Friday, December 12, 2008

Social Closure Through Pseudo-Speciation

Social closure is what turns the vague spectrum of social status into a specific ladder of social classes. Somewhat arbitrary distinctions, such as educational credentials or occupations, are turned into real social distinctions that affect who you make a life with. The idea of social closure, which was advanced by Max Weber, has been most fully developed by Frank Parkin. I have written about marriage and social closure before.

Richard Conniff wrote an interesting book on The Natural History of the Rich. As the title suggests, he uses insights from animal behavior, especially primatology, to look at the behavior of rich people. One of the characteristics of the very rich is that they put up strong boundaries between themselves and other people. They live in fear of thieves, parasites, and gold-diggers. For their own physical, financial, and psychological safety they tend to make a life only with other rich people. They also tend to marry only within the rich group. They adopt the metaphorically biological language of "the tribe" and create a vast interrelated "cousinage." Conniff says all these forms of separation by the rich amount to "pseudo-speciation."

Pseudo-speciation is the ultimate tendency of social closure.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Born Rich"

"Born Rich" is a documentary made by Johnson and Johnson heir Jamie Johnson about kids like himself. He saw the curse that inherited wealth can be in his own family, and wanted to try to head off problems by studying people like himself. This is a smart idea, and I wish him well in finding a meaningful path for himself. As he says, the American Dream is to do better than your parents; he can't do that, so is trying to find a life worth living in America outside the American dream.

We saw the documentary in class again today. It first came out in 2003, but retains its punch. It is very hard to study the rich, because they have a thousand ways to keep you out and shut you up. Almost the only path that works is when an insider decides to study the wealthy tribe, and publishes the results. Some of Johnson's fellow rich kids come of well, notably Ivanka Trump. Others come off so badly that, like Luke Weil, a gambling equipment heir, they sued, unsuccessfully, to take back the release they had signed to appear in the documentary.

The picture is not really a pretty one. Having every privilege in the world seems to undermine these kids more than it helps. Quite a few will grow up to be mature adults, but they are as much hurt by their privilege as helped when young. Even the ones who are not self-destructive tend to report that they lack the drive to complete really hard projects, because they don't have to.

"Born Rich" is a valuable, narrow documentary. I look forward to Johnson's new film, "The One Percent," about the effects of income inequality between the bottom masses and the top one percent.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Establishment is a Network of Networks

I want to develop a point I made briefly in response to yesterday's post (Modcast). The Establishment, whether Presbyterian or some other kind, is not a tight organic network of strong ties. For one thing, as a national body, it is too dispersed to have the regular contact that a strong network requires. For another, it links together people from different, sometimes competing, institutions.

Within each institution the members of the Establishment are elite individuals, often the top of the local pyramid. As a result, they are well connected in their institution, and to others in their local area. As members of the Establishment, these elite individuals are connected to many other elite individuals by weak ties. Thus, the many strong local networks that these elite individuals are central to are loosely tied to many other strong local networks. The whole Establishment is powerful because the information in any one of these local networks can be mobilized and spread through the national network of weak ties to other places in the Establishment network.

On the other hand, the difference between an Establishment and an aggregation of elite individuals is that the Establishment people are tied in many parallel ways not related to work. In the social Establishment of the nation that E. Digby Baltzell wrote about, family ties assimilated elite individuals into an enduring and socializing national class. This familial class Nelson Aldrich happily called the "cousinage." In the Presbyterian Establishment, the family ties may be weaker -- though by no means absent. Instead, Establishment individuals will have shared experiences from colleges, seminaries, retreat centers, missions, and worship services of all kinds to bind them together in the green wood. These are the ties that help the church function with authority, especially in times of crisis.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I was interviewed by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, today for his video podcast -- or modcast. We talked about my essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment. I thought our hour-long conversation was quite substantive, and brought out some concerns that I had (evidently) not addressed clearly enough in print.

The whole discussion can be seen here. I am told that more than 180 people connected live through ustream, and a further group were commenting (which we could not see) through twitter.

Reyes-Chow's main concern was that will still needed official structures to keep the church accountable for overcoming past sins. He did not think that our consciousness of the benefits of diverse voices was strong enough, nor that our leaders, himself included, could keep the church on the right track. This is a point on which reasonable people may reasonably differ. I am conscious of the way that mandates create a backlash, so they should be used sparingly. Likewise, it is dangerous, and ultimately becomes counterproductive, to use false or misplaced categories such as race or sex, whether for inclusion or exclusion.

The ideas in this essay have been growing for some years, in my mind and in conversation with others. If some of them prove helpful in renewing some useful authority in the church, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment will have done its job.

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Australia" is a Pretty Good Epic

I am taking a class to Australia next month to study "Australian National Identity." As preparation, as well as a fun outing before finals begin, we went to see Baz Luhrmann's new film, "Australia." I had low expectations. I figured that the director would make a good-looking film with Australia's top good-looking stars. He sure delivered. The landscape was fantastic, the big scenes wonderfully done, and it would be hard to top Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for cheesecake.

The story is a classic Western. The haughty woman must team up with the hard-bitten working man to drive them "fat cheeky bulls" across rough terrain to get to market on time. Facing them is the villainous monopolist and war profiteer who fights dirty. The ragtag fellowship of the cow overcomes great odds, with the help of a mysterious native companion. Virtue and love triumph. The film faithfully follows the conventions of a classic genre, and refers throughout to other great movies, notably "The Wizard of Oz" (which film itself appears as a character) and "Gone With the Wind." Cheesy, but very well done cheese.

And then there is a second half-film after the Western plot is done; the small matter of World War II. This is where I feared the movie would turn into "Pearl Harbor." The war plot does make the film longer than normal, but lets the director wrap up the romance better.

Australian history is much like American history, a bit later. Thus you can have a realistic cattle drive in the 1930s. The racial discrimination against "blackfellas" was common to both countries in that era, but the Australian blackfellas are the indigenous people, playing out settler/native struggles that were more prominent in the U.S. a century earlier.

What makes "Australia" different from a Western, or even a war movie, that could have been made in the U.S. in the 1930s or '40s, is the subplot about the removal of half-caste children. Luhrmann has his leading man and woman unite over a "creamy" boy, excellently played by Brandon Walters. The Australian government removed mixed-race children from their aboriginal mothers to be trained in boarding schools. This policy was the main theme of "Rabbit-Proof Fence." The shame of the "stolen generations" has been a major cause of Australian liberals, leading to a formal apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd earlier this year. The entire subject is being hotly contested among Australian scholars between "black armband" liberals and "white blindfold" conservatives.

Richard Flanigan, one of the co-writers of the movie, said that they had to dare themselves to make a big movie, a national epic that they could have the audacity to call "Australia." They did so because they were impressed that American filmmakers have the nerve to think that our stories have universal significance. "Australia" aims to be the Australian "Gone With the Wind," done knowingly but, ultimately, for real.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Presby Establishment Podcast With the Moderator

The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, has read my essay, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, and has graciously invited me to have a podcast conversation with him about it on Tuesday, December 9, from 3 to 4 p.m. Eastern time. I am looking forward to this conversation, and hope that you will respond to it.