Saturday, July 01, 2006

Three Mochas

Yesterday I had a rich range of experience in New York, shaped by three symbolic mochas.

The first came from a Starbucks on Broadway at the head of Wall Street. The long line of people in suits (ok, besides me) was handled with brisk competence by the young baristas, who would face hours of serving the fuel of commerce. Venti, no whipped [cream]. To go, of course.

The second came at the end of the day at Ninth Street Espresso. When the workshop ended I hoofed it to the eastern edge of Greenwich Village, where Ninth Street meets Avenue C, to get to what was reputed to be the best-made espresso in town. I got there just as the owners were starting to close. They did not, shall we say, pour on the charm, but then New York has different charm standards than Kentucky to begin with. But they did make one superb mocha. I enjoyed it while watching the East Village street scene unfold on a summer's Friday evening.

The third came from the Café Orlin, a storied literary hangout on St. Mark's Place in Greenwich Village proper. The mocha came as dessert after a fine dinner, which I began much later than is customary in Kentucky, but was clearly early for the New York crowd. I nursed it through a couple of hours, while reading Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction. All around me were conversations about the book's very subject, the making of cultural distinctions as a tool of class struggle. The waitstaff, a cosmopolitan group, were curious about the book from its title, and the fact that I sat amidst their busy swirl with it for hours. They wrote down the reference, to read later. I went to the hotel, and was abed by midnight.

And so home.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Posse Marriages?

E. Digby Baltzell, the late sociologist of the WASP Establishment and a personal influence on my thinking, said that the crucial difference between the elite and the establishment (or an aristocracy in the true sense of that word) is that an elite is made of individuals, but an establishment is made of families. In well-functioning societies, the leadership class continuously replenishes itself and the leadership of society by absorbing rising individuals from the various power pyramids of society. The danger that the establishment always faces is that it will become a closed caste. It is easier and more comfortable for established ruling families to only marry their own kind. But a closed caste is bad for society. The talented individuals from outsider groups are excluded from power and status, the establishment becomes rigid and then sclerotic, and society's leadership class falls to fighting with itself.

I see in the work of the Posse Foundation, which I wrote about yesterday, a powerful lubricant for diversifying the leadership class by the very mechanism Baltzell identifies. Promising individuals, usually from outsider groups, are educated together with the children of the establishment. The Posse schools are, for the most part, elite liberal arts colleges. The Posse scholars are standout young people from families outside – often way outside – the establishment, usually from a different region of the country. Centre College, for example, has long mixed the children of the already powerful with outstanding kids from the sticks, the hollers, and the working classes of Kentucky and surrounding states. Now to this mix we will add some very promising young people from Boston.

I have no data on Posse marriages, and it is not the sort of thing the Foundation would collect. I believe, though, that one of the long-term effects of the Posse program will be to diversify the families that run America, as a by-product of diversifying elite colleges.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Posse Foundation is Reshaping the Leadership Class, One Campus at a Time

I am in New York for "mentor boot camp" for the Posse Foundation. Posse is a scholarship program for kids from urban public schools with great leadership skills who nonetheless might be overlooked by traditional college admissions methods.

Posse matches specific colleges with specific cities. The foundation staff in that city solicit nominations from school counselors and hundreds of community groups, which yields thousands of leadership kids. The foundation and the college do the very labor-intensive work of winnowing those thousands down to a group of ten young people. The kids are committed to that school and the school is committed to those kids.

The genius of the Posse Foundation is that it then takes those kids and spends the eight months before the academic year begins molding them into an intensely committed support group – a posse. (As the foundation now says, that term may have seemed cooler when they thought it up in the late '80s).

The posse is paired with a mentor, who will meet with them as a group each week, and with each of them individually each fortnight, during their first two years of college. I have the privilege of being mentor to Centre Posse 1. They will be followed each year by Centre Posses 2, 3, and 4, and, if all goes well, many more.

What the college gives is a full-tuition scholarship to each student in the posse and a commitment to stick with them to graduation. What the college gets is a diverse group of students who roughly match the ethnic profile of their home city. However, Posse is not a minority scholarship or a need-based scholarship. The aim is to get overlooked leaders. Nearly all the colleges are liberal arts schools far from the Posse cities. In our case, the distance, physically and culturally, is from Kentucky to Boston. What the posse-ness of the posse assures is that they will support one another through the culture shock and normal academic and social difficulties of going to a tough school far from home.

Posse has a graduation rate about 90% -- higher than the graduation rate of all but a handful of colleges in America.

Posse also has the support of some of the central Establishment corporations in America. The national office, where the "boot camp" is held is at an iconic Wall Street address, on a floor shared with Morgan Stanley. Ten percent of the 400 Posse alumni work for Lehman Brothers, almost all of them having proven themselves in summer internships while in college. These leading corporations, and professional firms and non-profits, know that the Posse Foundation system, hugely expensive and intensive though it is, is about the only way to truly diversify the leadership class of America.

Posse mobilizes two powerful forces – peer pressure and institutional self-interest – to do a great and necessary thing for the future of America.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Harvard's Hissy Fit Costs Them $115 Million

Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle and one of the richest men in the world, was going to give Harvard $115 to establish the Ellison Institute for World Health. He had worked out the idea with Harvard president Larry Summers some months ago. But Summers was forced to resign earlier this year. He had made some enemies within the university by trying to change its culture – which is, in fairness, what he was hired to do. No doubt inside politics was a significant factor in his resignation.

The public side of Summers' resignation, though, was the fallout from his speculation that one of the reasons that women did not make up half the science and engineering departments at the top research universities was that at the highest level of ability, there were probably more men than women to begin with. This is, as I have argued before, a testable claim. Moreover, the people who have tested it think it is true.

Nonetheless, many at Harvard and environs had a hissy fit, including a number of alleged elite scientists who one might have thought would be interested in testing an empirical claim before they drew a conclusion. The controversy crippled Harvard's efforts to understand the problem, and crippled Summers' ability to do his job. In February, he resigned.

And today the other shoe dropped. Ellison withdrew the offered gift, which would have been the largest single gift Harvard ever received. No commitment to scientific investigation of testable but politically incorrect hypotheses means no new scientific research center from Larry Ellison. Maybe Utah resident Ellison would find Brigham Young more committed to science?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Suits and Seniors Dance

In our summer study group we were considering Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Why There Are No Good Men Left. She looks at the rising age of marriage for college-educated men and women, and concludes that they are waiting so long after college to look for mates that their college connections get cold. As I often tell students, college is the best marriage market they will ever be in. I encourage them not to waste it.

The problem, as a recently graduated woman in the group noted, is that the men are not ready to get serious about marriage in college, even though most of the women are. Men usually start to get more serious a couple of years out of school, but this does the mature college women no good.

Until now.

We came up with a wonderful idea: a Homecoming dance that would pair senior women with men a couple of years out of college. The guys would have spent those couple of years working and supporting themselves. They would know how to get up in the morning, clean and feed themselves, stick to a task, not destroy themselves on weekends, pay the bills, and start thinking a little about the future with a longer time horizon. And they would start to notice that living alone is kind of lonely. They would finally be as mature as the women were in college.

Thus, the Suits and Seniors Dance.

The women would benefit from more mature men. The men would benefit from smart women. They would still have the advantage of the college marriage market, without the disadvantage of all living within the college bubble. Real-world courtship could begin.

My wife immediately saw another consequence of regularly mixing the senior women with graduates: it would raise the bar for the senior men. Nothing gets a set of men to shape up faster than competition from another group of men for the attention of women. Besuited young men with serious intentions would be stiff competition, indeed, for scruffy college boys who still put off thinking about family until a vague tomorrow.

Shoot, just threatening to organize such a dance might get some of the college men off the dime.

Monday, June 26, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain" is a Great Movie About Two Men

Ang Lee has made a superb, spare Western. The two stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, did a fine job – Ledger, in particular, deserves every award they give for his Ennis Del Mar. The rest of the cast was excellent, and excellently chosen. The filming – sets, locations, cinematography – are what Lee does best.

There has, of course, been some controversy about a "gay cowboy" movie. Part of the motivation for the movie was, no doubt, to take the iconic man's man figure of the cowboy and queer it, including a Matthew Shepard-like twist. Beyond the high concept, though, is still a story of two realistic men, who go beyond the rough sociological categories that we all need to use most of the time.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Michelle Wolkomir's interesting book Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian Men. Wolkomir reported that the key factor for most of the ex-gay men in the study was that they loved their wives and wanted to keep the vows they had made to their wives and to God. The gay Christians, on the other hand, had decided that their sexual orientation made their marriages impossible, and therefore were working on reconciling a homosexual identity with conservative Christianity.

Applying this helpful distinction to the two well-realized men in "Brokeback Mountain," I reached this conclusion: Jack was gay; Ennis was not. Jack was always attracted to men, and never stopped seeking men, Ennis among them. Ennis, on the other hand, did love his wife and daughters, and wanted to be with them. He also loved Jack. Not men in general, just Jack. He did not reconcile his two loves, and there really was no way he could. This is what makes the film a tragedy.

But "Brokeback Mountain" is not simply a movie about "gay cowboys." It is a tragedy about two men, one of whom is gay.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Overall, GA 2006 Was a Centrist Assembly

From the Moderator's election to the final "amen," the Presbyterian General Assembly of 2006 was largely a triumph for the loyalist center.

I know that publicly some conservatives are saying the Assembly broke trust with Presbyterianism, and the newspapers claim that now congregations can ordain gay ministers if they wish. And I am sure that privately some liberals are lamenting that they didn't get "chastity and fidelity" out of the constitution and God the Mother in. But, overall, I would say that the center of the church rose to the occasion of both kinds of challenges and chose a path that would best preserve the Presbyterian Church.

All of the moderator candidates ran as centrists, and the winner, our Moderator Joan Gray, is an ambivalent conservative who stands on the constitution. That might be a summary of where most Presbyterians stand.

The traditional language of the Trinity was affirmed, and the Assembly made it mandatory in baptism.

The Assembly overwhelmingly turned back an attempt to take G 6.0106b, the chastity and fidelity provision, out of the constitution.

The GA came out for the birth of all viable babies, and promoted material as well as pastoral support for them and their mothers.

The GA came out against torture and suicide bombing (I am surprised that there were any negative votes on this one, but at least the center clearly held).

The church corrected an imbalanced critique of businesses supporting violence and oppression in Israel and Palestine.

Most importantly, the General Assembly adopted the Peace, Unity, and Purity report. This means that we should all trust the locals more to apply the constitution – without changing the constitution. The ban on unrepentant homosexual practitioners is still there, along with the ban on unrepentant adulterers and usurers and all the other kinds of sinners named by the confessions. And where the original report was unclear that the higher governing bodies could review both the procedure and the substance of ordination examinations, the Assembly fixed the language.

The sound constitution of the church was preserved and strengthened by the 2006 General Assembly meeting in Birmingham. Now we need to apply it.