Friday, August 18, 2017

Straight Swap: Lynching Memorial for Confederate Memorial in Danville


In Danville, Kentucky, where I live, there is a Confederate monument in the park between my church and my college.  It is supposedly of a local resident, but is looks like a generic Robert E. Lee-type officer.  It was erected in 1910 -- not in the aftermath of the Civil War, but at the height of Jim Crow.  My favorite part is the caption on the back - What They Were, The Whole World Knows.

Heh, heh.  I'll buy that.

Which is why the monument should come down.

I learned this week that a black man was lynched in Danville in 1866.  He was killed by a mob of Danvillians right in this same park.

The Equal Justice Initiative is making a memorial pillar for each lynching victim, to be erected near Montgomery Alabama.  One excellent feature of their plan is that an identical pillar be erected in the place where the lynching took place.

I propose a straight swap.  Take down the Confederate memorial in Danville, and erect a lynching memorial in the same spot.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Mundanity of Virtue

I went to the “Post-Bourdieusian Theory” session at the American Sociological Association annual meeting yesterday.  Mustafa Emirbayer was the respondent.  In talking about a paper unpacking the idea of talent, he cited Dan Chambliss’ article about swimmers.  I know Dan as a Yale Ph.D. and fellow small-college professor, but I had never read this article.  I mistakenly thought it was about swimming.  But Emirbayer praised it as one of the ten best sociology articles ever written. So I downloaded it and read it just now.

His title is “The Mundanity of Excellence.”  He says, in conclusion:

“But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.”

It struck me that this is what critical realists should say about the virtues.  They are habits of action.  They are mundane in themselves.  The excellence of virtue comes from their being habitual in a person, and in a social institution. Just about anyone could learn to be virtuous.  Why relatively few do is an important empirical question.  But is it not because we lack a talent for virtue.

I think there is an important way forward here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Integrity Idol Elevates All by Honoring Honest Officials in Corrupt Systems

My topic on WKYB.

Integrity Idol is a popular competition to honor public officials who do their jobs honestly, transparently, and well in places where that is not the norm.

Created by the American good-government group Accountability Lab, the project now exists in five countries notorious for their endemic corruption.  Starting in Nepal in 2014, the local teams take nominations from all over the country of public officials doing their jobs well.  The five nominees are then profiled on television.  Popular voting determines the winner, who is then honored on the show.

The first winner, Gyan Mani Nepal, is a District Education Officer in Nepal.  He was faced with a terrible pass rate by his students - 14% - on the national exam.  When he looked into why, he found that many teachers simply did not show up for work.  Many were patronage appointments made by local politicians.  They collected their salaries, but often were out doing the bidding of their political bosses.  Mr. Nepal gave his phone number to all the students and had them text him whenever their teacher was absent.  He had the students keep attendance logs for their teachers.  Using this, he fired the worst offenders, trained the best teachers, and encouraged those in the middle to commit to their jobs.  He also reduced his own budget, and posted all of his expenses, thereby winning the respect of the public.  The parents, in particular, were grateful supporters.

In one year, the pass rate on the national exam rose to 60%.

Max Weber said that money and command authority are, indeed, two kinds of power in the world.  But an equally important kind of power comes from status.  Status is not something we can give ourselves, but comes from the honor we earn from others.  Integrity Idol puts status power to work to lift up the honorable, empowering them to improve their whole system.

Jonathan Haidt says that when we see others doing good things, it elevates our own happiness, and makes us want to go out and do good, too.

Monday, July 24, 2017

American Religious People Now Evenly Split Between Young-Earth Creation and God-Guided Evolution


A new Gallup poll shows that the 4/5ths of Americans who are religious are now evenly split - 38% to 38% - over whether God created the universe pretty much the way it is within the last 10,000 years, or whether God created the universe a long time ago and has guided evolution since then.

For decades, most religious Americans took the "young earth" creationist position.  That support has dropped in the last few years.  The contrasting "theistic evolution" position has risen somewhat.

At the same time, the belief in a wholly secular evolution has doubled to nearly a fifth of all Americans.

Theistic evolution has been the majority opinion among the most educated religious people for decades.  Most college-educated religious Americans accept that there is no conflict between creation and evolution.  It may be that what we are seeing reflects the fact that more religious people are getting a college education.

This is also good news for all centrists, who lament the polarization of much of our culture by false dichotomies.  May we all be more willing to consider the middle position.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Heroes Help Us Elevate Our Own Virtuous Actions


My topic in WKYB this morning.

What are heroes for?

One important role of heroes is as models for us.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that when we watch other people do morally uplifting things, we feel elevated - which he reads as the opposite of "ashamed."  Moreover, feeling elevated makes us more likely to want to help others ourselves. When we publicly celebrate real heroes in our midst, it raises the happiness of the whole community.  We share in the good act, and the proportion of those feeling elevated shapes our culture to make good acting habitual.

A study of Carnegie Hero Medal winners - ordinary people who risk their lives to save strangers - found that they were much more likely to just act when they saw another in trouble, rather than carefully weigh pros and cons.  They were empathetic people who were not torn by ambivalence about whether helping others was really wise. These real (not fictional) heroes had a habit of trusting that virtuous action really works in the world - they are not suckers for helping.

Which got me thinking about the current boom in fictional superheroes.  I am not much drawn to superheroes - I am a sociologist because I find real people and real lives fascinating and meaningful.  Still, when hundreds of millions of real people around the world go out of their way to watch and emulate fictional superheroes, that turns the phenomenon back into sociology. Most of the superheroes in movies at the moment are ambivalent about whether they have to be heroes - whether "with great power comes great responsibility."

It was in this mood that I was helped by a review which made clear to me why I really liked the new "Wonder Woman" movie.  Wonder Woman is a hero like the real Carnegie heroes - she knows she has the power to act, and is not ambivalent that her actions are worth doing.

And observing that kind of hero is elevating.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Would You Have Supported the Revolution in 1776?


I audited a colleague's course on the American Revolution this year.  It made me revisit some attitudes I had taken for granted, probably since elementary school.  As an American today I am a patriot. I strongly support republican government.  When I was in Britain and someone offered a toast to the queen I discovered just how visceral my loathing for monarchy is.

I was raised a Quaker in the originally very Quaker town of Plymouth Meeting, PA.  The Revolution was fought in the territory around where I lived.  And Quakers, as pacifists, were mostly opposed to the war.  So what would my position have been if I had been, say, 16 in 1776 (as I was in 1976)?

I probably would have opposed the American Revolution.

Since my 20s I have been a Presbyterian.  Of all the American denominations, Presbyterians were the most responsible for promoting the Revolution. If I had been 26 in 1776, I would have been more moved by the arguments of republicanism. But as a meliorist, I would have thought the arguments for achieving a republic by immediate revolutionary war were dangerous.  I expect I would have pointed to the the bad effects of a previous revolution, the regicide of Charles I and the gross excesses - Presbyterian excesses - of the Commonwealth.

I probably would have supported the aims of independence, but opposed the revolution.

If I had been 56 in 1776, I would have been more confident that justice requires changing the culture, as well as changing the laws.  I would have supported a movement for gradual, negotiated independence from Britain.  But in the negotiation we would firmly push for liberty for all.  Using the power of the crown on the way to an American republic, the United States of America might not have emerged until a generation or two later - without slavery.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Mitch McConnell is the Boies Penrose of Today


I recently read a claim that we will look back on Senator Mitch McConnell, the current majority leader and power broker of the Republican Party, the way we now look back on John C. Calhoun.  I do not think this is the right comparison.  Calhoun was a committed ideologue from beginning to end.  Senator McConnell, by contrast, has no real commitments except staying in power.  This is why his signal achievements have all been obstruction.

I think we will look back on Mitch McConnell the way we now look back on Boies Penrose.  This means:
a) We will think of him primarily as a skilled manipulator of the machinery of politics - a politician, in the pure form; but
b) No one but politics nerds will remember him.

I would guess that very few of my readers will have have ever heard of Boies Penrose.  He was a powerful U.S. Senator of a century ago, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.  In the words of The American Heritage, he was a "boss" of the gilded age kind, who, "having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else. ... Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out.  ... he was the biggest boss of his day."

What was notable about Penrose was his cynicism about politics, politicians, and, especially, ordinary voters.  "Their tastes are very simple;" he said, "they dearly love hokum."  And he supplied it to derail reformers and good government leaders.  He stayed in power for more than a quarter of a century, spiting his enemies until death took him.