Category Archives: Strategic advocacy

Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

Seeing from multiple perspectives: Fighting for FDR’s remedies is not enough

From Eric Alterman’s April 30 Nation column, “The Fight for American Liberalism,” emphasis and notes added:

Liberal politics, Michael Walzer observes, is difficult “because it offers so few emotional rewards…it lacks warmth and intimacy.” Without universal foundations—Lionel Trilling termed it “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine”—liberalism can offer only narratives of sacrifice and common purpose, ones that can often be trumped by the tales of the right …

[See Walzer, Michael. Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat. Basic Books, 1980, 69,68:  “A liberal nation can have no collective purpose …. Liberalism, even at its most permissive, is a hard politics because it offers to few emotional rewards; the liberal state is not a home for its citizens; it lacks warmth and intimacy.”]

[See Townsley, Jeremy. “Walzer, Citizenship, Globalization and Global Public Goods,” citing Veit Bader, “Citizenship and Exclusion: Radical Democracy, Community, and Justice. Or, what is Wrong with Communitarianism?”Political Theory 23 (1995): 218:  “…neighborhoods, clubs and families … are ‘warm, horizontal [communities] … based on consent’ whereas states are ‘cold vertical institutions, based not on free entry but on enforced membership and physical violence. Strictly speaking, [states] are not associations at all, but institutions.'”]

… To be a “liberal” is to be a child of the Enlightenment… Liberalism insists that individuals take hold of their fate and shape it  …

… If both [FDR and Reagan] met with mixed success in policy terms, both nevertheless were able to reshape political culture because the optimism and self-confidence of the visions they offered captured the imagination of a majority of Americans, particularly the young.

If their fortunes are ever to revive, liberals must find a way to recapture this simultaneously militant and optimistic spirit. The “larger message” for what Roosevelt called “the liberal party” was a clear and simple one: “As new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.” Add to this John Dewey’s precept that “government should regularly intervene to help equalize conditions between the wealthy and the poor, between the overprivileged and the underprivileged,” while acknowledging Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient call for “humility” in all such undertakings, and you have a concise, compelling statement of what it means—then as now—to call oneself an “American liberal.”

When liberals lose confidence in their ability to lead Americans toward the fulfillment of this vision, they lose their reason for being liberals. If the history of liberalism has a single lesson to teach us, it is that what liberals have to fear most—far more than conservatives—is fear itself.

So, the cold state is to provide what the individual cannot? Where do the real downsides of government fit in here? A return to the FDR past is insufficient/unrealistic, and doesn’t acknowledge the truths of conservative views.

In terms of the basic principles Roger Conner and I are developing for looking at political situations: in evaluating Alterman’s presentation, and evaluating the liberal vision, a key step is seeing them from opposing/different perspectives, starting with the assumption these other views are valid.

“toxic mix of individualism and fear”

A couple of weeks ago our Saturday morning discussion group in the hospital cafeteria talked about how the lack of care and medical treatment for pain and addiction patients seems to stem from a lack of empathy rooted in a culture overemphasizing the “I’ at the expense of the “we.”

Came across the following that uses clear language to describe a parallel situation school children face:

Collini, Stefan. “Side by Side: On Britain’s School Wars.” The Nation, November 1, 2011.

Recent schools policy in Britain, like so much of current politics in Britain and the United States (and elsewhere), is founded on a toxic mix of individualism and fear. The fear is evident in the various metaphors of contamination that turn up in responses to any proposal that suggests the more advantaged may have to share life experiences with the less advantaged. Even parents who profess to believe in greater equality among adults want their children’s schooling to be protected against behavior associated with the lower orders. But the deforming perspective of individualism is more poisonous still—a refusal to place one’s experience and concerns in a larger social context, an indifference to the overall pattern, an obtuseness about the social determinants of behavior, a denial of the legitimate claims of others.


A Buddhist approach would talk about the illusion of the independent self, the consequences of attachment to that illusion, and the fearlessness arising when that attachment dissolves.

Insights from geology on incomplete information, uncertainty, and problem solving

Came across the following in the new issue of the Geological Society of America journal for members. A basic notion is that frequently a set of facts we know, or can know, are open to multiple interpretations, any or all of which might be true. When we come at a situation from multiple perspectives, each with its own set of facts, these taken together may set constraints that specify one true interpretation. The GSA article describes how that’s frequently the case in geology, And it goes further regarding uncertainty and incomplete knowledge in general. Seems that the following applies not only to geology and science, but should be included in the book and educational curriculum Roger Conner and I are writing on strategic policy advocacy:

Saltus, Richard W., and Richard J. Blakely. “Unique geologic insights from ‘non-unique’ gravity and magnetic interpretation.” GSA Today 21, no. 12 (December 2011): 4-10.

… Many of the greatest scientific challenges of today span the traditional subdivisions of science. Climate change research, for example, spans Earth, atmospheric,  and biological sciences and requires the combination of results from physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, sociology, and economics. A key component to successful integrated science is the effective communication and mutual understanding of uncertainties arising in all of the component studies that feed into the ultimate integrated solution. But, it is also important to realize that the ultimate significance of a given result is not necessarily related to the relative certainty of that result. A partial solution or constraint to a fundamental problem may have greater significance than an exact solution to a trivial problem. And an effective integrated solution may encompass a wide range of uncertainties in the component results. To paraphrase Aristotle: The whole (integrated interpretation) is greater than the sum of its parts (methods and assumptions). And, we might add, the individual parts do not necessarily contribute equally to the sum. …

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth: There is no conversation

Went through Google, Google News & the NY Times website looking for coverage and discussion of the climate conference recently hosted by Bolivia, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.
See the  summary & comment by Naomi Klein in The Nation.

News of the conference  is essentially isolated to within progressive/left publications and blogs. No NY Times coverage. Didn’t find any discussion & debate about conference findings in sources with a point of view different from Morales and conference participants. The one mainline US media story I came across was in Time magazine, entitled “Bolivia’s Morales: Eating Chicken Makes You Gay?” with a link to “world’s worst-dressed leaders” ahead of any mention of climate issues.

I found out about the conference only because I read The Nation. Thank you Naomi Klein.

Note the combination of mainstream media control over information + interest groups talking only to themselves within publications and blogs that circulate among like-minded people, making engagement with the complexity of issues e.g. those raised at the conference almost impossible. There is no conversation.

The Dalai Lama’s martial artistry

Seeing him for the first time, on the video of his talk on ethics at UC Santa Barbara, I was surprised, though perhaps should not have been, to find that the Dalai Lama moves with the presence of a trained martial artist or dancer. Watch his centered hand gestures. Through them he conveys a large part of his message. Where did he learn how to do that? It reflects long, physical practice. I found myself so absorbed in his gestures that at times I didn’t hear his words, and we had to replay them. For the Dalai Lama, physical as well as mental balance is essential for his effective public leadership.

Penetrating our most secure fortifications

Any genuine framework for effective action has to take into account the limits of rationality and go beyond them. How? Frank Rich’s column today points to the problem, but doesn’t provide answers:

[The White House party gate-crashing] was a symbolic indication (and, luckily, only symbolic) of how unbridled irrationality harnessed to sheer will, whether ludicrous in the crashers’ case or homicidal in the instance of the Fort Hood gunman, can penetrate even our most secure fortifications. Both incidents stand as a haunting reproach to the elegant powers of logic with which Obama tried to sell his exquisitely calibrated plan to vanquish Al Qaeda and its mad brethren.

Juxtapose this insight with the instability Tony Judt describes in his current NY Review of Books essay:

…Before 1914, it was widely asserted that the logic of peaceful economic exchange would triumph over national self-interest. No one expected all this to come to an abrupt end. But it did.

We too have lived through an era of stability, certainty, and the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be as economically insecure as we are culturally uncertain. We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own in reassuring ways.

These indicate starting points for strategic thinking and effective action, and for personal decisions about how and when to engage with issues and events.