Saturday, October 21, 2006

"Reds" Relevant? Really?

"Reds," Warren Beatty's enormous 1981 movie about American Communist icon John Reed and the left of a hundred years ago, has been re-released with some fanfare. Beatty says it is even more relevant now than it was when it came out at the beginning of the Reagan administration – when it was so harmless, Beatty says, that the Reagans themselves showed it in the White House. The current occupant is not likely to do the same.

Beatty says the film is about political opposition during wartime. And it is true that most of the action follows American communists and socialists attacking World War I as simply about profit. They are all excited about the Russian Revolution and the new burst of freedom in the Soviet Union.

But seriously – is a movie about communist revolution at all relevant now? I think the excitement in Los Angeles about the DVD release of this film tells us more about Hollywood's idea of politics than about real politics. What they are excited about is sheer activism, sheer opposition to the government. The actual communists in the film, though, cared more about the kind of society they were trying to create (very misguidedly) than in the drama of the revolution. Hollywood revolutionaries, on the other hand like the drama – and the difference between the kinds of wars that were being fought then and now, and the kind of society the opposition envisions – doesn't register as important.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Not Getting "Second Life"

I am a nerd, but not a geek.

When a student introduced me to the elaborate virtual world of Second Life, my first instinct was not to go there, but to ask geeks to explain it to me and send me things to read. I am grateful to same, especially to my brother-in-law. This helpful guide from Wired may help other nerds and pre-n00bs get the lie of the land.

As a sociologist I am interested in how people think the world is made and how it could be made. Second Life is a wonderful experiment in free market social engineering. Its great appeal is that you can do and make just about anything you can imagine.

My main concern, as readers of this blog know, is with family life, so I was curious about how family life is made there. I asked helpful student Nora "Do you court, marry, and have children?" in Second Life. Her answer is instructive.

Yes and no. You can choose a partner, but to make this official, I think you pay an extremely small fee to LindenLabs so that they can change your online profile. Anything beyond that is the decision of the users. There are definitely wedding places in SL and there are of course people who met in SL and who married in real life. There are no SL babies, though. … But there aren't babies built into the game, unless you get really smart and figure out how to script that! :) You can actually change your avatar to look like a young child, but anyone younger than 17 or 18 (i forget which) isn't allowed into SL. They have their own separate grid to use.

I used to be very interested in narratives of alternative worlds. Science fiction got me through high school. But I have found that since becoming an official sociologist, and most especially since having a wife and children of my own, I am much less interested in virtual or alternative worlds, and more interested in the real one.

I think it is wonderful that Second Life exists, and that the half million people who regularly work and play there have found a place for their passions. I celebrate the wonderful variety of this world, including the alternative worlds it contains.

But I don't find it to be something that I want to do myself. So I very much welcome responses from people who do "get it" to elaborate on why.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Evolving Upper Class: Smart or Handsome?

Oliver Curry, an evolutionist at the London School of Economics, has gotten some notice recently for his prediction that humans are slowly evolving into two sub-species divided by class. He thinks that the full split into a tall, good-looking, healthy, smart subspecies and a short, ugly, short-lived, dumb subspecies will take 100.000 years. But even by the year 3000 he thinks there will be a noticeable division. Race differences as they now exist will be ironed out by intermarriage. The new and larger split would be by class, rendered more and more biologized.

Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologists who I have written about several times recently, notes that the ruling class is divided into a monied side and a cultured side. Bourdieu's work is not concerned with evolution, but I think he might accept that the upper classes would be increasingly likely to marry within their class, inching toward speciation. I think, though, that people in these different class fractions tend to marry on their own side of that divide. Over a many generations of such selections, the two fractions would divide.

What we are talking about is still at the level of a parlor game, so let me take a wild guess here. Many observers of the rich have noticed that they use their money to select attractive mates. I have noticed that the smart tend to use their smarts to select smart mates. (Yes, there are ugly rich people and pretty smart ones; we are talking big trends here.) SO, if Curry is even a little right, perhaps the Eloi of the future will be themselves divided into the smart and the handsome. And that might be a fair fight.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Do Unmarried Households Reign? No, Not Really

"For First Time, Unmarried Households Reign in U.S." reports a current story in Yahoo! News by Maxim Kniazkov. The article notes, correctly, that in the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey 50.2% of American households do not include a married couple, while 49.8% do.

Does this mean marriage is now the minority "lifestyle?" No, not really. When we do an apples-to-apples comparison, the survey shows that of family households (which have, or had, kids), 74% are married.

Some of the bare majority of unmarried households is made of single parents. Kniazkov rightly notes that most of the unmarried households, though, are what the Census Bureau calls "non-family households." He interprets this to refer "primarily to gay or heterosexual couples cohabiting out of formal wedlock." This, however, is not so. As the Survey's tables show, 82% of those non-family households – some 30 million households altogether – are people living alone.

Put another way, of the 50.2% of American households that do not include a married couple, more than half are single people living alone. And one thing we know about single people living alone is that the overwhelming majority of them want to get married, and the large majority of them will someday.

So, yes, most American households now do not include a married couple. Does that mean marriage is on the outs? No, it means America is a very rich country. In America, 30 million adults – 10% of the total population – can afford to live by themselves. But they don't want to do that forever. They want join their single household with another, and join the married majority of adults.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Scholar Says Lobby Suppresses Criticism; Lobby Gets Scholar's Speech Cancelled, Thus Proving His Point.

I am a centrist, an academic, and a friend of reasoned debate and the marketplace of ideas. I think the story told in this headline is wrong, wrong, wrong. It doesn't matter which lobby.

Imagine if the Lobby in question were for evolution, creation, tobacco, health, free trade, protection, faith, secularity, or anything. If the speaker were a racist, or a sexist, or flat earther, or pro-plagiarist (hey, every profession has its pet hates), using political pressure to make another organization rescind an invitation is just wrong.

In this case, the scholar is Prof. Tony Judt of New York University, who was invited by the Polish consulate in Washington. Judt had been critical of the Israel lobby for suppressing dissent and misdirecting U.S. foreign policy. Here is the Washington Post's account of the dirty deed:

An hour before Judt was to arrive, the Polish Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzyk canceled the talk. He said the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee had called and he quickly concluded Judt was too controversial.

If you don't like what someone is going to say, pushing them off the rostrum is wrong.

The cure for bad speech is better speech.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mayberry Machiavellis Exploit Evangelicals – Still

John DiIullio was the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives early in the Bush administration. When he quit in frustration, he accused Karl Rove and crew of promising evangelicals every kind of cooperation in order to get their votes, but delivering nothing. He called them that wonderful insult, Mayberry Machiavellis.

David Kuo was deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the second Bush administration. In 2003 he quit in frustration. In a new book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, Kuo says that Rove's staff promised evangelicals every kind of cooperation in order to get their votes, but delivered nothing. To make matters worse, the Rovers were privately condescending toward conservative Christians – like Kuo – who they described as "nuts," "ridiculous" and "goofy."

In a Christian Post story, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied everything.

I don't know what Karl Rove's staff said and says about the evangelicals who vote for them, but Kuo's and DiIullio's version sure would explain why President Bush's faith-based initiative has amounted to so little after six years.