunned in the arena of political communication, and created, among other institutions, the Center for American Progress — a think tank with a heavy emphasis on message development. And in 2008, after Republicans lost amid deep concern about the financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, some conservatives concluded that they needed more creative economic thinking, and this yielded, among other projects, e21 — a right-of-center economic-policy think tank based in Washington and New York. This trend — which might be summed up as “lose an election, gain a think tank” — has not only increased the proliferation of such institutions, but has also tended to make their work all the more responsive to political needs and developments, for better and for worse.
Today, think tanks are highly influential in our politics; their research and scholars are heavily consulted and relied on by our elected leaders. And in a time of both daunting policy challenges and highly polarized political debates, there is every reason to expect that think tanks will grow only more important in Washington.
As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation. Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation…
How Luther went viral: Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation
January 5, 2012
IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.
That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.
Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.
Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.
New post from Martin Luther
The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517. The “95 Theses” were propositions written in Latin that he wished to discuss, in the academic custom of the day, in an open debate at the university. Luther, then an obscure theologian and minister, was outraged by the behaviour of Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was selling indulgences to raise money to fund the pet project of his boss, Pope Leo X: the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hand over your money, went Tetzel’s sales pitch, and you can ensure that your dead relatives are not stuck in purgatory. This crude commercialisation of the doctrine of indulgences, encapsulated in Tetzel’s slogan—“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs”—was, to Luther, “the pious defrauding of the faithful” and a glaring symptom of the need for broad reform. Pinning a list of propositions to the church door, which doubled as the university notice board, was a standard way to announce a public debate.
Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”
The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation…
Suddenly we know we are many: Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant
January 5, 2012
Shortly before the elections they repaired the roof of the kindergarten in our courtyard. But not out of concern for the children. No, the real reason is very simple: this kindergarten doubles as a polling station. And the logic of our rulers is equally simple: if there is water dripping through the roof while people are casting their votes, the voters may be annoyed and put their cross in the wrong box. This is assuming that the voters have failed to notice that water has been dripping onto the heads of their children for years on end (the roof is only repaired immediately before elections) or that they would never make a connection between the leaky roof and the well-fed physiognomy of the politicians. As if people only use their brains and take action once every four years, namely, when they go to the polling station to vote.
This about sums up the Duma’s style: impudence, total confidence in its impunity and contempt for the people. So it is only natural to ask what kind of people would tolerate such a government? In my opinion the word “tolerate” is not entirely appropriate here because to tolerate means to recognise the humiliating aspect of the situation. We have, however, become so accustomed to this situation, that we no long notice it, it’s as if an unscrupulous government were as much a permanent feature of Russian life as the short summer or the soggy paths in spring and autumn. Just as the inhabitants of a megalopolis rarely notice the toxicity of the air they breathe.
Political freedom has never existed in Russia. Which is why in our country even critically minded people are not used to thinking about society as a whole, and many of them genuinely see no connection between a kindergarten’s leaking roof and the Duma elections. Politics is one thing, life is another. Russian society, particularly when it comes to my generation, is extremely unpolitical and this gives the government more or less unlimited freedom. We are not concerned about the government and that suits the government just fine.
Of course there are people, plenty of them, who very definitely do make this connection. But even they do not get involved. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the entire political system in Russia – from village soviet to federal committee – is based on lies, on the pursuit of private instead of societal interests, and on theft. Even an honest person who ends up in politics has to play the game to some extent, otherwise he will be “eaten“ by less upstanding colleagues. This is why honest people give politics a wide berth. And engage in civil society in other ways. Such as in the voluntary movement which in recent years has become a mass phenomenon.
Secondly, there has been neither political nor personal freedom in Russia for a very long time. Throughout the 20th century the totalitarian state wanted to control all spheres of life. This is no longer the case. The state no longer reaches into personal affairs, into the family and into people’s inner lives. Beyond this, many people don’t ask more of the state. People are left in peace, they are no longer shot for reading forbidden poetry, they are allowed to wear whatever they want, listen to whatever music they like, travel the world and even think what they wish about the state – and that’s just fine. It is a sort of silent agreement, a mutual nonaggression pact: leave us in peace and we will leave you in peace. The right to live one’s life in exchange for keeping out of politics in exchange. And for quite some time this seems to have satisfied both sides.
Of course the state does not waste any time in dealing with those who dare to violate this agreement, who poke their noses into things or disrupt the status quo. The attacks on civil rights activists, the murders of prying journalists, the brutal suppression of demonstrations – these are all as much symptoms of the time as social networking or security checks in public spaces. In other words, it is not only hard work to stand up for your rights in Russia, it is also dangerous. And you cannot blame anyone for not wanting to risk their lives. After all, not everyone is a hero and a fighter…
January 5, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.