A Citizen Alternative to ISIS

In her last blog in "Bridging Differences," our continuing discussion of schools, colleges, and democracy on Education Week, Deborah Meier asks "What Will It Take to Build a Democratic Movement?" She writes, "What I want to encourage is for every community to discuss what they want for themselves, their neighbors, and the world that schools might be the appropriate vehicle for." She continues, "Some structures make it harder to experience power and some make it easier to experience it and to sustain it. Like being rewarded and humiliated for being quiet and punished for being outspoken. Fear works. But then...it doesn't work anymore, or at least not often enough to squash the rebelliousness altogether...What is it that you think changes culture?"

In the face of violent threats from groups like ISIS, a citizen-led alternative is crucial. Schools and colleges are a potential site. Thus my first idea.

Culture change involves conceptual change, put into practice in a different kind of politics, plural and citizen-centered, taking root in free public spaces around education. This means "relationships before program," in the language of community organizing. But such politics can take place many places beyond community organizations.

Put differently, I agree with Meier's call for "every community discussing what they want for themselves, their neighbors and the world." But the call needs to be connected to a different politics which can build public relationships across vast differences, conveying a vision of a democratic way of life based on diversity and agency. Otherwise, "discussing what we want" easily turns today into what we want for our kind of people.

We're living in a bitterly fragmented world. Value wars continually erupt around education. Education is one rare "commons" in which communities of different value frameworks are invested. Organizing for change in and around schools and colleges is key to "changing the world." But it's not a matter of rallying educational progressives around a program.

Kenan Malik observes last Saturday in "Why Do Islamist Groups Seem So Much More Sadistic, Even Evil?," in the Guardian that Islamist groups like ISIS include many young people who are not very different than other young people -- they're certainly not monsters from another planet. They're also hostile to progressive politics. They go to secular public schools. And they are hopeless about making democratic changes in their schools.

They have some similarities with young people who join gangs but Islamist youth identify with fundamentalist religion. They demonize "infidels" whom they see as a part of a secular, consumer, individualist, impersonal world. They rage against a culture that seems destructive of their identities and interests.

Many less extreme but nonetheless deep divisions produce Manichean politics, a totalizing politics of good versus evil. What is needed is a way for people to build relationships across chasms of faith, ideology, and other differences, a different kind of politics, as context for developing common agendas.

This requires "free spaces" where politics centers on citizens not on ideologies or parties. London Citizen, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation community organizing network, illustrates.

It is extremely diverse, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all of many persuasions, and also nonbelievers. It includes schools, unions, civic groups. London Citizen creates multiple free spaces where people build public relationships with people who make them uncomfortable or even dislike. This is their ground for developing programmatic ideas. Such politics creates hope, countering the fatalism which violence feeds on. Luke Bretherton's recent Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life is a brilliant analysis.

This kind of politics can inspire electoral politics -- in England it's produced a "Blue Labour" alternative to conservative politics and to the technocratic centrism of Tony Blair alike, with affinities with Catholic social thought and its emphasis on decentralization of power. But London Citizen itself continues as a highly diverse, cross-partisan site of citizen-centered politics.

The emerging field called "Civic Studies" seeks to conceptualize such politics. Civic Studies, also called "The New Civic Politics," is organized around core concepts of agency and citizens as co-creators. The Tisch College of Citizenship at Tufts University has a lot on Civic Studies, including a book describing its feeder intellectual traditions, and a curriculum of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies each year. The Tisch College has a site.

The late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, and I worked on a chart comparing citizen-centered politics with government-centered ideological politics and community-centered politics. I put a version about education up on academia. .

We need to spread such citizen-centered politics -- as a way to create a democratic movement around schools, and as the alternative to deepening chaos and violence.