Saturday, August 16, 2008

Obama and McCain's Favorite Songs

I can see why Obama would favor Ready or Not. It could work as a campaign anthem.

But John McCain's favorite song is Dancing Queen? Seriously? I guess if he is just discovering the internet now, maybe he is really a teenager. Let's watch for OMG to start appearing in his speeches.

Blender magazine asked the presidential candidates to name their top ten favorite songs.

Sen. Barack Obama
1. Ready or Not Fugees
2. What's Going On Marvin Gaye
3. I'm On Fire Bruce Springsteen
4. Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones
5. Sinnerman Nina Simone
6. Touch the Sky Kanye West
7. You'd Be So Easy to Love Frank Sinatra
8. Think Aretha Franklin
9. City of Blinding Lights U2
10. Yes We Can

Sen. John McCain

1. Dancing Queen ABBA
2. Blue Bayou Roy Orbison
3. Take a Chance On Me ABBA
4. If We Make It Through December Merle Haggard
5. As Time Goes By Dooley Wilson
6. Good Vibrations The Beach Boys
7. What A Wonderful World Louis Armstrong
8. I've Got You Under My Skin Frank Sinatra
9. Sweet Caroline Neil Diamond
10. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes The Platters

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Marriage Movement in the Civil Sphere

Jeffrey Alexander envisions the civil sphere as driven by social movements that realize the basic civil values against intrusions from the uncivil spheres. All of his examples of such movements are “progressive” in the liberal sense. They are movement to remove hierarchy, exclusion, restriction.

Marriage, by its nature, is exclusive and restrictive. Parenthood, by its nature, is hierarchical. Could a movement to restore marriage and married parenthood to the center of the civil sphere’s understanding of family life succeed in Alexander’s conception of the civil sphere?

Marriage is an institution. Alexander lays out what he thinks are the basic binaries governing institutions.

A marriage movement would need to make a convincing case that marriage is the more legitimate institution of the available alternatives.

The first thing an Alexandrian marriage movement would need, therefore, is a good enemy. Ideally, the enemy would be an institution with the same functions as marriage, but embodying the bad side of the binaries. I think the main, irreplaceable function of marriage is to bind a man and woman together in a uniquely powerful way so that they can endure the sacrifice and stress of raising their children in the way that serves society best.

The name of the enemy institution, therefore, is cohabitation.

Let’s contrast marriage and cohabitation in the terms of Alexander’s binary of institutions:

Marriage is strongly rule regulated: all of your resources belong by rule and definition to the marriage, with your children having first claim on their use. Cohabitation is arbitrary, because either party can declare some resources to be personal, and there is nothing in the rules of cohabitation that can be appealed to to prohibit that claim. This applies especially to the rule of sexual exclusivity.

Marriage is a relationship recognized by law. It is not a private arrangement between two individuals, but a social relationship recognized in public and protected by law from anyone who would pull it asunder – including the parties themselves. Cohabitation is regulated only by the relative power of the two parties, with the less committed party having more power to get his or her (usually his) way by the threatening to unilaterally withdraw.

Marriage requires equality in the couple. To take the biblical metaphor of what a marriage is, two become one flesh. In one flesh, as St. Paul says in another place, it makes no sense for one part of the body to claim superiority over another, because both (all) parts are necessary to the whole. Cohabitation, by contrast, produces inequality in the relationship. In practice, the one who contributes more money controls the decisions. Alexander, in discussing the movement for women’s equality, describes patriarchy as coming from the family sphere. Yet patriarchy is not essential to marriage, nor to family life. We should see this move on Alexander’s part as his attempt to pollute the family sphere as a whole as uncivil in order to bolster his case that the civil sphere is egalitarian and therefore civil.

When we get to the inclusive/exclusive binary, we run into a problem. The best I can think of is that marriage includes a concern with the public good, especially for raising children as citizens, whereas cohabitation excludes a concern for the public good because it is exclusively oriented to the private benefit of the couple. This is true, but a bit of a stretch. I am inclined to think that Alexander is just wrong that inclusive/exclusive is one of the basic binaries of society. In particular, I think any theory that aims at solidarity has to treat an exclusive commitment to the solidary whole as a good thing.

Alexander says institutions are civil if they are impersonal contracts – meaning that they are valuable regardless of the specific people embodying the institution and the specific relations they have with one another. Uncivil institutions reward only those who have personal bonds of loyalty to the specific people in them. Marriage as an institution is a civil contract that is supported by society because it benefits society as a whole, impersonally. Cohabitation is a private relationship that only benefits those with a personal bond of loyalty from the cohabiters.

Married parents form a powerful group in society with a permanent interest is seeing that all of society has public schools, public health, public safety, public security, and so forth. Cohabiters can, at best, form a temporary faction arguing for this policy or that, and usually for their own benefit rather than for the permanent public good.

To be a husband or a wife is to occupy an office through which the civil sphere regulates the uncivil sphere of family life. To be shacking up means you do what you want according to whatever personality you happen to have, with no point of leverage for civil regulation.

Thinking about a marriage movement in the Alexandrian civil sphere makes me notice another quality of all of his examples: they are all movements that promote solidarity. This is not so surprising, since he tells us first and last that social solidarity is the utopia we seek. What he did not make clear is that the values of the civil sphere would lead one to reject the libertarian values of sheer individualism. Alexander does not support social movements that aim to produce less social solidarity. The “leave me alone” movements simply have no place in Alexander’s civil sphere. They are anti-solidarity, and thus self-polluting.

A marriage movement could beat a cohabitation movement on the grounds that marriage is more civil (though we would have to wrestle about the relevance of the inclusive/exclusive standard to either one). A marriage movement could beat a cohabitation practice – or worse, a practice that left kids with divorced parents, never-married parents, sometime parents, or sheer chaos – on the grounds that all the disorganized forms of parenting were anti-social, were a threat to solidarity itself.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Civil Religion of the Civil Sphere

Jeffrey Alexander treats religion as one of the uncivil spheres that surrounds the civil sphere. Religion makes a contribution to society, but it produces its own peculiar beliefs and hierarchies that ever threaten to intrude into the civil sphere. The civil sphere must do constant boundary maintenance and civil repair to keep religion in its place.

The civil sphere itself, in Alexander's account, has its own distinctive values and moral aspirations. It is, as he says several times, a project to create a democratic society. The overarching values of society reside there, which can be mobilized to trump and regulate the values of the uncivil spheres.

The values of a society get enacted and celebrated in rituals, something that Alexander, a good Durkheimian, would acknowledge. Celebrating the rituals of civil life helps create and renew solidarity in society as a whole.

In other words, the faith and practice of the civil sphere is the civil religion of society.

Civil religion is not part of the state, any more than voting, parties, or the norms of office are part of the state. Civil religion is one the ways in which the civil sphere regulates the other spheres, especially the state.

Civil religion has a complex relation with the universal religions that are (barely) contained in the religious sphere. They differ primarily in their Ultimate Concern -- God or Enlightenment in the case of universal religions, society itself in the case of civil religion.

Contrary to Alexander's hopeful, but maddeningly vague, picture of the contents of the civil values, it is not right to say that the ultimate concern of every civil sphere is democracy. As he notes repeatedly, each society's civil sphere is specific and historical. Its concerns are those of that society first, and perhaps of some higher global civil society only at the edges. And the object of veneration of civil religion, even the civil religion of a democratic society, is not democracy. It is the veneration of that particular society, its particular people, history, and manifest destiny.

The civil sphere does not put religion in its place. The civil sphere has a civil religion of its own.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Are the Melting Pot and Hyphenated-Identity the Same?

Jeffrey Alexander argues that out-groups can get included in civil society in three ways: assimilation, hyphenation, and multiculturalism. These modes of incorporation form a spectrum. Every group experiences a bit of each - which predominates in each era and for a specific group is an empirical question. Alexander cites the case of Jews in America as a successful case of incorporation that moved from assimilation prior to the twentieth century, through hyphenation in the early part of the twentieth century, to a remarkable form of multicultural acceptance of difference since World War Two.

Alexander treats the middle term of this sequence as hyphenation, which he says is better known as the melting pot. Yet on the face of it, hyphenating a group's identity, or amalgamating it into the whole, are different processes. They may be opposites. Both ideas were, in fact, developed by Jewish Americans to understand and theorize Jewish-American experience.

In Israel Zangwill's popular play, "The Melting Pot," all the national identities that the peoples of America bring are melted together to form an amalgam, an alloy, that is different from any of the source identities. This is the critical difference between amalgamation and assimilation. Even when there is a clear difference between the host society and the newcomers being incorporated, it makes a big difference whether the outcome of incorporating the out group leaves the host society unchanged. The host society assimilates the out group by stripping off their cultural distinctives, leaving only their naked personhood to be remade in the host's image. The host society amalgamates the out group, by contrast, by melting both together to produce something new, including a new culture for the host society.

"Pluralism" as a social theory was primarily developed by Horace Kallen. He argued for hyphenated identities -- a group could be both loyally American and still distinctively itself. The two identities, though, are clearly in a hierarchy: American is the overarching identity, modified by the hyphenated variant. In becoming Newcomer-Americans, the newcomers have clearly given up some elements from the old country. They have gained a new way of being Newcomers (whatever that means in a cultural sense).

Alexander argues, and I agree, that the civil sphere of the United States is actually pretty healthy. We are good at incorporating newcomers. We are getting better at incorporating them (us) in a way that makes them real Americans, but with the distinctive flavor of their group culture. The outsider is converted from “a strange intruder to a familiar friend.”

Alexander rejects the extreme kind of multiculturalism that sees each group remaining separate. He does not denigrate America society as inherently oppressive, to be resisted in the name of identity politics.

As I look at it, Alexander's multiculturalism (the good kind) is the same as what he describes as hyphenated incorporation. Hyphenation is not the same as the melting pot. Hyphenation is the same as multiculturalism.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Civil Rights Movement Proves Alexander's Case

The most convincing part of Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere is his account of the civil rights movement as, at heart, a struggle for the culture of America. Alexander's "strong program of cultural sociology" is at its best in showing the cultural competition that lies under the struggle for power and resources.

Traditional social movement theory emphasizes that movements win by mobilizing resources and seizing power. The model of success, Alexander argues, is the storming of the Bastille. Yet the issues in a real struggle to change a society are, at root, about how the basic values of society should be lived and institutionalized. The main struggle is cultural. If it is waged right, on both sides, it can stay cultural and remain in the civil sphere. It is only when a struggle fails that it turns violent. Sometimes revolutionary violence is necessary, but as the last, last resort -- not the exciting ideal.

Looking at the civil rights movement as a cultural movement makes clear that America had deep cultural resources for racial equality, as well as a long practice of the opposite. This, indeed, was the American Dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal exposed in the book of that name. Not every society starts with a commitment to equality in its cultural DNA. But we did.

What was needed was an inspired moral leader who could stick to the high road in calling America to live out its own values. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., was the indispensable man at that moment. He kept the movement civil -- a cultural struggle in the civil sphere -- despite intense provocation to turn to violence and direct power struggles, which would have been suicidal for the movement.

Alexander also successfully shows how the civil rights movements created the organizations that could mobilize people on the basis of the commitments they already had. The key act of the leadership, King and others, was to translate those commitments into action -- most importantly, into non-violent action consistent with Christian morality.

Alexander's cultural theory rests on a claim that our society already is committed to a set of values, in positive and negative binaries; cultural movements just get us to realize them. The South was so twisted by racism that all the institutions that should have defended racial equality were coopted. So the civil rights movement appealed to the non-South, acting through the federal government, to bring reasonable Southerners to their senses about the contradiction between the values they already held and the practices of Jim Crow. For this reason, King would break any state law that needed to be broken, but not a federal law or federal court order, even when it would have seemed justified to do so.

The civil rights movement worked because it healed the breach the let racist values intrude on an essentially non-racist American civil sphere. This is a powerful argument.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Class and Status in the Civil Sphere

Where do class and status fit in Jeffrey Alexander's Civil Sphere? They are not a separate sphere of their own. They are not simply part of the economic sphere. They matter a great deal in people's lives - they can't be ignored. He is not a Marxist, so he can't use classes as the basic building blocks of the social structure. Like all Durkheimians, he has a tough time translating the individual differentials created by the division of labor into the social groups - the layered, hierarchical social groups -- of the social classes.

I think Weber can be helpful here, as he usually is. Weber, against Marx, says that classes, defined as those who share an income level, are not really social groups at all except under rare circumstances. Status groups, on the other hand, are real social groups. They share a conception of how to live. They are measured at the same level of honor.

The civil sphere is where campaigns about the basic values of society are conducted. The basic values are coded, Alexander says, in binaries that underlie the motives, relations, and institutions of society. The normal form of a value competition is to argue that our side embodies the good side of the binary, while the other side is polluted by the bad side. And vice-versa. The outcome of the competition is decided when a majority, or perhaps a strategic minority (Alexander is not clear on this) accepts one side's characterization of good vs. bad, and rejects the other.

If one group in society is regularly and routinely thought by most people to embody the good side of the binaries, and another group is thought to embody the bad -- with many groups in the gradations in between -- then society would have a status hierarchy. This is a social structure. And in Alexander's theory, the natural place - maybe the only place -- this status structure could be located is in the civil sphere.

Alexander has resisted describing any social structures in the civil sphere. Structure, and especially hierarchical structures, are the uncivil tools of the uncivil spheres. Yet if there is a status structure in society (and it would be hard to find a complex society without one), and if the status structure is related to the actual values of society, then the civil sphere must be built on a hierarchy of status.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Civil Sphere and Naked Public Square

Reader Corky asked this question of my previous post on Jeffrey Alexander's seeming ban on hierarchy in the civil sphere: "So how is Alexander's desire for nonintrusion different from the ugliness of the 'naked public square?'" This is an excellent question.

I have been wondering as I read whether Alexander is simply defining "civil" as "secular." On the rare occasions when he does mention religion, he usually says that religious understanding is either a negative intrusion that needs to be overcome as a dangerous essentialism of (falsely) primordial groups, or is a positive kind of social action that nonetheless needs to be translated into an idiom appropriate for modern secular societies.

So is the civil sphere the naked public square? In the sense that Richard John Neuhaus meant in the book of the same name, clearly yes. Alexander's civil sphere needs, he believes, to be defended from "intrusions" from the religious sphere; intrusions in the other direction are legitimate regulatory "inputs."

In another sense, though, the civil sphere is not a naked public square. Alexander fills his civil sphere with all kinds of moral content, even moral aspirations. Political campaigns, social movements, and other sorts of interpretive arguments take place within the civil sphere. In this version, it sounds like the marketplace of ideas, though perhaps with a bit more institutional muscle. Even religious arguments seem to be permitted in this civil sphere, as long as those who make them claim no authority as religious leaders.

In Alexander's long account of the civil rights movement as an exemplary case of "civil repair," he does allow that Martin Luther King's faith, and that of other religious figures who were leaders in the movement, may be taken seriously as a motive. The movement was not simply about power, and it did not proceed simply by mobilizing material resources. Yet Alexander himself seems tone deaf -- perhaps we should say "religiously unmusical," using Weber's wonderful phrase -- when trying to deal with the content of that (or any) faith.

I will return to this question when I consider his treatment of anti-semitism and the Holocaust.