SUBJECTIVE STATES

Narratives of Citizenship among Young Europeans

Kevin G. Barnhurst

The author is associate professor in the Department of Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago. An appointment as faculty scholar of the UIC Great Cities Institute, 2000–2001, supported the research for and writing of this essay. Many thanks to Holli Semetko for her collaboration in gathering life history documents. Earlier versions of this paper were delivered to European Worldview: Narratives of European Life, EuroConference on Narratives of Everyday Life in Europe, Tues., May 9, 2000, La Londe-les-Maures, France, and to the Midwest Sociological Society annual conference, Wed., April 19, 2000, Chicago, Illinois. Further information on the life history technique can be found in these instructions.

Ideal Citizenship

Figure 1. Ideal Citizenship

Media as Fringe Condition
Politics as Center & Periphery
Irrational Citizenship
Emotional Politics
Flashes of Defiance
Old Ideas, New Experiences

Figure 2. Citizenship as Experienced
Figure 3. Citizenship as Reimagined

References

Abstract

For a century in Western democracies practical citizenship has consistently fallen short of the ideal proposed by theory. By the end of the Progressive Era social thought had articulated the ideal and begun the complaints that continue today, especially against young adults. This essay presents a re-reading of thinkers from that era alongside life history accounts of citizenship a century later. The citizens describe political communication not as a focus of intentional thought and action but as a fringe condition. Most events quickly fade from memory, leaving residual emotion and isolated imagery attached to a media routine. Politics becomes intentional only in sporadic flashes, characterized by clashing personalities. The media create an environment (dominated by fear and hope) at the margins, from which irresistible political affinities spring. The citizens also place political identity in that region, as membership in a community of sentiment reinforced through talk. They respond to political communication by asserting their autonomy, defiant and yet moved toward unity by stories of personal sacrifice. It appears that the ideal of information-seeking, rationally deliberating citizenship may itself contribute to citizen disengagement. Renewing citizenship requires a new ideal.

Keywords: citizenship, emotion, Europe, identity, life history, media environmentalism, memory, narrative, phenomenology, political communication, Progressive Era, subjectivity, rationality, America


Young adults in Europe and America are often described as apathetic, dispirited citizens. The problem is usually studied using evidence from voting patterns, attitude surveys, and audience statistics. The data accumulated in the past century suggest that young people have limited interest in being productive, efficient citizens involved in rational deliberation or instrumental political activity. They fall short on each of the three standards for citizenship that thinkers developed a century ago by the end of the Progressive Era in America: a willingness to take responsibility for the collective well-being, a commitment to sociability as the tool for building unity within the community, and engagement in the processes of political communication. When he summarized the theory of rational and active citizenship, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1927) aimed at a remedy for the problems of democracy, but the theory became disconnected from the experience of citizens.

Reformers in America did not set out to create a new definition of citizenship, but their reforms inadvertently created a national legal category. They presented themselves as exemplars of citizenship, and their policy successes from the local to the national level showed what a community of model citizens could accomplish. In Europe sociologists of the period accepted a similar definition of citizenship, but despite its eventual widespread acceptance in theory, by every measure ordinary people fell short in practice. The theory set up an unreachable ideal that devalued how people enact citizenship in daily life. After a century of evidence showing the inadequacy of citizens, especially the young, it appears time to reassess.

This essay analyzes life histories written by young adults principally from Europe to see how their accounts describe and explain their own citizenship. The reading presented here examines their accounts in light of ideas from pragmatic and progressive thought developed a century ago, and employs techniques of phenomenology developed during the same period, at the time the ideal of citizenship emerged. The resulting critique questions the widely accepted ideal of citizenship and points to the ways that young adults describe their experiences with the media and politics, with the aim of exploring how they re-imagine citizenship.

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Ideal Citizenship

Since the Progressive Era, citizenship has been held up as a shining ideal. Its best known proponent, John Dewey, outlined in The Public and Its Problems three vital characteristics of citizens: responsibility, sociability, and communication. The citizen on one hand carried the legal duties to vote, serve on juries, and otherwise act as the ultimate repository of power, with all the moral weight those obligations imply. Dewey called on the individual to take "a responsible share . . . in forming and directing activities" and on groups to facilitate individual responsibility by working toward the "liberation of the potentialities of members" (1927, p. 147). Ideal citizenship stood not only for bearing the legal charge to serve the public but also for fulfilling the civic demands of community, with expectations for active "participation in family life, industry, scientific and artistic associations." Dewey went on to say that "democracy is not an alternative to . . . associated life. It is the idea of community life itself" (p. 148). Community formed the central vision of Progressive Era democratic thinking (Royce, 1969), and Dewey attacked any ideals not springing out of community (such as fraternity, liberty, equality) as "hopeless abstractions" (1927, p. 149). The fulfillment of legal responsibilities and the enriching experience of community life, through "participation in activities and sharing in results," in Dewey’s words, were thought to depend upon the third characteristic: "communication as a prerequisite" (p. 152). The role of communication in expressing public opinion and informing the voter was central to Progressive thinking about citizenship (Godkin, 1896, 1898; Beard & Beard, 1931). Communication was so central to Dewey’s sense of democracy that he quoted Carlyle: "Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable" (in 1927, p. 110).

Progressive thinkers had invented ideal citizenship unintentionally, as a byproduct of other crusades. Writing in 1910, Charles W. Beard (1949) observed that the original framers of the U.S. Constitution distinguished the citizen from the mere resident and left to the states the question of whom to consider citizens. The Progressive movement grew indirectly out of abolitionism, which a generation of reformers (called the Mugwumps) saw as a triumph of moral citizen action. The abolition of slavery resulted in the creation of universal citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment made citizens of "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," effectively nationalizing what the Constitution left to the states and creating the modern legal definition of citizenship (Beard, 1949, p. 77). The Progressives did not know quite how to define that creation in practice. E.L. Godkin, the editor of The Nation and a leading thinker of the post-Civil War reform movement, supported democracy against its critics but tended to describe citizens in the image of himself: educated men accustomed to prolonged discussion and book reading (see, for e.g., his essay, The Duty of Educated Men in a Democracy, Godkin, 1896). Reforms of the civil service, municipal government, and child labor set a high standard for what such citizens could accomplish. Woodrow Wilson (1961) elevated a free, educated, and thoughtful expression of the popular will of citizens to the highest status, as the first of four essential elements of constitutional government, followed by the legislative, executive, and judiciary bodies.

In reform thought, the citizen, after adopting service to the united community as an ideal (Royce, 1969), begins by paying close attention to political events as reported through various media (Godkin, 1898), and that leads inevitably into further purposive activity (Godkin, 1896). The successes of the reformers illustrated those activities: formulating sensible opinions as part of the public and expressing those views to elected officials, taking part in open debate of the issues through speeches and publications, serving in groups to solve problems and select candidates, and joining when necessary in acts of civil demonstration and disobedience. The ideal citizen is a reformer at every level and at all times or, in other words, is made in the image of someone like Jane Addams. To fulfill the ideal, a citizen might not have to lay aside all other earthly endeavors but would spend each waking hour in civic-minded attentiveness. Thinkers in Europe of the era had a similar take on citizenship. Max Weber described two avenues to Politics as a Vocation (the title of his well-known essay). Elected officials may live off politics, he wrote, but anyone can live for politics: "He who lives ‘for’ politics makes politics his life, in an internal sense. . . . he nourishes his inner balance and self-feeling by the consciousness that his life has meaning in the service of a ‘cause’ " (Weber, 1958, p. 84).

It is beyond the scope of this essay to describe the historical course followed by the notion of active, rational citizenship. It seems clear, however, that by the end of the Progressive Era, "the discourse of citizenship and citizenship ideals was transformed" (Schudson, 1998, p. 147). The ideal of the informed citizenry also emerged in the thought of leading sociologists and philosophers during the key period around the turn of the century, and from there entered the popular imagination in Europe and America. By the mid-twentieth century, political scientists articulated the ideal into a hierarchy of instrumental activity, ranging from voters at the base (who perform the narrowest legal duty) to full-time politicians and activists at the pinnacle (Milbrath, 1965). Theorists found themselves struggling with the odd concern that a society where all citizens reached or approached the ideal might become unstable from so much political activity (e.g., Lerner, 1966). Could there be too active a citizenry or, in effect, too much citizenship?

The concern over the ideal was tempered by complaints — most of them originating in the late nineteenth century — about the performance of ordinary people as citizens. Godkin and his peers saw themselves as heirs to the founding American generation of aristocratic leaders and distinguished themselves from the ordinary mass of citizens enfranchised over the course of the republic’s first century (see Godkin, 1898; Beard & Beard, 1931). In his collected essays, Problems of Modern Democracy, Godkin (1898) noted the low levels of public knowledge (which he elsewhere called "democratic ignorance," 1896, p. 87), as well as the indolence and corruption of voters and their reliance on political parties and party bosses for personal comfort and profit. In theory, "Every man was supposed to be intensely occupied with public affairs, to be eager to vote on them, and to be quite able to vote intelligently," (1896, p. 297), but in fact, Godkin observed, "a very large proportion of the voters are not interested in public questions at all, or their feeble interest has to be aroused and kept awake. Another large proportion do not desire to give themselves the trouble to vote" (p. 289).

Dewey later noted how the "inertia, prejudices and emotional partisanship of the masses" (1927, p. 169) make people slaves to habit, which William James called "the enormous fly-wheel of society" (quoted in Dewey, p. 159). Dewey was, of course, echoing Lippmann, who condemned the public for "apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows" and expressed despair over "the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice" (Lippmann, 1922, pp. 229–30). Dewey observed that "the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered" (1927, p. 116). Citing Lippmann, he decried the shrinking numbers of voters and the paucity of political conversation that most people "dismissed with a yawn" (p. 132).

As a remedy, reformers called for improvements in the press and in the measurement of public opinion (Godkin, 1898; Beard & Beard, 1931), but as the century progressed, research showed that citizens consistently fell short of the ideal. Voters did not have much knowledge of the workings of government or of current issues and the actions of elected officials (Berelson, et al, 1954; Campbell, et al, 1960; Converse, 1972; Nie, Verba & Petrocik, 1979). Voters spent little or no time in the work of informing themselves. With rare exceptions, they were not particularly active in political matters. They have in recent decades joined community organizations in smaller numbers (Putnam, 1995). They do not debate but instead work to avoid politics in conversation (Eliasoph, 1998). In the United States, often a majority does not vote. Cultural analyses reiterate the description of citizens as incompetent and infantile (Berlant, 1996). The evidence amounts to an attack on the people, and among them young citizens fare the worst. They have abandoned newspaper reading at an increasing rate (Bogart, 1989), and, instead of informing themselves by any other means, they appear to adopt a stance of cynicism founded on ignorance (Craig & Bennett, 1997; Rushkoff, 1994).

The ideal of citizenship developed by the close of the Progressive Era required levels of commitment to political activity that amounted to more than full-time work. Schematically, it places active citizenship squarely within politics (Figure 1). The reformers and their successors in thinking about citizenship condemn the political parties and other institutions for acting without citizen involvement. They chastise ordinary people for building an identity largely outside the zone of politics and for seeing involvement as citizens as limited. The theorists also censure the media for ignoring rational politics in favor of emotion-driven and largely apolitical contents (Godkin, 1898; Lippmann, 1924), which become the primary source of political knowledge for the voters. Voters are in turn reprimanded for paying too much attention to trivial content in the media and too little attention to other sources of serious political discussion.

Figure 1

Ideal Citizenship

The ideal of citizenship as conceived by the Progressives, compared to their critiques of politics, the media, and the identity of the ordinary voter.

Since the mid-twentieth century, scholars have attempted to adjust or salvage the Progressive ideal of citizenship. The typical move has been additive, to subscribe to the active-rational citizen model while proposing that it exists in a mixture with something called the subject (as in "royal subject") or parochial model of passive citizenship (Almond & Verba, 1963; see also Newman, Just & Crigler, 1992). Although it attempts to balance the contradictory needs of democratic governments — to govern citizens and yet to receive legitimacy from them — the additive remedy sets aside, without effectively removing, the need to rethink citizenship. The data accumulated in the past century suggest that for most people, citizenship has little to do with productive efficiency, instrumental activity, or rational deliberation.

This paper presents another view, using ideas developed by key thinkers during the era that defined the citizenship ideal: the pragmatists William James and John Dewey, the sociologist Max Weber, the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and Alfred Schutz, who combined phenomenology and sociology. Their thinking emerged partly in response to and incorporated elements from turn-of-the-century reform movements (James, for example, called Godkin the most influential thinker of the era). Their writings point to methods for analyzing the subjective experience of citizens in modern democracies, based on concepts that stand in sharp contrast to the assumptions usually applied in market or voter surveys.

After reviewing the literature for discussions of citizenship, I set out to test it against the lived experience of citizens by examining narrative accounts of citizenship a century after it was redefined. In the spring of 1998, nineteen citizens living and studying in Europe wrote brief life histories of their experiences with politics and the media. Roughly balanced by gender, the group included young adults, ages 18 to 29, and two older adults. Most came together in the Netherlands and were citizens of, native to, or long resident in one of ten European Union states. Six came from the Americas, and three came from nearby states in Europe and the Middle East. For each region, some were children of immigrants, and some were members of the working class.

Specifically, the group included 11 women and 8 men, whose average age had a mode of 24 and a mean of 25, including the older adults. Most were enrolled in the Access Program of the University of Amsterdam or held EU Erasmus scholarships, but three participants living in Spain were not involved in those programs. The Europeans haled from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The nearby states were Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Israel, and the Americans came from the mainland United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico (one participant held dual citizenship in Canada and the UK). The U.S. participants included a Midwesterner from a working-class family and a New Yorker of a family that might be considered from the intelligentsia.

The analysis of the life histories followed an inductive process adapted from Blumer (1933). After a collaborating researcher gathered the group of documents, each investigator initially read every essay and independently compiled a list of observations about the use of language and recurring themes. From these lists, we constructed an annotated inventory, which was used by a graduate student to examine each essay for the presence or absence of the observations and select illustrative examples. At the same time, we mapped the narrative structure of each essay, dividing it into its constituent stories (the essays typically recounted between five and seven of these) and indicating the elements of each one (based on the structures proposed by Labov, as elaborated in Reissman, 1993). Based on these analyses, I built a composite narrative. We then met with the entire group of participants and presented to them the initial analyses for their approval. Based on their input, I made adjustments in the analysis to produce the present document, which includes specific examples, direct quotations, and significant variations. In short, the following analysis is based on the observations on which the participants and the three researchers first reached consensus.

It is important to note that the participants, as a group of varied individuals, were unusually articulate. In fact, they make the most likely candidates for the high levels of involvement envisioned for ideal citizens. Although they come from many distinct backgrounds and life experiences, they came to politics and treat citizenship in similar ways, which the political socialization literature would describe as typical (see Conover & Searing, 1994): They think through their political involvement, react for and against certain kinds of policies, rely on talk with friends more than on the media for political information, and describe political choices that seem reasonable. Nevertheless, this analysis attempts to highlight another dimension to their narrative accounts, another side that survey research on political socialization would tend to dismiss.

Their life-history accounts share that "other side" with hundreds of similar documents collected over the past two decades (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991, 1998; Barnhurst 1998, 2000). These young citizens at the end of the twentieth century are clearly familiar with the rational, model citizen, but they point out how their own encounters with citizenship differ from the ideal. First, they do not usually experience the media and political life as rational activities. Although phenomenology, psychology, and sociology a century ago held tenaciously to rationality, scholars did acknowledge a large (and largely unexplored) region of human experience outside the zone of reason. Second, rather than a focus of intentional thought and action, the young adults experience citizenship and the media as a condition very close to what James (1890) called the fringe. Scholars a century ago treated the fringe as a residual category, but they did make initial attempts to name and describe it. Finally, the young citizens’ experiences of media and politics at century’s end appear to depend on emotion, a key ingredient anticipated by scholars of the earlier period.

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Media as Fringe Condition

In his Principles of Psychology, James defines meaning as thought’s object: "all that thought thinks, just as thought thinks it" (quoted in Wilshire, 1968, p. 120). The ultimate object (what Husserl calls noema) James defines as a pervasive sense of the world’s presence, occupying the outer fringe of all thought and providing a necessary precondition for thought. The fringe exists at the margins, in unfocused awareness, not at the center of attention and judgment. Ordinary citizens since the Progressive Era have come under reproach for leaving too much of politics and serious political analysis in the fringe, while focusing attention on facile media content. Godkin (1898) complains that reading papers is all the new generation of citizens do to inform themselves. In life history accounts, young adults often begin with the observation that the media existed as a fringe condition of their early lives (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1998).

In typical fashion, a male in his early 30s from Germany begins his life history by writing, "I cannot remember when I watched the evening news for the first time, but I know that my parents watched regularly." He then turns to the moment when watching news came into focused attention:

I remember that I was around five or six years old when my grandmother was shocked during a visit that "the child" was allowed to watch those horrible pictures about the things happening in the world, and from that time on I wasn’t allowed to watch the news for a couple of years. —Clemens Schoell

Note how the intervention of authority separated out Schoell from the ordinary flow of his world and placed him in a separate and subordinate category — the child (in quotation marks) — before banishing him. Phenomenologically, people’s experience of the world has these two aspects, a "general indeterminate sense" and a "sense determining itself according to particular realities" (Husserl, 1927, p. 27). The room I am sitting in (my kitchen in Chicago) provides a fringe condition (dishes in the drain, spring sunshine reflecting across the wall) for this moment’s particular reality (that of my role as writer, operating a computer and focusing on life-history typescripts). At another time (doing the dishes or wiping the walls), I place the room itself in focus, its condition becoming the particular reality (that of my role as scrub-man cleaning the kitchen).

To come to know the world in consciousness, Husserl suggests, people must put brackets around some portion of it. James argues that people become aware of the fringe only when expectations of it are disappointed. A 24-year-old from Austria introduces her life history with a brief story about ill health pushing media into her zone of awareness:

"Am dam des" was the name of an Austrian TV show that I got to watch only when I was home during the day, which was normally when I got my annual cold. Enjoying that treat of getting to watch TV in the middle of the day is about my first media memory. —Ulla Gahn

Periods of watching television clearly took place before (and after) illness provided an occasion, a bracket within her life world, for the media program to be a treat. Yet the story conveys something ritualistic about the event, which happened "only when" and "normally." The cold was "annual" but she could not predict its arrival. The interplay of expectations and surprise shifted her consciousness, making her body the center of attention and eligible for special treatment, including a shift in watching television to "the middle of the day."

In the second story of her narrative, Gahn describes herself as a "book-rat" who "was always eager to hear, read or see stories." Allowed to watch television only for a weekly series, she "sat in front of the TV with my brother and sister, and afterwards we went straight to bed." The ritual had its parallel each night when they were read a bedtime picture book or "listened to the children’s radio good-night story." The contents of these media, although the focus of attention, quickly fade, and what remains is the condition that defined a routine in the life’s world. Gahn later recalls getting her first magazine subscription, for Staffette: "I guess I liked it, although I don’t remember the precise content now." The act of subscribing brings the magazine into the bracketed zone of attention, but then the magazine (as media) fades into the fringe, as a mere condition, a container for content that is, in turn, forgotten except for a faint memory of good feeling.

Being pictured or named on television or in the press stands out as a signal event in many stories young adults tell of their eventual conversion into regular news consumers (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991). In his second story, Clemens Schoell describes winning a national painting contest in late childhood (pictured in the local newspaper) and getting a day off school to travel to Bonn, where he was allowed to ask then-chancellor Willy Brandt a question (filmed by a youth program). The attention of the media put an accent on the conditions surrounding and reaffirming the lived experience itself. The media heighten the form and the resulting mood, sometimes spilling over into the content of that experience, but the operations of the media usually remain in the zone of inattention, at the fringe. In his evaluation (to use Labov’s term for the narrative element) of this story, Schoell remarks that being on television "was quite exciting in those days," when only the national channel was broadcasting. The power of media to confer importance Schoell already understood. The fringe condition provided a "halo of emotional values and irrational implications which themselves remain ineffable" (Schutz, 1970, p. 97).

Early in his thinking Husserl equated intuitive, unhistorical, everyday experience with the life world, which he later redefined as "the experience of the actually present, concrete, historical world," including its culture (quoted in Bernet, Kern & Marbach, 1993, p. 222). Through bracketing, people divide that world into what Schutz calls realms of experience, with distinctive provinces:

Each province of meaning . . . has its particular cognitive style. . . . characterized by a specific tension of consciousness (from the full awakeness in the reality of everyday life to sleep in the world of dreams), by a specific time-perspective, by a specific form of experiencing oneself, and, finally, by a specific form of sociality. (1970, pp. 252–53)

The participants describe the media not as a separate world but as part of the environment surrounding either personal action or witnessed content (actions by others depicted in the media). For the media aspect of their experience, the "tension of consciousness" is closer to the world of dreams, with its combination of heightened awareness and distractedness. The time perspective is the imperfect — the always (or never) in the present and the used to in the past. When telling stories about the media, the participants place their descriptions in the orientation (Labov’s label for the setting for events) or the evaluation (for the concluding meaning) elements of the narrative structure, not in complicating actions or resolutions that occur; that is, they place media as ambiance at the margin rather than as main-event at the center of rational action.

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Politics as Center & Periphery

Like the media, politics also begins at the fringes of awareness during childhood. In his third story, Clemens Schoell narrates haltingly, conveying how unsure he is about how politics — in his case the peace movement in Germany and related media coverage — moved into conscious attention around 1980. "It is difficult to say how the media were connected to this process, but I am sure the starting point was somewhere in family discussions." Family routines consistently provide the condition that leads into attention to politics in the media, at least in Europe and the United States (Barnhurst, 2000). In her third story, Ulla Gahn writes of her slowly growing awareness "mostly because my parents were involved in community and regional politics, and I just happened to be there when they discussed things . . ." Schoell says that, during his period of political activism, the media occupied "the periphery":

The stickers you got on the demonstrations, all the flyers, newspapers, magazines of extreme left wing groups I had never heard of before. And of course the masses on the evening news, taking visible power of our capital. And you were part of it, all those people who entered two busses in the morning to take the long trip from our village to the capital.

Once politics entered their lives sometime in the teen years, the participants begin to relate stories that reveal a fully formed realm of experience. Entering those provinces involves awakened attention, chronological time, a heightened sense of self-at-risk, and identification with a cohesive group. Schoell reports knowing us-versus-them: "that ‘we’ were doing the ‘right thing’ while others were reading stupid teenage magazines . . . ." He exults that "we also got the girls," had interesting stories to tell, and won the opprobrium of teachers: "it’s sometimes even more fun to be blamed as ‘Moscow’s agents’ by conservative teachers than to be the good guy."

In the political world, the media also effect shifts in meaning. Schoell tells of his first speech at a public demonstration. Despite nervousness he went on stage, but the wind blew away his notes. He felt inadequate speaking without structure or facts, but then the media intervened. The local newspaper ran "a huge article on page one . . . including a picture of me." Not only did the coverage multiply his audience by many score, but the newspaper’s description of "a spontaneous, fresh, and emotional speech" changed his judgment of the experience. When Ulla Gahn’s essay turns to politics, the press likewise moves to center stage, again as the focus of correction. Her parents had often pointed out how newspapers reported "something completely different" from what actually happened. Later she and her friends wrote a letter to the editor in response to a critical review of a school concert, because "we just had to set things straight."

Despite these experiences, self-identity as citizens remains an unfocused element of the lives of participants for some time. For both Gahn and Schoell, travel abroad provides the bracketing needed to find their national identities. Gahn says she decided to finish her diploma in Canada, where she confronted life as an immigrant: "I saw how differently people get treated, just by the color of their passports and the images of their home countries." Schoell describes a trip to Cairo at age 15 as "the first time I felt ‘German’." He uses quotation marks to separate out German-ness for contemplation. In both cases, travel imposed a loss of citizenship that they had previously taken for granted. Schoell writes that abroad he "experienced things like democracy, welfare-state and fair justice, and police . . . by their absence." The narratives sometimes foreground the media when describing political action but not when depicting political identity. Schoell says that "it is difficult to tell what role the media had in the process, because the most important for me was personal experience and personal conversation."

After childhood, politics and political identity remain in the periphery until they can no longer be taken for granted. Within the political province of meaning, the media turn from fringe to focus on a fulcrum of judgment: when they get the story wrong (for good or ill).

For those who grow up in one country but whose families came from another, identity becomes political and moves into the center of attention much earlier. A child of Korean parents born in the United States, writing at age eighteen, remembers being "bombarded with . . . images of what it means to be American" from her earliest years. The sources included such icons as Kentucky Fried Chicken ("the American meal for my parents and me"), the music of the Beatles (she had no idea at first that they came from Britain), Clint Eastwood films, and Marlboro cigarettes. The complication in her narrative arises because the cultural products provided images of the culture but no interaction with people. That isolation becomes apparent when she prepares to enter Kindergarten. In a children’s book, Morris Goes to School, about a moose who "goes to school and gets teased," she encountered —

images of strange coat closets, blackboards, tables and groups of children with shades of hair in multiple colors. I began to wonder why I didn’t have blond hair. It even dawned on me at one point to ask why there weren’t any Asian children in the book . . . . I remember being afraid that I would be the moose of the class. —Jennifer Y. Lee

And in fact, she does face continued loneliness and other problems, from small (being scolded for taking her shoes off when entering a room) to large (missing out on sleep-overs that conflict with her parents’ beliefs). "I excelled in school, but social acceptance was a different story," she writes. Throughout her extended meditation on the politics of American imagery, she never mentions elections, information, or political activity, until the closing evaluation, where she describes writing a college paper and then giving a speech about her immigration experiences. "Finally," she writes. "Some recognition." The acknowledgment itself is political and comes from herself, as well as from the school.

A 22-year-old whose parents immigrated from India to France sees his life in overt political terms from much earlier. He considers images from when he was nine and the assassination of Indira Gandhi impelled his "first step toward political awareness" and led him to romanticize his parents’ homeland. Then as a result of Rajiv Gandhi’s murder, he began to feel antagonistic:

I was embarrassed to be Indian. I was ashamed at their inability to clean up their politics . . . . the concept of nationalism appalled me, and I began to look at India more critically, never losing my interest for this country but feeling less a citizen of it than I had been before. —Shayan Sanyal

After each event, writing a paper for school brought politics out of the fringes and into rational awareness. Then he confronted difference directly, in France when skinheads attacked and beat him up as he returned from his high school homecoming dance, and in the United Kingdom when he began to use Internet news groups to raise objections to the "racist and fascistic platform" of the French party, Front National. "I am French," he writes. "Well, that’s what my passport says. I don’t really think I am. What I mean to say is that I don’t really feel French . . . ." He later adds: "No, I am not European. . . . Furthermore, I am not a world citizen and don’t aspire to be." Through the Internet, he says he has found others who —

are as "citizen-less" as I am; I guess that together we form some sort of community, . . . a virtual community; a community that has allowed me to express and keep track of political issues relating to two countries that I will always be invariably attached to but will never be a full-fledged citizen of, in either the ethnic or political sense.

He does hold legal citizenship in France, but his experiences with racism, like those of Lee, have taught him a distinction. Lee says her family began to feel American once they achieved economic success: "We obtained it," she writes: "The nice house, the cars and the backyard (but no picket fence)." The image comes close to the ideal, with one gap, the lack of a protective barrier of whiteness. Although they confront the political world much younger, the children of immigrants share with others a common definition of politics as an image infused with identity and emotion. In Weber’s words, "a nation is a community of sentiment" (1958, p. 176). That emotional dimension of their experiences is just what critics since the Progressive Era have decried as they defined citizenship as a rational and purposive activity.

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Irrational Citizenship

Social thought from a century ago had reservations about the idea of an information-seeking, rationally deliberating public. Although he considered intentionality central, Husserl called for a "broadened concept of experience [inclusive] of intuition" and suggested that a synthesis of the intentional and passive aspects of experience might be possible (1981, p. 34). James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, argued that —

if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists . . . the part of it of which rationalism can give account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly. (1902, p. 84)

Squaring the observed reality of mental life with the prestige of reason led scholars such as Weber to suggest a hierarchy of motivated actions, from the highest (rational, which he found in economic life) to the lowest (traditional, which by contrast continued out of habit and instinct). Between these extremes comes the intermediate rungs of affectual action flowing from sentiment, and above that the absolute action motivated by rules or morality. Three of these motivations contribute to particular structures: the traditional to community, the affectual to associations, and the rational to society (he does not connect the absolute to religions in this particular context, see Weber, 1958). In his travels through the United States, he found associations central to the formation of citizenship. Finally, Dewey argued that knowledge, as "a function of association and communication . . . depends upon tradition" and that "man acts from crudely intelligized emotion and from habit rather than from rational consideration" (1927, p. 158). In fact, he said, the rationalistic view resulted from small studies of businessmen and town life, concluding that "the idea that men are moved by intelligent and calculated regard for their own good is pure mythology" (p. 160).

Despite the caveats of theorists in America and Europe, the rational definition dominated discussion of citizenship among Progressive reformers. They objected that politics is "emotive more than purposive" and called for dispassionate political discourse (Godkin, 1896, p. 72; and see Beard & Beard, 1931). Their reforms of civil service and municipal government sought to rationalize those aspects of political practice. Likewise, the reasoning, well-informed, and reform-minded version of citizenship is what the life history narratives imagine — what excites guilt and demands exception. In her life history, a young adult from the Netherlands responds typically, by admitting she has never been "really interested in politics," even though "I have always felt that I was supposed to be."

One life history narrative in particular begins from a similar observation and explores the experience of citizenship in depth. A mature adult, 43, from the United States, recounts seven stories, beginning with her earliest memory:

Although I do not now, nor have I ever considered myself a political person, I did grow up in a highly politically charged time (1960s and 70s) and place (the northern edge of New York’s Lower East Side). While neither of my parents was actively involved in politics, it was the subject of much noise and fury around the dinner table. But the heated discussions and intense feelings never led to any real, concrete action on their part. And all of this opinion and emotion did not seem to be related to or influenced by the media. —Alice Siegel

This passage reveals a subtle argument, an opening defense against the ideal of citizenship: that everyone ought to be "a political person," that discussion ought to lead into "real, concrete action," and that "the media" ought to inform and influence the process. Her political world, however, exists largely as a heated argument among familiar people.

Other life histories also characterize politics as an emotional argument (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1998). Describing her encounters with the politics of Norway in the early 1980s, a 25-year-old says, "I do not know what political issues they stood for and what they were talking about, but they had lots of ‘fights’ on television at that time." In response she created a pretend game of interviews, so that she could ask why politicians "did not like each other." Contention and personality dominated her early sense of the political realm.

In her second and third stories, Siegel presents the evidence of her parents’ uses of the media. They never watched television, except "when Kennedy was assassinated" and the set was "on continuously during that long weekend." She implies that the content was not overtly political or particularly rational: "I vividly remember watching Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on TV and not understanding that this wasn’t supposed to happen. Oswald killed the president, after all, so wasn’t he supposed to be punished, too?" Her father "did bring home the newspaper almost every evening," she writes, "the New York Post." She describes her attempts at reading comics and doing the puzzle, and then relates the story of her weekly current events assignment to show that her father’s newspaper met with disapproval: "the teacher looked down her nose a bit at the articles from the Post I brought in." Some classmates had a front page story (on the far right column) from the New York Times. "That apparently was where the really important news was."

In a coda to this story (bringing the story to the present), she describes her mother’s avid reading of the Times: "I never had the impression that it was the Times that influenced my mother’s ideas about politics, but more that if you belonged (or aspired to belong) to a certain milieu, you read the Times." In short, the news media in her experience conferred prestige, by their internal structure (the hierarchy of story layout) and by their external sign value (choosing the Times over the Post). They did not provide information leading into political activity.

Her fourth story enumerates her own news habits: reading the Times occasionally in college and daily in young adulthood. She discounts later periods when she read "at least two newspapers every day" as "more because I’m a compulsive reader than from any overwhelming interest in politics." She has only watched television news "because my husband always does." Attention to news is merely a routine in the background of her life.

I’m not usually aware of how what I see on TV or read in the papers affects what I think. It seems to me that the more important influences on my thoughts and feelings about issues and politics have been the people around me — family, friends, teachers.

She then summarizes the first half of her narrative by returning to her initial story, remarking that her parents’ discussions over dinner "irritated me enormously." They got "worked up about . . . such far-away things" and used politics merely as fodder, just to have "something to argue about. I also never understood how my parents could spend so much time, energy, and feeling talking about politics but not doing anything about it." Although she directs anger at her parents, the ideal of informed and rational deliberation leading to action fans the flames.

She next turns to political activism. In her fifth story, she describes encountering in high school "people who not only talked about politics" but took political action: teachers who protested the Vietnam conflict, parents of friends who volunteered for left-wing groups such as the Women’s Strike for Peace, and labor activists. She "began to go to antiwar demonstrations," but her commitment never quite matched that of the people around her: "Sometimes I wished that I could feel as passionately as they did," she laments. From stories told by activists blacklisted during the McCarthy era she learned that government could have a "less-than-benevolent side," but the issues did not "always seem as clear-cut to me as they did to some of my acquaintances." She couldn’t "believe whole-wholeheartedly in the efficacy of political activism," and she found group life unsatisfying and wearing. Political action, much admired since the Progressive Era, turned out to be a dead end for her.

After high school her political life turned solitary. Her sixth story describes "getting thoroughly caught up" in the 1973 Watergate hearings. "I had an evening job that summer and literally spent the whole day glued to the set." Watching the fall of Nixon, one of her family’s "chief dinner-table demons," gave her a "sense of vindication." She also found watching the government at work fascinating. Her parents turned out to be right, and she felt vindicated as she saw the machinery of government take the action her parents did not.

Her seventh story provides an interlude that brings the narrative into the present:

Almost none of this political activity carried over into my adult life, although I am a regular newspaper reader and TV news watcher. I hardly ever vote, and if I do, I vote more because I don’t want to see a particular candidate win rather than because I support the candidate I vote for wholeheartedly. I did not vote in the last two presidential elections. I definitely did not want Bush to win, but I would not vote for Clinton.

She then describes how she follows U.S. politics while living in Europe. In some ways she fulfills the ideal of a citizen, monitoring public affairs through the news media, making political judgments, and exercising her franchise (by abstaining). Yet the initial abstract (opening summation) of the story labels the substance of this period as inactive, and she defines the complicating action (her decisions about voting) as inaction. Clearly she distinguishes the citizen she is from the citizen she believes she ought to be, in the same way she judged her parents against the ideal. She shares in the self-condemnation that other life history documents from the United States express (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991, 1998). The ideal of citizenship serves only to discourage them, even when they are fully functioning citizens.

The final story in Siegel’s life history brings her back implicitly to the emotional fury of her parents’ dinner table. In her freelance work, she "had to read and edit a paper on water as a source of conflict" in the Middle East.

On an intellectual level I found his thesis — that the Jordanians and especially the Palestinians have been the victims of Israeli water politics — extremely well-documented and well-argued. But at a certain point I had to stop reading. Despite the force of the author’s argument and the weight of the historical evidence he presented, I simply could not reconcile my intellectual response with a much more fundamental emotional resistance I was having to what I read.

She then describes her ties to the Jewish faith as cultural and turns to a story about Hebrew school. She says she "hated going" and resented always getting up early to go, but her parents insisted. "As my mother put it, ‘If you’re ever marched off to the gas chamber for being a Jew, at least you’ll know what being a Jew means.’ " She found the sessions about holidays and prayers "incredibly boring," and "when the teachers didn’t know what else to do" they showed fund-raising films from Jewish organizations which "all blended into one film":

They invariably started out with documentary footage of the liberation of the death camps — the traumatized survivors staring blankly in their striped suits, bulldozers shoveling skeletal corpses into open pits; then they showed boatloads of immigrants trying to land in Palestine and being turned away by the British; and they always ended with troops of beautiful dark-haired, olive-skinned children in navy blue shorts and crisp white shirts marching off smiling with spades slung over their shoulders "to make the desert bloom."

As far as she knew, "the land was just lying there fallow, waiting for someone to come and cultivate it." These images returned to her after she had to stop editing, and she realized that the films "had created a powerful connection . . . between the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish state and its right to preeminence in the region . . ." The connection in her mind was too strong to respond to logic, evidence, or countervailing emotion, including her "fundamental distaste for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors."

The underlying theme of resistance — to her parent’s empty political arguments, to the media as political informants, to the group dynamics of political activism, and to wholehearted endorsement of any political candidate — finds its ultimate illustration in her own emotional resistance to a reasoned argument contradicting the politics embedded in films she viewed as a child in Hebrew school (which she also resisted).

As someone who has always considered herself skeptical of politics and ideologies and able to judge media messages critically, I found this experience deeply disturbing. It makes me wonder what other deep-rooted attitudes, largely unknown to me, color my perception of issues.

Her narrative comes close to describing the fringes of consciousness, where political life takes place. Her conclusion, that the fringe must remain largely unknown and unknowable, matches the way James described "the transmarginal or subliminal region." As opposed to the rational and instrumental side of consciousness, the fringe "is obviously the larger part of each of us," he wrote. "It contains, for example, such things as all our momentarily inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurely motived passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices" (1902, p. 526).

It is significant that the media, which people turn to amid tedium, out of habit, or through the choices of others, create an emotional environment that then exists at the fringes, out of sight, discounted. Yet those margins produce irresistible political impulses. A 26-year-old from Spain considers newspapers an empty "symbol of boredom" but calls up the image of his father asking to be left "in peace to read the paper" to convey the adult air of power and solemnity he later associated with news.

"Much of the content of this larger background against which our conscious being stands out in relief is insignificant," James said. "But in it many of the performances of genius seem also to have their origin" (1902, p. 556). Schutz went even further: "The fringes are the stuff poetry is made of; they are capable of being set to music but they are not translatable" (1970, p. 97). The participants described in this essay placed their identities as citizens in that region, in the zone of creation. In the case of Siegel, an encounter with illogic (a quality she confronted from early childhood) brought forth with force her own Jewish identity and the politics that followed from it.

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Emotional Politics

One’s legal citizenship does not spring from reason but from an accident of birth. A child enters not a life world of instrumental action but a political realm of someone else’s choosing, which becomes a source of attachment, fondness, and, later, identity. In her life history, a young adult from the Midwest expresses nostalgia over the "simple and happy" time growing up in the United States. The mind may conceive of others’ citizenship in the abstract but remembers one’s own, as James suggested: "Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains" (1890, p. 239). A 26-year-old from the countryside in Denmark describes her small village as the center of the world, that is, until about age ten when she discovered it "was far away from everything," from "the queen, the national Museum, the Royal Ballet, and the Tivoli" as well as from "the rest of the world."

Her life world then filled with inexplicable juxtapositions. Her parents read the newspaper and watched the evening news regularly, and the distant yet powerful world invaded her cozy surroundings.

The contrast between my "cocoon world" and then the world as I saw it through the media every day was difficult for me to comprehend. I often remember being terrified after watching the news, and in fact, some of the most vivid and scary memories from my childhood were caused by confusion and by the way I mixed up . . . the two worlds. —Trine Vrang Laursen

Under the care of parents, she encountered a political realm of presumed safety that eventually fell under a shadow. The media revealed the contradiction. A Canadian, 28, recalls watching documentaries that depicted "a paradise for a young kid," but "one day I turned the channel and saw what is now etched in my mind for good" — the slaughter of bottle-nose dolphins off the coast of Japan.

The bay ran red with blood, crested with salt foam whipped up by the thrashing tails of the panicking dolphins. This struck me as odd. After the initial revulsion dissipated, I was confused over how television could, on a "Nature" episode, portray dolphins as intelligent, highly developed beings and then, rather coolly in a newscast, simply report this "occurrence" and show ten seconds from some outraged "activist" . . . —John Lironi

Despite being "confused," his judgment of the event clearly takes a stand against the cool brevity of the news report. Feeling preceded reason. Husserl defined feeling as a mode of valuing and said, "Through reflection, instead of grasping [those values] simply, . . . we grasp the corresponding subjective experiences . . ." (1981, p. 23). A 27-year-old from Bulgaria, recalling the death of Leonid Breshnev, describes how feeling entered in:

we were flooded with mourning music . . . and people paying their last respects and his funeral and how the Soviet people grieved for him . . . . Then I became extremely sad also — I was in fourth or fifth grade . . . . I was absolutely carried away with the emotions of these foreign people, I was crying in front of the television, experiencing a great loss of I-don’t-know-what . . . . My parents were cool about this whole tragic event. I even thought, "Oh, how insensitive and cold the adult people are . . . ." —Daniela Petlekova

The essay by a 22-year-old from Lithuania also describes Breshnev’s death, remarking on how "very strange" it seemed. In such cases, the "material sensations actually present may have a weaker influence . . . than ideas of remoter facts" (James, 1902, p. 61). Laursen recounts her earliest memory of the funeral of Egyptian President Sadat, which she found "mysterious and absolutely horrifying." Sanyal, the 22-year-old from France, recalls the assassination of Indira Gandhi: "the episode marked me," he writes. "I can still remember my parents dropping their cutlery on their plates, a clang that resonated in the silence . . ."

In life history essays, the political realm forces itself into the peaceful life world of childhood with the shock of death or tragedy witnessed through the media (Barnhurst, 1998). Usually the events involve national figures, although some bring private lives into the public eye, such as the accidents recounted by two women, 25 and 21, from Norway and the United States, whose kinsmen came into the news. A Puerto Rican, 24, starts her essay with the police murder in the Cerro Maravilla of two students affiliated with the cause of national independence, which shocked her into awareness of politics and death and then reverberated through later experiences when her family got tied in government documents to the independence movement.

Faced with the absurd juxtaposition of an encompassing state that can sustain life and yet rests on the power to destroy life (see Weber, 1958) and of a media environment in which the capacity to show the wonders of the world rests on the power to shock, the narrators of these life stories often express fear. A 23-year-old from Italy refers repeatedly to "institutionalized murder."

Laursen’s life history, after contrasting the "cocoon world" with the assassination of Sadat, tells five stories about her encounters with fear. Because of his rhetoric of evil empire, she became terrified of President Reagan, pictured in the Danish newspapers "as a lunatic with a wild expression in his eyes and ‘pet-rockets’ sticking out of his pockets." Her parents’ calming argument "that he would not press ‘the big red button’, because naturally he did not want to die himself" backfired after Reagan remarked in a news conference "that some would survive and that it might be necessary to sacrifice the rest . . ." Laursen could no longer sleep at night and for months found herself arrested by fear "every time I heard a plane approach the nearby airport, because I was certain that they would drop the bomb on Denmark." Later, because of the Chernobyl accident, she "wondered if it was safe every time I ate a sandwich." Then the campaign against AIDS began, and she says of her friends, "we all acted really cool . . . . But really we were petrified." Soon after came the Gulf conflict, when she felt "tense and restless" and needed to monitor the hostilities on CNN.

These fears eventually led her to obey the requirements of informed citizenship. She signed a petition demanding the closure of a Swedish nuclear plant, followed political news, debated issues with classmates, joined a political party, and attended its meetings. As Weber asserts, "in reality, obedience is determined by highly robust motives of fear and hope . . ." (1958, p. 79).

The two emotions intertwine in the life history essay by an Israeli, 29, who contrasts her longing for peace with the terror of war. When Sadat first visited Israel —

We were all sitting in the living room, . . . waiting for him . . . . We could not believe it was about to happen until the minute we saw him at the door of the airplane waving at all of us, the citizens of Israel. . . . We welcomed him in our hearts and with tears in our eyes. I remember . . . a mutual feeling among the people . . . . Those feelings of involvement and care are Israeli citizenship, for me. —Tamar Ish-Hurvitz

She also describes living with terrorism, fearing a bomb would "blow away" their eight-storey building. Under police order to stay home during crackdowns, she discovered unanticipated "feelings of togetherness." The family discussions, reinforced by media coverage, "created a sense of solidarity," she says, as they worried together after her brother was sent to southern Lebanon. Weber observed: "As the consummated threat of violence among modern politics, war creates pathos and sentiment of community. . . . And, as a mass phenomenon, these feelings break down all the naturally given barriers of association" (1958, p. 335). The feeling of community from war plays a notable role in the life narratives, such as one by a 24-year-old from Canada, who begins with the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ish-Hurvitz goes on to tell other stories that move between hope and fear: the excitement when President Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan came to Israel to sign the peace treaty, the shock of hearing that Prime Minister Rabin had been shot: "Most of all I remember myself alone in my own apartment, screaming in astonishment and crying in front of the TV." After each of these events the telephone rings constantly, reinforcing through talk a sense of mutual feeling. She writes that as a child —

my memories were emotional and not so much related to the objective meanings and consequences of the political events. At later phases in my life I have been more involved with the news . . . . Still, the memories I have from recent years have mainly to do with the emotional feelings that they evoked.

That political awareness occurs in the feeling mode is reinforced by the occurrence of premonitions. Ish-Hurvitz had an intuition before the conflict involved her brother in southern Lebanon: "the day before it all started" she found "strangely very quiet" and could "sense in the air that something bad was going to happen." A 25-year-old from Norway reports having "a terrible feeling" before similar news arrived. These and previous life history accounts reiterate that politics is at heart emotional. As James writes, "in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, . . . our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand" (1902, p. 475).

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Flashes of Defiance

The life histories highlight a common response to the frightening political realm: an effort to assert one’s free agency. For the participants from newly independent states, the lack of political freedom parallels the need for (and growth of) personal independence. At age eight, the Lithuanian spent a summer in her ancestral village and came upon her grandfather listening to the radio alone late at night. "His face was very strange, very serious," she writes. Ordered to bed, she stayed behind the door and overheard words such as White House and Washington. He was listening, she later learned, to the Voice of America.

After recalling the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and expectations for change, she describes witnessing the re-establishment of an independent state as "one of the most memorable events in all my life." When the Soviet army intervened, she joined her countrymen in public demonstrations.

All that night, warming ourselves near the fires and drinking hot tea, we listened to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other Western radio stations (all our national stations were closed by the Soviets). . . . thousands of Lithuanians, gathering at the parliament, government, and other important sites . . . resolved to defend their freedom . . . —Laura Gvozdaite

Her narrative thus closes the circle, from her grandfather’s (illicit) to her own (open) defiance. Several of the life histories form similar chiasms. Petlekova, who mourned Breshnev’s death in childhood, next recalls —

high school and the forbidden voices of Radio Free Europe and the BBC . . . . The secrecy of the action and the danger of being discovered (we were threatened with being expelled from school and turned in to the police) made the most extensive listeners heroes. Nevertheless, . . . we were not so much listening . . . as talking about the listening itself.

She, too, witnessed the Communist breakdown and arrival of free elections, with the inevitable backlash. Her narrative culminates with a return to radio, but this time as a worker on the production staff of Reuters, trying to form an independent view of the violent demonstrations at the parliament in Sofia.

Even among the survivors of national crises, focused attention on politics comes intermittently, never in constant, sustained fashion as envisioned for the rational-active citizenry. As Dewey asked rhetorically, Does the public "come into being only in periods of marked social transition when crucial alternative issues stand out . . . ?" (1927, p. 123) Schutz (1970) used Kierkegaard’s term leap to characterize the transitions in the intentional life from one province of meaning to another. The leaps into the political realm came less often for those in stable democracies, and their periods of inattention lasted longer. Dewey observed that the history of local politics "shows in most cases a flare-up of intense interest followed by a period of indifference" (1927, p. 137). Laursen finishes her narrative of fearful memories with a story of living in Britain and sharing a flat with coworkers whose television agenda ran from "East-enders" to "Noel’s House Party." "I was absolutely amazed when I went home for Christmas to find out that the USSR had been dissolved in the meantime. I did not know."

The looking-glass reflection of sporadic flares in the political landscape occurs when the life histories describe personal appearances in the news. At the end of his narrative, Lironi recounts one such moment, when he joined protesters blockading the Clayquot Sound near Vancouver Island.

I was not a "protester tourist" or a life-long city dweller. I have worked, lived, and played in these forests since I was born. My home town was . . . a lumber town of a few thousand, only 80 kilometers away. . . .

On the day of my arrest, my face was beamed . . . around the province . . . . The cop was my age and shaking just as hard as I was. After I was processed and released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, I went to a hotel . . . and decided to watch some TV. There I was, in full frame among other protesters. . . . "Radical anti-logging protesters," "urban dwellers dictating to country folk," "destroyers of the provincial economy." . . . people I worked with, other students, neighbors, my parents’ neighbors — all they saw was a young guy with long hair defying authority. Probably on drugs, probably with a criminal record.

Once again the news got the story wrong, but the attention ends quickly, and soon Lironi returns to inattention: "Since then, I have to admit," he writes, "I have mellowed out a bit." The defiance that characterizes the political realm often involves resisting political news itself in the narratives. A young adult from Italy recalls his mother listening to the morning news on Radio Radicale. Sometimes when he asked for music instead, she would put a tape on the radio-cassette player.

The Doors was more like me. It was something I could relate to easier than the news. . . . I could not understand the meaning but I could really feel something. Whereas the buzz of the news was nothing else, just buzz at that moment. —Emanuele Salerno

Choosing music not only felt better but also represented autonomy, which he associates explicitly with acquiring his own radio-cassette. He writes that the radio "transfers information, energy to you, which then has an emotional effect . . ." Weber called such choices, which relate ideas to the material world, "elective affinity" (1958, p. 62).

Only later, after studying English and receiving a book of lyrics, could Salerno "understand better the liberationist and alternative goals touched in the songs" of Jim Morrison and the Doors. He returns to the theme with a story about his grandfather’s radio and another program with a different "buzz" he couldn’t understand. He made sense of the politics later, and he uses the word "sense, meaning emotionally connected." In the coda to his narrative he concludes: "Probably all that I have experienced drove me now to consider the freedom in thinking — in word and expression . . ." One’s affinity — the passions and intuitions springing from the fringe — anticipates and fixes the operations of reason, James said: "It finds arguments for our conviction; for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies . . . , defines . . . , dignifies it and lends it . . . plausibility" (1902, p. 475).

A sense of the loss of one’s freedom can provide the most sustained engagement with the political sphere. Dewey noted that "sometimes the sense of external oppression, as by censorship . . . arouses intellectual energy and excites courage (1927, p. 168, and see also the discursus on the conditions of freedom in Weber, 1958, pp. 70–74). A 24-year-old from Belgium structures his entire narrative on the assertion of autonomy.

I remember being in first grade. My teacher punished me for talking with a friend by covering my mouth with a sticker. I had to keep this terrible thing on my mouth the entire day. —Martijn Bakx

He concludes that the event, which colors the remainder of his life narrative, "introduced me to the principle of politics." In each succeeding story, he recalls other events that reinforced his commitment to equal and free expression, from trivial fights with his brother over the remote control, through song lyrics he loved during high school, to the rights he learned from American films. When South Africa won the world rugby championship, he saw Nelson Mandela "cheering like a little child." He imagined himself — "a real sports addict" — in jail for decades unable to cheer with others, and "it made me feel one with Nelson for a moment." Freedom of expression bred unity, and that led him to see himself as "a citizen of the world." It is this sense of unity that, despite the negative course of their conception of citizenship — the Progressives saw as the ultimate ideal. Royce (1969) called it The Hope of the Great Community (in an essay under that title).

In life history accounts, the sense of unified community marks the high points in experiences with the political world through the media (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991, 1998; Barnhurst 1998, 2000). A young adult from the Netherlands, despite her lack of interest in politics, describes herself watching news dutifully with her father and seeing the observance of two minutes of silence, when the nation pauses each year to remember those fallen during World War II and the queen places flowers on the grave of —

the unknown soldier, but as a little girl I wasn’t sure how to think about him, because I didn’t know what he looked like. I also remember getting mad at the cars I heard driving down the street. How dare they . . . ?" —Charlotte Alofs

She recalls her grandmother’s stories of the Dutch resistance and of a brother who died in the German concentration camp in Holland. Her grandmother showed her several documents, including a woman’s account of a conversation with a prisoner the day before his execution. "She asked him if he was scared and he replied that he wasn’t, because it was an honor to die for his country. This prisoner was my grandmother’s brother. He was eighteen . . ."

Her grandmother also showed her his last letter, written with calm formality. Alofs remembers "being amazed" at such fortitude in the face of death. "It made me feel proud to be a part of that family, and it made me feel proud to be Dutch," she writes. "It gave me a sense of us, meaning my people . . . ." Weber said that "it is immensely moving" when a person of any age "really feels such responsibility with heart and soul." Then —

somewhere he reaches the point where he says, "Here I stand; I can do no other." That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. (1958, p. 127)

Alofs herself wondered if she "would have felt the same way if I had been in that position. Would I have joined the resistance, would I have thought it an honor to die for my country? Would any of my friends think that?" She then recalls visiting the Anne Frank House and being struck by the physical presence of the bookcase entrance to the hiding place and overwhelmed by photographs of concentration camps. "I could barely look at the pictures," she writes, expressing surprise that she still remembers them exactly, "and I don’t think I will ever forget."

Her own encounter with war occurred during the Gulf conflict, watching CNN coverage that "gave me a sense of us, the ‘good guys’, against them . . ." She felt "almost glad" that Holland sent a ship, and she writes, "I think I was proud as a person from a very small country to belong with a superpower like America . . . . ‘So this is what war is like in the nineties,’ I remember thinking to myself." The violence of the Gulf conflict filtered through only later, and then only because she saw visual images of a hostage soldier being released. The overwhelming presence of the United States, which a 24-year-old from Canada, for example, calls the "the real measure of status and power" in his consciousness as a citizen, underscores the interplay of defiance and unity in the essays.

Alofs returns at last to unity, concluding her narrative with the moving story of her first commemoration day after arriving in Amsterdam to study. "So there I was together with thousands of other people being silent for two minutes," she writes. She describes the incredible stillness, the diversity of the people, their unity of purpose, and the preponderance of youth, despite how long ago the events transpired. "It didn’t matter, we still cared and we were not going to let this be forgotten." Like others of her generation, she experienced community despite her professed lack of interest in politics and failure to take measurable action herself.

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Old Ideas, New Experiences

Most theory in media studies proposes a rational relationship between users, media forms, and content: the media disseminating and the audience responding, all to accomplish economic, political, or cultural ends. The experiences participants describe here have another quality; their practice differs from theory. In night vision, the more the eyes focus on an object, the less visible it becomes; only by avoiding a steady gaze directly at an object can the eyes detect it. In reading the life history documents, I found those most focused on citizenship less informative about their subject but full of intriguing insights about the media operating in the periphery of politics. Likewise those focused most directly on the media contained the most penetrating image of the fringe experience of political life.

Considered schematically, the life histories present the media as a background for personal identity, citizenship, and politics (Figure 2). Identity for these young adults plays out more or less engulfed by the media. Politics exists as a kind of media genre, largely divorced from personal experiences associated with the participants’ identities. Citizenship is also more or less disconnected from personal experiences, although it can be the link between identity and politics existing at a remove from the life world. What political experiences the participants described took place within the zone at least influenced by media, and the media came into focus usually as objects of politics.

Figure 2

Citizenship as Experienced

The experience of citizenship as a marginal aspect of identity among the young adults, who feel more or less surrounded by the media but distanced from politics.

Long after the contents of the media are lost, the surrounding conditions remain, bearing just a trace of residual feeling. The events that manage to survive tend to have (or to take on) visual form in the participants’ memories and continue to exert an influence as an ideal (or counter-ideal) image, not as a set of logical arguments. The life histories present a picture of citizenship, while defining self-identity as another, largely separate image. The picture of political life that emerges from the fringes is full of clashes and empty argument, stubborn in the face of competing values. Emotion precedes reason, fear and hope in some cases goading the narrators into actions aligned with ideal citizenship (but usually not). The leaps from one realm to another accommodate long periods of quiescence, interrupted by moments of defiance that allow for the dialectic of autonomy and (comm)unity.

The analysis required a constant sense of the whole (of, for example, the media surround, rather than a focus on one particular medium or category of content). It inspired not a search for stasis but for patterns in the continual changes and ongoing adjustments. In short, the life histories suggest not an instrumental use of media for gratification or maintenance of community (although these functions exist) but a sort of media environment, a space where a set of dynamic systems operate. Like any natural system, the media environment deserves closer attention, demands appreciation and respect, and merits conservation. Scholars and activists who examine the media and citizenship have an impact on that environment, even when doing primarily theoretical work.

The social thinkers I read from a century ago held in common a view of citizenship. They did not envision social life, politics, or the media operating primarily at the fringes of consciousness, except in cases worthy of censure. Schutz, for example, described the ideal type of well-informed citizen. Unlike the man on the street, who "accepts his sentiments and passions as guides," the citizen-type was fully capable to "decide who is a competent expert" and "make up his mind after having listened to opposing expert opinions" (1970, pp. 239–41). Although James argued that "we cognize through feeling" (1890, p. 247 fn.), the legacy of the reforms that culminated in the Progressive Era moved politics away from emotion. At a time when many American workers preferred a corrupt politician, whom they could chase out of office, to an expert mandarin, who would look down on them and whom they could not remove (see Weber, 1958, p. 18), reformers championed the ideal of merit-based civil service, which placed a premium on objective measures and expertise. (Perhaps the American workers had it right.) Another Progressive reform, the secret or "Australian" ballot, hid the emotional foundations of citizenship behind the curtains of the polling booth, concealed in the interior of the individual (Schudson, 1998).

Regarding the media as a social institution, Dewey decried —

the triviality and "sensational" quality of so much of what passes as news . . . crime, accident, family rows, personal clashes and conflicts are . . . breaches of continuity; they supply the element of shock which is the strictest meaning of sensation; they are the new par excellence . . . (1927, p. 180)

And he worried that the individual had become inured to "this method of collecting, recording, and presenting social changes . . ." (1927, p. 180) Weber noted that the "conditions that accompany journalistic work . . . produce those results which have conditioned the public to regard the press with a mixture of disdain and pitiful cowardice" and went on to observe that "our great capitalist newspaper concerns . . . have been regularly and typically the breeders of political indifference," which accompanies fear and paralyzes thought (1958, p. 96– 7). Among the reformers, Godkin (1898) noted that newspapers failed to convey public opinion for several reasons. Advertisers, who paid an increasing share of publishing costs, had wrested the attention of newspaper conductors away from readers. The heavy investment in industrial plant (required to establish and operate a press) focused newspaper conductors on the interests of capital (which required high-volume, high-speed production) rather than of citizens. Readers devolved into an audience of buyers, whose opinions were valued as consumers, not as citizens.

The Progressive movement proposed several reforms for the media. Godkin (1896, 1898) more than once pressed the need to create a means other than newspapers to measure public opinion, and he pointed to science as an alternative avenue for discovering how the public formed opinions on new subjects. Others in the movement (e.g., Beard & Beard, 1931) echoed his solution, and Lippmann (1922) proposed the creation of scientific intelligence bureaus independent of the press to gauge public opinion. As a further reform, Godkin (1898) recommended higher standards of news gathering and presentation. He criticized newspapers for publishing a multitude of disconnected items, reminiscent of a marketplace that had to move a mass of products quickly. Public opinion forms slowly through prolonged discussion and extended reading, he argued, and to remedy the problems created when democracy expanded to include many new, uninformed voters, journalists needed to present events in priority based on professional judgment.

Like their other projects, Progressive reforms of the media were largely put into place. Over the course of the last century, an extensive industry of survey research firms emerged, dedicated to the measurement of public opinion (Herbst, 1994). Some are now affiliated with news businesses, but others are free-standing or based in non-partisan institutions such as universities. At the same time, journalism modernized and its workers professionalized along the lines Progressives recommended. In their presentation of events, newspapers shifted away from the coverage of many, unrelated events (Barnhurst & Mutz, 1997), and they began to map the social world according to priorities (Nerone & Barnhurst, 1995). The redefinition of journalism to fit the Progressive prescription later spread to broadcast news (Steele & Barnhurst, 1996). Other Progressive reforms, such as the abolition of child labor, required legislation or direct government intervention, but the definition of news is not directly regulated.

Among the citizens who wrote life histories examined here, these reforms have done little to move their lives closer to the ideal. Dewey diagnosed the source of the problem: the fitting of new citizens into old conceptions of citizenship. At the time he was writing, scale seemed the principal difference. "We have inherited, in short, local town-meeting practice and ideas. But we live and act and have our being in a continental national state" (1927, p. 111). Outdated political institutions had an impact on individuals: when "the needs of the newly forming public" encounter old, established, and incompatible forms, "there is increasing . . . apathy, neglect, and contempt" (p. 31). He concluded that apathy results whenever the discrepancy grows "between actual practice and traditional machinery" of politics, making "thousands feel their hollowness even if they cannot make their feeling articulate" (pp. 134-35).

The life history narratives echo Dewey’s analysis and also indicate a clear discomfort with received forms. A young adult from the United States, for example, describes the world as "so spread apart." A 28-year-old from Canada writes, "I find citizenship an outdated, anachronistic ideal." After a century of complaints about the failures of citizens, the current generation responds to citizenship as one would to a chronic grumbler, by dismissing the reality or importance of both complainer and complaint, for which Weber coined the appropriate term: "political hypochondria" (1956, p. 62). Dewey listed the symptoms: querulousness, impotent drifting, uneasy snatching at distractions, idealization of old ways, facile optimism, and the intimidation of dissenters (1927, p. 170). As the 24-year-old Canadian concludes, "I feel that blissful acceptance of scathing cynicism is the root of this story, and I suspect this is not the case for myself alone."

What can be done? If the news media create and sustain environments, then there must be room for a symbolic breed of environmentalism. Environmental movements raise consciousness of problems, envision a different world, and then call for action to move from old to new. Much more research is needed to explore both the theory of citizenship and the experiences of citizens in different parts of the world. The analysis presented here has attempted to raise awareness of the conflict between citizenship-as-idealized and the examples of citizenship-as-lived. It is too soon to call for specific actions, but the experiences reported here do make it possible to speculate about how citizenship can be re-envisioned.

Dewey proposed "a subtle, delicate, vivid, and responsive art of communication" in order to "take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it." He argued, "Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation." He then concluded: "Democracy . . . will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication" (1927, p. 184). Although he was critical of publicity for its "extraordinary facility in enlisting" what he called the "emotional partisanship of the masses" (p. 169), he missed a basic distinction, damning the means with the dishonest ends of those "who have something at stake in having a lie believed" (p. 177). Clearly the essential element Dewey identified is also what young adults today miss: the wedding of political news with the emotional life, which was lost when citizenship was redefined a century ago. Dewey did recognize that "judgments popularly formed on political matters are so important . . . that there is an enormous premium upon all methods which affect their formation" (p. 182). He hoped that new modes of presentation, springing out of art, would touch a deeper level of people’s lives.

Institutional reform could then follow. "The problem," he suggested, "is in the first instance an intellectual [one]: the search for conditions . . . . When these conditions are brought into being they will make their own forms. Until they come about, it is somewhat futile to consider what political machinery will suit them" (1927, p. 146). Dewey identifies several steps leading eventually to institutional reform: to reevaluate the old and accept new images of citizenship, to create conditions that foster new citizens, and to let institutions move toward the new picture of citizenship. This essay seeks to contribute to the first step by critiquing the old and pointing to some elements of a new model of citizenship.

Re-envisioning citizenship has precedent in theory. Weber suggested the notion of "world images," the ways that specific strata envision social conditions (1958, p. 64). Schutz observed that the order of things "reveals itself merely in images by analogical apprehending. But the images, once constituted, are taken for granted . . ." (1970, p. 246). Those old images may be replaced. Through something akin to what James called the "ontological imagination," previously "unpicturable beings are realized" (1902, p. 83). Weber’s observations seem especially pertinent. He visited America to see the connections between membership in a religious denomination and civic and economic life. He found that what he called church-mindedness was "rapidly dying out" at the beginning of the 20th century (1958, p. 306). As it became irrelevant, membership in voluntary associations replaced it, in "a process of secularization" (p. 311) that has continued with the decline of association involvement a century later. A new image of citizenship must now take its place.

That new image might place emphasis on the emotional experience of identity. As shown schematically (Figure 3), the image might acknowledge how the participants understand the media and politics as elements in the fringe. Citizenship might be enlarged to include the many ways individuals resist by, for example, not voting, the ways they withdraw during varying periods between their flashes of engagement, and the ways they feel membership in many levels of community.

Figure 3

Citizenship as Reimagined

The possibility of citizenship as important to identity, with both less dependent on politics, and the media playing a minor role.

Following Dewey’s steps toward reform, what next requires attention is what conditions encourage citizens in that new model. The experiences examined here can suggest a few conditions. First, activities that encourage bringing media and politics out of the fringes and into focused attention caused a shift in the life histories (as in previous studies, see Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991, 1998). Several essays, for example, mention school work that invited reflection on politics and the media, and further study could explore how such assignments help make a life project of citizenship. Second, free and open distribution of political ideas and events also had an impact (again as in previous studies). The 26-year-old from Spain became a regular reader after receiving copies of newspapers with parents on an airplane, where the day’s edition was distributed free. Shayan Sanyal found the bridge between his childhood in France, his heritage in India, and his life in the United Kingdom through the free access to the Internet he received while in college. In each case, news of politics stood outside the usual business of buying and selling, even if only briefly. Although the condition may seem difficult to sustain, political communication requires some insulation from the market, and further study might explore how to make such experiences more widespread. Third, the essays point to benefits from the presentation of clear political options (a finding supported by previous cross-national comparison, Barnhurst, 2000). Those who lived through national crises had the clearest sense of their own autonomy, but others also benefited when the media presented more than one ideological option. Further research is again required, but these three conditions might begin the discussion of how to renew citizenship. Dewey hoped that "Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce . . . to release of personal potentialities" (1927, pp. 200–201).

Instead of the logical-rational citizen of Progressive thought, perhaps citizens today imagine choices and take symbolic actions, within what Husserl called quotation marks. The new political realm might resemble the world of fantasy that Schutz described:

We have no longer to master the outer world and to overcome the resistance of its objects. We are free from the pragmatic motive . . . , free also from the bondage of "inter-objective" space and inter-subjective standard time. No longer are we confined within the limits of our actual restorable, or attainable reach. . . . there are no "possible accomplishments" . . . (1970, pp. 257–58)

In the context of citizenship at the end of the twentieth century, Schutz might have been describing activism on the Internet. If Dewey had it right, institutional forms, whether through the Internet or by some other means, will eventually follow the kinds of citizenship the new generation imagines. Once the image takes shape, perhaps from this and other research on young adults, the institutional logic can follow. As James argued, "the essence of ‘government’ " might include a range things, "one of which is more important at one moment and others at another" (1902, p. 31). It is apparent that the rational side of citizenship is not the most important in young adults’ experience. Rather than continue stifling citizens with that ideal, the time has come to set them free.

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